Marantz VP-12S3 DLP projector

As faithful readers with good memories will recall, I reported that after checking out various DLP and LCD projectors, I settled on the Marantz VP-12S2 as providing the best overall performance, and bought one to serve as a reference in my home theater system. (See my "Take 2" of the VP-12S2 in the November 2003 issue, and the sidebar in my review of the Primare SP31.7 and A30.5 Mk.II in January 2004; see also Peter Putman's original review of the VP-12S2 in May 2003.) For the past year I've been enjoying the VP-12S2 a great deal, and whenever I saw demos of DLP or LCD projectors at shows and dealers, I felt ever so slightly smug that the picture quality I was getting at home was better.

Alas, DLP is still a fairly rapidly evolving technology, and Texas Instruments, manufacturer of the chips that form the basis of all such projectors, has come out with a new chip, the HD2+, which supersedes the HD2 chip used in the VP-12S2. Marantz has incorporated the HD2+ into the new VP-12S3, and made some other changes as well. The questions are: Does the new projector represent a significant improvement over the excellent VP-12S2? If so, what is the nature of the improvement?

Something Old, Something New
Looking at the VP-12S2 and the VP-12S3—which I will henceforth refer to as S2 and S3—side by side, it takes close examination to notice any differences in appearance. The S3 has a second set of component-video inputs; there's a DVI logo in the front (the S2 had a DVI input as well, lacking only the logo); and the button previously labeled Focus is now labeled Pattern. (Pressing this button projects a grid pattern to aid with focus; I suppose it's possible that some consumers took it to be a kind of autofocus and complained when they found out it wasn't.) The S3 uses the same Faroudja video processing as the S2, and the review sample had the same long-throw lens (custom-made by Minolta) that was available for the S2. The price is up by $500: $12,999 for the short-throw version, $15,999 for the long-throw.

While the S2 and the S3 look virtually identical, there are some major differences inside. The most notable one is, of course, the S3's HD2+ chip. This has the same number of micromirrors as the HD2 (1280x720), but the mounting of each micromirror has been redesigned to have a smaller pivot post, so that the dark area, or "dimple," in the center of each micromirror is smaller. This is said to increase contrast (greater difference in brightness between the On and Off positions) and brightness (the On position reflects more light). The second difference is the introduction of a seven-segment color wheel (compared to six in the S2). The extra segment is dark green, and is said to improve the reproduction of green and to reduce dither noise in dark scenes.

These design changes come from TI, and are expected to be incorporated into top-of-the-line DLP projectors from all manufacturers. However, Marantz has done much more to optimize the S3's performance. The light source has been changed from a 150W AC-powered bulb to a 200W DC bulb. This should have the effect of increasing brightness (although the S3's luminance rating is still around 700 ANSI lumens), and the DC bulb is said to be less prone to the occasional flicker problem that characterized the S2 and other projectors using the same bulb.

The S3 has an Iris/Aperture control, selectable from the remote, that provides a choice between f/3.0 and f/5.0, compared to the S2's fixed f/3.0. A fact well known to photographers is that closing down the iris (such as from f/3.0 to f/5.0) reduces the amount of light but improves the performance of the lens—better contrast, less blurring, less chromatic aberration—and gives you increased depth of field. The same results should hold for projectors: An increased depth of field would translate to greater tolerance of misalignment between projector and screen. The tradeoff is brightness; in the case of the S3, this is taken care of by having a more powerful light source.

Another optical change is the incorporation of a color-correction filter that Marantz describes as Optical Reproduction of Color Accuracy (ORCA). This is designed to get rid of the excess yellow that characterizes the light produced by the bulbs typically used in DLP projectors. The theory is that if the light reaching the color wheel is closer to pure white, then this will improve the accuracy of the reproduction of all colors.

Also in the service of accurate color reproduction is the inclusion of a color-temperature auto-calibration system. This consists of what Marantz calls a color analyzer, which fits over the lens like a lens cap and connects to the S3 with a cable. When the color analyzer is engaged, the projector emits a series of test signals, then changes its settings to produce the proper color temperature. Found in no other DLP projector that I know of, this system can be used to improve color reproduction as the bulb ages, or when it's replaced. My review sample had a new bulb, and the review period was not long enough for it to show any aging, so I didn't use the auto calibrationsystem.

What else? Well, there's a new economy/low noise lamp mode, which reduces lamp brightness to create less heat, thus allowing a reduction in fan speed. Even in the standard, Lamp High mode, the projector's fan noise is very low; in Economy it's even quieter. There is also a wider range of video controls than on the S2, including a Sharpness control functional on the DVI input. Finally (whew!), there's a new remote, and some of its buttons light up. (At the risk of sounding churlish, I wish that all of them lit up.)

Picture Perfect
The S2 is mounted on the ceiling in the back of my home theater, directly above a tall chest of drawers. My plan was to place the S3 on top of the chest and switch the cables back and forth between S2 and S3 to get a handle on what I thought would be some fairly subtle differences in video quality.

However, as soon as I set up the S3 in this somewhat makeshift fashion, with only approximate video settings and the geometry between projector and screen not nearly as precise as for the ceiling-mounted S2, it quickly became apparent that the S3 was superior by a magnitude well beyond what I'd anticipated. After switching the connections a few times to satisfy myself that the difference I observed was real, I mounted the S3 on the ceiling and tweaked its physical setup and video settings. I tried to match the S3's brightness and contrast to the S2's, which required lower numerical settings than those used on the S2. I played with the Lamp (High or Low) and Iris (f/3.0 or f/5.0) settings; Lamp High and f/5.0 seemed to produce the best image on my 100-inch-diagonal Stewart FireHawk screen. I used the S3's Theatrical Gamma setting and Normal Color Temperature settings, the latter claimed to be about 6500K. My preferred connections were DVI for DVD (Marantz DV-8400 player) and RGB for HDTV (Bell ExpressVu Model 6000 satellite receiver, which doesn't have a DVI output).

The most surprising aspect of the S3's performance was its subjectively superior resolution of detail. I know that the HD2+ chip has the same resolution as the HD2, and there was no reason to believe that the S3's lens was any sharper than the S2's—but I saw details on very familiar DVDs that had been obscured before—such things as the texture of Bill Murray's coat in Groundhog Day (one of my favorite movies), or the red leatherette seat cover of the cab that Cary Grant takes in the opening scene of North By Northwest. The detail was not the over-etched "digital" type, like the over-sharpened look of photos taken by mid-level digital cameras; it was more like what you get from a digital single-lens reflex camera or a high-quality film camera. With the best DVDs and HDTV broadcasts, the picture had a sense of detail combined with smoothness that made for a relaxed, involving viewing experience. Colors were clearer and more subtly differentiated—must be that ORCA filter at work. I'll leave to Tom Norton the measurement of the projector's color-temperature performance, but the colors at the S3's Normal setting looked pretty natural to me.

A second striking aspect of the S3's image was its depiction of depth. The factors that I think contribute to the impression of depth are resolution, brightness, and contrast. Black level is particularly critical; I find that a very minor tweaking of the Brightness control (which actually controls the black level) can produce a significant increase in the sense of depth. The S2 was already very good in this department, but the S3 was better still, producing a more convincing impression that I was looking through a giant window into another world.

Marantz claims a contrast ratio of 3800:1 for the S3, and while I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to verify this claim, its blacks were certainly better than the S2's—again, no slouch in this department—and better than I've seen from any other DLP projector. Dark City provides a torture test of a projector's ability to handle the differentiation of shades of black, and the S3 passed it with aplomb, retaining the overall "dark" look while revealing details.

These improvements were evident with DVD as well as HDTV sources, the magnitude of the improvement being subjectively greater with DVD, perhaps because I was more familiar with the DVD sources and because they allowed for repeatable comparisons using the same scenes (my only HD source is on the fly, from satellite). I saw little difference between the projectors with ordinary broadcast TV.

In my "Take 2" of the S2, I noted that there was an intermittent flicker (brightness fluctuation), but that this seemed to have been fixed when a new bulb was installed. My experience with the S2 since then has revealed that the new bulb reduced but did not entirely eliminate the problem. From time to time there was still a bit of a flicker, although much less often—perhaps only a few times per viewing session. With the S3, I saw no flicker during the four weeks of heavy use that comprised the review period, and reports on the Internet from people who've had S3s for several months support the view that the S3's different bulb and DC power supply have indeed banished the flicker.

And those infamous "rainbows" that single-chip DLP projectors are prone to? The first thing to note is that people vary in their sensitivity to this effect, some rejecting DLP projectors outright because of what for them is a serious annoyance, while others simply don't see DLP rainbows, or are not bothered by the effect. I'm fortunate to be among the latter group: I saw no rainbows with the S3 or the S2.

Time Marches On
Just last year, the Marantz VP-12S2 was at the forefront of DLP technology. Now, in just about every respect, it has been significantly bettered by the VP-12S3. Although nominally having the same resolution as its predecessor,

the VP-12S3 is able to resolve more subjective detail in the image while maintaining a smooth, analog-like look that brings to mind film or CRT projectors. With the right signal sources, there is a stunning sense of depth and 3-dimensionality, and colors are rendered in true-to-life manner. While those with larger screens and/or lacking ambient light control may wish for a projector with greater maximum brightness, the maximum brightness was more than adequate in my setup. The VP-12S3 is my new reference in single-chip DLP projectors.

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