Review: ViewSonic Pro9000 LED/Laser Hybrid Projector

Can I like the idea of a thing, better than the thing? This is the question I'm pondering as I write up this admittedly cool LED/laser hybrid projector from ViewSonic. Instead of UHP lamps or even "regular" LEDs, the Pro9000 adds a laser to the mix, because ... well because it's cool, right?

While it gets an "A" on the technology front, its performance grade is notably lower.

Nearly all front projectors currently on the market use UHP (Ultra-High Pressure) lamps to generate light. This light gets manipulated by either LCD, LCOS, or as in the case with the Pro9000, DLP. UHP lamps offer incredible amounts of output, but a lot gets wasted on light frequencies not needed to create an image. All you need to make pretty pictures is specific amounts of the primary colors: red, green, and blue.

LED projectors are relatively new on the market. Using red, green, and blue LEDs, they don't waste energy with a lot of the junk in-between. So far, though, LEDs don't offer the raw light output of UHP lamps (they will, eventually).

Two companies are experimenting with laser/LED hybrids: Casio and, of course, ViewSonic. I reviewed the Casio a few months ago. Their method is to use a red LED, blue laser, and a green phosphor to create all the light. The blue laser creates the blue light, but also energizes the green phosphor to create green light. If this sounds weird, I thought so too. The results weren't spectacular, but given the price and Casio's lack of history in the home theater space, I can't definitively say this is because of their lighting process.

ViewSonic moves a step closer to traditional: red and blue LEDs, and, get this, a blue laser hitting a green phosphor. Are inexpensive green lasers not the right wavelength or something? Are blue lasers more efficient? Your guess is as good as mine. Here's what the light engine layout looks like:

ViewSonic Pro9000 light engine

(Note the "Phosphor Color Wheel" isn't like the traditional multi-color color filter wheel in UHP-based DLPs.)

Which makes for an interesting spectral response:

ViewSonic Pro9000 spectral response

You can see the red and blue spikes where the LEDs are creating very specific wavelengths, and the green blob of the green phosphor. A UHP lamp would be more "rolling hills" than "sharp peeks." Sharp peaks being, perhaps counter intuitively, better.

There's a certain naturalness to an image created by pure RGB. Even if the color points are exactly measurably the same, the LED image looks a little more realistic. I asked a TV engineer why this is, and his explanation was that it was like painting with purer paint. There are traces of this with the Pro9000. Skin tones, for example, look really good.

There are other benefits with this laser/LED hybrid, like nearly instant light when you press the power button (no way you get that with UHP). There's no color wheel needed like there is with UHP, so those susceptible to seeing DLP's dreaded "rainbows" needn't worry. There's no mercury, which all UHP lamps have. You don't have to replace lamps ($300 or so with UHP, and you'll need a new one every year or so). ViewSonic also claims lower power consumption, though when it comes to projectors, I don't think most people worry about that too much.

Setup

Like most current DLP-based projectors, there is no lens shift and a significant upwards throw. So ceiling or table mount is OK, but you really can't use a shelf on the back wall. Zoom range on the lens isn't great, but I've certainly seen worse.

ViewSonic Pro9000 back panel

There are a minimum of picture adjustment controls, but those that it has, work pretty well. For example, the color temperature controls only allow global RGB adjustments (not gain and bias like most displays). However, it tracks well across the grayscale range after calibration so this is fine.

The color management system is intuitive enough, but it lacks the fine steps and/or range to fully dial in the colors. Out of the box, the colors are way off HDTV spec, and even after adjustment, they're all much further off than other displays of this price range.

Annoyingly, the Overscan control set to "0%" still crops a few pixels.

Performance

Not sure how to best approach this section. I guess I'll start with the good. Motion resolution is great, as is typical with DLP. I readily notice motion blur, and both LCD and LCOS projectors suffer badly from it. The Pro9000 has way more detail with motion than any recent projector I've reviewed.

It goes downhill from there. On my 102-inch 1.0-gain screen, I measured 15.24 footLamberts. This is half as bright as the $3,500 JVC DLA-X35, and lower still than other projectors in this class. The black level was a mediocre 0.0085 fL, for a native contrast ratio of 1,793:1. This is barely better than the worst LCD flat panels I measured in 2012, and significantly worse than other projectors based on LCD and LCOS designs. There is an ECO mode that improves the black level by dropping the overall light output, but since the maximum is 15.24, I wouldn't recommend a mode that's dimmer, unless you had a really small screen. Besides, the contrast ratio stays the same.

Color accuracy, as I mentioned earlier, is subpar. I could go on, but the story is pretty clear at this point.

The Problem

The Pro9000 doesn't exist in a vacuum. With a list price of $3,923, it's on the high side of the new sweet spot for home theater projectors. This means it's competing head-to-head with the highly accurate and all-around great Sony VPL-HW50ES ($3,999), the gorgeous JVC DLA-X35 ($3,499) and its best-I've-ever-measured native contrast ratio, and the brightest-display-I've-ever-measured Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020e ($2,899). The Pro9000 can't compete on color accuracy, contrast ratio, or overall light output. These are the three most important performance aspects of a projector, and the ViewSonic comes up far short in all three.

While the street price is closer to $3,000, it would have to be much lower to be commensurate with its performance.

Bottom Line

Judged solely as a projector, the Pro9000 is vastly outperformed by Sony, Epson, and JVC, all of which are basically the same price as the ViewSonic. Even if you figure in not having to pay for lamps over the lifetime of the projector, it is still not a decent value.

As a glimpse at the possible future of projector lighting technologies, though, it's fascinating.

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