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Sharp XV-Z12000 Mark II DLP Projector

Sharp practically put DLP front projection on the map as a high performance solution when it introduced its XV-Z9000 projector a few years ago. That projector featured the first generation "Mustang Chip," the first 16:9 native 720p DLP chipset from Texas Instruments. Sharp's SharpVision projector line has continued to evolve with TI's chips, with each new generation making incremental improvements over past models. We continue to be compelled to look at each iteration because Sharp's line has remained reasonably priced (between $11-$12k MSRP with "street prices" closer to $10k) and never given up much in pure performance even when compared to premium projectors costing much more.

The singular difference between the XV-Z12000 Mark II ($11,000) and its predecessor is the inclusion of TI's latest and greatest current DLP chip, the DarkChip3 HD2+. As an overview of TI's DLP lineage, the HD2 increased the tilt of the mirrors from 10∞ to 12∞, and added a black backing to the original Mustang chip to improve contrast. The HD2+ provided a surprising, if not outright stunning, improvement over the original HD2 in spite of the deceptive fact that its biggest technological improvement was to flatten out the dimple that's created where each micromirror meets the post on which it tilts toward or away from the projector's light source. Given that each micromirror represents a single pixel, and that a 1280x720 chip has nearly one million micromirrors, imagine how tiny that dimple must be!

The DarkChip3 chip goes further by reducing the size of the hinges on each micromirror, and also flattens each micromirror for improved reflectivity. It was also noted that TI was getting more DLP chips on the "wafers" that hold groups of chips during manufacturing, which means the "dead space" surrounding each micromirror is reduced, increasing the chip's "fill factor."

As a result of the improvements offered by the DarkChip3 Sharp is claiming increased contrast ratio (from 5500:1 to 7000:1) and increased brightness (900 ANSI lumens rated, vs. 1000). My own experiences with Sharp's original Z12000 were extremely positive and so was the initial look I'd had at a projector featuring the DarkChip3, so why wouldn't I be anxious to see the Z12000 Mark II?

Looks and Features-Same As It Ever Was
UAV Editor Tom Norton noted in his review of the Z12000 that there was little to distinguish that projector from its immediate predecessor, and I'm a little disappointed to say the same of the Mark II. Although its looks are still attractive enough, I did want to see the connectivity of this projector improved. Although having two HD-capable component video inputs is swell, I would have liked to see twin HDMI inputs on this $11k projector instead of the single HDCP-compatible DVI input ported over from the Z12000. Sharp does, however, include one DVI to HDMI adapter in the box with the unit.

Aside from having a physically smaller connector that's easier for installation, HDMI is a higher bandwidth connection that allows longer runs of higher resolution signals. This isn't as important now, but in '06 we could see 1080p signals from HD DVD or Blu-ray (or both!). Also, even if you don't now, there will be a time in the future when you have at least two HDMI/DVI based sources (I currently run both an HDMI-equipped DVD player and an HDMI-equipped DirecTV HD TiVo) and I think it's a shame to have to buy a projector this expensive and have to swap cables or purchase an external switcher.

As with the Z12000, Mark II includes an array of image adjustment features that are either dazzling, or frustrating depending on whether you're an ISF calibrator or a normal human being. I think it's excellent that Sharp allows not only grayscale calibration, but also pinpoint adjustments of the color points (through its Color Management System). But these adjustments require instrumentation that consumers won't have, they aren't properly explained in the user manual, and they make the otherwise straightforward on-screen menus more cluttered and cumbersome than they need to be. I don't think these adjustments should be buried in a service menu, but I do think Sharp could clean things up considerably by making some intelligent choices for the default settings of the Gamma and Color Managements System (CMS) and lock away all those menu items in an advanced menu.

Setup And Use
As with most fixed pixel projectors, setting up the Mark II is hardly worth discussing. It has vertical lens shift, which is critical to a point and shoot install, and telescopic feet on both sides of the chassis front that makes tabletop installs like mine a snap. Zoom and focus are physically manipulated on the barrel of the lens and the only thing I'd say about that is I prefer focus to be electronically accessible so I can walk up to the screen and eyeball the pixels while making the teensiest of adjustments. Not a deal breaker by any stretch though- the Sharp is more than adequate in all regards of setup and install.

The remote is not only reasonably sized and intuitive to use, it's backlit and a pleasure to use in general. All inputs can be directly accessed, and different stored picture adjustment memories ("Picture Positions" according to Sharp) can be scrolled through and easily selected. Even more useful is that the iris mode settings (High Contrast, Medium, High Brightness) can also be scrolled through and recalled by pressing one simple button. I'll have more on those iris settings later, but overall the remote control and day-to-day use of this projector is among the best I've experienced.

Watching Pictures
During this review the screen I used is an 80" wide Stewart StudioTek 130. Primary video sources I used were Arcam's FMJ DV29 DVD player and my DirecTV HD TiVo, both of which are HDMI-equipped, and Ayre's transcendent DX-7 via DVI/HDMI breakout. I switched all sources through the HDMI switching of Arcam's AVP700 surround processor (review pending), which I've found to be quite transparent. I went for direct connections when testing the component video outputs of the Arcam player. The commentary below applies to DVI/HDMI video, except where noted.

Looking at the stock Mark II and simply adjusting for proper black and white levels and selecting the 6500K color temperature setting produces an excellent picture that few would find fault with. I am one of those few, however, and being armed with a color analyzer and the ability to use it I turned a pre-calibration grayscale that was pretty good (averaging right around 6900K and shockingly linear) into one that tracked as tight as I've ever seen from any display. And not just with respect to color temperature- over the entire range (20IRE-100IRE) deviation from the actual D6500 point was utterly minimal. I used the Standard and Film Detail presets of the CMS and liked what I saw very much- and saw very little to choose between the two.

Flesh tones are to video color fidelity what female voice is to audio- a standard that's universally familiar, and if it's right a lot can be forgiven. The Mark II's flesh tones, and indeed colors in general, were consistently natural, whether I was watching movies or HD feeds of DirecTV's Sunday Ticket NFL games or the baseball playoffs and World Series on Fox. Greens only occasionally looked a touch too limey, but I never saw them take off into the nuclear zone as I've seen from too many digital displays. The different shades of green on the various ball parks of the baseball post season were clearly evident from night to night, which indicates the projector was imposing little, if any of its own interpretation of those colors on the images I watched. Reds can be another bug-a-boo for digital displays, but there were no orangey reds here, which also resulted in deep, rich brown tones when called for.

Watching the Mark II another thing I noticed and liked was that the Medium iris mode produced a picture that was a pleasing combination of light output and black level. When I reviewed the Z12000, to my eye it was dimmer than I wanted it to be in High Contrast mode, but I found that I liked the blacks better than what I saw in Medium mode and grudgingly used the High Contrast mode for nighttime movie watching. With the new version it seems the light output in Medium mode is goosed up just a bit, but without any deleterious effect on black levels, which looked simply excellent to me. My critical movie watching was in Medium iris mode, and with the Economy Mode, which drops light output, left off.

And really, that's probably the biggest difference I noticed with this DarkChip3-powered projector. The Mark II's light output is increased without a noticeable drop-off in black level performance, which makes for a punchier, more dynamic and involving picture than I saw from the otherwise fine and still competitive Z12000. DLPs have consistently been at the top of the fixed pixel pile with respect to producing deep, cinema-like blacks and the contrast ratio that comes along with it. The Mark II is no exception- if it didn't produce the deepest blacks I've seen from a digital projector, it's not off the mark by much.

Separating the Mark II further was the level of resolution of fine details near black, even on very challenging low-light material such as Chapter 10 of X2: X-Men United . This is the scene in which Storm and Dr. Grey confront the Nightcrawler in a dark church. The two X-(Wo)Men are wearing varying shades of black, and the Nightcrawler himself is midnight blue with ornate tattoos or carvings etched into his skin, all of which is clearly revealed in spite of the shadows enveloping the entire scene. There are many digital projectors that can't dig these subtle details out.

DLP projectors have been known to show varying degrees of dithering noise during dark scenes, and while the Sharp showed some visible noise, and perhaps some false contouring every once in a while in very black areas of the image, to me it did seem freer of noise at low picture levels than is typical of DLPs. Perhaps this is another regard in which DarkChip3-based light engines are superior.

I also appreciated that a simple button push on the remote knocks the Mark II up a notch to High Brightness mode for daytime watching. It's not bright enough to watch with the curtains open, but the High Brightness iris mode did produce an image that could tolerate a reasonable amount of room light and make sports pop just a little more when I wanted them to.

SIM2's HT300 E was the first DarkChip3 I saw, and I did feel like I saw an increased seamlessness in the image that could indeed be a byproduct of the increased fill factor TI is claiming for the new chip set. It somehow made the image look just a little more solid, and almost like its resolution had increased slightly even though the pixel count was unequivocally the same.

I saw that same natural-looking resolution here, but also thought the image was just a touch softer in spots than the SIM2 had been. Looking at a crosshatch pattern revealed that some areas of the screen were just a bit more tightly focused than others, which makes the projector's optics a likely culprit. Nevertheless, the overall resolution of the Mark II was terrific, if just a hair off the best I've seen.

Other things I noticed were excellent, smooth and dimensional performance with 1080i HD video, and eye-popping performance with 480p component video. 480i component was nearly as good, being just a little softer, but the 480p component feed from the Arcam was so rich and dimensional that it gave up nothing to the HDMI run from the same player. The HDMI might have been a touch cleaner, but I doubt I'd make a living picking between the two in a blind A/B. Deinterlacing of 480i sources was very respectable, if not quite up to the Faroudja level with video-based torture material. Nevertheless, video processing couldn't be considered a weakness of this fine projector, even when low quality standard def feeds from DirecTV were the source.

One bizarre incompatibility issue arose during this review that I've not been able to sort out with inquiries to both companies involved. During this review I used the HDMI switching in Arcam's AVP700 surround processor. Oddly, while I had no trouble with the picture from my DirecTV HD TiVo via HDMI, I could not get a picture from Arcam's own FMJ DV29 DVD player through the AVP-700 using HDMI. I did get a picture from the FMJ DV29's HDMI output going directly to the projector, bypassing the AVP700. While that seems to point an obvious finger at the AVP700, I had no problem getting a picture from the DV29/AVP700 combo going into the HDMI input of Fujitsu's LPF-D711W projector.

Both projectors are HDCP-compatible, so I can't look there. Neither Sharp, nor Arcam had an answer, so I don't either. I guess HDMI isn't necessarily single cable nirvana quite yet.

Conclusion- The Phantom Menace
Although the improvements wrought by the DarkChip3 itself aren't so great that someone who bought a Z12000 should lose any sleep, the Z12000 Mark II unequivocally maintains Sharp's enviable position in DLP front projection with adjustability that few projectors offer, and performance that can't be called anything but excellent, and competitive with the very best in the single-chip class. While it's unfair to compare this product to one I haven't seen, the fact is that my recommendation of this outstanding projector from Sharp must be tempered somewhat by the recent availability of Sony's VPL-VW100, a three-chip 1080p SXRD front projector that sells for $10k. I don't think I'm giving away any government secrets by stating that downward movement in 720p single-chip front projectors is hotly anticipated given this development. And personally, I'd want to see the 1080p projector before plunking down $10k or more on any lower resolution projector.

Nevertheless, the Sharp Z12000 Mark II delivers on its promise of delivering incrementally improved performance and you'd have to pay more to get more features and better performance in a DLP front projector, and paying more isn't in itself a guarantee that you'll get either.

Highs
Excellent balance of blacks, light output, and contrast ratio
Outstanding color fidelity and grayscale tracking
Terrific, intuitive remote control

Lows
Onscreen menus too busy
Only a single DVI input
Focus a touch soft in some areas of screen

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