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SIM2 Grand Cinema C3X Three-chip DLP Projector

When manufacturers announced the first three-chip DLPs aimed at the home theater market, my first thought was, "I'm there!" One thing about even the best single-chip DLPs continued to bug me: those pesky rainbows.

406sim.1.jpg

Three-chip configurations not only eliminate rainbows—no color wheel—but serve up a brighter image as well. In a single-chip projector, each color is illuminated for only a one-third of each frame (or even less with some color wheel designs.) In a three-chip design each color lights up for the full duration of the frame.

In addition to some clear performance benefits, the early three-chip DLPs that came to market also bought with them much higher prices.

SIM2's first generation multi-chip DLP commanded a premium price—around $35K. But the new C3X Grand Cinema, while still hardly an impulse buy at $20K, is at least priced in the neighborhood of a fully equipped compact car rather than an entry- level luxury model!

The Quick Tour
Remarkably compact and light compared to earlier three-chip designs, and strikingly attractive as well, the C3X is available in three basically similar versions. The C3X, reviewed here ($19,990) sports an adjustable 200W to 250W lamp and integrates all of the video processing and source inputs into the projector's chassis. The C3X Link ($23,990) is essentially the same projector, but tethers SIM2's outboard switcher/processor box to the projector via fiber optics. And the C3X Lite ($15,990) is much like the standard C3X, but with a lower power, 132-150W lamp.

All three models are available with either the standard T2 zoom lens (throw ratio 2.3:1), or optional longer throw optics (1.5-2.1). There is no extra charge for the optional lens. Our review sample had the standard T2 lens. Focus and Zoom are motorized; vertical lens shift is manual.

Unlike earlier three-chip designs, the C3X's light engine contains three of TI's HD2+, DarkChip3, 1280x720 DMDs. Video deinterlacing is by way of Faroudja's DCDi.

The projector offers a sophisticated thermal management system. But a small amount of light does leak from the sides and rear of the C3X. And while you can easily hear it from three feet away, the projector is never noisy enough to distract when there's a soundtrack playing. But both the Yamaha DPX-1300 and the Sony VPL-VW100 are noticeably better in the light leakage department (virtually none), and the Sony in particular is far quieter (nearly silent, in fact).

SIM2's Live Color Management system offers 36 different color temperature settings arranged on a grid that is designed to simulate the center of the CIE color chart. A wide range of gamma settings are also selectable, and while these include special settings designed to "fully exploit the advantages of DLP technology," I preferred to stick to one of the 16 parametric User gamma curves offering settings from 1.5 to 3.0. In fact, the right gamma setting proved crucial in getting the best results from the C3X. More on that later.

A full set of inputs is located around back. Most of them are straightforward, but you must set up the RGB/component input either manually (for the format, RGB or component, and the scanning frequency, 15kHz, 32kHz or higher), or else use the AutoSync setting. The latter worked well, though it was a little slow at times locking onto the signal.

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Like most of the remotes I've used from SIM2, this one has its share of quirks. You access the on-screen menus not by pushing a dedicated "menu" button, but by pushing the "+" or "-" buttons, which subsequently are used to navigate to the various menu screens. You push "0" to access the input selection screen. Inputs may also be selected directly, but only by pushing the correct number button—for example, "5" for HDMI. You have to remember which number indicates which input to do this successfully.

At least SIM2 has added a dedicated "On" button (referred to in the manual as the "Standby" button.) Previous SIM2 projectors I've seen were turned on by pushing one of the input buttons. The remote is illuminated with the labels are on the buttons themselves, where you can actually see and read them with the backlighting.

The on-screen menus offer the usual picture adjustments, some of which do not function with all input sources. For example, HDMI lacks color and tint controls. Also, while the control settings are numbered, there is often more than one setting between each numbered step. The brightness control, for one, requires four clicks on the + button to go from 48 to 50 in the contrast menu. Three of those positions are numbered 49, but each of these intermediate steps makes a perceptible difference in the picture. Since the numbered steps range from 0 to 100, this arrangement gives you much finer control over the settings than is provided by most projectors.

In addition to the most common aspect ratio controls, there are also three User settings that allow custom setups. And two programmable keys, F1 and F2, may be set up to provide direct access to zoom, focus, magnification, blank (picture mute), color temperature, or gamma.

Multiple, re-nameable memories also allow you to save specific setups and recall them at will. Their operation was not straightforward, however, and not explained particularlywell in the owner's manual. But following the instructions in the manual closely is nevertheless the best route to follow until the correct procedure becomes second nature. At one point I pushed the wrong directional arrow in the memory menu to save a setup and the image reverted to an already established setting. My new setup was erased instead of saved.

Also, any changes you make to the video settings do not hold when you change inputs or resolutions and then change back unless you save them in a memory or are in the "Auto" position of the memory setup screen. For example, when I changed the gamma setting manually from 2.4 to 2.8 without saving the new setting, then broke the HDMI link (by either changing inputs or unplugging the HDMI cable and plugging it back in again), the gamma came back up as 2.4, not my last selection of 2.8.

On the Screen
My first reaction to the SIM2's performance as viewed on my small, modest-gain Stewart Studiotek 130 screen (78-inches wide, gain 1.3), was that it looked much too bright. No surprise, as fresh out of the box, even with the lamp on its minimum setting of 200W, it measured nearly 33 foot-Lamberts peak, without white clipping! Enough to break out the 30-spf sunblock!

By 100 hours that output had fallen to just under 20fL with the same lamp setting. In my initially chosen Gamma setting of 2.4, however, I thought it still to bright for realistic reproduction of movies. I found a solution: placing a ½f-stop neutral density photographic gel filter in front of the lens. This dropped the peak output to about 14.5fL while rendering a reasonable, though not remarkable, black level.

I did much of my viewing of the projector with this setup, apart from a brief sojourn with a 96" wide Stewart FireHawk screen. The C3X lit up this larger screen nicely without the ND filter, though in the maximum lamp setting of 250W I could only squeeze a maximum peak white level of 12.6fL from the projector on the FireHawk. I don't recommend a larger screen than 96" wide with the SIM2, and even then I'd go for the slightly higher gain of a screen like the Studiotek. I know the Firehawk claims a gain comparable to the Studiotek's, but my measurements suggest that in real-world conditions it delivers slightly less—closer to 1.1 than the Studiotek's 1.3.

Despite this side-trip, I distinctly preferred the smaller screen. The C3X produced a vivid, impressive picture on either screen, but the added punch and resolution on the smaller Studiotek (with the ND filter) was welcome. This was particularly true with DVDs, which don't blow up to 96" nearly as well as HD material.

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