Take Two: Marantz VP-12S2 DLP Projector & SharpVision XV-Z10000U DLP Projector
The Marantz VP-12S2 was reviewed by Peter Putman in the May 2003 issue of SGHT. He praised the VP-12S2's sharp, detailed, artifact-free DVD playback, and he was impressed with the projector's shadow detail and gray-scale rendering. But he had reservations about the short throw of the lens, and he noted that HDTV images lost some fine detail when using the VP-12S2's component-video inputs. Since I recently purchased a VP-12S2 with the optional long-throw lens, and I had a different screen setup than Peter, SGHT editor Tom Norton thought that a "Take Two" follow-up review from me would be useful in providing another point of view about the VP-12S2's performance.
In assembling a home theater system, I, like most people, had to work with the constraints of available space. In my case, this meant using a long, fairly narrow room, in which a projector mounted at the typical short-throw lens distance would have presented a problem for the traffic patterns in the room. The VP-12S2's long-throw lens option allowed me to mount the projector on the ceiling at the back of the room, 20 feet from the screen, out of people's way, with the main viewing area 15 feet from the screen.
The screen I chose was an 87-inch-wide, 16:9 Stewart FireHawk, the same type and size of screen that Marantz used in demonstrating the VP-12S2 at the 2003 CES. (The picture quality in that demo was the main reason I chose the VP-12S2 as the reference projector for my home theater reviewing system.) The FireHawk is known to perform better (higher gain and contrast) when the projector is mounted on the ceiling, so my permanent setup is more optimal than the temporary tabletop placements that reviewers normally have to use.
With any projector, getting the projector-to-screen angular relationship right is a critical part of projector installation, and, unless you're extremely handy—which I'm not—it's a job best left to experts. I had my projector and screen installed by a local home theater dealer, Audio Excellence of Thornhill, Ontario, and they did a splendid job. I checked the setup by looking closely at the definition of the dimple at the center of the DLP pixels, and found that these were sharply defined at every part of the screen—a testament not only to the accuracy of the setup but also to the sharpness of the Marantz lens and projector. According to Dan Miller of Marantz, the VP-12S2's long-throw lens is optically superior to the standard lens (less chromatic aberration), which goes some way toward justifying the $3500 premium charged for it.
And how was the picture? Simply terrific! With the projector's settings carefully tweaked, the sharpness, contrast, and color fidelity were better than I've seen with any single-chip DLP projector. The image had great depth, providing (with the right source material) much the same sense of "looking through a window" that characterizes the best plasma displays—except that, in this case, the window was much larger. (Of course, this was in a dark room; if there's a high level of ambient light, plasmas are unbeatable.) Marantz claims a very high 2600:1 contrast ratio for the VP-12S2; this, perhaps more than resolution as such, is likely the major determinant of the crispness of the VP-12S2's image.
CRT fans will continue to argue that the absolute black of DLP displays does not match that of CRTs, and, in a technical sense, they're right: the light from a CRT can be turned off completely, whereas with DLP—and even more with LCD—there is always some light getting through. However, the human visual system works on a relative rather than an absolute basis, and the subjective effect of the VP-12S2's high contrast ratio is that blacks appear black rather than dark gray. There was also, as Peter Putman noted in his original review, good gradation at the dark end of the brightness range, so that the tuxedo worn by James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies had some texture and sheen rather than appearing as just a flat black.
The VP-12S2's contrast is enhanced by the FireHawk screen, which reduces reflection from the sidewalls that would otherwise lead to some reduction of contrast. I did find that getting the right degree of contrast with different source materials required tweaking the VP-12S2's Brightness and Contrast controls. Adjusting the Brightness setting by just one point—from, say, 43 to 42—sometimes produced a very significant improvement in the overall image "snap." I saw no rainbows and did not experience visual fatigue after watching the image projected by the VP-12S2.
One characteristic of high-end audio equipment is that it's very revealing of differences in source material and associated equipment. I found the same thing with the VP-12S2. I had always thought that the picture quality of programs received through digital satellite was quite variable; with the VP-12S2, these differences were greater than I had observed previously with other projectors and plasma displays. Even HDTV programs, which ostensibly conform to the same resolution standard, showed very noticeable differences, most demo programs being sharper than network shows.
Peter Putman reported that the VP-12S2 does not reproduce the full bandwidth of HDTV when the component inputs are used. I compared the VP-12S2's picture quality when viewing HDTV with the Canadian Bell ExpressVu Model 6000 satellite receiver's component vs. RGB outputs, and I can confirm that the RGB connection is indeed superior, at least when viewing real HDTV programs. (Many programs on digital channels that are supposedly HDTV are actually upconverted standard-definition, a difference that was very obvious when viewed through the VP-12S2.) I also found the quality of the RGB cable to make a difference: using an "Ultra-XGA" cable made by AC Components of Markham, Ontario, resulted in a little more fine detail and more saturated colors than I got with a generic VGA computer cable.
In addition to the usual composite, S-video, component, and RGB inputs, the VP-12S2 also has an HDCP-compliant DVI input. The promise of DVI (and the soon-to-be-introduced HDMI) in a digital projector is that, when combined with a DVD player with a matching DVI output, it keeps the signal in the digital domain, bypassing the D/A and A/D conversions that are normally involved in DVD playback. As of this writing, the use of DVI has not been approved by the industry's DVD Forum, and although a couple of manufacturers have jumped the gun by introducing DVD players with functioning DVI outputs, these are apparently in contravention of the DVD Forum's licensing agreement.
Early reports of picture quality and functionality of the DVI connections with these players have been mixed. Some people on the Internet claim vast improvements, while others are more ambivalent in their assessment and express disappointment that the DVI connection results in loss of control over basic video parameters like Brightness and Contrast in some displays. I've also read complaints about framing problems that are apparently uncorrectable with the projector's controls.
Marantz's DV-8400 player has a DVI output, but, in compliance with the DVD Forum agreement, players sold though retail channels all have the DVI output turned off, and the code to turn it on will not be released until the DVD Forum has authorized use of the DVI connection. However, to allow me to test the VP-12S2's DVI connection, and anticipating approval of this connection mode, Marantz sent me a DV-8400 that had its DVI output enabled, so I was able to compare component and DVI connections, using 5m runs of Monster M1000cv component and M500DVI DVI cables. The component output was interlaced, which I found to produce better results than progressive scan, both with the DV-8400 and the Sony DVP-NS755V; in other words, the deinterlacer in the projector is better than ones in these DVD players.
When I first connected the DVD player to the projector with the DVI cable, the picture was offset slightly to the left, but I was able to correct this by adjusting the VP-12S2's Horizontal Size control and playing a bit with the projector's lateral tilt. (The VP-12S2's long-throw lens has sufficient depth-of-field that you can do this without disturbing focus sharpness.) Most of the projector's video controls—including Brightness, Contrast, Color Temperature, Picture Mode (Theater, Standard, Dynamic), and even the tweaky ones in the Fine menu—worked the same as with component video, and it was also possible to use the "stretch" Full and Zoom modes, which have been reported not to work with some other player-projector combinations.
As much as I enjoyed and appreciated the picture quality of the VP-12S2 when used with the component connection, I have to say that the picture quality moved even closer to reality when the DVI connection was used. Perhaps the best way I can describe the improvement brought about by the DVI connection is in terms of the old audiophile cliché of a "veil being lifted." In this case, the veil metaphor can be interpreted almost literally, in that using the DVI connection compared to component was really much like lifting a veil that had previously obscured the image. Every time I made the switch from component to DVI, I saw an increase in clarity, as if. . .well. . .a veil, or at least a pane of glass, that had previously obscured the image had been removed. I can't say whether the DVI connection will be similarly effective with other equipment, but the DV-8400/VP-12S2 combination worked so well in this mode that, having switched back-and-forth several times between component and DVI, I just wanted to continue watching movies with the DVI connection.
I had been warned that the DVI connection "unmasks" the Chroma Upsampling Error (CUE) that is present in the progressive output of the DV-8400 but hidden by the VP-12S2's Faroudja processing in the interlaced mode. I checked this out by looking at the Toy Story setup menu, and, indeed, I could see the faint horizontal lines on solid colors that indicate CUE in the progressive but not the interlaced mode, and these lines reappeared in the DVI mode. However, to see these lines, I had to go up quite close to the screen; I had to really strain to see them at my normal 15-foot viewing distance. What I had no trouble seeing at every viewing distance was the increased clarity of the image when using the DVI connection.
My sample of the VP-12S2 did have one problem that both Peter Putman and Tom Norton experienced with the original review sample: light-output fluctuation that was akin to flicker (but not the sort of flicker that has been observed with DLP projectors with a lower color-wheel speed). With my sample of the VP-12S2, the problem was intermittent, sometimes not seen in an entire evening of movie-watching, at other times manifesting itself for five or ten minutes, then disappearing, and sometimes reappearing an hour or so later.
When it occurred, it was annoying, and I eventually contacted Marantz, who promptly sent me a replacement lamp. I've been using the new lamp for 20 hours, and, so far, there has been no flicker. I've seen references to this flicker problem in reviews of other projectors that use the same 150W SHP bulb, so there is reason to believe that it represents a problem with the bulb, not the projector itself. Marantz claims that requiring the bulb manufacturer to meet a higher standard for the bulbs that are supplied to them has solved the problem. Marantz has a reputation for bending over backward to please consumers (not just reviewers), so I wouldn't let the risk of the brightness-flicker problem deter me from buying a VP-12S2. It is one fabulous projector.
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