Test Report: Epson Pro Cinema 9700UB LCD Projector

Epson's new 9700UB projector offers a lot of letters for $3,200. Letters like ISF, THX, HQV, E-TORL, and 3LCD. All of those acronyms mean something to a knowing videophile, but they don't in themselves guarantee a good-looking picture. With projectors, however, certain acronyms can give some indication of the steps taken toward producing quality video. Epson's solid track record is another indication. As any Wall Streeter will tell you, past performance isn't indicative of future results, but with A/V products it's a pretty good bellwether.

SETUP
The 9700UB has a fairly solid feel - as in, it doesn't feel cheap. Lens shift, zoom, and focus are all manual. That's not unusual at this price point, although setting the focus without a helper present can be annoying (or good exercise, depending on how you look at it) as you move back and forth from the screen to the projector. Epson's menus aren't flashy, but they have all the info you need and are fairly easy to navigate. The surprisingly large remote control is backlit via glow-in-the-dark buttons. It has buttons to directly access sources (always good) along with picture modes, aspect ratios, and even gamma.

Out of the box, the 9700UB is set to its THX preset. During my testing, I didn?t find any compelling reason to switch out of that. Unlike with some other THX-certified products, you can still adjust picture settings in THX mode - a good thing because every screen is going to interact with the projector in slightly different ways. After adjustment, all of my settings ended up being only one or two clicks in either direction from the THX defaults.

An additional picture option on the 9700UB is vertical stretching, which lets you pair the projector with a anamorphic lens (sold separately) so that you can watch 2.35:1 aspect ratio movies on a 2.35:1 screen without black letterbox bars. Though this stretch mode is great, I found it disappointing that there weren't other ways to zoom in on high-def pictures. (The zoom options are grayed out in the Epson's menu when it's displaying an HD signal.) For example, my AT&T U-Verse service still doesn't have the AMC HD or BBC HD channels, so if I want to watch Mad Men or Top Gear (both 16:9 shows shown in a 4:3 window), I have to use my DVR to zoom in so the image fills the screen - something that it does poorly. Few projectors or TVs have this zoom ability, and I'm not sure why.

The Epson's grayscale tracking in THX mode was decent, though not perfect. In general, the darkest and brightest parts of pictures had a cooler look than the mid-tones both before and after calibration. (Not enough to really be noticeable while watching movies or TV, though.)

The projector's gamma menu itself is intuitive. It even has an onscreen graph that shows how the gamma curve is being adjusted. There are five presets between 2.0 and 2.4, and even a custom mode that you can fine-tune via a 9-point scale. The lower preset numbers boost the brightness in the mid-tones, while the higher numbers keep the shadows darker. The custom mode allows you to pick specific parts of the gamma curve and increase or decrease the brightness.

In THX and all other modes except Vivid and Cinema Day, the Epson's overall light output was also decent, though not stunning. I measured about 14 footlamberts on a 16:9 aspect ratio, 102-inch Stewart StudioTek 100 screen (1.0-gain). While this is a perfectly acceptable result, I wouldn?t recommend using a much larger screen, or a negative-gain model for that matter. You can double the projector's light output if you use its Vivid or Cinema Day modes. But keep in mind that professional calibration will be needed to get a remotely accurate picture with either of these modes, which, to put it bluntly, otherwise look rather jacked. Even when fully calibrated, the brightest parts of the image display a significant green tint. Also, the color points are much less accurate, color uniformity goes downhill, and there is more noise in the image. Perhaps worst of all, the pic- ture looks washed out. So if you need more light output, the projector's Vivid or Cinema Day modes will unleash it, but I wouldn't use either for normal viewing; it's like watching with a completely different (and far worse) projector.

The Epson's fan noise is remarkably minimal. From my viewing position a few feet in front of it, it was nearly inaudible. Nearly every projector will leak some light, as they can't be totally sealed due to airflow issues. The Epson's light leakage is minimal, and because it's not aimed forward, it doesn't spill on the screen. Cheaper projectors can spill extraneous light on the screen or nearby, adversely affecting picture quality.

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