A Reality Check on 'Brighter Projectors'

At CES 2018 Philips demonstrated its ColorSpark HLD LED (High Lumen Density) technology, which appeared to have the potential to considerably enhance the light output of projectors, among other applications. While we didn't attend their demonstration, several business and research-related companies did, including Insight Media and Display Daily. A link to the latter's article may be found here.

One significant issue is that this lighting technology isn't new. It's over three years old, and to date has had relatively little impact on the projector market with only a few models available. These include DLP designs from BenQ and Optoma. A Google search for the ColorSpark, its key elements shown in the picture above, indicates that most of the dated links were from 2015. This included a comparison test run by Insight Media in 2015 comparing a projector fitted with ColorSpark HLD LED against projectors using laser-phosphor, LED, and hybrid illumination (none of the candidates used a UHP lamp). Philips itself doesn't manufacture or market projectors; it develops lighting solutions.

The results of that 2015 comparison favored ColorSpark. The laser-phosphor device did exceed it in brightness, though couldn't match its color. But the test was run under conditions that would be dubious for home theater. Specifically, it tested the projectors with significant ambient room light. A search of Philips' promotional material (undated but likely the same three years old—it mentions nothing about color range beyond HD's Rec.709) trumpeted a claim that you can now watch your projector in the daytime and not worry about closing the blinds! To be fair, 80-90% of the projector market is in business applications, which has entirely different priorities: viewing bright spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides rather than frequently dark movie scenes.

But as I've incessantly repeated before, there's currently no projector technology that, with the room lights on and/or the windows uncovered, can equal a home theater's performance in a fully darkened room. That's simply the nature of projection. Light rejecting screens, which are now widely available, can certainly help for casual viewing of inherently bright, non-critical material (news and sports, for example). They've also expanded the home projector market beyond we obsessives, a development that will potentially bring down the cost of home projection for everyone. But no critical videophile would sit down for serious movie viewing using a projector with the lights on, regardless of the type of screen. This also applies to the growing category of short-throw projectors. They have a place—a more economical (though not always!) solution for an image larger than the 65-inch limit of a relatively affordable flat screen set. But they have the same issues as any projector in a well-lit room.

If a non-videophile friend wants to know why this is so, the simple answer is that projectors do not "project" black. With the projector off, look at a projection screen in the room lighting conditions you plan on using. What you'll see is as dark as the blacks will ever be under those conditions, no matter what the projector can do. The "color" black on a video screen is simply the absence of light. This holds true not only for dark scenes but also for brighter material, which is why even a well-lit football game, watched on a projector and screen under room lighting, looks a bit washed out. It won't look as good as it will in a darkened room, but you can still follow the action. The last hour of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, however, will turn into unwatchable mush under the same projector/screen daylight viewing conditions.

But none of this is to argue against Philips' ColorSpark technology making more of an impact in the future. But the main market for it may be very different than home theater. Small projectors with sufficient light output may well serve as replacements for both projectors and flat screen sets in markets that can't accommodate either due to cost and size considerations. Companies such as Philips serve global markets, and there are literally hundreds of millions of eyeballs in places like China and India that simply want an acceptable and, one hopes, affordable solution for TV reception that takes up little room and can be tucked away when not in use— or even carried in a suitcase in a move. Picture quality, beyond respectably focused and bright, isn't a prime consideration. Before we get excited reading about a new technology, before discovering that it may not meet our own needs or priorities and therefore dismiss it, remember that the worldwide display market doesn't just mean home theater.