Optoma HD81 1080p DLP Projector

I've only been living with the new Optoma HD81 DLP projector for a little over a week, but it's already becoming obvious that new 1080p projectors selling for more than the Optoma's $7,000 price are likely to have a difficult time in the market. Even the sub-$7,000 price category is destined to be a battleground. There have already been announcements from Sony (SXRD), Mitsubishi (LCD), Panasonic (LCD), Sanyo (LCD), and BenQ (DLP) of new 1080p projectors priced lower, and in some cases considerably lower, than the Optoma. We expect to see more, and perhaps a lot more, such models at the 2006 CEDIA Expo in Denver later this week. We'll be reporting on them, and other new developments, in daily reports from the show floor. Stay tuned.

Not that producing a relatively affordable 1080p projector to satisfy the fussy videophile will be easy. The Optoma HD81 sample we received had a number of problems. But it turned out to be a pre-production unit. I was not aware of this until this Sneak Peek was submitted to Optoma for our usual courtesy Fact Check. Apparently. full production will not be up and running until later this month or early in October. But my impression so far is that despite these issues, the HD81 also has a lot to recommend it where it counts, in picture quality.

The Quick Tour
The HD81 comes with a first-rate, outboard video processor (the video processor is available separately, but the projector is available only with the processor) with ample inputs, including three HDMI interfaces. The video processing is VXP by Gennum—the same processing suite used in Marantz's $20,000 VP-11S1 1080p projector, which is arguably the best digital projector we've yet tested at Ultimate AV. The Digital Micromirror Device is TI's newest DarkChip3 with a full 1920x1080 pixel count.

The projector's focus and zoom are both manual, and there is no lens shift. There is an iris with three modes: On, Off, and Auto. The Auto position is dynamic, designed to enhance the peak contrast by closing down automatically on darker scenes and opening up on brighter ones. This is the first DLP front projector I've seen with a dynamic iris.

The HD81 offers extensive adjustability, including a wide variety of image enhancing features, some useful, others less so. You can save separate video settings (including color temperature calibrations) not only for each input, but for each resolution at each input. There are four settings of the Color Temperature control, including a User mode offering full calibration adjustment capability at the top and bottom of the brightness range.

There is a Gamma control with 11 settings, but it was the User setting of another control, Image Mode, that worked the most magic for me. Want to raise or drop the light output at the dim, middle, or top of the range? This control lets you do it. In fact, it provides full control of the output level at nine positions from the lowest to the highest regions of the brightness range. More tech-minded readers can think of it as a nine-band gamma control, even though it is found under the Image Mode menu, not under the Gamma adjustment. I found it extremely useful (sometimes in conjunction with small tweaks of the separate Gamma and Brightness controls) in getting the best out of the projector.

The Optoma is very quiet. Choose either the Brite or High Altitude options, however, and the fan noise becomes very obvious, at least with no movie sound playing. I've not yet needed to use either of those settings.

The before (Warm) and after color temperatures are shown in the accompanying chart, measured with 70 hours on the lamp. Even after calibration there is a slight hump in the color temperature in the mid brightness region and a rise at the top end, but the result is acceptable. The red, green, and blue color points were as close or closer to the standard than most projectors we've measured. The Optoma also allows you to choose either an HDTV or SDTV color gamut, and it also has an Auto setting that locks into the HDTV color space whenever it sees any 720p or 1080i source, whether it's true HD or upconverted SD.

The deinterlacing and scaling performance of the HD81's Gennum video processing is the equal of any other high quality video processor I've tested. There is no way to manually select film or video mode, but the processor does such a good job of choosing the correct mode on its own there's no need for it.

The Optoma's resolution with an HDMI connection was superb on multiburst test patterns, all the way up to the maximum burst at 1080i (my AccuPel generator does not do 1080p). The performance with the same test patterns at 720p was nearly as good, and the 480i/p result was well above average for that resolution. There was virtually no chromatic aberration or color fringing from the lens either at the center or in the corners. The component performance was a hair less pristine than HDMI, but still excellent.

I measured a peak contrast ratio of approximately 2000:1 with the projector set up for the best real-world image. The On aperture setting of the iris has 16 fixed positions, with 16 the dimmest. I set the iris to On (not Auto), with an mid-level aperture opening of 8. At this setting the peak white output was a generous 23fL, with video black at 0.011fL measured on a white 16x9 Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, 78-inches wide, gain 1.3. This is a respectable, though not exceptional, result for contrast and black level.

Houston, We Have A Problem
Several problems, actually. I'll stick to HDMI sources for the rest of the discussion, since that's where I focused my attention for this Sneak Peek.

The projector Setup/Signal menu offers two "Pedestal" settings for the HDMI inputs, labeled DVI-PC and DVI-Video. As you're probably aware, the correct option for all video sources is DVI-Video. But at that setting I had to turn the Brightness control up to nearly maximum for a proper setup using a PLUGE test pattern.

The color was also highly oversaturated with the color control on zero. I had to turn the Color control down to -12 to get a respectable setup. This did not appear to wash out any colors to a perceptible degree.

While I was able to achieve satisfactory settings for both Brightness and Color, I would prefer their post-setup positions be closer to their midpoints, particularly Brightness, to provide more adjustment range for sources that need it. Setting the HDMI to DVI-PC will give you more range, but that setting is not a satisfactory solution as its white and black levels are incorrect for video sources.

Another problem: Over the first 100+ hours of operation the on-screen menu froze up on me twice. I had to shut the projector down to reset it.

But the above issues are comparatively minor and, assuming my sample is typical, could easily be remedied by Optoma. But there were more serious concerns.

First, the Auto iris was unusable. While it did more than double the measured contrast ratio to 4700:1 (28fL peak white, 0.006fL video black), it pumped mercilessly. If the image shifted from a very bright scene to a dark one (and I'm talking about real program material here, not test patterns), nothing would happen for a second or two and then suddenly, WHAP! The black level would instantly be cut in half. The pumping was also obvious on mid-level to bright scene transitions, but the change there was not nearly as dramatic. I could also hear the whirring of the auto iris mechanism as it opened and closed the shutter.

The Pedestal control, with its DVI-PC and DVI-Video settings, defaulted to DVI-PC every time the HDMI data stream was interrupted and had to be reinitialized. On some sources this was only a minor annoyance. But on others, it was more serious. The Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player was a particular offender; it reinitializes every time you change a disc. I had to reset the Pedestal to DVI-Video every time I stopped the player and restarted it again. The same thing occurred when I changed to another source then returned to the original input; the handshake was performed again, and the projector defaulted to DVI-PC.

All of the above problems should be readily fixable apart from the auto iris, which, if my sample is typical, may need serious reconfiguring. The HDMI pedestal should be redesigned to lock in at its last setting unless manually changed, or at least its default should be changed to DVI-Video so that only computer geeks get annoyed. And the center points for the Brightness and Color controls should be repositioned so that they remain closer to the center when the projector is properly set up.

I'll need to see some action taken on the above problems before I can fully recommend the Optoma HD81. But I'm anxious to be able to do so. With this design Optoma has proven that a high quality, 1080p DLP projector for under $10K is not a daydream.

The one potential compromise I dreaded in a projector at this price was compromised optics, but I don't see any obvious sign of this. The Optoma is beautifully detailed, particularly on the best HD DVD discs and, yes, on Blu-ray Discs as well. In fact, the detail on the best Blu-ray Discs on this projector (even on the compromised Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, which has a software update pending) surprised me. Hint: Experiment with the Optoma's Sharpness control (no higher than +2 or +3) and its Edge Enhancement (no more than on +1), and set the Samsung's output to 1080i. The Samsung converts the 1080p/24p content on all Blu-ray discs released to date to 1080i/30 before reconverting it to 1080p/60 for its 1080p output. The HD81's 1080i-to-1080p Gennum VXP deinterlacer is noticeably better than the HD deinterlacer in the Samsung player.

The projector's color is also very good, as long as you have it calibrated and adjust that color control properly.

Despite the Optoma's slightly disappointing black level and peak contrast (at least until—or if—Optoma gets the auto iris to function without calling attention to itself), I was only occasionally bothered by either a slightly gray look or crushed blacks when using the fixed, On setting of the iris at its mid-level aperture setting as described above. As also noted earlier, I was able to make good use of the User setting of the Image Mode to slightly lower the very bottom of the brightness range. This tweak significantly enhanced the three-dimensionality of the image and the subjective quality of the projector's blacks and shadow detail. And it did not seriously upset the setup in other respects. The calibrated PLUGE setting still looked correct.

Yes, the projector does appear at this point to have some frustrating problems. Fortunately, however, many of them should be easy to fix, or may merely be teething problems in our early sample. But even as it now stands this is the best projector I've yet seen from Optoma, and by a considerable margin. With further tweaking it will, I'm certain, be even better.