Rear Projection TV RIP: Mitsubishi Pulls the Final Plug

Back during the analog TV era, a well-regarded manufacturer offered me a rear-projection set—not for review, just for my own use. I turned it down. I didn’t want one of those big, butt-ugly things in my living room. In later years, RPTV went high def, slimmed down, and became the best buy in big-screen TV in terms of inches per dollar. But that wasn’t enough to save it. In the closing jingle-bell months of last year, the one remaining RPTV manufacturer pulled the plug, and the product category quietly passed into history.

That was Mitsubishi, whose 73- to 92-inch DLP and LaserVue DLP sets were the only ones on the market. The move was not unexpected. Mitsubishi had declined to unveil any new RPTV models in 2012, instead liquidating its inventory of 2011 models. The company will continue to market professional projection models and offer customer support for its old consumer products.

The one-piece rear-projection set made its debut in 1947. The RCA 648TK had a black-and-white screen 20 inches wide by 15 inches high—which was actually enormous compared with the 8-inch portholes people watched in those days. But the dim picture did not impress the public. It wasn’t until the home theater revolution of the 1980s that RPTVs came of age, offering brighter and better-looking pictures in 40- to 60-inch screen sizes to a public that wanted something bigger than the biggest direct-view sets, which maxed out at 40 inches. RPTV survived well into the high-definition and 3D eras, attaining screen sizes of up to 92 inches before finally succumbing to competition from LCD sets as they moved into larger sizes and their prices plummeted.

313rptv.2.jpgUnlike LCD TVs (with their backlit liquid crystal panels), plasmas (with gas-filled neon-like tubes activated by electric charges), and direct-view TVs (with electrons flung from behind onto a perforated metal shadow mask), rear-projection TVs use a light engine, which fires into a mirror, which in turn reflects the light onto a lenticular screen pebbled with lots of tiny lenses that direct light at the viewer. Initially, the light engine was a trio of red, green, and blue cathode ray tubes, which offered a great picture, including HD, but required periodic convergence to stay focused.

Then bulb-driven solid-state technologies pushed out CRTs in favor of either reflective micromirror DLP technology or various species of LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) panels. Variations such as JVC’s D-ILA and Sony’s SXRD earned positive reviews. The bulb was the last thing to go, replaced by LEDs in Samsung sets and even lasers in some of Mitsubishi sets. Consumers who need bulb replacements can still find them on the Internet.

Late-model HD-capable RPTVs were far better products than their analog predecessors. They may not have been tops in light output, black level, or contrast, but some models scored well on viewing angle, energy consumption, and especially price. They lost much of their awkward depth, becoming—well, if not flat, at least flatter. There were even JVC and RCA Scenium models that could hang on the wall.

Where is video display technology headed? LCD sets command 88 percent of the market in unit share, according to NPD DisplaySearch figures for the third quarter of 2012, with plasma in decline at 5.7 percent, actually selling less than direct-view TVs at 6.3 percent. But plasma competes more on quality than on price—as a better alternative to LCD in black level and other performance parameters—so it may linger for a while. The next disruptive display technology will probably be the OLED flat panel if LG and Samsung can scale up the manufacturing process and get prices down to the point where the mass market ignites. If OLED becomes the hip high-end display of choice, plasma may go the way of RPTV.

instybob's picture

I have a Mitsu 65" from 2006. I was really disappointed with the picture quality over the last couple of years and ready to trade-up. I then did an internet search and found that removing and cleaning the light engine might make a difference... and BOY DID IT! It's like a new TV and I no longer feel the need to upgrade any time soon. this, plus my projector means I save a few grand on an upgrade I no longer feel is necessary.

jnemesh's picture

I have a Samsung HL61A750 LED light engine DLP rear projection set. I LOVED it. The color was OUTSTANDING, black levels were pretty good, and I even hacked it to support 3D (it did NOT do 3d well, but it did work).

I must have put over 10,000 hours on the set and never had any issues with the LED light lamps to replace! (normally would have gone through at least 3 or 4!)

And boy, was it efficient! It drew about 90 watts of power. I have a Panamax on the system that shows amps, and watching TV with moderate volume through my AVR, I would draw around 1.5-2 amps on my system. With the 64" plasma hooked up? I now draw between 4 and 5 amps! HUGE difference!

But, as soon as I move to a new place next month, the plasma is going up on a wall and my gear is going in a rack in the closet! This is something I couldnt do with my good ole DLP. I will really miss the "bang for the buck" that DLP provided, but I won't miss the bulk!

MatthewWeflen's picture

I had a Sony 50A2000 SXRD RPTV. For 2006, I considered it superior to any direct view LCD on the market. But it was just not reliable. Microdisplay RPTVs suffered from all manner of mechanical flaws, whether it was balky cooling fans, screwy power ballasts, or in SXRD's case, defective display chips that degraded due to heat and dust, leading to a green picture within 10k hours. Mine began turning green, and luckily I was able to exchange it out of warranty for a new 52EX700 LCD flat panel from Sony for a nominal fee ($465 plus tax, which probably works out to cost plus shipping). This 2010 set absolutely demolishes the 2006 RPTV in every picture quality respect.

I think microdisplay RPTVs served a purpose in the market (big bright screens, cheap price) for a good 5 years or so, but I'm frankly glad to see them go as LCD has dropped in price. I don't think any manufacturer ever really got a handle on making them reliable. I've heard so many things, and not just about Sony.

kent harrison's picture

For my personal experience im glad there are gone,especially the one's with the lamps,they were straight garbage and dont matter what manufactors, because they are gone now.

BLAYRE's picture

I also have a rear projection Sony. I bought it is 2003, and have never had any issue with it. I have to use a DVI to HDMI cable for my blue ray player. The picture is great, and although I have a 7.1 surround system, I use the TV speakers for video gaming.

The newer LCDs are made to have additional surround systems, so I find that even the best have poor built in speakers

It is hugh,and eventually I would like to upgrage to a 70 or 80 inch flat panel. I am still waiting, and saving.
I will be difficult to sell such a monstrosity, but until I know exactly what I need, and want, this TV suits me fine. It will be hard to say goodbye to something that works perfectly only for
aesthetic reasons, but I guess eventually all dinosaurs have to

krell789's picture

I bought mine in 2005 when I was bldg a dedicated theater room. I have had no proplem's with mine, I replaced the lamp 2yrs ago. The room only gets used for watching movies and sporting events.i was going to buy a new set a laservue dlp when Mitsubishi pulled the plug on RPTV's. Now iam glad I didn't buy it, with 2160p sets coming out, OLED Display's, now I hear there going to replace 1.4b to 2.0. There's a lot to be looking forward to in the next several years. I think I'll just wait to see what happens.