Super-Size HDTV

Here's a question to wrap your mind around: What's the best home-entertainment deal going? If you answered, "a Windows Media Center PC," you're way off track. If you thought, "a $49 progressive-scan DVD player," you're closer, but still no cigar. But if you blurted out, "an LCD front projector," you're absolutely right. High-def LCD front projectors really are the best deal around. They can give you theater-size HDTV pictures as big as 16 feet diagonal (that's 109 square feet) and start at around three grand. Compare that with the $3,000 your loudmouth neighbor paid for a 52- inch rear-projection DLP set - and then bragged about at his Super Bowl party.

Since front projectors beam images across a room at a separate screen, things like screen size and the amount of "ambient" light in the room will affect image quality. As a rule, the darker the room, the better. Most LCD projectors will deliver optimal picture quality on a wide, 16:9 screen measuring from 7 to 9 feet diagonal. And with the money you save by buying an HDTV-grade LCD front projector instead of a more expensive DLP model with equivalent resolution, you'll be able to afford a good screen. I use a 92-inch-wide (105 inches, or 8 3 / 4 feet, diagonal) Da-Lite High Contrast Da-Mat screen that is expressly designed for use with LCD and DLP projectors. It costs about $1,100.

To test the state of the art in affordable LCD front projectors, I rounded up four high-def models: Panasonic's PT-AE700U ($2,995), Epson's Powerlite Cinema 200+ ($2,999), Sony's Cineza VPL-HS51 ($3,500), and Hitachi 's PJ-TX100 ($3,999). Each is stuffed to the max with advanced picture-tweaking features. Most also include iris control so you can "stop down" the amount of light passing through the projector's lens for improved contrast - a welcome thing with LCD projectors, which typically struggle to achieve contrast levels approaching those of CRT, or even DLP, models. But I'll be diving into those details soon enough, so let's get to the reviews.