UHDTV or UHD Projector?

A recent survey in the AVS Forum about choosing between a flat screen TV and a projector rang a few bells for me. Having just acquired a 65-inch OLED as my reference display, and having recently completed reviews of three new projectors (with a fourth now underway), it’s not a decision I have to wrestle with. For what I do, I need both. But many of you, at one time or another, may have to choose. And with Black Friday (or Cyber Monday) barreling toward us you can use all the information you can get.

The TV Option
Most will choose the flat screen Ultra HDTV. And they’ll inevitably buy an Ultra HD set rather than 1080p HD because the time’s now long past when you can find a good 65-inch or larger set that isn’t Ultra HD. And for a home theater, where movies are king, a 65-incher is likely what you’re looking for. Anything less is just a TV. Dream much larger for a flat screen, however, and the choices shrink as dramatically as the prices increase. I’d love to have one of those new 77-inch OLEDs from LG or Sony, but the price would pay for a 65-inch OLED and a true 4K projector and a good, 10-foot wide screen and pay someone to install and calibrate it all! There are a few competitively-priced 80-inch or so flat screen sets out there, but they have to eliminate more than a few key features to reach pocketbook-friendly levels.

What does that 65-inch set offer? Even if it’s budget model, or left over from last year (both of which will likely be featured attractions in the Black Friday feeding frenzy—say that fast three times), it should offer good resolution with the full 8+ million pixels (3840 x 2160) required by a 4K source. It will also upconvert lesser resolutions like 1080p to 3840 x 2160, but while such upconversion has now improved across the board, some sets still do it better than others. We test for upconversion in our reviews using material specifically designed to trip up a display, but even the displays that fail one or more of these tests rarely have obvious issues with normal program sources.

The set will also have advanced color on tap when called for by an Ultra HD input. And if it’s a new, flagship LED/LCD design it should be capable of 1000 nits of peak brightness (292 ft-L), or at least 500 nits if it’s an OLED.

Black level and shadow detail quality will likely vary all over the map from model to model, but if you’ve chosen a OLED, or an LED/LCD with full-array, backlit local dimming, they should be good at the least. Edge-lit local dimming will be a shot in the…um… dark—some are OK, others not so much. If the specs or promotional materials just say local dimming with no qualifiers, it’s probably edge lit local dimming. It’s also possible that a bargain set will have no backlight dimming at all, in which case avoid it unless price is the deciding factor. (The more dimming zones the better, particularly for high dynamic range. But I’m still pondering whether or not local dimming in flat panel sets, and dynamic irises on projectors, are optimum solutions when the best possible HDR is required, but that’s a subject for a different blog. For now, they’re useful for achieving decent black levels, which for me is at least as important as unfettered HDR.)

Get that set home and it will take you an hour or so to set up, unless you’re considering a wall mount over the fireplace. (Hint: Don’t). While a good calibration is recommended, particularly if you’ve spent at least three big ones for it, you can start watching right away, even in normal room lighting. Put off any calibration until you’ve put a couple of hundred hours on the set (the same recommendation is valid for a projector as well).

Be aware that any UHDTV you buy today (early November 2017) is now half way to reaching its sell-by date; new models will be shown at the annual CES in January and start appearing in stores in the spring of 2018. As print reviewers, we’re now entering the annual TV dead zone; if I receive a TV today, and take three weeks to live with and review it (which I prefer—though sometimes don’t get!), by the time the editing, printing, and mailing are complete, knowledgeable buyers will have read our CES reports and be aware of what will hit the stores in a couple of months.

That’s why TV prices tend to be at their highest right after their spring and summer introductions (plus the fact that there are fewer buyers who are thirsting after the latest TV in the summer).

TVs don’t change much from year to year. They’re refreshed every year, but major changes only come when some new wrinkle is introduced, like 3D or 4K. The latter is just reaching heavy market penetration, and we don’t anticipate any explosive new feature anytime soon (like 8K—lord help us all!). But we could be wrong. One possible exception could be a further drop in OLED prices over the next few years. The point here is that waiting for the next big thing can be a fool’s errand. I had an uncle who once waited to buy a color TV until they were “perfected.” If there’s a Best Buy in heaven, he’s likely still waiting.

Projector Pros & Cons
But if you want a projector for that really big screen experience, it can be had for the price of a high-end, 65-inch flat screen set. Most of the issues addressed above apply to projectors as well. Projectors are more difficult to deal with, however, and have some shortcomings compared to a UHDTV. We assume here you’re looking for Ultra HD in your projector, or something “close to that.” There are still plenty of affordable models out there that top out at 1080p. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but just be sure you get what you’re looking for.

The “close to that” modifier above is the first item on the decision menu. There’s only one projector on the market as of the end of 2017, at a price many of us can at least aspire to, that puts the full 8+ million pixels in each frame of a 4K source on the screen at the same time. It’s Sony’s new VPL-VW285ES—an impressive piece to be sure but it’s still $5000 and the screen, as with all projectors, is a separate expense.

There are less expensive projectors on the market that will accept a 4K source and project it, though they use a form of pixel-shifting to provide a picture that approaches full 4K. Their imaging chips don’t have 8+ million pixels. But despite that some of them might actually challenge a full 4K design in some respects (like brightness, color, and/or black level), so they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

A projection setup also needs a degree of dedication that flat screen sets don’t. It requires a blacked-out room for best results. Ideally the rest of the room will be decorated in any color as long as it’s black—carpets, walls, ceiling, etc., but that’s obsessive and not mandatory for folks that don’t have a separate room for exclusive use as a home theater. Even those who do, but also use their system to listen to music without pictures, might find that a blacked-out cave isn’t the best environment for that experience (though there’s something to be said for listening to music in the dark!).

If you also need to use the room for other purposes it’s not usually possible to go 100% of the way with a projection setup. But I’d recommend a retractable screen to get it up and out of the way when not in use. They’re generally pricier than the fixed frame variety, but a flood of new screen manufacturers have sprung up in recent years to challenge market veterans such as Stewart, Da-Lite, and Draper, making prices more competitive.

Many of these relative newbie companies also offer light rejecting screens that can help if you don’t have full light control (not all of these are retractable, so be careful there if that’s what you want). But they’re expensive and, while their makers might disagree, in my opinion there’s still there’s no substitute for watching movies in a fully darkened room. Sports are a different issue, and since they’re invariably brightly lit throughout, some room lighting (but not direct sunlight) should work well with such screens—or even on traditional screens though with some visible fading.

My reviewing room has dark gray (but not black) carpet, medium beige walls, and a white ceiling (fortunately over 8-feet high). Someday I might paint the ceiling black, but that’s not in my immediate plans. And I’m not at all unhappy with the image quality I get from good projectors and a traditional screen—as long as the room is fully dark. But what about those picture’s you see on-line and in-print, of a bright room with a vivid image on a big screen? For most of them, Photoshop is their daddy. They’re not a cheat; that’s the only way to show the room décor with a good image on the screen. But it’s not real.

There are no consumer displays of any sort that can do everything that Ultra HD, in high dynamic range (HDR) offers—at least not yet. But projectors are more limited than flat screen sets in how close they get to it. The biggest shortcoming of all projectors is their peak brightness capability. I’ve yet to test a UHD projector that can exceed roughly 170 nits (about 50 foot-lamberts). Many are closer to 125 nits. Even a budget flat screen set can likely exceed 300 nits, and some can exceed 1500. But as with our hearing, human vision isn’t linear; 350 nits doesn’t look even close to twice as bright as 175. And in a darkened room it takes a lot less peak brightness than you might think to produce a rewarding dose of HDR.

Projectors can also produce a respectable taste of Ultra HD’s advanced color, but they’re limited because of their light source—a projection lamp. Laser illumination can do much better, but is expensive to implement. The “cheapest” full 4K projector we know of that uses laser lighting is a $25,000 Sony. Some projectors add filters to the light path to enhance color, but this can reduce brightness. The color wheel typically used in single-chip DLP designs can also limit color. But since no affordable display technology (or source material) can yet achieve the supposed Holy Grail of UHD color (the BT.2020 color gamut), and those I’ve seen can at least exceed the HD color gamut (BT.709) with a UHD source, this is, in my opinion, the least important of a projector’s UHD limitations.

Projection lamps also fade with age, and will eventually need to be replaced. How long that will take depends on a lot of factors, but if you use the projector as your main display you might start thinking about replacing the lamp after 3 years or so—less if you’re hypercritical. And since new lamps aren’t cheap averaging $300 to $400, that’s not a minor consideration. And if power saving is your thing, projectors use more power than a typical LED/LCD set, though less than old-timey plasmas.

Virtually all UHDTVs also have built-in apps for streaming video from popular sites like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Vudu. Projectors don’t. You’ll have to pay extra to add a device such as AppleTV if streaming is important to you.

And while 3D is fast fading into the rear-view mirror on flat screen sets, many projectors (but not all) still offer it.

Best of Both Worlds
There are other considerations that enter into the desirability of any given display’s suitability for Ultra HD, including the bandwidth (bit rate) it can accept and pass through to the image on the screen. But those are subjects for full reviews, or a search of this site, where you’ll find, for example, detailed features on screens and other subjects that will help you make your decision. And that decision will ultimately be personal. You might even elect to scratch by with both — a projector for movie nights with a drop-down screen, and a flat screen set behind it for more casual viewing. Is that obsessive? Nah. That’s what I use, but then I sort of have to!

utopianemo's picture

Tom, I'm generally in agreement with what you're saying here. You really captured the conundrum consumers currently contemplate(say THAT three times fast!). That's why your last comment caught me a little off guard: If your reference display is an OLED, do YOU use it merely for casual viewing?

As you pointed out throughout the article, flatscreen displays have objectively better picture quality. They can't compare with the "wow factor" of a projector because of the size of the image, but if we had a 65" Sony or LG OLED sitting next to a 135" Sony 4K HDR projector, playing the same content, we'd likely both agree that the OLED looks significantly better.

I'd like a projector, and I intend to buy one at some point. But it's because of how good 4K HDR, WCG flatscreens look, at a price I can afford, that I chose one as my display....for serious viewing.

drny's picture

I join Mr. Norton in his conclusion.
A must have high quality UHD TV set and a projector set up for night time movie watching is obsessive, of course it is.
For A/V guys obsession over gear, set-up, image and sound quality is our middle name.
I'm adding an Epson 5040UB projector in my family room, where already I have a 65" Samsung 4K (JS9500 from model year 2015).
The TV sits on a custom made Mahogany wall unit.
The challenge was finding a screen to mount in front of the Wall unit for night time movie watching.
Screen Innovation came to my rescue with the Solo. It is a portable battery operated screen. I will use suction cups (extra cost accessory) to mount the 100" Solo screen on the wall unit right in front of my TV .
I could not afford the recessed into the ceiling automated screen (I have a vault ceiling and install cost was over the top, pun intended).
My wife nixed a mounted on ceiling (protruding) screen.
The Solo portable screen, I suspect will be the saving grace for many of us who can't set up a dedicated projector based Home Theater.
My 65" TV is both 4k and 3D display, but don't let anyone lie to you size matters.
I took my wife to see 4k and 3D on a 120" screen and she was hooked.
Yes, a 4k TV and an added 4k (pixel shifting) 3D projector are an obsession, but definitely not excessive.

jnemesh's picture

I initially jumped on the opportunity to get the Screen Innovations "Slate" Zero Edge fixed screen and a refurbished Optoma HD8200 1080p projector last spring...and had them setup in the same room with an older DLP rear projection set (that used an LED light source, no bulbs to replace). The 1200 lumen projector was JUST bright enough with an ambient light rejecting 100" screen to be viewable in the daytime in my living room. But the 2500 hour lamp life and $400 cost for lamp replacement kept me from using the projector as a primary display. Right after I got the whole room dialed in, I received a notice from my landlord that I had to move, because they were selling the property!

So I bought a much smaller home (yay! No more landlords! No more forced moves!), but didnt have much room. I went out and bought a new UN65KS8000 flat panel to replace the DLP (which still works!), but didnt have anywhere to put the projector. I was contemplating a motorized screen, that would drop in front of the wall mounted TV when I wanted to go big...but then...

Just a couple weeks ago, Optoma released their laser based UHD projector, the UHZ65. I immediately ordered one, and I will be replacing my TV with the projector. It's bright enough at 3000 lumens to be usable at any time during the day, even without perfect light control! And while some aspects of the picture will not be as good as on my KS8000 (HDR in particular), it still has an AMAZING picture and with a 20,000 lamp life, I dont have to worry about using it as my primary display!

I would HIGHLY recommend this type of setup to those debating. Especially if you keep the size of the screen 100" or smaller, and use an ambient light rejecting screen, you can get an amazing picture even in the middle of the day...even with skylights in the room or windows without curtains or blinds!

pw's picture

Every projector lesser than what's in professional use down at the Multiplex looks like crab..
But a OLED foe $2000 or less..
Problem solved..

Thomas J. Norton's picture
Projectors are crab: Clearly you've never seen a properly set up home theater projector (even a relatively affordable one) in a fully darkened room. If you're judging by an in-store demo, I'd agree with you; they're often terrible.

Casual vs. Serious: My OLED sees plenty of use as a reference in my job as a reviewer, and even when it's either daytime or inconvenient to fire up the projector. And if I didn't have a projection setup as well (and the one I actually own isn't yet 4K or even faux-K--review samples of the latter come and go) I wouldn't be unhappy to use the OLED full time. But I'd miss the big screen.

mikem's picture

I bought one of the last plasma tv's (panasonic). It's a 55" one. My initial purchase was a 65" LG but the size was simply way too big for my room. So size does matter - regardless of what others say.