With 1080p front projectors continuing to come down in price, single-chip DLP models well under $5000 USD are now becoming the norm. But our background to approaching Optoma’s HD80 front projector is a bit convoluted: although we’ve used many DLP-based projectors throughout the years we’ve gotten used to the “look” of LCD panel technologies rather than those being driven by a color wheel. So we must “unlearn” some of the things now taken for granted and go back to our home theater roots, all in the name of fidelity. Priced at $2999 USD, the Optoma HD80 adds 1080p resolution and a high 10,000:1 contrast ratio to your home theater room.
Features and Design
One of the things we have been taking for granted with the newer flat panel displays is startup time.Upon powering up the HD80, the unit takes time to reach full brightness. Plus the fan is fairly loud, but it’s understandable: it’s a more powerful 300 watt lamp working behind the scenes. Physically, the Optoma is about average in size and weight for its price range – although the sloping front does make it seem more compact – and the euro-rounded off-white design is a welcomed step up from the old days where a square box was normal. It has a bit of a heft but is easily moved about, which makes the addition of a security slot on the back all the more valid. We’re not all that enamored of the metal lens cap for protecting the lens when not in use though, as the gripping fingers surrounding the cap’s rim makes us worry about accidentally scraping it against the lens. But since the lens is recessed it can probably be left as is, unless you have smokers or pets in the house.
A control strip rides along the back at the top; a bit more linear than found on other projectors but certainly not complicated to use. Still, it’s simpler to work everything through the remote, as punching buttons on the projector can contribute to slight movements and changes in its position – not something you want to have happen, especially as none of the lens functions (zoom, focus) are motorized. That remote is also one of the best we’ve see; fitting nicely in the hand and illuminated with a subtle green glow. Dedicated buttons mesh with menu controls and Optoma would do well to adopt this for their entire line if they haven’t already.
The back panel surprises us with a DVI input, but as we learned, that’s for use with computers. Two vs. 1.3 HDMI inputs top the list, with additions including Component, S-Video and composite inputs, along with a RS232C for home automation use and a 12V trigger for doing things like automating a screen coming down for viewing, closing curtains, etc.
In our test environment, we already have an Epson’s Powerlite LCD projector in place on a 3 foot stand about 10 feet away from the 84” screen, so we didn’t anticipate any issues with swapping it out for the Optoma; especially as both projectors are about the same height. So we removed the power plug and HDMI cable, removed the Powerlite and replaced it with the HD80. We expected some position tweaking since there’s no lens shift on the projector (and we avoid digital keystoning at all costs since it degrades images), so we use a level to insure it’s dead-on to the screen. While we wait for the projector to warm up, we can feel a good deal of heat coming out of the fan outlet – nice and toasty for those cold wintry days but not something very good to have if you’re seated directly behind it (later we tried switching to the economy mode which decreased some brightness but also quieted the fan down). Running at full illumination, one should keep in mind that the 2000 hours can go by pretty quickly, and even more so if you don’t remember to let the lamp cool down/shut off as per the somewhat long cycle required. It’s also a good time to remind everyone that a power loss is really bad news for a front projector’s lamp, so using an uninterruptible power supply to protect not just from a total power failure but also those little AC glitches is a good idea. When you consider that the lamp costs nearly $500 USD, doing all you can to baby it seems sensible. By the way, the lamp is sealed so no filter needs to be cleaned, but it’s secreted in at the bottom of the unit which makes replacement a bit harder to do if ceiling mounted.
Image Courtesy of Optoma
Setup and Use
Still waiting on the projector to warm up, we turned on our Dish HD satellite receiver and fed the signal to the projector which is now coming up to full brightness. So now we’ll zoom the image to fill the screen. No such luck – the zoom is pretty short (1.2X) and there’s a 36% offset. What this all means is that we have to move the projector much farther back and adjust it to fill the screen. We can see this being a real problem if the desire is to use it is in a small room or den, and especially if not ceiling mounted. Also, the focus tab is a bit stiff, although acceptable, and the focus ring a bit small for large hands such as ours to grasp onto.
Having made the physical adjustments for the projector, we’re now going into the menus to calibrate it. We always recommend zeroing out everything including all of the enhancements, and then working on the settings till they suit your personal preference – aided by memory settings that allow for some variation depending upon the sources being watched. We know that a lot of folks go with the factory settings, and in fact these are often more than watchable – but in the case of this projector, personal calibration is really best. You really need to spend a good deal of time calibrating the projector in order to gain a quality image, and we agree with those assessments of other reviewers noting that “out of the box” the overall image is much too blue and the color temperature too high. And that having a professional calibrate this for you is a good idea.
But most of us will rely on our eyes and “gut” to discover what looks best and frankly that’s a fair way to go, providing you’re willing to take the time and have the patience to work your way through it all. So while the best look towards color temperature, contrast and color can be very personal, the best way to start is looking to gain a clean and pure view of blacks, whites and grays. On a very simple level, just put in a black and white DVD and check that there isn’t any color bleeding; then use it as a guide towards finding strong blacks and whites to view. When it comes to the color modes, you’ll have to experiment as we did to find what appeals: Cinema for home theater working best for video from DVDs and HD sources like a Blu-ray player; Bright which provides an extremely bright image to circumvent high ambient light situations; TV which seeks to modify analogue and digital TV signals (primarily suitable with standard-def); and RGB for standard color which requires a lot of experimentation to find where it can best be used. We also recommend avoiding noise reduction entirely, and being very careful when adjusting the gamma for gaining better blacks. You might find, as we did, that this particular adjustment can have wildly different results: the kind of projection screen being used tying in very strongly with the adjustments and the apparent “density” of the blacks.
The rear offers plenty of inputs including DVI, component video and two HDMI 1.3 connectors
The Image AI (with lamp at full illumination) has the ability to adjust the level of brightness “on the fly” and for the most part is a valuable addition to use. Generally it handles its task quickly and efficiently, although there was some occasionally sluggishness during the variety of sources presented to it. By the same token, altering the iris manually can provide for a stronger image when there’s more ambient light, but at the expense of blacks and contrast levels. It becomes a bit of a trade off, but at least there’s the option for doing this if the situation warrants it. In our case the screen is protected from outside light by a blocking wall, but light from the kitchen nearby “peeks” in – so we did open the iris while watching TV. But when going back to films, especially in high-definition, we took the iris back down. The best way to proceed here is to save settings that you can reacquire for use later.
Testing and Performance
Now using this projector as a TV is a very pleasant experience, thanks to the high illumination. This does point out defects when watching standard-definition, but then switching to a HD signal you’ll forget all about that. We particularly like the way it handles colors, although contrast can be a bit much and so should be watched out for. The scaling/de-interlacing of imaging, such as from the Dish Receiver’s 1080i HD signal is excellent by the way. The image appears sharper and with better blacks in comparison to the LCD projector (we did pick up a bit of overscan, but quick use off the remote took care of that).
We can also see a bit more “grain in the image when watching standard television though this clears up immediately when going to HD. And the white shirts of the salespeople of the NBC show Chuck were a bit harder in contrast than we’d like – although highlights were very good and shadow areas opened nicely. And as regards that Bright mode – it certainly increases the brightness but also adds a pretty sharp edge to the visuals: our take on it is to reserve its use for standard-def and low-resolution imaging where it can boost the overall visibility. We’d say save using this mode for those times when there’s a lot of ambient light to fight against.
Using the HQV benchmark DVD with our reference Oppo 981HD player, the projector performed quite well. Playing a few familiar DVDs, like The Fifth Element and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, images had sharp details, good contrast and tight color. This was especially true of episodes from the recently re-leased third season of Doctor Who (BBC Video), which mixes a fair amount of live and CG action; the occasionally less-than-high-end effects not glaring, thanks to a smooth image and very good color re-sponse. Dialing back a bit on the contrast helps as well, although when switching to HD discs the need for this is less necessary (again, the projection screen’s unique response dictating some of the “on the fly” calibrations when watching). Going to HD discs, such as the HD DVD of Stardust brings out the dogs loud and snarling – the 1080p resolution is clear throughout and the detail you can see, whether that’s on skin or in objects or scenery as exacting as you could hope for. There’s excellent shadow detail and CG effects impress as well. Of course you can dispense with CG entirely by watching Pride & Prejudice (HD DVD) and becoming enthralled by the subtleties that are now displayed.
We’re a bit disappointed in this projector – not from the standpoint of its high visual performance, but due to a lackluster performance “out of the box” that requires either a lot of time and patience or a professional installer in order to gain the type of quality image the projector is capable of putting out. Also for the majority of users, the positioning limitations of the projector could be a deal breaker. But once you get past this bugaboo, you’ve a high-end 1080p projection system that can handle any image with style (did we mention that those looking for an optional anamorphic lens assembly can get one here? – a pricy accessory to be sure but at least the option’s there). So for those who do their homework before making the purchase and cultivate patience in arranging and calibrating the HD80, the rewards could be bright and beautiful.
• Bright and vibrant image
• Multiple inputs
• Stellar remote
• Image performance requires serious calibration
• Loud fan noise at high light output setting
• Image offset problematic for positioning