Top 5 entry-level home theater projectors (plus one, just for fun)

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Once upon a time, getting a quality projector required handing over considerable amounts of cash – in  most cases, more than you’d pay for a large-screen TV.

Thankfully, times have changed … big time. Now you can spend less than $1000 on a projector that will give you 100 diagonal inches of eye-popping awesome, whereas an 80-inch LED TV will set you back $3,000 or more. Granted, those TV’s can wage war with sunlight in a way that many projectors can’t; and they offer more in terms of features, such as Internet apps and digital tuners. Still, if you’re looking to bring the cinema home or rally around a huge screen for the next big game – be it in your living room, basement, or back yard – there is no better solution than a projector. And now you can do it more affordably than ever before.

Even when picking an entry-level projector, there are a few basic considerations to keep in mind. Perhaps the most important of those is the projector’s brightness capabilities. Simply put, the higher the number of lumens, the brighter the image; and the more ambient light you have in the room when you watch, the more brightness you want. You’ll also want to consider the projector’s throw ratio, which explains how wide a projector’s image will be, given the distance between the lens and the screen. Also, make sure the projector you pick offers enough keystone correction and zoom ability to match your installation.

Sound complicated? Maybe not as much as you think. (Here’s a complete guide to projector installation if you’d like to learn more.) Finally, you can count on nearly any projector’s built-in speakers to be terrible. They are an afterthought in most cases, designed to get you by if you’re doing an office presentation, but not much more. Any of these projectors will benefit from even a modest outboard speaker system, though for big movie nights, we say go nuts with the sound system.

With all that in mind, here are our top picks for some approachable, entry- to mid-level projectors that are sure to put a grin on your face and those of your friends and family at your first big movie screening. Just beware: you’re about to have a whole lot more company.

[Thanks to Thor Benson for his contributions to this list ]

Roku Streaming 8

3M Streaming Projector ($185)

First, a little fun. The 3M Streaming Projector, powered by Roku, is so cheap that you have to wonder … is it any good? Actually, yeah, it kind of is. We like to think of this as the perfect kids projector or portable-fun projector. It only cranks out 60 lumens, so don’t plan on using this in a room with the lights on or the curtains open. The best part about 3M’s little portable is that it comes with a Roku streaming stick as part of the package. That alone is worth $100. If you’re not familiar, the Roku Streaming Stick gives you instant access to Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and a whole host of other video-on-demand apps, as well as any photos music or video that might be on your home network – all you need is Wi-Fi. This little guy also comes with a rechargeable battery and HDMI and Micro-USB inputs, so you can take it on the road with you and have movie night in the hotel room or at the camp site – all you need is a white wall or sheet and a source like your MHL-equipped phone or laptop. This projector’s lamp will last an impressive 20,000 hours, which means it should last well beyond 3-4 years. Are we talking cinema-quality projection here? Of course not. We’re talking about a projector under $200. Make no mistake, though. The kids are going to love it.

Check out our our hands-on review of the 3M Streaming Projector for more details.

viewsonic projector

Viewsonic PJD-7820HD ($700)

Simply put: The Viewsonic PJD-7820HD offers more versatility and bang-for-your-buck than nearly any budget projector on the market. With an astonishingly bright 3,000 lumens, this projector even looks vivid with three 60-watt bulbs ablaze in the room. Want to take it outside to watch the big game in the middle of the day? It can do that. The 7820HD will put out a 100-inch wide image at only eight feet – perfect for those with limited space. It’s 3D Blu-ray ready, though you’ll need to supply the passive 3D glasses, and it offers 1080p resolution – enough to see lots of fine details. Lamp life is rated up to 6,000 hours in eco-mode, but slash that down by 2,000 hours if you’re going to use it in bright light environments. This projector’s color output is bright and vibrant, and you can count on solid contrast as well. With a compact footprint of 8.7 x 10.5 x 3.3-inches, finding a place to put this projector shouldn’t be a problem. To learn more about why we’re so in love with this thing, check out our comprehensive Viewsonic PJD-7820HD review.

benq projector

BenQ W1070 ($899.00)

A small step up from the previous projector on our list (in price, at least), the BenQ W1070 projector offers slightly more refined performance, but without a bunch of price-jacking bells and whistles. The 3D-capable, 1080p HD W1070 can crank out up to 2,000 lumens, and offers a contrast ratio of 10,000:1 – both of which are more typical of an entry-level home theater projector.  You’ll get a maximum of 6,000 hours out of the lamp in eco mode, just like the Viewsonic above. Onboard 2D picture modes include Dynamic, Cinema, and two “user modes,”  while 3D mode keeps things limited to a single user-adjustable mode (presumably to keep you from being disappointed by a dim 3D experience). Speaking of 3D, the necessary glasses do not come with the projector, which is, sadly, par for the course.  Plan on spending around $100.00 per pair of active 3D glasses. What else differentiates this projector from the aforementioned Viewsonic? You get an extra HDMI input,  ISF-level color calibration capability, and an active (versus passive) 3D system.

epson projector

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 3020 ($1,499.99)

Aside from looking like it was just beamed from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, this projector offers a couple of unique features. For the basics: the 3020 offers 1080p HD resolution, 3D and 2D modes,  puts out 2,300 lumens of white and color brightness, and offers up to a 40,000:1 contrast ratio. Where as the previous two projectors were of the DLP variety, the Epson 3020 is a 3-LCD type, which means three different chips for Red Green and Blue and naturally bright color. The downside is limited black levels. To compensate, the 3020 offers a motorized iris which reviewers report is a little on the noisy side, but goes a long way toward improving black levels and shadow detail. The big bonus here?  Two pairs of included 3D glasses! Epson also offers an add-on WirelessHD system, but it’s pricey at about $400 and requires line of site. Expect a max lamp life of about 4,000 hours.

panasonic projector

Panasonic PT-AE8000U ($2,299.00)

Now we’re starting to get  serious. This projector packs a built-in waveform monitor to do a serious amount of image calibrating, offers several picture mode presets, 13 different color temperature settings, creative frame interpolation (motion smoothing a.k.a. “soap opera effect”), sharpness control, and just about any other meticulous adjustment you might care to make to the picture. The poorly-named AE8000U puts out 2,400 lumens, and offers superior contrast (500,000:1 ratio). Lamp life stands at 4,000 hours, and you can expect to get a nice, vibrant 200-inch picture without sacrificing brightness. At 23.5 x 21 x 14-inches, this is a big boy, so make sure to clear some room.


Sony VPL-HW30ES ($2,499.00)

Looking to fill a 300-inch screen from 30 feet away? This is your projector. The ES in the model stands for elevated standard, Sony’s premium electronics line-up. As is often the case with electronics, the specs don’t tell the whole story, but we’ll give them to you anyway. This 1080p projector runs off of high-resolution SXRD (also called Liquid Crystal on Silicone, or LCoS) technology and performs 2D to 3D conversion if you like. Its brightness is limited to 1,300 lumens, but that should be plenty for the dedicated theater that this projector should call home. You can also expect an impressive 70,000:1 contrast ratio. Sony’s proprietary SXRD technology makes for denser pixels, and that translates into a sharper image, something that you have to see to believe. The projector does not come with 3D glasses. The size is at 18.3 x 16 x 7.1 inches, weight is 22 lbs. While a little pricey, this is our top-rated projector under the $3,000 mark.

What do you think of our list of the best projectors? We did miss any? Let us know in the comments.