The market for home theater projectors has become quite saturated throughout the years, but in terms of reliability, visual quality, and construction, the Epson Home Cinema 2040 emerged victorious in our deliberations. While there are other projectors that can deliver performance beyond that of our pick, their hefty price tags make them difficult to recommend especially considering the average consumer’s budget. Despite over 75 hours of testing and pitting it against more than 30 models within and around its class, the Home Cinema 2040 decisively beat them with its superior color contrast, brightness, software, build quality, and the most important metric of all–value. Modern televisions have come a long way, and can even surpass the resolutions that projectors can deliver, but they are ultimately limited in terms of screen size and portability. When you need a portable device that can deliver huge, blown up picture sizes without sacrificing much in terms of visual quality, then our top pick can step up to the plate and knock it out of the park.
Table of Contents
- Types of Projectors
- The Age-Old (Sort of) Debate
- Our Shopping List
- The Best Home Theater Projector: Epson Home Cinema 2040 1080p 3D 3LCD Home Theater Projector
- Step Up Pick: Epson Home Cinema 5030UB 1080p 3D 3LCD Home Theater Projector
- Budget Pick: Acer H5380BD 720p Home Theater Projector
- How We Tested
- Our Pick
- Flaws but not Deal breakers
- What Do Other People Think?
- Step-Up Pick
- Budget Pick
- Specialized Pick
- Best Mini Projector
- Honorable Mentions
- Wrapping It Up
Types of Projectors
While the physics and mechanics of how a projector works are too complicated to explain within the scope of a few paragraphs, the basic technologies involved is useful to know especially as a consumer. There are three major technologies used in home theater projectors, namely: DLP, LCOS, and LCD.
Digital Light Processing (DLP) is a technology that uses tiny chips with millions of mirrors to project images. It is the type that is most often used in movie theaters, and can range from extremely low-end, cheap devices to projection powerhouses for high grade theater use. Despite the disparity between quality of different DLP projectors, the consensus for their picture quality is generally good.
Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology is what you commonly find on flat displays like TVs and monitors, and is used in the same basic way in projection. It carries the stigma of being low to midrange in terms of value and performance, but years of improvements have given this type of projector a chance at the spotlight.
And finally, LCoS, which stands for Liquid Crystal on Silicone. It is sort of a melding of LCD and DLP, and uses an LCD layer on top of a silicon backplane. These projectors generally give off excellent contrast ratios, delivering exceptional image quality across the board, but at a steep price typical of these high-end projectors.
The Age-Old (Sort of) Debate
So, why would you choose a projector over a regular television? No doubt you already know some of the answers since you’re sure to have looked it up, but for the benefit of the neophytes–and even enthusiasts may even glean new knowledge from this review–we will detail the pros and cons of using a projector over a TV.
The discussion of what is better than the other revolves around one fundamental aspect: value. Size, performance, and portability are some of the factors that make up a projector’s overall value, many of which beat TVs with a knockout.
A projector is significantly smaller than a TV but can deliver a picture size many times larger than the biggest modern consumer TVs. If immersion is your cup of tea, then a projector might just be your entertainment game changer. Gaming, for instance, benefits from a larger screen since all the details are blown up for superior immersion compared to sitting at a desk staring at a monitor or TV. While it’s great for immersive gaming, projected visuals aren’t that good for competitive gaming where a split second is the difference between victory or annihilation. While input lag is a real concern for hardcore gamers, you can always reduce it by turning off your projector’s image processing features if applicable.
On the topic of size, rapid technological improvements make the future brighter for projector enthusiasts. When UHD 4K becomes standard, there will likely be more accessible 4K projectors available in future markets. The sheer size of projected screens immensely benefits from larger resolutions, and that only means even crisper displays when using a projector. But as of writing this review, 4K projectors are simply too expensive to recommend as yet.
Screen size and immersion factor in to produce the most theater-like experience in your home, which is likely what you are looking to achieve if you are reading this review. With that comes the benefit of having a large screen that you can enjoy at a comfortable distance, but also bear in mind the space limitation of your home in order to get the most out of your projector.
You also enjoy reduced eyestrain when your projector setup is properly put together. Tuning the brightness output just right can reduce the stress on your eyes, but low brightness is not ideal either. Thankfully, you are able to fine-tune a projector’s brightness calibrations so you can achieve maximum comfort.
A projector’s superior portability compared to a TV makes it the sole gadget for outdoor movie sessions. While not many projector models fit into a backpack, they are generally easy to transport and even come with carrying cases. When used outdoors, their superior portability means that you can always pack it up and wait for rain to clear if the weather takes a turn for the worst. It takes just one person to lift a projector compared to the two or three required for lifting a large TV that has a fraction of the screen size a projector can deliver.
Our Shopping List
We turned to a combination of word-of-mouth and online rankings for our selection process, contacting home theater enthusiasts within the social circles of our staff, as well as scouring the scrutinizing feedback from consumers the world over. As usual, we examined lists from Amazon, as well as Projector Central, and PCMag for recommendations on which units to purchase.
As we rounded up a list of potential contenders, we looked through official manufacturer spec sheets and determined their contrast ratios and color/white brightness. We also looked at added software features and major specs like resolution, aspect ratio, and overall ease of use.
We typically canvassed projectors that use LCD display technology, mostly because they are the most accessible to home users in terms of price.
The Best Home Theater Projector
Combining native 1080p resolution with flexible compatibility in terms of video connections, the Epson Home Cinema 2040 takes the cake as the best in terms of performance, price, and features. It is 3D ready, and supports multiple resolutions lower than the native 1080p, handles movies proficiently and provides an immersive experience when coupled with the Epson 3D glasses. While we did not include gaming in out tests, it can also game very well, with 25ms input lag that comes significantly lower than the 60ms on most non-gaming monitors. At its price point, the HC 2040 is a steal for hardened home theater owners and neophytes alike.
Step Up Pick: Epson Home Cinema 5030UB 1080p 3D 3LCD Home Theater Projector
Shoppers with a loose budget can find a pleasing mix of value and top-notch visuals when choosing the Epson Home Cinema 5030UB, which is a powerhouse performer that delivers deep blacks and vibrant colors in its exceptionally high Image Contrast Ratio. It gets plenty bright in a low-light setup, supports native 1080p resolution, and is 3D ready as well. Sporting lens shift and keystone correction, the HC 5030UB allows for flexible installation options despite its herculean size.
Budget Pick: Acer H5380BD 720p Home Theater Projector
A safer bet would be the Acer H5380BD if there is little room in the budget. It’s got native 720p resolution, which is plenty detailed especially on smaller setups. HDMI and other connectivity formats are supported, as well as Acer’s Dust Shield Solution for keeping the lens free of dust and airborne debris to protect your investment. A more immersive experience can also be achieved with its support for 3D which, coupled with decent color contrast at its price range, makes it ideal for beginners and budget home theater owners.
How We Tested
With all the units lined up, we began testing in a basement that 13ft wide, 9ft tall, and 20ft deep. While not the optimal setup when accounting for acoustics, we had enough room to test every unit to bring out the full potential of each.
We decided to use a Silver Ticket 100-inch screen because, while it is not the largest screen available, it had the ideal mix of value and build quality that an average consumer would appreciate. Mounting each unit on the ceiling would be quite time-consuming, so we opted to use a simple rolling table setup. Throw distance was kept at a constant 16 feet from the screen at 5-foot elevation. For mid to lower end projectors, we would roll the table forward to their optimum throw distance as prescribed by the manufacturer specifications. This is to give them all the chances to deliver their best performance in terms of sharpness and color reproduction, since they really would not stand against more expensive models like our top or step up pick in the first place. This should help budget consumers and newbies alike to discover which entry-level or casual projector to opt for.
Lighting conditions were kept pitch dark, as the best home theater setups will have no ambient light at all (at least during viewing sessions). The video input comes in various forms whose resolution varies along 480p, 1080i, and 1080p resolutions, as those are the most common in current real-world video playback scenarios. We would, however, use only the highest resolution that a projector can output, since lowering the output resolution would not use the product to its full potential.
For playback, we used the widely acclaimed Sony BDPS3500 Blu-Ray player mostly because it is what we have on hand and supports wireless streaming to boot. It will also allow for native 1080p video output, which is the most that projectors can cope with at a reasonable price range.
We then used DisplayMate for color accuracy, brightness, and picture quality optimizations before analyzing the units’ video output.
Despite having slightly lower performance in terms of color brightness against vastly more expensive models, the significantly bumped down price and rich performance crown the Epson Home Cinema 2040 1080p 3D 3LCD Projector as our top pick. It has all the features you can ever need from a projector but at a cost that is on par with most high-end televisions. You get true 1080p resolution in a native 16:9 aspect ratio to deliver widescreen picture with crisp lines and color. At 16 feet away from the screen, the HC 2040 was able to fill the 100-inch area with vivid colors and a bright picture. Using DisplayMate, we were able to calibrate focus and brightness at the optimal level, and we were able to review it at its full potential.
The setup process was extremely easy, we set the projector on the table, hooked up the cables to power and HDMI, and played several Blu-Ray movies in complete darkness. The first movie was Mad Max: Fury Road, which featured the ideal color range for our tests. Daylight scenes were radiant, where the orange hues and details of the desert were given justice by the projector. Nighttime scenes where blue dominated the color pallet were exceedingly cool without sacrificing detail in any way. The next film was The Good Dinosaur, and was picked because of the vibrant colors of its alternate prehistoric universe. The photorealistic water was displayed in such clarity that we could truly appreciate the physics rendering involved in the scenes, while colorful scenes showed off the projector’s 35,000:1 contrast ratio. While 25 feet is the farthest this projector can throw, our 16-foot test distance was ideal for showing off details and colors in the films.
Adjusting the presets allowed us to fine-tune the image for each movie and found that for live action films that blended colorful CG like Doctor Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, the Cinema color mode combined with Auto Iris and High Speed was the optimal blend for enjoying such films. Setting Detail Enhancement to about 20 was also ideal for eliminating some incompatibilities with older movies as well as reducing the detail on faces (which, to some, can be a bit jarring), resulting in a more cinematic image.
There are many advanced features that you can play with on the HC 2040, but the 3D functionality probably stands out the most. We had the appropriate 3D glasses, the Epson (RF) ELPGS03, and watching action movies gave us a similar experience to that of watching in the cinema but albeit a little restricted due to our basement set up. Despite the smaller screen (you can go way bigger, but sacrifice sharpness at borderline throw distances), the 3D experience could be well worth the extra if you want an impressive cinema experience right in your home.
We tried the ECO Power Consumption mode on the unit. This is Epson’s solution to extending the lamp life of their projectors and for the most part, it did not affect color contrast significantly. What the feature does is lower the amount of white light it outputs and lowers the brightness from 2200 lumens to 1500. This brightness decrease can make colors look washed out in setups with ambient light such as classrooms, but in our controlled setup with no ambient lighting, there was no noticeable loss in fidelity apart from the slightly dimmer light output. Epson claims that enabling ECO mode will increase lamp life from 4000 to 75000 hours. This is especially beneficial in home theater setups where lamp longevity is paramount and maximum brightness is actually detrimental when you have little to no ambient light in the setup.
In terms of connectivity, the HC 2040 features two HDMI ports, one VGA port, and RCA/Composite connectors for audio and video. There is also an Audio Out jack for a 3.5mm audio device, and finally, a USB port for playback from a flash storage device. All these make the HC 2040 a good option for those who want support for a large range of devices from older TVs to newer game consoles.
As a side note, there is an integrated speaker at the rear, which can be useful if you plan to take it around for presentations. The included remote has all the relevant controls for manipulating playback which, compared to the HC 1040, it clearly shows that the projector is mainly for home theater setups instead of multimedia.
Flaws but not Deal breakers
While something can be listed as the best, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect. That said, the HC 2040 is a formidable performer despite its small flaws. One in particular is what many may consider to be too pricey–the 3D glasses. It is optional, of course, and not many look at 3D as a projector’s main selling point anyway. It’s just a nice bonus that you can opt into if you really want the immersive cinematic experience, and that would mean shelling out even more for a beastly surround sound setup.
The brightness is also quite a bit lower than older models and even from other brands, but its exceptional contrast ratio makes up for it in spades. What’s more is that in a dark home theater setup, the lower color brightness is barely noticeable. You will also have a hard time using the projector for presentations if you have that in mind, since the remote features playback controls instead of computer and slideshow controls. This is purely a home theater projector, and while you can use it for presentations, it is hardly optimal to do so.
One other concern is that there is no automatic lens cover, but keep in mind that the average home theater owner will not have ceilings higher than 8 feet, so reaching up on a stool every now and then shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Also, the fewer the external automatically moving parts, the less likely the projector will need to be repaired. And that brings us to its lack of lens shift. While this may turn some people off, average-sized setup will have no problems accommodating the projector’s size, so moving it about when setting up should not be too hard. This also falls into the previous statement about fewer moving parts making for a more robust device over the long term.
What Do Other People Think?
We compared our findings with user reports from various sites to help give a concrete verdict. It was difficult not include the unit in our list of contenders. The general consensus has been that for the money, consumers cannot find a projector that delivers this much value for money.
Projector Central makes an astute conclusion in saying that the HC 2040 may look like its predecessor, but inside is a different machine altogether. While it may have a similar design to the HC 2030, it has features found only in more expensive units and delivers crisp, fluid picture quality that makes it ideal for movies, games, TV, and other visual media.
Its affordability, accessibility, and overall performance adds up to a recommendation from PCMag. The HC 2040 is one of few LCD projectors that have short input lag, making it ideal for gaming, exceptional image quality and crisp native 1080p resolution. It would have been a no-brainer to get if it included the 3D glasses, though.
If you pinched your home theater budget in favor of having more for the crowning jewel, the Epson Home Cinema 5030UB is the ideal candidate for delivering the picture quality that you covet.
While the design is not mind-blowingly unique, its overall looks set it apart from any other projector in its class. Cooling vents flank the large lens, and comes in a subtle black and white finish that gives it an unassuming impression. Under the hood is a different story as the projector has contrast ratios of up to 600,000:1, giving you crisp color reproduction and the blackest blacks you can ever hope for in a projector. It supports native 1080p resolution that brings out the best in content from the web, on Blu-Ray, and on TV.
It performed stellar when we played The Good Dinosaur, showing off its color contrast in dark scenes and its vibrancy in the daylight segments. While not as bright as most multimedia projectors, the HC 5030UB’s 2400 lumens of white brightness is sufficient for many mid to high budget home theater setups.
Other features include lens shift for easy placement, a feature many users who have smaller setups would appreciate, as well as a host of connectivity options to keep it flexible. Dual HDMI, component, and VGA ports sit at the back of the unit and are spaced out well enough as not to be cramped when all the ports are used up. Like the top pick, the unit supports 3D but with the added bonus of including two pairs of 3D glasses, allowing you to enjoy an immersive cinematic experience right out of the box.
Users who are strapped for both time and money can still make a comfortable purchasing decision in the Acer H5380BD. With its 17,000:1 contrast ratio, you still get exceptional color quality at any point in the color spectrum, and its native 720p resolution makes for a fine viewing experience in both old and newer films.
For much less than our top pick, the lower native resolution shines in smaller home theater setups and while there is a discernable difference in image sharpness at our test throw distance, it is not too much that it detracts from immersion. The projector is 3D ready, and features Acer’s Dust Shield Solution Technology so that the lens is less likely to become damaged.
All the connections are crammed together at the left side of the unit, which you can take either as a blessing or a curse. On one hand, the layout allows for a more compact device, and while on the other it may become too cramped if you plan to use all of the connections. There is also just one HDMI jack, but three VGA ports.
Despite its shortcomings, there is still much value to be had especially considering the device’s price point. With 3D support, 720p resolution, and flexible connectivity, you can do much worse.
Let’s take a step back and acknowledge the audience that does not need powerhouse projectors. For those with limited space but still want a cinematic experience obtained only from projectors, the AAXA LED Pico projector is a novel solution for easygoing users who just want their content thrown onto a wall. It comes in the size of a bar of soap, but can throw a 40-inch image onto a wall that is comparable to many televisions. Go beyond that and you lose quality, but in our test setup we managed to go about 70 inches in diagonal screen size before we saw drastic quality degradation. It isn’t that bright, however, at 25 lumens of white brightness. Expect to have to shut off all the lights to comfortably view a large screen using this device. It natively plays MKV files, so you can enjoy content without hooking up a computer. Speaking of using it with a computer, you will require a mini-HDMI to HDMI converter to use it as your computer’s display. For a tiny projector that can stand up to many televisions, it gives casual users plenty of value for their money.
Best Mini Projector
While we have discussed the best of the best in terms of value, and another in terms of accessibility, one particular projector deserves some attention. The Ezapor GM60 fills the void for people who want a small projector that has enough power for a small movie session. It’s not as small as the AAXA Pico Projector, but is compact enough that you can easily bring it around school or work. With a 130-inch maximum screen size, various video input options including HDMI and USB, it is an easy plug-and-play solution to casual users’ projection needs. It only has a native resolution of 800×480 and 800 lumens of color brightness though, so you will need to keep ambient light to bare minimums (the projector performed well in our completely dark basement test setup, however).
Only a few models rose to the top of the pack, but there are a good number of other projectors that deserve a look. They differ in price range, so feel free to have a look at the links as we make a short description of each.
Best Home Projector For Business
The Fugetek DG-747L/FG-647– Can serve as both a business projector and home theater unit, with a 800×600-pixel resolution and is capable of downscaling your 1080p content. It has relatively high brightness at 2500 lumens and acceptable contrast ratio of 800:1 for the price. With flexible video inputs and long 5000-hour claimed lamp life, you can definitely do worse.
Best Inexpensive Home Projector
Optoma S316– High contrast ratio at 20,000:1 and good 3200-lumen brightness. SVGA 800×600 resolution is not particularly impressive, but the video input options make it a suitable upgrade for intermediate users.
Best Mid-End Home Projector
Epson Home Cinema 725HD– While it has a relatively low 3000-lumen color and white brightness, native 720p resolution makes it ideal for mid-tier home theaters. It is also from Epson’s renowned Home Cinema line, with contrast ratios of up to 12,000:1. Single HDMI port makes it less flexible than most, but as a dedicated movie display it should be enough.
Best Home DLP Projector
Optoma HD28DSE– A bit pricey, but is currently much lower if you look hard enough. It uses DLP technology with native 1080p resolution, but has lower contrast ratio (3,000:1) compared to the top pick’s 3,500:1. It is a good option if you want to go the DLP route, but long-time users of these types of projectors often warn you of the rainbow effect that can develop over time.
Best Home Projector For Outdoors or the Classroom
ViewSonic PJD5155– Lower price comes with lower SVGA/XGA 800×600 resolutions, but has 3300 lumens of brightness, making it suitable for outdoor and classroom settings where you do not have full control of light levels. Contrast ratio is at a good 20,000:1 and includes HDMI input and support for 3D.
Wrapping It Up
While a top-of-the-line television can impart exceptional image quality, it currently cannot beat a home theater projector in both screen size and outright value. A projector also has advantages in terms of health impact, as reflective visuals are much softer on the eyes compared to the emitted light from a TV’s pixels. So, when looking for a good balance between price and performance, the Epson Home Cinema 2040 has proven to deliver the best value in its class. If you have deeper pockets but still do not want to spend too much on a projector, the impeccable performance of the Epson Home Cinema 5030UB is well worth the added cost. For the frugal user who wants the most value for their buck, the Acer H5380BD is a great performer that delivers performance that helps it stay relevant despite years of use.