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Epson hopes to join the budget LCD projection renaissance with its latest home cinema model.

Regular readers of SmartHouse will already know that LCD – so often the poor relation to DLP in the home cinema world – is currently enjoying a new lease of life.

In the February/March 2006 SmartHouse two remarkable models, Panasonic’s PT-AE900 and Hitachi’s PJ-TX200, completely confounded our expectations of what affordable LCD projection was capable of.

This perhaps puts the new LCD-based Epson EMP-TW600 in a slightly uncomfortable position. On the one hand it arrives at a time when we couldn’t be more upbeat about budget high-definition LCD. On the other hand, it’s got a massive job to do if it wants to give the Panny and Hitachi trailblazers a run for their money.

The TW600 certainly gives you plenty of sheer cabinet for your buck, eating up a substantial chunk of our test bench. It wears its bulk reasonably well, though, thanks to a neat cream finish and the application of a voluptuous curve or two.

Connectivity is satisfactory, including as it does both an HDMI input and component video connectors. There’s also a PC jack, an analogue component D4 socket, plus an adaptor for connecting Scart outputs.

The component and HDMI jacks satisfy the connectivity part of EICTA’s HD Ready criteria, and the projector happily ticks the rest of the necessary boxes with a native widescreen LCD resolution of 1280 x 720.

This projector’s features cupboard is unusually well-stocked, with a classy remote control providing access either directly, or via some bland onscreen menus, to tweaks galore.

The single most important of these is a set of themed picture presets. Admirable support comes from a dynamic iris that automatically adjusts the light aperture to best suit the image content; white/black level and brightness/contrast adjustments; separate skin tone, gamma and Kelvin-based colour temperature options; and a Super White option for calming down over-exposed or uneven peak whites. Playing with everything the TW600 has to offer could give you literally hours of fun (or terror, depending on your levels of technophobia).

Helpfully, the TW600 is an absolute doddle to get up and running. Simple vertical and horizontal lens shift wheels are on hand to help get the image on your screen, the level of optical zoom available is unusually extensive (making the TW600 easier to fit into different room sizes), and the zoom/focus rings around the lens couldn’t be easier.

You can thus start watching a picture on the TW600 within a minute or two of plugging it in.That said, the TW600’s ‘from the box’ pictures aren’t particularly great. Black levels look average, the colour tone looks off, and the picture just isn’t believable. Perhaps you’ll have to head into the picture adjustment menus after all.

The key to getting the best from the TW600 is the set of seven picture presets. Some of these – including the ‘Living Room’ default – are really quite nasty, producing images that look like escapees from a cheapo boardroom PC projector. But other modes, particularly the two Theatre Black ones, transform the picture into something infinitely more to a film-lover’s liking.

The most important improvement offered by selecting the right ‘colour mode’ concerns black levels. In Theatre Black 1 or especially 2, dark parts of the picture suddenly enjoy black levels that are both deep and impressively natural in tone. They also display good gradations and shadow detailing, helping give a great sense of scale to, say, John Hurt’s exploration of the enormous egg chamber in Alien (D-Theater 1080i).

The colour tone in these two modes also impresses. Skin tones during dark scenes only rarely suffer either the pink or green overemphasis that can characterise less movie-friendly LCD projectors, while bright scenes enjoy rich and vibrant saturations. A frankly gaudy film like Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle or the graphics of Project Gotham Racing 3 on Xbox 360 perhaps don’t look quite as vivacious as on the Panasonic and Hitachi models mentioned earlier, but the difference isn’t significant – and the Epson is $900 cheaper than the Panny.

The absence of noise on the TW600’s pictures also merits praise. This being an LCD projector, there’s obviously no trouble with the rainbow effect of fizzing over motion that can trouble budget DLP models. But there’s also impressively little of the grain, dot crawl or visible LCD panel structure problems that can trouble cheap LCD models.

As befits Epson’s position as the technology leader in the 3LCD camp, it’s directly comparable to both the Hitachi PJ-TX200 and the PT-AE900, and never fails to deliver a great sense of texture from good high-definition transfers.

A final bit of good news regarding the TW600 is that, in spite of its bulk, in any of its ‘Theatre’ settings it runs extremely quietly. Shifting up to a higher brightness setting – say for playing console games or PC use – can cause more noise, including a slight rattle. But for movie viewing, when silence really is golden, the TW600 is as quiet as a church mouse.

Conclusion

The current breed of HD LCD projectors are very impressive if you’re looking for sub-100in screen images. Indeed, the only concern we have regarding the TW600 is the sheer flexibility of its picture options which can help you hinder the picture quality, rather than help it, if you’re not very careful.

We found it best to keep things simple, just sticking for the most part to tinkering with the standard seven colour presets and the Auto Iris feature. Provided you choose the right options from these ‘big two’ to suit whatever source you’re watching, the TW600 can deliver arguably the best pictures we’ve seen this side of $3,000.

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Epson EMP-TW600  | $2999  |

For: Picture quality; design; impressive feature count
Against: Care required not to mess pictures up
Verdict: The TW600 can deliver arguably the best pictures we’ve seen this side of $3,000.

 

 

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