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Sunday, 24 October 2004

Home Cinema a go-go [Lurks]

Some weeks ago I decided that it was about time to replace our ye olde faithful Sony 28-inch television with some sort of widescreen model. There were some good deals about for LCD widescreen units and a double bonus of these sorts of displays is that they are generally equipped with PC VGA inputs, meaning that my lounge server 'Wench' might be a better bet to play stuff than the XBMC on the Xbox. LCD was also attractive because the units are, as you’d expect, much thinner than CRT displays and the extra space would be most welcome in the odd way we had our couch, tele, speakers and so on rigged up.
Then by some superb twist of fate, I was asked to put together a page on projectors by one of the mags I freelance for. That meant I had to swot up on them and pretty soon I started to become very interested in the technology. I hatched a plan to take a look at a bunch of them by doing a round up in a gadget mag so I took a couple of days off and had half a dozen projectors delivered to my house from the leading brands. At this stage I still wasn’t really sold on the idea of a move to a projector, apart from anything else I had absolutely no idea how I’d make it work in our lounge.
The projectors ended up blowing me away in terms of how easy to set up they were and how bright they were. Over a decade ago when I was tech in a TV studio, projectors back then were of the three CRT tube variety and to this day nothing has done my head in quite as much as aligning all three of the guns to get a proper picture on that unit and it was only good in virtual pitch black with a rated output of 200 ANSI lumens. Modern projectors are absolutely tiny, particularly DLP (more on this later), in comparison and they ranged in brightness from 1000 to 2000 lumens. Madness.
So while I was at work, bored stiff by some twat trying to sell me advertising on the phone, I began to doodle on a bit of paper – trying to work out how I could arrange my lounge to make this work. It only has one wall suitable for a screen but this is at the opposite end of the room from where the cable coax and all the power is. Where do you put a projector? Roof is best but this becomes a pro install job which will cost a fortune and needs all your wires somehow plumbed in. Small table in front of couch would work but that would be obtrusive, especially given the wires which would have to run underneath the couch. Yet some of the projectors, I noted, had a hell of a zoom range. What if I put it behind the couch? That would place it near to Wench, which I could sit sideways directly behind the couch (it's a full size tower PC) and nick the old Sony television stand and put the cable TV box and Xbox on top and all the broadband, wireless and router shit and the power board farm in there. It also meant moving a small freezer out of a corner and where the old hi-fi shit was.
After lots of tweaking, I ended up with something which was nigh on perfect. I've a small wooden table sat on top of a larger table behind the couch with the projector on top. It's not pretty and it needs to be replaced by some sort of dedicated stand but it’s high enough that i'’s throwing directly to the centre of the wall image negating the need for any keystone adjustment and yielding as sharp a picture in PC-mode as possible. Somewhere along the line I decided that if I was going to have a big ass projector, I may as well go whole hog with the home cinema set up and get me some 5.1 audio too – be rude not to really. Logitech have just brought out the Logitech Z-5500 Digital which is brand-new version of the legendary Z-680 but even bigger. 505W RMS output. No really. So I, err, borrowed a set of these for a review as well.
The huge sub woofer bin, and it really is massive, sits beside the couch in the recess in front of the fireplace. The missus complained we were blocking the fireplace with this new lay-out but when she saw the whole set up in action, she quickly saw things my way. The receiver/cradle for the wireless mouse for Wench sits on the base bin and also gives good wireless reception. The keyboard lives on the small coffee table in the middle, nothing else fixed sits on that. Xbox is currently plugged into projector via s-video as after a length experiment with Xbox 720p HDTV outputs, I discovered that the PC output is simply superior. Xbox audio goes into Z-5500 via optical digital. Cable box goes into Wench line in and then out the sound card which is running in 6-speaker mode analogue direct out into the Z-5500. I'd do it via S/PDIF but for some reason AC3filter wont give me 5.1 S/PDIF passthrough out and I simply must watch the latest Lost HDTV rips in 5.1. This system works brilliantly now but it was arrived at after quite a bit of experimentation.
Now onto the projector. There are two types of projector technology, there's DLP which is a proprietary technology from TI and quite the most lunatic tech you have ever heard of. In essence it's based on shining a lamp at a great big chip covered with microscopic mirrors that deflect a pixel-worth of light into or away from the lens. To get colour there’s a spinning wheel with filters after it. Traditionally DLP has been the most expensive technology and far superior to LCD which had terrible issues with contrast ratios, just like flat panel displays. However there’s a few major Japanese firms which have been working hard on LCD technology including Sony and Epson. The best projector out of the lot, I found, was the Panasonic AE700EC. This is bigger than most of the others I looked at, because it's LCD, however it offers 1280 x 720 native widescreen and amazingly produces around 2000:1 contrast ratio and 1000 lumens. That’s amazing, to say nothing of the fact it’s got a proper RGB scart on the back (none of the others did), VGA port, S-video and composite jacks.
Without banging on about it too much, this projector is amazing and obliterated all the DLPs anywhere near it in money with only one costing three grand producing a better image. The lens can be zoomed, focused and adjusted in all directions to throw the image exactly where you want. Most projectors have an economy mode which is about 10-20% less bright but gives you another thousand hours of lamp life or so and, in the AE700's case, fan noise drops to inaudible. I found it still plenty bright apart from in broad daylight outside. Also, I originally planned to pop a projector screen on the wall and in fact used one for testing. However, despite the fact the wall is painted an off-white colour, the image off the plain wall is excellent so I did away with it and there’s no unsightly screen at all. It also means I can run it as large as I like and watching movies at night… well… it's just plain amazing. I can't ever imaging looking at a pokey little TV again.
From the comfort of my couch, I can zap between video sources and kick up Wench and sit there with the wireless keyboard and play media, kick off some new HDTV episode downloads and generally, well, it's absolutely amazing. Particularly coupled with the Z-5500 speakers. We're genuinely talking about a cinematic experience here, I don’t think I’ve ever undertaken a project where the results were of such high reward compared to the time and money invested – even if I had to buy the stuff new. In fact, retail of the projector and the Z-5500 speakers is around about £1600. That compares incredibly well versus a large expensive television and the traditional surround amplifier approach.
But not only have I managed to reclaim my lounge into an absolutely gob-smacking home cinema environment, it's much more practical too with the dining table near the windows, finally cleared the junk that used to live there we can now entertain and then treat guests to a free ticket to the movies. The obvious other angle here is games on the projector. This is indeed pretty amazing but I’m torn between being able to see pixels on an Xbox game but very large on the wall or playing on a PC with a 1600x1200 display and really the PC wins out.
However when Half-Life 2 comes out, I’m giving serious thought to moving Boris, my gaming desktop, into the lounge and giving that the whole projector and surround sound experience. It's got to be done.

21 comments:

  1. Here's a movie of my set up. It's an 8MB zip of an xvid movie. You wont be able to tell anything quality wise but it will at least provide a visual reference for what I'm on about.

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  2. Great blog - I'd been very interested in this already and this has persuaded me that it's the way to go in the room we'll be holding AmLan in which I'm going to turn into a home-cinema type of room. BTW, follow that DLP link above if you don't know how it works. It's the most mad technology I've ever heard of and seriously thought Lurker might be pulling our legs when he described this in The Dickens the other week.Bloke who invented it is here (little mini-biog at bottom) www.ecs.utdallas.edu/lecture-series/hornbeck.html . The bloke is clearly either a total genius or an alien. Or possibly both. Total madness!

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  3. Good write up Lurks, though I notice that you suffer from Residential 5:1 Syndrome like so many other people.
    Specifically, I have yet to see any home cinema setup in a Real Lounge(TM) where the rear speakers are positioned as they are supposed to be! It always seems that the front, centre and sub gets placed OK, but nobody has the room or the stands to make the rear two be at the same height and same position across from the other :)

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  4. It really doesn't matter too much where your rears are in my view, especially on dual concentric drivers like those Logitechs. All of your actual stereo image, music, left/right sfx are dialogue are through the forwards so those are rather a lot more critical.
    Mostly all you get is a bit of token sound effect coming from the rear. I actually shift the back right one up onto the shelf if I'm sat on the couch or down to the floor if I'm sat in front of the couch. Sub placement doesn't matter in the slightest because you cannot perceive a direction from bass anyway. In fact that effect can be quite startling, Neen was convinced that the bass was coming from the front satellites.

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  5. Are you using the DVI-D input for wench o/p or is it waiting usage, say for a nicer hdmi dvd player or summat?Has the normal telly gone then, so you are doing all your telly viewing the pj?A proper screen is worth the investment, the Stewart Firehawk and Greyhawk are lubberly. www.stewartfilm.comYou can have them on a stand that you can hide behind a bookcase when not in use, mounted flush on a wall for always on use, or get a ceiling mounted one. A friend went for the motorised ceiling mount one but had it made so it he had a long black lead-out bit of screen at the top so he could mount it between the ceiling joists. He cut a slit downstairs, and took up his floorboards in the bedroom. I remember the installation, I was shitting myself holding the enormous weight of the screen by a looped powercord as he aligned and tightened the mounting bolts.The end result was worth it, he has a 32" Sony for normal viewing and the pj screen is out of sight, and when you turn the pj on, the screen powers up and descends from the slit, resting just in front of the telly.Those pjs are amazing, they have incredibly short throws so any size room, however small can have big screen pj lurve. Looking at the spec of the PT-AE700EC the throw range is 1.2m to 7.4m. Surely that covers everyone's room size?

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  6. It has a HDMI input which is a version of DVI-D. I could buy an expensive cable but at these resolutions, analogue RGB via VGA input is absolutely fine. Normal tele has been vaped. We watch very little tele anyway, only when something is on. At the moment 90% of what I'm watching are downloaded episodes of American shows. Hell, I'm even watching leeches of Spooks too.
    I've got a screen, I tried it. The only difference is that it's brighter (no bad thing of course) and the colour correction is perfect. However there's colour profiles in the projector and with a quick tweak I can have it looking like it looks on the screen anyway appart from the brightness. It's bright enough and, the screen constrains my viewing size and looks ugly as sin. So it's not being used. If I do anything, it'll be buying some specific projector screen paint and doing a big wall patch. If I was moving into a new house, I'd get something done properly like that but the environment concerned, it's not practical or desirable.
    Yes, the throw range is massive on the AE700. It's as much of an achievement in optics as it is the LCD stuff inside. Crumbs, I could put the thing right at the other side of the room for that matter. However that would be in front of the window and that might attract unwanted chav-attention.

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  7. Why not buy loads of those glitter glue pens and paint your 16:9 patch right now... today in fact!

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  8. ... or perhaps not. Here's the chaps who do the paint I'm banging on about. It's not cheap. I'm guessing they realised they could just price a couple of cans at the same cost of a screen since they also tend to be a complete rip off.

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  9. On Mats recommendation I too have this projector. Its ace. Nothing like watching T2 on a 100 inch screen from only 9 foot away. Quality is great. As mat says, xbox can look a bit naff cause of the poor res but I've a hi-def pack arriving this week so I'll let you know how much of an improvement it gives.
    One thing that did shock me tho. I've had the projector 4 days and we've used it for 30 hours (by 2 flatmates + I). The thing only has a 3000 hour bulb life. I did some calculations taking into account I essentially had a 3 day weekend and found that the bulb will die in 2 years! And they cost £300. Perhaps I should cut back some ;)

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  10. I was saying this to Lurks just the other week when he was laying out his plan for Projector World Domination over a pint at the local.
    Projector bulbs are the equivalent of printer cartridges; it's where the money lies. £300 for a spare lamp is huge money when you think about it - fortunately, modern projectors give you plenty of warning that a bulb is due for replacement.
    Oh, Lurks mentioned something regarding a setting which allows 10% less bulb usage or some such... this could potentially save you significant monies in the long run.

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  11. I was thinking this one through when I sorted out the new projector for my home cinema setup. The projector cost 550 quid in Tokyo (it'd have been well over a grand here - my god this country can be a rip-off for electronics) and new bulbs will set me back 170 quid.
    However, if I get two years of use out of a bulb... That's what, seven quid a month for getting to play games and watch movies on a screen which occupies a wider arc in my vision than the screen in my local Odeon? Bargain! It costs six quid a throw to go and see movies in the cinema, complete with chavtastic behaviour on behalf of the rest of the idiots in the room; in fact, since I usually go with a few friends, we're probably paying an average of 24 quid to the Odeon on a twice-monthly minimum basis. Which I'll happily no longer be paying.
    Plus, dear christ - Hero on a screen that size only a few feet from your face is a near-religious experience. Doubly so when there isn't some trackie-wearing scum three rows back complaining loudly to her friend Sharon on her cheap Nokia phone with stuck-on plastic gems that "it's all in fuckin' foreign and ya have to REAAAAAD the words..."
    Oh, obScreens - waste of time. They provide minimal picture improvement and cost more than your projector did. A tin of standard matte white paint will do the trick almost as well.

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  12. Yes, the economy mode is well over 3000 hours. It's well worth running in economy anyway because the fan is virtually inaudible. Lamps are unnecessarily expensive, no doubt, but I doubt that the cost of them forms a big part of the business plan like printers and ink carts.
    To second what Shinji is saying here; I initially didn't expect it to be this good. Watching TV shows, movies - you name it - is all genuinely cinematic and in the comfort of my own home. I've paid more money and gotten less with a pile of technological endeavors. It's actually going to eat into my gaming time now because I just vastly prefer being reclined on the shag pile rug and a beanbag in my lounge, casually flicking between 6 foot wide IRC windows and so on.
    If I'd have know how good this would have worked out - how much I'd enjoy it - my budget for the projector alone would have been over £2K. As it stands, I consider it a fecking bargain.
    So who wants to come 'round for a movie night then? :)

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  13. The official UK distributer of the paint is selling it double the price of the Canadian prices. www.poweredbyinnovation.co.uk/index.php?cPath=22_26For me it would cost £100 for uk prices or £50 for canuck prices plus shipping. Got to be worth it, even if you just paint it on a wood sheet.

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  14. Yeah saw that. I fancy some too, wanna go dutch on a big order? Actually, didn't you also want my Showcentre? It's just taking up space so if you give me the paint I need, you can have it.

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  15. Lurks,I too have one of these projectors. Bought it from a place in Lancashire. After doing the deal I asked how much he was selling lamps for and he said..."£150.00, but don't tell anyone !!"Anyway their web address is www.discounttv.co.uk/ and although they do not have any mention of the AE700 yet theu do stock and sell it.Might be wise to give them a call and ask about bulb costs, don't say I told you so though ;)Regards

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  16. Wow that's seriously great. I think it's the same bulb as is used from the AE100 onwards isn't it? I think I might just order one ahead of time to slap in the cupboard.
    It's my understanding they don't just go bang though. I think they change colour and/or get dimmer. Which is weird. Quite surprised at how much heat they pump out too, still - saves cranking the heating when watching a movie eh?

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  17. Actually those people didn't even bother to respond at all when I enquired about a replacement bulb. Strange business they run.

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  18. As you can see from the included pic at the top of this blog, I had a pretty rubbish couch. Some small cheap blue sofa bed/couch thing I got off Argos for no money. The missus wasn't happy with blocking all of the fire place and we both wanted a bigger couch and this weekend she galvanized us both into action. Our local furnature place had some nice leather jobs for not unreasonable amounts of money and would not only deliver it the next day (a Sunday) but if it couldn't physically be fit in our house - a very real concern - then they'd take it back. I've got to say, this is a big thumbs up for the local guy.
    After some serious efforts to get it into my house involving five dimentional topgraphy with the slight application of ninth-compact string loop quantum teleportation to get one corner in (I thought about a worm-hole but it might singe the carpet), miraculously it fit and by golly it's fantastic! We moved it back a ways which is fine since the projector has a mad amount of zoom on the lens. Freezer needed to ram up in a corner and there's not much space around the dining room table behind but all in, it's a drastic improvement and with the new addition of a stylish Logitech Dinovo wireless desktop on the coffee table - my home cinema set-up is complete!

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  19. BenDiscounttvcouk24 October 2004 at 14:54

    Sorry for interrupting, just to say that I'm sorry no-one replied to the e-mail (I'm not sure why, but we usually do within 24 hours) The bulb is a ET-LAE700 and not the one from the 100, it has to cope with a higher brightness level. Around £160-£200 would be a good price and you should expect to get around 3000-5000 hours based on current knowledge (of my clattery old AE100 amongst other things)

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  20. anyone know what the real story is on bulbs? my pj just told me to replace so i bought one but as there doen't seem to be anything wrong i ithought i'd wait. but maybe it's graduallt deteriorating and i haven't noticed. anyone know?

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  21. Wait until it blows up basically. There's no reason why not to. I think the bulk warning is just a timer?

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