Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Epson Home Cinema 1080UB Calibration

This projector is one of the heavy hitters in the hot sub-$3000 1080p projector market. I wrote about the Panasonic AE1000U recently and the AE2000U just found its way into my own theater, review to follow. This unit like the others in its class uses the latest C2Fine LCD panels from Epson. These panels offer superb black levels and a tack-sharp image as their top features. This unit did not disappoint in either area.

The menu system is quite large and covers every possible calibration control required. There are cuts and gains for grayscale, color management, 9-point gamma, lamp brightness, iris on/off, position and overscan and a very useful multi-level sharpness control.

I began with basic level adjustments. This projector really does render superb blacks. Pluge patterns were fully resolved with the setup level on 0 IRE. This allows passing below black and above white signals which are present in most DVD and Blu-ray content. I was able to fine-tune the color gamut using the excellent color management system which offers Hue, Saturation and Brightness for all six colors. Once I had made adjustments to cyan and magenta, the gamut and color decoding were right on the money.

Next I turned my attention to gamma and grayscale. As automatic irises play havoc with gamma measurements, I turned it off temporarily. My approach is to achieve a correct curve without the iris then turn it on viewing actual content to check black level detail. The 9-point gamma adjustment was really handy as I couldn’t achieve 2.2 even with the control set on 2.4! I lowered every point with the most adjustment in the low and mid areas. I finally settled on 2.12. Any higher and black would start to crush. The net effect was positive after I re-engaged the iris. Blacks were very inky with great shadow detail. The image really popped. This is one of the real justifications for a precise and thorough calibration. Without test equipment, it would be impossible to find the best balance between good black levels and a correct gamma curve.

Grayscale was a snap to adjust with a full set of cuts and gains available. Tracking was excellent, within 100k and under 0.5 DeltaC*. I checked the grayscale with both windows and full fields. This projector had excellent panel alignment and color uniformity. There was no perceptible variation across the screen.

With the proliferation of Blu-ray players outputting 24p and a compatible display such as this one, it pays to spend time with some motion patterns to ensure you’ve got everything set up correctly. This projector has excellent video processing so I wanted to take advantage of its inverse-telecine de-interlacing ability. This means setting the SD DVD player to output 1080i. The projector correctly discards the extra fields created by 3:2 pulldown and makes 24p from 60i. The end result is judder-free motion from standard DVD. Blu-ray output is obviously set to 1080p/24. Unless you have a really good SD DVD player or an outboard video processor, I recommend sending a compatible display 1080i whenever possible.

My customary post-calibration reality check was quite enjoyable. In fact, it stretched to about an hour of watching scenes from different movies! Switching back and forth between Blu-ray and DVD versions of The Fifth Element really showed off the projector’s excellent image and excellent video processing. The Blu-ray was obviously superior but the DVD looked great too. Even though Blu-ray has won the war, we’ll be watching DVDs for a few years to come. It pays to consider this when purchasing any display or player. This particular system had an Oppo 981 for DVD. I recommend this or the more expensive Denon 2930CI. None of the currently available Blu-ray players can upconvert DVD as well as the Oppo or Denon units. A projector like this deserves the best sources available. For anyone considering a new projector, you won’t be disappointed with the Epson 1080UB. With superior projectors costing at least 3 times as much, you’ll have plenty of cash left over for a calibration and some quality source components.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hitachi 51F500 Calibration

Though requests for CRT calibrations are less frequent these days, I always enjoy the unique qualities these TVs possess. I also enjoy the before and after effect. A CRT can really be transformed into a superb and accurate display capable of very high image quality. This TV is very similar to the F510 model but with a more limited user menu. The service menu however has all the same controls available in its extensive ISF mode to achieve a spectacular image.

When I arrived on site, this TV really need some work. Color was quite flat and the image was very soft. I began with a full manual convergence. I displayed the set’s internal grid and worked my way from the center spiraling outwards. This can be tricky because the guns are defocused during this operation. You really have to get up close and personal with the screen to see what you’re doing. It’s a painstaking process but quite necessary. After about 45 minutes, I was finished. The results were immediately apparent. Clarity was greatly improved and some color had returned to the image.

Moving on to the calibration portion; primaries measured very accurately as with most quality CRTs. The service menu allows turning off the individual guns so aligning the decoder was a breeze. Turning off several options in service eliminated the red and green push inherent in these TVs. Black levels were also very stable at all light levels. This TV has an excellent power supply. This is the most important component in any CRT or plasma display. An inferior power supply will allow black levels to change as light output or APL increases. Grayscale unfortunately was nowhere close, even on the Warm color temp setting. It was so blue, several IREs measured beyond the limit of my metering software (18,000K!). Fortunately, this was easy to fix in service. There are 3 color temp memories, high, medium and standard. I adjusted the standard one to D65.

Once the grayscale and decoder were dialed in a final tweak of brightness and contrast brought the image up to a very high standard. One small surprise: the Scan Velocity Modulation control actually made a positive improvement in image clarity. With Sharpness set to 0, the SVM did improve the picture without introducing any ringing. I usually leave these sorts of options turned off but in this case, Hitachi got it right.

We checked out the results with some hi-def satellite and Blu-ray from a Panasonic BD30. Both sources did a super job at rendering 1080i, the set’s native resolution. Blu-ray content was artifact-free and looked simply stunning. Color depth and dynamic range were every bit the equal of the best plasma panels out there. For those wondering, this TV had not been modified in any way. I have encountered some of these units where clients had lined the cabinet with light-absorbing Duvetyne and or removed the screen cover to cut glare. These mods can show an improvement but in the right viewing environment, they are not necessary. My client’s room had good light control so there were no issues with reflections on the screen or stray light entering the cabinet.

My client has owned this TV for 4 years and plans to hang on to it for a few more. With proper maintenance and adjustment, this is a totally reasonable goal. The image quality is top-notch and the TV is well-constructed. I would recommend adjusting convergence every 6 months and follow-up calibrations every 12-18 months to anyone looking to get a few more miles out of one of these TVs. The DVI (HDMI on the 510) connection is HDCP compliant so current HDMI sources will work. If you have one of these displays in good working order, consider an ISF calibration before you toss it out. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Choosing Components for Front-Projection

Now that my mancave has evolved into a theater, I have had to expand my research into front-projection systems. I use the word system because that’s exactly what it is. There is a projector and screen of course but there is a sometimes forgotten element - the room. Before you spend one dime, you have to know the exact conditions of the room; light control, mounting positions for projector and screen, wall and ceiling construction and of course, throw distance.

Ideally, a theater should have total light control. You should be able to make it totally dark. This includes light leaks around the entry door which can be considerable. Windows can be covered with blackout curtains but the best method is some sort of panel or shutter. In my case, I used acoustic panels to both cover the windows and act as sound treatment. To seal the door, I used some thin rubber strips in the door frame and a sweep for the door’s bottom edge. Not only is light sealed out but sound transmission through the door is nearly eliminated.

My next order of business was choosing a screen. I knew I wanted a fixed-frame screen for a few reasons. Since the room is a theater, I don’t need to retract the screen at any time. I also wanted a wide, light absorbing frame. Lastly, the highest image quality comes with a perfectly flat screen. I chose Carada based on excellent reviews, value and design. Their Criterion Series screens have a 3.25” wide by 1.5” deep extruded aluminum frame covered with a velvet-like material they call “Black Hole Trim.” They are not exaggerating about this. It really does absorb all light. I’ll be able to take the image right to the edge when I have the projector set up. This frame is extremely stiff. The screen can’t help but be perfectly flat. The mounting system allows the screen to hang on a bracket so if the wall isn’t flat (mine certainly isn’t) the screen still will be. The screen material is also important. Carada offers three: high-contrast gray, cinema white and brilliant white. The gray has a gain of .8 and will improve contrast at the expense of light output. Black levels will be very good with this material. Cinema white has a 1.0 gain which means it will be completely neutral. Brilliant white (my choice) has a gain of 1.4. I do like bright whites and 1.4 is not such a large increase in light output. Given that I measured .02fl on a 0 IRE field from an AE1000, a gain of 1.4 will give me .028fl, still quite black!

My choices in projectors started with price. I wanted to spend under $3000. Fortunately, there are many excellent models to choose from. The top models from Epson, Panasonic, Sanyo and Mitsubishi all have just the right attributes for a small theater like mine. Using the excellent throw distance calculator on ProjectorPeople.com, I determined the Panasonic AE2000U could project a 92” image within my possible throw of about 11 feet. I also thought very hard about mounting options. Certainly a ceiling mount would work but I have some obstacles. The walls in my house are old-world plaster making stud finding a real challenge. I certainly would need to attach a ceiling mount to the joist for safety’s sake. I also have an 8’6” ceiling in the theater. Putting the projector that high would be too far above the screen top for my taste. Even though the Panasonic has a large vertical lens shift range, I’d rather keep the projector closer to screen center for better uniformity. I decided to go with a shelf about 6 feet high. The shelf gives me another bonus: adjustability. To achieve the best image, you need to have the projector and screen perfectly on plane both vertically and horizontally. You can do this with a ceiling mount but you have to be sure to buy one that allows pitch, yaw and rotation adjustments.

There are of course other considerations with projector models, namely, black level quality, color accuracy, image clarity and light output. While the SMPTE standard for cinema is 16 foot-lamberts with no film in the projector, many professionals are recommending 20fl peak. The Panasonic AE2000U can achieve this. By using the formula: fl=(lumens/screen area in square feet)*gain, a peak reading of 402 lumens with a 92”, 16:9 (25 square feet), 1.4 gain screen yields 22.5fl, more than enough. The color accuracy is certainly there with the 2000 and black levels are superb. This projector uses the same D7 C2fine panels as the Epson Ultra-Black series. Black levels I measured from an AE1000U were the same as a good plasma panel.

My final consideration is the room’s construction. As I said, my walls are plaster and therefore more difficult to work with than drywall. I have the added challenge of mounting the screen over a window. The window is totally covered with black acoustic panels and I’ll be covering the rest of the wall behind the screen with black burlap. This will absorb any light that shines through the screen material. These reflections can alter the color if your walls are not perfectly color-neutral. Many installers use either flat black paint or black carpet to do solve this problem. To find studs to support the projector shelf and screen brackets, I’ll drill small holes. The location for the shelf is right over an electrical outlet. There is a stud on one side or the other which I’ll confirm by removing the wall plate. Once I confirm the stud’s location, I’ll use 3.5” lag bolts to secure everything.

All this information is out there in various places on the internet. Hopefully, this will tie together a few things for those of you interested in going to front-projection. Prices and quality have never been better and you don’t need a huge room to have a huge screen. I’ll never have to go to the movies again!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Panasonic TH-42PH9UK Pro Plasma Calibration

The plasma market is dominated by just 2 manufacturers, Panasonic and Pioneer. I have already covered the Kuro 5010FD and the Panasonic PZ700U. The third TV vying for alpha status in this hot segment is the professional line of Panasonic plasmas. There are 720p and 1080p models ranging from 37 to 103 inches. Today’s subject is the 42-inch, 720p PH9UK.

The pro-Panasonic models are strictly monitors. There is no internal tuner or speakers. You can buy add-on speakers which bolt to the sides of the panel for about $600. You’ll also need to add a pedestal stand or a wall-mount bracket. Inputs are customizable with 3 slots for “blades” or terminal boards. You can have different combinations of HDMI and analog inputs to suit your particular system. The newest models, the PF10 series, come with a dual HDMI board that accepts 24p signals. This particular PH9 had a single HDMI input and a component input, both of which I calibrated.

Each input has its own memory for all settings which is very nice. There are a complete set of controls in the user menu for grayscale and gamma. In addition you can adjust image size and position for each scan rate independently. Upon setting up my pattern generator, the first thing I noticed was the extremely stable black levels. There was no visible change in the pluge patterns as I moved through different APL patterns. The DC restoration was every bit the equal of a Pioneer Kuro. Color primaries were slightly oversaturated but the decoding was spot on at factory defaults. Rec 709 colorspace was used for all scan rates. Grayscale was fair at the warm color temp setting. Once the white balance controls were adjusted, tracking was within 100k of D65 from 20-100 IRE. There are only red and blue controls for high and low but they were sufficient to achieve a nearly perfect grayscale. The newer models have a full set of RGB cuts and gains. There is a gamma control which has 4 settings. Default is 2.2 but to actually achieve a 2.2 gamma, I had to set it on 2.4. The gamma curve was absolutely perfect at all scan rates on both component and HDMI. I was able to set contrast fairly high without any color shift. This gave me a bright, punchy image upon completion of my work.

The end result was a reference-quality image for both HD and SD. These panels are used professionally as mastering monitors for a good reason. The video processing on this panel is excellent. It did quite well with the motion tests on Avia Pro. Upconversion of SD material was very good. Since this panel is actually 1366x768, all material is scaled including 720p content. It will accept 1080i signals. I can’t help but recommend this and all pro-Panasonic panels as the value leader. A 50-inch PF10UK can be had for under $2500, accepts 1080p/24 and is a rugged, well-built TV. The 720p panels are even cheaper with the 50-inch coming in at under $1500. You can’t go wrong with any panel from either Panasonic or Pioneer. But you’re looking for the most display for the money and you don’t need speakers or a tuner, the pro-Panasonics can’t be beat.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!