Review: Epson EH-TW9400W home theatre projector
The number of pixels in UHD projectors is typically little more than marketing guff. Stephen Dawson looks at what Epson is doing outside pixel count to bring 4K imagery home.
There is a widening realisation among home entertainment manufacturers that the main advantage of UltraHD Blu-ray over regular Blu-ray is not the greater number of pixels. To be sure, 8.3 megapixels versus 4.1 is golden marketing material.
But even with the latest movies produced with the best modern technology, the higher resolution is generally far from obvious and often barely discernible.
So, Epson is promoting its EH-TW9400W for its other UltraHD Blu-ray-related virtues: better handling of HDR and a wider colour gamut.
What it is
This isn’t to say that Epson is total ignoring UltraHD resolution. The EH-TW9400W uses Epson’s pixel shifting technology in an attempt to create 8.3 million pixels from panels of 2.1 million pixels. This works by delivering one quarter of the pixels, then moving the panels (or, perhaps, some other element in the optical path) a tiny distance, delivering the next one quarter of the pixels, and repeating the process twice more. All this happens at insanely high speeds so that all four positions can be completed within the period of one frame. With 24fps video, that’s a touch over 10 milliseconds – 1/100th of a second – per position.
I’ve been unimpressed with this approach in the past. We’ll see shortly whether it has improved now.
Epson does have native 4K technology, I should add, but is currently only using it in specialised applications. It takes the view that the better subjective home theatre experience is to be obtained if there’s more attention to other things, such as brightness. And it believes that 4K panels are necessarily less bright than regular full-HD ones.
The attention it has paid to brightness leaves this projector with a 2,600lm brightness rating. Epson points out that with its three-panel LCD light engine, the brightness is the same in colour as it is in just pure white. The lamp is a conventional Ultra High Pressure model, drawing 250W. It defaults to a mid-level brightness. It’s rated at 3,500 hours in full power mode and 5,000 hours in economy mode.
The projector has a dynamic iris to adjust brightness level according to the overall scene requirements. That can improve the subjective experience in dark scenes. Epson rates the dynamic contrast ratio at an extraordinary 1,200,000:1.
The signal production engine is packed behind high quality and flexible glass. It provides a lens shift of up to 96% either way vertically, plus 47% horizontally. The lens has a zoom range of 2.1:1. All that allows a lot of flexibility in projector placement without having the resort to picture-damaging features, such as keystone adjustment. For a 100’ screen, the projector can be sited between 3m and 6.3m away to fill the screen.
All those adjustments – zoom, focus, horizontal and vertical lens shift – are powered, and thus can be adjusted from the remote control. There are 10 memory presets for them. For the most part I don’t see much value in presets for a large projector, clearly designed for permanent installation. Perhaps the only exception might be for those keen on using a retractable anamorphic lens to allow Constant-Image-Height showing of widescreen movies.
The projector has two HDMI inputs on its body, both of which can accept UltraHD, HDR, BT.2020 signals with 4:4:4 colour resolution. There’s also RS-232C and Ethernet for control, and D-SUB15. The retention of this ancient analogue socket makes me wonder what I’m missing. I would have thought that it would have long since become obsolete.
But what differentiates this model from the Epson EH-TW9400 is the wireless signal transmission. This consists of a receiver built into the projector and a separate transmitter included with it. They use the WirelessHD protocol. That uses a 7GHz-wide channel in the 60GHz ‘extremely high frequency’ band. Such high frequencies have the advantage of a quite short propagation distance. Epson recommends a maximum of ten metres between transmitter and receiver. The short distances and line-of-sight requirement means that there won’t be interference with neighbours.
However, it remains to be seen how well WirelessHD will co-exist with forthcoming WiFi standards, some of which also include a 7GHz-wide channel on the 60GHz band.
As we’ll see, this imposes a slight limitation on signal standards. Nonetheless, I’m certain there are plenty of installations in which cabling is highly impractical or very expensive. In those cases, this could be a useful trade off.
The transmitter has four HDMI inputs, one of them with support for MHL connections. Do any phones actually support MHL? It is connected to the source by means of HDMI. There’s a HDMI passthrough socket for connection to a TV, and also an optical digital audio output for connecting to a sound system. With most installations, though, the transmitter would be receiving its signal from the home theatre receiver, not the original source device.
The IR remote control features backlit keys and was powerful enough to reliably control the projector simply by pointing it at the projection screen. The projector does have 3D capabilities. Optional glasses are required to use it.
Using a range of UltraHD Blu-ray discs, the picture quality was exceptionally good. Colour was bright and accurate. There are plenty of adjustments for finer calibration, should you so desire.
By default, the dynamic iris was not in play. For the most part I left it off. There was a little brightness pumping when it was operating, and I found dark scenes impressively deep without the iris. The human eye cannot distinguish a very wide range of brightness when the different levels are in close proximity. And even in dark scenes, the black levels were on the right side of my subjective blackness threshold. On the wrong side of that threshold, a scene looks too light, too bright. It takes one out of the moment, distracting one’s attention. That’s something to which I’m probably more prone than most. On the right side of the threshold, as this projector was, you just don’t notice that the black isn’t technically perfect. It doesn’t draw attention to itself.
That good solid black underpinning contributed to the colour. As, no doubt, did the 100% coverage of the DCI-P3 colour gamut, used as a standard for digital cinema.
Most of the time I went for the lower light output, principally because of the concomitant reduction in fan noise. It wasn’t bad in high output mode, but nearly completely inaudible in Eco mode.
When it came to ultimate resolution, the best I can say is that the projector hinted at UltraHD, 3,840 by 2,160 pixels of resolution. It was only the most subtle of hints.
The problem, if that’s what it is, is that Epson’s panels are designed to have the thinnest possible gaps between the pixels. That’s what you want with a 1080p projector. It reduces, even eliminates, the ‘screen door effect’ of yore. But it also means that there’s no ‘space’ to shift the UHD pixels into. Consequently, each UHD pixel overlays almost half of each neighbour.
That said, this projector does not employ the artificial sharpening technology used by some of its predecessors. In attempting to face higher resolution, they used to produce visible picture damage. This one doesn’t.
Does the projector’s inability to resolve down to individual UHD pixels matter? I’m not sure. As I mentioned, UHD discs are usually not obviously higher in detail than their FullHD equivalents. I’d guess that the bigger that the image is projected, and the sharper the content being used, the more visible it would be were the projector capable of discretely reproducing each individual pixel. The one obvious difference was the reduction in visible grain in the UltraHD version of the original Ghostbusters movie.
The WirelessHD connection was solid and reliable over the five-metre range in my office between transmitter and projector. Even standing between the two didn’t interrupt proceedings. However, the signal standards negotiated between the projector and the UHD Blu-ray player tended to be lower when WirelessHD were being used, compared to a wired connection. Over physical cable, the player was delivering 4:4:4 resolution colour with 12 bits of depth, HDR and BT.2020. Over WirelessHD the 4:4:4 was reduced to 4:2:2.
With a 60fps UltraHD Blu-ray, only an 8-bit signal was possible, while with wire it was 12 bits.
The projector has motion smoothing. It’s not quite up to the current best practice, not working with UltraHD at all, and producing noticeable distortion in some elements of the picture with Blu-ray content.
One remaining weakness was so-so progressive scan conversion with 50Hz interlaced input. More elements of my various test clips in both 576i50 and 1080i50 were incorrectly interpreted as video-sourced, when they were really film-sourced, than in the norm these days. Epson projectors used to allow one to force film-mode deinterlacing, but no more it seems. That said, the projector didn’t do anything unfortunate like turn the 50Hz input into 60Hz output, so moving content remained quite smooth.
Regardless of the UHD thing, the Epson EH-TW9400W produces an excellent picture at a very reasonable price, and has perhaps the greatest installation flexibility on the market.