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Sunday, March 23, 2014

JVC DLA-X700R review: The best projector picture we've ever reviewed

The Good The JVC DLA-X700R delivered the best overall picture quality of any projector we've ever tested, as deep, inky black levels and brighter highlights lead to superb contrast. It has extremely accurate, well-saturated color; comprehensive video processing, calibration, and setup options; whisper-quiet operation in Low lamp mode; no-nonsense minimalist design; and optional RF 3D emitter compatible with cheaper third-party glasses.
The Bad Extremely expensive and a worse value than the JVC DLA-X35; relatively limited light output, e-Shift and 4K input capability don't improve picture quality; inaccurate pre-calibration picture settings; doesn't include accessories necessary to watch 3D.
The Bottom Line If you can afford the JVC DLA-X700R -- and the dedicated room, high-quality screen, and professional calibration required to make it shine -- its spectacular picture quality is worth the steep investment.
OK, so we haven't reviewed this projector's even-more-expensive sibling the DLA-X900R, nor either of Sony's 4K projectors the VPL-HW600 or VW1100ES, nor any number of even more luxurious projectors from the likes of Sim2, Runco, etc. Until now the most expensive projector we've reviewed cost half as much as this one. So "best projector picture we've ever reviewed" might not equate to Best Projector Ever in the same way as some headlines I've written.
Those caveats aside, I'll be surprised if I review a more-expensive PJ than the X700R this year, especially since Sony is seemingly in no hurry to send me an HW600 (yes, I've asked). I'd also be flabbergasted if any cheaper projector could match the X700R's picture. JVC and Sony are the main projector makers to employ LCoS-based light engines, which are kings of projector black level -- and thus contrast, the most important picture quality factor. The X700R's contrast is so good I suspect it might even eclipse the resolution advantage of those 4K Sonys, although there's no way to tell until I can test one.
If money happens to be an object, on the other hand, you should know that JVC's cheapest LCoS-based projector, the DLA-X35, comes pretty close to the X700R's picture quality for less than half the price. No, it's not as good, but it's still awesome, and hands-down a better value. Like most of the Best things in life, the X700R is going to cost you.
Design
The JVC DLA-X700R exudes the same seriousness as the DLA-X35; in fact, the two projectors look almost identical despite the large price disparity. The metallic case is big and heavy enough (17.9 inches wide by 18.6 inches deep by 7 inches high and 33 pounds) to mean business. The forward-facing vents flanking the central cyclopean lens are the only items remotely akin to adornment. There are no external dials for focus, zoom and/or lens shift (everything is remote controlled), and JVC stashed the few on-unit buttons on the back panel, near the inputs, for a very clean overall look.
Sarah Tew/CNET
The only exterior difference between X35 and the X700 is the finish of the case: the X35 is matte black, compared to the slicker, glossy black of the X700. As a result, the X35 seems a bit more industrial and the X700 slightly classier. The latter also gets topside "THX 3D Display" and "ISF CCC" logos.
Sarah Tew/CNET
The well-designed clicker is medium-sized, backlit and includes all of the direct-access buttons I want. I especially appreciated the "hide" key to black out the image without having to shut down the projector. Think of it as a video version of "mute."
Sarah Tew/CNET
The menu system is sparse, industrial-looking yet multilayered, and certainly more intimidating to newcomers than the menus on Sony's projectors, for example. It's easy enough to navigate once you figure out the logic, but finding certain functions can be a chore. Happily most are available as direct-access buttons from the remote.
Key TV features
Projection technologyD-ILA (LCoS)Native resolution1920x1080 (1080p with e-Shift)
Lumens rating1,300Iris controlYes
3D technologyActive3D glasses includedNo
Lens shiftHorizontal and verticalZoom and focusPower (remote)
Lamp lifespan4000 hoursReplacement lamp cost$499 (model PK-L2312U)
Other:Requires separate RF emitter for 3D (model PK-EM2G, $99); Optional 3D glasses (model PK-AG3G, $179); also works with cheaper 3rd party RF glasses
Features
JVC's D-ILA technology is a branded version of LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) three-chip projection tech. Sony also uses an LCoS variant which it calls SXRD. Unlike Sony, however, with units like the VPL-HW600, JVC has yet to market a full 4K projector. Its substitute for actual 4K resolution is the "e-Shift" technology on step-up models like the DLA-X700R.
Sarah Tew/CNET
The idea behind e-Shift is to use conventional 1080p resolution D-ILA chips -- and make no mistake, this is a 1080p resolution projector -- to try to approach closer to true 4K resolution. JVC says it "shifts sub-frames by 1/2 pixel both vertically and horizontally to achieve 4 times the pixel density of the original content," which "boosts definition to a higher level." JVC's image processing, which it calls Multiple Pixel Control, is said to aid in the process. The projector can also accept and display a 4K input signal.
The X700R and its line-mates, namely the DLA-X500R ($4,999) and DLA-X900R ($11,999) improve upon previous e-Shift models with an all-new D-ILA chip, with smaller gaps between the pixels and the potential for brighter images. The main differences between the three projectors are in native contrast ratio specs.
Sarah Tew/CNET
Unlike many projectors, including much less-expensive ones, the JVC DLA-X700R still requires you to spend extra for the privilege of watching 3D. You'll need to buy one external emitter ($99) and as many pairs of active-shutter glasses as you'll need for each viewer; none are included.
JVC's PK-EM2 RF emitter adheres to the Full HD 3D standard, making the projector compatible not only with JVC's insanely overpriced glasses ($180), but also with glasses from other makers that comply with the standard. I tested the X35 last year with the three pairs I had in-house and all worked fine, including the $20 Samsung SSG-4100GBs and the excellent $60 Panasonic TY-ER3D4MUs. I also tested the DLA-X700R with a pair of the 2013 Samsung SSG-5100GBs, and again they worked fine; I'd be very surprised if the current $16 Samsung SSG-5150GBs didn't work too.
Unlike some projectors, for example the Sony VPL-HW55ES, the JVC doesn't come with an extra lamp. Sony's lamps are also about $150 cheaper at current online prices -- although JVC claims an extra 1,000 hours of lamp life, for what it's worth.
Setup:Thanks to the four independently-adjustable legs, and the JVC's precise power zoom, focus and lens shift, setup was a breeze. The generous lens shift should accommodate numerous installations, in particular tricky ceilings, without having to resort to complex extended mounts. The multi-position lens memory is a boon for configuring the projector to handle different types of content (16:9 vs. Cinemascope, etc), and for people with CinemaScope screens and anamorphic lenses who want to take advantage of the JVC's anamorphic scaling feature.
Sarah Tew/CNET
Another cool extra is "screen modes," which are pre-configured tweaks designed to match the image more closely to a variety of commercial screens (PDF). As I expect from a three-chip projector in this range there's also a panel alignment control, which I didn't need to use since there were no panel alignment issues on my sample. JVC also deserves credit for the extensive setup notes on its Web site.
Picture settings: The JVC's selection of picture settings is very good, albeit not quite as comprehensive as that of many projectors. Its numerous picture presets aren't especially accurate, even THX, but customization options abound.
Strangely the custom gamma control on the X700R isn't quite as exacting as that of the step-down X35. Instead of the multipoint settings of that unit that allow direct adjustment of various light levels, the X700R has a set of sliders labeled "Picture Tone," "Dark Level" and "White Level" that work in conjunction with a target gamma to allow more general fine-tuning. Unfortunately, despite plenty of time trying, I couldn't get it as close to my target BT1886 curve as I would have liked.
Sarah Tew/CNET
Also absent is a multipoint grayscale control -- you only get the standard two points. On the other hand, and unlike the X35, there's a full color management system, and it worked well. After calibration the X700R's color was exceedingly accurate, with the exception of blue.
Another option not available on last year's JVC projectors is an auto iris. It worked great in practice to improve black levels in dark scenes without any noticeable, abrupt changes, so I kept it turned to its most aggressive Auto 1 setting for testing.
Connectivity:The back-panel complement offer two HDMI. It's missing both the X35's component video input and an analog PC input. There are RS-232 and LAN ports for custom remote control systems, a 12 volt trigger for accessories like retractable screens, and the proprietary connection for JVC's 3D emitters.
Picture quality
The DLA-X700R's main claim to fame is contrast, a.k.a the most important factor in picture quality. It showed the deepest, inkiest, most realistic level of black we've ever tested on a projector, combined with punchy, dynamic whites. Color accuracy was strong and the saturation and lushness of color, again due in part to stellar contrast, was stronger. You could chalk its e-Shift faux-4K processing up as No Big Deal, or even a minor black mark, but you can always leave it turned off. In fact the X700R's adjustability overall is another big strength, aside from a wonky new gamma control. Finally it's whisper-quiet, as long as you don't use the High lamp mode, which you won't need in an appropriately dark room anyway.
The X700R doesn't get as bright as many projectors we've tested, but that's pretty much its only weakness. It's not really even a weakness, since in a dedicated home theater environment it can get plenty bright enough to achieve its best-in-class contrast with all but the largest screens.
One note before I proceed. I always perform direct comparisons between projectors I have available on the same screen. Usually doing so involves manually blocking the light from all of them except one, then blocking that one and unblocking another, so I can compare the same scene. Comparing the two JVC projectors was much easier since they both responded to the same "Hide" (video mute) command from the remote control. Thus I was able to toggle between the two with the press of a button, allowing quicker, better direct comparisons on the same screen.
Comparison models (details)
JVC DLA-X35D-ILA (LCoS) projector
Epson Home Cinema 5030UBLCD projector
Black level and white level:The JVC DLA-X700R delivered the punchiest, highest-contrast image of any projector I've ever tested. That said, in direct comparison against the second-best, JVC's DLA-X35, it wasn't mind-blowingly superior. Both JVCs handily beat the Epson 5030 in this area, however.
My first test material, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," is a black level torture test. In the scenes of the assault on Hogwarts, the X700R did appear a bit darker than the X35 in the darkest areas, but I really had to strain to tell the difference. Details in shadows were almost identical, from the robes of the wizards to the extremely dark shot of the castle on the hill.
A bit later, in the somewhat brighter Room of Requirement scenes, the X700R further widened the distance between it and the X35. The highlights, for example the necklace and the reflections from the furniture, appeared brighter while the black levels remained just inky, providing more contrast and punch. Switching gears to the early scenes of "Drive," another dark tour de force, the contrast advantage of the X700R was even more apparent, again the result of brighter highlights and blacks that remained deep and inky.
The advantage intensified in bright scenes, like the driver's family ride along the LA river, where the X700R really outshone its cheaper brother. Spot measurements confirmed it was visibly brighter in highlights, despite the fact that they were both calibrated to the same maximum light output and gamma targets. I was using the Auto iris setting on the X700R, a feature the X35 lacks, and the X700R's new D-ILA engine might also be a contributor.
Outside of a direct comparison, however, I'd be hard-pressed to pick out which one was which in terms of contrast; the X35 is just that good. Shadow detail between the two JVCs was equally superb after calibration, although I'd give a very slight edge to the Epson here -- a small victory in the face of the JVCs' distinct advantage in black level.
As expected, however, the Epson did enjoy its own marked advantage in light output over the X700R, and even the X35 was a tad brighter than its JVC line-mate. With a full-screen white pattern in the brightest default picture modes (Stage for the JVCs and Dynamic for the Epson), the X700R measured 32.7 fL while the X35 measured 39.1 and the Epson a whopping 82. In lumens, a measurement that eliminates the variable of my screen, that works out to 1.074, 1,284 and 2,694 lumens, respectively (thanks to Chris Heinonen for the lumens calculator).
Color accuracy:Here's an area where the more exact calibration controls of the X700R seemed to pay more dividends, and combined with its extra punch, which also translated to an advantage in color saturation. Its color outperformed both the X35 and the Epson.
The lushness and saturation advantage was immediately apparent after the driver's family stopped alongside the brook, for example, where the warmth of the golden-hour trees and grasses, along with the sun-touched skin of his wife and kid, looked more realistic and satisfying than on the others.
In terms of measurements the X700R did fall very slightly short of the X35's grayscale, but both averaged below the nominal threshold for perception (delta errors of 3). Its main color issue was in blue saturation, something the CMS couldn't address. As blue color errors are typically the least-visible in program material, I don't consider it a major issue--especially because bue luminance was still below Delta 3.
Video processing:The X700R's e-Shift technology is essentially fancy video processing, and while it has its good and bad points, the latter outweigh the former to the extent that true videophiles--you know, the ones who pay eight grand for a home theater projector--will likely want to leave it diabled. Happily, JVC provides the option to do just that in the "MPC" (Multi PIxel Control) menu, along with a few other controls. For the record, we conducted the tests below with those MPC controls, namely Enhance, Dynamic Contrast, Smoothing and NR, zeroed out in an attempt to most closely preserve the source material.
The main advantage to e-Shift in my testing was the elimination of the visible pixel grid when seen from very close distances. From a seat about 7 feet from my 120-inch diagonal screen (around 70 percent of the screen's diagonal) I could barely begin to make out the faint grid of pixels in some material on the 1080p-only X35, or when e-Shift was turned off on the X700R. Turning it on rendered the grid invisible until I got to about two feet from the screen. Of course, most setups will have seating further back than 70 percent of the screen's diagonal, rendering the most visible advantage of e-Shift essentially moot.
Even from that close distance I didn't see any increase in visible detail when I engaged e-Shift, or when I switched back and forth quickly between the X35 and the e-Shifted X700R. I looked carefully at some of the most detailed, revealing scenes from "Sarsara," for example the monks' mandala in Chapter 4 and the cliff dwellings in Chapter 5, and there was no real difference in sharpness or resolution.
On the other hand I did notice a couple of small artifacts seemingly caused by e-Shift. As the camera moved over the prayer wheel right before the children spin it (9:26), a horizontal edge of the gold scrollwork shimmered slightly--an effect that disappeared when I disabled e-Shift or watched the X35. I also saw more movement and shimmer in the slats of the computer monitors (18:35) with e-Shift on. Yes, both were subtle, and the only artifacts I saw in program material over hours of viewing, but combined with the artifacts I witnessed in test patterns, I'd recommend disabling e-Shift for peak performance unless you're sitting quite close or very sensitive to pixel grid effects.
Turning to test patterns I noticed e-Shift impaired the projector's motion resolution in certain settings. When I engaged smoothing (aka the Soap Opera Effect) by turning Clear Motion Drive to the Low position with e-Shift turned on, motion resolution dropped. In Low the projector mustered 600 lines with e-Shift off and 300 with it on. On the other hand e-Shift didn't have any apparent effect on my standard motion resolution test in either the Off or High Clear Motion Drive settings. Still, if you're sensitive to motion blur and want to use a smoothing setting to offset it, either avoid Low or turn off e-Shift.
I also subjected the JVC to a variety of motion patterns from the "Spears and Munsil HD Benchmark," and in Low and High positions e-Shift generally created more artifacts. In the demanding 48 pixel-per-frame Resolution patterns, for example, there was more breakup in both modes with e-Shift engaged. In the Off position, on the other hand, these patterns looked pretty much the same whether e-Shift was on or off.
In case you're wondering, with film-based sources I prefer the overall look of Low to High, and Off to either one. The JVC reproduced the cadence of 1080p/24 without a hitch when in the Off position. In the other two positions, as usual, smoothing was quite pronounced, and occasionally introduced haloing and other artifacts in program material.
The X700R also offers an "Inverse Telecine" mode under Clear Motion Drive, designed to extract proper film cadence from 60i/60p images, namely DVD and TV, originally shot on film. In test patterns, including our standard HQV de-interlacing test and a series of more demanding tests from "Spears," the JVC did quite well. I didn't see any difference between its performance in Off or Inverse Telecine mode, however, so we'd just leave it turned to Off.
The X700R's input lag measured a pathetic 125ms, which is nearly the worst we've ever tested. I used the post-calibration User mode for this test since the projector lacks a dedicated Game mode. Disabling e-Shift or Clear Motion Drive didn't have any major effect.
4K sources:One of the advertised benefits of JVC's e-Shift-equipped projectors is the ability to accept 4K sources. I don't have many such sources on hand, but I used what I could to evaluate whether there's any benefit to 4K compared to 1080p sources on this projector. In short, I didn't see any.
Thanks to David Mackenzie of HDTVTest, I have a few pieces of the same footage in both 4K (3,840x2,160) and 1080p (1,920x1,080) format, which I used to compare the e-Shifted X700A directly to the standard 1080p X35. I connected each to separate computers playing back the same piece of content simultaneously at native resolution and, thanks to the Hide function described above, switched quickly back and forth between the two to compare. Aside from differences in color, they looked basically the same -- there was no additional detail discernible in the 4K version.
For what it's worth the color difference was marked, however, with the X700R looking quite a bit more saturated, and seemingly less accurate, overall. I suspect that has something to do with my calibration for standard 1080p not translating well for those particular 4K sources. Regardless, my main takeaway is that, based on the limited content I compared, there doesn't seem to be much benefit to feeding the X700R a 4K source compared to a 1080p one.
Bright lighting:As I said with the X35 -- and it applies even more in the higher-performance X700R's case -- it's a huge waste of this projector's potential to have any lights on in the room. If you must, however, know that it's not going to fare as well as something like the Epson or the BenQ W1070. On our 120-inch diagonal Stewart StudioTek 130 screen, the image predictably looked very washed-out, and glare from the overhead lighting was visible.
It's worth noting that the JVC doesn't have a mode obviously designated for brighter viewing environments; the closest I saw was "Stage." Fan noise is also pretty loud on the JVC you engage the "High" lamp power modes, which is a prerequisite for bright-room viewing. Long story short: if you don't have a room you'll be keeping essentially lightless for most of your projector viewing sessions, skip this home theater powerhouse and get a cheaper, brighter projector.
3D:Although not quite the equal of the bright, nearly crosstalk-free Epson in this arena, the JVC X700R was a very good performer with 3D sources -- and equal in general to the X35. I checked out "Hugo" (still one of the most demanding 3D Blu-rays with its complex shots and extreme depth), and that bugaboo of active 3D, crosstalk, was comfortably minimized by both JVCs.
As Hugo's gaze falls on Georges Méliès from his perch behind the clock, for example, the tinker's sleeve and collar show only a bit of the double image. Later, as Hugo reaches for the toy, his popped-out hand again showed only minimal ghosting. Same for the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49) and the head of the inspector as he threatens Hugo (44:27). Both JVC projectors looked basically identical in terms of crosstalk, but neither reduced ghosting quite as well as the Epson.
Color and black levels were very good in the default THX 3D setting (we don't calibrate for 3D sources). JVC's specs were quite comfortable, even over my prescription glasses, and I preferred their fit to Epson's glasses somewhat. The JVC glasses also fit much better than the flimsy Samsungs. On the other hand the Samsung glasses' picture quality wasn't markedly worse than the JVCs'.
TestResultScore
Black luminance (0%)0.001Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%)2.21Average
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)1.283Good
Dark gray error (20%)1.263Good
Bright gray error (70%)1.588Good
Avg. color error2.051Good
Red error1.646 1.305Poor
Green error1.305Good
Blue error2.328Good
Cyan error1.168Good
Magenta error3.125Average
Yellow error2.328Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)PassGood
1080i De-interlacing (film)PassGood
Motion resolution (max)900Good
Motion resolution (dejudder off)300Poor
Input lag (Game mode)125Average
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