This thing is bright. Like the excellent Epson 5010 I reviewed a few months ago, the 850HD phlings some photons. In the Normal mode, I measured 51.71 footlamberts on my 102-inch 1.0-gain screen. That makes it one of the brightest projectors I’ve ever measured, at any price. Impressive.
However, the black level is right terrible. Without the auto iris, the Normal mode produced 0.273 ftL. That’s not black, that’s light gray. This means a contrast ratio of 189:1. In the ECO mode, the black level improves slightly to 0.215. With the corresponding drop in light output, 40.42 ftL, the contrast ratio is 188:1. It’s clear contrast ratio and black level are what you get when you spend more money. The 5010 had a contrast ratio of 4,980:1, and that’s on the low end for a projector. I’ve measured some in the tens of thousands.
There is an auto iris, which lowers the light output with dark images, and leaves it be with bright images. For example, in the ECO mode it lowers the black level to 0.016, while letting a little more light out, 40.58, for a dynamic contrast ratio of 2536:1. However, it is extremely slow acting, so you’re going to see it pulse with the image. It’s also rather loud. Like all such systems, it does nothing to the contrast ratio within a scene. So you’re looking at something like 188:1 at any given instant.
The Medium color temperature setting is shockingly close to D6500, at least with bright images. Darker images are definitely cooler. There’s no color temperature adjustment, sadly.
Color accuracy isn’t great, with all the points slightly off SMPTE spec. However, you can calibrate this somewhat in the color management system. I wouldn’t call the colors accurate per se, but they were pretty close and much closer than before.
So how does all this look? Well, kind of a mixed bag, if I’m honest. The contrast ratio/black level really hinders the picture quality. The image is rather flat and washed out. Blacks are noticeably gray. However, it is so tremendously bright, that it’s still quite watchable. I’m not saying brightness cures all ills, but if it were dim and washed out, it would be unwatchable.
The colors — even when dialed in as much as can be given the available adjustments — still aren’t quite perfect. That’s a tall order, I know, as even high-end displays often have highly inaccurate color. I got it looking acceptable enough with some tweaking.
Watching X-Men: First Class and a few episodes of Game of Thrones, I found the image, overall, surprisingly clean and noise free, though as mentioned the colors looked a little off, and with GoT the dark scenes looked sub-par in their gray flatness.
I checked the 850HD's stern-mounted retractable iPod dock. The image was definitely SD, though this is likely due to my iPod Touch only storing 853x480 video. I don’t have an iPad to test otherwise, and no info is available on the Epson website as to whether it will play back HD videos from an iWhatever. I’ve emailed them, and will update as soon as I hear.
A word or 88 on resolution: The 850HD is 1280x800. While this is slightly greater than 720p, it’s also not 16x9. If you’re watching 16x9 material, you’re going to have thin black bars on the top and bottom. I’d recommend just zooming the projector out slightly so the black bars aren’t on the screen, as I did. Technically the projector would have measured slightly brighter had I zoomed in enough to fill the screen. I felt 16x9 on 16x9 was a more realistic measurement. Feel free to disagree, but I’m moving on.
What we haven’t really talked about is a screen. I’m sure most people using the 850HD are going to project it on a wall, or a sheet. That’s fine, I guess, but you’re going to see every bit of texture in those surfaces. That would bug me. Screens range in price from next to nothing, to next to everything, and everywhere in between. Even if you spend another $500 on a screen though, you’re still spending in the range of — at best — a 55-inch plasma. That’s tiny compared to what you can get with the 850HD.
$800 gets you a plasma in the 50-inch range, or an LCD in the “why-did-you-buy-a-tiny-LCD?” range. The question I poised at the start was whether an $800 projector could really compete with a plasma. My answer? Sort of. A plasma in that range is going to look pretty good, and have a significantly better contrast ratio than the 850HD, and probably better color. So in terms of absolute picture quality, the Epson doesn’t compete. But it is so fraking bright it makes truly massive images possible. I used my 102-inch screen, but 150-inches or more could easily be watchable. So for that, I have to say the 850HD is a wikkid cool product, albeit for a specific niche. It’s not for everyone, but for those willing to sacrifice a little picture quality for an enormous image, this thing is quite a value.
Oh, and the coffee cup button? A/V Mute. Cuts the sound, and replaces the image on screen with a full white, black, blue, or the Epson Logo. You can even create your own image to display when the button is pressed and when the projector starts up. Cool.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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