Thus far, one of the hang-ups with 3D in the home is that getting a screen size that's large enough to recreate the immersive experience of 3D in the theater has been practically and financially challenging. That's changing with the emergence of full-resolution 3D projectors at relatively modest prices.
Among those, the Optoma HD33 (*Est. $1,500) draws accolades for delivering good performance at a rock bottom price for a full-HD 3D projector. "Usually I like to say there's no free lunch but Optoma has served up a quality steak at a fast-food price," writes Chris Eberle at enthusiast site Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity. In giving it a Highly Rated award, ProjectorCentral.com's Bill Livolsi says that it would be a solid projector if it cost twice at much, but: "At $1500, the HD33 is a steal." Most others are equally impressed, though a few quibbles do surface.
While 3D is the headline attraction, 2D performance is the main event, and reports say that the HD33 is a competent performer in that regard. Black levels can't compete with multi-thousand-dollar projectors, but they stand up well when compared to others in its price range. Color is also excellent. Though some reviewers received units that needed a little tweaking, others report that things look pretty good straight out of the box; most say things can be dialed in to technical perfection if you wish. ProjectorReviews.com offers one dissenting voice, with Art Feierman complaining that accuracy is off even after calibration. That said, he adds that what shows up on the screen color-wise is pretty impressive and sure to "dazzle" typical viewers.
Comments on 3D performance are more complimentary. You do need to spring separately for the glasses (*Est. $100 each), but the HD33 has the ability to use RF (radio frequency) active-shutter technology in addition to the more standard IR (infrared). The advantage is that RF glasses don't need a clear line of sight to the projector to work, while IR glasses do. The result is that the 3D image is maintained even if you move your head, producing a more-glitch-free 3D experience. Crosstalk is also nearly nonexistent, adding to a 3D experience that more closely mimics the experience of watching 3D in a movie theater. "In fact, the 3D effect was pretty much perfect," Eberle writes. "This is way beyond the gimmick-level 3D that flat panels generate."
ProjectorCentral.com notes that although the glasses do bring down the brightness, the result is better picture quality. "While the glasses reduce the brightness of black and white equally, your mind is fooled into seeing an image that looks higher in contrast due to the better black," Livolsi says.
There are some downsides. This is a DLP projector with the placement issues typical of other budget choices of the same technology, thanks to the limited zoom range and lack of lens shift. There's also the issue of DLP rainbows -- and a disagreement among reviewers about whether they are an issue. ProjectorCentral's Livolsi says that the 3x speed six-segment color wheel "should eliminate color separation artifacts for all but the most hypersensitive viewers," and he adds that he did not see them over several days of testing. However, M. David Stone of PCMag.com writes that he is sensitive to the rainbow effect, and it showed up often enough in testing to keep him from giving the HD33 an unqualified recommendation. He adds, however, that for those who aren't bothered by DLP rainbows, "the Optoma HD33 is almost impossible to recommend too highly."
The HD33 does have some competition in its price point from the Epson Home Cinema 3010 (*Est. $1,600) , sometimes called the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 3010. This is an LCD projector, so the rainbow effect is not an issue, but placement flexibility falls short of most others that use the same technology. While the 3010 supports only IR glasses, two pairs are included free. A step-up version, the Epson Home Cinema 3010e (*Est. $1,800) adds wireless HDMI capability and about $200 to the price, but it lacks the free glasses.
Feedback isn't as extensive for Epson 3010 as it is for the Optoma HD33, and opinions are conflicting. ProjectorCentral.com reviews the 3010 and compares it directly against the Optoma HD33. In general, the HD33 comes out on top in most regards -- not the least of which is 3D performance. The Epson 3010 with its higher light output is a better choice for use in rooms with some ambient light, however, or if a very large screen is desired.
Art Feierman at ProjectorReviews.com looks at both budget 3D projectors and comes to a different conclusion. He calls the Epson 3010 "the most exciting projector I've encountered in at least a year," and he adds that it "out shines and out performs" the HD33 in most ways. He compliments brightness and overall color, and he notes that twin built-in 10-watt speakers provide respectable sound. On the downside, blacks could be better, and 3D is marred by minor glitches. In the end, Feierman gives the 3010 and 3010e a Hot Product Award, and he says "If you enjoy the Epson Home Cinema 3010 as much as I have enjoyed watching it while working this review, it will be one of your all time favorite [decisions]."
If you have a bit more to spend, reviewers identify a few 3D-capable projectors with greater performance. Top choices among those include the Panasonic PT-AE7000 3D LCD projector (*Est. $3,000) . It receives a Hot Product award from ProjectorReviews.com and a Highly Rated award from ProjectorCentral.com. Britain's What Hi-Fi looks at the similar European version, the Panasonic PT-AT5000, and names it the best projector in its price class. "Believe the hype on this one: the Panasonic 3D projector was worth the wait," the editors write.
However, aside from the relatively high price compared to options such as the Optoma HD33, it might not be the projector for everyone. Evan Powel at ProjectorCentral.com calls it a projector for a true videophile, noting that the relatively low brightness in its best picture-quality modes means that it needs a dedicated, fully dark room to fully flex its picture quality muscles. But for those willing to give it the type of space it needs, he adds: "As of this writing, we know of no 1080p home theater projectors on the market priced under $4,000 that can rival the image quality of the AE7000, and there are quite a few priced much higher that can't either."
While the brightness levels for achieving the best image fall on the short side of average, that doesn't mean the Panasonic isn't capable of lighting up the sky -- or at least a family room or living room -- if called upon to do so. Looking at its maximum brightness capability, Art Feierman of ProjectorReviews.com calls the PT-AE7000 a "light cannon" when compared to similar projectors. Color performance is also excellent -- though not surprisingly it is best at lower brightness levels.
The ability to put out lots of light and still maintain good picture quality comes into play when it comes to 3D. "By flipping the projector into Normal mode, lumen output is more than doubled and the 3D picture becomes more vibrant yet," Powel writes. "Quite honestly, this 3D experience on a ten-foot wide screen right in my own home was, for me, more visually engaging than the viewing of Avatar in a 3D IMAX theater."
Experts also bestow kudos on the Epson Home Cinema 5010 (*Est. $2,750) . ProjectorCentral.com conducts a head-to-head comparison between it and the Panasonic PT-AE7000 and finds that while each has pluses and minuses, the images they produce are more similar than different: "The picture on screen is clear, sharp, and high in contrast," Bill Livolsi writes. "Color accuracy on both machines is excellent, and neither required much adjustment." He notes that what differences there are, are very subtle, adding that many of them sound like a bigger deal on paper than they are when actually viewing images.
ProjectorReviews.com's Art Feierman has also reviews both projectors, and he's less reserved about his preferences, saying he's not seen another 2D projector in the same price class that he likes more than the Epson 5010. Excellent black levels and good colors out of the box -- and great color accuracy once calibrated -- lead the list of pluses. For 3D content, the higher brightness in the best picture mode helps the 5010 deliver images that outshine -- literally -- what's often seen in movie theaters, let alone home theaters -- and puts 3D delivered by LCD or plasma TVs to shame. "Don't judge projector 3D, performance by what 3D looks like on those puny little 40 and 50 inch LCDTVs, etc," Feierman writes. "The huge difference in immersion going to a 100" or larger screen, is enough to take your breath away on great content."
You'll need to spring for a little extra dough if you want to enjoy 3D, as the needed glasses are not included. If you'd like to cut down clutter between your projector and your sound system and signal sources, a version with wireless HDMI connectivity, the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5010e (*Est. $3,000) , is available.