Review: Epson HC 5040UB Projector Makes Good Case For Near 4K
As the market for flat-panel televisions rapidly shifts to 4K Ultra HD, it’s rather ironic that home entertainment projectors, with the ability to present much larger screen sizes that best present the additional detail enhancements that 4K Ultra HD resolution provides have lagged behind.
For a while now, Sony has offered native 4K SXRD (LCoS) chip-based home video projectors, but thus far most of Sony’s 4K projectors, particularly those supporting high dynamic range (HDR) and 90+ percent of DCI-P3 color gamut, start at around $12,300. More recently JVC has jumped into the native 4K game, but here, too, the price for this extra resolution boost is $34,999.95. If you’ve got the cash that might not seem like a big deal, but to most us that’s the price of a good used car.
Last summer, Epson brought a new line of projectors to market offering pixel-shifting technology solutions to simulate 4K Ultra HD resolution by producing images that appear to double the resolution of full HD 1080p. Though well shy of native 4K in presentation capability, these projectors do accept native 4K Ultra HD resolution input including content carrying a wide color gamut and HDR. This content is down scaled by the projector to first the true resolution of the display device. This series of Epson projectors also deliver impressive brightness for a fraction of the price of native 4K projectors. Epson’s Home Cinema 5040UB ($2,499) can be purchased at retail without going through a custom installer, and for those do-it-yourselfers we found the performance to be very impressive, provided you have the ability to control exterior and ambient room light and a space enabling at least a 9-foot throw distance to the screen from an elevated location.
Read our review of Epson’s Home Cinema 5040UB after the jump:
For a number years now, manufacturers have been evolving more price-friendly steps between Full HD 1080p projectors and native 4K models. Companies including: JVC, Texas Instruments and Epson have been working hard to deliver solutions that can compete more affordably for the home user by using pixel-shifting technologies that essentially move pixels rapidly back and forth to trick the eye into perceiving a denser pixel structure. With this technique, the micro-display chips usually have a native 1080p pixel structure, but this is effectively doubled as far as the eye can tell, for a sharper and clearer image. The results are even better when a native 4K Ultra HD signal source used from an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player or streaming service.
Of course, any simulated effect will fall short of true native content, and some introduction of image noise and edge artifacts are to be expected. Done right, these limitations will be hard to see and will save thousands of dollars from a native 4K projector.
Epson first introduced its spin on the pixel-shifting approach for 3LCD micro-display technology several years ago in its LS10000 ($8,000 retail) flagship. That approach, while impressive, uses LCD reflective technology (like LCoS) and a laser light engine that boosts brightness (and price). It also lacked HDR support.
More recently, Epson expanded the “4K Enhancement” projector assortment with very bright lamp-based versions including: the Pro Cinema 6040UB ($3,999), Pro Cinema 4040 ($2,699), and Home Cinema 5040UB ($2,499) 3LCD models. We targeted the 5040UB due to its more accessible price, high performance and do-it-yourself availability. Also available for about $300 more is the HC5040UBe that lets you add wireless HDMI via four inputs (one with MHL).
Each of these projectors use “Epson’s 4K Enhancement” (4KE) pixel-shifting technology and support 4K native content input with HDR and full DCI-P3 color space (we tested it pre-calibrated at over 92 percent of P3 measuring on a solid white surface – this would presumably be higher using a high-performance screen). The ability to handle both the wider contrast of HDR, along with deep black levels in completely darkened rooms, and a true professional-level color space are what make the Epson HC 5040UB standout among other projectors in this price range.
The disadvantage that this projector doesn’t deliver actual 4K resolution is reduced by the fact that the eye perceives color and brightness much more readily than it does resolution. That’s true even when viewing images on the up to 120-inch screen size this model can display.
The Epson Home Cinema 5040UB supports the latest 4K Ultra HD sources including: Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, and is rated up to 2,500 lumens of color brightness and 2,500 lumens of white brightness. This equates to better than 78 foot lamberts peak luminance, which is suitable for seeing an impressively enhanced 1080p picture in a wide range of interior lighting conditions.
Despite its brighter picture, the 5040UB doesn’t suffer in the black level area. In a dark room, images on screen offer deep blacks (we measured 0.16 foot lamberts) that help to enhance the richness and depth of colors. Fine detail elements are also visible is shadowed areas. The projector’s iris, lens and projection mode enables varying this range of black level to the optimal range.
Using Epson’s flavor of pixel-shifting technology, the 5040UB presents a perceivable 4 megapixels on screen, which is 2.5 million pixels short of true 4K Ultra HD, but the image enhancement is noticeably improved from standard 1080p full HD. Using the right content, the HDR and wide color gamut adds richer and brighter colors, although specular brightness highlights in HDR are not as vivid as they appear on well backlit or self-emissive flat-panel screens.
According to Epson the HC 5040UB supports up to a 1M:1 dynamic contrast ratio. We verified the projector covers the sRGB and and more than 92 percent of the DCI-P3 color spaces. It is also outfitted with a 16-element 2.1:1 glass zoom lens and lens memory. The lens is motorized to adjust for focus, zoom, and shift. Lens memory simplifies adjusting between Cinemascope-style widescreen aspect ratios and the 16:9 format more typically seen in television programming. A button on the remote enables adjusting between “normal” and “full” aspect ratios.
The back of 5040UB carries the unit’s dual HDMI inputs, HDMI 1 is an HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 copy projection connector for use with Ultra HD and HDR sources, and HDMI 2 is HDMI 1.4 with support for MHL to connect certain 1080p media adapters as well as smartphones and tablets. The projector includes a VGA PC input but no analog component or composite video inputs are included.
Two USB ports are included for service support. Neither will support media playback. One USB port is powered and designated for firmware updates. It can be used to power a wireless HD dongle. The other offers 300mA power supply for HDMI cables that require it. The projector lacks an Ethernet port to allow for IP control, but includes an RS-232 port and a 12-volt trigger are also included.
The 5040UB’s remote control was easy to use and comfortable in the hand, with a functional button layout with backlit controls optimized for dark-room use. Controls are included for all of the 5040UB’s menus, lens functions, image enhancement adjustments, and color modes. It makes it very easy and instinctive to navigate the user interface. Users will find a “Memory” button to speedily access 10 custom picture and lens adjustments. Selections are accessible for pre-programmed aspect ratios.
The 5040UB is very impressive at handling motion images without a lot of motion blurring or judder. This is due, in part, to its ability to accept 4K sources at up to 60 frames per second. Epson also includes what it calls Creative Frame Interpolation (CFI) technology for motion interpolation, and this helps to keep subjects acceptably sharp and clear during instances of fast motion on screen, such as sporting events. For movies and theatrical fare, the system will produce a soap opera effect at certain settings, which should be taken into consideration for those bothered by overly sharp pictures that look more like live video than film. But when running the projector’s pixel-shifting technology, CFI won’t work, so you’ll need to choose between 1080p images with better motion resolution or simulated 4K images with slightly more blurring.
Overall high average brightness is one of the 5040UB’s strengths, with images measuring up to 2500 lumens, surpassing levels offered in some native 4K Ultra HD models.
High Dynamic Range
As mentioned, one of the greatest attributes of the 5040UB is its ability to read and display HDR10 high dynamic range, which is the baseline system for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and supported by most major 4K Ultra HD streaming services with HDR libraries. Unfortunately, the projector does not support any other HDR formats, like Dolby Vision, which is becoming more and more popular in hardware and software. The projector makes very good use of the expanded color capabilities brought out in native HD, although, as we mentioned the localized brightness boost in specular and spectral highlights does not stand out as dramatically as they do on flat-panel HDR screens. Nevertheless, images are vibrant and detailed overall on native 4K Ultra HD movies and streaming content delivered via a connected Roku Ultra box. The 5040UB accepts 10-bit color with smooth color gradations. The HDR benefits bring out details in dark shadowed areas as well as bright white segments of images, even with a small amount of ambient lighting in the room.
The projector provides four setting modes for HDR playback. Epson recommends using the “Bright Cinema” setting for HDR content in most lighting conditions. When dynamic range is in the default “Auto”setting the projector uses the HDR 2 mode with HDR input. However, you can also experiment with manually changing the setting to HDR 1, HDR 3, and HDR 4.
Epson said that HDR 2 is the default that most people will prefer with most lighting conditions. HDR 1 gives a brighter image, which is helpful in a room with more ambient light. HDR 3 and 4 give progressively darker overall images, for use in darker rooms.
When playing the Ultra HD Blu-ray version of Argo through the Oppo UBP-203 player, we noticed a boost in color richness, particularly in yellows and whites, bringing a satisfying and natural overall warm tone. The brightness boost for the HDR and resolution enhancement from the pixel-shifted 3LCD microdisplay made images sharp to the point that underlying grain in film was more evident.
We did, however, run into issues with Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) compatibility initially trying to test the 5040UB with certain Ultra HD Blu-ray players, such as Samsung’s UBD-K8500 (the player was updated and is now compatible with the projector). EDID is a data structure provided by a display to describe its capabilities to a connected video source device. Initially, we found the projector would not automatically shift into HDR mode when sent a signal from the player. We found the Oppo UBP-203 player worked without problem, however.
These EDID issues tend to be a problem with video projectors, more so than different brands of flat-panel TVs. Epson cautions that “as 4K and HDR-capable projectors are new to the market, manufacturers of TVs, projectors and players are not all interpreting/processing 4K the same way. As a result, some devices – like the Xbox One – do not provide a compatible 4K signal for the Epson 4KE models. As the market continues to mature for 4KE and HDR, we expect compatibility across TVs, projectors and devices to become more standardized.”
“The Home Cinema 5040UB/Pro Cinema 4040UB/Pro Cinema 6040UB will automatically detect and display compatible signals only. If the Color Format section of the info menu does not display 4K BT.2020 and HDR, the signal is not compatible,” Epson continued.
Up and Downscaling
Because it’s a pixel-shifting 4KE projector, the 5040UB employs an upscaling system that must take lower or higher resolution signals and process them to fit the pixels on the screen. Because it will accept native 4K resolution signals including metadata for HDR, the 5040UB must downscale images to fit the native resolution of the display. The projector does a nice job of making the display material appear as natural as it would on a display device of equal resolution. We didn’t see an particularly bothersome artifacts.
At a time when most flat-panel TVs have abandoned 3D support features, fans of 3D video will be delighted to find that the 5040UB still supports 3D via active-shutter glasses, and does so very well. The projector’s higher overall average brightness projects a convincing 3D image.
The 5040UB is a good performer for causal console game play. The unit has a respectable input lag of 30.8 milliseconds, although professional gamers and hard-core enthusiasts might find that a tad slow to top competition.
The performance of the Epson Home Cinema 5040UB is nothing short of impressive for a product in this size and price range. The unit produces rich deep colors, very bright pictures, even with a small degree of ambient room light, and is ready to embrace the evolving world of 4K Ultra HD content, which is building content libraries on a quarterly basis.
The biggest shortcoming of the 5040UB is that it doesn’t present true native 4K UHD images, but it’s still better than most full-HD 1080p projectors. As mentioned, at these pixel density levels it gets harder and harder to see the enhancement benefits from resolution alone, so you aren’t going to miss much, and the added brightness and color boost from HDR content makes for a very immersive viewing experience. Artifact issues are not glaring, though there a few visible issues with softness and jagged edges from the pixel shifting technique that you won’t find on good native 4K projectors, but those will cost significantly more. Also, take note that this is not a projector designed for general living areas of the house, unless daylight and ambient light can be almost completely restricted from the area. Nevertheless, the 5040UB will provide an impressively good picture with a small amount of light on in the room, and that can be improved upon with a high-quality projection screen. This is not a short-throw projector, so you will need a relatively large space to provide a throw distance of 9 feet or more. This will produce up to a 120-inch screen size for which the 5040UB is best suited. The projector should also be positioned from an elevated position, like a high bookshelf or a ceiling mount, which will be optional.
If you appreciate the benefit that a good HDR projector can produce, need to stay on a budget and you can live with something that’s a little less than true 4K Ultra HD, this might be the projector for you.
We therefore award the Epson Home Cinema 5040UB four out of five hearts.
The Epson HC 5040UB used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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