Product Review: JVC DLA-HD350 Home Theater Projector (March 2009)

For those readers who’ve been following the DLP vs. 3LCD projector controversies over the years, it’s easy to overlook JVC. They don’t have the market clout of Epson, or the strong brand identity of Texas Instruments’ Digital Light Processing. You won’t see their projectors hanging in an enormous booth at InfoComm or Cedia Expo.

Yet, JVC D-ILA projectors consistently produce some of the best-looking video and cinema images anywhere, and you won’t have to pay an arm and a leg to get that kind of image quality in your own home theater.

JVC’s “secret sauce” is simply an emphasis on photorealistic images with accurate color, tight grayscale tracking, and good visual dynamic range. Toss in an attractive form factor, super-quiet fans, and a minimalist design approach to connectors, remote controls, and bells and whistles, and what you wind up with is a projector that truly “walks the talk.”

JVC’s DLA-HD350 is one of a suite of D-ILA (Digital Image Light Amplifier) projectors that was announced at Cedia Expo 2008, two of which (DLA-HD750 and DLA-RS20) offer THX-certified operating modes. While the lower-priced DLA-HD350 lacks the THX imprimatur found on its more expensive sibling, that’s almost irrelevant – it provides so much control over image parameters that you won’t even notice.

Figure 1. This projector looks good even when it’s not doing anything.

OUT OF THE BOX

Once again, JVC’s put together a sleek, piano-black projector housing with a theme that can best be described as “stealth.” Unlike its predecessors, the DLA-HD350 features an offset motorized 2:1 ratio zoom lens, complete with +/-80% vertical and +/-34% horizontal power lens shift.

In general, longer focal-length lenses provide the best image geometry; free of pincushioning and lens barreling with sharp, square corners. Of course, you’ll need more horsepower from the projection lamp to compensate, depending on the effective lens aperture.

JVC has armed the DLA-HD350 with a 200-watt UHP lamp, and that’s more than sufficient to light up a 92-inch, zero-gain screen with a projection throw of 12 feet. The imaging panels are three .7” 1920×1080 D-ILA devices harnessed to JVC’s unique wire-grid dichroic filter system and a polarizing beam splitter.

Figure 2. There aren’t many video inputs, but with outboard switching, you’ll be covered for any signal source.

The connector complement is, as usual, sparse. Two HDMI 1.3 connectors are accompanied by a single analog component (YPbPr) input, along with the inevitable composite and S-video jacks. There’s also an RS232 port for remote control, and that’s all she wrote – no screen trigger, Ethernet port, etc.

If you want to use your desktop or notebook computer with the DLA-HD350, it will need a DVI-D or an HDMI port, plus the appropriate adapter cable. Compatible PC resolutions include VGA (640×480), SVGA (800×600), XGA (1024×768), WXGA (1280×768), WXGA+ (1440×900), SXGA (1280×1024), WSXGA+ (1680×1050), and WUXGA (1920×1200 with some pixel decimation).

REMOTE AND MENUS

Some people ask why I make such a big deal of the ergonomics of projector remote controls. Well, when you’ve tried as many remotes as I have over the past two decades, you realize just how difficult they can be to use in rooms with low or no light. And that’s a real PITA when trying to make a quick image adjustment or changing inputs. (Hey, not everyone uses RS232 control!)

JVC’s remotes have usually gotten it right, with a limited number of buttons that are spaced sufficiently far apart and are large enough so you can operate most of them by feel. What’s more, many of the functions you use the most frequently are accessible directly from the remote, including basic image adjustments, gamma, color temperature, and aspect ratios.

Figure 3. The supplied remote loses the “silver” look and goes back to basic black.

You can also directly access any of the five factory image presets (Cinema 1 and 2, Natural, Stage, and Dynamic), plus three user-programmable memory slots. The motorized lens functions are accessed by toggling the “Lens” button to go from Focus to Zoom and then to Lens Shift. As you do, different crosshatch patterns will appear on the screen to aid in sizing, positioning, and focusing the image.

Aspect ratio options include 4:3, 16:9, and Zoom. That’s it! The effect varies by signal input, but you’ll be able to show SD (4:3) and HD content correctly sized, stretch anamorphic DVDs, zoom into letterboxed 16:9 and 2.35:1 movies, expand 4:3 to fill the 16:9 image, and show 480i/p, 576i/p, and 720p content mapped 1:1 (window-boxed).

JVC has included variable edge masking in two steps (2.5% and 5%) for HD signal sources, and overscan (2.5% and 5%) for SD video inputs. 1920×1080 content from Blu-ray and other sources is shown with a 1:1 pixel map – if you want to crop it, you’ll have to us the masking control and zoom the image accordingly.

The DLA-HD350 is also equipped for CinemaScope anamorphic lens adapters, using a menu setting called “V-Stretch.” When a ‘Scope film is being shown, switching this feature “on” expands the letterboxed image to fill the frame, top to bottom. Your accessory anamorphic lens adapter then expands the image to restore the correct 2.35:1 image ratio.

Beyond the usual Big 5 image settings, JVC has provided a toolbox full of image tweaks for more advanced calibrations. Those include four factory-preset color temperatures (5800K, 6500, 7500k, and 9300k) that can be saved to three Custom memories. (But wait, there’s more!)

For those of us who are real nitpickers, JVC has also included multi-level gamma correction, using both preset gamma curves (1.8, 2.2, etc.) and user-adjustable red, green, and blue gamma tweaks at 13 different luminance levels, five of which range from black to 20% white.

In order to use this feature correctly, you’ll need a color analyzer that can provide continuous RGB histograms at the desired level of adjustment. I’ve charged ColorFacts 7.5 with this task, and I let it update me on color temperature and RGB levels in real time as I try to keep the mix of RGB consistent at each luminance level. The result, when done correctly, is a steady grayscale track with consistent color temperature from black to white.

If you’re not quite so brave (or crazy) as to try a major gamma overhaul, JVC also gives you three preset gamma calibrations (A, B, and C), but no information on what they correlate to. Based on my measurements, Gamma A is roughly 1.8, Gamma B is 2.0, and Gamma C is 2.2. (Sorry, no 2.4 or deeper film gamma is available.)

Additional tweaks include Sharpness and Detail Enhancement (leave ‘em off with HD sources), analog, mosquito, and MPEG block noise reduction, and three levels of color transient improvement. You can also set the range of HDMI signals (16-235 or 0-255 gray levels), select the correct color space (4:4:4, 4:2:2, or RGB), and enable/disable HDMI CEC (control projector operation through the HDMI port).

Last but not least, JVC has a three-step lens iris, identified as Dark, Medium, and Bright. It’s not a dynamic iris that tracks changes with input level – just a preset iris. My suggestion is to leave it off – the DLA-HD350’s black levels are pretty good, as you’ll see shortly.

ON THE TEST BENCH

I gave the DLA-HD350 a pretty vigorous workout, using an AccuPel HDG4000 to generate all the calibration test patterns in the 1080p/60 format. Additional content came from a pair of Blu-ray players – Samsung’s BD-P1500, and LG’s new BD300. I also watched live broadcast HD feeds from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (CBS 1080i HD) and a few NBC HD programs (The Office and 30 Rock).

After calibration for the best grayscale images and widest dynamic range, I measured projector brightness at 413 ANSI lumens in Cinema 1 mode, with the iris set to position 3 (Bright). That was the low reading, and brightness ranged as high as 5 lumens in Dynamic mode. Additional readings included 445 lumens in Cinema 2 and 483 lumens in Natural mode. Brightness uniformity was very good at 78% to the average corner and 66.5% to the worst corner.

Contrast measurements were also impressive. ANSI (average) contrast clocked in at 350:1 in Cinema 1 mode, with peak contrast measured from the same checkerboard pattern at 707:1. I should repeat that I had the projector’s iris set to Bright mode for all of these tests, resulting in an average black level reading of 3.14 lumens. That’s about the best black level performance I’ve seen from any D-ILA projector, and it’s certainly as good as any current 3LCD model.

Figure 4. Maybe I spent too much time fiddling with the Gamma correction circuit. But look at that beautiful response!

Figure 5. The DLA-HD350 tracks a given color temperature very closely.

White balance uniformity was outstanding, with a maximum shift of 168 Kelvin across a full white test pattern. Not surprisingly, color temperature tracking from 20 to 100 IRE was very tight, with a maximum shift of 237 Kelvin as shown in Figure 4. (Any display that can keep that shift to 250 Kelvin or lower is doing very well in my book!)

The Gamma correction menu has a lot to do with this, although I did find its response a bit erratic at times. More than once, I’d select a given luminance value and color, only to see the value of that color jump by two to six points before I even entered a new value. JVC needs to fix this glitch, which makes back-and-forth tuning across red, green, and blue more of a chore than it should be.

After an hour of playing “ping pong” with the gamma menu, I came up with the track shown in Figure 5. This gamma calculated out to 2.24 and provided the best results for viewing everything from live HD sports to The Dark Night, my current favorite Blu-ray disc for checking out shadow detail and low-level grayscale tracking.

Figure 6. Now, that’s what I call a WIDE color gamut…

As for color reproduction, the DLA-HD350 excels in this area. The projector’s available color gamut, shown in Figure 6, is very wide – wide enough, in fact, to show the digital cinema P3 (minimum) gamut. You’ve got lots of real estate to work with here; enough to handle all standard digital TV color spaces and perhaps even some that haven’t been invented yet.

More importantly, the projector’s RGB and CMY coordinates are very close to ideal for the REC.709 HDTV standard. All that’s needed is a way to dial back color saturation to precisely hit those targets when viewing DTV content, something JVC ought to add as a switchable menu option.

IMAGE QUALITY

I’ve noticed that, out of all the available imaging technologies; images created with liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) panels most closely resemble those of motion picture film. The pixel structure of 1920×1080 LCoS panels is fine and indistinct, thanks to a very high fill factor. But image sharpness isn’t compromised. And I prefer real-time RGB color mixing to sequential (scanning) color with its rainbow artifacts.

The DLA-HD350 has a Silicon Optix Reon-VX image processor tucked inside, and it handled every interlaced SD and HD source from the red and blue laser versions of the HQV Realta tests with equal aplomb. Both the Video Resolution and Film Resolution tests from the Blu-ray disc were smooth as silk, with no judder and flicker. The rotating bars were also smooth, with just the tiniest suggestion of aliasing.

To appreciate just how good this projector can look, spin up The Dark Knight on Blu-ray in the 1080p/24 format, and give close scrutiny to pastel shades and flesh tones, particularly in nighttime scenes or under fluorescent lighting.  The Joker’s first encounter with the Gotham City mob is an excellent place to start, as the assembled gang has a wide range of skin tones from light to dark – contrasting, of course, with Heath Ledger’s white pancake makeup, purple suit, and cherry-red lipstick.

For a test drive of dynamic range, watch the IMAX high-speed chase sequence underneath Gotham, and you’ll see that deep shadows hold up quite well, even with bright headlights and brilliant explosions dominating the frame. Finish things off with the climatic ferry scene and the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker, high atop the unfinished skyscraper. You’ll still see plenty of detail, even with the intentionally poor lighting.

Another great test of dynamic range is the BBC’s Planet Earth series, also on Blu-ray. Check out From Pole to Pole and you’ll be surprised just how many shades of subtle color and gray you can see in icebergs and snow packs. The footage in this series comes from a variety of sources, including 35mm film and 1080p/24 HD camcorders. No matter, it all looks amazing, in particular the views from outer space.

With this projector, you’ll clearly see the difference in exposure and gamma/color correction for TV sitcoms and dramas when compared to feature films. I noticed a much wider range of exposures during The Office and 30 Rock, and while both shows were certainly enjoyable on my 92-inch Da-Lite JKP Affinity screen, they didn’t quite have the contrast punch of the Blu-ray material.

CONCLUSIONS

I’ll make it short and sweet. For $5,999, you get one heckuva home theater projector that’s absolutely up to the challenge of showing BD and other HD content to its full potential. Excellent color, stable gamma and grayscale tracks, wide dynamic range with plenty of contrast – it’s all here.

For that matter, the DLA-HD350 is good enough in my opinion to use as an evaluation monitor in a color correction and exposure-timing post-production suite. All JVC needs to do is fix that cranky gamma correction circuit and allow even deeper gamma correction, down to 2.6. Toss in advanced color management and an optional HD-SDI input, and they’d REALLY have something!

JVC DLA-HD350 Home Theater Projector

MSRP: $5,999

Specifications:

Dimensions: 14.4W” x 6.6H” x 18.9D”
Weight: 24.3 lbs
Imaging device: 3x .7” 1920×1080 D-ILA (LCOS)
Lamp: 200W UHP
Resolution: 1920×1080
Lens: 21.3 – 42.6 mm (2:1) power zoom/focus with motorized H/V lens shift
Inputs: 1 composite, 1 S-video, 1 component YPbPr, 2x HDMI 1.3, RS232C
Analog compatibility: 480i/p, 576i/p, 720p 60/50, 1080i 60/50

PC compatibility (through HDMI): VGA-SXGA, WXGA, WXGA+, WUXGA
Digital compatibility: 480i/p, 576i/p, 720p 60/50, 1080i 60/50, 1080 24p/60p/50p, Speakers: None

JVC America / Professional
1700 Valley Road
Wayne, NJ 07470
(800) 582-5825

http://tinyurl.com/cq9l37