Epson LS12000 Impressions

As I said in my previous article where I shared some dynamic calibration settings, a friend and I had 2 hours with the LS12000 earlier today.

We only had time for a quick dynamic greyscale calibration, which allowed us to compare the laser dimming performance between Natural and Dynamic and some overall out of the box impressions.

However, the time allowed us to have a look at SDR and HDR performance, evaluate laser dimming with some challenging content and also look at sharpness, black level and contrast performance including dynamic gamma.

We updated the unit to firmware 1.11 before doing anything.

Sharpness & Pixel Shifting

Let’s tackle the elephant in the room. Was the unit sharper than the TW9400 / UB6050? Well, I have to be 100% honest here. This was incredibly difficult to evaluate because of three things:

  1. The pixel shifting cannot be disabled to be able to focus the pixel grid – at least we couldn’t see a way in our frantic viewing session and we did go through all the menu items.
  2. With pixel shifting on, there is no visible pixel grid. There is literally full pixel fill and zero pixel gaps we could see. While LCD’s smaller pixels are a benefit when pixel-shifting as the pixels can occupy their own space on the grid when shifting, there is enough overlap here that you can no longer see individual pixels.
  3. We were viewing the LS12000 on a larger screen than we viewed the TW9400 / UB6050 in my own home theatre.

I think I would want Epson to somehow resolve this, because trying to focus an image without being able to see the pixel grid is incredibly frustrating. Especially, because we had an acoustically transparent perforated screen. Thankfully not a woven one or I would have thrown the projector through the screen in frustration.

So with that said, we managed to get the unit focused and it was plenty sharp. But I think we would have been able to do better had we gotten the unit to display the native panel resolution. Even feeding it 1080p didn’t switch pixel-shifting off.

The positive of all of this however is that there is no chicken-wire effect and the image looks very organic. It is now very much a contender to LCOS in terms of pixel-fill. Hence it might not be such a great idea for Epson to move to native 4K panels, as the chicken wire would be back – along with light and contrast loss.

Laser Dimming

We tried High Speed and Normal in both Natural and Dynamic Mode. The laser dimming is a LOT more aggressive in dynamic mode, just like the dynamic iris in Dynamic mode on the UB6050 / 5050 / TW9400. The laser shuts off completely on a black frame as far as we could tell and it is instantly back on for the next frame. It is GLORIOUS. There were no major artefacts that we could see. Other reviews mentioned the beginning of Lucy as an issue.

Lucy is a bit of an edge case in the sense that the source content has a lot of brightness fluctuation already at the beginning sequence. We did notice that high speed laser dimming was keeping in lock-step with the frames (very good) and this may have made this a little more exaggerated than the source content.

However, this was the only occasion that laser dimming called attention to itself and to be honest, I wouldn’t say it’s a big deal. I was glad to see the laser keeping such close lock with the content actually.

The UB6050 makes a big old mess of Lucy’s opening credits in Dynamic mode when in high lamp with high speed iris. It is ridiculously bad. In fact, this is my main gripe with the older lamp units. While dimming is more aggressive in dynamic mode leading to much better dynamic contrast, the high speed setting is just manic and cannot actually keep up with content – partly because the older lamp units also employ lamp dimming – a bit of a dumb idea – and the lamp cannot keep up.

The LS12000 is a quantum leap in dimming performance by comparison. I mean I had zero issues with Lucy’s opening credits apart from the above mentioned issue which is minor in comparison to the lamp units.

However, I do not like the Normal dynamic mode on the current lamp based units and I did not like the Normal laser dimming setting here either. It introduced sudden shifts in brightness once a frame was up as it was a few frames behind. It felt jarring at times. Both me and my viewing buddy felt the same thing.

In Natural picture mode, the dimming performance was a bit lacklustre in that the laser does not swing as low as in dynamic and does not shut off on a black frame. This is why it is best to tame dynamic mode and use that for content, especially for HDR which has such a huge dynamic range and where black frames would look more grey due to the laser power having to be set higher.

I want to stress that the above assessment of the LS12000’s laser dimming performance does not make other reviewers’ observations incorrect or wrong, however! This just highlights that dynamic light control and dynamic image processing on displays can be transparent to some users while not to others. This is especially true if a user has spent a lot if time evaluating such processing over many different displays. However, for the average user, this won’t be as much of an issue. Hence, I recommend prospective owners view the LS12000 – and in fact any display – for themselves with content they are familiar with to make an assessment for themselves. If they cannot detect issues reviewers can, I recommend they stop looking for them and enjoy the display! It can be a bit of a curse the more you are trained in this hobby / profession as the more you are distracted by the display and not enjoying the content. I can unfortunately attest to this.

Contrast and Black Level

We did not have time for contrast measurements but by eye, the unit has very slightly better native contrast and near-black performance compared to the UB6050 / TW9400.

This is only true however if the UB6050 / Tw9400 is used without its manual iris clamped down. This is because when closing down the iris, native on/off contrast goes up, dynamic contrast goes down and ANSI contrast goes down slightly with every click of the iris. While laser dimming can emulate this, it cannot increase native contrast like a dynamic iris can. This is an important factor to consider.

For example, in my setup, I use the TW9400 for SDR in natural mode with the manual iris at -7. This provides a great balance in my home cinema between native on/off, ANSI and dynamic contrast. Laser projectors without a manual iris don’t provide such choice. You can lower the laser light, but on/off and ANSI will stay the same with dynamic contrast taking a hit. Even though you do lower the black floor and possibly increase perceived contrast.

However, what makes a difference in this case are two things:

  1. Laser dimming is a lot more usable than the hybrid lamp / iris dimming on the lamp models – at least in dynamic mode. Natural mode sees a slight improvement as the dynamic iris in Natural picture mode was already good on the ub6050 / Tw9400 as long as you didn’t use high lamp. In that sense, the laser here is a lot more transparent regardless of mode!
  2. Dynamic Gamma creates a much better sense of contrast in both low-brightness and high-brightness scenes without touching the mid-range.

In fact, dynamic gamma is halfway to dynamic tone-mapping. After all, dynamic tone-mapping is a mix of dynamic gamma and dynamic colour with dynamic gamma being the more important element.

HDR Tone-Mapping

We also saw evidence that Epson has improved the tone mapping in both the low and high-end. With the same HDR level settings, more of the low-end and high-end detail (including colour) has been restored.

We just came out an extensive calibration and viewing session of the NP5 (review incoming) where we compared it to the older JVC X series units and the Epson TW9400. With the LS12000, I certainly felt that Epson took steps towards JVC’s dynamic tone mapping even in terms of restoring some of the colour in very dark elements where we felt the JVC did a lot better when comparing it to eh TW9400. While this was minor, it was still visible.

The same goes for very bright scenes. There is detail in highlights we did not see on the UB6050 / TW9400 when viewing the same content a few days ago when comparing the TW9400 with the JVC NP5. This has a lot to do with the dynamic gamma, but even beyond that, there are tone-mapping improvements here.

It is incredibly difficult to capture dynamic gamma because the iPhone’s camera adjusts the image based on brightness and contrast. But here are a few pictures. They are not representative of what we saw with the unit. In any case, both bright and dark details were more defined with dynamic contrast at 8. Also note, Aquaman is an IMAX disc with a varying aspect ratio. We were so rushed that we didn’t do electronic masking for the content so the few IMAX scenes we watched overspilled the screen. We didn’t have such issues with other movies we watched such as Lucy, Passengers, Pacific Rim Uprising, Ready Player One in HDR or Avatar in SDR. We did change the aspect ratio for Avatar, however – we weren’t that lazy or rushed!

Brightness

Other reviewers mentioned that the LS12000 calibrates brighter than the UB6050 / TW9400. I only have comparative measurements done with the same i1 Display Pro Plus (2000nit max) colorimeter, NOT a light meter. On my smaller 125″ (cinemascope) screen, at 500hrs on its (3rd) lamp, the UB6050 puts out 65nits in its calibrated dynamic high lamp mode (adjusted for a 1.0 gain screen as mine is 0.8). On a larger 140″ (cinemascope) 1.8 gain review screen, the LS12000 put out 72 nits at 100% laser in the calibrated dynamic mode. However, keep in mind that the colorimeter was angled so that the screen measured around 1.1 gain at the angle, not 1.8 when viewed square on, especially as it was perforated, which introduces its own light loss. Not to mention that gain ratings are grossly inflated by manufacturers.

In any case, that is more light, while filling a larger screen, and having a non-ideal calibration. With more time, I am pretty sure we could have squeezed out more while keeping dEs down – and getting that gamma in check better.

In addition, the Epson TW9400 is much closer to my screen than the Epson LS12000 was mounted to the screen in our review. If I had to make a guess, if mounted in my home theatre, on my smaller screen, and with proper time for calibration to maximise brightness, the LS12000 would reach around 90nits adjusted for 1.0 gain (again, this is based on comparative measurements, not absolute – as this was done with a colorimeter, not a light meter).

Frame Interpolation (FI)

Another feature we checked out was frame interpolation. I have to be honest. I hate Epson’s FI implementation on the UB6050 / TW9400. It only works for 1080p content and even then it’s mediocre at best. The only time I use it is with 3D content.

However, I didn’t find the new FI implementation nearly as objectionable. In fact, I preferred the unit with it on. This is quite a departure for me. I didn’t see major artefacts like I did with the lamp based units. I am wondering if this was due to the bigger screen even, as it isn’t as easy to evaluate this unless you are projecting in your own home theatre at the same screen size. Would be good to hear from others who owned both units whether this is actually the case as I was a bit surprised by this.

Motorised Lens Shift

Finally, we tested the motorised lens shift. Lens shift on the lamp based units wasn’t exactly precise. It would kind of get the picture in the same-ish place with a cm or two being off somewhere. However, with the LS12000, it seemed to switch between 16:9 and cinemascope more precisely. Your milage may wary.

Conclusion

Are the improvements worth double the price compared to the lamp-based units? I have to say that it isn’t so clear-cut.

If you are currently using a calibrated dynamic mode for your lamp-based unit, and you are as annoyed by the current dimming performance as I am, the LS12000’s laser dimming performance is a revelation – even in the more aggressive dynamic mode.

It is also a brighter unit once calibrated in dynamic so can fill a larger screen or provide more brightness for HDR.

However, they did not make leaps and bounds improvement with black level and contrast performance. While dynamic gamma helps, very dark scenes can still look a bit grey just like on the UB6050 / TW9400 even if a bit more dimensional. In that sense, some progress has been made, but it won’t make the Epson into a JVC in darker scenes.

However, the benefit of the Epson over a similarly-priced JVC (the NP5) is its brightness, intra-scene contrast and inter-pixel contrast. Brighter objects on screen are better-delineated than on a JVC due to less pixel-bleed and brighter scenes have better intra-scene contrast while also punching a LOT higher in brightness. This can give these brighter scenes more punch. Therefore the Epson is actually a much better living room or non-dedicated home cinema projector than a JVC, especially if used for mixed content – such as sports, gaming and TV viewing along with movies.

While the JVC very much belongs in a dark cave-like home cinema with zero reflective surfaces because while very dark scenes will retain their contrast in a non-dedicated room, anything brighter will wash out a JVC already struggling with its higher-ADL contrast and higher pixel-bleed. In fact the JVC NP5 can have as much as 2/3 to 1/2 the contrast performance of the Epson (or in fact a DLP) in brighter scenes. This is a very important detail and it’s something to consider when choosing between the two as mixed content has generally higher brightness levels than movies.

This is partly why JVCs really look their best with a 2.4 gamma or higher as higher gammas prioritise the lower end of the brightness scale by pulling all content closer to black. This also helps brighter content look more dimensional by having larger jumps between stimulus levels in the higher IREs (% stimulus levels). However, to employ a 2.4 or higher gamma and for it to look natural, you need to have a dark room. This is the best scenario for any JVC projector and where it will look its very best.

Lower on/off contrast (but higher ANSI contrast) displays such as the Epson look better with a comparatively higher gamma as they struggle to delineate darker content. Hence LCDs such as the Epson look their best with a 2.3 or 2.2 gamma dependent on viewing conditions. Employing a 2.4 gamma on such a display can negatively hurt the image in my humble opinion.

However, having said all that, I would like to see Epson become competitive with JVC with regards to its on/off (near-black) contrast. One way would be to use 6 LCD panels (3 for local dimming) just like on high-end DLP projectors from Christie.

The only difference here is that implementing that with transmissive panels as opposed to reflective DMDs should be a LOT simpler. I am wondering if it is possible to add one extra chip for light modulation somehow and get away with only 4 LCDs, but that might be more complex to do.

In any case, I would like to see them improve the black floor more in the next iteration.

I would say that this is an incremental improvement from the previous lamp based units with the star of the show being the laser dimming. However, everything else has been improved to result in a product that feels more polished all around.

Compared to the UB6050 / TW9400, the LS12000 is an easier to watch projector that doesn’t distract from the content and doesn’t call attention to itself nearly as much as the lamp based units did.

Review / Impression Scores

This was a brief review, but I wanted to assign some comparative scores to help people decide whether to upgrade.

LS12000

OPTION 1: mixed content, for larger screens and for non-dedicated spaces.

9 / 10 (in its price category)

OPTION 2: dedicated home cinema projector for 90% movies on smaller screens (think of lots of difficult dark scenes)

6.8 / 10 (in its price category)

UB6050 / TW9400

Review scores mean very little by themselves as different reviewers rate displays differently so here are the scores I would assign to the previous lamp based units. I have taken into consideration that the lamp based units were 1/2 the price and also included price adjusted scores – if the lamp based units were the same price as the LS12000.

OPTION 1: 8 / 10 (7 / 10 if price adjusted to the LS12000)

OPTION 2: 7 / 10 (6 / 10 if price adjusted to the LS12000)

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