Best 4K projectors: Everything you need to know before you buy

It's time to move beyond the TV

The best 4K projectors
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When it comes to home entertainment, televisions have long had a death grip as the focal point of the living room. For good reason: They're all-in-one, generally easy to use and require little work to set up. The gamut of smart TVs has only fortified the reign of the television.

Except, for some people that's not exactly the case. If you're looking to build a home theater and you really want to go all out, recreating a movie theater in your own home, you might want to go with a 4K projector instead.

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Using a projector can actually be a better experience than using a TV in the right environment. You can get a richer picture with more details, while still being able to use things like your Fire TV or games console. But is it for you, and if you do decide to get a 4K project which ones should you look at? Here, we'll answer those questions and more.


Best 4K projectors: Everything you need to know

4K projectors: Why would you want it?

TVs, we all love 'em. Televisions are extremely versatile. We can put plonk them in different types of rooms with different levels of lighting and you'll still get a good picture. In the world of TVs, resolution has become the primary statistic. After that, it's considerations such as LED, LCD, HDR and contrast - things you're probably sick to death of hearing about.

The world of projectors is a little different. That's because the environment you put your projector in is extremely important. The darker the room, the better the projector comes across.

If you can get a dark room, the benefits of a projector start flooding through. To be upfront: Resolution isn't as important in a projector, but we'll get into that in a bit. The benefit of a projector comes across in the details.

You're going to see more threads of hair, you're going to see darker blacks and you're going to see more vibrant colors. You're getting a better picture than even the best 1080p TVs on a picture larger than what you can get from a TV. We're talking the possibility of a 100-inch screen with tons of detail... if you can pull it off.

If you're looking to create a home theater and have a great environment in which you can put your projector, you're not going to find a better picture than a 4K projector.

4K projectors: What is true 4K?

Let's be honest: The jump to 4K hasn't been as visually impressive as the jump from standard definition to high definition. Some people believe that all those pixels on our modestly-sized TVs just doesn't make that much of a difference.

But what about the massive size of a projector? Well, it's actually a little complicated. Turns out that making a true 4K projector is massively expensive, which means 4K projectors at thousands and thousands of dollars.

4K projectors have since come down in price, but a lot of that is due to tricks that manufacturers play. Projectors tend to use DLP, LCD or other kinds of image chips to create the picture you see. Each of the pixels created by these chips are smaller than the pixels on a TV, which means you need more of them, which is why prices are higher.

Instead of smashing 3,840 x 2,160 into the projector - as a 4K TV does - projector manufacturers have come up with a different method. They basically take a couple lower-resolution imaging chips and offset them.

For example, Epson uses three 1,920 x 1,080 LCD chips. Each one has its pixels slightly offset, so that they all come across as separate pixels. All of this moves so fast that your eye can't tell, and instead assumes that it's a higher resolution image than 1080p. Projectors using these types of methods are pretty upfront, and will use terms like 4K Enhancement or 4K Precision to explain what it is. They will also list the resolution of the lower-resolution chips - rather than a 4K resolution.

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4K projectors: Other things to consider

The other thing you need to know in the world of projectors is that resolution doesn't really matter. What really matters is all the other things that contribute to you getting a great picture from your projector.

This is stuff like making sure your room is really dark, but it's also making sure you have a good projector screen to display on. You can do it on a wall if you wish, but you're going to see an image that's up to 70% dimmer if you do.

You need to be aware of the space in which you put your projector. The distance from the wall, the age of the bulb and the projector's ability to spit out high dynamic range information all matter more to your picture quality than its resolution.

Best 4K projectors

With all that said, there are a handful of good options for you to consider for your new home theater systems. To test these projectors, we used them for both 4K video and gaming. We watched Planet Earth II in 4K on Netflix using a Chromecast Ultra to test video and played Apex Legends and Forza Horizon 4 on Xbox One X to test gaming.

Best 4K projectors: Everything you need to know before you buy

Optoma UHL55

$1,599, Amazon | optoma.com

The Optoma UHL55 is all about building an easy, all-in-one projector that does everything you need it to do. First, it's portable and relatively easy to carry around. Not Nintendo Switch levels of portable, but compared to some of the other projectors out there it's much easier to move around.

Ease of use is the big thing here, but in practice the hardware is easier to use than it is to set up. Setting it up regularly is fine. The UHL55 runs on Android, and it even has an app store. You'll find YouTube and Netflix there, but the app quality is bad. The YouTube app, for example, is the mobile version - which makes sense as the UHL55 runs a skinned version of Android 6.0. You're better off plugging a Fire Stick 4K or Chromecast Ultra into this.

Things get even dicier when you add in smart assistants. You'll have to head to the "Smart Home" section of the menu and then use a pairing code and serial number to link it to your Optoma account. Then you have to download the Optoma skill and log in with your Optoma credentials.

And once that's done, your choices for what you can call your UHL55 are odd. There's no "Optoma" or "Projector" options, but you can call your projector "tiger", "turtle", or "bedroom" (I went with turtle). It's a weird way to set things up, and it feels super unnecessary. It works the same way with Google Assistant, by the way, though it's a little more obscure as Alexa is mentioned in the menus of the UHL while Assistant isn't.

Picture quality is definitely a plus, but there are some mixed things going on here. You're getting true 4K (3840 x 2160 at 60Hz) with HDR10 support, and it's nice and bright (at 1,500 lumens); we were able to get a decent picture about 100 inches. Adjusting focus is extraordinarily easy, with just a couple button presses.

You're also getting a contrast ratio of 250,000:1. That's good enough, but things go awry when you switch over to gaming. The UHL55's game mode, which improves response time, is bad. It's super dim - so dim we thought we'd accidentally turned it off. The worst part is that when you turn on HDR it turns off game mode. So you either have dim, fast footage or you have bright footage that has a slight response time - if you're a casual gamer it won't matter, but if you're big on shooters or fighters you'll notice.

All of those niggles are worth it because of the ease of use. You can tell Alexa and Google Assistant, for instance, to switch cinema modes, or inputs. You can turn it off or on with your voice. If you plug in a Chromecast, you get even more versatility. That, combined with its portable size and good picture, makes the UHL55 a worthy 4K projector. There's also a handy shutter switch that turns off the projector and protects the lens.

the ambient verdict
Optoma UHL55
The Optoma UHL55's ease-of-use help balance against the negatives. It's got built-in speakers and assistant support, plus it's small enough to take it on the go. The picture for video and 4K HDR is good, but things suffer when you're in game mode (thankfully, you can ignore it if response time isn't an issue).
PROS
  • Small size
  • Alexa + Google Assistant
  • Good picture quality
CONS
  • Assistant setup is a mess
  • Bad app store
  • Game mode sucks

Best 4K projectors: Everything you need to know before you buy

Sony 4K SXRD 295ES

$4,999, Amazon | sony.com

Sony's 4K projector isn't smart, but it sure does pack a punch in video quality. A lot of that is how massive this thing is. This isn't a projector you're going to want to move around at all, unlike the UHL55. This is one you mount or place somewhere permanently and then never touch again.

It's got a big old lens in the front with a cover, and it uses that lens to pump out a true 4K picture (with HDR10 support). It's pumping out a total of 8.8 million pixels at 1,500 lumens. On paper, that's slightly more detailed and just as bright as the UHL, but in practice it's much, much brighter than the UHL. A lot of that has to do with the Sony's 350,000:1 contrast ratio. There are some deep blacks here, and it helps all those bright colors pop.

In our tests, we were able to get the Sony up to a 90-inch picture while maintaining a bright, focused picture. There's also a motorized lens that can adjust the focus and size manually rather than optically, which allows you to get better clarity at larger image sizes.

There's no smart assistant support here, and there's no built-in app store or anything like that, but for an advanced projector the interface here is quick and easy to use. There's also a massive remote bundled with the Sony that'll help you adjust all sorts of your picture - from brightness to sharpness. You can also change the pattern, aspect ratio and size very easily. You you won't have built-in speakers though, so you'll need to get your own speakers and connect them via HDMI or optical.

Game mode works great. The picture still looks great, and response time is fast. Apex Legends, in particular, was a breeze to play and we didn't even think about input lag. If you're looking to game on a projector, the Sony is a good one to look out for.

I should also mention that Sony uses a lot of proprietary technology here, so the chipset behind its projection as well as its motion smoothing tech. That tech is very good, especially motion smoothing, watching animals in Planet Earth II makes for a pretty beautiful experience.

the ambient verdict
Sony 4K SXRD 295ES
The Sony 4K SXRD 295ES has a great, great picture. It's got deep blacks and true HDR with vibrant colors. Sony's smooth motion tech is great too, so you'll get the best possible picture. Game mode is a treat too, so if you're a big game you'll be in luck. While it is expensive and there's no smart assistant, there are few projectors that are better.
PROS
  • Great picture
  • Game mode
  • Deep blacks
CONS
  • Expensive
  • Need speakers
  • No smart assistant support


Best 4K projectors: Everything you need to know before you buy

JVC DLA-NX5

$5,999, Amazon | jvc.com

We haven't tested JVC's new 2019 project yet, but it looks to be a big improvement with native 4K and HDR10 support. This one hits brightness up to 1,800 lumens and packs a dynamic contrast ratio of 400,000:1.

JVC's proprietary D-ILA tech also helps give this projector some of the darkest blacks in the segment, which is going to help you get a more accurate and vibrant picture. Some caveats here are that it's not smart. It also is a fairly large projector, which means if you've got a rig it may not fit in it.


Best 4K projectors: Everything you need to know

LG CineBeam

$2,699, Amazon | lg.com

LG's first 4K projector is going for a sleek compact look but is hoping to pack in as much power as possible. You've got a 4K resolution of 3840 x 2160 pumping out at a whopping 2,500 lumens and HDR10 support.

The big sell here is the versatility. Thanks to that brightness, it's much easier to set it up in any room in your house. This is something you may actually do because you can pick up the CineBeam, move it to another room and easily set it up.

The CineBeam can project in four different modes. You can sit it down on the floor and flip its lid up to watch on the wall. You can lay it down on a table and watch it on the wall - or sit it up and point it to the ceiling. And, finally, you can hang it from the ceiling and watch it on the wall - aka The Classic Method.


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