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Home theater projector offers 'unbeatable value'

  • Story Highlights
  • Samsung SP-A800B home theater projector is stylish, has a solid feature package
  • It takes accuracy of signal reproduction to a new level
  • Color fidelity is unmatched by any projector at or near its price range
  • A total of seven picture modes seems somewhat overkill
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By Kevin Miller
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CNET.com

(CNET) -- Samsung's flagship one-chip DLP-based home theater projector, the SP-A800B, takes accuracy of signal reproduction to a new level.

My previous reference projector, the Samsung SP-H710AE, was designed by Joe Kane, and that well-known video guru and author of Digital Video Essentials also designed the SP-A800B.

While the 710E is spectacularly accurate in just about every regard, the new SP-A800B surpasses its predecessor's performance in several important areas.

First off, it has a 1080p native resolution, which becomes more important when using gigantic front-projector screen sizes.

A brighter, more stable lamp provides longer life at light levels far above those of the 710, and the lens is considerably better with far fewer chromatic aberrations.

Finally, black levels are much better in the right Iris setting.

The SP-A800B is also one of the most stylish and attractive designs in front projection.

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To that add a solid feature package and good connectivity, and in the SP-A800B ($9999 list) you have an unbeatable value in the high-end projector space.

Design

Samsung has done a complete redesign on this projector. Rounded edges and a lens assembly centered on the chassis give it an extremely sleek, high-tech look. The unit is finished in a glossy black that should impress everyone, including an interior designer.

The remote control mimics the projector with its own rounded edges and black glossy finish. The medium-sized clicker fits in the hand comfortably and every key is within easy reach.

I was also very pleased to find that it is fully backlit, which is another little improvement over the previous 710 design. Also, the menu system is quite intuitive to use and easy to navigate.

Features

A strong feature package is one of the many strengths of the SP-A800B. A unique feature--one that I have yet to see on any projector in its class--is selectable color space. You have a choice of SMPTE C (for America), EBU (for Europe), and HDTV.

The best part of the feature is that all of these color spaces are pretty accurate out of the box, and scarily accurate after a service level calibration.

A total of seven picture modes seems somewhat overkill. Movie mode is the best and most accurate for out-of-the-box post-calibrated use.

The Color Pattern feature lets you isolate blue for setting color and tint properly, and shows off the excellent color decoding on the 800 by letting you isolate red and green only.

An overscan feature can be engaged to intentionally cut off the extreme edges of a cable or satellite input, to eliminate compression artifacts for example. Be careful with this though, as it appears to overscan at least 5 percent, which may be more than you want.

Three gamma settings are onboard, including Film (the best for home theater purposes), Video, and Graphic. Of course, there are the obligatory selectable color temperatures: 5500K (for Black & White), 6500K (for Color), and 8000K and 9000K for bluer grayscales.

Needless to say, the 6500K is the setting you will want to utilize the most, but being able to select 5500K for an accurate grayscale when watching a black and white source is really a plus.

Gain and Bias controls are available in the User menu for fine-tuning of the grayscale if it is necessary after the service menu calibration is completed. The Dynamic Black setting is where the adjustments for the iris reside.

These settings open and close the iris respectively for balancing good blacks with an acceptable amount of light output. I found that the Middle setting produced the best compromise.

I would stay away from Auto, which will open and close the iris depending on how bright the content of the picture is. The Off and Light settings produce brighter pictures with severely compromised black level performance, while the Deep setting produces the best blacks, but with an unacceptably dim picture on my 80-inch wide (92-inch diagonal) Stewart Grayhawk RS screen.

The SP-A800B does have vertical lens shift, but not horizontal, which I found a bit disappointing at its price range.

Connectivity is fairly generous, with two HDMI and two component video inputs heading up the list. Of course, there are S-Video and composite inputs (one of each) on tap for legacy formats such as VHS and Laserdisc.

There is also a 15-pin VGA style input for use with a PC. Last but not least, an RS-232 port is on tap, which will enable custom installers to program the projector's functions into a touch-panel remote system like a Crestron or AMX.

Performance

Samsung is one of the few companies with the foresight to hire a master video display consultant to help it design a product. This is now the fourth front projector that Joe Kane of Joe Kane Productions has had a hand in designing with Samsung, and each new effort surpasses the last.

The overall picture quality of the SP-A800B is superior to anything at or near its price range, including the more-expensive Sony VPL-VW200 SXRD projector I reviewed back in December 2007. Gamma, primary colors, and grayscale accuracy are all also superior to the Sony.

The SP-A800B improves on previous designs in several key areas of performance. First off, the lens is far superior to anything the company has used to date. The lamp is now brighter and light falloff is dramatically better than with the previous 710. Blacks are also significantly improved over the last 720p resolution model.

Color fidelity is unmatched by any projector at or near its price range, both straight out of the box prior to professional calibration, and, of course, after fine-tuning of the primary colors and grayscale with a service level calibration.

Samsung has chosen wisely to incorporate a Texas Instruments utility for primary color correction, which most manufacturers don't bother to do (probably because of additional expense in the light engine).

This utility lets technicians dial in the primary colors, which in turn corrects the secondary colors, to near perfection. This feature, when combined with accurate color decoding, excellent gamma, and a flat, accurate grayscale, helps make the SP-A800B capable of delivering astonishingly accurate and engrossing pictures.

Video processing on the SP-A800B is also superb. Deinterlacing of 1080i sources is excellent, and artifacts are kept to a minimum.

I began my evaluation of the SP-A800B alone without an external video processor, and was quite impressed with its performance as far as video processing is concerned. It handled film- and video-based test patterns from the Silicon Optix HQV test disc quite well. I then finished my evaluations with the DVDO VP50Pro, which is my current reference video processor.

Watching cable HDTV channels in the weeks leading up to this review, I was immediately impressed with the SP-A800B. The Yankees on the YES channel here in New York never looked better. There was great snap to the picture indicating excellent contrast ratio, and skin tones and colors in general were uncannily realistic.

The projector also handles standard definition signals well. I have the HDMI output of my Time Warner cable box set to "native," which means the cable box leaves all the scaling and processing to the projector. I also love being able to select the 5500K color temperature setting for those old black and white gems on Turner Classic Movies.

Moving on to Blu-ray, I initially watched the opening scenes of "Blade Runner: The Director's Cut," a black level torture test for any projector. The night shots of a futuristic Los Angeles revealed excellent shadow detail and depth on the Samsung.

Blacks were quite compelling, and low-level noise was also at a minimum. A few chapters in, when Decker first meets Rachel, you can see the super fine detail in her black dress even in the dimmer parts of the scene, which is a real testament to the SP-A800B's ability to render shadow detail.

For brighter material, I turned to the excellent transfer on Blu-ray of "The Departed." The opening scene on this disc in the diner can test how well 24 frames per second is implemented on a display.

I must say that the sharp right to left pan inside the diner when the young girl comes down the counter to meet Jack Nicholson looked smoother and more filmlike on the SP-A800B than on any other display I have seen recently.

This disc also showed off the SP-A800B's 1080p resolution unmarred because of its competent scaling, and preserved by an excellent lens, both of which are common problems that rob a significant amount of resolution from many of the competing projectors I've seen in this price range.

© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. CNET, CNET.com and the CNET logo are registered trademarks of CBS Interactive Inc. Used by permission.

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