The Sony VPL-HW45ES is the best projector for a dedicated home theater because it offers superb contrast ratios, accurate colors, plenty of light output, low input lag for gaming, and flexible setup options to help it fit almost any location. Typically selling for around $2,000, it costs about $1,000 less than anything else offering comparable performance.
In a light-controlled room, the Sony VPL-HW45ES offers a noticeable improvement in image quality over budget projectors, with fewer compromises. Looking at the Sony’s image next to that of our affordable projector pick (the BenQ HT2050 as of this writing) makes the BenQ’s blacks look dark gray by comparison. The darker blacks make letterbox bars disappear, make nighttime scenes appear much more realistic, and give the image far more pop. However, the Sony is missing some features you might expect from a high-end projector. For example, it lacks both an Ethernet port and a 12-volt trigger with IP control, which are necessary for compatibility with many automation setups (for example, if you want to set up a single routine that turns on the projector and lowers the screen at a push of a button). Such features are nice to have but far from necessary for most people, even for those who have dedicated home theaters. If you can live without them, the Sony VPL-HW45ES offers truly exceptional performance for its relatively affordable price.
If you want better image quality, along with support for wide color gamut (WCG) Ultra HD sources (although not at 4K resolution), even easier setup, and support for automation integration with complex home theaters, the Epson Home Cinema 5040UB is our upgrade pick. It produces a slightly more accurate (that is, with more realistic color) and sharper image than the Sony, and can display almost the entire DCI/P3 color gamut used on WCG sources (more on this topic later). Although the resolution tops out at 1080p, the Epson can digitally process a 4K source to make it look a bit sharper than regular 1080p—the grid lines between pixels all but disappear. It also has a 12 V trigger and Ethernet onboard, making it easier to incorporate into complex integration setups. However, it typically costs 50 percent more than the Sony, and the image quality isn’t 50 percent better. But the improvement the 5040UB does offer, along with its other features, might make it worth the higher price for many people.
If you don’t have a dedicated dark home theater room, the BenQ HT2050 sells for well under $1,000 and is a better buy for most living room setups. Its contrast ratio and color accuracy are noticeably inferior to the Sony’s when compared in a totally darkened room, but those disadvantages are less noticeable if streetlamps or lights from other rooms are leaking into your viewing area. It’s much smaller, too, so you don’t need to permanently mount it out of the way. While you can find midrange projectors that sell for about $1,000 to $2,000, they’re not very impressive, and we recommend saving money with the BenQ or saving up to get the Sony instead. For example, the Epson Home Cinema 3500 (the similar predecessor to the more recent Epson Home Cinema 3700) produced a washed-out image due to its mediocre contrast ratio of 600:1—well below that of either the BenQ or the Sony.
Why you should trust us
I’ve been reviewing projectors for nearly a decade, and I’m an ISF Level II certified calibrator. I have the test equipment to provide all the measurements necessary to objectively evaluate a projector’s performance, as well as a light-controlled environment to perform the testing in. I’ve performed hands-on evaluation of dozens of projectors, from $300 to $65,000 in price, along with calibrating projectors professionally for people who want the most out of them.
Who should buy this
A dedicated home theater projector is meant for a room that offers complete light control. One of the major improvements in these projectors over entry-level models is the ability to produce much darker blacks, giving you better contrast ratios. If you have ambient light in your room (windows without curtains, for example), these blacks will be washed out, so you’ll lose most of the advantage over cheaper models. You can still use these projectors in daytime provided that you have blackout curtains or shades in a room, but if you can’t control the light, one of our less expensive recommendations is probably a better choice.
In order to take full advantage of the high performance these projectors have to offer, you’ll want to pair yours with a good screen. A screen will give you a brighter, more accurate image than a white-painted wall will, and you can buy a great one for as little as $200.
Similarly, you should consider a home theater projector only if you are able to mount it to your ceiling permanently. These models are simply too large to fit atop a stool or a coffee table in your living room, and they aren’t designed to be moved around. While entry-level projectors are about the size of a few stacked laptops or textbooks, a home theater projector is closer in size to a tower desktop PC or a home theater receiver, so you’ll want to place it out of the way.
You should also already have a dedicated surround speaker system. Projectors designed for a dedicated home theater room don’t have any speakers, so they need a separate sound system, usually with a receiver. They also have only a pair of HDMI inputs, so you need something else to switch between sources. Usually projectors like this are paired with a receiver that handles both of those aspects, but just know that you’ll need something to handle sound and input switching for you. Also, these projectors have no TV tuners, so if you watch over-the-air broadcasts, you’ll need to get an external tuner.