What are the best budget projectors?

The biggest bang for your buck!

by Steve Withers Oct 13, 2014 at 9:41 AM

  • Home AV Article


    What are the best budget projectors?
    It's a shame that most people's first experience of big screen projection is in their local pub.
    The light polluted environs of your local boozer are hardly the ideal conditions for an effective big screen presentation. Which is a real shame because if people got the chance to see a properly setup projector, they would be amazed at the picture quality available. Not only that but you can get a big projected image for considerably less than you would spend on a large screen TV. The simple fact is that when it comes to home cinema, size does matter, and when it comes to value for money, you get more bang for your buck from a projector than anything else.

    The projectors listed in this article are all at the budget end of the price spectrum, with all of them below £2,000 and some costing less than £1,000. That's not a bad price when you consider you could easily produce an image with a diagonal size of 100 inches and, if you have white wall available, you don't even need to invest in a dedicated screen. You should also be able to get a reasonably accurate image too, even without resorting to a professional calibration, especially if you follow our PicturePerfect guide. All these projectors are bright and should be able to hold their own, even in a room with a lot of ambient light.

    The budget projector market has changed over the last few years, with both Panasonic and JVC falling by the wayside and Sony, Optoma, Epson and BenQ producing the majority of budget projectors these days. Sony's offering is the most expensive and uses their proprietary SXRD technology but it delivers the best overall performance, especially with home cinema. The other projectors are better suited to an all-round role and can be brought out whenever you fancy watching a film, playing a game or catching a sporting event on the big screen.

    That means these projectors are easy to setup, small and light and bright enough for most people's needs; you can just get them out when you need them. The Epson uses LCD panels, of which Sony's SXRD is a variation, whilst both BenQ and Optoma offer single-chip DLP models. All these different technologies have certain strengths and weaknesses but with some careful setup and the right sources, they can all offer superior performance and big screen entertainment that will dwarf even the largest TV for a fraction of the cost. Here are our current budget projector recommendations:

    BenQ W1080ST - £799

    If you've often dreamed of big screen action but thought your room was too small to accommodate such pleasures, the BenQ W1080ST could well be the answer to your prayers. This small and attractively priced projector can deliver big images from only a few feet away and, as long as you're careful, it's easy to setup. The remote control is annoyingly small but at least the menu system is simple to navigate and there's a decent set of connections at the rear. Whilst the W1080ST supports active shutter 3D, it doesn't come with any glasses, although the ones sold separately by BenQ are quite effective. The out-of-the-box measurements were reasonably good and the available calibration controls result in an excellent greyscale and gamma performance, whilst the colours were also quite accurate.

    The W1080ST could certainly deliver big and bright pictures that retained a pleasingly natural appearance. The motion handling was excellent and the video processing generally very good; whilst the single-chip design resulted in sharp and detailed images. The black levels and shadow detail could have been better and the fan and colour wheel were quite noisy but the rainbow artefacts, whilst in evidence, could have been worse. The performance with high definition content and Blu-rays was generally very good and the W1080ST would certainly be a great choice for anyone wanting a projector for gaming. Since the BenQ is a DLP projector, the 3D performance was excellent and many of the issues in 2D were no longer apparent once you put on the 3D glasses. Overall the BenQ W1080ST is a very competent all-round projector and, if space is at a premium, it's well worth considering.
    If 3D is something that still interests you, the faster response time of DLP makes it ideal.

    BenQ W1400 - £1,000

    BenQ have been quietly producing a decent range of budget DLP projectors , which explains why they have two entries on this list, and after the short throw W1080ST we have the longer throw W1400. Whilst single-chip DLP won't be for everyone due to the rainbow artefacts that the colour wheel can produce, if they don't affect you then the W1400 represents a tempting combination of performance and value. The projector itself is reasonably well made, although the fans can get a little noisy and there was some light spill. The remote control is rather small and fiddly but the inclusion of a pair of RF 3D glasses is very welcome. Setup is simple thanks to the easy-to-use manual lens controls and the menu system is sensibly laid out. There's even a decent set of picture controls, which meant the W1400 could produce a very accurate image after setup.

    The 2D performance was very good, with bright images that had natural colours, great motion handling and plenty of detail. The black levels could have been better and shadow detail has never been a strong point of DLP technology, but overall the W1400 produced a very pleasing image. As we've come to expect, the 3D performance was superb and the BenQ delivered an immersive and enjoyable experience, with images that were completely free of crosstalk. The BenQ W1400 makes a great all-round projector and whatever you plan to use it for - sport, movies or gaming - the resulting big screen images are sure to please, especially when you consider the price. This end of the projector market is highly competitive but, based on the factors we've just listed, the BenQ W1400 should certainly be on your short list.

    Optoma HD50 - £1,000

    The Optoma HD50 represents an interesting choice for anyone thinking of taking the logical step from big screen TV to even bigger screen projection. It has an attractive but minimalist design, with a simple white plastic chassis and a decent level of build quality. The lens is also of a decent quality, there's a lens shift control, which is unusual for a DLP projector, and setup is straightforward thanks to a simple menu system. The HD50 is a little noisy in operation, especially when you add in the colour wheel and there is some light spill through the air vent grilles but overall this wasn't an issue. There are a decent set of connections at the rear but the provided remote is a bit small and fiddly. Unfortunately there are no 3D glasses included but at this price that's hardly surprising and at least it leaves you free to choose your own.

    Since the HD50 is a single-chip DLP projector it inherits all the usual strengths and weaknesses. The use of a single chip means no alignment issues and a very sharp image, whilst the motion handling is also excellent. However the use of a colour wheel also means that some individuals may suffer from rainbows and the overall dynamic range is limited. This is not because of the brightness of the projector, which is very good, but because of the mediocre blacks. However in the average living room, this wouldn't be so much of a problem and overall the HD50 did a great job of filling our big review screen with accurate and detailed images. The 3D performance was equally as impressive, with crosstalk-free images and plenty of depth. Although if you end up buying Optoma's active shutter glasses you might find that their dark lenses rob the image of some of its impact.
    Epson's wireless adapter means you don't have to worry about running an HDMI cable to the TW6600W.

    Epson EH-TW6600W - £1,700

    Epson have obviously seen that there is a market for occasional big screen viewing when it comes to movies, games or TV. They realise that in the average living room what you need is a projector that is easy to setup and bright enough to handle any ambient light. They have also identified that in such a room the last thing you need are cables running everywhere and that people are less likely to have a dedicated projection screen. With the TW6600W they have tried to produce a product that addresses all these issues and in our opinion, we think they've succeeded. The TW6600W isn't cheap, only the Sony HW40 costs more, but if your budget is tight and you're happy to run an HDMI cable to the projector, there is the cheaper option of the TW6600 instead, which doesn't come with the wireless module.

    In performance terms don’t expect deep blacks or stunningly accurate colours because, when used in the environment this projector is designed to work in, you won't really need them. The Epson is likely to be pointed at a white wall in a living room. The sources will be connected using the easy to use wireless HDMI box with audio sent to a soundbar or other outboard audio solution. The TW6600W produces a bright and clear image with good detail and nice understated colours, whilst the motion handling is good for an LCD model. Perhaps not as good as a DLP model at this price point but then again with the Epson you don’t get rainbow artefacts. Ultimately the TW6600W is designed to solve the problem of occasional big screen viewing, be simple to use and avoid unnecessary cables and as such it succeeds.

    Sony VPL-HW40ES - £1,850

    Whilst Sony's VPL-HW40ES is the most expensive projector on this list, we think it's a fantastic performer for the money and, frankly, at this price Sony are almost giving them away. It has the design and build quality of the more expensive HW55; the same menu system, remote control and virtually the same feature set, including Sony's excellent Reality Creation image processing. There are minor differences, the most obvious of which is the absence of the dynamic iris, although we wouldn't necessarily consider that a big sacrifice. There are also no 3D glasses included but if that's of interest to you it's easily fixed but just buying a couple pairs and you get the chance to shop around.

    The out-of-the-box accuracy was superb and with the included calibration controls meant the HW40 could deliver a reference greyscale and colour gamut performance. The video processing was also excellent, whilst the motion handling, black levels and shadow detail were also very good. As a result the 2D images were excellent and almost indistinguishable from the HW55, even without the dynamic iris. The 3D performance was also excellent, with bright and accurate images that were free of crosstalk. The HW40 was also very quiet, even in its high lamp mode. The HW40 would definitely benefit from a dedicated screen and a more more permanent installation but there's currently nothing to compete with it in the £1,500-2,000 price bracket.
    Sony's HW40 is an absolute steal, offering an incredible combination of performance and price.
    So there you have it, a selection of projectors using different technologies that can meet most people's needs without breaking the bank. You could get cheaper projectors but they tend to be data grade, where image accuracy is sacrificed for brightness. The projectors we've suggested here will work for movies, TV and games, providing bright and accurate images and even supporting 3D if that's of interest to you. As with all of our articles, we'll keep this one updated as new budget projectors get released.

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