So it’s been a few weeks since we did an interview but here we have a great one with Art Feierman of Projector Reviews. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we all on TestFreaks has and before we go into the interview I would to thank Art for putting up the time to share his experiences with the rest of us.

Q: When you started out, what were your plans for Projector Reviews?

When I first launched my first website, back in early 1995, presentingsolutions.com, it was the first site selling projectors online.  In those early days of the web, the articles I wrote about different projectors were designed to be very informational, with commentary to help people choose projectors.  Over the years, with lots of new online competition, the focus of the content changed, and our product content became more sales focused.  Back in 2000, when I registered the name www.projectorreviews.com, I wanted to get back to providing in-depth analysis, realizing that a separate website, completely focused on reviewing projectors, as an online “magazine”, made more sense.

Ultimately, though, primary focus had to remain on presentingsolutions, my “full time” company, The site really launched in 2003, when only a few articles were posted, and no reviews until 2004.  I had actually wanted to do projectorreviews.com under the umbrella of my old company (while I was working for them part time, with the idea of my sharing ownership with my old company, but the new owners weren’t interested.  Well, that ended up working out just fine for me, as it turns out.   At the end of 2005, Projector Reviews became my full time effort, as my significant part-time contract with the old company came to an end.

The goal of www.projectorreviews.com, was to provide truly in-depth reviews, but equally important, I wanted to write these reviews not for the “hard core” enthusiasts, who crave tonnage of technical information, but for first time buyers, and more generally, people who simply wanted to buy the best projector solution for their, or their company’s needs, from a very practical standpoint.

As a result of that, our reviews included how the reviewed projector compared to the competition, images showing differences in key areas like shadow detail, black levels, color accuracy, text quality (business projectors), and more.  Over the first couple of years, the reviews were expanded, also adding the technical measurements that the enthusiasts crave, but still writing for those who simply want the right projector for their budget.

Q: What was the first product you reviewed?  
That was the Panasonic PT-LB10U, a small, lightweight portable business projector.  The first home theater projectors reviewed were the old Sanyo PLV-Z2, and  BenQ’s PE7800.

Q: How do you feel that manufacturers has treated you trough the years?
Well, no real complaints.  When I first started doing reviews, I could simply some borrow projectors from my old company, but, of course, that didn’t give me access to all the projectors I felt I needed to review.  Fortunately, having been one of the larger online dealers of projectors, I already had many connections, which did help.  The biggest challenge was, while our traffic was still small, how to convince manufacturers to ship me review units when first available, since they usually only have a small handful of projectors to go around.  

Often I was months down on a waiting list.

What ultimately worked, was that I promised manufacturers that I would “turn” – review a projector, and ship it back to them in 10 days to two weeks, unlike print magazines, who often sit on them for months and months.  That really helped with some manufacturers, but not others.  

Fortunately, it never was a big problem.  With business projectors, there are so many manufacturers, and models they they cry out for reviews, so getting biz projectors – when I only planned to review 15 or so a year, from some 50 manufacturers, and 500 models, I might not have gotten every projector model I wanted to review, but had no problem with getting projectors.

On the home theater side, I was lucky, my connections were and are very strong with all of the dominant home theater brands, notably Panasonic, Sanyo, Epson, BenQ, JVC and Optoma, which between them probably had 90% market share.  Things were much tougher with Sony, Sharp, and those higher end companies, like Runco, (who still doesn’t provide review units to online reviewers).  The bottom line, is that I really had no real trouble, at least in covering the most popular units, although I did struggle to get in a few here and there.

Now that we are the 2nd largest online review site, it’s been no problem at all.   Most of the manufacturers now call me – “if we can get you one out next week, how soon, can you post a review…”    

Still, I do try to return projectors on a timely basis, so quite honestly, these days, scheduling them in (I’ve got 20 new home theater projectors alone, on my “short list” right now, of models just shipping or shipping by end of December.  That’s more than I can crank out in 90 days, by about a half dozen.  So, now, instead of working to get review projectors, I have to decide which ones to delay, until I can catch up.

Q: Can you describe what makes your review process unique and why it’s worth reading before buying?

Of course most aspects of our reviews are not unique.  I, like everyone else, for example, measure brightness and for home theater projectors, color temperature, etc..  I believe, however we are very different in a number of areas. 

I’ll concentrate here on how we do home theater projectors.  First of all, when a new projector arrives, the first thing on the agenda, is to spend several hours viewing each projector in their “best” (high quality picture), and “brightest” modes.  The goal here, is to determine how watchable a projector is, if the customer buying one, cannot be convinced to have the projector professionally calibrated, or at least, to buy a low cost end user calibration disc (it’s not difficult, even for those rather techno-phobic, just follow the step by step instructions).   Some projectors are very good, others poor “out of the box”.  Even those projectors with the best “out of the box” picture quality, all still can be improved at least slightly with one form of calibration or another.   

After initial viewing, the projector gets measured, and calibrated, one thing we have added in the last couple of years and change, is to publish our own calibration settings.  We find that many readers, who choose not to calibrate themselves or pay for a calibration, are plugging in our settings, for improved performance.  (Note, there is variation from projector to projector (of the same model), mostly due to variation of the lamps, but our settings should be very close for any projector.

Images are one way we differentiate from other reviews.  While there are many limitations in using images, since they cannot fully reflect what is seen on the screen, due to camera, and reader’s own monitor’s limitations.  Still, they nicely support the commentary, such as images, that are intentionally overexposed, of dark scenes, in order to show black level and shadow detail performance.   

In addition, our reviews show not only a particular scene taken with that projector, but for a number of images, the same frame shot from other projectors.  This demonstrates the differences.  The images support commentary, and are not to be used by themselves.  (Slight differences in brightness in the images, without appropriate commentary, for example, can have readers draw the wrong conclusions.)  Our review images, do, however, used properly, do demonstrate advantages and disadvantages of one projector over another at shadow details, black levels, ability to handle ambient light, and so on.   Since many buyers are not just movie folks but are interested in TV, sports, etc., we also show HDTV images under different room lighting conditions in most reviews.

And, as part of the practical side of our reviews, we go heavily into which projector can meet all your needs.  For one person, who watches almost exclusively movies, how well a projector does in bright mode, may be a non-issue, but, on the other hand, many readers who also want to watch football, but not “in a cave” – a fully darkened room), may ultimately choose a brighter projector over one with slightly better black level performance.  Myself, I have agonized over which projector to purchase for my own use, because of my use of a very large screen, and watching lots of sports.  The best projector around, is rarely also the brightest. 

Perhaps the biggest difference between us and other reviews are our extensive comparison between the projector being reviewed, and many of the competition.  The competition is mentioned throughout the review, and head to head comparison commentary is included on our Summary page.

That’s a particularly important advantage for readers – those who read print projector reviews, usually notice that each projector is reviewed in a vaccuum, as if it was the only projector on the market – it’s never better than this competitor, or worse than that one.  Many reviewers instead emphasize that this new model is better than the model it replaces (isn’t that obvious?), as a sad attempt to provide competitive information, without potentially upsetting an advertiser.  

Q: What do you think are important factors for a good reviewer?   

Well, first, objectivity.  A fair amount of the traffic to our site is coming from the various forums, and those are filled with the hardcore enthusiasts.  If my reviews are not credible, then I risk losing all that traffic, as they would be the first to cry out “bullshit”.  Most important, though is to write the content to deal with the real issues people looking for a home theater projector need to consider.  If there is one area, where our reviews excel, I think it is here.  Our reviews are written to deal with real issues, such as how a projector performs, and compares to others, in different types of room conditions, different screen sizes, etc.  We also have a section which recommends particular types of projector screens, depending on all those other conditions.

I tend to be extremely wordy, but I find it necessary to really paint a clear picture, I spend a fair amount of time word crafting, and writing so readers can understand the subtleties.  What’s the difference between excellent, extremely good, most impressive, very impressive, really good, very good, and so on.  When comparing two rather similar competitors, it’s not easy to paint differences in subtle shades of language.

And, I think a certain amount of passion is a great thing for someone writing reviews.  When you write a long review, you have to capture the reader’s attention, and get them excited, otherwise, I believe, they will get bored after a review or two, and that means frustration on their end.  Most readers would like a quick solution, as many do.  “This is the best projector – buy it”, but the realities are that there are many issues, some are deal breakers, as a result I like the way we do it.  We inform and guide, providing the trade-offs. We do recommend some, but even then, we explain to the reader, that their situation may call for a different projector than even the “Best in Class.”

Q: When you write your reviews what readers do you have in mind?

I touched on that earlier.  While I include plenty of information for the hard core enthusiast, some of them would say, I don’t report on enough measurements, etc.  But then, I don’t realy write for them, and there are other more technical reviews out there, that can complement mine.  I write for their friends – the non-hardcore, who just wants something that will look great, and are typically overwhelmed when they talk to their friend the “expert”.  That “hardcore enthusiast” quite often makes it all so complicated that most of their friends give up and buy  a plasma or LCDTV.  My goal is to make buying a home theater (projector) system something easy to grasp, and not intimidating for most readers.  Much of the reason our reviews are long, is because explanations on different aspects of performance run throughout the reviews to clarify things to our target readers – the “first timers” and those that avoid dealing with the technology.  The “which should I buy” crowd.  They need the explanations and the practical information, and are less concerned with measurements, and specs.

Q: How do you select products to review?

That’s easy.  On the home theater side, my goal is to review just about every major product that hits the market.  In addition a few of the more obscure ones, that seem to be worthy, or hit a particular niche market.  Our focus is projectors under $10,000 selling price.   Ultimately, I would estimate we review about 85% of all the projectors that hit the market under $10,000 and the ones we review probably make up close to 95% of all sales, if not more.  Oh we miss one or two here or there, such as only reviewing five of six current InFocus models.  The one we skipped was an in between model, similar to two others, falling in the middle in both price and performance.   Sorry, can’t get to them all.

On the business side I tend to do business projectors in batches of about six, over four weeks, and compare them to each other.  When I select a six pack though, I’m not picking 6 direct competitors, rather 6 projectors that will have different types of buyers, with the goal of helping buyers get the right type of projector.  My mix might contain one low cost SVGA projector, several XGA projectors, an under 4 pound portable with wireless networking, a 5-7 portable with 2500 lumens, A 5000 lumen plus install projector, and one widescreen (maybe two), and these days, one ultra-short throw projector.  

Let’s face it, if you wanted a portable business projector under 7 pounds and with 2000 – 3000 lumens, there are probably at least 100 models on the market, so no one is going to review most or even a good sampling.  Better to review a mix, so people know the right type of projector to buy, in terms of resolution, needed unique features, cost, brightness, warranties, etc.   Oh, over the course of a year, there are reviews, of usually 2-3 projectors from different major brands that are direct competitors, but business projectors are a pretty mature industry, there’s very few truly  inferior projectors out there, but key features can be a big deciding difference.


Q: What are your favorite products you have reviewed that has stood out in regards to innovation or user experience?

Well, for innovation, the Epson Ensemble HD, the first true “home theater in a box” that is a complete system built around a home theater projector, is by far the most impressive.  Buyers can actually walk into a dealer in the morning, put the complete system on their credit card (or cash, of course), and if scheduling allows, have the complete system installed in 4-5 hours that afternoon, so that they can watch it that night.  The system is fully integrated with all front speakers residing inside the motorized 100″ screen housing, it includes an AV receiver (called their AV controller).  subwoofer, projector with housing that has the rear speakers, a already programmed universal remote, and, the best part, small channels for running all wiring, so that walls do not have to be opened.  It’s one amazing product for the non-enthusiast, that really meets the needs of the 99.5% of the population who aren’t hardcore.  

Until the Epson Ensemble, I never had an Outstanding Product of the Year award, but felt that the Ensemble HD is not just a great product, but changes the industry dynamic by providing millions the ability to rather painlessly install a real home theater by a dealer, in a few hours, instead of a few weeks.

The other most recent projector has been the InFocus IN83, which not only produces a superb image, but is one of the brightest.  For example, I love my JVC RS1, but it just doesn’t have the horsepower for sports viewing, that the InFocus has.  The RS1′s brightess for my room is  “OK” for sure, (I didn’t upgrade to the JVC RS2, because it was less bright.), but I’ve mostly been watching the IN83 for sports since college football kicked off (that’s US football – sorry).   Other favorites include the just mentioned JVC RS1, from 2 years ago, and the newer RS2, the two dominant projectors in terms of producing the blackest blacks (oft referred to as the “holy grail” of home theater projectors, and both winners of our Best in Class awards.   Lastly, another Epson, their Home Cinema 1080 UB, which introduced excellent black level performance to a much wider number of users by being the first sub-$3000 projector to truly excel in this area.  And it’s very bright in brightest mode, so it works great for the person who wants movies and sports. 

Other cut above projectors include four in the 720p home theater projector space: the best selling Panasonic PT-AX200u 3LCD projector for the less expensive 720p crowd, very good picture, and brightest in class.  Also, Optoma’s low cost HD65 DLP projector – one of the best in terms of out of the box image quality, and then there’s their almost as bright as the Panasonic, more expensive HD71. Lastly Sanyo’s PLV-Z60 which I just reviewed, is less bright, but has qualities that appeal to the enthusiast.

Q: What are your best tips for the average consumer to look for when buying a Projector?

Well, start with a general budget, what you want to spend, what you are willing to spend (if there’s a compelling improvement).

Next is figure out your room.  Light walls, dark walls, ambient light control (can you fully darken all the time, only at night).  Figure out how large a screen you would ideally like.  Where you can mount a projector – is ceiling OK, shelf mounting is usually easier and less expensive, but most DLP projectors can’t be shelf mounted, and even the 3LCD and LCoS (JVC, Sony)  projectors, may not work if, for example you don’t want an overly large screen, but have a very deep room, in which case you might not be able to place the projector far enough back.

And along with that – what you watch – just movies, just sports, a mix of movies, sports, TV, what are your priorities.  Once you have a handle on all of that, it’s time to start sorting through the equipment, to find the one that best meets all of your needs.

What would you say to a consumer that is looking to buy a big screen TV and haven’t considered a projector until you meet them?

Well, first thing is this:  Projectors make for real home theaters, and 50, 60, and 65″ big screens, LCDTV’s and Plasmas do not.  Those others are just too small to create that theater (immersion) experience.   I’d say you start at 90″ diagonal for a small room and 110″ or larger if your room can handle it, for a theater feel, and that, after all, is what projectors are all about.

Then comes the whole ambient light situation.  Theater – implies dark.  You can watch a 50″ plasma or LCDTV in a fairly bright room.  You cannot do that with a projector and a screen with 5 – 6 times the area.

Now, some folks drop a projector into their family room, and I know a number of them that also have something like a 42″ plasma for daytime watching because the “wife factor” often prevents things like blackout shades on windows, etc.

Many those do conversions of a bonus room, a spare bedroom, garage, and particularly popular in parts of our country (US) where they are common, in basements.  (I’m in southern California, where basements are rare, but almost everyone on the east coast of the US has one.)

If you would help a user calibrate and set up his equipment what advice would you give?

Easy, got a few hundred dollars to spare, hire a professional.  They can do more than just get it right, they can get your input devices working best with the projector as well.  In my neck of the woods calibrations start around $200 – $250 and can go up to maybe $750, for a lot of work.  Failing that, buy a calibration disc, and invest an hour of time, following directions, or if that is too much to ask for, go into the menus and set the user savable memories, with the results we publish in our reviews.  Not perfect due to model variation, but in most cases our settings will get you at least 80% of the way between “out of the box” and best performance.

Q: Finally what do you think of sites like TestFreaks that aggregates and analyzes a large number of reviews?

Hmm, I better say nice things, so that you’ll post this, but seriously…  I think that review aggregators are very helpful to consumers.  It’s great to have links to multiple reviews, all in one place.  

Testfreaks.com, for example apparently goes through the reviews and generates it’s own ratings based on the reviews that are out there.   I don’t know the methodology used, to generate their point scale rankings (ex. Projector XYZ gets a 9.6 average), so I can’t comment on that.  Myself, however, I have always hated those point rankings, whether they are from a professional review site (we don’t use point rankings), or an aggregator, like Testfreaks.com

The nature of a home theater projector solution is that there are important variables that a critical to a good decision by the buyer.  I’ve mentioned these before, but it includes desired screen size, room ambient light for different types of viewing, placing a projector in a room, and on, and on.

Problem is, point rankings for the most part tell very little, and worse, they are at their very best, accurate only for a few months.

Consider this:  I looked quickly through the first 250 projectors in Test Freaks database.  Of all the home theater projectors listed there (perhaps 100 home theater models  in that  10% sampling of their 2500 entries), only one projector had a score of less than 8.7!

Using scores, can just mislead buyers, so good explanations are needed.  Consider:  What impact does price have?  For example, sorting by score, I saw an InFocus IN83 score worse than their lower model, the IN82.  Why?

Now, I mentioned the IN83 above, as one of the most impressive projectors around.  It scored a 9.7 out of 10, but the IN82, identical except for the IN83 costing more, and having better black levels, etc.  got a 10?  Certainly, the IN83 is the better projector, and since there is nothing about the IN83 that is inferior to the IN82 (all the same features, etc.)  How does that happen?

Time is a factor.  The IN83 is newer, although both are current models. The IN83 is the first projector (at least in the US) shipping with the new Darkchip 4 DLP chip, compared to the IN83′s Darkchip3.   Since that’s the only difference in design, how does the IN83 lose?

One more example, where time is again, an obvious factor.  3 years ago, Panasonic shipped their PT-AE900 projector (which scored a 9.6).  Last year, two generations newer, they launched their PT-AE2000.  First it’s higher resolution – 1080p, not 720p like the AX200)  It got a 9.8.  Now, the thing is, these projectors are not even remotely competitive with each other.  The PT-AE2000U blows away the PT-AE900, the way a BMW 760 blows away a Toyota Camry.  So, the problem here, is that if the PT-AE900 was reviewed today, it probably would have gotten an 8.7, not a 9.6.  And if someone used a scale with more range than using only 8.7 to 10 (making everything sound great), perhaps the PT-AE900U would only score a 5.5 today.

This is a huge problem starting with professional reviewers, not the review aggregators, but, unless an aggregator like Testfreaks.com is willing to spend save hours on each projector, to devise precise ratings, ratings that would have to be updated at least every 60 days, as new products ship and are reviewed, I consider that a weakness.

Believe me, I’ve considered doing letter grades or points, but after a few months of agonizing how to keep re-scoring each projector as new competitors hit the market, I gave up.  Instead we provide comparison information in the newer reviews, about how the older projector compares to the new one. I find that to work much better, but I do realize that it makes readers “work” a bit harder.  But as I just pointed out, scores created by reviewers are quickly of little or no use.  

Mind you I don’t have a better solution for an aggregator of reviews, short of essentially writing their own.  So, yes, I do find them most useful, but they can all do better, including organizing projectors competitively.  No point in having a 9.6 score on a 3 year old projector when you are looking for a current model…

That’s about it, other than to welcome everyone to read our reviews and advice articles. -art