THE GOOD: Extremely accurate color including spot-on color decoding for both SD and HD; nearly perfect primary/secondary colors and linear grayscale tracking; superb black level and shadow detail performance; bright for its class enabling it to adequately drive larger screen sizes than most of its competition; excellent lens; solid feature package with numerous picture-affecting options; sleek styling.
THE BAD: While improved, black level still not as deep as the best LCoS and LCD projectors; at its price, I expect horizontal lens shift as well as electronic zoom and focus.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The new chip in Samsung's SP-A900B helps it to outperform every projector in its class, including its step-down Joe Kane-designed brother, and to compete favorably against significantly more-expensive three-chip DLP projectors.
Samsung, with the help of video guru Joe Kane, again delivers outstanding performance in the high-end front projection DLP category with the flagship SP-A900B. This 1080p resolution, one-chip DLP projector sports the latest Dark Chip 4 chip from Texas Instruments, but otherwise appears virtually the same as the SP-A800B that I reviewed last year. The new chip results in superior black levels, which also increase the contrast ratio of the projector substantially. The 900B retains the same superb color found on its less expensive brother, along with its other stellar image quality characteristics, and as a bonus remains one of the most stylish and attractive designs in front projection. At $12,999 list, the Samsung SP-A900B is definitely on the pricey side for the one-chip DLP category, but as with so many things in life, you get what you pay for.
(Editors' note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the Samsung SP-A900B and the SP-A800B we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some déjà vu when reading the same sections below.)
Rounded lines with a lens centered on the chassis, along with a glossy-black finish, make the 900B one of the most elegant designs in front projection. It is not overly large, and at less than 22 pounds, it won't bring the rafters down in your basement. All in all, it should merit a relatively high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor), as well as the approval of the interior decorator.
The remote control matches the look of the projector with smooth lines and a glossy-black finish. It fits comfortably in the hand thanks to the contoured shape, and is fully backlit at the touch of a button. I especially liked having direct access keys for the most important functions like input selection, aspect ratio and picture mode. The menu system is unchanged from the 800B, and remains intuitive and easy to use and navigate.
The SP-A900B includes nearly everything we expect in a high-end front projector, starting with scads of picture adjustments. A total of seven Picture Modes seems somewhat overkill in fact. They are Dynamic, Standard, Movie 1, Movie 2, and User 1, 2, and 3. Movie proved best for both out-of-the-box and post-calibrated use.
Some unusual adjustments are onboard. The Color Pattern feature, similar to the Blue Only modes on Samsung's TVs, allows you to isolate blue for setting color and tint properly. It also enables you to isolate red and green to confirm the excellent color decoding on the 900B. The overscan function can eliminate compression artifacts that appear as interference along the extreme edges of cable or satellite sources, but beware that it overscans at least 5 percent, which may cost you too much of the image in the process.
Perhaps one of the most beneficial features is the choice of color gamuts. You can choose between SMPTE C (for America), EBU (for Europe), and HD for standard Rec 709 material like Blu-ray Discs. Although calibration improves the color gamuts somewhat, they do measure extremely close to the Rec 709 specification right out of the box, which is something few projectors can boast.
An adjustable Iris is another really useful feature for achieving the best light output and black-level performance for your particular screen size and material. These settings differ slightly on the 900 from the 800, with the Manual setting being the best choice for most applications. In my theater, for example, with an 80-inch wide by 45-inch high Stewart Filmscreen Grayhawk RS screen, the manual setting at 50 in the middle of the range yielded 16.75 fTL of light output (12 fTLs is the standard for projected film in a movie theater), and still produced deep blacks. I ran the lamp in the Theater mode, which is the lower power of the two lamp modes.
There are three Gamma settings: Film (the best for home theater purposes), Video, and Graphic. In addition to the grayscale (RGB gain and bias) controls in the user menu for fine-tuning the grayscale, there are four color temperature presets: 5500K (for Black & White), 6500K (for Color), and 8000K and 9000K for bluer grayscales. The 6500K option 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 a rare feature that will be welcomed by die-hard movie fans. Such fans will also appreciate that the projector automatically locks onto a 24fps signal from Blu-ray and doubles it to 48fps, preserving the native frame rate of film.
The 900B does have vertical lens shift, but not horizontal, and adjustment is manual and not electronic. Zoom and focus are also both manual, which I found disappointing considering the unit's price. Electronic adjustments make setup of the projector much easier.
Connectivity is adequate, with two HDMI and two component video inputs heading up the list. S-Video and composite inputs (one of each) are on tap for legacy formats like VHS and Laserdisc. Also onboard, a 15-pin VGA style input for use with a PC, and 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.
The SP-A900B is the fifth front projector that video guru Joe Kane designed for Samsung, and each new product surpasses the last in terms of picture quality. Compared with last year's SP-A800B, the 900B exhibits significantly increased contrast ratio by virtue of better black-level performance, thanks in large part to the new Dark Chip 4 DLP chip. As with its predecessor, the SP-A900B outperforms every other front projector, right up to the entry-level three-chip DLP units that start at a cool $30,000. Color accuracy, setup features, an excellent lens, and a lamp with high light output are all areas of performance that make the 900B superior to anything at or near its price range, including the $15,000 Sony VPL-VW200. Gamma, primary colors, and grayscale accuracy are all also superior to the Sony.
The only reason we didn't give the Samsung SP-A900B a perfect "10" in performance is because the best LCoS and LCD projectors still deliver superior black-level performance.
The Samsung's color fidelity is unmatched by any projector in its class both straight out of the box, prior to professional calibration, and of course afterward. In fact, the 900B has probably the most accurate picture of any projector I have ever tested if you simply choose the Movie 1 picture mode. Samsung is one of the few manufacturers of DLP projectors to incorporate a Texas Instruments utility for primary color correction. This utility allows technicians like me to dial in the primary colors, which in turn corrects the secondary colors, to near perfection. This makes the difference between good and great color accuracy. This feature, combined with all of the other performance parameters, makes the 900B capable of delivering astonishingly accurate and truly spectacular-looking color.
The opening scene from "The Dark Knight" on Blu-ray, for example, looked incredible with great snap and excellent color saturation. Chapter 2, which opens with a night shot of Chicago and then segues into a shot on the street at night, provided a real feel for how good the blacks are on this projector. Shadow detail also abounded in these scenes, and low-level noise was also kept at a minimum.
Next, I turned to the excellent transfer on Blu-ray of "The Departed." The opening scene in the diner is an excellent test for how well 24fps material, which includes most films, is handled by a projector's onboard video processing. When Nicholson waives the young girl over to him, the sharp right to left camera pan was rendered quite smoothly and film-like on the 900B, effectively eliminating the slight stuttering artifacts otherwise created by 2:3 pull-down.
High-quality cable HDTV channels, such as the YES channel here in New York, looked great as well. The grass on the field, for example, looked exceptionally realistic instead of the neon-like lime green most projectors reproduce. TCM (Turner Classic Movies) in HD provided ample opportunity to take advantage of the projector's awesome 5500 black and white grayscale setting. This setting gives you the sepia look that black and white film presentations deliver. Again I appreciated the great snap to the picture, indicating excellent contrast ratio. On color material, skin tones and colors were extremely realistic looking.
I began my evaluation of the 900B alone without an external video processor, and was quite impressed with its performance as far as video processing is concerned. It passed the Film and Video Loss tests from the Silicon Optix HQV Blu-ray test disc with flying colors, and also handled lower-quality standard-definition signals well. I then finished my observations with program material by using the DVDO VP50Pro, which is my current reference video processor.