Laser Projectors

A Sony projector with laser light engine
The Sony VPL-FHZ65 is a commercial grade laser projector suitable for many advanced applications.

The Coming of Laser Projectors

Hint: Laser projectors have arrived en masse, and they will dominate over lamp projectors by 2020. Now that we are transitioning into 2019, it should be pointed out that the choices in laser projectors has changed greatly since 2016 – just three years. Back then the laser projectors tended to be either fairly high end business, education, or commercial projectors with few below $10,000.. Today we have consumer laser projectors selling from about $2500 street price and up, and business and education projectors with lasers start as low as $1999 (for a Sony WXGA resolution laser projector! (about 1/3 of the lowest priced laser projectors just 3 years ago). There are now plenty of laser projectors for business, education and commercial use that are priced from $2K to $6K Once you start around that $6K price you start getting either advanced features such as edge blending and projection mapping, or higher resolutions such as 4K. 4K lasers however are still about $20,000 and up, but feature laden and extremely bright.

The transition to laser projectors is moving very quickly everywhere but “entry level – that is small portable/fixed install projectors such as those typical of K-12 classrooms and small conference rooms.

We have reviewed a number of these projectors, including, fairly recently, Epson’s new affordable Powerlite L610W, a WXGA model with a MSRP price $2599 and 6000 lumens! Our image player and the list of laser projectors below point to those reviews, and the list also points to other laser projectors which we have not reviewed.

There is one other group of projectors using laser light engines worth mentioning. Those are the extremely small pico projectors. Although most of those have LED light engines but there are just a few of those that do use lasers. We recently reviewed Sony’s CL1, an especially tiny example of a laser projector.

Laser powered projectors tend to be more expensive than lamp based projectors, but offer some major advantages for many applications. This page will explore some of those practical differences and why laser based projectors may be the right choice for many installations. The most recent news (as of 3/2016) is that Epson just announced 7 new commercial grade laser projectors, covering a range of brightness from 6000 to 25,000 lumens! Now that’s impressive.

This is going to be one of the fastest growing segments of the projector market thanks to the multiple benefits of using lasers – many described below.

Laser Projectors Reviews

About 4K Projectors

Laser projectors aren’t new, they’ve been around for back to about 2010. Not only are there those projectors using a total laser light engine, but others, such as the Casio line of projectors uses a hybrid design with both laser and LEDs providing the light sources. Casio’s design has some limitations compared to the traditional laser/phosphor combination, but you can’t argue the value – with their solid state LED/Lasers starting around $600 for a very basic projector. Still…

Most laser projectors do not directly output laser light through the lens. Rather, they use the lasers to – through one method or another – create a white light source. This is true of the Epsons and Sonys. The Epson is fairly typical. It uses two blue lasers, but fires the lasers at color phosphors, ultimately to create a white light source. This solves the problem of visible artifacts you get projecting a laser beam.

If there’s one word to describe the big advantage of using a laser projector, that would be: “Consistency!” We’re talking about brightness consistency, and color consistency. Both are important, but both can be super important for a number of specific applications. More on this below.

Illustration of Sony’s laser light engine – hitting phosphors with a blue laser to create white, then splitting the white to hit red, green and blue panels.

Laser light engine based projectors typically claim a minimum “light engine” life of 15,000 to 25,000 hours at full power. That, folks, is a really long time. Some companies offer a special warranty on the laser engine, while others may go with their standard 2, 3 or 5 year warranty.

Laser Projectors VS Lamp Projectors

A laser projector has a tremendous advantage over lamp based projectors in a number of applications, but most importantly, lasers really “shine” when you need consistent color, and consistent brightness, over long periods of time.

A traditional projector lamp starts losing brightness almost immediately, and most have lost 50% brightness by 2500 – 5000 hours (whatever the lamp is rated at full power). By comparison, a laser might only lose 10% of brightness over those same periods of hours.

Because the laser engine will last several to many times that of lamps, you’ll be physically changing bulbs/light engines, far less frequently, and that will save a lot of money for labor.

Color is just as important. With a lamp based projector, color balance will normally be slightly different simply by switching between full and eco brightness modes. But, worse, the color also shifts over time.

Lamps color shift enough, that on the home theater side of projectors, for those getting their projectors calibrated, it’s typically recommended to put 100-500 hours on the lamp before doing the first calibration. Depending on the lamp life, etc., for fanatics that demand near perfect color, recalibrating every 500 – 1000 hours is in order. Of course few people who aren’t either rich, or who are techie enough that they own their own calibration gear, would consider re-calibrating frequently due to the high cost – hundreds of dollars per each calibration by a professional.

The color issue is especially important because some applications – such as edge blending, calls for very precise color. Edge blending means multiple projectors, that have to produce exactly the same color so you can’t tell where one projector’s image starts and the other projectors’ end.

In a perfect world for such multi-projector applications, you want consistent color combined with long life, and consistent brightness.

Let’s imagine for one second, that you have to choose between 4 laser projectors and 4 lamp based ones.

With the lasers in our “edge blending” world, you can have consistent brightness (aka “constant brightness”) over 10,000+ hours. And while colors will shift slowly over long periods of time, the laser engines won’t vary like lamp based ones, so they should all still have the same color balance 10,000 hours later. In other words, get your 4 laser projectors set up, and they should run without adjustment for 10,000 hours more.

With four lamp based projectors, you’ll need to first calibrate all four of them so they have the same exact colors to start. Because lamps do vary in performance, you’ll likely need an occasional calibration of the projectors to keep their color seamless from one to the next. That extra effort- support time, is likely to offset any dollar savings that come from going with lamps vs laser, especially after you budget in a bunch of replacement lamps to get you out to those 15000 – 20,000 hours of use.

But that’s only the beginning with a lamp based solution. Let’s imagine that the bulbs in the projectors are rated 4000 hours. OK, everything’ setup, everything is new, picture is perfect. (Let’s even forget about maybe recalibrating at 1000 hours.)

Instead, let’s consider a single lamp failure. Let’s say one of the 4 projector’s lamps fails at 2200 hours. Darnn!

Your support team puts in a replacement lamp, but:

  • That lamp is now brighter than the ones in the other projectors
  • That new lamp also has slightly different color
  • You’ll therefore need to either
    • recalibrate the other 3 projectors so they all look the same, or
    • This one really hurts the budget: You replace all four lamps instead of the one.

You see the problem is, if you don’t replace all four lamps, then the new lamp is going to shift both color, and brightness, at a different pace than the other 3, so it may be, that in just a 1000 hours the projector with the new bulb is definitely not fitting in seamlessly, as it may have shifted more towards (or away from) red, and it may have dimmed faster, than the other three.

Can you say nightmare? Bottom line: Where precision color and brightness are needed – in multi-projector arrays, a solid state light engine such as a laser engine can have a huge advantage, with long term costs proving to be lower than using lamp based projectors. And perhaps more importantly, the amount of support services needed for the lamp based projectors will be drastically higher!

The Price of Lasers - how Much More Than Lamp Based Projectors?

There’s no narrow price difference that can be assigned to the cost of using a laser vs lamp, but I would estimate, that on projectors like Epson’s $6K and $8K models, they could have offered the same projector with a lamp based solution for $1500 – $2500 less. Of course over several years a $1000 or more of the difference will be offset by the cost of replacement lamps. And, if you assign value to support time, even greater savings there.

If you are looking at extremely high end commercial projectors like a $60K Sony, you are talking about a much brighter light engine compared to those home theater projectors, so the difference between the retail of a lamp vs laser projector will be greater. But then the support cost savings are also greater for the laser.

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