The dramatic upsurge in the popularity of home cinema projectors has opened the door for many traditionally business-only brands to have a crack at the living room market. But few such brands have grabbed this opportunity quite so enthusiastically as Epson. Its new 'Dreamio' range comprises a trio of high-spec projectors built from the ground up to suit movie rather than Powerpoint presentations.

Recently, we checked out the middle of the range with the EMP-TW200. Now, we're going straight to the top, with its flagship EMP-TW500. But what exactly gives the TW500 'flagship' status?

Perhaps it's down to its physical presence? It's simply enormous for an LCD projector. But while the TW500 may be big, it is certainly not ugly. The appeal comes from the glossy white finish, trendy curves, and neatly contrasting lens and control buttons.

Connectivity is suitably 'flagship' too. For starters there's a pair of component video inputs, both accompanied by horizontal and vertical sync phonos so that they can be used for PC as well as video sources. Composite and S-Video sources are also catered for, and there's even a digital HDMI input. Kit with alldigital HDMI connectivity is still relatively rare, so finding an input on the TW500 is a real bonus.

Epson made its fortune through business tools, so it's no surprise to find a range of PC connections too. A D-Sub interface connects with your laptop while the USB input is for a mouse. The ethernet port allows the TW500 to join a network. The D4 video socket is redundant outside Japan.

Even more flagship credentials can be found on the TW500's features list. Differentiating the TW500 from the mid-range TW200, is Faroudja's DCDi deinterlacing circuitry for a sharp, crisp image with no jagged edges; a dynamic black and white level adjustor; a special Theatre Black mode which pulls down the brightness but ramps up the contrast for use in completely darkened rooms and a Super White setting which stops the stressing of peak whites in low-brightness modes. There's also user-adjustable motion detection for smoothing the appearance of movement; noise reduction; and DVI video level adjustment.

Goodies shared between the TW500 and its TW200 sibling include progressive scan with optional motion control for non-progressive sources, a flesh tone colour corrector, and exhausting colour flexibility.

In terms of specs, the TW500 boasts a WXGA 1,280 x 720 native widescreen LCD panel, acclaimed 1,200:1 contrast ratio (up considerably from the TW200's 800:1), and brightness levels from anywhere between 350 and 1,000 ANSI Lumens to suit all manner of ambient light viewing conditions.

So far, so very good. These positive first impressions continue into set-up. There's both vertical and horizontal image shifting, along with a relatively short-throw 1.5 zoom lens which permits, for instance, an 80 in widescreen image from as little as 2.4m.

Such flexibility really is essential if a projector wants to be able to fit comfortably into most rather than a few living rooms.

FLAGSHIP PERFORMANCE

Now to the most critical question of all: does the TW500 deliver a flagship level of performance? For starters, the TW500 has a superb contrast range that finds peak whites looking vivid and blacks surprisingly deep. The grey misting that flattens and mutes dark scenes with so many an LCD projectors is non-existent on the TW500.

Colour vibrancy is also excellent. Even the most subtle and demanding of hues is rendered with credibility (especially using my favoured Natural colour preset) and has pin-sharp edge definition.

The TW500 has a 10-bit A/D converter, 10-bit chromatic decoder and 10-bit panel driver, for smooth colour gradations. Such colour accuracy also helps give pictures a sense of tangible detail and depth. There's a level of clarity on show here that eludes the much cheaper TW200 model, especially if you use the dazzlingly clean HDMI input, with an HDMI enabled DVD player. Keeping the video signal in the digital domain from source to final processing reduces a significant amount of noise.

Given the price point, this projector's performance is a revelation. There is only one caveat that I would draw any potential buyer's attention to. A little too often for comfort I found myself unable to ignore the presence of a lightish vertical line structure in the image.

Especially noticeable over lightcoloured moving objects, this is the LCD's pixel-grid, and creates an anomaly known commonly as the chicken wire, or screendoor, effect. This mesh-like LCD panel structure is common on the majority of LCD projectors - but while it's less evident on the TW500 than on Epson's own TW200, it's still there nonetheless.

For me, this chicken wire issue proves slightly harder to bear than any mosquito noise or rainbow effect rival DLP-based models might throw up. That said, some viewers are far less bothered by vague pixel-structure issues than DLP's rainbow. It's a personal thing, I guess.

Build quality is excellent. A particularly fine job has been done on suppressing fan noise.

Overall, the TW500 is a superior LCD projector - and certainly the best yet produced by Epson. In most ways it puts the vast majority of other LCD projectors to shame. My advice would be to audition one at the earliest opportunity, and come to a conclusion on the pixelgrid issue yourself.