Replacing the visually similar XV-Z10000, the XV-Z12000 offers improved performance for £1,000 less and represents Sharp's most focussed attack yet on the high-end projector ramparts.

Being a DLP projector, the XV-Z12000 doesn't have quite the raw light power on screen of an LCD model, but it is brighter than most of its type, and at a pinch it will even cope with a little daylight if the curtains are drawn.

The Sharp stakes a powerful claim with its extraordinary 5,500:1 contrast ratio - its predecessor only managed 2,000:1. However, this is a best case figure, which in practice means with the lens iris closed down, thus sacrificing maximum brightness.

We would judge the Sharp to be in the upper 10-15 per cent of comparable projectors for contrast, but not necessarily an improvement on the best SIM2 and Marantz models.

The Mustang HD2 chipset is currently Texas Instruments' top of the line optical engine, with a native 1,280 x 720 pixels resolution. It is partnered with a sevensegment colour wheel (the old models used six-segments and the HD2 chipset) and Sharp's own scaling and deinterlacing.

The XV-Z12000 is an obvious contender for 720p high-definition TV when it happens. DVD (480p), of course, is a walk in the park for the Sharp, and it will accept digital video from DVD players (or other sources with an encrypted DVI output), where older players with non-encrypted DVI-D inputs would show nothing but a blank screen.

The onscreen menu system is clearly presented, but complex to the point where some of the options are difficult to fathom. This isn't a problem, though, as the projector is pretty well set up from the box and with a little perseverance, it is possible to tweak the picture to great effect.

The set-up procedure also allows you to adjust lamp and iris settings to achieve optimum contrast and brightness, remembering that lamps don't last as long on full power, and that mechanical noise levels are significantly reduced when the lamp is in 'economy' mode, as the cooling system can be throttled back.

In any case, the XV-Z12000 is not the quietest projector in its class, despite an impressive noise figure in the maker's specs. Noise, of course, is a significant issue when playing music from DVD-Audio and in quieter passages in film soundtracks.

Colour reproduction is dependent on the overall picture settings adopted. 'Natural', 'standard' and 'dynamic' settings are available, along with three other user settings which can be programmed according to taste. 'Dynamic' tends to give rather brash, over-saturated results, but works well in rooms which are not properly blacked out. 'Natural' is just the opposite and is capable of delivering extremely smooth, natural and subtle colours. It works best with material derived from film, but requires an effective blackout. The 'standard' setting is a good compromise and is suitable for use with a satellite digibox.

The 'natural' setting delivers results that are strikingly three dimensional and cinematic. With the iris turned down to maximise contrast, shadow areas on screen approach a true black, yet very dark picture detail remains clearly differentiated. Skin tones are remarkably natural and organic, and the greens are rich and vibrant. Reds are also bold and powerful.

Classic visual artefacts associated with DLP, such as the so-called 'rainbow' effect, are rare with this projector, thanks to the sophisticated colour wheel. This leaves a certain amount of mechanical noise from the cooling system and the colour wheel as the only notable flaw from a projector that delivers bold and dynamic yet subtle colour picture quality with moderately low video noise levels. Alvin Gold