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16th June 2005
Epson UltraChrome K3 inks on test
by Ian Burley
1867: Epson UltraChrome K3 inks on test

Is Epson's much-heralded new UltraChrome K3 photo printer ink a significant step forward?

To help find out, we have examined the new 17 inch format Stylus Pro 4800. Our findings will also be of interest to anyone interested in Epson's other new UltraChrome K3 printers, including the Stylus Photo 2100/2200 replacement, the Stylus Photo R2400 as it uses the same ink formulation as the 4800.

According to Epson the excellence of its new generation of professional ink-jet printers is largely down to the new UltraChrome K3 inks. These reformulated archival pigment inks are claimed to offer a wider colour gamut, especially in darker areas of the print, more neutral grey tones and reduced bronzing on glossy and lustre finish papers.

StylusPro 4800

We've tested the new UltraChrome K3 inks from Epson's new Stylus Pro 4800 and compared them with other leading ink-jet photo printers.

Examining gamut space at difference brightness levels

In this article we focus entirely on colour gamut, the breadth of colour a printer is capable of reproducing. Using Gretag Macbeth ProfileMaker we custom profiled an Epson Stylus Pro 4800 for use with Epson Premium Semi Gloss photo paper and plotted the measured base colour gamut at L:50 (mid-density), L:25 (darker) and L:75 (lighter). The results are compared over the following pages with those from the Epson Stylus Photo R1800, which uses Epson's UltraChrome High Gloss inks introduced last year and the Epson Stylus Photo 2100 (2200 in some markets), which uses Epson's original three year old UltraChrome ink formulation. We've also compared the results with HP's new Photosmart 8750 A3 printer and Canon's i9950 A3 model.

It ought to be stressed that these are technical tests, not subjective. The comments are based purely on the analysis of machine-measured test results. We'll be exploring subjective evaluation of actual real-world prints in a future article. Nevertheless, the results do make some interesting revelations.

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Colour gamut at L:50 (mid-brightness)


In all the plotted results that follow, the printer tested is represented by the white boundary, while the reference area represents sRGB colour space, bounded in black.

Epson 2100 Premium-semi gloss-L50

Epson Stylus Photo 2100/2200 original UltraChrome inks on Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:50.

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This is a printer that has earned a huge amount of respect over the last three years, both among professionals and amateurs. Its Original UltraChrome ink set offers an excellent colour gamut for a pigment ink printer, beating many dye-based printers, a feat previously unheard of.

The same UltraChrome inks have been at the heart of Epson's professional ink-jet printers over the last three years. With UltraChrome K3 Epson says it has significantly improved on the original UltraChrome inks set. Let's see if they're right…

Epson 4800 Premium-semigloss-L50

Epson Stylus Pro 4800 new UltraChrome K3 inks on Epson Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:50.

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So here we have it, the new K3 wonder inks from Epson and, indeed, the red corner of the sRGB gamut space has been almost entirely filled, while the green corner has been slightly extended as well. The improvement in gamut is less dramatic in the blue corner, probably because unlike with the R800 and R1800, Epson decided against implementing a separate blue ink in its UltraChrome K3 ink set. But it has to be said, at L:50, the improvement is not dramatic in any area apart from the red space.

Epson R1800 premium-semi gloss-L50

Epson Stylus Photo R1800 UltraChrome High Gloss inks on Epson Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:50

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Epson's High Gloss UltraChrome variant is optimised for the consumer market, where a good quality glossy finish is a key attribute. We're told that the High Gloss variant is a lower density formulation and of course it doesn't employ light cyan and light magenta inks.

Its red space matches the impressive performance of UltraCrome K3 and there is a marginal improvement in the blue area compared with original UltraChrome. However, green and yellow areas aren't quite as wide as original UltraChrome.

Canon-i9950-L50

Canon Pixma i9950, Canon Photo Paper Pro glossy paper, L:50

i9950small

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Canon's i9950, profiled for Canon's premium Photo Paper Pro glossy paper, shows a particularly impressive green and red performance at L:50, though it doesn't quite match any of the UltraChromes in the blue space. But overall, these dye-based inks offer among the greatest gamut area of all at L:50.

HP8750gamut-L50

HP Photosmart 8750 Vivera inks on HP Premium Plus Glossy, L:50

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HP has made a lot of improvements to its dye-based inks and these are embodied in its latest Vivera ink set. When used with HP's own Premium Plus photo paper, which incorporates a protective 'swellable' coating instead of a microporous coating used by Canon and Epson in their photo papers, HP has managed to achieve fade-resistance ratings that stand head and shoulders above its dye-based competitors. However, when it comes to ink gamut, as you can see above, HP still has some way to go. All three corners of the gamut space are inside that achieved by Epson's UltraChrome inks, especially so in the red and green corners. The 8750 sports a new blue ink, but this appears to contribute little to the L:50 performance above.

Colour gamut at L:25 (darker)


epson2100-l25

Epson Stylus Photo 2100/2200 original UltraChrome inks on Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:25.

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Now we move to L:25, measuring the gamut that represents darker areas of a print. Once again, original UltraChrome registers a good wide gamut, but how does it compare?

epson-4800-l25

Epson Stylus Pro 4800 new UltraChrome K3 inks on Epson Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:25.

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UltraChrome K3 definitely produces an improved gamut over original UltraChrome at L:25, but it's not as dramatic as Epson had implied. However, in fairness to Epson, their focus was on performance at the even darker L:10 level.

We found that there was practically nothing to measure at all at this level, but at L:12 UltraChrome K3 did show a clear superiority over original UltraChrome, though the High Gloss UltraChrome gamut at L:12 was also good. Back to L:25 and UltraChrome K3 shows increased area over original UltraChrome in the border between blue and green and between green and yellow, but it's not dramatic.

epson-r1800-l25

Epson Stylus Photo R1800 UltraChrome High Gloss inks on Epson Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:25

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Check UK prices on Pricegrabber.com High Gloss UltraChrome in the R1800 shows good blue gamut, but at the expense of green and yellow. The red corner is good too.

canon-i9950-l25

Canon Pixma i9950, Canon Photo Paper Pro glossy paper, L:25

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Canon's dye-based inks lose out in the green, yellow and red regions of the gamut space at L:25, though blue and cyan are good.

hp8750-l25

HP Photosmart 8750 Vivera inks on HP Premium Plus Glossy, L:25

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At last there is something good to say about HP's 8750 Vivera inks, with a particularly good blue performance signified by the 8750's use of an additional blue ink. This blue depth shows at darker levels like L:25 but not at the mid-range L:50 measurement. However, green and cyan are not that impressive, though red is. It's almost as if HP is only trying to fill the sRGB space, though its printer drivers now support Adobe RGB printing without conversion or printer profiling.

Colour gamut at L:75 (lighter)


epson2100-l75

Epson Stylus Photo 2100/2200 original UltraChrome inks on Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:75.

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Finally, we look at colour gamut achievable in lighter areas of a print. Original UltraChrome (above) shows a typical plot with far less of the sRGB space covered than in darker areas (L:50 and L:25). Nevertheless, it holds up well against its newer competitors.

epson-4800-l75

Epson Stylus Pro 4800 new UltraChrome K3 inks on Epson Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:75.

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A significantly better red area is achieved by UltraChrome K3 in the Stylus Pro 4800 compared to our benchmark original Stylus 2100/2200 UltraChrome inks. The blue-green corner has more penetration as well.

epson-r1800-l75

Epson Stylus Photo R1800 UltraChrome High Gloss inks on Epson Premium Semi Gloss paper, L:75

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It's quite hard to distinguish High Gloss UltraChrome from K3 at L:75. Both are very good indeed.

canon-i9950-l75

Canon Pixma i9950, Canon Photo Paper Pro glossy paper, L:75

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But the outstanding performer at L:75 is clearly the Canon i9950 with its dye-based inks, particularly in the yellow-red corner.

hp8750-l75

HP Photosmart 8750 Vivera inks on HP Premium Plus Glossy, L:75

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The HP Photosmart 8750 does an adequate job at L:75, but it's nothing special compared to the others, especially along the red edge and the green-yellow corner.

Conclusion


StylusPro 4800

What really comes out of this examination of ink-jet printer colour gamut is that original Epson UltraChrome inks set a phenomenal benchmark three years ago, placing a pigment-based ink firmly into the performance territory once the sole domain of more fragile dye-based inks. UltraChrome K3 does show improvements, but none were particularly dramatic. Epson's 'consumer' formulated high gloss UltraChrome inks also measured up well.

Canon showed that for absolute gamut area, dye-based inks can retain a small advantage, but it's pretty small. HP's Photosmart 8750 Vivera inks don't appear to be in the same league as the others, apart from in the L:25 dark region, where the additional blue ink visibly makes a difference.

In truth, I suspect that the main improvements that UltraChrome K3 inks will be noted for in the future are in the area of grey scale photo printing and further reduction in metamerism and gloss bronzing and we will be looking at these factors in a later article. But from a colour-only perspective, the technical tests lead us to expect a fine-tuning of colour quality rather than a revolutionary step forward, but that step is from an already very impressive beginning.

 
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