No doubt 4K television sets are great but even those sporting 84 inch screens won’t give you the same impact and magic as quality video projectors. True cinema experience requires a darkened room and a really BIG picture. Last year Sony introduced its first 4K home cinema projector VPL-VW1000ES, a truly high end model costing many tens of thousands $. This year we get an all-new 4K line-up with HDMI 2.0 support and many other new features.
Sony has fully embraced 4K video from the start, regarding it as the most important trend on the market for years to come. All their new video products are 4K compatible, starting with top TV sets and ending with PS4 gaming console (soon to be upgraded to HDMI 20.0 specs). Even though the 4K VOD service has only been launched in the US and Japan through FMPX1 tablet, it will undoubtedly hit other markets very soon. Reportedly it won’t then even require said "tablet”, being integrated within PlayStationStore. Netflix is to launch its 4K service in the US come March 2014. So things are definitely evolving quite fast. So it’s no surprise that Sony’s projectors line up for 2014 includes two 4K models – the top-of-the-line VPL-VW1100ES and the less onerous VPL-VW500ES.
It’s the latter that we’re reviewing today. First the good news – its price has been lowered twofold from last year’s VPL-VW1000ES flagship.
Design wise Sony VPL-VW500ES is a copy of its 2012 predecessor – matte finish, rounded edges, ventilation grill around the lens – and it too looks absolutely stunning. But that is to be expected given the price. There are, however, fewer parts in the optical assembly – 13 plus 1 big aspheric plastic lens vs. 18 lenses in the last year’s model. In 2014 only the VPL-VW1100ES will sport an all-glass assembly. Anyway, VPL-VW500ES is very flexible from the installation point of view. It has a 2.06X zoom, which is enough to cover 100” from a distance of 3 to 6meters, an 85% vertical shift and a 31% horizontal shift. The lens is completely motorized, including focus.
As always with top Sony’s, the projector makes use of active shutter technology for its 3D. There are no glasses included, so Sony recommends the new TDG-BT500A. Please note that older glasses are not compatible with VPL-VW500ES, because infrared synchronization has been substituted for more stable RF sync and also because of a higher frame rate. TDG-BT500A are quite light but not very comfortable, plus they don’t use an in-built accumulator but replaceable batteries, which will give you about 100 hours of viewing experience. The RF transmitter is built into the projector.
Sony’s GUI has remained the same for the past several years. It is quite basic and simple but in comparison the menus of Sony’s Smart TVs look like they’ve come from another time and place. But then again why would you need fancy GUI when all the default settings are practically spot on? What you may want to do is adjust the Reality Creation option according to your taste, activate MotionFlow or if you prefer switch on the native 24fps True Cinema mode and then boost the brightness a little. In the Expert menu you can fine tune the picture by playing with gamma and noise reduction. But more on the settings later.
Sony VPL-VW500ES uses the latest SXRD 4K three panel configuration, which works mostly by reflecting light, thus approaching DLP solutions in terms of light absorption. This configuration is compliant with Digital Cinema Initiative requirements and has a native, not upscaled like some competitors, resolution of 4096x2160 pixels in 17:9 mode. When switched to 16:9, the projectors will have a 3840x2160 resolution, just like Sony’s high end TV sets. When fed a 1080p signal Sony will give you the comfort of a wireless HDMI connection by means of an optional IFU-WH1 transmitter. Unfortunately we were not able to test its performance; supposedly it works better than earlier solutions offered by competitors, which proved to be very limited in their functionality and effective distance.
Lately Sony has been very fond of its Triluminos technology, boosting the color gamut and making it close to Digital Cinema Initiative specs. We can confirm that it does a marvelous job in their TV sets, older models that don’t have this feature look really bleak besides their newer siblings. Let’s see how Triluminos will fare in a projector.
VPL-VW500ES has an impressive brightness of 1 700 lumen, which should be enough for screen sizes up to 150”. The rated contrast is 200 000:1, thanks to the Iris 3 diaphragm. The lamp is 265 W (guaranteed to last 1000 hours or one year), actual longevity is said to be up to 3000 hours. The projector weighs in 14 kg and has dimensions of 49.6 x 19.5 x 46.3 cm. Both HDMI ports are 2.0 specification and can handle 4096x2160 or 3840x2160 60 Hz signals but only at 4:2:0 chroma subsampling. Bear that in mind if you’re using PC as a source, chroma subsampling 4:4:4 or 4:2:2 will not work at 60 Hz. Projector’s firmware can now be upgraded simply by inserting a flash memory card in the USB slot. Future upgrades, just as for Sony’s TV sets and PS4, will improve HDMI functionality, however, higher chroma subsampling values will only become available when approved as part of HDMI standard. There is already a new firmware version on Sony’s website.
Here’s what we measured of Sony’s performance and figures only confirm projector’s pedigree. The brightness is even slightly above the rated figure at 1 710 lumens. Without Iris 3 activated the brightness is 8540:1, which is impressive. But with Iris enabled the projector has a whopping 2 399 000:1 contrast ratio, in fact, the blacks are infinitely black. Input Lag – 97 ms.
Recommended settings using 100’ Stewart FireHawk G3 screen:
Reality Creation – On (It’s the most important feature in Sony VPL-VW500ES processor, boosting detail of any video signal up to 4K level )
Data base – not important
Resolution – 40
Advanced Iris – Full
Advanced Iris Brightness – Max
Contrast Enhancer – Light
Lamp Power – Low
MotionFlow – On
Contrast – 85
Brightness – 54
Color – 50
Color Temperature – D65
Sharpness – 30
NR – off
MPEG NR – off
Gamma Correction – 2.2
Color correction - off
True white – off
x.v.Color - off
Color Space – 3
The projector has its own inbuilt color calibrator that you can use if you have no luck with manual settings. When you switch the Auto Calibration on, be prepared to wait at least 30 minutes. Don’t be alarmed when you see the lens move, once the calibration is completed the lens will return to where you assigned it to be. Very useful feature, a couple of years ago you would have to call an ISF certified specialist to perform such adjustments.
Another professional setting is the perfect panel, which can be done alignment according to 153 zones on the screen, allowing you to bring any lack of sync between SXRD panels to a zero. Luckily we didn’t have to do anything as the default alignment was perfect.
Aspect ratio. When Normal is selected all signals up to 1080p are reproduced with a small black bezel, as if overscan was activated. At the same time, the test table for focus adjustment is perfectly reproduced with clean edges. If you manually zoom the picture and then revert to aspect ratio selection, the projector would automatically cancel the zoom and display the black bezel again. You can make away with the bezel only by switching to Zoom 2.35:1 mode. Interestingly, no actual zoom from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1 happens, i.e. nothing is lost. The only explanation we see is the unusual 17:9 format of SXRD panels.
Picture quality. Be it 4K or 1080p of even 720/480p, VPL-VW500ES delivers a stunning picture. Here we have an uncontested leader of the market, only to be bettered by the VPL-VW1100ES (thanks, first of all, to its better optical assembly). But as to direct competitors, Sony VPL-VW500ES is head and shoulders above the rest. There are many factors at play here but the main is, of course, the native 4K resolution. Once you’ve seen it, you will never go back to this "pixel mish-mash”, which not so long ago was referred to as High Definition. When viewed from a distance of 3 meters, the picture shows no visible pixels, it’s as if you were looking on a Retina screen, only hundreds of times larger. At the same time the processing is so good that even your old DVDs will look decent. Blacks are outstanding, the 3D is unbelievable and we are at loss for words to describe the level of detail. Colors are so rich that all previous models look washed out in comparison. Just as in Sony’s TV sets, the Triluminos technology produces outstanding results.
What we did not expect is the level of picture quality that VPL-VW500ES was able to extract from small .avi video files. Up until now we did not know of a projector capable of making such material look acceptable on a 100” screen. But Sony has truly transformed it into a picture that you can watch without nausea.
There is one little downside to Sony VPL-VW500ES’s performance and it’s the 3D. Probably it was the glasses’ fault – Sony has never had much luck with 3D glasses – but we did notice some ghosting, however the depth and resolution always remained stellar. To make away with ghosting completely we boosted the contrast up to Max and switched off MotionFlow, and then set 3D depth to medium. That did the trick.
We also tried to use universal RF Xpand X104 glasses but to no avail. They went constantly out of sync. According to Xpand there will soon be a software update for the X105 model, which will make it compatible with Sony’s top of the line projectors. It will be interesting to see because it were Xpand glasses (namely X103 and X104) that offered the best active shutter 3D for the past several years.
Summing up, Sony has made a real breakthrough product, making a 4K projector available to a larger crowd of home cinema aficionados. As to the picture quality, VPL-VW500ES will make you believe in miracles again.