Sony VPL-HW50ES 3D Projector Review

Contrast Performance

The quality of the HW50′s contrast performance depends on how you have the numerous configuration options set. In any case, we found it to be excellent.

First of all, the VPL-HW50ES features Sony’s [Advanced Iris] system, meaning that the iris in the optical path opens and closes to reduce light output from the projector during dark scenes, and to boost it during brighter ones. On its own, that would result in light output from the projector dropping linearly (white objects in predominantly dark scenes would become greyer), but the projector also performs contrast stretching at the video processing level to make sure that the entire dynamic range of the LCOS display panels is used, to compensate for this effect.

Similar to LCD TVs with varying backlight/side-light intensity, this will give you blacker blacks and whiter whites, provided they aren’t on screen simultaneously. The downsides are that the on-the-fly adjustments are occasionally visible if you’re eagle-eyed, and that these tricks do nothing to improve the intra-frame contrast performance, where bright and dark objects must co-exist on screen beside each other.

Frankly, we found the VPL-HW50ES’s native contrast performance to be excellent anyway so didn’t use the dynamic iris, instead using the [Manual] mode and choosing to freeze the iris at a fairly low level. Sony should be congratulated for including this as an option; we’ve complained about the lack of it on other comparably priced projectors. This is where the screen size, and also to some extent your preference for deeper blacks over brighter whites comes into play. The manual iris mode has no less than 100 steps (0 being the darkest), meaning that attenuating light from the projector while the lamp is at its brightest (when new) and slowly opening the iris over time as it ages, is possible. All the controls are there if you want them, and the flexibility Sony have provided means that your needs are catered to regardless of what your opinion of dynamic iris features is.

The Sony VPL-HW50ES’s contrast performance is above that of 3LCD projectors, but it’s difficult to say how much of that is down to LCOS’ inherent contrast strengths, and how much is due to Sony’s configurable iris. The only projectors likely to beat it are the new JVC D-ILA units, which have been engineered to produce extremely high native contrast performance without the need for an iris. In any case, we were very happy with what we saw here, especially at this price point.

Motion Resolution & Dark Frame Insertion

Unlike several of the sub-£3000 projectors we’ve reviewed lately, the Sony VPL-HW50ES features Dark Frame Insertion. This gives it a huge leg-up over the competition for lovers of the “film look”, and allows the motion resolution to be dramatically improved, without the use of interpolation tricks (which go against accurate reproduction of 24fps films).

Both the HW50ES’s frame interpolation features, and the dark frame insertion mode, are presented in the same [Motionflow] menu (they’re called [Motion Enhancer] and [Film Projection] respectively), which might cause those who prioritise video accuracy to ignore the latter, assuming that it’s a feature which abstracts the presentation. That would be a huge mistake, because dark frame insertion actually allows a digital projector to produce a picture that is reminiscent of the up-sides of 35mm film projection (a fact apparently not lost on Sony, given how it’s named).

Going back to televisions for a second, some readers might be aware of why plasmas still produce sharper motion video quality than LCDs – even now that LCD TVs are equipped with “200hz” and higher interpolation technology. The reason is down to the fact that LCD (and LCOS, as an LCD derivative) is a hold-type display device: unlike a CRT or Plasma TV, which are constantly re-drawing the image between refreshes, LCD pixels simply stay static until they’re told to change. As a result, the human visual system perceives moving objects in the resulting image as blurred.

A decent amount of discussion has gone on about the demise of 35mm film projection (in this part of the world, at least), which is usually accompanied by emotive arguments relating to the look of 35mm film. Most AV enthusiasts are all too aware of the problems relating to poorly printed and presented 35mm film in multiplex cinemas, but are hopefully aware of its strengths as well. From this writer’s point of view, the biggest problem with digital cinema exhibition is actually not the digital storage method itself, it’s the fact that digitally projected movies are usually shown without dark frame insertion (or similar techniques). The resulting image looks more “sterile” due to the lack of shuttering between frames, especially in a cinema environment where we’re used to the “livelier” look of 35mm film.

Getting back to the home cinema environment, dark frame insertion allows LCD (and LCD-like) products, such as the Sony VPL-HW50ES, to partially emulate some of the motion characteristics of a CRT or plasma television. The short dark flashes effectively act as “boundaries” between frames, allowing the eye and brain to see crisp motion. It brings one of the strengths of 35mm film projection into the home, improving the performance on both a technical and aesthetic level. What it can’t do is solve motion artefacts inherent to the LCOS panels themselves – in fact, with the blur caused by the human visual system (HVS) mitigated by DFI, these actually become slightly more visible. In a worst-case scenario (60hz high motion video content, from the tortuous tests on the FPD Benchmark disc), we noted some coloured smears with the [Film Projection] mode on. However, the lower 24fps frame rate of film conceals most of them. To give an example, a scene of a black shadow moving quickly against a greyish wall did show a mild amount of inverse ghosting, with the shadow leaving a whitish-grey shadow. We’d take this over the comparative smear without the DFI mode on any day, though.

The mode might not be for everyone, since it results in flicker. That’s not a problem with actual content (although it’ll partly be down to individual perception), but to discuss a worst case scenario, throwing up a 100% full screen white image on the projector with this mode on will result in unappealing flicker. This isn’t an issue from our point of view, since almost no film content features a completely featureless fully white screen for any extended length of time (Any film we can remember, that is).

There is one problem tied to Sony’s implementation of dark frame insertion, and it’s not actually related to dark frame insertion itself. For whatever reason, turning on the [Film Projection] mode applies a small amount of undefeatable edge enhancement to the picture. It’s subtle, but really shouldn’t be there at all. This extra sharpness kick can exaggerate aliasing artefacts already present in the source, for example, at 57:30 in the BD release of The Dark Knight (which is a fairly compromised disc to start with, for reasons relating to the film’s post-production methods). The flaw is there in the disc already, but the high frequency sharpening added by the projector makes it slightly more visible. The extra sharpening processing can also clearly be seen by toggling the [Film Projection] option with a luma zone plate pattern (for example, from the Spears & Munsil test disc). We did relay our findings to Sony, and while this minor annoyance is visible, you can probably tell from the writing here that it didn’t dampen much of our enthusiasm for this dark frame insertion mode that it’s tied to. Still, it’d be great if Sony could disable the extra sharpening entirely, seeing as the VPL-HW50ES has plenty of its own controls for users who do want to process the picture in this way.

Panel Uniformity

White field uniformity was not particularly good on our VPL-HW50ES review sample, like most of the projectors in this price point we’ve analysed. In fact, this is probably the Sony VPL-HW50ES’s biggest weakness. As usual, this didn’t visibly impact colour film content, but tints can creep into black and white movies if you look for them, and it’s plain for the eye to see with greyscale test patterns. At this price point, it’s probably tolerable, but we just hope it doesn’t get any more visible with time.

Interestingly, Sony projectors have a software uniformity correction feature in the service mode, but consumer use of it is impractical (it’s in the service menu for a reason). The sheer number of options in here (R/G/B controls at 12 stimulus levels for no less than 322 positions for each one!) makes correcting uniformity in this way completely impractical. Evidently, the process of setting these values has to somehow be automated at the factory.

High Definition

Overall, the Sony VPL-HW50ES produced the best digitally projected images we’ve seen at this price point to date. It has almost everything covered: high contrast performance, outstanding colour accuracy, and very good greyscale and gamma accuracy. The SXRD panels’ naturally high fill factor results in a very, very smooth projected image, without visible pixel gaps (there is effectively no “screen door effect” on this projector). Meanwhile, the optics are of an overall high standard, allowing high resolution to reach the screen unblurred. Coupled with the dark frame insertion feature, the Sony VPL-HW50ES’s images are lush and cinematic in a way which we weren’t expecting to see from a projector in this price range.

Blade Runner

Convergence was also excellent, with only small purple glowing being visible if we chose to stand right beside the screen (it was invisible from the seating position). The only down-sides of note are the imperfect uniformity, the slight edge enhancement enforced by the [Film Projection] mode, and the fact that the focus (on our unit) was not entirely consistent across the frame. We’ve seen some projectors where the sharpness decreases towards the edges of the image at the more extreme zoom settings, but that was actually not a problem on the VPL-HW50ES in our testing. Instead, we found that an area near the bottom-centre of the image appeared slightly blurred relative to the rest of the picture. It was mild, but visible in subtitled films, for example.

Blade Runner screenshot 2

Some other LCD-based projectors present a viewing experience which is akin to watching a very high quality, gigantic TV, even when the picture is accurate and sharply focused. The invisible pixel gaps and dark frame insertion combined with the other strengths take the Sony VPL-HW50ES’s images to another level, evoking many of the best parts of analogue and digital projection methods: it’s much closer to a real film experience, with images that are “silky but sharp” (with almost no “screen door effect” but with good resolution and optics). Probably the ultimate compliment I can give a display device is to say that when the Sony VPL-HW50ES was here for review, I (re)watched an HD telecine transfer of a 35mm negative that I supervised and colour corrected, and could hardly have felt any happier with what was on screen. The credit for that goes to Sony’s engineers, because while “garbage in, garbage out” is still true, the display device (and of course, the room) is what makes or breaks the presentation.

3D

After calibration through the active-shutter glasses to essentially remove the tint they add to the picture, the Sony VPL-HW50 produced some of the best 3D video we’ve seen to date. Even before calibration, it was no slouch. The most obvious property of its extra-dimensional images is that they’re extremely bright. In fact, we didn’t think there was any brightness loss worth mentioning compared to the 2D mode. Dark Frame Insertion doesn’t work in the 3D mode, however, since the demands of active 3D display leave no room left temporally to spend on such a feature (not to mention the fact that it would likely wreak havoc with the active-shutter 3D glasses).

If you’ve seen projected 3D video calibrated, you’re in a very fortunate position, because the practice isn’t widespread. The improvement calibration made on the Sony VPL-HW50ES was huge, though, and honestly has to be seen to be believed. We’re sure that most of our readers have had the experience of sitting in a cinema and pulling polarised 3D glasses in and out of their view and noting that the colours never look completely right either way. After seeing so many compromised cinema presentations of 3D films, watching them naturally coloured on a high quality, calibrated home projector like the VPL-HW50ES is really special. In our case, we tinted the picture coming out of the projector to be overly red, so that it would look correct seen through the glasses (we covered the process in the calibration section on the previous page).

The Sony HW50 has no motion issues in 3D: the projector reproduces 24, 50, and 60hz based sources correctly at all times. Crosstalk is nearly non-existent, only being slightly visible in a handful of instances, and never being truly troubling.

Does the VPL-HW50ES have any weaknesses in the third dimension? Yes, but they’re small. It did not reproduce a full 1920×1080 image during our testing, failing to resolve discrete white and black 1-pixel transitions in our 3D frame-packed resolution test. Just to be clear, Sony’s projector is not the only “Full HD 3D” device to use the phrase “Full HD” a little creatively. However, the resolution limitation didn’t affect our enjoyment of 3D movies on the projector. Unlike plasma televisions which feature a temporally inconsistent resolution limitation in 3D, the Sony VPL-HW50ES’s slightly softer 3D image didn’t produce flicker or jaggies. Judging from other user discussion of the HW50, the issue has gone unnoticed, largely due to the scarcity of commercially available 3D test signals. There is also the possibility that the manufacturers are not (collectively) aware of their own product’s limitations, for this same reason.

Fortunately, this is the only issue we could find specific to 3D on the HW50ES, and it’s barely visible during actual content. The VPL-HW50ES gave us the best 3-dimensional viewing experience we’ve had to date – better than LCD TVs (small, usually with quite obvious crosstalk, or with thick black lines over the image in passive designs), plasma TVs (with panel dither, limited gradation, and fairly dark images that are sometimes not full resolution either), and better than any commercial 3D cinema presentation we’ve seen (these typically suffer from visibly tinted images).

Reality Creation

All of the last couple of projectors we’ve looked at have featured “detail enhancement” features. Video processing trends tend to come and go, and more creative takes on sharpening appear to be the current area of interest. Full HD 1080p video has been around for a while now, so it makes sense for the industry to begin suggesting that 1920×1080 is not enough on its own for sharp video. Indeed, “Reality Creation” as seen in the VPL-HW50ES is a descendent of the same-named processing found on Sony’s high-end 4K projector. These “detail enhancement” features tend to work similarly, and are typically just variants of the [Sharpness] control. They tend to increase gain in the highest frequencies of the image, causing tiny details to appear more prominent. Done properly and applied consistently rather than to random objects or differently masked portions of the screen, we don’t feel these features compromise the intent of the content (although we’d always insist on them being optional).

Sony’s take on these features is called “Reality Creation”:

Reality Creation – Database type Super Resolution Function: Developed for its 4K home cinema projector, VPL-VW1000ES, Sony’s “Reality Creation” technology has now been adapted for the new VPL-HW50ES projector. It reproduces the colour and texture of the original 1080p signal by restoring missing information lost during packaging of the original contents to disc format.

This is a potential goldmine of discussion, but we’ll try to keep it as concise as possible. First of all, the “database type super resolution function” refers to the fact that the video processing chip contains several basis patterns which are used to augment textures in the video content. Say the source is standard definition, and contains what, in the HD realm, would appear as a detailed texture (grass, sand, a close-up of wrinkly skin, and so on). Reality Creation claims to pull a similar high-res texture with similar frequency characteristics from memory and mix it with the lower-resolution content to produce sharper results.

(We’ll get to the second point, about “restoring missing information” in just a minute).

There is more than just texture augmentation going on though; Reality Creation does appear to be employing traditional sharpening tactics, too. Even on its lowest setting, it does draw some quite visible halos, especially compared to simpler systems (Panasonic’s “Detail Clarity”, for example) which only give a bit of high frequency lift. As a result, we left the feature off entirely. With this said, almost all of our viewing is Blu-ray Disc content which is either of good, excellent, our outstanding quality to begin with. With content that’s already good quality, we naturally chose not to use any post-processing. Ironically, with source material that’s naturally detailed, the “Reality Creation” processing has the effect of reducing the perceived resolution, because it means we have few untouched fine details in the image left to act as a reference (the fine details now look chunky and thick – like in low-res video). An untrained eye is very likely to think that the processed image looks “sharper” though, so we can see why it’s here, although it feels out of place on a high performance home theatre projector.

This takes us on to our next point, the description that Reality Creation “reproduces the colour and texture of the original 1080p signal by restoring missing information lost during packaging of the original contents to disc format”. From that, it seems that Sony is suggesting that the processing undoes effects resulting from chroma subsampling and quantization during video compression. Sony’s US site is even clearer, claiming that:

Sony’s proprietary Reality Creation algorithm restores important fine detail that was lost due to compression during the mastering process, even for high definition video.

The subject of “video enhancement” processing has been appearing a lot recently, and reading reviews and discussion of these tools makes it apparent that there is a lingering view, even in enthusiast AV circles, that Blu-ray Disc is somehow lacking as a 1080p delivery medium, that 1080p studio masters are of a much higher standard than we could ever hope to see in the home, and that BD’s output needs to be “enhanced” in some way. While this sort of endless “upgrade-itis” might generate revenue for someone, it just isn’t true. Speaking as someone in the privileged position of handling (nearly) uncompressed 1080p HD masters for BD delivery, I feel the need to state this. It does seem that even enthusiast AV users users not always aware of just how good Blu-ray actually is.

The quality of 1080p video on Blu-ray Disc in the hands of even a moderately skilled compressionist is incredibly close to a 1080p master tape in almost every case. In some cases, it can even produce a visible match. Were we to compare a Blu-ray Disc to a higher-res 4K master, it would be a different story, but Sony specifically mentioned “the original 1080p signal”, which we take to mean “1080p signal pre-compression”.

To reiterate: taking a 1920×1080 resolution master and encoding it using AVC/H.264 for Blu-ray at the bit-rates allowed by the format doesn’t result in a loss of detail remotely high enough to justify doing all sorts of post-processing to the image. The vast majority of non-MPEG2 encodes (that’s basically everything now) done for Blu-ray Disc now look incredibly close to the 1080p master, owed to the low quantization levels made possible by the various attributes of the BD format. If there’s a problem, it’s with fickleness and consumers getting used to the near-master quality of almost all Blu-ray titles. We don’t mean to pick on Sony here: features like this fulfil a commercial objective, after all. However, we’re surprised to see them of all people implying that Blu-ray is fundamentally lacking. All in all, Reality Creation could have been an occasionally useful feature for compromised sources had the user been given the opportunity to dial down the severity of the processing. Even on the minimum setting, it creates mid-frequency (thick) halos, which do not contribute to the perception of a “crisp” image (quite the opposite, from our experience).

We should end this by saying that we’d love to see what Reality Creation and similar processing algorithms can do on a device with 4K panels, as in this case, it would indeed be creating new synthetic data (not genuine information obviously, but new data nonetheless) at the 4K level: there would be “room to fill”, whereas on a 1080p projector, the extra synthesised texture information is just fighting for attention with the genuine image content.

Console Gaming

The Sony VPL-HW50ES is the fastest projector we’ve reviewed yet. There are two low-lag picture modes, “Photo” and “Game”, both of which produce full chroma resolution from a 4:4:4 input and lag by just 16ms. Gamers are advised to connect the video output of their consoles directly to the projector (bypassing any AV receivers) to take full advantage of this.

Conclusion

The VPL-VW50ES is an excellent LCOS projector that can produce detailed, rich, and more uniquely, very film-like images, in a wide variety of installations. It has a lot of essential and desirable features present: high contrast performance, reasonably accurate (although imperfect) greyscale and gamma linearity, accurate colour reproduction, reasonably high quality optics, no visible pixel structure worth mentioning, and a dark frame insertion feature for lovers of the cinema look.

We’ve seen other video projectors which draw nice, big images, but with some of these, the effect is closer to watching a gigantic television. Sony’s VPL-HW50ES, when properly set up, produces an experience which is like watching a film in the best literal senses of the word. We’ve gone through the technical reasons behind some of this already, but the emotional effect all of this leads to is profound. And that, ultimately, is the difference between a television setup and a projector.

There remained a few nicks in this very impressive package. Common to other projectors we’ve reviewed in this price range, our review unit did have some uniformity issues, with full-field grey patterns (and by extension but to a lesser degree, black and white movies) revealing an uneven tint across the projected image. Second, like other SXRD devices we’ve calibrated in the past, reigning in linear greyscale tracking on the VPL-HW50ES wasn’t quite as straightforward as it was on some other projectors, and full adjustment involves a comparatively laborious computer hookup method. Lastly, the Sony VPL-HW50ES can’t quite satisfy our requirements for a “Full HD 3D” image, although the resolution limitation isn’t blatantly obvious, and it pales in significance compared to the other aspects of the 3D image quality.

Despite these shortcomings, the Sony VPL-HW50ES is an incredibly compelling home cinema projector. If you’re looking into projectors at this price point, the HW50 deserves to be fighting for attention at the top of your list – its image quality is a cut above other competing models we’ve seen thus far in the sub-£3000 price range.

Highly Recommended

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