In keeping with their other SXRD projectors, Sony’s VPL-VW1000ES displays the second-best contrast performance we’ve seen from an LCOS projector. We haven’t tested JVC’s late 2012 models yet, but all signs point towards those still taking the crown for the number one spot, as they’ve done in years past (they get videophile kudos also for managing this without the use of an iris).
That leaves us with still excellent performance, and Sony would no doubt be quick to point out that JVC do not have real 4K projectors yet. We experimented with the VPL-VW1000ES’s dynamic iris controls, and found that these could result in enhanced contrast performance, provided that dark and white elements didn’t have to co-exist on the screen simultaneously. What’s more, any system like this will inevitably make itself known to a keen eye at some point: fades to black are the most obvious. Another real world example is the scene in Sony’s ownStand By Me at 17:48 where the kids fight beside the train tracks: as the dark shadow of the train passes by in the foreground, the bursts of full luminance inbetween (the view of the sunny rural Oregon setting) are visibly darkened because the iris can’t react quickly enough to the sudden and extreme luminance changes.
None of that’s really a problem though, because Sony offers full manual control on all of its projectors. If instances like this are a problem for you, you can simply freeze the iris at an opening of your choice (there are 100 stops to choose from, which range from “nearly shut” to “wide open”).
Disappointingly, the Sony VPL-VW1000ES’s motion performance is slightly behind that of more recent budget projectors such as the Sony VPL-HW50ES. While it’s possible to achieve a clean 650 lines on a scrolling motion resolution test chart, this requires use of the [Motion Enhancer] control. This is an interpolation feature which by design causes the filmic look of 24fps material to be lost (the so-called “soap opera effect”). That’s pretty disconcerting, since the low frame rate of movies has become part of cinematic language. The near-universal panning of the 48fps version of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, even from non-technical viewers, should serve as a reminder of this. 24fps film may have grown out of logistical limitations that are hundreds of years old, but it’s a limitation that filmmakers and audiences alike have grown to love, or at least to expect as part of the theatrical experience.
On the cheaper Sony HW50, enabling the [Film Projection] mode enabled dark frame insertion, doubling the motion resolution to 600 lines, without generating any synthetic frames inbetween. What’s more, the gentle flicker it added resulted in cinematic motion performance, reminiscent of 35mm film projection. On the VPL-VW1000ES, [Film Projection] makes no real difference to motion quality, either with actual content or on resolution test charts, which is puzzling. We imagine that designing higher resolution panels brings new response time/motion challenges, making effective dark frame insertion difficult this early in the game. (On the up side, the bug from the VPL-HW50ES, whereby enabling this option added some mild edge enhancement to the picture, isn’t present on the VPL-VW1000ES).
That means that, on the VPL-VW1000ES, there’s no way of improving the motion clarity while retaining the film look. Fortunately, as we often point out, 24fps is a low frame rate, so even fast action scenes are still reproduced without discernible blur. And, unlike on many LCD televisions, the LCOS chips in the VPL-VW1000ES do not have any stand-out motion artefacts, like dark objects leaving prominent motion smears.
Preparation of 4K test material
Assessing the 4K performance of the Sony VPL-VW1000ES was difficult due to a lack of content, and to a lesser extent, the scarcity of hardware capable of outputting the signal at full resolution. We overcame both difficulties.
We used a mix of synthetic CG content (the open-source movie Sintel – that’s Sintel with an S, not Cintel the historic film scanner manufacturer) and live action footage shot on various RED cameras, as well as some content from film (brought into the video world on a Digital Vision Golden Eye). There are some other 4K consumer video cameras appearing on market, but manufacturer samples from the one we checked out revealed compromised resolution performance. Thankfully, we could also fall back on high quality, full resolution DSLR still images (although obviously not for assessing motion performance).
There is a popular semi-misconception floating around the web, which states that 4K video is gigantic and totally out of reach for anything other than rooms full of supercomputers. One important piece of info that these reports tend to omit is that the same is true of any kind of uncompressed video. For example, 2 hours of uncompressed 1080p or 2K video can easily come close to filling a 2,000gb hard drive. The storage requirements of 4K video are only gigantic because nobody is selling compressed 4K video for consumer use – yet. Nobody talks about how unwieldly 1080p is anymore because we have a compressed delivery system for it. Give 4K some time.
It’s not impossible that Blu-ray Disc will be modified to carry 4K video. In fact, we did some 4K video encoding tests ourselves (we had to so we could feed the content at full 24fps to the projector, because of the aforementioned huge bandwidth of uncompressed 4K sources which choked today’s mechanical hard disks). We used the existing H.264/AVC standard, only at Level 5.1, which allows for the necessary higher resolution (although is incapable of future 8K video). We decided to stick with 4:2:0 sampling and 8-bit quantization for simplicity’s sake, although we’d like to think a future delivery system would go to 10-bit 4:2:2. All of this made real-time 4K playback a reality in our test environment, and proved that it is possible to squeeze 4K video into Blu-ray-friendly bandwidth with great picture quality – longer content may pose a problem, of course.
This resulted in excellent quality 4K video – all at bit rates which were below the maximum allowed by Blu-ray 3D. Just a reminder – this is using existing H.264/AVC video encoding. If the timing is right, a future 4K Blu-ray profile could make use of the emerging H.265/HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) compression standard – perhaps even in tandem with larger discs, although this would bring groans from replicators who only recently invested in expensive BD stamping equipment – to bring 4K video into consumer’s homes. To us, it certainly seems a more practical suggestion than trying to squeeze 4K down puny Western broadband networks.
VPL-VW1000ES 4K Quality
Sure enough, real 4K content being played back on the VPL-VW1000ES was a sight to behold. Just to be sure, one of the first things we did was use 4K horizontal and vertical resolution test patterns to double check that the VPL-VW1000ES actually was delivering full resolution. This allowed us to confirm without any doubt that the VPL-VW1000ES is a true 4K projector, although there was a very slight optical softening, which we expected on a three-chip projector (although it’s not impossible that it could be the fault of the lens rather than panel alignment). However, we had to stand right beside the screen in order to spot this; from even a few metres back, the limiting factor became our eyes.
Although it can produce stunning video, there’s no denying that the jump from 1080p to 4K is not as pronounced as going from NTSC/PAL to 1080p. That’s inevitable when you consider that 1920×1080 is nowhere near as big a handicap as the effective resolutions of older video systems, and that there is no analogue to digital transition this time around.
By the way, because we mention everything, we should point out that if we looked closely at the screen (not from seating distance), we could see some very small noisy tone jumps in the projected image. It’s invisible from the seating position, but we mention it because we found it interesting. Perhaps an engineering shortcut required to drive the 4K panels revealing itself?
High Definition, and the two scaling modes
Given the unusually high resolution of the VW1000′s panels, and the fact that most of the content we fed to it was regular 1920×1080 HD, we’re inevitably going to talk quite a bit about scaling.
In practice, the VPL-VW1000ES allows for one of two scaling algorithms to be used in resizing 1920×1080 video to 3096×2140. (The projector resizes to “Ultra HD” resolution rather than to the full 4K to preserve the aspect ratio). Leaving [Reality Creation] off results in something close to the most basic scaling possible. In fact, before we tested it thoroughly, we thought that the projector was simply repeating each input pixel of the 1080p source twice, without any attempt at spatial interpolation at all. We found out later that that isn’t actually the case, although it certainly looked like it, with visible pixellation being visible up close (although the effect becomes invisible from just a few feet away due to the resolving limitations of the eye, so isn’t really a problem in practice – unless you have a truly gigantic screen and sit close to it).
The other option is to enable [Reality Creation], which combines an excellent edge-adaptive scaling process with some other video processing (which attempts to enhance detail, apparently by blending high-res textures with the existing video content, a Sony proprietary technique). The fact that turning on Reality Creation enables edge-adaptive scaling means that the VPL-VW1000ES projector allows the viewer to watch using a very basic scaling algorithm as well as an advanced one. Is that an intentional decision to make the Reality Creation processing look better by comparison?
In our review of the Sony VPL-HW50ES, which is a 1080p projector, we wrote at length about how we found Reality Creation’s inclusion to be fairly pointless on a projector with such a resolution, although we could understand the marketing reasons behind it. On a 1080p projector, there are no opportunities to increase the actual resolution due to the fact that the images are fixed at 1920×1080 pixels (although it’s possible to increase the apparent sharpness with such a process). With 4K SXRD panels in the projector, the processing actually serves a purpose since it’s possible to “pad out” the extra pixels with synthesised information, which will be the next best thing to real 4K content.
To give readers (and ourselves) an idea of how the scaling works, we created a 1920×1080 test image with thin, single pixel details in it. These included horizontal and vertical single-pixel transitions (which assess resolution), and more interestingly, diagonal single-pixel lines to subjectively test the inevitable artefacts created by the scaling processes when operating at the single pixel level. To share the results with readers, we shot the middle of the screen with a DSLR and zoom lens. Keep in mind that these pictures are extreme close-ups.
We also used the OPPO BDP-103 4K upscaling player‘s 4K output for comparison.
First, the diagonals:
Our original assumption from seeing pixellation up close was that the Sony VPL-VW1000ES was not performing any spatial interpolation during scaling with [Reality Creation] shut off – in other words, we thought that it was simply repeating pixels twice to make up the higher resolution output. However, the black-on-grey pixel details in our test pattern clearly show faint grey outlines, indicating that the scaling algorithm isn’t quite so basic.
Turning on Reality Creation with this diagonal pattern shows the clear benefits of edge adaptive scaling with synthetic content. From looking at the diagonal lines, there is almost no indication that they were ever in a lower resolution. The “Diag” text appears slightly thickened, however.
The ringing caused by the OPPO’s scaler is fairly typical for linear scaling algorithms. Broadly speaking, these have to balance sharpness, ringing artefacts, and aliasing. It might look like a poor quality image, but keep in mind the extreme zoom used and the synthetic nature of the content. The 4K upscaling output of the OPPO BDP-103 works just fine for viewing photorealistic films (although obviously given that it’s an upscaler, the effects are fairly limited). Ringing artefacts like these are often mistaken for deliberate edge enhancement, but in fact are a byproduct of the scaling algorithm (all of the player and projector’s Sharpness controls were disabled).
By the way, if you do choose to feed 4K content to the VPL-VW1000ES from an upscaling BD player, the [Reality Creation] switch is still available, but obviously since the content has been scaled already in the player, the VPL-VW1000ES’s edge-adaptive scaling won’t be used, so the effects will be limited to some sharpening/detail enhancement tricks.
We then assessed the scaling performance of the three algorithms using a detailed photograph (scaled down to occupy a very small area of the 1080p image):
In this case, we can see that with actual content, rather than test charts, there is very little difference between the edge-adaptive scaling which forms part of the Reality Creation processing, and the linear scaling from the OPPO Blu-ray player. That makes sense given that most of this image is comprised of detailed texture rather than edges, and indicates that the Reality Creation scaler is “shifting gears” as appropriate. We can also see that the OPPO’s image is marginally closer to the source, and that the Reality Creation processing has had a slight extra sharpening effect (something consistent with our observations from using it with real content).
So, to reiterate, that gives us two options in the VPL-VW1000ES projector itself: incredibly basic scaling with jaggedness visible up close (but not from the seating position, crucially), or advanced edge-adaptive scaling with some other detail enhancement tricks thrown into the process.
From having a look at the close-up zoomed shots above, you’re almost certainly thinking that Reality Creation is the clearly superior option out of the three. To that end, you’ll probably be surprised to hear that we often settled with the other two alternatives (RC off, and the OPPO 103′s own scaler). This was simply because the texture enhancement/sharpening features that come as part of the “Reality Creation” suite could be a bit much, even with its “Resolution” setting at its lowest (we complained about the same effect on the Sony VPL-HW50ES). For example, we often found that light film grain could become coarser and thicker with the feature turned on, and that very sharp, wide-aperture shots looked just a bit too edgy. Furthermore, the jaggedness caused by losing the edge adaptive scaling wasn’t visible from a few feet away, and wasn’t an issue at all with the OPPO player.
Here’s what we’d really like: a way to take the edge adaptive scaling (which is great) without the other sharpening/texture enhancement features which fall under the “Reality Creation” umbrella. Perhaps in the future, Sony will let us pick and choose.
1080p High Definition
So, with all that in mind, how does the Sony VPL-VW1000ES look when playing back 1080p Blu-ray Discs? Excellent. In fact, this is a difficult analysis to write because there are actually no stand-out issues with the picture at all. Accurate greyscale, gamma and colour are handled correctly, the motion performance is not class-leading but is perfectly adequate for 24fps film, and as for the “screen door effect” (visible pixel gaps): SXRD projectors barely suffer from that problem in 1080p; at 2160p you can forget about seeing this phenomenon under realistic viewing conditions.
There’s no forced noise reduction, no forced sharpening, and no other kind of designed-in annoyances to worry about. We’d have liked to see the cinematic motion rendering that the HW50ES exhibits when it has its Dark Frame Insertion mode turned on, but that’s a small complaint given the VPL-VW1000ES’s other benefits (we especially liked the considerably better panel uniformity, something we hope is a byproduct of the SXRD panel revisions that we’d like to see on cheaper projectors soon).
On the Sony HW50 1080p projector, we found that its 3D output mode actually didn’t resolve all 1080 lines vertically, despite being marketed as a “Full HD 3D” projector (Sony seemed genuinely surprised at this). The VPL-VW1000ES doesn’t have any such resolution limitation, which isn’t surprising given that as a 4K projector, it has a resolution surplus when it comes to displaying standard 3D HD content. Every drop of detail from 1080p images is resolved on the VPL-VW1000ES. (Had the opposite been true, it would typically indicate a serious video processing error).
We were a little disappointed that some dynamic gamma manipulation was running at all times, which wasn’t the case on the cheaper VPL-HW50ES. For example, with a 30% stimulus test screen, pulling up our calibration disc’s pop-up menu over the image would cause the shade of grey to shift visibly. Fortunately, when we gave the new 3D Blu-ray of Pixar’s Finding Nemo a watch on the VPL-VW1000ES, we actually couldn’t ever see that behaviour rearing its head (although the possibility of course exists). Just as on the HW50, 3-D on the VW1000 was of excellent quality, with almost no crosstalk, bright images, and enough freedom from tinting (after calibration) to satisfy us. As with the cheaper projector, there was no judder in the 3D output mode.
One last point, in case you’re wondering: the Sony VPL-VW1000ES can’t show three-dimensional images in 4K.
Clocking in at 46ms, the Sony VW1000 wasn’t quite as fast as the cheaper HW50. We’ll take a guess and say that the various scaling processes, which are apparently handled by several different chips, caused the extra delay. This is still not a unbearable amount of lag, though, it’s just not as fast as would be ideal.
Strangely, unlike the cheaper HW50, there is no way to get full 4:4:4 chroma resolution from PCs or games consoles out of this projector. Although it won’t make a huge difference in practice, we found that interesting given that the cheaper projector had no problem reproducing full chroma bandwidth in its “Game” and “Photo” picture modes.
If you’re in the market specifically for a 4K projector, then Sony’s VPL-VW1000ES is one of your only choices at the moment. However, for the asking price, you could buy two or more excellent 1080p projectors. With that in mind, the Sony VPL-VW1000ES has to at least be an outstandingly good “normal” projector, 4K or not.
Fortunately for them, that actually is the case. The VPL-VW1000ES features excellent, flat, accurate Greyscale, gamma and colour properties, has excellent contrast performance, great (but not leading) 3D image quality, and excellent panel uniformity. The lens is also of excellent quality, with no troubling focus or chromatic aberration issues present (unlike the cheaper Sony VPL-HW50ES, the focus appeared entirely consistent to the eye across the entire projected image – and at this price point, we wouldn’t accept anything less!) The omission of colour management controls is puzzling, but not actually an issue in practice.
The only thing we’re not so happy about is the fact that the motion performance is technically below that of at least one of Sony’s cheaper (and newer) projectors. It’s not really a problem for 24fps movie playback, because that’s too low a frame rate to really reveal much motion blur, but it’s still below projectors like the HW50 running with its Dark Frame Insertion mode enabled (although not all users find that mode palatable given that it adds some flicker, by design).
While the benefits of 4K and higher resolution video aren’t as great as going from SD to HD (standard definition was well and truly past its sell by date by the time HDTV finally became available to consumers), the fact is that it’s coming. For now though, most VPL-VW1000s will be used to display upscaled 1080p content – a task for which it’s fairly well equipped (although we’d prefer more control over the Reality Creation feature so we can see a cleanly scaled image that’s closer to the source).
Sony is eager to be first when it comes to higher-than-1080p displays, and they should be congratulated for it. Hopefully in the months ahead, much of what makes the VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector great will filter down into more affordable “Ultra HD” and 1080p products. We’ll be watching!
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