There is an old saying from the world of two-channel audiophilia: If you want to remain happy with your CD-based digital stereo system, never again listen to an LP-based analog one. I used to feel exactly this way about new-fangled DLP, LCD, and LCoS digital projectors versus old-fashioned CRT analog numbers. I don’t anymore.
Though it pains me to say this, my $50,000, custom-made, 8-inch CRT projector has finally met its match in Sony’s new VPL-VW100—a threepanel, SXRD-based, 1080p, digital front projector, which, believe it or not, retails for $10,000. Folks, there are still top-of-the-line single-chip 720p projectors out there that cost ten grand and more (though not for long, I’ll bet). And the finest currently available 1080p projectors—like Sony’s own Qualia 004 and Faroudja’s DILA1080pHD—cost three or four times that much.
In a single masterstroke of merchandising and engineering, Sony has made the dream of a truly high-quality, bigscreen, 1920x1080 home theater a considerably more affordable reality for considerably more consumers. And while I don’t want to sound like an ingrate, the way prices are heading, who knows what this genuine price/performance breakthrough may herald for the future.
The VPL-VW100 I received—and I think I might have been the first writer to get a review sample—was shipped to me directly from the CEDIA show, at which it was introduced in early September. In fact, it was undoubtedly a pre-production sample with a few quirks that are likely to be fixed in final production units. The thing was so new that it came without an owner’s manual. (The manual hadn’t been printed yet!) This turned out to be both a frustration and a weird kind of blessing.
Without instructions, certain settings in the on-screen menus—such as the complicated systems of pie charts and sliders in the RCP (REAL COLOR PROCESSING) submenu—remained mysteries. Other functions had mysterious side effects. For instance, turning OVERSCAN on apparently reduces HD video bandwidth from the component input, though you can only see this on a 720p or 1080i test signal. (The OFF position did not affect the clarity or resolution of HD program material.) The blessing side of being manualless was that I had to figure things out for myself, which made for a good test of the intuitiveness of the VPL-VW100’s menus and controls. I am happy to say that, with the few exceptions just mentioned, the Sony’s on-screen menus were extremely easy to understand and use—particularly the all-important PICTURE menu. Thilluminated remote was also a snap (and it has a PICTURE button that allows direct access to the most commonly used controls of BRIGHTNESS, CONTRAST, COLOR, HUE, and SHARPNESS).
Since my CRT projector had been optimally set up for my 76-inch Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, I already knew the approximate spot where the Sony should go. But the truth is, with the VPL-VW100’s motorized FOCUS, ZOOM, and SHIFT controls available at a touch of the remote, I didn’t need help to set this thing up properly.
Two tips: To avoid the need for digital keystone correction, you’ll want to make sure the projector is mounted high enough so that the center of its lens is parallel or nearly parallel to the center of the screen. And if you’re floor-mounting the VPL-VW100, try to locate it behind your seating position, as its 500W lamp generates a good deal of heat that is vented out the rear of its elliptical chassis, and right into your face if you’re sitting in back of it.
Input and output hookups—which are all made to a strip on the right side of the projector—are easy to find and figure out. The Sony VPLVW100 provides HDMI and DVI digital connections (one each) and the usual panoply of analog jacks (one component, one S-video, one composite, etc.). Not to let this cat out of the bag too soon, but the digital inputs are definitely preferable. (Having seen the shocking differences in clarity and artifacts between component and HDMI, I’m definitely a newborn HDMI/DVI fanatic.)
Out of the Box
As chance would have it, the very first thing I watched on the VPL-VW100 was My Fair Lady, which was being broadcast in 1080i high-definition on HDNet Movies. I tuned in just at the point where Pickering is congratulating Higgins on his great triumph at the ball (“I say, old man, you did it!”)— completely ignoring poor Eliza, who actually deserves the praise. From a videophile point of view, what was interesting about this amusing scene was the number of different whites on display—from the linen white of the housekeeper’s apron, to the off-white of the maid’s apron, to the plasterboard white of Higgins’ dress shirt, to the creamy white of his woolen shawl, to the silvery white of the shawl’s silk tassels. Though the amount of unfudged detail reproduced by the Sony was unparalleled in my previous experience of broadcast high definition—truly mind-boggling—and blacks and shadow detail were astonishingly good for an LCoS display, the VPL-VW100 did not do as sensational a job of distinguishing among these delicate shades of white. In fact, it didn’t even do an adequate job. All of them, save for the maid’s yellowish apron, were crushed to a blank white. Moreover, most skin tones were noticeably too red—ranging from outright ruddy to overly pink.
To put this in tech speak, at its factory- default setting of 80, the Sony’s CONTRAST was too high (even with the projector’s auto iris—about which, see below—in its default AUTOMATIC position). And at the factory-recommended MEDIUM color temperature (generally the closest to ideal on Sony sets), the picture took on a reddish cast. The amount of distraction engendered by this reddish cast was somewhat program-dependent, but it was generally visible (when it was visible) with skin tones—more so through the analog (component-video) input than digital (HDMI). It was also occasionally visible in expanses of blue skies, which had a slight hint of violet every once in a while, and on reddish clothing. For instance, in the very entertaining Miguel Cotto/Ricardo Torres light welterweight fight in Atlantic City (on HBO HD), the ring announcers described Torres as the fighter in the “yellow, blue, and orange trunks.” To my eye, through the VPL-VW100, it looked as if he were the fighter in the yellow, blue, and burnt-orange trunks. The orange was just a little too dark and too crimson.
Other colors looked unusually pure, though not quite as deeply saturated as CRT colors. The greens of playing fields were grass-green when the fields were grass and turf-green when they were turf. Blues, outside of those occasional slightly violet skies, were a bright, unadulterated blue. And yellows were the best I’ve ever seen on any display. Then there was the VPL-VW100’s astonishing resolution. The utter clarity of the ornate detail of the elaborately decorative costumes in Messenger, Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc movie, and in the HBO sword-and-sandal series Rome, elevated the picture to a level of photorealism that I’ve never seen before on video in my home—a clarity like that of fashion ads in Vogue or GQ. Here was the front-to-back sharpness, the depth of field and focus, we’ve been longing for but never got with beam-spot projection.
In HD, and to a surprising extent, on DVD, the VW100’s picture is considerably sharper than I’m used to seeing on a movie-theater screen (where sharpness is diminished by the huge amount of enlargement). Paradoxically, its blacks are very similar to what I’m used to seeing on a big screen (where jet blacks are not quite jet black, once again because of the size of the image and brightness of the projector bulb). As with the Sony Cineza VPL -HS51 front projector (Issue 61), the VPL-VW100 incorporates an auto-iris feature that automatically adjusts according to the overall brightness of a scene, closing down during dark scenes to lower the black level and opening up during bright ones to maximize light output. Although you can occasionally catch the thing working when a movie cuts from a nighttime scene to a daylight one—in rather the same way that your eye’s iris lags for a split-second as you step from a dark room into bright sunlight—it does its job invisibly for the most part, though it will not, as noted earlier, correct for CONTRAST or BRIGHTNESS settings that are initially too high or low. Nor will it, ultimately, give you the dynamic range or India-ink blacks of CRT. The VPL-VW100’s picture will always be just a little “flatter” in overall contrast and dimensionality— no matter how open or closed the auto iris is or where CONTRAST and BRIGHTNESS are set—than an 8-inch or 9-inch CRT projector.
With the AVIA disc or Digital Video Essentials, the crushed whites can be cured entirely by simply lowering the VPL-VW100’s CONTRAST from the factory-default setting of 80. (I ended up with settings in the upper 60s or lower 70s; though these remained a little bloomy, I thought the picture lost a little too much dynamic pop below that.) Lowering CONTRAST also reduces the apparent red-biased grayscale error, as does a blue-filter-assisted adjustment of COLOR and HUE, though neither of these user-accessible adjustments will fix the problem entirely.
That said, with the user controls properly set, I could make out shades of red that would previously have been closer to uniformity. For example, in the first round of the National League playoff games, I had no trouble telling the brick red of the Astros’ jerseys from the brighter red (with fine gold piping) of the numerals on the grey jerseys of the Braves’ uniforms. I could even see the way the flat-panel monitor in the announcer’s booth was miscalibrated, reproducing the Astros brick jerseys as carmine red! In addition, the slight rosiness of skin tones was greatly reduced to the point where it was rarely distracting. In addition to adjusting CONTRAST, COLOR, and HUE, you can, and should, tweak BRIGHTNESS with the PLUGE patterns on AVIA or DVE, and lower SHARPNESS to 20 or less. (This set does not need added sharpness, believe me.) Although these adjustments are necessary— and easy to effect—perhaps the best thing you can do for the VPLVW100 is to source it via HDMI or DVI at 1080i. Frankly, I wouldn’t have believed the differences that these digital inputs make if I hadn’t seen them for myself. To give you one example, the combination of the VPL-VW100 and an HDMI DVD player upscaling to 1080i turned the DVD of The Last Samurai from a very good transfer into a great one. (It did nothing for the quality of the film, however.) The improvements in .....sharpness, color purity, shadow detail, and, above all else, the reduction of artifacts was downright amazing—and alarming. For years now, I’ve been critical in TPV’s “Short Takes” of DVDs that seem to introduce “haloes” (faint whitish outlines) around faces and objects; I thought these artifacts were the products of excess edgeenhancement in the telecine process. I see now that that they were often artifacts added by the D-to-A conversions and SHARPNESS circuitry of my Faroudja-powered DVD player. Mea culpa.
To ISF or Not To ISF
My colleague Randy Tomlinson measured the VPL-VW100 for me before and after calibration, as well as giving it an ISF calibration. By means of the service menu (unavailable to mere mortals like you and me), he was able to completely eliminate the red cast, to adjust CONTRAST and BRIGHTNESS to ISF standards (which made the set look a little too tame and lifeless for my taste), and to dial the MEDIUM grayscale into D65 perfection (though initially too red, the projector was pretty close to spot-on, and once ISF’d, tracked the grayscale superbly well). However, we found that the calibration did not produce the same results with HDMI and component inputs, so he performed a separate procedure with the CUSTOM preset for HDMI.
After ISF’ing, RT found that the color primaries measured outside of HD standards in both EXTENDED and NORMAL color modes (Sony techs say the NORMAL mode will be corrected in production models), but I couldn’t tell this from looking at the VPLVW100’ s picture. I don’t think anyone could. He also had trouble getting the set to pass a 1080i test signal from his Sencore generator, though Sony thought this might be a pre-production issue. (During the fact check, Sony reps also raised the possibility that it might be due to the OVERSCAN setting and THROUGH mode setting if OVERSCAN was on,
but by then, we no longer had the projector to try this). In any event, a lack of resolution is the last thing anyone would complain about with the VPLVW100 on HD or DVD.
Once BRIGHTNESS was tweaked, blacks measured below the limit of RT’s test equipment (well below 0.01fL), meaning they were very dark. (No need for a gray screen here.) He measured a maximum light output on my Studiotek 130 at a bright 23.9fL, but my screen is relatively small and the VPL-VW100 would clearly lose some brightness on a giant-sized screen. He suggested that the VPLVW100 not be used with screens much larger than 85 inches wide. Sony had to trade something off to produce a projector that betters its $30k Qualia 004 at one-third the price, and light output was apparently it.
The improvements RT wrought were plainly visible, but I’m not sure I would spend the money on ISF’ing this projector unless the slight residual reddish tendency of the MEDIUM colortemp preset bothers you. If it does, you could try switching to the HIGH colortemperature setting—the very slight blueness of which RT felt would be undetectable by the eye and would also disguise imbalances in red and green. Note, however, that there are unavoidable unit-to-unit differences in color balance in all televisions from every manufacturer. My test sample measured about 7000K—i.e., slightly blue—at the HIGH color-temperature setting and about 6300K—i.e., slightly red—at the MEDIUM color temperature setting, but yours may look and measure differently. If switching to HIGH color temperature visibly washes out colors in dark scenes and adds a blue cast to blacks, don’t use it! On the other hand, you may not see a reddish tint to complexions at your set’s MEDIUM color-temperature setting. Trust your eyes when it comes to color balance.