The star of this year’s CEDIA Expo was undoubtedly the VPL-VW50, the third generation of 1920x1080 SXRD front projectors from Sony. Listing for just half the price of the previous-generation VPL-VW100 (which garnered TPV’s Product of the Year award for 2005), the VW50 joins a growing family of outstanding products, reaching into an ever-wider potential market.
The input complement is a bit skimpy, a decision likely made to cut costs. Two HDMI inputs are joined by one component, one VGA, one S-video, and one composite. In a big step forward, the HDMI inputs can accept 1080p at both 60 and 24 frames per second, no doubt to accommodate the Sony BDP-S1 Bluray player, which can output 1080p/24. If the projector receives such a signal, it displays each frame four times at a vertical frequency of 96Hz. This is huge news, as it completely eliminates 3:2 pulldown problems from 1080p/24 content on Blu-ray discs.
One of the biggest cost-cutting measures taken by Sony is the use of a 200-watt UHP lamp instead of the 400-watt xenon lamp in the VPL-VW100. Despite the lower-power lamp, Sony claims the VW50 can produce a peak output of 900 lumens, compared with 800 for the VW100. Not only that, the UHP lamp costs only $379 to replace, as opposed to $1000 for the xenon lamp. The only drawback is that the UHP lamp can’t generate a color temperature of 5400 kelvins, which is ideal for black-and-white movies, though it can manage 6500K just fine.
Other features include an advanced dynamic iris with several different settings, which I tend to leave off, and an ARC-F (All Range Crisp Focus) lens, which provided a good, sharp focus on input material. Interestingly, the internal crosshatch test pattern did not look quite as sharp as other content. Speaking of the internal test pattern, it disappears way too quickly to be of much use at all; it should stay on the screen until you exit manually.
The projector provides power focus, zoom, and vertical lens shift, which is very nice, especially at this price. However, the oneat- a-time increments of these controls are much too small, and the large-scale increments when you hold the button are way too big and fast, making it difficult to set the best focus, zoom, and lens shift.
Another feature touted by Sony is RCP (Real Color Processing), with which the user can fine tune red, green, and blue to taste. TPV video specialist David Abrams discovered that RCP affects the color decoding, which is a difficult business for the untrained eye. With RCP disabled, he could get the color decoding spot on, so I left it off.
Sony collaborated with Stewart Filmscreen to develop a special version of Stewart’s Firehawk screen material, which is dubbed Firehawk SST (Sony/Stewart Theater). Optimized for the VW50’s shortthrow lens, the modifications include smaller grain size in the coating material to avoid interference with the smaller pixels in a 1920x1080 image, a wider viewing angle (33 degrees to half brightness compared with 28 on the Firehawk G2 material), a lower gain (1.1 vs. 1.25), and better ambient-light rejection. Stewart sent me a 100-inch-wide Firehawk SST screen to use for this review.
The remote is blessedly simple and fully illuminated without the clutter of a universal design. However, inputs are selected by cycling through them with the Input button; I wish Sony had included separate inputselection buttons instead of (or in addition to) dedicated picture-mode buttons.
The menu system is well-organized, with more comprehensive controls than most displays at this price point. One minor annoyance is that some parameters present a list of available settings, and the cursor doesn’t jump from the top to the bottom or vice versa if you try to scroll beyond the ends of the list.
The user menu offers two color-space presets: Wide and Normal. Surprisingly, both presets measured nearly identically (that is, oversaturated compared to the SMPTE HD spec), even though they looked decidedly different, which means something else is being affected by the choice of preset. I thought the Wide preset looked better, so I did my evaluation with that setting.
A white-on-black crosshatch pattern revealed some chromatic aberration in the vertical direction (getting worse farther from the center) and convergence errors in the horizontal direction (constant across the screen). But these were generally less than one pixel wide and didn’t cause a problem on program material at a normal seating distance.
Starting with the HQV Benchmark DVD, detail looked good for the most part, though it was a bit rolled off in the finest color pattern. Low-angle diagonals were pretty good, with some jaggies at the lowest angles. The waving flag looked good, with only slight jaggies. The noise-reduction clips looked okay from a normal seating distance, but the noise was obvious from close up. The noisereduction control didn’t seem to do much, so I left it off. The projector’s processor picked up 3:2 pulldown quickly and reliably at 480i and 1080i.
At 1080i, however, a pixel-phase test pattern (one pixel on/one pixel off) was severely rolled off—almost non-existent, in fact. A similar pattern at 1080p/60 was much better, though still a bit lower in amplitude at the highest frequency. As a result, it’s clearly better to use a 1080p source if possible.
On DVDs, the first thing that struck me was the great black level, such as the deep, rich, inky black of space in The Fifth Element and Star Trek: Insurrection. I wasn’t knocked out by the shadow detail, though, as illustrated by the duck-blind observation post in ST:I and the below-deck walk in Master and Commander. I was able to improve the situation somewhat by selecting the Gamma 2 preset.
Color was surprisingly good; in fact, flesh tones seemed a bit subdued. The oversaturated primaries were evident only when the image included strong primary colors, such as those in Moulin Rouge. In such cases, the strong colors seemed to “pop” more than they should. Overall detail looked fine, and there was virtually no contouring in difficult areas, such as the blue backlight at the beginning of The Mask of Zorro.
HD DVDs such as Training Day looked great overall. The detail in the Los Angeles skyline might have been a hair less crisp than some 1920x1080 displays I’ve seen, but this was not as noticeable as I expected from the 1080i pixel-phase test. (The HD-A1 HD DVD player I was using provides no 1080p output.) As with DVDs, the color was generally excellent, with slightly subdued flesh tones and popping primary colors. Black level on Constantine was exquisite, but shadow detail was not the best I’ve seen, though it was far from the worst.
Despite the few problems I’ve cited, the VPL-VW50 produced a beautiful picture, especially considering its list price of only $5000. That makes it the second lowest-priced 1080p front projector on the market (the lowest being the Mitsubishi HC5000, an LCD model for $4500; look for a review in an upcoming issue).
As for the Firehawk SST screen, I must reserve judgment until I can see the projector on other screens, particularly those optimized for 1080p, most of which are not yet available. For now, I can say with confidence that the VPL-VW50 is a fine projector and a terrific value. TPV