Sony VPL-HS51A Home Theater Projector - Who Should Buy?
4/27/06 -Art Feierman
Before or after reading this review commentary, you can click on this link- or at the bottom - for the full multi-page review of the Sony HS51A projector:
This Sony Finally Earns a Hot Product Award
We reviewed this Sony back in early February of this year. It was a tough call, at the time, as to whether the Sony deserved our Hot Product Award. To qualify for the award, a projector should be good enough, that it is the best projector in its general price range for a significant number of potential buyers.
It just took a few months for things to change enough, and now the Sony qualifies!
We found, at the time, that the Sony had a lot of things going for it, most notably, an extremely sharp image, and excellent black levels and shadow detail for an LCD home theater projector, also its blacks, were just that, unlike many projectors the darkest blacks it could produce were neutral, not showing blue or brown or other casts. It also had a few weaknesses (don't they all), including being one of the least bright home theater projectors we've worked with. Like most HT projectors, the HS51A needed a calibration (one you can do with a good calibration disk and an hour of your time), to improve color balance including flesh tones.
The Sony also had pretty good placement flexibility, better than the $2000 DLP projectors that lack lens shift, and it had a zoom lens with more range than the DLP projectors, but less than less expensive popular competitors like the Panasonic PT-AE900u and Sanyo PLV-Z4.
Ultimately the tough decision at the time regarding the Award, was based on the Sony's price. Typical online pricing was in the upper $2000 range, and we felt that for a few hundred more, there was another projector on the market, that outperformed the Sony in almost every way, the Optoma H78DC3, which is DLP based and was the lowest priced projector to use the "top of the line" Darkchip3 DLP chip. At that time, we were able to find the Optoma typically for about $3300 including a free lamp, so, for our purposes of calculation, we figured that the Optoma netted out four about $2900.
From what we understand today, the Optoma is discontinued (although a few dealers have limited stock left we are told by Optoma. The free lamp promo is gone and the H78DC3 is still commanding $3000 or more.
So, today, we have a spread between the Sony and Optoma of more like $700+ and that means there is a large number of people who can afford the Sony, that would find the Optoma H78DC3 out of reach.
And, at the same time, the new lower prices on the Sony, bring it much closer but still, well more expensive than the Sanyo and Panasonic LCD models, but not that much more than the projector (for the money), that impressed me the most this year - Optoma's HD72, perhaps the brightest home theater projector around, and with many strengths.
So, let's get down to specifics to help you decide if the Sony is the best projector for your home theater.
Prices: Sony HS51A vs. the competition
I consider the typical prices I find, and not the lowest price out there. I look primarily to direct authorized dealers, as with them, you can expect at least some level of support.
With the Sony now buyable for significantly under $2500 from a number of dealers, that still makes it far more expensive than the Panasonic PT-AE900u, or Sanyo PLV-Z4 which have rebates currently running. (The Panasonic gives you a $400 cash rebated and a $300 Blockbuster rental rebate, the Sanyo, has a free spare lamp (we consider that $350). That means both of those net out around $1500 - $1600 (most people won't consider the Blockbuster rebate to be worth $300). So, the Sony is still far more expensive, but as you will read below, there are many reasons why you would be willing to pay more.
Optoma's HD72, the DLP projector is just under $2000, so still a few hundred less, but as a DLP projector, it has some limitations that may not work for you. There is also Mitsubishi's HC3000 (not reviewed) which seems to be about the same price as the Sony, and it too, is a DLP projector with some limitations.
Epson's Cinema 550 projector is now slightly more expensive than the Sony VPL-HS51A, instead of being a couple hundred less, almost 3 months ago.
Lastly there is InFocus's new Play Big IN76, (we published that review last week). The IN76 is currently more expensive than the Sony, and is a DLP, also with the usual placement limitations.
So, What's So Great About The Sony VPL-HS51A?
Black Levels and Shadow Detail
More importantly is the image quality. Overall, the black levels were the best of any of the LCD projectors we have seen, and appear to be very close to the best DLP projectors that use the Darkchip3. In addition, the Sony did very well in terms of resolving shadow details. In the full review I mention the different AI and iris modes, which have a lot of impact on the final image, so let me say this. If you want the blackest blacks, the Sony has the settings to outperform their LCD competitors, although you will lose some shadow detail. It will even do blacker blacks than the Optoma HD72 or BenQ PE7700 if you go that route, but those projectors will then have better shadow detail.
And the blacks are very black, not blue-black, or redish black, etc. That is a plus, since few projectors maintain a really neutral black.
Like most LCD projectors using AI auto irises, dimming lamps, etc., the Sony's black levels with everything engaged, vary from frame to frame. All that technology works best if the frame has lots of dark areas and no areas that are very bright. If a scene has both darks and very bright areas, the AI can't dim the image to get better blacks. So, you could say, on the right scenes the Sony projector will actually do better blacks than even the competing DLPs, but not on other scenes.
I touched on it earlier, the Sony offers placement flexibility not found on DLP projectors in the under $3000.
The zoom lens has a 1.55:1 ratio, giving you more placement flexibility than any of the DLP projectors, and since you could fill a 100" diagonal screen with the lens 15' back, you have the room to shelf mount the projector (with that size screen) in the back of a room that is 17 feet deep. The zoom lens is similar to the Epson, but has less range than the Sanyo or Panasonic.
The lens shift range (vertical) on the Sony, is also excellent, with more range than the Panasonic (if I remember correctly) and similar to the Sanyo. This will allow you to place the projector even well above the top of the screen surface or well below the bottom. And of course, anywhere in between. Very handy!
A Very Sharp Image
Image sharpness is another big strength of the Sony. None of the other projectors mentioned is sharper. The Sony is notably sharper than the Panasonic and the Epson, and about equal to the Optoma and BenQ projectors. It is particulary good handling current DVDs. In terms of LCD projectors, only the Sanyo is its equal. (Note: these projectors vary in sharpness depending on the source - for example the Epson and Panasonic are notably soft on DVD, but on Hi-Def sources they are much closer to the competition, which indicates that, at least for the lower DVD resolution, scaling is a factor, not lens sharpness.
Brightness vs. the Competition
As noted in the full review, the Sony HS51A arrived with 255 hours on the lamp, so I would anticipate that it was 5 to 10% dimmer than a brand new projector would output. That said, the Sony only measured 221 lumens in its best performance mode (Cinema/low power). Even if we add 10% to estimate the brightness when new, that's only 243 lumens. Most competing projectors produce output in best mode in the mid three hundred lumen range, and the brightest competitor, the Optoma HD72 produced just over 500 lumens. (The InFocus IN76 produced almost 400 lumens.) Only the Epson Cinema 550 of the LCD models is particularly bright. I should note that it is typical for LCD projectors to be less bright than the DLP projectors when their iris's are engaged and (if they have it), the lamp is dimming frame by frame.
The bottom line, the Sony is not going to be your first choice if you want a larger screen. Even with a screen with some gain, 100" or maybe 106" diagonal is probably the largest sized screen you can use with the Sony. Remember, that lamp will dim as it ages, so even if the Sony can handle a 110" screen adequately with a new lamp, its going to be dimmer a thousand hours later. Also, consider that best mode has the lamp in low power. You can engage the brighter mode as the lamp dims, but that also increases fan noise. This is not going to be your best choice if you are looking for a larger screen, or if you have any ambient light in the room when watching movies. And if you want to watch TV programming such as sports, with some lights on, again, you are probably better with another projector. This Sony is best on movies in a fully darkened room.
The Sony's "out-of-box" colors were definitely off when tested, and the projector really needed calibration. Using a good calibration solution like the Avia disk, will make a major improvement. I used the more capable Avia Pro suite, and their Optic One light meter, and when I finished had near perfect color accuracy, as good as any under $5000 projector I worked with.
How does this compare with the competition? Optoma's HD72 is another projector that is off enough that it too, needs a good calibration. The same is true for the Sanyo. The Epson is better, and the Panasonic, InFocus IN76 and BenQ PE7700 are the best out of box. If you are willing to invest the roughly $40 - $50 for a calibration disk, and the hour or so of your time and patience, the Sony performs as well as any competitor in the price range.
Seating Distance, Screen door Effect and Evenness of Illumination
The Sony is fairly typical for an LCD projector in terms of seating distance for seeing pixels and the screen door effect. I put minimum comfortable seating at 1.4 times screen width vs 1.5 on most LCD projectors in the class (Sony uses its own LCD panels). The Panasonic, though has much less visible pixels, as do all the DLP projectors - lets say around 1.1 - 1.2 times screen width. When it comes to Evenness of illumination, the Sony showed some real problems with different color shifts on grays on different parts of the screen. The good news is that Sony actually has the controls to compensate for that should it actually be noticeable when watching content and not test patterns and gray screens. I didn't mess with the controls, but will assume they do the job.
Summary: Is the Sony VPL-HS51A the right projector for you?
The strengths of the Sony HS51A are:
- Excellent color after calibration
- Excellent black levels and shadow detail - better than other LCD competitors and roughly comparable to DLP models in best mode
- Very good placement flexibility (but not the best) better than any competing DLP projector
- A very sharp image both on lower resolution (DVD and non-HD tv, and on Hi-Def sources
- An LCD projector so no rainbow effect issues that bother a very small percentage of people with DLP projectors
- Best overall pure performance of the LCD projectors in the price range, despite brightness
The shortcomings of the Sony are:
- Not bright, best suited for smaller screens - 82" to 100" diagonal
- Note: I would recommend a white surface, non-high contrast screen with gain, such as the Carada 1.4 gain Brilliant White, or Stewart Studiotek 130. (Carada used for the review)
- Needs a basic calibration
- Typical LCD projector - requires you sit further from the screen than DLP projectors to avoid seeing pixels and the Screen Door Effect
- The remote's back light is a bit dim
- Still priced slightly higher than the competition
In summary, if it looks like an LCD projector is going to work best for you, whether for flexibility in placement, susceptability to the rainbow effect, or other reason, the Sony VPL-HS51A produces the best overall image of any of the LCD models mentioned here, and in many ways rivals the best of the DLP's like the Optoma HD72 (except that the Optoma is drastically brighter). That assumes that you don't need the extra brightness to power a larger screen, or to counter having
a room that can't be fully darkened. Those situations would make you favor (of the LCD projectors, the Epson (brightest) or Panasonic. I should also note that if you really like to "play" or "tweak" your projector, you will just love the Sony. In many ways, the Sony is very similar to the Sanyo PLV-Z4 (also not very bright, needs a good calibration...), but for the extra money, it outperforms the Sanyo in image quality, and is worth the significant difference if your budget allows.
To read the full Sony VPL-HS51A projector review click here:
The Full Sony HS51A Review