Sony VPL-VW885ES 4K Laser Projector Review – Special Features 1

Sony VPL-VW885ES 4K Laser Projector Review – Special Features 1: Laser Light Engine, True 4K –  Better than just 4K UHD, Hybrid Log-Gamma – HLG, High Dynamic Range – HDR

Laser Light Engine

Wow!  Sony now has two current 4K home theater projectors (with HDR, BT.2020) that are lamp based, and five that are laser-based!  (Six if you count the aging VW1100ES which this projector sort of replaces!)

With the laser-phosphors light engine, Sony claims a 20,000 lamp life. They do not specify at what power level, but it should not matter. The Sony brightness can be adjusted downward in 1% increments from full power to minimal power. Not sure how bright minimum is, but likely no more than 30% of full power. Unlike lamp projectors, the image is stable throughout the range. (Many lamp projectors suffer from some slightly visible lamp flicker in their ECO modes.

The 20,000 lamp life will keep you in movies and other content for a long time. Probably well beyond when the time comes to swap this fine projector out for some future 8K resolution model. Think 8 hours a day, five days a week equals 40 hours a week, x 50 weeks a year – that’s one decade.

Or, if you are “glued to your TV set” 60 hours a week, that’s still 6+ years. And, for the 2-3 movies a week only crowd, even with long movies, the laser engine will last long enough for you to have a kid, which him/her grow, and put them through college. BTW the cost of that kid will make dropping $25K on a projector seem like the bargain of the century.

Over its life, the laser engine will dim – probably down to about 50% by the time it gets to 20,000 hours, but that sure beats projectors with say, 4,000-hour lamps, which will dim down by 50% by the time they reach 4,000. Then you replace, and your projector is bright again until that lamp gets some serious hours on it. Remember, you aren’t likely to ever see this projector get to 20,000 hours, although 10,000 is reasonable for heavy users.

Besides holding color, or lasting a long time, there are other another benefits of laser light engine based projectors, one of the biggest ones is that the laser engine creates a larger colors space than lamps can do. That, folks, makes it far easier (hey, it makes it possible) to do all of P3 color space, and virtually all of BT.2020. The lamp-based projectors just don’t get that close, so they cannot match the intensities of color that laser projectors can put on your screen. Definitely more of a wow factor, especially when combined with HDR!

True 4K – Better than just “4K UHD”

For owners of LCD TVs or OLED TVs, there’s no difference between “true” 4K and the new CTA standard of 4K UHD, but for the projector market and us projector owners, there is a real technical difference. Because some projectors can pixel shift – start with panels (or chips) lower than 3840 x 2160 or 4096 x 2160, and double the pixel count with pixel shifting, there are some notable differences.

This Sony qualifies, of course, as a 4K UHD projector, but so do the new DLP projectors that are 2716 x 1528 x2 – that is, they use overlapping pixels (pixel shifting) to get to their 8.3 million pixels on the screen. The sad truth is, those projectors may be sharp, but they are still stuck with pixels much larger than a “true 4K projector,” so they cannot resolve detail as well, but still get to wear a “4K UHD” badge.

I’ve got nothing against them – those single chip DLP’s can look as sharp as true 4K on some content, I’m just playing “cop” to the bad naming, that will confuse many consumers into believing that there’s no real difference. It’s sort of like 720p vs 1080p projectors (or more precisely it would be like having a pixel shifting 720p projector vs a 1080p projector). Anyone paying attention knows that 1080p and 720p are different resolutions. Both are “HD” – High Definition. But, some are 720p HD, and others are 1080p HD.

If 4K UHD isn’t confusing, then look what happens when marketing runs even further amok:  Now I’ve seen 1080p pixel shifters at accept 4K content as “4Ke.”  I assume that’s about being “4K content on an Economy budget”.

Back to true 4K vs 4K UHD:

With 4K UHD though, 2716 x 1528 x2 resolution qualifies as 4K UHD, and so is 4096 x 2160. Better it would have been if the CTA standard was simply UHD, and within, specify the differences. Instead, I find it misleading. Of course, having a higher resolution chip or panel doesn’t guarantee a better picture, as the rest of the projector has to match – quality optics, an excellent light path design, good image processing, etc.

Fortunately, this Sony excels at all of that. Although, as mentioned on the first page, Sony has different quality levels of optics. The VPL-VW885ES has to settle for Sony’s 2nd best, which is still pretty impressive, especially if you want to compare to some of the optics appearing on the lowest cost 4K UHD projectors (selling for 1/10th this Sony’s price).

The first two images in the player are from the credits of Ghostbusters 2016, barely cropped, and heavily cropped.  (Click to enlarge any of these).  The next two images are taken with the Optoma UHD65 (4K UHD DLP).

Just for fun, let’s start with two pairs of two images. The first pair is from this Sony, a full-screen shot, then a close-up. The second pair is the same image (give or take a frame or two), shot with the Optoma UHD65, that we recently reviewed. There’s no comparison in feature set or price, but since both qualify as  “4K UHD” I thought you might like a look.

Then we repeat with the false color image of Saturn from Journey to Space (4K HDR, BT.2020 of course).

Just to round things out, one last image (GB 2016 credits again, close up, but not as tightly cropped) – this time from the Epson laser – the LS10500, a 1080p pixel shifter (so only half the total pixels of the Optoma or the Sony.  Of course the Sony has the smallest pixels, then the 4K UHD Optoma, while the largest pixel size goes to the Epson.

That sort of paints the big picture. Remember, all of these projectors are using some level of image sharpening in their normal default settings, as part of their overall image processing. Over-sharpen a bit too much, you get some “noise,” but you also get a picture that, at first glance, seems sharper than it really is because of processing such as “edge sharpening.” If one doesn’t mind the noise, I can even up the controls on the Epson, the lowest resolution of the three, to seem sharper than the Sony. Such are the games we play – achieving desired results (in this case perceived sharpness) from image processing, with trade-offs.

Bottom line – This Sony is sharp! It has the disadvantage of using 3 LCoS panels (vs a single DLP chip on the Optoma), so there’s always some minor misconvergence, but that should normally be way less than the cost of larger pixels on these others which are  4K UHD or 1080p pixel shifting / faux-K projectors.

Hybrid Log-Gamma – HLG

The best-known standard for High Dynamic Range is HDR10, which is what is used in all HDR capable projectors as well as HDR capable LCD TVs. But, there are now two other standards. One is from the Dolby folk, is hardware driven, and doesn’t seem (so far) to play in consumer space – except perhaps on the extreme high-end (way above this Sony). It will also appear on some outboard processors that could be used with projectors like this Sony, but that’s all I’ll say about it here.

The other is Hybrid Log-Gamma – could they have found more of a technical sounding name? Not being an engineer, I’m not into the finer points, but I have read this type of explanation: The HDR10 standard relies in part on meta-data that is part of the data stream – the content.   The problem with HDR10 is that when streaming, sometimes the meta-data gets lost – or out of sync with the rest of the information,  and, as a result, HDR10 would prove unreliable with streaming. (Don’t ask me to verify the truth in this, I’m just repeating).

HGL, by comparison, does not need the meta-data and therefore will be a reliable way to handle HDR. Unfortunately, very few 4K LCD TVs even support HGL. In the projector world, so far, of the 4K capable projectors we’ve reviewed (all under $60,000), only the Sony projectors (all but their entry level $7,999 VW365ES) and the JVCs currently offer HLG.

I have not worked with Hybrid Log-Gamma, so I can only comment that having it could be considered a bit of future-proofing. We’re in a world of constantly evolving standards.

Handling HDR

Generally, almost all projectors and the vast majority of 4K capable LCD TVs aren’t technically bright enough to take full advantage of HDR.

What happens without sufficient brightness is this: The mid-tones and lower ranges of the picture seem too dark. The projector manufacturers are dealing with this different ways. Sony essentially adjusts the image “gamma” mapping it to the correct HDR10, but that often is dim.

Here are two very dynamic images from 4K Ghostbusters 2016. the first from this Sony, doing 4K with full HDR and BT.2020. But the second one is from the BenQ HT9050 ($9K LED, 4K UHD DLP).  The BenQ has the wide color space, but does not support HDR.  Look how much richer the Sony looks, thanks to HDR.

Sony VPL-VW885ES Ghostbusters city green
Sony VPL-885ES handles dynamic, CGI heavy scene from GB 2016, with HDR and BT.2020.

(BenQ image turns up missing, will reshoot!) -art

Well, the VW885ES is already a pretty bright HT projector with almost a full usable 2,000 lumens, but still, it needs help. The solution is the contrast control of the VPL-VW885ES – which, when there’s an HDR signal, adds HDR next to Contrast.

Adjusting the control to higher numbers lifts the brightness of those lower, seemingly too-dark areas, and it is very effective. Sony folks tell me that while default settings for modes are typically 50 or 60 (out of 100), that most will find the picture more enjoyable with settings in the 70-80 range. Myself, I’ve been viewing with settings from 65 to 80, mostly sticking to the 70-75 range.

I feel the more you push upward (as one would expect), the closer in brightness those darker aspects get to the brightest ones. Well, that’s basically reducing how high the dynamic range really is. The more we raise those areas, the more it tends to look like standard dynamic range.

The good news is that even a compromise like setting the Sony to 70 let alone 80 which some Sony folks say they prefer, is still way more dynamic looking than watching the same content without HDR.

Bottom Line: The adjustment option works great, set it to please you the most. As always, adjustments are trade-offs. In this case, they are relatively minor ones.

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