Sony VPL-AW15 Home Theater Projector Review: Image Quality
For an inexpensive LCD based home theater projector, the Sony's overall image quality performance was very good. In the LCD camp, the primary competition would be the Sanyo PLV-Z5, which with its rebates is in the same price range, the less expensive Hitachi PJ52 which we have not seen, and Epson's powerful Home Cinema 400 projector. The Sony AW15, like the Sanyo PLV-Z5, and Epson relies on dynamic irises to enhance black level performance.
Sony VPL AW15 Bravia Projector: Handling of Flesh Tones
I'll start, as usual with how well the Sony AW15 handles flesh tones. Out of the box color is pretty good, not exceptional, with the overall color balance a little on the warm (reddish) side. Actually the Sony is just about right on, in the brighter ranges, but very reddish in the dark gray ranges. A basic calibration improves the color slightly, which is particularly appreciated in the handling of flesh tones.
The default Color setting on the Sony AW15, is, if anything, a bit undersaturated, which of course takes only increasing saturation a couple of clicks, to correct. In doing so, I stayed on the side of caution, preferring to increase slightly, and ending up with results that were, if anything, slightly more saturated, but a bit less so than other projectors (most tend to be slightly oversaturated). Flesh tones appear very natural, as best shown by this image below, of Gandalf, from standard DVD, Lord of the Rings.
The image of Arwen, below, however, although intended to be pale, comes up with a little less red content, than most (this after the grayscale adjustment - which increased the color temp to over 6700K (ideal is 6500K), in the brighter ranges. The image on the screen looked a bit more correct than this image below.
Moving right along, next are the two images from The Fifth Element (also standard DVD).
The first image - Leeloo - above, looks very natural. Below, Bruce Willis also comes out looking very good.
Switching to hi-def sources, the first two are from Aeon Flux on HD-DVD:
From Phantom of the Opera (Blu-Ray DVD), Carlota looks very good in makeup.
In fact, a little undersaturated before adjustment, but offers up extremely believable flesh tones. In fact, in this regard, it reminds me of the far more expensive, and truly excellent Sony Pearl - the VW50.
Also from Phantom, is this image of some actors in heavy makeup, and one with "normal" skin tones. Again, natural, and believable would be the key descriptors.
In the image of Clint Eastwood above, from Space Cowboys (Blu-ray DVD), the Sony scores very well again. With its slightly lower saturation, the flesh tones look extremely good, whereas the photos captured from most home theater projectors tend to come out looking too red, from slight oversaturation. Below is another good image from Space Cowboys.
Lastly, for looking at flesh tones, are a couple of images from HDTV: First being Jen and Bon Jovi, from a concert on M HD - MTV's high def music video channel. Of course concerts have strong stage lighting, but again, the Sony AW15, comes through with very believable colors,
as does this shot of Pete Townsend of The Who, outdoors, under the lights, below:
The last HDTV image, from the Superbowl, shows Peyton Manning:
Overall, I am extremely pleased with the Sony's handling of flesh tones (skin tones). You should be impressed as well.
Sony AW15 Bravia - Black levels and shadow detail
Sony claims a dazzling 12:000:1 contrast ratio (the lower cost AW10, claims 6000:1). Once again, this proves that the contrast ratio spec, once considered a pretty direct correlation to how good a projector is at approaching blacks and corresponding black levels, has become an ineffective measure of black level performance. Thanks to dynamic systems, many projectors are cranking out incredible contrast ratios, but no longer does that indicate really black blacks. Dynamic systems work best in scenes where there are no bright areas. Irises can be closed down, lowering black levels, and the brighter areas equalized upward to maintain the original brightness. Great, but it doesn't do much, or any good, if the scene has an area that is pure white, or full intensity of any color. The reason is simple, as the iris closes, those whites and full colors have to get darker - less light is allowed through the lens. Bottom line, you can improve black levels on all dark scenes but on typical scenes where there are bright areas, they are rarely effective.
Mind you, this is not the first, but one of many projectors like this - high contrast ratios and "ok" black level performance. Almost all LCD home theater projectors qualify. It is, however, the 12000:1 spec, which I have also seen on the Epson Home and Pro Cinema 1080's that makes me take issue. These projectors (Sony or Epson) on a typical scene cannot begin to match the black levels of the better DLP projectors, even though those DLP's don't claim anywhere near as high a contrast ratio.
Shown immediately above, from The Fifth Element, is our starship image. The Sony does very nicely here, and also reveals a better than average number of stars.
So, how good is the Sony AV15 at black levels. The answer is - not bad at all for a low cost projector, just don't expect it to match the performance of some DLP models that cost about the same or more, notably, two selling for around $1500; the Optoma HD73, Mitsubishi HC3000, and certainly it is no match for the BenQ PE-8720 (which is twice the price).
Moving to hi def DVD's here is the cavern scene from Phantom:
and below, the same scene, overexposed so you can better see the blacks and the shadow details:
The Sony is losing detail in the darker areas of the walls on the right and left, that other projectors, with better black levels, are capturing.
Above, from Space Cowboys (Blu-ray DVD), again the black levels proved to be very good, but not truly spectacular.
Another useful image (also from Space Cowboys) is from the Re-entry sequence. Click on the first thumbnail image below for a look at an overexposed version of the Sony. Clicking on the second one will bring up an overexposed version of a similar frame from the DLP Optoma HD73. The AW15 does very well here, however this is overall a dark scene without any really fill white areas, thus the dynamic iris can work pretty effectively. Unfortunately, this two frames are several seconds apart, so the lighting in the shadow areas is different, but you can see that the Sony, and the Optoma are similar, despite the Sony claiming twice the contrast ratio!
In the two sets of images below, the first shows a normally exposed frame from Lord of the Rings, while the second, shows the same frame, overexposed, so that you can look into the dark areas in the shed on the right and the along the bottom to see shadow details.
Overall, I found shadow details on the Sony (after adjusting brightness, contrast and grayscale), to be very good for a sub-$1500 projector, but not exceptional. It has been a long time since I had my hands on the Sanyo PLV-Z5, but after flipping through notes and images, I would have to give the Sanyo the slight advantage. Conversely, the Sony should have the advantage over the Epson Home Cinema 400, a slightly more expensive projector (but brighter). On mixed scenes (lots of dark and bright areas) I would give the advantage to the DLP projectors, like the HD73 and Mitsubishi HC3000, although not by a great margin.
This standard DVD image from Sin City, shows the Sony doing a good job in displaying dark area detail on the walls and cabinets, but lacking shadow detail in some of the darkest areas.
Also from Sin City, this very dark image (which you can also find on a number of other projector reviews):
Below is a new "favorite" image for a mixed scene - lots of dark and bright, from Space Cowboys. Look for the dark details of the part of the satellite shown on the left side:
If you want to see an almost "night and day" difference, compare with the same image on some of the better 1080p projectors, like Sony's own VW50 Pearl, or the JVC RS1!
One of my favorite newer images for black levels and shadow detail comes from Space Cowboys (Blu-Ray), and shows Clint Eastwood, in a very dark room (only lit by a desk lamp.
While overall the Sony AW15 did well in terms of balance, and gamma, you can see that it really can't rival some of the best at black levels, and much of the limited detail on the back wall is lost, or weak.
Lastly, here is the "table" image from Aeon Flux, a good scene with plenty of shadow detail, especially in the table itself, you can see shadows and lighter areas in the dark table surface.
Sony VPL-AW15 Bravia - Image Sharpness
The Sony did not appear to me, as being quite as sharp as the Sanyo PLV-Z5, and I would overall put it down as similar to the Epson Home Cinema 400, though perhaps a touch sharper. I should note, at this point, that for the sharpness images, 1080p was output from my Blu-Ray PlayStation3, and the Sony handled the downscaling to 720p.
Clicking on the thumbnail below provides a highly cropped closeup of the DTS logo. The thumbnail below it, will show you the logo, shot using the Optoma HD73 DLP projector, which has the same resolution.
The Sony provides a look of slightly greater sharpness, but, as you can see, the pixel structure in this closeup, is far more evident on the Sony AW15, than with the Optoma HD73. I believe you are looking at the usual trade-off. LCD projectors give the impression of more sharpness, by virtue of their more visible (or almost visible) pixel structure). The Optoma provides a smoother, less jagged look to the text and graphics.
Here's another cropped image from the DTS sampler Blu-Ray video disk (the thumbnail below shows about 25% of the total frame:
From Aeon Flux, the Redhead, look for the sharpness in her hair, above her forehead, and loose strands around the sides, as well as the "gleam" in her eyes:
Here is the closeup of the computer monitor from Space Cowboys (Blu-Ray). Performance is good for a 720p resolution projector, and this is a very good image to compare against similar ones from 1080p projectors to get a good idea of what the extra couple thousand dollars buys you in terms of sharpness and detail.:
Lastly, from Phantom, a closeup of the necklace, from the image of Carlota:
Sony VPL-AW15 Bravia Home Theater Projector: General Image Quality
The Sony AW15 consistantly did a good job, on a wide assortment of images. I'll start with a couple from the DTS sampler (Blu-Ray).
From Aeon Flux:
One thing most front projector enthusiasts tend to agree about, is that animated films provide exceptionally gorgeous results. Here is an image from Ice Age: The Meltdown, from the DTS sampler (Blu-Ray):
This very close crop of a small area of this night scene of Gondor (Lord of the Rings, standard DVD), looks OK, but does not bring out the subtle colors found in some of the more expensive projectors, instead it all appears rather blue. The Sony AW15, also is unable to bring out the details below the mountains on the top/middle right, behind the buildings.
On the other hand, this image (also from Lord of the Rings) of the Throneroom, shows a good balance between light and dark, and I noted when watching, that the AW15 did a particularly good job on this scene.
The image above does well on colors, but with large bright areas, the iris comes up a little short in deliverying great black levels, and few stars are visible in the sky.
The shuttle looks great sitting on the launch pad. (Space Cowboys, of course!)
Overall image quality of the Sony AW15 Bravia is very good. I think, that, in general, the Sony will appear to those who prefer a less dramatic, but more natural image, although after proper adjustment, most projectors, of course get to be more similar in contras, brightness and saturation. Projectors like the Sanyo PLV-Z5 have more "wow" to their image, but I think the Sony's trade-off is those less saturated, and therefore slightly more natural flesh tones.
So, we conclude that the Sony AW15 is solid in all image quality areas, with it's strenth likely being flesh tone handling, though good, shadow detail and black levels, are nothing that a number of other projectors can't match. "Pleasing" is a term I would use to describe the AW15, but, overall, the Sony is a bit less "dynamic" than some of the competition. In addition, the Sony is on the weak side of average in terms of brightness, so some projectors, like the Optoma HD72, and Epson Home Cinema 400, just blow away the AW15 in terms of sheer horsepower, allowing larger screens, or more "wow" on smaller ones.
Sufficiently confused? Of course! In that case, my work here is done. Time to move on to General Performance.