Sony VPL-VW50 Pearl Home Theater Projector Review:
The Sony Pearl is a pleasure to watch - after you spend a little time fixing the "out of the box" color accuracy. The VW50 begs for some attention, and, considering the $4000+ selling price, many might want to seriously consider spending $500 or so for a professional calibration. With any projector, for movie watching you want a proper white (grayscale) balance. Some projectors are extremely good out of the box, others good, others so-so, etc.
The Sony produces a significantly too bluish (cool) an image for proper movie watching (D65 standard - 6500K color temperature), with the color temperature averaging almost 1000K too high. This can be adjusted by non-technical users with a basic calibration disk like the AVIA, which sells for around $40-$50, a small price to pay. You'll definitely want to deal with the situation, be it a calibration disk, a professional, or a hobbiest friend who knows what they are doing.
Once I did a basic calibration of the grayscale balance (30-100IRE) (don't worry about the technical stuff), the image quality improved dramatically, especially flesh tone handling, which is where we will start.
For openers, here are the usual 5 images used in every review, from standard DVD. These were all taken after the grayscale adjustment. You can click on almost all of the images on this page, for larger versions.
From Lord of the Rings, Return of the King:
In the Gandalf image we have rich flesh tones, while below, the image or Arwen, is subdued as it appears on the screen.
Moving to The Fifth Element, Leeloo's bright orange hair gets picked up nicely (better still if I would have overexposed the frame - camera limitation), while the flesh tones look good, especially the natural look of her lips. (The image in general has a slightly purplish cast on virtually any projector:
Bruce Willis looks espeically good in the image below. Many projectors tend to appear unnecessarily too saturated, considering the "theater" lighting.
From I, Robot, Will Smith has a realistic look to his skin tones:
Moving to hi-def images, let's start with a couple of new images from Batman Begins on HD-DVD:
You should be getting the idea... Very, very nice. More hi-def from HD-DVD, this time from Phantom of the Opera:
And a couple from the HD-DVD Space Cowboys:
Moving to the HD-DVD Aeon Flux, two images of Aeon:
Overall, after spending about 6 hours viewing the Sony VW50 before adjustment, and another 30 hours plus afterwards, I'm pretty comfortable in saying that the post adjustment VW50, produced some of the most natural skin tones of any review I can recall. My own BenQ PE8720 which I truly like, paled in comparison, or rather, the opposite, it always tends to seem too contrasty, compared to the Sony VW50. This despite it also being grayscale adjusted. Some may have to do with the gamma, or other factors, but the bottom line remains, the Sony is capable of extremely natural looking flesh tones.
HDTV and Flesh tones:
Immeidately below are several images shot from HDTV sources. In this case, I was using unadjusted settings (Standard) on the Sony VW50 Pearl home theater projectors. As will be mentioned in the calibration section, I didn't find a well balanced, default setup for non-movie watching. Since I did not do a full grayscale adjustment, you'll note that fleshtones could definitely be better, and with a proper adjustment, there is no reason why the Pearl couldn't rival the images above, with TV and HDTV sources. The unadjusted images are very watchable, but should look much better, more dead on, after proper tweaking.
Above - Jen, from the band Sugarland, from M-HD (MTV's hi-def music video channel - great stuff).
Perhaps the best example of "almost" is this shot below of Pete Townsend from The Who (who, I must punningly note, I will be seeing with The Who, this evening in Long Beach).
OK, a brief interesting story - While Pete looks great below, the color balance, though close, I started to write yesterday," is not, quite, believable. You know, a bit thin on red, and a touch low on green."
Boy was I wrong. Last night I had floor seats for The Who (in Long Beach, CA), and to my amazement, under the stage lighting, Pete really did have the skin tones you see below. (The projection displays had a bit more red, but live, well, the Sony captured him really well. (Live and learn!)
Overall, all of the HDTV images above still have a real Wow factor, people who have joined me watching snippets of movies, or the concerts or a playback of Leno on DVR, were all consistantly impressed by the Sony VW50. Although the usual crowd doesn't contain any hard core videophiles or home theater geeks, at least two people, very familiar with my room (and BenQ) didn't take long to comment that "that new projector" looks better than yours, and in all cases, they weren't talking about resolution, but the overall image quality, especially in how natural everything looks on movie sources.
Sony VW50 Pearl Projector: Image Sharpness
Normally I tackle sharpness further down in this section, but with the VW50, sharpness has been one of the controversial issues. The word out there, on the Sony Pearl, as well as the older Sony Ruby, has almost consistantly been that these LCOS (SXRD is Sony's name) projectors, just aren't quite as sharp as other technologies.
The first LCOS projector I reviewed - about 2 years ago, the 1080p JVC HD2K, was very impressive, but my comment about it was that it wasn't as sharp as I would expect from a 1080p projector, when compared to the sharpest 720p resolution projectors available.
Some people conjecture that LCD projectors look the sharpest - not because they resolve more detail, but because the visible (or nearly visible) pixel structure at normal seating distances gives the impression of more sharpness/detail. Following that logic, DLP projectors, while having far less noticeable pixels than LCD, but far more visible than LCOS, would also appear sharper than LCOS models. Then consider Panasonic's two home theater projectors, the PT-AE1000U (1080p) and PT-AX100U (720p) thanks to their SmoothScreen technology, have essentially invisible pixels even much closer than seating distance, also are not considered sharp, in their class. Could that be, not because of lack of detail, but because lack of subliminally detectable pixel structure?
Myself, I have been in the camp that simply says, LCOS projectors just don't appear as sharp as... But, then, at EHX last November, JVC showed their (just released) RS-1 LCOS projector (JVC calls it D-ILA), side by side with the very, very sharp Mitsubishi HC5000. Under the JVC controlled environment, I strained to detect a real difference in sharpness, but failed. So, perhaps JVC has something, which - since the RS-1 is our next 1080p projector review, which is sharper than other LCOS projectors, or maybe the HC5000 just wasn't as sharp as it could be.
I watched, and watched, and watched. The Sony VW50 Pearl never gave me that razor sharp feeling I got from the Mitsubishi HC5000, nor for that matter the two sharp DLP's the Optoma HD81 and BenQ W10000.
But, it still appeared to produce a sharper, more detail revealing image than any of the 720p projectors.
Time to look at what I'm talking about - first, our closeup of the necklace from Phantom, off of HD-DVD (click to enlarge), and immediately below it, a shot of the necklace from the BenQ W10000, and from the Mitsubishi HC5000.
Perhaps even better are these frames from Aeon Flux, first the Sony Pearl, followed by the Optoma HD81. Look for the sharpness of her eye (the "sparkle"), and details in her hair above her forehead, and the loose hairs around the sides of her head. While the frames are not exactly the same ones, the differences in sharpness are projector related, not related to the frames.
The next four - the first image is the Sony Pearl again, while the second image is from the Panasonic PT-AE1000U, which we reviewed and also consider a bit soft, compared to the sharpest 1080p projectors. The third "eye" is from the Optoma HD81, and the fourth one, from the BenQ W10000. (Sorry, didn't have the Aeon Flux DVD when I reviewed the HC5000 - the first 1080p I got to review.) Enlarge the images by clicking on them (you can open all four at the same time if you wish) and you can look for the sharpness in the lashes at the top right, and the fine ones on the bottom. For detail you can also look at the speckles in her eyes. Very telling. (note, the smaller images below are already heavily compressed, so, although you can see some differences there, please enlarge for a more accurate result.
To bring the Mitsubishi back into the loop, here are a pair of thumbnails, click on the first for a closeup of the opening Warner Bros. emblem on the Sony Pearl, and the second thumbnail gets you the HC5000.
Keep in mind, all these projectors have various image sharpening capabilities. When I review projectors I try to keep things pretty simple, I adjust for a good sharp image, without obvious visible artifacts. With some projectors, (ie Epson models) they offer users, multiple sophisticated controls over sharpness, edge sharpness, etc.) In some cases it could take a great many hours just to figure out the ultimate combination to get best sharpness, and even then, when one adds lots of fancy algorithms, sometimes they work great for one situation, and look like hell in another.
Our last suite of images is the closeup of the monitor, from Space cowboys, starting, of course, with the Sony VW50 Pearl, followed by the BenQ W10000 and the Optoma HD81.
OK that's more than enough examples. With the JVC RS-1, and Epson Cinema 1080p reviews posting early March, you will also be able to see addtional comparisons in those reviews, that include the Sony.
ENOUGH! This is probably the longest sharpness section of all time. And, it's time for a little perspective. While the Sony is slightly softer than the other projectors (with the possible exception of the Panasonic PT-AE1000U), it is still a very sharp image. Only because I am used to looking for subtle details in sharpness, when testing, and the fact that I have had other 1080p projectors around, is this coming off as such a big deal. Overall, watching the projector I was very pleased with image sharpness. It definitely is an improvement over my BenQ PE8720 - considered one of the sharpest 720p projectors around, and probably the sharpest of the 720p DLP's under $10,000.
So, you will have to weigh the issue against all the others, to see if the sharpness factor is going to affect your final choice. Personally, I could easily live with the Sony VW50 Pearl's sharpness. Although I'd love to have the sharpest projector on the market as my next projector in my home theater, ther factors have more weight for my own decision.
Sony VW50 Pearl: Black Levels and Shadow detail
Well, the black levels are first class. True, the Sony relies on a dynamic iris to achieve it's maximum of 15:000 contrast ratio, so black levels vary depending on the how much very bright content appears on a frame, but overall, the Sony VW50 probably has the best performance so far, in this regard. I should first note, that I worked with the projector's iris set to Auto 1 (for watching movies). This worked great. Auto 2 strikes me as a bit more dynamic, but also occasionally more detectable on certain scenes. I settled on Auto 1 very quickly, and would recommend that as the right place to start. (You can also turn off the dynamic aspect and set the iris manually (like the BenQ W10000). The dynamic iris worked well enough that I never felt the need. (My settings for HDTV, however, using Standard preset, also had the dynamic iris off, and was just fine for that type of viewing).
I'll start the image collection with some standard, and overexposed versions of the same frames, to look at shadow details. This is to adapt from the limitations of my digital camera, which cannot capture the full dynamics of the projected image. If the mediums and brights look great, the shadow details are lost, thus, by also overexposing the same image, the bright areas get blown out, but the shadow details the projector actually projects, are now revealed.
This first image is from Phantom (HD-DVD). Note the texture (and the painted frescos on the walls, as well as details in the darker parts of the floor and even the horse.
That's about as good as it gets. Now here are a pair of images from standard DVD - Lord of the Rings. Look to the shed on the right, and along the bottom of the image:
When it comes to high contrast, eye-popping images, and "rich" blacks, there's nothing quite like space scenes, so here are a few that demonstrate the Sony's impressive abilities. The first two are from Space Cowboys (HD-DVD), followed by one (a starship) from The Fifth Element (standard DVD).
From Starship Troopers (standard DVD):
But shadow detail and great black levels are more than counting computer generated stars in a frame. Consider these assorted images including many medium and dark scenes from both DVD and HD-DVD sources. The first is from the black and white start of Phantom. You'll note plenty of shadow detail in his coat. By comparision, below it, the same frame from the Optoma HD81, which although a slight bit brighter image, looses much of the detail in his coat.
Next is one of my favorite images - from Aeon Flux (HD-DVD). The table shot is very revealing. The dark table surface does show bright and shadow areas, the various fruits and other foods, have rich colors:
Note those shadows and unshadowed parts of the table in the lower area right of center. Shadow detail stands out well compared to the other 1080p home theater projectors. (Visit their reviews, for similar images.
OK, time for two new images - this from Batman Begins (HD-DVD), that I expect will be added to the mix in future reviews - overall, its a dark movie, and these dark scenes looked just great:
Above, from Aeon Flux, below, two from Lord of the Rings.
One more from Phantom:
Finally three images I normally use, from Sin City (standard DVD).
The image above, from Sin City, is a good demonstration of the shadow detail of the Sony VW50 Pearl projector. There is plenty of detail in the walls, bricks, woodwork and also the bottles on the right.
In summary, the Sony is about as good as it gets in terms of resolving shadow detail, and producing very deep blacks, on most scenes. At its worst, with scenes with both very dark areas and some very bright areas, the Sony VW50 still performs extremely well.
Sony VW50 Pearl home theater projector: Overall Image Quality
We've looked at color balance and accuracy, sharpness, and black levels/shadow detail. All are important components, but, you might say, regarding a projector's performance, that the "whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
And the whole word on the VW50 is that the overall picture is really excellent, and perhaps above all, natural looking - yep, that dreaded term - film-like!
Here are a number of images first Hi def DVD, then standard DVD, and finally a few from HDTV.
Sony VW50 projector - HD-DVD images:
Note, on the image above from Aeon Flux, clicking on the image, gets you a closeup of the eye, in the larger format. In the image below, from The Italian Job, clicking also gets you a closeup, (looking at the sign behind the lamppost is another good test for sharpness, found on many reviews.
OK, now some standard DVD images:
HDTV images on the Sony VW50 projector:
I think you should have the idea by now. The Sony VW50 is extremely capable, it handles a wide range of image types, rather effortlessly. It may not have the punch of some other 1080p projectors, but in part, that's because it tends to be more natural looking. Thanks, however to the great black levels and shadow details, the Sony has a very three dimensional feel to it, one that gives the images lots of depth.
OK, moving on time. Next is the General Performance section, which covers a lot of turf, and of particular note, projector brightness, screen recommendations, remote and menu functionality, measurements and adjustments, and more. Ready? Click!