Projector Reviews

Sony VPL-HW40ES Projector Review – Picture Quality 2

SONY VPL-HW40ES PROJECTOR – PICTURE QUALITY 2: Black Level Performance, Dark Shadow Detail

Black Level Performance

Sony HW40ES handling very dark scene - overexposed
Sony's HW55ES - much better black levels
BenQ W7500 - has iris, similar blacks
Epson 5030UB/6030UB - much better blacks
Epson's less expensive Pro 4030 roughly comparable blacks
Epson Home Cinema 5030UB on the left, produces much darker blacks
Here the BenQ W7500 is on the left
Optoma HD91 (left) has some issues

The HW40ES may have great color out of the box, but we can’t say the same thing for black level performance. If anything, that is the HW40ES’s most noticeable weakness, but know that its intentional. When it comes to picture quality itself, Sony in order to bring out a lower cost projector, stripped out some features, most notably the dynamic iris. And without the iris, there go the great blacks.

Regarding the images above, the varying level of overexposure can make some determinations tough to make.  The side by side comparisons though are better, more closely exposed.

Although I don’t have an HW55ES here for comparison, I think I can fairly accurately project that there probably is virtually no difference between an HW40ES on dark scenes and an HW55ES – if you turn off the dynamic iris on the HW55ES.  I say that because despite no iris, the Sony can match some iris equipped competitors.

That HW55ES rivals the Epson UB projectors for best black level performance (on dark scenes where you really need it), so its no surprise that in our comparison images with the Epson, the Epson has a very visible advantage on those dark scenes.

OK, the Epsons have been the champs at black levels under $4000 for at least half a decade, but the more expensive Sony now can hold its own. The next question you should be asking is how the black level performance stacks up with other projectors in the $2000 – $3500 range. The answer is that it competes very nicely. I’ve got some side by side images for you compared to both the BenQ W7500 and the new Optoma HD91 (LED light engine). (Find more comparison images in our four way shoot-out.)

Now in a perfect world you want to have exceptional black level performance without using a dynamic iris (or lamp dimming), but projectors that can do really great without an iris start in the $7000+ range with the JVC X700R. Since we’re at barely 1/3 that price, irises part of the best way to do the best job possible.

A quick refresher – or for those new to the projector hunt, some perspective: On bright and medium scenes, it’s always nice to have blacker blacks (where are a function of higher native contrast), but the differences on such scenes are slight are few would notice. Even “dark scenes” like the Hong Kong skyline photo found in this review, behave more like a medium or bright scene, because there are so many bright objects that your eye focuses on those and is less likely to notice differences in the dark areas unless they are fairly dramatic.

But when you have those very dark scenes – something that you will probably find at least some of in almost any movie – examples including Bond’s Casino Royale night train scene, or our starship scene (The Fifth Element), or those dark ones from the Hunger Games, Catching Fire or The Hobbit, then black level performance makes a world of difference.

 

I’ve put it this way before: Black level performance is the factor that really separates good $3000 projectors from great $1000 projectors, and equally, separates the best $3000 projectors from the best $6K to $12K projectors.

In other words, other than black levels, you might not find much difference between a well calibrated $999 projector and one like this Sony or the Epson, or the BenQ, but put on one of those scenes I just mentioned, and the difference is huge. OK, not “night and day difference (although it may seem that way), but let’s say it really is the difference between night and merely dusk. When blacks are looking too medium dark gray and most of the scene is that way, the image tends to seem flat/dull. With the better blacks, even dark scenes “pop”!

Bottom line on black level performance: competitive with the DLP projectors in the price range, but definitely not a match for the comparably priced Epson 5030UB or Sony’s own HW55ES (which theoretically is about $1000 more).

Dark Shadow Detail

The Sony does very well when it comes to revealing dark shadow detail.  Not the best in the price range, but it performs very nicely.  Any loss of detail in the darkest areas is rather minor.  If you look at the bond night train scenes in the section above, note the detail in the shrubs behind the tracks on the right, and look for very dark detail in and around the largish very dark area of the forest above those shrubs.

The other images found in the player immediately above, are all suitable for observing dark detail.