Projector Reviews

Sony VPL-VW285ES True 4K Home Theater Projector – Picture Quality 2

Sony VPL-VW285ES Projector – Picture Quality: Black Levels, 4K Content, Dark Shadow Detail

Sony VW285ES Black Level Performance

I am floored! Rarely does a new projector, especially one that should be a known quantity really surprise me, especially when it exceeds my expectations.

Seems that the Sony VW285ES is one of those rarities.  And more than any other aspect, it is the black level performance of the VW285ES that impressed, and surprised me.  Consider:

I expected the 285ES to basically be last year’s VW365ES at a $3K lower price point, with the addition of HLG – a 4K streaming standard, that wasn’t around two years ago when the 365ES first shipped.

What I got right was the $3K lower price point.  True, the VW285ES is $4999!

You see the old VW365ES lacked a dynamic iris (like the VW285ES).  It has all motorized lens features but no lens memory.  And a few other things which are the same on this Sony.

But I wasn’t overly impressed two years ago, when it came to black level performance, no surprise, as the older Sony had no dynamic iris.

What I don’t get, is why with the VW285ES, I am truly impressed with the black levels (which really makes me want to review the also new, step up VW385ES which adds a dynamic iris to its feature set, for even better blacks).

No, this Sony can’t match the JVC’s black levels but they are definitely what I call “ultra high contrast.”  We don’t measure but I would suggest that the native contrast of the 285ES’es panels  is a good deal higher than, say, the Epson 5040UB.  I’d put it pretty similar to the Epson LS10500 (their 1080p pixel shifting laser projector that’s $7995).

I watched well over 100 hours of content on this Sony, including all the usual 1080p and 4K, which always includes lots of sci-fy flicks, and with them, lots of very dark scenes (especially the space ones), like Passengers, Ender’s Game, Ghostbusters 2016, The Martian, etc., even The Fifth Element – (this classic now available on 4K Blu-ray with HDR and BT.2020).

And unlike all of the 4K UHD projectors passing through here, I never felt that the projector was weak on black level performance.  I can’t really think of a scene where the blacks and near blacks showed as too medium dark a gray to satisfy me.  Instead, the dark areas stayed nice and dark, and the very darkest scenes (including the march to the dam, and the stairway scene in MockingJay Part 1 (4K HDR…), were still very acceptable to me.

In other words, I can definitely live with this projector’s performance, a statement I never utter when unhappy with black level performance.  Oh, certainly I’ll like the new VW385ES even better for the extra $3K – which adds in a dynamic iris and lens memory, and the VW885ES had superb black levels, but hey, that projector is basically 5 times the price.

In the image player below are the usual comparison images – Bond’s “night train” scene from Casino Royale, shot heavily overexposed, and converted to grayscale to compare black levels.  You’ll find that the upper right corner letter box identifies the projectors.  Generally, the difference between the brightest areas and the letter box blacks (or grays as we overexpose), helps you figure out which are the best.  (Look at that JVC – that’s the projector with the best black levels of any in this player, that’s how you want this shot to look.

In addition a few other dark scenes where the VW285ES performed really well, including the 4K HDR images from Passengers…

The JVCs, I again note, will best this Sony, but, let’s face it, the VW285ES is true 4K, while those JVCs (at least all of them under $35,000) are 1080p pixel shifters – not the same class when it comes to resolving details, sharpness.  As I always point out, you can crank up the detail enhancement features with almost any projector and get a sharper seeming picture, but there’s always a price to pay in terms of noise artifacts – typically, adding a hardness to the image.  Not a Sony problem!

We know Sony improved the lens since the last series (minor improvements) and as Sony responded when I asked if there were different SXRD (LCoS) panels, no, but they are always improving them as well.

That stumped me, because they couldn’t fully explain why I found the VW285ES to be significantly better than the old 365ES.  We finally concluded that the reason was either good karma, or clean living.  Go figure!

Bottom Line on Black Levels – Pretty impressive considering this is the bottom of the line for Sony 4K projectors.  Also, I should note that I consider the black level performance to be significantly better than Sony’s $2K HW45ES and at least the equal of their dynamic iris equipped VW65ES, their other 1080p home theater projector.

VW285ES Doing 4K Content

4K content overall is pretty dazzling.  Oh, true, the more expensive 4K projectors are even more so, with extra brightness, and better black levels, but the Sony puts a 4K picture on the screen that looks really, really good.  Sony sets their “Contrast Enhancer” to Low setting as default, which works very well for 4K in that on dark scenes, it makes the darkest non-black content easier to see.  That seems to work well.

But it’s really about the HDR and BT.2020 combination, that really does look better than projectors that can’t handle that.  I had the BenQ HT9050 here at the same time as this Sony, and the difference on many scenes, but especially those with some very bright spots but mostly medium low to very low brightness colors, was very significant.

Whether the space scenes from Passengers, or the image from Ghostbusters with all the ghosts flying around and the green fire in the background, the difference between HDR and no HDR is striking – but you need as many lumens as you can find, to maximize the picture with HDR content.  Fortunately the VPL-VW285ES is no slouch, measuring over 1500 lumens post calibration.  Oh, believe me, more is better – truly, only the 5000 lumen $60K top of the line Sony really has about as much brightness as is desirable, of all the 4K capable  home theater projectors we’ve reviewed.

Of course, looking at these 4K photos on a small screen, at reduced resolution makes it hard to really appreciate 4K content on this true 4K player, but, then, I’ve always said: If you think it looks good on your computer screen (or phone), you still aren’t getting close to the experience of a great projector in your own theater or media room. Too much has been compromised, including reducing what would be about 30 megabytes of uncompressed picture down to maybe 100K, for internet use.  Talk about compromise – and then there’s that matter of being fully immersed viewing the big screen, not exactly something you can claim on your iPhone or Samsung.

Bottom Line on 4K content:  Remember,  I am speaking, really of 4K with HDR and BT.2020, and not about watching your 4K home photo collection on the big screen.

It’s true 4K, has great color, copes well in terms of not looking dim on medium dark scenes.  Part of the trick to that is adjusting the contrast / HDR setting up to 80 from it’s default of 50 (or was it 60).  That really helps, and the folks at Sony recommend, as does Eric, our calibrator.

That leaves us with some pretty intense and expanded colors when called for, and a whole lot of pop to the image – hey, it’s got HDR – and HDR is about more pop – more dynamic range.

Add respectable black levels, thus, what’s not to like, short of throwing a lot more money at your theater.  True, you can settle for one of the lower resolution 1080p pixel shifters, and get as good, or better black levels than this Sony, but the “step up” from those, the 4K UHD DLPs fall woefully short on those dark scenes because of mediocre black levels.  Even the $9K BenQ’s blacks are no match.

Many of you have been waiting a couple+ years for a true 4K projector to fall down below $5K.  This one has, and it is worth owning, as you should agree by the time you have finished watching Passengers in 4K, or any of dozens of other 4K flicks!

Dark Shadow Detail

The dark shadow detail abilities of the the VW285ES are very good.  On our Bond Night train scene, look to the dark shrubs behind the tracks on the lower right and look to the dark area in the woods.  Well done, but in fairness, with a normal easy adjustment of brightness, to the right point, most home theater projectors today do a very good job.  This image player has the Bond night image, fully overexposed to spot all the dark detail that the Sony can reproduce.

That’s normal 1080p, no HDR, etc.  4K is a bit different.

The basic out of the box tendency on 4K is to crush a bit of blacks.  No, rather it will without turning on Sony’s “Contrast Enhancer” feature.  to the Low setting (but that is the default).  That seems to work well.  If it’s off, that will lower the brightness of the darkest detail a bit, losing some of the darkest details.  But with it on, no problem.  Almost all the 4K viewing I did was with Contrast Enhancer set to Low, after I compared the different settings.

Bottom Line – overall this Sony does a fine job, but perhaps not as good as those that I count the best – losing nothing, yet still having deep blacks.