Posted on May 7, 2018 By Art Feierman
Sony VPL-VW385ES True 4K Home Theater Projector Review – Picture Quality 2: Black Level Performance, Dark Shadow Detail, Overall Picture Quality
Those who know my reviewing, and for that matter, most hard core movie enthusiasts seeking great picture quality for watching great (or fun) movies, know I’m a really big believer that black level performance is a critical aspect of what makes a great projector. (I like to refer to great black level performance as the “holy grail” of home theater projectors – or LED TVs for that matter).
It’s often this simple: On an average lit or brightly lit image, there may be little difference between a good $1,500 projector and a great $25,000 one.
But, on a really dark scene, the difference is “almost” night and day. That’s what separates “the serious” from “the toys.” I often think of projectors that don’t meet a certain minimum level (of subjective) black level performance as Home Entertainment instead of Home Theater!
I have for more than a decade referred to those projectors that have better black level performance as Ultra high contrast projectors. Forget the published stats – there are so many ways to measure that what you find on spec sheets is almost always misleading. I’ve seen projectors claiming 1,000,000:1 contrast that prove significantly inferior to others that claim 50,000:1.
To give you an example, we often see LED or Laser light engine projectors claim millions to 1, because they can turn off the lighting completely if producing an image that is all black. Yet in normal use, those projectors might have poor black levels.
But, that’s all background: How does the VW385ES perform? Pretty darn well. I put it on par with Epson’s (less expensive but not true 4K “UB” projectors – Ultra Black – their 5040UB and 6040UB). I’m using the 5040UB as a general reference projector to compare all others to. Long ago, generations ago of “UB” projectors, I recognized them of meeting a minimum acceptable level of producing pretty dark blacks. Over the years they have improved, and I have also continued to raise the bar, based on that improvement. The Sony VW385ES isn’t identical, but I’d say that it is every bit as good, doing better on some very dark scenes, and not so good on others, but the overall experience is never “mediocre” black level performance. Mediocre is a pretty good way of describing pretty much every 4K UHD DLP projector we’ve reviewed to date. Don’t worry though, one of these days, the DLP manufacturers will start putting dynamic irises back in their projectors, or switch o laser engines that have firmware to let them dim as fast as a good dynamic iris. (Lamps are too slow!)
Best I can tell, (I’m still not an AV engineer or professional calibrator – although years ago, I had the gear, and did my own calibrations – I hated it) the Sony seems to have a bit better native contrast than those Epsons, but the Epson pushes its Dynamic Iris a bit harder, so there are dark scenes where the Epson might have a slight edge, and others where the Sony does. The pumping action of the Sony Dynamic Iris (which is very controllable – see the Special Features page), is minimal – like the Epsons, it’s rarely noticeable, except on things that hate Dynamic Irises such as what credits on a black background where the white text disappears for a second before the next credits appear. On most normal content though, you just won’t notice (or rarely), and unlike some other types of “noise,” it’s not likely to bother you in the least.
Do I wish for better? Certainly, there’s definitely room for improvement. Consider that as you move up the Sony 4K projector food chain, you can expect blacker and blacker blacks. Their $15K VW665ES (review), is a little better, and Sony’s two $25K laser light engine home theater projectors are better at it still. The flagship VW5000ES is the best of the Sonys, of course, you have to expect it to be significantly better considering its laser engine (with 5,000 lumens), better light path, and that particular Sony’s $60,000 sticker price. Hey, that’s over 5X the price of this VW385ES.
As usual, our James Bond night train scene from Casino Royale has been greyscaled and over exposed, and presented with the same scene from a number of other projectors – both less and more expensive. In addition, we have included in the photo player other photos of other really dark (and dark) scenes. Remember, looking good on a cityscape scene is easy – hard is a scene where even the brightest part of it has to be considered seriously dim, such as the outside of the space ship in Passengers. Or the marching attackers of the dam in the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.
Personally, I would prefer to have the black levels of the Sony laser projectors instead, and deep down wish I could spend double to get it, but – one more time: I can live with the VPL-VW385ES. It looks great in my home theater filling a 124” screen. Even with close to 1,500 lumens on the screen, those blacks are pretty black.
Here’s the thing: We’ve reviewed more than a half dozen of the slightly lower native resolution 4K UHD DLP projectors so far. A lot of fans of those (they do provide sharpness approaching that of this Sony) wonder why anyone would spend $5K for the “entry level” true 4K Sony VW285ES, or this VW385ES. That’s fair if you focus solely on sharpness. But when you compare the black levels…
Let me put it this way: I have yet to see a 4K UHD projector, whether $1,500, or $8,995 ($1,000 more than this Sony), that even meets my minimum definition of ultra high contrast, and when you only look at the $5K and under 4K DLPs, from an acceptable black level performance standpoint, they all earn a “fail.”
It’s too bad, but one day (not too far out), I expect that to change. Discussions with some DLP manufacturers have had them admitting that they need to up their “black level” game. I expect Dynamic Irises to start showing up more and more in DLPs, if not in the next generation, then the following. BenQ, for one, has demonstrated some really good Dynamic Irises long ago, but many attempts by others have been very rough – enough to make watching somewhat painful. I have often recommended not using highly visible irises, or lamp dimming features, because they can become a real distraction if not done well.
Bottom Line: Works for me. Better black levels would, of course, be better, but this Sony gets the job done – enough that I have considered buying one. I’m still holding off though, since I have a steady parade of great projectors rolling through my theater.
Lots of very dark detail in this 4K content of The City of 1000 Worlds - in Valerian.
This is an area where home theater projectors in general have reached the point where few can ( be criticized. On my favorite scenes – including the “Bond train,” Hunger Games sleeping scene, and others, the Sony does a great job, anything it is losing in the darkest details is going to be too subtle to spot, unless you are focusing on it (pause the movie – standing up, walking up to your screen, and peering closely looking for something missing).
The Hunger Games “sleep” image (which is from 1080p, not 4K), like the Bond train, has been converted to greyscale, and massively overexposed so you can spot the level of dark detail available.
Bottom line on revealing the darkest shadow details: Not an issue! Period.
Overall, the VPL-385ES is great on color, has a natural feel to skin tones (unless you push the image processing hard), and has very respectable black level performance. It handles HDR about as well as any projector I’ve seen other than Sony’s much brighter top of the line models (up to $60K). The black levels certainly could be improved quite a bit, but the VW385ES gets the job done. Very dark scenes produce blacks that are very, very dark grey, so you don’t really notice that there are (of course) no truly black blacks.
4K images are very sharp and detailed. You can sit really close to be more immersed in the movie, sports, etc. Feeding lower resolutions like 1080p to this Sony, result in very nicely enhanced images, looking sharper and more detailed and a little more pop to them as well, due to Sony’s rather respectable suite of image processing. I kept things pretty simple, relying only on Reality Creation and Contrast Enhancer settings to play with. Different modes already start with different settings of those controls. Playing with them, if it is your interest, is easy to figure out and get the result you want.
This is a “what’s not to like” projector.
Of particular importance, Sony has done a good job of dealing with the basic “problem” with HDR, which is that it demands very bright displays. It takes a 5000 lumen projector on a 100″ screen to get close to the demand for 1000 NITS of brightness.
The good news is how Sony deals with not having near that much brightness (except on their flagship VW5000ES.) They have mapped the HDR, and allow you to use the contrast control on the main picture menu as a sort of dynamic gamma. Leave it at the default 60 setting on HDR, and you will experience the expected dim mid and low brightness ranges, that typically will leave you wondering way sunlit faces look pretty dark.
Slide the control up to 75 or 80, however, and those mid and lower brightness ranges brighten up. No, not as far as we would like – that will either demand more inherent brightness, or a diminishing of the whole purpose of HDR, which is so that the brightest content explodes in your eyes, being much brighter than mid range objects, relative to traditional non-HDR imagery. With 75 or 80 settings I can push this Sony to just about fill my 124″ diagonal screen. I’d still like more horsepower, but I’m enjoying what I’m watching.
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