Sony VPL-VW385ES True 4K Home Theater Projector Review – Summary

Posted on May 7, 2018 by Art Feierman

Sony VPL-VW385ES True 4K Home Theater Projector Review – Summary: The Big Picture, The Competition

The Big Picture

It’s near impossible, when watching 100 hours on this Sony VPL-VW385ES, to not enjoy almost every second. But, certainly, if you have more money, you can buy better.

You can buy sharper, you can buy deeper black level performance, you can even buy better color. When I say you can buy better color, as a lamp based projector, the VW385ES’s best effort (which is very good) at tackling the much wider color space (BT.2020/P3), comes up short of the best laser projectors, which can deliver better colors – color as good as the big digital movie theater projectors. Because it has a lamp instead of a laser light engine, it can’t match the superior color, say, of Sony’s home theater laser projectors.

That said, there are a number of laser-based 4K UHD projectors that should be able to match or beat this Sony, but so far, our reviews of the laser-based Optoma, Dell, BenQ (which is actually LED, not laser), and Acer, don’t seem to be trying – in fact, most of them don’t even bother – to tackle BT.2020/P3, in part because they are primarily marketing those (BenQ HT9050 excepted) as business, not home theater projectors.

But I digress – as usual. I said, you can buy sharper. True, but you are pretty much limited to those more expensive Sonys that have slightly better optics, the $35,000 JVC, and some really expensive projectors from companies that are more likely to advertise in the Robb Report than in a Home Theater magazine (or website like ours). Can you say: “six figures?”

The Sony is well balanced. It’s not perfect, as noted, but the color out of the box is about as good as you could hope for without calibrating a projector. Considering how good the color is to start, and how well their controls work (from previous Sonys we have calibrated), any decent calibrator should be able to nail this calibration and have near perfect numbers. So, count the color as pretty close to unbeatable.

As noted, black level performance (my thing), is definitely good enough, but another area where improvement can be made – and is made, in more expensive Sonys. Once again, the only sub $50K, true 4K projector that can beat this Sony at black levels (other than other Sonys) is that $35K JVC. Hmm, that JVC is over four times the price!

Did I mention that the Sony is one of the quietest home theater projectors around these days. Oh, in full power, it too, could be a little quieter, but in ECO, I’d say that even most of the audible-noise-adverse will be happy. Even in full power, it’s still a step down in fan noise from, say, the Epson UBs, and quieter still compared to most of the 4K UHD DLP projectors.

Then, there are minor things – an excellent remote control overall, but I don’t like the backlight.

Oh, I love this remote, when compared to any remote without a backlight – which unfortunately, tends to be the case with just about every other device in your home theater. One more thing, it would be really nice if the remote supported HDMI link – that way I could control two of my Blu-ray UHD players (that lack backlights on their remotes), which would make me so happy.

The Competition

Is there any? Sure, but nothing truly direct. As a result, I’m going to do a quick run through on what’s out there that’s capable of handling 4K source material (ideally also supporting HDR).

Let’s start with the more expensive, and similarly expensive, and work our way down to the $1,500 entry level 4K UHD models. Note I always refer to this Sony as being true 4K, or native 4K, while those pixel shifters with their much large pixel size I call 4K UHD. The Sony, of course, is fully 4K UHD – it simply is higher resolution than the minimum definition of 4K UHD.

The Sony VPL-VW685ES looks just like the VW385ES but offers step up performance

The closest competition to the Sony VW385ES is the more expensive VW685ES (which we haven't yet reviewed, but we did review its predecessor), at almost 2X the price – $14,999. That Sony has slightly better optics, and also improved black level performance. That folks, is primarily what you are paying for. Hey, if $15K is in your budget, go for it! I would. The even more expensive Sonys add laser light engines, even better black levels, and even better sharpness and detail. As we’ve reviewed pretty much all of them, if you have a high-end Lexus to Lamborghini budget, you can read more about them.

BenQ HT9050
The BenQ HT9050 is nearly as sharp as this Sony, but not quite.

Now, let’s move down to under $10K. BenQ’s HT9050 (at $8,995) is the best I’ve seen, so far, of the 4K UHD DLPs, but they didn’t finish it to my satisfaction – it doesn’t support HDR, although it does support BT.2020/P3, thanks to its LED light engine, which, like laser engines, has a wider color gamut. No, I don’t know if its as wide as a good laser, but should be close. The BenQ is also very nicely sharp, as would be expected from a 2716x1528 x2 pixel shifter, but, at best, comes so close to the Sony that you’d have to stand a couple feet away, probably, to spot a difference. Note: without getting all mystical, one often perceives what one cannot see or hear. Audiophiles know what I mean.

Epson LS10500 Front
The Epson LS10500 is a 4K capable 1080p pixel shifter with a laser light engine.

Our next entry is also solid state, that is Epson’s LS10500 – their flagship – and the same price as the Sony, with a dual laser design that tackles both HDR and BT.2020/P3. It will beat the Sony in terms of wider color space, and is about as bright, but as a 1080p pixel shifter (1920x1080x2), it will not be as sharp. This is going to be a visible difference sitting 8-10 feet from my 124” diagonal screen (which is where I like to sit when viewing 4K content!). The Epson laser will hold its color accurately longer, as will any good laser projector, of course, and like the Sony, the Epson can produce excellent color (it calibrates beautifully). It, too, offers Lens Memory. It’s one of the more interesting alternatives, and might be your choice, if you sit further back, so that the very modest sharpness and detail difference isn’t visible.

I’ll mention JVC only briefly, as we haven’t been able to get JVC to send us a projector to review in, I think, now over 4 years. One of my reviewers (Ron), now retired, did a review 3 years ago on their old $12K projector, but it’s been too long for me. (I keep asking, and hoping). Anyway, last I looked, JVC is the only place you will find a $7K projector that can beat the Sony at black levels, but, like the Epson, it’s a 1080p pixel shifter (1920x1080 x2). Based on my experience (and Ron’s for that matter) however, JVC has often struggled, compared to others, with image processing. The Epson pixel shifters we’ve reviewed have always performed far better on processing higher resolution information. On test patterns, it was always a drastic difference.

Most recently, at CES, TI (the DLP folks) had “last year’s” JVC and Epson projectors in a sharpness comparison with a 4K UHD projector, and fed them all test patterns. The Sony they had handled the patterns well (despite being an older model, with optics not as good as this 385ES). The Epson on 4K couldn’t match the Sony or the DLP on those patterns, but came pretty close. The JVC, by comparison, looked terrible. Again, not the newest JVC, but, that’s the best I can tell you without a close look of a new JVC.

So, you have the option, instead of the Sony that is all around pretty amazing, for a JVC with better black levels, but not a match for the Sony in any of the other key areas.

Next come a few of “business” 4K UHD DLP laser projectors. We’ve published two reviews, and one is in the works. Very nice, one and all ($5,000 to $6,000 list) in terms of sharpness, but, not a decent black level performance in the lot – I mean, not even close to what the Sony can do. We’re talking a magnitude or two of difference, not subtle at all.

But again, those are really more “business” than fun projectors.

We’re mostly done.

Epson Home Cinema 5040UB Front
The Epson Home Cinema 5040UB is a 1080p pixel shifter, and is currently the best performer at this price range on the market.

Next come the essentially identical Epson 5040UB and 6040UB (the 6040UB sells for more, and is finished in all black but comes bundled with lots of extra goodies). Black levels on these two, as mentioned before, are comparable to the Sony, despite the 5040UB selling for about $2,300 (definitely the least expensive projector I am aware of with really good black levels). Like the Sony, they tackle both HDR and BT.2020/P3.

When Epson first released, their attempts at HDR resulted in too-dim images (a real problem), but they quickly came out with a user firmware update (5 minutes or so to install), that really helped. They just came out with a second update, recently that further improved, and now the HDR is pretty similar to Sony’s handling of HDR, which was better.

Downside to these Epsons, of course, is that they are still 1080p pixel shifters, they are visibly not as sharp as the Sony, although they definitely look much sharper on 4K content than “plain old 1080p projectors will,” if you are sitting 8-15 feet back from my 124” screen, (roughly 7-12 feet back from a 100” screen), the Epson's look crisp, thanks to great image processing, but a little hard looking too, if you push them enough to seem about as sharp as the Sony, which doesn't look forced at all, when it comes to 4K sharpness.

I’ve put over 1,000 hours on the 5040UB I have here. This Epson is a bigger step up, in my opinion, from the typical 1080p projector, when handling 4K, than it is below the Sony. Epson really has image processing that milks every ounce of sharpness and detail it can out of those larger pixels. Per our calibrator, of the many he’s calibrated, the Epson 5040UB has come closer to BT.2020/P3 than any other lamp based, 4K content capable projectors, but to do so, its also thinner than most in terms of the brightness needed for HDR.  I'll take the Sony every time, budget allowing, but for those on a tight budget, the Epson is the best deal around for tackling 4K content, and having good black level performance for movie viewing.

BenQ TK800 Front

The BenQ TK800 is a 4K UHD projector suitable for bright rooms, claiming 3,000 lumens.


Finally, we turn to the masses of new 4K UHD projectors flooding the market since last fall.  First we got the 2716x1528 pixel shifters, which usually come in pairs, such as Optoma's UHD65, and UHD60 (the UHD65 is $500 more list price  - At $2499,) which gets you a better color wheel, but less brightness than the UHD60.  Several other DLP manufacturers have also launched pairs of these 2718x1528x2 projectors, but they all share one thing in common, none have respectable black levels, even if they are bright and sharp.

Newer, and down around the $1500 list price point, are the latest crop of 4K UHD DLPs, they use that 1920x1080x4 DLP chip set, so they too are basically 1080p pixel shifters like the Epson UBs, but they hit the screen with each pixel - 4 times, not twice.  Again, whether the BenQ HT2550 and TK800, (different color wheels), or the Optoma 50 and Optoma 51A, etc (pick your brand) you still get rather sharp, and rather mediocre attempts at black levels.  None yet, meet my minimum acceptable black level handling for serious movie enthusiasts. Hey, that's fair, at 1/5 the price of the Sony, you get a nice, really sharp home "entertainment projector" at this price point.  It's just not apples to apples, more like steak (the Sony) to burgers.  (Nothing wrong with burgers if that's what you like, but most will prefer a great cut of steak, budget allowing.)

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