Posted on September 8, 2020 By Phil Jones
Sony VPL-VW915ES 4K SXRD Projector Review – Special Features: Laser Light Engine, Native 4K Resolution, HDR Compatible, Frame by Frame HDR Dynamic Tone Mapping
Sony currently has two 4K HDR home theater lamp-based projectors the VW295ES and the newly announced VW715ES. There are five that are laser-based 4K HDR models in the lineup and the time of this review.
Sony claims their Z-Phosphor light engine has a 20,000-hour lamp life. The Sony brightness can be adjusted in 1% increments from full power to minimal power.
The 20,000-hour lamp life ensures several years of maintenance-free viewing. If you Watched the VW915ES for 8 hours a day, five days a week the laser light engine would last about a decade. By the time you would need to replace this unit there will probably be 8K projectors available.
VPL-VW915ES is only one of the four Sony laser projectors that have both dynamic laser functionality and a mechanical dynamic iris. The new projector optimized X1 processor controls both the projector’s dynamic iris and the unit’s laser engine’s dynamic dimming which results in outstanding dynamic contrast and black level.
What has always separated Sony’s video displays from the competition is superior processing. While the processing in Sony flat panels continued to evolve, it has been a while since they update the brains of their home theater projectors.
Several years ago, Sony introduced a powerful new processor called the X1 in their highly rated Z9D flat panel TV.
This year the VW915ES and the VW715ES utilize a version of X1 processor optimized for projectors. The projector’s Reality Creation feature analyzes HD, 4K, and HDR content frame by frame to enhance detail, colors, and detail. The X1 ensures that Full HD is upscaled close to 4K quality.
The X1 processor also includes a brand-new technology they call Dynamic HDR Enhancer to improve the look of HDR content. Brighter HDR scenes are brighter, with richer colors and better black level. We will discuss Dynamic HDR Enhancer in detail later in this review.
The VW915ES also incorporates a new Digital Focus Optimizer which digitally compensates focus loss in the image’s corners caused by the projector’s lens. While a Sony projector equipped with their higher end ARC-F lens will still deliver a sharper overall picture. This new technology improves overall focus by compensating for any optical degradation to deliver improved corner-to-corner clarity.
While several manufacturers like Epson and BenQ offer good mid-priced Home Theater projector, For the past decade when it came to higher-end home theater projectors ($5000 to $20,000) it was a two-horse race between JVC and Sony. Who is the king of home theater projectors in 2020 will be determined by which projector delivers the best HDR picture.
The HDR provides a major improvement in dynamic range as well as color. It lets you see more detail in the shadows and the bright areas and delivers more saturated lifelike colors.
There are two HDR standards, first is the PQ (ST2084). While there are three variations of PQ, most projectors are only compatible with HDR10 which is mostly used for UHD Blu-ray discs (4K movies), and recorded streaming content. Dolby Vision and HDR10+, like the more mainstream HDR10, are also based on PQ (ST2084). The only difference between the three PQ based formats is what type of HDR metadata is delivered to a video display to help it tone map HDR content to fit a display’s brightness capabilities.
The second HDR standard is HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) and it was developed for live broadcast. The VW915ES supports both HDR10 and HLG. Since most HDR10+ and Dolby Vision content is either backward compatible with or available in HDR10 you can enjoy 99% of HDR content available on the market now and in the future.
Sony has a habit of hiding major improvements under obscure names. The VW915ES along with the VW715ES and GTZ380 has a new feature called HDR Contrast Enhancer. By utilizing a version of Sony’s X1 processor optimized for projection, these are the first Sony projectors that are able to measure HDR content frame by frame for precise dynamic tone mapping of HDR10 content.
There is a variety of information embedded in HDR content that an HDR display uses to make picture adjustments. First, there is an HDR Infoframe which tells the video display to switch to the appropriate HDR mode. Next is metadata which a display can use to help tone map HDR content. The two pieces of metadata that the projector’s video processor uses for HDR tone mapping are:
The average brightness of most HDR video frames is usually much less than 400 nits with a few peak highlights (sparks, flame tips, reflections) reaching up to 10,000 nits. Let’s discuss why tone mapping is needed.
HDR consumer content (4K blu-ray and streaming) is mastered for playback on a flat panel, not a projector, so it’s produced at a variety of brightness levels ranging from 1,000 nits (292 fL) to 4,000 (1167fL) nits.
Most 4K HDR capable projectors can only deliver between 100 nits (29fL) and 200 nits (58 fL). This means no HDR compatible Home Theater projector can reproduce all brightness found in consumer HDR content.
As a result, HDR projectors utilize tone mapping which is a compromise between maintaining bright highlight details and delivering full screen brightness. When the HDR info frame is detected, most HDR projectors switch to HDR mode with a fixed tone map. It is basically one size fits all which hurts HDR performance.
Last year companies like JVC began introducing projectors with auto tone mapping which automatically adjusts the projector’s HDR settings (tone mapping curves) to try to optimize HDR10 image quality. The goal was to better utilize the projector’s brightness capabilities based on the HDR content being shown.
Since the MaxFALL/MaxCLL metadata is based on the average brightness of the brightest frame and brightest pixel in the movie, certain scenes with lower than average frame levels can still look way too dark.
In many cases, the metadata is missing or incorrect so the projector might not have the right information to work with. Also, since the same embedded metadata (MaxCLL/MaxFALL) is applied throughout the entire movie, sometimes the tone mapping decisions made by the projector can be a little off. Higher end LCD and OLED TVs have been able to measure the HDR content frame-by-frame to generate accurate metadata dynamically for years.
Last summer to further improve the HDR performance of their projectors, JVC added the capability to dynamically measure HDR metadata to their higher-end D-ILA projectors like the NX5, NX7, and NX9. This year, Sony is introducing that capability as well.
Unlike most projector manufacturers, Sony has years of experience with HDR tone mapping since Sony 4K TVs have had the capability since 2017. The new “X1 for Projectors” processor not only improve detail and resolution it also made a noticeable improvement in the Sony HDR performance compared to the VW885ES. HDR content is brighter, colors are richer, black levels are deeper, and bright highlight detail is visible.
When watching HDR content, sometimes brighter highlights will still be clipped, but Sony believes this necessary to keep most of the image on the screen as close to the director’s intent as possible.
You can adjust the tone mapping level using the HDR Contrast adjustment. There are 3 levels (LOW, MED, and HIGH), I left the setting on LOW most of the time with excellent results.
BTW, since HLG is based on a Gamma curve just like SDR, it does not need to be tone mapped by the projector.
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