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Sony VPL-VW70 Home Theater Projector - First Look

UPDATE: The Sony VPL-VW70 Review has been posted. Greetings all! The VPL-VW70 supposedly replaced the VW60 at the end of last year, although VW60's still seem to be available.   I've had the VPL-VW70 here for a couple of weeks now, and have logged a good 20 hours of viewing, almost all of it after Mike calibrated the projector. Let's start with what the Sony VPL-VW70 represents.  It is the big brother of the Sony VPL-HW10 which we reviewed back in December.  (Both projectors were announced at the same time, at CEDIA last September.) The MSRP of the Sony VW70 is $7999, which is pretty pricey, and actually $500 more than the JVC DLA-RS20 (and JVC's essentially identical HD750), which grabbed top honors in our 1080p Comparison Report.  That said, there definitely seems to be more discounting on the Sony, as JVC more tightly controls their distribution (or so it seems).  As a result, in many cases the VPL-VW70 will be less expensive, perhaps a full $1000 or more less, than the JVC.  (Prices however, online, seem to be all over the place, for the Sony, while it's very difficult to find a JVC online.) From my viewing, the Sony does a very nice job on black levels.  It, like the Sony HW10 relies on a dynamic iris to get darker blacks on dark scenes, and of course, it does the job. Here's something to think about, regarding black level performance, but requires some clarification, which I will get into: Doing side by side comparisons with the JVC RS20, I first adjusted the two projectors to get as close as I could to the same brightness.  This was eyeballed when viewing some relatively bright scenes from different movies. Having done that, I started viewing the usual dark scenes - the starship from The Fifth Element, various scenes from Casino Royale, The Dark Knight, Quantum of Solace, Space Cowboys, etc. Most impressively, in the darkest of the scenes I viewed, notably the ones with virtually no fully bright areas, the black levels of the two projectors were near identical.  In almost all cases the JVC had a touch darker blacks, but it varied from close, to very, very, close.  The JVC projectors (also LCoS design), do not use a dynamic iris, and this is why come comments and clarifications are needed. There are two practical reasons for wanting the best black level performance: 1.  If the black levels are so-so, blacks are visibly a medium-dark gray, rather than an extremely dark gray.  This is true not just of inside the projected image, but any letterbox areas as well. As such they are a distraction. 2. Projectors with inferior black levels produce images that are less dynamic looking, even forgetting the actual brightness of the blacks on your screen and room conditions. OK, the Sony VPL-VW70, as noted, uses a dynamic iris.  This allows the projector to lower the black levels down visibly, essentially solving most of #1 above.  The black areas appear pretty black, and are less of a distraction. The downside is that by using a hefty amount of dynamic iris, that doesn't deal with issue #2.  It is clear from my viewing, that this is the case. With the Sony and JVC side by side, on the typical bright scene there is virtually no difference in brightness. Both projectors were setup with lamps on full power, but closing down the manual iris of the JVC about half way, to achieve similar brightness to the Sony (which measured just over 350 lumens in best mode - less than half of the JVC's 775 lumens).  In reality, I had to choose between two iris settings on the JVC - one which resulted in the image a touch brighter than the VW70, the other a touch dimmer.  Had I decided to do this again, I probably would have set the JVC so it was a tad dimmer. I would have made that change, because of the effect of the dynamic iris on the Sony. While that VW70's dynamic iris shuts down significantly when it can, to lower black levels, something else happens as well (true of all dynamic iris projectors), and that is, that the brightest areas drop in brightness as well.  In other words, when we started, if a scene was mostly bright, with some black, the blacks of the Sony would be lighter than that of the JVC, but the whites would be the  same. Feed them both a scene primarily dark, with minimal fully white or bright colors, and the iris closes down.  The blacks get blacker, but the whites and bright reds, etc. lose a chunk of their brightness. So, you end up with the dark areas being nicely dark (for issue #1 above), but the whites and brights lower, and the scene looses a chunk of its dynamic abilities.  This is not a good thing, but it is something that always happens with a projector that uses a dynamic iris.  If Sony (or others didn't allow the iris to close down, if there was just a tiny amount of white somewhere in the scene, then the dynamic iris would rarely get a chance to work at all, and when it would, it wouldn't be able to close down very far at all (for almost whites). Bottom line.  The blacks are nice and blacks but those dark scenes with some bright are compressed, the bright areas now seem a dim compared to the JVC sitting along side. End result - similar blacks, but noticeably compressed bright areas with the Sony.  For this reason, the JVC has to be considered stronger overall in terms of black levels, as the black to white difference - real contrast, is much greater with the JVC! From a practical standpoint, though, for many people, #1 is the more important aspect of black levels. - That's why many enthusiasts go with gray and high contrast gray surfaces - to lower the black level, without worrying too much about the drop in brightness of the brighter areas. One last thought - you can turn off the dynamic iris - set Dynamic Black to Off, and that stops the compression of the image dynamics but it also results in brighter blacks - more typical of a less expensive projector.  Most wouldn't notice the compression of dynamic range without something like the JVC along side for comparison, still, the iris does take away some of that "pop and wow". OK, let's leave that alone for the rest of this blog.  I'll repeat and discuss further in the review. The Sony VPL-VW70 has excellent color - it starts out good, gets even better with calibration.  On paper, the calibration results are absolutely excellent - we were able to get a very tight grayscale almost perfectly centered around 6500K, with a variation of less than 200K from 20 IRE to white (100 IRE).  (BTW, that's tighter than the JVC).  When you see the side by side images of the Sony and JVC, however, you will see subtle differences, but both, I would say are comparable (if a touch different) in terms of skin tones, and overall color performance. The Sony is very flexible in terms of placement - not the best, but should be fine for almost everyone considering one.  There's a reasonable amount of vertical lens shift, and the zoom lens is 1.6:1.  The Sony can be ceiling mounted or, in many rooms placed on a rear shelf, though some folks, going with relatively smaller screens may find they can't place the projector far enough away to shelf mount in the rear of their room.  BTW, like the Sony HW10, the VPL-VW70 has its control panel and its inputs on the side - the left side, if looking from the front of the projector.  Some folks like the inputs on the side.  It works for me, for example, with my RS20 (which has them on the opposite side.  Lucky for me, when one enters my room, they see the other side of the projector, so no cables.  If I had the Sony, they would enter on the cable side.  In other words, whether the side mounted inputs work for you depends on your room setup and projector positioning.  It shouldn't be a "make or break" issue though, there are far more important things we consider. Sony, as always, offers extensive control of the image, with several features not normally found on the competition. Of note, this includes:  Panel Adjust - which is sweet.  This feature comes down from Sony's far more expensive VPL-VW200.  Panel Adjust allows you to physically adjust the LCoS panels (yes, Sony calls them SXRD), to get best alignment of the pixels.  Unlike systems like JVC's which are digital, and can only improve alignment when a panel is more than 1/2 pixel off, the Sony works at fractions of a pixel.  The end result is excellent pixel conversion on this review unit, it is slightly better than my own JVC RS20, which is particularly good (with no panel - vertically or horizontally, off by more than 1/4 of a pixel.) Sony even allows you to align different parts of the screen differently, however, only Mike played with it, so I'm not prepared to state if changing one "quadrant" forces some change on others. Sony offers frame interpolation on their $15,000 VPL-VW200, but chose not to bring that down to the VW70.  Too bad!  In the EU, Sony offers the VW80 (and possibly the VW70 - but I don't think so).  The VW80 does have Sony's motion flow which does the frame interpolation to 120hz.  Sony offers that feature on a lot of their LCDTVs. Brightness - ah, here it comes you say... And I respond - "yup".  I am a believer that most projectors just don't have enough lumens to go around, in their best modes, to do a moderately large screen - 110" or larger - well.  The VW70 is one of those.  Sony home theater projectors have typically been less bright than most of the competition, and the VPL-VW70 is no exception.  For example, in our recent 1080p comparison (which the VW70 did not arrive in time to be included, though I mention it, including that it is the one significant projector missing from the report), the Sony would be the second dimmest of the 9 projectors in that group (counting the Sony).  It's 366 lumens are a jump up from the 100 lumen less bright Sharp Z20000, but it's not close to any of the others.  Of the other seven, the next two least bright models are the Planar PD8150 and the BenQ W20000, and both are more than 100 lumens brighter than the Sony.  Of the remaining 5 projectors, all produce more than 700 lumens - all are at least twice as bright as the VPL-VW70. Now, the VPL-VW70 can just survive in best mode, in my main theater - filling my 128" Firehawk G3 (high contrast gray - relative gain of 1.3) , but it is definitely marginal.  And that's with a brand new lamp.  After say 500 or 800 hours, no way the projector will survive my room setup.  Considering that most lamps lose about 50% brightness by the time they reach their official life of 2000 hours (at full power), the VW70 is a projector that is going to work best with 100" diagonal screens or smaller, but, no doubt some will push it to 106 or 110" diagonal screens.  Of course you can go with a higher gain screen, but then you have to deal with those trade-offs - center brighter than corners, narrow viewing cone, etc. All considered, the Sony does produce a great picture.  As noted, the heavy iris work does lower black levels so that they aren't objectionable in terms of letterboxing, etc., but doing so, does cut back noticeably on the dynamics of those darker images with bright areas. As of right now, I see the projector more as serious competition to JVC's RS10 or identical HD350, and the BenQ W20000, than the JVC RS20.  BTW, the Sony after calibration should have better saturation than the RS10, in that the RS10 is a bit oversaturated on some colors, and lacks the full CMS (color management system) of the RS20 which can correct for that.  Sorry, no RS10 sitting around here for direct comparison. I have already taken a lot of side by side images (bright and dark scenes) against the JVC RS20, and plan to do some with the Epson Home Cinema 6500UB, which is the least expensive projector I have here, with excellent black levels.  Mind you, I don't believe the 6500UB overall, can match the Sony in terms of picture quality, but, it may be a case of people considering the two based on price, knowing they can get something far less expensive than the Sony, that also has impressive black level performance (and more lumens). Oh, btw, I really love the Sony remote control.  Well laid out, plenty of range. OK, that gives you something to think about.  Look for the full review of the Sony VPL-VW70 in less than a week.  -art

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