Sony VPL-VW85 – A First Look Projector Review

Greetings and happy holidays.Well, looks like the full review won’t publish until after the new year, but meantime, I figured it was time to tantalize you a bit.For those not familiar, the Sony VPL-VW85 – which mostly I’ll call the VW85, is Sony’s more expensive of two under $10,000 home theater projectors. They also make a more expensive one (the VPL-VW200), that we won’t get into here – it costs about twice as much, last I looked.Sony offers the HW15, for a mere $2799, as their entry level LCoS projector. (Sony refers to their LCoS as SXRD)This VW85, however is in a whole different price range, with an MSRP of $7999.   Most notably that’s pretty much the same price as the VW85’s most formidable competitor, JVC’s DLA-RS25 projector.  I’ll be back to that in a moment, but, first, a little more about the Sony VPL-VW85 home theater projector:The VW85 uses 3 LCoS panels, and a traditional UHP lamp for power.  It has high and low lamp modes and they differ by a good amount (about 1/3), more than with most projector’s lamp modes.  The Sony has motorized focus, zoom, and lens shift.  It’s a fairly large home theater projector, as under $10,000 models go, a little larger than most of its competition, but not dramatically so.  It is finished in a deep black finish, with tiny blue speckles in the shiny finish.  Unless the room is well lit, it just looks black.  It’s nicely curved, a simple design.The lens is recessed and center mounted.  The inputs are all down low, on the right side of the projector if looking from the back.  Above the inputs is a small, basic, control panel, hidden behind a spring release door.   The backlit remote is large, reasonably well laid out and has good range.In year’s past, while I’ve liked the Sonys – VW70, VW60, etc. ever since JVC brought out their RS1 projector (also LCoS), with its stunning black level performance, I’ve felt that Sony has trailed JVC in terms of overall performance.  Certainly the older Sony’s had very good blacks, but JVC set a new standard for the entire industry.  The older Sony’s just weren’t  up to the black level performance of that old RS1 of 2+ years ago, and definitely not up to last year’s RS20.Sony, as you may know uses a dynamic iris to enhance black level performance.  JVC, instead created their projectors with a revised LCoS panel design that offered a dramatic improvement in blacks compared to their older projectors. Sony’s been playing catch up, in that regard.So, this year, we have Sony’s shiny new VPL-VW85, and the first big question is, how does it stack up to the JVCs – RS15 and RS25, especially in terms of black level performance.Tell you the truth, it’s been a very disappointing season for new home theater projectors.  Mostly we’ve seen updated models from last year, and despite some very impressive claims of drastically improved contrast ratios, I’ve been underwhelmed with the level of improvement.  The Epson’s and JVC’s so far, all have slightly better blacks than last year’s but slightly is the operative term, and in some cases, might be generous.  Panasonic’s black level improvements were greater, but then they have been trailing Epson, and playing catchup (and still have a bit to go), just as Sony’s been playing catchup against JVC in the higher price ranges.Well, congrats to Sony.  This VW85 really has excellent blacks.  Virtually as good as the JVC.  I mean really, really close, compared to my RS20.  So close that it’s rarely detectable at all, and even on those dark scenes and mixed ones that are mostly dark, the difference, when visible is just barely.  I ended up doing some incredibly long time exposures to tray to make the “blacks” in the letterbox area even visible as gray.  Only the RS20 and RS25 do better, and it’s really slight as you’ll see in a side-by-side or two in the full review (that’s compared to the RS20).  OK, with the RS25, there will be another very slight improvement for JVC, but I have to say that all considered, the VW85 and the RS25 are now virtual equals, with the JVC maintaining the slenderest advantage.Of course, with Sony’s dynamic iris there is some compression of scenes where it’s mostly dark but a little amount of area that’s very bright.  (A night shot with some street lights and traffic lights in the background would be a good example.) The JVC doesn’t do any compression, for a more dynamic image, but even that considered, the Sony is still competitive with the RS25.Despite not having laid hands on the RS15, from what I know of it, this Sony will have a visible advantage in blacks.  Not great, but definitely a larger difference than between the VW85 and the RS25.   This is probably a great sigh of relief, for Sony, considering that, last year, the lower cost RS10 was doing better blacks than the VW70.As far as I’m concerned, Sony has closed the “black gap” more than enough to pretty much remove it from the decision process.  Now other factors come to bear, color handling, brightness, you know the drill.Well, I’m still watching the Sony, (and also my RS20).  I’ll get into that more in the full review, but has you would expect from these two serious players, both are really good at picture quality.The Sony has added a few features.  It’s got creative frame interpolation and a Film something or other mode, with three settings.  The CFI works pretty well.  It may even be a touch better than, say, the JVC’s CFI. As with all CFIs, you get at least a little of that “live digital video”  (or “soap opera”) look when watching 24fps movies, and therefore most of us aren’t interested in CFI for movie watching.  (My teenage daughter and her friends sometimes use CFI, they think it’s cool).  It was just fine for sports viewing, and it improves most panning blur nicely.The Film feature I’m still working on.  Perhaps it’s some dynamic contrast.  Each one is more contrasty than the next. That said, in all three of its modes,  I detect a faint, but steady high speed flicker. It is immediately annoying.   I need to call Sony product management about that, right after New Years.  The flicker is there whether CFI is on or off, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten with it.  And I only have a couple more days.Brightness is still not the friend of the Sony.  After Mike calibrated it, the VPL-VW85 measured 598 lumens in its best movie mode, and only an extra 127 lumens at its brightest.  (That means that JVC still has the brightness advantage – not huge, but 753 to 598, and for brightest, 862 to 727.   That’s an average of over 20% brighter.  Translated – A JVC can handle a 110″ screen with no more difficulty than the Sony handling a 100 inch screen.That said, for folks primarily into movies and not worrying about watching other content with a fair amount of ambient light, will really like the VW85.  It’s a sweet projector for, say a movie fanatic, in a decent room, with a screen up to 120 inch diagonal.  On my 128″ firehawk, it has no problem, but that’s with a new lamp.  Remember, these lamps all dim, with age.Congrats to Sony.  They are now back in the thick of the battle, with first class black level performance.   Stay tuned! -art

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