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

News and Comments

  • Ted Brady

    Thanks for that first look. I have the few-years-old 720P Sammy 710 DLP (110″ Stewart Studiotech 130) that has kept me going since my Runco 930 CRT died Xmas of 2007. I’m now thinking VW85, RS15, RS25 (was thinking Panny 4K but not any more). An ISF acquaintance who has no real dog in this fight said that Sony has been plagued with an accelerated bulb burnout and overall short life span lately. Is this something to still consider while looking at Sony? Do you think either the VW85 or RS25 will handle sports equally? My only real issue with the Sammy (other than overall contrast) is the panning in movies (not necessarily live sports, strangely enough). Thanks

    P.S Off to CES; hope to see a couple of these.

    • Hi Ted,

      Let me start by saying I can’t comment on your report about Sony’s and lamps. I just haven’t caught anything about that, although I admit I really haven’t spent but minimal time on the forums the past 3-4 months. Of course the units I review tend to show up either new, or with a couple dozen hours on their lamps.

      As to sports, and VW85 vs RS25 – should be pretty comparable on sports. Both have CFI for those who like (I do for most sports). BTW, most likely your panning issue related to 24fps, not to anythings specific to the Sony? I recall when playing with the original RS1 and other projectors first supporting 24fps (remember – we didn’t have any 24fps source material until Blu-ray (and HD-DVD).

      As such, you’ll likely still have the same panning “issue” (perhaps “reality” would be a more fitting term), with either of these at 24fps unless you engage CFI, and few enthusiasts are ready to swear off the “director’s intent” to watch movies with that digital look that comes from CFI.

      Anyway, I was most impressed with the VW85, but, as I probably stated, don’t see any real area where it proves superior to the JVC, and it’s not quite as bright. And, I’d rather achieve great black levels without a dynamic iris, if I could, as the JVC does.-a

  • Pat Boyle

    I think you should reconsider some of your judgement criteria. I went to the movies for the first time in more than a year to see Avatar. I got there early and sneeked into another theater at the multiplex (16 screens) to kill some time. I watched about ten minutes of Sherlock Holmes.

    I only needed one minute to immediately notice: how dark and dim the image was, how fuzzy it was too, and how big the screen was. I also noticed the rather ordinary black level.

    In my Home Theater I have noticed the skin blemishes of the actors and actresses. This is a result of a sharp, bright picture. In Sherlock Holmes on a forty foot screen in the newest theater in town, I could not see any skin detail at all. In every way except size the commercial theater image was inferior. The movie itself looked interesting. I’ll wait for it’s release on Blu-ray so I can enjoy it with good pq at home.

    This experience suggests to me that Home Theater is already sharper than comercial theater and has more than enough black level. This is significant because I only have a Mitsubishi 1600 – a 720 projector famous for it’s poor black levels.

    I went away wishing for a bigger screen however. I have a standard 8 foot wide Da-Lite HP screen in 16:9. I want bigger so as to capture the full theater experience.

    My priorities are bright and big. Resolution on any kind of modern HD projector just isn’t much of a problem, but not all projectors can shoot a really big image with sufficient brightness.

    I want at least ten feet wide for 2.35:1. Therefore this Sony just doesn’t cut it – too dim on big screens.

    • Ahh, Pat – How dare you!

      I’ll take issue – re “my judgement” since I am a huge fan of brightness. I’m a large screen owner, and I like to sit close (11.5 feet from eyeball to screen, on a 128″ diag Firehawk.)

      I presume your “one minute” was about avatar, not Sherlock (sherlock sadly being a rather poor movie, but for Robert Downey Jr.’s performance being the best thing about it, but he couldn’t carry the film.

      Yes, 3D has black level problems, and since 3D also seems to be inherently dimmer, we may well see a new generation of brighter digital projectors to cope. Still, the effects of Avatar made the movie, despite the lower contrast, etc. downright dazzling.

      I have long said that with most respectable home theater projectors, if you have a decent room (darker walls, etc.) you will have a better viewing experience than the typical cineplex (and that’s nevermind the kids in the theater, sitting behind you, talking and texting during the flick).

      As to sharpness, no, your projector is definitely not as sharp as any commercial projector, but you sit so far back (relative to where you sit in a theater), that it seems sharp. Hey, you can put standard TV on a 20 year old 27″ Sony Trinitron, and if you watch it from 25 feet away it will look every bit as sharp as a 27″ LCDTV from the same distance, showing HDTV. For a mid theater seat, in most theaters, to get the same relative size (immersion) with your 8 foot wide screen, you would probably have to sit no more than 7 feet from the screen, maybe closer.

      Besides, sadly, most of those DLP projectors in the theaters, simply do not have the resolution of their film counterparts.

      I do believe the theaters would need to offer a minimum of true 8K resolution to be in the ball game, not 4K. To me, the digital projectors definitely are not as sharp, although folks sitting in the back of theaters might not notice (I sit between 1/3 and 1/2 back).

      Which brings us back to the Sony. I don’t dictate what people must like. The vast majority of home theater setups use screens of 110″ diagonal or less, and as you have pointed out, you have a 110″ and it’s too small.

      However, other folks are perfectly happy. Or they have a smaller room. I do have a friend with a 92″ screen stuffed into what was a 13×11 foot bedroom. They sit about 8 feet back, and, I might note, love their setup.

      So, it’s simple, while bigger might be better, it’s not for everyone, due to price, room, or taste. Remember, 10’s of millions of people actually believe having a 42 or 50″ lcdtv in a room with some lights on, is “home theater”. Imagine that. (I still think 50″ diag is a good size for a kitchen.)

      Lastly, since I’m bouncing around, a to that detail, in the theater – it should be there, unless you are sitting so far back that its too small to see, OR, FAR MORE LIKELY, you are watching in a Cineplex in California, or some other state with anal-retentive theater lighting laws. I’m all for fire safety, but out here in California, those huge Cineplexes are never really dark. There’s way too much ambient light from all the sconces, and colored walls, and overly bright green Exit signs.

      I remember, as a kid, when the lights went out, you were barely able to see you hand in front of your face. Now you can almost read a magazine.

      So, the theater experience is definitely flawed, and while different flaws, I do believe a respectable (not necessarily expensive) home theater in a good room, does provide for a superior experience. (Ya need good sound, too!) BTW, remember, black levels in theaters not only have deteriorated due to ambient light, but also because those big 3 chip DLP’s aren’t even close in black level performance to the best home products like the JVC’s Sony VW85 and even the Epson UB projectors. To my knowledge (thin in this area) most of those DLPs were pretty basic. The newer ones, I imagine are now sporting their own dynamic irises to improve black level performance. Also look for more dynamic sharpening,a nd things like “super-resolution” to come to the theater projectors.

      Enough. Hey, the HC1600 still does have mediocre black levels. For all your positioning, replace that 1600 with something like a BenQ W6000 or Optoma HD8600 (if you want to stick to DLP) or an Epson UB, VW85 or better, JVC RS25, and you will be truly amazed when viewing darker scenes. -art

  • Jeff Roy

    I am anxiuous to see the review of the VW85. Do you know when it will be done? And I also noticed that the review of the HW15 is still not completed. The competition page is blank. Do you know when that will be finished? I am curious how close the performance of the HW15 is to the VW85.

    • Hmm Jeff! The VW85 review went up back on 1-4. There are two links to it, on the home page. As is typical, it still needs things added. I headed out the next day, for CES. And it’s probably a week or more until the competitors page is up (and I’ll try to finish the HW15’s too.

      That said, HW15 vs VW85 – very simple. Overall, similar picture, but whereas the HW15 has good black level performance, the VW85 has superb black level performance, immediately superior to the Epson 8500UB/9500UB. By comparsion, the Epsons have the advantage on the Sony HW15. You also get anamorphic lens support and CFI for the VW85’s roughly 2.5 times the price. It’s a lot more money, but the extra performance, primarily in terms of black levels are definitely there to justify it, budget allowing! -a

  • My mom purchased a used one for my house. But I am having some problems and I am looking for help.

  • Jeff Roy

    Sorry for missing the review. if it was a snake it would have bit me. Quick ventilation question. I am looking at making the jump on the HW15. For the price it appears to be a nice unit, and my bat cave is small. Which brings me to my ventilation question. I will be ceiling mounting it at the back of the room. There will be plenty of ventilation all around it, but only about 4-5 inches between it and the rear wall. Do you think I will have any problems?

    • Jeff, Clearance of 4-5 inches should be fine. Try not to mount it flush to the ceiling, that’s a bigger problem. Best to have 4-8 inches between ceiling and projector. That top six inches in every room is several degrees hotter than the rest of the room (hot air rises…) If you actually should develop a problem (like the unit shutting down for heat (extremely unlikely), you could always attach a small whisper fan, to improve circulation (the HW15 has a 12 volt trigger – you could pull power from that, in a pinch. -art

  • Jeff Roy

    You’re THE MAN Art. Thanks! And I will check back occasionally on the HW15 review to see how it fares against the competition, once you have it completed.