In the Black II

In my previous blog, "In the Black," I stated that the new Sony VPL-VW100 SXRD projector would not accept 1080p directly. That was the impression I obtained at its press introduction at last September's CEDIA. But I subsequently learned, in completing Part I of my review of that projector, which will be posted on this site tomorrow (Sunday, December 18, 2005), that it will indeed accept 1080p/60 at its HDMI and DVI inputs.

Previously, in that same blog, I mentioned the improvements I've been seeing in the blacks levels of the new video displays that employ an automatic iris. But as good as they are beginning to look, nothing can as yet beat out a good CRT in the contrast derby.

The last time I measured the peak contrast on my three-year old Hitachi 51SWX20B HD-ready CRT projection television I obtained a result of nearly 30,000:1 (just under 30fL peak white, 0.001fL video black)!

Granted, the Hitachi's video black reading was at the lower limit of my Minolta LS-100 light meter's specified sensitivity. But even assuming an error of 2:1 in the reading, that would mean a peak contrast of 15,000:1. Or, with an error in the other direction (just as likely), 60,000:1!

But I didn't need a light meter to tell me that. If I put a full video black test pattern into the Hitachi and completely shut out any ambient room lighting, everything goes black. You can't distinguish the screen from the darkness around it until a few seconds later when your eyes adjust. Even then, you can just barely see it. This is the darkest black level I have ever seen on any consumer video display.

That Sony front projector, as you will learn from the review tomorrow, also measured spectacularly well on my projection screen with its Advanced Iris engaged—0.002fL—though with far less peak white output than the rear projection Hitachi with its smaller, high gain screen. But since I can still make out the outlines of the screen on the Sony with a video black signal, and I cannot with the Hitachi, I suspect that the Hitachi is actually producing less than 0.001fL in video black. But the Minolta meter will not measure lower than that.

There's no denying that today's fixed-pixel, digital video displays have made dramatic strides forward, outperforming CRTs in many ways. That Hitachi, for example, is nowhere near as crisp-looking on HD programming as most of the digital displays I've seen. But while matching the black level and shadow detail a great CRT display remains elusive, it should be an ongoing goal for video designers, whatever new technology they employ.

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Colin Robertson's picture

I read an interview with Sam Runco in a recent issue of Widescreen Review, and he made a comment that was very interesting to me. For me, film, is the ultimate reference when evaluating the performance of a video display, and in the interview, Mr. Runco stated that while digital displays (projectors in this instance) cannot produce as dark a black as a good CRT, film itself cannot produce a "true" black! So, Tom, where do you see this fact fit in with all this discussion of the black level in displays? BTW, I greatly enjoy your coverage on video displays! No one else seems to be able to get into such great detail about the technical and subjective capabilities of video devices while keeping the explanation coherent and understandable as you do. Keep up the great coverage!!

Paul Jenkins's picture

I think you should emphasize that for a street price of $8500.00, you can get a projector that: 1) Does not require professional installation. 2) Can produce a great picture without professional calibration (though it would be money well spent). 3) Produces a better overall picture than a 60K CRT. 4) Does not require periodic maintainence beyond a bulb change. 5) Allows Joe-Six-Pack to create a 100K theater for less than 15K. 6)Once Blu-Ray hits will have a better theater experience in their basement than at the multi-plex, if they don't already. In the review, you mention many of these things, but you don't celebrate them with the true revolutionary status they deserve. The true beauty of digital is that while it may have shortcomings, its low price and bring 95% of the performance for 10% or less of the price. Not great for video snobs, but great for the rest of us. Regards Paul

Tom Norton's picture

Paul: You're certainly right on that score. As much as I loved that $60K CRT (mated to a $45K viedeo processor) there's no way I could ever afford it. Digital projectors do have their limitations, but have come a very long way in just a few years. But we must still hold them up to the highest standards. If they fall short, that doesn't mean they've failed, only that they can always be improved. Colin: Thanks for the kind words. I don't agree that we should stop at the commercial movie theater experience. There's a lot more to film than you can see in an average multiplex. I believe we should aim for the kind of performance filmmakers seek to get from film under the very best circumstances--or even better. We may never get there (we haven't reached perfection in music reproduction yet, either, by a long shot) but it's a goal worth pursuing. And having just seen King Kong in a first rate theater in LA (the Arclight--but NOT the Dome--see my upcoming blog), I realize just how far we still have to go.

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