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Get 'em While They're Hot (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two-part review of the Sony VPH-20U CRT projector. Click HERE for Part 1.—Ed.

Flashbacks
However, the Sony had two observable problems. The first was some unexplainable white flash marks in the upper black letterbox area on 2.35:1 transfers. These did not extend into the area that would be black when watching a 1.85:1 transfer on a 4:3 screen, residing only in the additional black area commanded by a 2.35:1 transfer. These flash marks appeared during very quick transitions from dark to very bright scenes. I observed them through both the component and S-video inputs. They lasted only fractions of a second, but were infinitely repeatable wherever they occurred.

For example, on Dante's Peak (Universal/DTS 20450), the flashing in the upper black band occurs throughout chapter 23, where two kids are trying to drive through a lightning-plagued ash storm as to grandmother's house they go. The lightning flashes seem to set off the projector flashes. Broken Arrow (Fox 4110420)—a non-anamorphic, non-DTS DVD with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio—exhibited the same behavior 35 seconds into chapter 5, when an explosion in the distance also set off fireworks in the black-matte area of the screen.

After Doolittle finished calibrating the projector, I showed him the clip from Dante's Peak and asked him to check it out on his home rig (Toshiba 3109 and Sony 7000 DVD players, Runco 853 projector). He called the next day to say his non-DTS version of Dante's Peak exhibited no flashing from either of his players. He had noticed something interesting, however. At the points where the flashing occurred, the bit-meter was pegged at 10Mbps. Finally, I had to rule out the Toshiba 2109, so I tried it in my Dwin setup, where everything worked fine.

I won't hazard a guess as to why these flashes occur in the Sony, and I can't rule out the possibility that they might just be a problem with my particular sample. As infrequently as they occurred (and always in the company of a bright onscreen flash), I wouldn't lose sleep over 'em.

Kelvin Climb
In Brazil, when someone says tudo azul—literally, "totally blue"—it means "everything is good." In the world of TVs and video projectors, however, tudo azul would be totally bad. In the quest to be the whitest and brightest display on the showroom floor, TV manufacturers overdrive their blue guns. The resulting flavor of white is often double the NTSC standard of 6500 kelvins (K). It's bright, but the colors are all wrong. Total reticular meltdown, dude!

Like every projector and TV we review, the Sony VPH-20U came out of the box cryin' them white-hot blues. Reviewers (and their technicians) can usually dial in the NTSC standard color temperature for an accurate gray scale across the board, but in some cases—like the VPH-20U—we take it as far as we can and then make the best of it (see "Calibration" sidebar).

The darker range of grays certainly exhibited the worst deviation from 6500K. At the lowest range, the 3.5 IRE and 12.5 IRE bars—the below-black and slightly-above-black bars in the PLUGE pattern—were still on the green side, even after calibration. Even so, the Sony's gray scale was certainly better than most direct-view TVs or RPTVs would be straight out of the box. And in such an inexpensive projector, the Sony's many other virtues clearly outweigh its color-temperature difficulties. Is it worth spending more for a projector with better gray scale? Perhaps, but for twice what the Sony costs, you wouldn't expect just better gray scale—you'd expect HDTV!

Let's Go Out to the Lobby
With full-frame (4:3) images of average quality, like Joni Mitchell's Painting with Words and Music (Image/Eagle Rock ID5515ERDVD), scan lines were slightly visible to my trained eye from 12 feet away, but after a while I didn't notice them. Black level is punchy and nicely detailed. But with an average bit rate of under 4Mbps and a softly focused camera, this bland-looking video represents more of a worst-case test for the Sony.

Moving up to non-anamorphic letterboxed movies of higher quality, like the previously mentioned Broken Arrow or Disney/Pixar's A Bug's Life (Walt Disney Home Video 16698), you begin to see the Sony's virtues. On A Bug's Life, the cute opening Pixar logo exhibits noticeable scan lines. The bright white background in this bit represents another worst-case scenario. Once the movie is underway, scan lines appear only intermittently. With the exception of some scenes that are softly focused (these are long shots, just as in "real" photography), this is one of the best transfers Disney has done. Just imagine how much better things will be when we start seeing anamorphic transfers from the Mouse.

The Sony's best images by far come from anamorphic DVDs. Austin Powers, The Fifth Element—all the classics—just look intolerably good. These are the type of movies that the Sony was made for. Vertically squeezing the picture gets you from pretty good to damn fine. I found myself putting the squeeze on even non-anamorphic movies for a few moments, just to watch the magic of the disappearing lines.

With the new, smaller screen, I find brightness adequate, but only that—and only if the room is completely dark. Again, with the best material, the image really "pops." Despite the uncorrectable blue level, colors are decently natural. In particular, flesh tones are livable. Dark hair and dark suits exhibit a tinge of green, but this is very subtle and easily overlooked.

Gucci Gucci Good
The Sony VPH-20U is a great-looking, affordable CRT front projector. You can have a big, big screen and still not suffer horribly from scan lines. The only rear-projection TV I know of with an 84-inch-diagonal screen is an RCA ProScan model. It costs substantially more than the Sony. I priced the projector/screen combo—$4000 for the Sony, another $1200 or so for the stand-mounted Stewart screen I used. Not a bad price for something that will have your tongue hanging on the floor.

Is it wise to sink $4000 into an NTSC projector with HDTV sets starting at $8000? In a word, yes. Are any stations even broadcasting HDTV signals in your area yet, or do your highest-quality sources continue to be DVD and LD? The Sony can do wonders with a good anamorphic DVD. And wasn't one of the reasons you started collecting movies was so you can watch what you want, when you want? Are we all ready to let the TV stations hold us hostage again—hi-def or not?

The price of the Sony VPH-20U puts it in direct competition with some very fine non-HDTV rear-projection sets, but I can't understand why anyone dedicated to home theater wouldn't consider a front projector like the Sony. A great picture at a great price—what more do you want?

Sidebars

CALIBRATION
It's disappointing to find that a $4000 projector doesn't come with the same gamma-correction circuitry found in much more expensive projectors, but that's one of the things that makes those projectors much more expensive. With only the VPH-20U's bias controls, Jim Doolittle produced a gray-scale curve in which the readings climbed precipitously between black and 30 IRE, then sloped off gradually from a peak of nearly 12,000K, re-crossing the optimal 6500K color-temperature line in the upper range.

Geometry was very good, with just some slight inward bowing at the top and bottom on the right side. Considering that the Sony installer had spent less than half an hour setting up the VPH-20U, Doolittle thought the geometry could easily be improved with a few hours' work. In any case, it wasn't severe enough to influence my overall favorable opinion of the geometry, and I never noticed anything amiss while watching movies.

In all other areas, the Sony did extremely well. Based on the low- and high-level PLUGE patterns, Doolittle felt the Sony exhibited excellent DC restoration. He was equally impressed with its color decoder. Chrominance-to-luminance transition was only average, however, with noticeable red bleeding of the trailing edges on the chroma-luminance delay pattern (Video Essentials, ISF DVDI 0711, title 17, chapter 24).

Frequency response was excellent. The Toshiba 2109 clearly delineated in excess of 460 lines of horizontal resolution. The blue gun resisted our attempts to improve its focus over the factory settings. In comparison to the red and green guns, the blue cut a wider, less distinct path. But blue is the hardest color to see; subjectively, the Sony still had a very sharp image.

Aside from a gray scale that Doolittle characterized as "horrific" out of the box, we were both favorably impressed with the Sony VPH-20U.—FM

SPECIFICATIONS
VPH-20U CRT front projector
Tubes: three 7" CRTs
Light output: 700 lumens peak, 100 ANSI lumens
Horizontal scanning rate: 15.75kHz
Horizontal resolution: 700 lines via composite input, 1000 lines via RGB input
Dimensions: 21" x 11 3/8" x 23 5/8" (WxHxD)
Weight: 66 lbs.
Price: $4000

Manufacturer
Sony Electronics
One Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
tel. (201) 930-1000
fax (201) 358-4058
www.sony.com

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