Sony VPL-VW100 LCOS Projector
I've been saying it since the first 1080p displays hit the market: There's no need for 1080p on a screen smaller than 65 inches. Your eye just can't resolve that kind of detail at the distance just about everyone sits from their TV. Resoundingly, no one cared. Where that level of detail is really useful is with projection. With a screen of 90 or 100 inches, you can use every bit of detail you can get. Texas Instruments was pretty candid about not needing to rush in to a 1080p front projector chip. After all, where was the competition? At CEDIA 2005, Sony forced their hand. OK, I honestly don't know if Sony's announcement had anything to do with TI's timeline, but I found it interesting that, at CEDIA, there were no 1080p DLP front projectors, and, at CES three months later, there were a half dozen. Sony's bombshell was their announcement of the VPL-VW100 LCOS 1080p front projector. At $10,000, it's a full $2,000 to $3,000 less than the 720p DLPs. Projector sales are 90 percent numbers, and 1080p is a big one.
Looking the Part
With few exceptions (InFocus), a $10,000 product needs to look like something you spent $10,000 on. Of course, picture quality is important, but the projector will be hanging in your theater (or sitting in your living room) for everyone to see. It needs to dress for the party. Here, Sony has succeeded greatly. The lines are smooth, the build quality is tight, and, in reality, it looks even more expensive than it is. I'm a particular fan of the thermal management (pun intended). Cooling the bulb is one of a projector's most difficult design aspects. It's easy to cool with a fan, but, to do it quietly, conveniently, and cost effectively, while maintaining aesthetic appeal, is not. The VPL-VW100's designers get a special mention for coming up with a simple, attractive, and presumably effective solution. There are vents at the top and bottom of the front of the case. They are ducted back through the length of the case to a huge exhaust port in the back. It's all integrated and masked incredibly well. It also makes for an extremely quiet projector.
The whole top slides to garner access to replace the bulb, which you'll have to do every 2,200 hours or so. Brace yourself: Bulb replacements are a brutal $1,000.
The remote is identical to the one that comes with the $3,500 VPL-HS51 LCD projector. That's a little weird given the difference in price, but, if the costs were cut there rather than somewhere in the light path, I'm OK with that. It is backlit with glow-in-the-dark light and input buttons. It also demonstrates Sony's aversion to direct-input buttons, but the projector has a setting to scan through only those inputs with active video signals. The menus are slightly more difficult to navigate than those of most Sony products, but they're detailed and have just about every adjustment you'd want. You use the remote to control focus, zoom, and lens shift (vertical only). You have to be near the screen to focus the projector, as there is no way you can see the pixel edges from the projector's location (or from your seat, for that matter).
Is It On?
The VPL-VW100 offers the best black level we've ever measured in a digital product. At 0.001 foot-lamberts, it pushes the measurement limits of our Minolta LS-100 light meter. I've checked with one of our sister publications who also has a VPL-VW100 review sample, and their results were nearly identical (their screen is of a different size and material than ours). An auto iris is built in, as in the SXRD RPTVs that share much of the VPL-VW100's innards. With the auto iris in Auto mode, the projector puts out 15.18 ft-L. You don't need a calculator to see that this means a contrast ratio of 15,180:1. Once again, that's the best we've measured in a digital product.
As with all products with an auto iris, this doesn't tell you the full story of the projector's actual contrast ratio. With the iris turned on, which locks the iris into one position, the black level rose to 0.002 ft-L, and the light output was reduced to 7.627 ft-L. This equals a contrast ratio of 3,814:1. For comparison, the excellent Sharp XV-Z12000 Mark II projector I reviewed last month could "only" muster 3,632:1. With the iris off, the image brightens back up to just over 15 ft-L, and the black level increases, as well, to 0.005 ft-L, which any math flunky will tell you is 3,000:1. The ANSI contrast ratio is surprisingly average at 251:1. On the screen, it looks more like at least 3,000:1 than 251:1.
Like the previous incarnations of Sony's SXRD, the color points aren't accurate. Also like the other SXRDs, colors are oversaturated but, for the most part, don't really drift away from their proper respective colors. In other words, green is just really green, not yellowish-green or bluish-green. The Wide color mode further increases the distance between the color points and SMTPE specs. The color decoder is excellent, though. As with the other SXRD displays, this one creates a sort of über-vibrant image. Solid colors are almost a little too colorful. While it isn't accurate, it doesn't look bad.
Scaling, a Whole Lot of It
Scaling is crucial in any display and even more so in a 1080p display, as there are almost six times as many pixels as there are on a DVD. The VPL-VW100 does an excellent job. It internally upconverts DVDs about as well as an external upconverting DVD player—at least as far as detail goes, that is. The component input had a small amount of noise, a kind of grain that wasn't apparent when I used the HDMI or DVI inputs, which were very smooth. The component input also had a disappointing amount of steps and noise in the gray ramp from Video Essentials. This was noticeable with actual video material, as well. It was more than I expected from a $10,000 projector, but it was far less than that of many digital displays. While it's not bad enough to completely avoid the analog inputs, I'd advise you to use digital when you can.
Deinterlacing was fairly average. The 3:2 pickup wasn't very fast, and video processing showed some jagged edges with the waving-flag scene on Silicon Optix's HQV Benchmark DVD. Turn off the Digital Reality Creation (DRC). It adds more jaggies.
Sooooo Much Detail
Now, this is what 1080p was made for. More than any previous 1080p display, the extra resolution over 720p is instantly noticeable. There are moments when the additional detail is simply stunning. Unfortunately, for now, these moments are all most people will get out of the VPL-VW100's doubled pixel count. With this projector, you have a display with a native resolution that far exceeds the program material just about everyone will put on it—and a screen size that uses it. DirecTV, DISH Network, just about every cable provider, and even some broadcast stations compress the hell out of their HD signals. While this may not be as noticeable on a 42-inch plasma, on a 90-inch screen showing 1080p, every drop in bit rate or resolution is very noticeable. Even if the camera that shot the scene was slightly out of focus, you'll see it with the VPL-VW100. Quite simply, the display outclasses the source. And it will, at least until Blu-ray (or, ahem, HD-DVD) comes around.
One of the most disappointing aspects of nearly every 1080p display we've reviewed is their inability to accept a 1080p signal. HP and Epson seemed to be the only companies that understood that any TVs bought today will likely still be in use six months later, when there will be plenty of 1080p content—not to mention that anyone with an HTPC has 1080p content now, and lots of it. With the VPL-VW100, Sony takes steps to remedy this shortcoming. Steps, but not a total fix. The HDMI and DVI inputs will accept a 1080p signal from a DVD player. The DVI input will usually take a 1080p signal from a computer, but the HDMI won't at all. The PC input maxes out at 1,920 by 1080i, or 1,400 by 1,050 if you want to talk 4:3. You can disable overscan and move the image vertically and horizontally on the screen, allowing you to see every pixel from a computer. So, hooking up an HTPC isn't foolproof, but it's possible and will work great when it does.
You Don't Need That Kidney...
What can I say? Despite its faults, the VPL-VW100 is a beautiful and incredible-looking projector. This is the first time I'd wholeheartedly say you should go for 1080p over 720p. If you have the means, go for it. It's that good.
• The first "affordable" 1080p front projector
• Amazing black level and contrast ratio
• Excellent case design