Sony VPL-HS51 LCD Projector
Take a minute to look at the measurement box. Keep in mind that this is an LCD-based product. At 0.003 foot-lamberts, the VPL-HS51 is only 0.001 ft-L higher than the Yamaha DLP projector that's also in this issue. Not bad for a projector that's less than a third of the Yamaha's price. And did I mention it's an LCD? Impressive.
The way the VPL-HS51 achieves this black level is through a bit of mechanical trickery. The processor tracks the incoming video signal and adjusts the iris accordingly. Dark scenes become darker, and bright scenes become brighter. While the Panasonic in this issue uses similar technology, the Sony is more successful at it. A full-on/full-off contrast ratio of 2567:1 is simply amazing for any LCD projector, not to mention one that costs $3,499.
Setting up the VPL-HS51 is fairly easy. Two dials on the side of the projector adjust the light's path to the screen: One is horizontal, and the other vertical. These offer a fair amount of fine control; but, if your installation is far off-center, you'll be thumbing these dials for a while as you watch the image inch across the screen. The remote is backlit and seems to have a button for all of the projector's features, except discrete input buttons. As a company, Sony seems to have an aversion to direct input-access buttons. In this case at least, you can enable an auto input search, so you only have to toggle through the active inputs. The enter and left/right buttons are one large bar, while the up and down buttons are small and separate. This takes a little getting used to.
Compared with most recent projectors, the Sony isn't very bright. On our 87-inch-wide, 1.0-gain Da-Lite Da-Mat screen, I could only manage 9.7 ft-L. While this is certainly not up to many current displays' arc-welder light output, in a light-controlled room, it should be plenty. This leads to the projector's tremendous black level. The iris works well, with deep blacks for a non-CRT projector. Its black level bests most of the high-end DLP projectors we've had in the studio. The iris can only do so much, and, on dark scenes that only have light in parts of the image (or a bright picture with letterbox bars), the contrast of the LCD panels alone is more apparent. For example, during chapter 2 of Master and Commander, the blacks are great, but the overall image looks dim. It's still an LCD, but it hides that fact well, thanks to the auto-iris. The absolute blacks were also very neutral in color, which is rare for an LCD-based device.
The VPL-HS51 handles gradations from darker to lighter areas with equal aplomb. There were almost no steps at all and very little noise. This was evident and welcome with video material as well as a gray-ramp test pattern. The Sony quickly and accurately processed the 3:2 sequence with both actual video and test patterns. Tough scenes like chapter 12 of Gladiator looked great.
The old standby The Fifth Element revealed even more. Early on in chapter 2 is a closeup of the professor's bearded face. I love using this scene to test the detail of displays with DVD. You'd be amazed at how different this scene can look on displays, even among those with the same resolution. In the VPL-HS51's case, the beard was very sharp and detailed, as was the wall he's studying. This level of detail was only accentuated with HD material from the Digital Video Essentials D-VHS. There was some slight video noise with HD material but not a lot.
One thing that became apparent with both DVD and HD material was the lopsided gray scale. As you can see from the measurement chart, the darker images were very warm, while the brighter images were more accurate. While a trained calibrator can certainly move the darker images to more-neutral readings, the curve's overall shape seems to stay the same; so, if your dark images are accurate, the bright images will be fairly blue. I was looking for this non-linear gray scale, and I saw it on some material. It wasn't distracting, nor would most people even notice it.
With the VPL-HS51, you get an attractive projector with an impressive black level and excellent processing. The gray-scale tracking isn't great, but I've seen worse. All in all, it's a solid projector that offers one thing that has been missing at this price point: black level.
• Deep blacks thanks to auto-iris
• Smooth brightness gradations