Sony QUALIA 004 SXRD video projector

When Sony announced the development of a new home video projector last spring, the buzz began. Would it be the fabled Grating Light Valve technology, which the company is known to be working on? Would it be LCD, DLP, or LCoS? Would it be something completely new?

As it turns out, it's something new, though not entirely, and the first product released under Sony's new super high-end moniker, "QUALIA." Sony calls the technology SXRD, for Silicon Crystal (X-tal) Reflective Display. Conceptually, it bears a striking resemblance to the Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) technology, but Sony claims some significant advantages for SXRD—and, of course, that radical new name. (For more on SXRD, see the sidebar "Tech and Test.")

I saw most of the early demonstrations of SXRD. The prototype projector looked very promising, though I reserved judgment on the quality of the blacks and the color balance—qualities hard to judge in any scripted, carefully choreographed demonstration when you don't know the characteristics of the program material or how the projector was set up.

But we've finally had a chance to get our hands on and have a look at the QUALIA 004. With the supply of the product limited, however, we were unable to wangle a loaner for as long as we usually prefer. I settled for a short but doable three weeks. What follows is a daily diary recounting my experiences with the QUALIA—a close-up-and-personal whirlwind affair with the current state of Sony's art in home-theater projectors.

Day 0
It's Thursday, and the QUALIA is supposed to arrive Monday. Rob McDonough, from Sony's local office, is going to deliver and set it up personally. When he calls to report a change in plans, my heart sinks. I've been chomping at the bit to get this thing for months, and now—but wait a minute. "Can I bring it tomorrow?" he asks. Hey—is the Terminator the governor of California?

A flurry of activity follows. I set up a rack with a suitable shelf, wonder if the throw distance will work in my room, and imagine the projector's 700W xenon lamp blowing my modest 80-inch-wide Stewart FireHawk screen through the front wall. But I've already taken steps on the latter front. When I ask Joaquin Rivera at Stewart Filmscreen which type of screen might be more suitable, a GrayHawk or flat white, he relates that Stewart has a sample of the QUALIA to try with their various screen materials, and they feel that the FireHawk looks best. Sony's early demonstrations were on Stewart StudioTek 130 screens, but those screens were huge—roughly 12 feet wide. Joaquin agrees to send me a 96-inch-wide FireHawk.

Delivery Day: Morning
The projector is scheduled to arrive after lunch. The new Stewart screen arrives in the morning, but there's no time to set it up today. The existing screen will have to do for now. I get an e-mail from Sony with a white paper on the QUALIA's operation. Some of that will find its way into this report (see sidebar, "Tech and Test"), but in scanning it while waiting for Rob and the QUALIA to arrive, I learn some useful details.

Most interesting for my immediate concerns is that the projector has two lamp settings (High and Low) and a three-position iris (Off, 1, and 2). The latter controls the projector's light output by closing down the lens opening, much like a camera iris. With the Low lamp setting and the iris set at 2 (the smallest opening), the QUALIA should produce its best contrast, lowest black level, and, hopefully, still put out enough light for a punchy image on my screen.

Delivery Day: Setup
Rob arrives. We schlep the QUALIA into my home theater and onto the shelf, which turns out to be an excellent height. (Ideally, this projector should be positioned with the lens height somewhere between the bottom and top of the screen.) Sony offers three different interchangeable lenses for the QUALIA, and Rob McDonough has brought all of them: the mid-size VPLL-ZP400 looks like the right fit for my installation. With the rear of the projector just under 19 feet from my screen, the image not only fits its 80-inch width, but the zoom range looks as if it will accommodate the 96-inch-wide screen as well, when I have the chance to install it.

Connecting the inputs (component and DVI for now) is a bit awkward because the connections are deeply recessed on the sides of the projector—digital inputs on one side, analog on the other. This allows them to be concealed in a ceiling installation, but it makes for cramped access with a table- or shelf-mount. But we get it done—though I can't screw down the DVI connector as tight as I'd like. There's an HDMI input as well, but I don't have a long enough adapter cable with HDMI on one end and DVI on the other. (I have sources with DVI outputs, but none with the new HDMI connector.)

After firing up the QUALIA, we line it up with the screen and adjust the focus and zoom—a process that takes all of 10 minutes. A few slick touches are immediately obvious. The design of the chassis provides secure handgrips for carrying the projector; it's far heavier than the digital home theater projectors we've seen to date, but its 88 pounds are manageable for two people of average strength. That expensive lens is recessed for good protection and covered with a built-in lens cap that automatically retracts at turn-on. The onboard display—a small OLED (organic LED) panel positioned on the top of the QUALIA—then does a little dance before settling down to show the projector's status.

There's a small, retractable control panel on the projector itself, but the preferred modus operandi is the remote. And what a remote—it's all black, it illuminates automatically when I pick it up, and the labeling is crisp and legible. But there are downsides. All the buttons are the same size, so I can't navigate easily by feel alone. It retains the unique Sony design that requires you to confirm virtually every command by pushing Enter. The projector won't respond when you aim the remote at the screen; you have to point it back toward the chassis, or bounce the commands off the wall behind the projector. And a long day of calibration (more on that later) exhausted the batteries. Then the battery cover refused to lock shut; a piece of tape was my less-than-elegant solution. Normal operation should require fewer trips to the local RadioHut at four AAAs a pop. But manufacturers can't win—we're always hitting them upside the head for illuminated remotes, and when we get one, we complain about battery life.