Sony QUALIA 004 SXRD video projector Page 4

The QUALIA's Color Space control has two positions, Normal and Wide, but the distinction between them is not explained clearly in the manual. Normal provides red, green, and blue color points that are very close to the desired coordinates: red is very slightly orange, green a bit yellow, and blue very close to ideal. The deviations are acceptable with standard-def sources, and even closer to the standard with hi-def. In the Wide setting, however, colors are overly vivid: blue and red are far deeper than is called for in either the SD or HD standard, and green is pushed further from yellow than is correct. If red, green, and blue are wrong, then all colors will be wrong (because all colors a projector can display are formed from combinations of these primary colors). If you prefer the Wide setting, I won't argue, but it isn't accurate. I use Normal for the rest of the evaluation.

The results of my first try at calibration in the service menu aren't shown here—the plot shown in the "Tech and Test" sidebar is for the final calibration—but they were a significant improvement over the factory settings, ranging from around 6500K at 80 IRE to approximately 6600K at 30 IRE, and dipping to 6150K at 100 IRE.

Delivery Day +5 and +6: More Visits
Visitors on these two days include two individuals who are familiar with good projection devices. One, an audio manufacturer bringing along a piece of gear for review, uses one of the better HD2 DLP projectors at home. The other was, until recently, a projectionist at Grauman's Chinese theater in Hollywood.

While neither guest offers a lot of specific observations, both are clearly impressed by the Sony QUALIA. We're now watching with a progressive component input from the Denon DVD-5900 DVD player, with all HD material coming from over-the-air recordings on the Zenith HD tuner/hard-disk recorder.

In addition to much of the previously mentioned material, we sample Seabiscuit, Muppets from Space, The Road to El Dorado, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and several selections from the DTS Demo Disc 7. Flesh tones look great on Seabiscuit, the only one of the four movies that can be used to accurately judge this characteristic. All of the films look vividly 3-dimensional, detailed, and silky-smooth. I take note of the dark scenes, particularly on LOTR, where I play the sequence of Gandalf's confrontation with the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dum. It looks great; there's no sign of a grayed-out image or an obvious loss of shadow detail. I'm still not ready to award the QUALIA the title of CRT Killer, but I could sure live happily with it.

Delivery Day +7: Break Day . . . Sort Of
Today I take a break from the QUALIA to finish up some other important work I have to do for the next issue. In the evening, I watch the DVD of Under the Tuscan Sun on my tweaked-to-the-nines Hitachi 51-inch CRT RPTV. I haven't watched a high-quality source on this display in quite some time, and the image wants for nothing, except perhaps that last bit of snap and detail, particularly in long and medium shots. But the color is great, the blacks so good that I'm never conscious of them—they're just there.

I make a mental note to try this DVD with the Sony after final calibration, particularly the night storm sequence (for blacks) and the flag-tossing festival (for color and dimensionality). I suspect that both scenes might find their way to more than one video demo at the next big show. But will Tuscan Sun's sharpness hold up when projected by the QUALIA onto the big screen? Later in the testing, I find that it does. In fact, it looks like a 3- or even a 3.5-star DVD, kept from being among the best only by a bit of edge enhancement. Both of the scenes mentioned look great, including the blacks in the night storm.

Delivery Days +8 and +9: Full Calibration
It takes all of one day and much of another to do everything I can think of to tweak the Sony QUALIA—but only because I want to check many different things. There's a lot to do; I didn't plan on calibration taking a total of almost two days (including the initial work on Delivery Day +4 and the full calibration today), but it did. Read all about it in the "Tech and Test" sidebar.

Delivery Day +10: All Dressed Up and Ready for . . . More Visits
Today's visitors are all heavily involved in video display technology, both for home and professional applications. I expect it to be a tough audience for the QUALIA. We work our way through test DVDs—primarily Digital Video Essentials—and a variety of high-definition material, both on D-VHS (DVE in 1080i, plus others), and a variety of over-the-air material (saved on the Zenith HD hard-disk recorder) from PBS, CBS, and ABC, the last originating in 720p and scaled by the QUALIA to its native 1920x1080.

At the end of the two-hour session, my guests have only two minor concerns. They find the blacks more than acceptable, but dark scenes and PLUGE patterns come out of the deepest black a little too fast—that is, the darkest grays, just above black, are just a little brighter than they should be. This is a gamma issue, and it might be solvable using the QUALIA's gamma-adjustment software.

Their other concern is a little color shift from the left side of the screen (a little too much red) to the right (too little). I hadn't noticed this before, and I still don't see it on most real program material (though I can spot it on a full-screen white or gray test pattern). I remember that Rob McDonough showed me an adjustment for this in the factory menu, but it looked tedious—you adjust the projected image one small area at a time—and only for the most patient of calibrators. The color shift is so subtle in my sample that I leave more than well enough alone.

A few subtle artifacts here and there suggest that the QUALIA's scaling—say, from 720p to 1080p or from 1080i to 1080p—leaves some small room for improvement. But the problems might be in the source material. We have no display on hand arguably better than the QUALIA, so it's hard to say for certain.

One last thing today's visitors want to look for is image lag, a problem with many projection devices and other video displays in which the light is controlled by a liquid-crystal layer, as it is here. From fast-moving football images of the Super Bowl to the scrolling credits of The Legend of Bagger Vance, none of us sees any lag.

These guests aren't the sort inclined to give extravagant praise, but the fact that they've found so little to criticize speaks volumes. And all of them seem impressed.

I'll get to spend a few more days—too few—with the Sony QUALIA 004, after the deadline for this review and before the projector has to go back. If any additional problems turn up, I'll report them in a "Take 2." I also might include some subjective impressions on that larger, 96-inch-wide screen (all of the observations reported here were made with screens 78 and 80 inches wide).

The QUALIA has performed almost flawlessly since Delivery Day. It is one of the best projectors I've ever had in my home theater, and the best of all the new digital designs. The only things that keep me from buying one on the spot are the near certainties of its being only the first in an entire line of similar projectors and other display devices from Sony at possibly lower prices, of the expected stop-a-train gaze of my bank loan officer, and of the fact that competing technologies (you know who you are) will now have to put up or shut up with their 1920x1080 chips.

Is the QUALIA 004 as good as the best 9-inch CRT projectors? It's been a while since I've lived with one, but it's my recollection that they're better in only one significant area: blacks and near-black shadow detail. Black is fundamental to the overall image even in bright scenes, and the blacks produced by the best CRTs result in an immediacy and punch that I have yet to see from any other technology.

But the QUALIA 004 comes awfully close. It's also consistently sharper than any CRT I've ever seen, even the best of which struggle to get up to a full 1920 lines of horizontal resolution. This level of detail, together with the Sony's accurate color and uniformly high brightness, easily crosses that "looking out the window" threshold with the best high-definition source material.

Sony has a breakthrough product here. We'll wait anxiously to see if they can produce the SXRD chips in sufficient quantity. (The yields on LCoS chips, which are similar in technology, have undone many attempts by others to bring them to a wide market.) If they can, less pricey models are likely to follow. But for the here and now, the QUALIA 004 is one impressive machine.