Sony VPL-HS51 Cineza LCD Video Projector

Once upon a time, it was widely accepted that LCD projectors had two major weaknesses. First, in commonly available consumer models, the pixel structure could result in the infamous "screen door effect." That is, because the wiring driving each pixel had to be routed between the pixels, the pixel spacing, or pitch, was wide enough to make the pixel grid visible at close viewing distances.

Second, like all digital display devices that use a projection lamp, LCDs could not close down to a level needed for fully satisfying performance in darker scenes. In other words, their peak contrast, absolute black level, and shadow detail was inferior not only to that of the supposedly obsolete CRT, but also to that of other competing digital technologies.

We'll get to the sticky screen door issue in a moment. But a new development, now available in LCD projectors from both Sony and Panasonic, goes a very long way in resolving the contrast and black-level issues. Sony calls their version of that development the Advanced Iris, and it's a key feature in the company's newest consumer high-definition LCD projector, the VPL-HS51 Cineza.

An Open and Shut Case
I described the operation of an automatically adjusting iris in our January 2005 Ultimate AV eNewsletter (you can sign up for this free newsletter elsewhere on this site if you haven't already done so). For those who may have missed that explanation, an iris in a projector, as in a camera, is an aperture within the lens that can be made larger or smaller as the situation warrants. To reduce the light that passes through it, you close it down; to increase the light, you open it up.

In a camera, the iris controls the exposure in conjunction with the shutter speed. In a projector, it changes the brightness of the image on the screen. If you close down the iris in a projector, it darkens the overall image, including the darkest grays and deepest black. But the only type of iris that has been available to date in video projectors has been fixed; multiple settings are often provided (as in Sony's own Qualia 004 SXRD projector), but once you make a selection, the iris size remains unchanged unless you manually adjust it.

Closing down such a manually adjustable iris will reduce the light levels in both the blacks and peak whites, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Reducing the average picture level on the screen with the iris may improve the overall image by deepening the blacks, thereby reducing the grayish, washed-out effect of an absolute black level that is too high, without sacrificing adequate punch in brighter scenes. For this to work, of course, the light output of the projector must be high enough that the overall dimming effect of the stepped-down iris is tolerable.

Sony's Advanced Iris dynamically adjusts the iris to suite the scene. That is, it closes down automatically on dark scenes to provide darker blacks, and opens up on bright scenes to make optimum use of the projector's available light output.

This might strike the purist as cheating, but today's video displays often employ all sorts of "tricks" that use the limitations of the human eye to produce a believable picture: the spinning color wheel in a single-chip DLP projector, the scan lines in a CRT display, the density of the pixel structure in a fixed-pixel display, the frame rate chosen to minimize image flicker, data compression both analog (limited color bandwidth) and digital (such as MPEG-2), and more.

As always, the bottom line is this: does the trickery produce a more convincing image to the human eye? In this case, it definitely does. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A Lot For a Little
Even without considering the Advanced Iris, the Sony Cineza offers a lot for the money. And that money is on the screen rather than in peripheral features and glitz. In its plain plastic case, the projector's appearance is functional at best. It weighs little more than a high-end DVD player or small bookshelf speaker. The zoom and focus controls are strictly manual. The input set is adequate for any permanent setup where input switching is mostly performed externally.

Nevertheless, there are some pleasant surprises. We've reviewed projectors at twice the Sony's price that don't offer a simple way to adjust for a slightly off-center projector placement, and those that do offer such a feature often limit it to the vertical plane. The Sony provides both vertical and horizontal lens shift. They're manual only, and accessed by means of two unassuming thumbwheels on the side of the case, but they get the job done.

Like most digital projectors, a basic tabletop setup of the Cineza takes less than five minutes: center the projector, level it using the adjustable feet, zoom and shift the lens to fit the screen, tweak the focus, and you're there. Of course there's more than that to getting the very best out of the projector, but that much alone will get you an impressive picture. You may also invert and/or reverse the image for ceiling and/or rear projection installations. An optional bracket, the PSS-610 ($299.99) is available for a ceiling mount.

The zoom lens provides a reasonable range of operation: The minimum throw distances for 16:9 screens measuring 80, 100, and 120 inches diagonally, as specified in the owner's manual, are 93 3/4, 117 3/8, and 141 inches, respectively, from the screen to the center of the lens; multiply those numbers by approximately 1.525 to get the maximum throw distances, and remember to allow for the depth of the projector and clearance for the rear-panel cable access if you plan on placing it very near the back wall.

There is a full range of the aspect ratios you'll need—Full (anamorphic) Normal (16:9) and Zoom (non-anamorphic, letterbox widescreen). There's also a Wide Zoom that fills the 16:9 screen with a 4:3 image (and distorts that image more obviously than similar modes on other projectors we've seen), and a Subtitle mode that slightly squeezes the bottom of the image to display subtitles that may be positioned below the 16:9 image area. Position controls, functional only in Zoom or Subtitle modes, let you slightly move the overall image (the V Position control) or the position of the subtitles (the Title Area control) as needed. All of these aspect ratios are also available at the HDMI input; the projector does not limit you to an anamorphic, 16x9 setting with such a source, as do some others.

As with most Sony video displays, there are several sets of preset image adjustments (Dynamic, Standard, and Cinema) and several User memories that let you store your own settings (User 1, User 2, and User 3). But you can also alter the Dynamic, Standard, and Cinema modes to suite your own needs (and reset them to their factory positions later, if desired). All of these settings are input-specific; that is, unique settings can be stored in each input's memory. They are also progressive or interlaced specific; for example, you may save different settings for 480i and 1080i than for 480p and 720p.