Sony VPL-HS51 Cineza LCD Video Projector Page 2

A wide variety of controls are offered in the Adjust Picture menu, and all of them are available for all inputs, including HDMI. I found the standard user controls (Contrast, Brightness, Color, Hue, and Sharpness) good in their operation, though I would have liked more play in the negative direction on the Sharpness control (I used it in its lowest possible setting most of the time). I preferred the picture with the Black Level Adjustment and Gamma Correction controls in their Off positions, though on a few programs and films I found a different setting of the Gamma setting helpful.

As in their previous LCD projectors, Sony also provides a CD-ROM-based program, ImageDirector, that allows a user to tweak the gamma and save a favorite setting. (A display's gamma defines how its brightness changes with the input level.) I did not use the ImageDirector program for this review (I was happy with the picture without it), but I did use it when I reviewed the Sony Qualia 004 last year. It can be a useful tool in the right circumstances, but I don't recommend that the average user fiddle with it without test equipment. Gamma is a complex subject, and adjusting it by eye is even trickier than adjusting color temperature by eye. Fortunately, the ImageDirector program does let you return to the default settings if you mess things up too badly.

The oddly named DDE (Dynamic Detail Enhancer) control, which is functional only with a 480i input, has four positions. Off keeps the signal in interlaced form, though I'm not sure why you'd want to do that. It clearly softens a film-sourced image. The Progressive setting converts the interlaced signal to video without 3:2 pulldown, and Film accommodates film-based sources transferred with 3:2 pulldown. Auto is the preferred mode; it's designed to switch off 3:2 pulldown when it senses a non-film-based video source. I rarely used this feature, as I did most of my viewing using the HDMI input, which has no DDE control.

According to the owner's manual, a feature called RCP (Real Color Processing) lets you "adjust the color and hue of each selected portion of the picture independently." Frankly, I found the skimpy explanation of this feature essentially useless, and fiddling with it randomly, even with our sophisticated test equipment, resulted in no visible benefit to my eyes. If you play with it using normal program material and no test gear, you'll be flying blind. The few concerns I had with the Sony's color (see below) could not be addressed with the RCP controls. For the most part, I ignored this feature and left it off.

The most exciting feature, as discussed earlier, is the Advanced Iris. It's accessed through the Cinema Black Pro control, which offers three iris settings: Off, On, or Auto. Auto engages the self-adjusting mode and is the setting you'll use most of the time for a serious home theater experience. Off opens the iris to a fixed, fully open position, which you might want if you need maximum light output for, say, watching a football game or other bright, evenly lit program material in a room without full light control. I can't imagine why you'd ever want to use On, which closes down the iris to its minimum aperture.

There are also two lamp settings in the Cinema Black Pro menu: High and Low. I did virtually all of my viewing in Low mode, which was plenty bright enough for my screen. The high setting increased the light output by roughly 30%.

In the Low lamp setting the fan is nearly inaudible, making the Cineza the quietest projector I've not heard since the early, fanless Dwin CRT. Even if it did not produce the high-quality picture that it does, this low fan noise alone would make it the Cineza a must-consider entry on every projector-shopping audiophile's wish list. With my head about 3 feet from the case, I could just barely hear the fan, without the sound playing, if I listened intently. In the High lamp setting the fan noise was still respectably low, but clearly audible unless drowned out by the soundtrack. There is also a High Altitude mode (located in the Installation menu and recommended for altitudes above about 5000 feet) that runs the fan at the high level in either lamp setting.

There are also several other menus that provide a variety of options. Many of these are for using the projector with a computer. But there are also options to search for active inputs automatically (you can't select an input directly, but must go "around the horn" to get to the one you want), save power (by turning off the lamp but not the fan when no signal is detected for 10 minutes), and designate the sort of signal to which the D-sub 15 input will respond (Auto, Computer, Component, or Video RGB).

I had no complaints at all about the Cineza's remote control. It's comfortable to hold, well configured, illuminated, and it provides the buttons you need without extraneous clutter.

No video projector I've yet reviewed has impressed me more than the Sony VPL-HS51 Cineza. By that, I don't mean it's the best projector I've ever seen or reviewed. But based on my expectations, both from my previous experience with LCD projectors and the Cineza's price, it has clearly caused me to revise my thinking about how much you need to pay for a compelling big-screen experience.

Before I get all mushy, let me begin with a few words about the Sony's limitations. Viewed from about 12 feet on my 80-inch-wide Stewart Studiotek 130 projection screen, I wasn't specifically aware of the screen door effect. But UAV contributor and fussy videophile and ISF calibrator John Gannon, on a post-CES trip to my LA studio, did comment on it. Some DVDs looked just a little grainy to me compared to the way they look on the DLP projectors I've evaluated recently—but I do mean some DVDs. On most sources, and nearly all material that I know to be of superior quality (both DVD and HDTV), I was not aware of any graininess due to the projector at all.

The Cineza's gray scale tracking—the consistency of its color temperature as the average picture level varies—isn't very impressive, even after a good calibration (see the Testing and calibration section below). Most fixed-pixel projectors I've seen do much better in this regard. Also, when the projector is calibrated for the best color temperature in the Auto iris mode, turning the iris off raises the color temperature significantly. You should keep this in mind when you compare the two settings, as you inevitably will.

Finally, even after calibration, the mid-brightness region had a slight magenta-pink cast that I couldn't eliminate. It was never an annoyance on color material, and the Cineza's flesh tones, in particular, looked very natural. On black-and-white content, however, I could see it if I looked for it. It didn't bother me, but fans of classic black-and-white material should check to be sure that this will not bother them. Just keep in mind that this subtle color shift isn't visible on several of the factory settings; their excessively blue color temperature swamps it out.

There were also a few other performance aspects that weren't quite pristine when I fed the Cineza one test pattern or another. I'll have more to say about them further on, but none of them bothered me at all with normal program material.

In fact, the projector typically looked so good that it disarmed most criticism. Beginning with the most startling aspect of the Cineza's performance, if I didn't know that this was an LCD projector I might not have guessed it from how well it handled dark scenes. The excellent peak contrast was obvious, and blacks were as rich and deep as anything I've yet seen from a non-CRT display. And while I've preferred the Stewart FireHawk screen in the past for digital projectors because of the way it deepens the blacks, with the Cineza I preferred the higher gain Studiotek 130. The level of video black that I measured on the Studiotek screen with the Cineza was as low or (in most cases) lower than I've measured from any other digital projector on the same size screen—even when those other projectors were used on the FireHawk.

It's easy to understand how the auto-iris feature can decrease black level, but how can it improve shadow detail? If the detail isn't there, it isn't there, right? But anyone who has tweaked digital photographs on a computer knows that minor changes can often bring out details that are in the photograph but were invisible when they first saw them. In any event, the Advanced Iris does appear to improve shadow detail. The improvement isn't as dramatic as the enhancement of the deepest black, but shadow detail is better than anything I've seen before on an LCD display.

The net result is a very un-LCD-like image. Gone is the choice between a slightly washed-out picture or crushed, muddy blacks and dark grays. Only rarely did the infamous LCD "gray fog" raise its ugly head, and then only briefly.