Sony VPL-HS51 Cineza LCD Video Projector Page 3

The Cineza can't work miracles on scenes that are almost impossible for any video projector to do well, scenes such as the opening below-deck night sequence of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World or the night scenes at the beginning of The Bourne Supremacy. But it doesn't embarrass itself on such material, and on most programming it reproduces dark, difficult images as well as, or better than, any projector I've yet seen short of a well-calibrated CRT. And that includes projectors selling for many times its price.

The deep blacks and respectable shadow detail also help the projector produce a believable sense of depth and 3-dimensionality. And while its color temperature tracking isn't pristine, and its color palette isn't as rich as on some projectors, its color reproduction was still natural on most material and eye-popping on the best, from the crisp, detailed costumes in Shakespeare in Love to the stylized hues in The Lord of the Rings films and the live-action Peter Pan. But on films that have muted colors, like Master and Commander and Snow Falling on Cedars, the Sony was appropriately subdued. Only its slightly electric greens jumped out a bit. And even there the Sony is closer to neutral than many of the digital displays I've tested.

The Sony is objectively no better in detail and resolution than other 1280x720 projectors with good optics, but its subjective sharpness is a notch above many of the digital projectors I've tested. It's been speculated by some that the impressive visible sharpness of fixed-pixel projectors in general is due to the false edges produced by the lines between the individual pixels. Even when you can't distinctly see the pixel structure, the argument goes, it affects your perception.

It's a convincing argument, and I can't deny that there's some logic to it. And the larger pixel pitch, or spacing between the pixels, of LCDs might explain the Sony's unusually crisp image. But as long as this does not produce an unnatural appearance, and provided you've chosen a screen size and viewing distance that makes the LCD screen-door effect invisible, it's a moot point. You could just as easily argue that CRTs, except in their very best and most expensive realizations, smear detail because the scanning electron beam can't change its state fast enough as it scans across the face of the tube. All video displays are compromises.

I do admit to a weakness for a sharp image, as long as it doesn't look artificial. For example, the DVD of the recent live-action Peter Pan is a very good transfer that nevertheless looks just a little soft on most projectors. But on the Sony, it was pleasingly and naturally sharp.

Some films—or more often occasional shots within an otherwise acceptable- or even great-looking film transfer—could look just a little over-enhanced on the Cineza. But it's arguable how much of this was due to the projector's pixel structure and how much to flaws in the program material. More likely, it was a combination, with the slight enhancement from the pixels exaggerating a transfer flaw that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. If the pixel structure can emphasize real detail in an image, it can just as easily highlight edge enhancement or other artifacts in the video transfer.

Overall, however, the Cineza's picture was so compelling that I found it difficult to simply watch selected scenes from various DVDs I've often used to evaluate various aspects of a projector's performance. I watched all or part of dozens of films and on the projector, but three DVDs, in particular, pulled me in and demanded that I watch more of them than I had intended. I've already mentioned the bright, stylized colors and crisp look of Peter Pan. And both Gladiator and Snow Falling On Cedars also made me wonder if someone hadn't snuck in during the night, cleaned out the inside of the Cineza's case, and substituted the workings of a far more expensive projector. I hadn't watched either of these films in some time, but both looked amazingly good. And, perhaps more significantly, both are darkly photographed films, loaded with scenes that will challenge any projector. But from the dark caverns beneath the Roman Coliseum in Gladiator to the shadowy fog and snow drenched landscapes of Cedars (a sadly under-appreciated film that's deliberately paced but dramatically gripping, gorgeously photographed, and spectacular sounding), the Sony looked great every step of the way.

I didn't watch nearly as much high-definition material on the Sony as I did DVDs, but what I did watch looked exceptionally good. From the dense jungles and mysterious characters in the TV series Lost (this 720p ABC broadcast is converted to 1080i by my cable box, but still looks terrific), to HD programming recorded on D-VHS tapes, the Sony did it all. It comes about as close to that proverbial looking-through-a-window illusion as you're likely to see short of something like a 9-inch CRT or one of the few 1920x1080 digital projectors, such as Sony's own Qualia 004.

The BenQ PE8700+ is the nearest thing I currently have on hand to a competitively-priced HD2+, 1280x720 DLP projector. With both the Sony and the BenQ using the same Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, the Sony had slightly better blacks. I had to use a FireHawk screen, with some sacrifice in maximum brightness and punch, to put the BenQ in the same ballpark as the Sony on the Studiotek in the richness of its blacks and shadow detail. The BenQ's image was also a little smoother, and it didn't exhibit that subtle graininess that the Sony had on some (but by no means all) program material. The BenQ's colors were also a bit more richly saturated and a little warmer—the latter probably because of the Sony's excessive blue on very bright scenes (see Testing and calibration, below). Those bright scenes also had a little more natural contrast on the BenQ; on the brightest scenes, the Advanced Iris makes little contribution to the Sony's image. While a subtle lack of contrast on very bright images is typical of all the LCD projectors I've experienced, this is a far less obvious and distracting shortcoming than the way such projectors have typically handled darker scenes. The latter is a flaw that this Sony goes a very long way toward resolving.

Since the Sony, like all LCD projectors, uses three separate LCD panels for the primary colors and no color wheel, it will never throw a flashing rainbow your way. The BenQ is less prone to rainbows than some single-chip DLP designs, but it isn't entirely free of them for viewers who, like me, are acutely sensitive to this artifact.

Compared to the slightly less expensive Panasonic PT-AE700 LCD projector, which also uses a self-adjusting iris (see Pete Putman's review), the Sony has less richly saturated colors, with noticeably poorer gray scale tracking on test patterns. But neither of these limitations is obvious in long-term viewing of actual video material. The Panasonic's Smooth Image feature also makes the screen-door effect even less obvious. But it also makes for a less crisp (though not soft) image.

The Panasonic's Dynamic Iris (that company's term for their auto iris feature), is far less aggressive than the Sony's, so the contrast improvement it produces is real but not nearly as dramatic. The Sony almost never reminded me that I was watching an LCD projector, while the Panasonic did, largely because it still had some of that LCD look in its deep grays and blacks—a look that on some programming forces you to choose between either a slightly crushed or a slightly washed-out look to its dark scenes, with no happy medium.

Sony might want to consider ramping up production on the Cineza, because once word gets around about how good it really is, demand could skyrocket. (On the other hand, the Cineza setups I saw at the recent CES didn't even hint at the projector's true capabilities). And the Advanced Iris is such a great idea, I would be surprised if it didn't turn up in additional products, from Sony and others, before the end of the year. It might be beneficial in any type of digital projector, not just LCDs. And it would seem to be made to order for rear-projection sets.

For now, however, I'd urge anyone in the market for a digital projector priced below the stratosphere to take a close look at the VPL-HS51 Cineza. You'll be kicking yourself later if you don't.