Hands On with Sony’s New VPL-VW295ES, Part 1

Last year Sony became the first projector manufacturer to release affordable, or at least relatively affordable, true 4K projectors into the consumer market. Other “4K” projectors then available at consumer-friendly prices used various forms of pixel-shifting to put at least some of the 4K information present in a UHD source onto the screen.

In projectors from JVC (called eShift, up to and including their 2018 models), and from Epson (called “Enhanced 4K”), the 8 million pixels in a true 4K source are first processed down to 4 million by the projector. The first two million of those pixels are then displayed on screen from the projector’s 2K (1080p) imaging chips. A split second later the second 2 million pixels are shifted diagonally by a fraction of a pixel and displayed. All 4 million pixels are therefore present on the screen but in two separate passes, not simultaneously. Persistence of vision blends them together. JVC uses LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) imaging chips. Epson uses either a similar Liquid Crystal on Quartz technology or LCD, depending on the model. Both the JVC and Epson projectors use three separate 1080p imagers in their optical path, one each for red, green, and blue.

Some consumer 4K projectors employ Texas Instruments’ DLP imaging technology with a similar pixel-shifting technique. In the best of them, all of the original 8 million pixels are displayed, but again not all at the same time. The prime limitation of these DLP pixel-shifters, however, is currently in their color performance. Typical consumer DLP projectors use a single DLP imaging chip (technically known as a DMD, or Digital Micromirror Device) and a rapidly rotating color wheel. Operating that wheel fast enough to offer the wider color offered by Ultra HD sources is a challenge (Professional DLP projectors, such as those used in many commercial cinemas including your local IMAX, or sometimes in the priciest home theaters, use multiple, true 4K imaging chips without pixel-shifting or a color wheel, but their cost runs into six figures).

The results of all this shifting can be remarkably effective, but the commercial appeal of true native 4K projection at prices most consumers were able and willing to spend remained the golden goose. But last year we reviewed Sony's then new VPL-VW285ES, the first relatively affordable, fully 4K consumer projector in which all of the 4K pixels in each frame are displayed on the screen at the same time. At $5000 it certainly wasn’t cheap, but neither was it competitive in cost with a new car.

Sony Refines 2019 Projector Lineup
For 2019, Sony has further refined the VPL-VW285ES, now called the VPL-VW295ES. They've also introduced two other new 4K projectors, the VPL-VW695ES ($10,000), and the VPL-VW995ES ($35,000). The VPL-VW385ES, $8000 last year, has been discontinued, though the new VPL-VW695ES is essentially a VPL-VW385ES with the latter's features plus upgrades equivalent to those made to the VPL-VW295ES (see below).

All of Sony’s 4K projectors employ three of Sony’s 4K SXRD imaging chips (Sony’s variation on LCOS), one each for red, green, and blue. Each of the chips has a resolution of 4096 x 2160. Consumer 4K is 3840 x 2160, but Sony is apparently basing its consumer 4K chip architecture on that used for its professional 4K projectors that are 4096 x 2160. There’s no upside or downside to this small bump in horizontal resolution for the consumer using consumer 4K sources (the extra 256 horizontal pixels will simply be unused).

The VPL-VW295ES resembles the VPL-VW285ES so closely you’d swear it was a clone. It’s a half-inch taller (to make room for its upgraded processing, based on the X1 processor used in Sony's flat screen UHDTVs), but otherwise the chassis is typical of recent Sony projector designs.

The features on the VW295 are nearly identical to its predecessor, though not entirely. Perhaps the most significant upgrade is full compatibility with 18Gbps material, enabling full-quality playback of 4K/60Hz/10-bit/4:2:0 HDR sources. (It can also accept a 12-bit source, but all internal processing is done at a maximum of 10-bits.) Such sources are still quite rare (the only Ultra HD Blu-ray offering all of this, then and even now, is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and are likely to remain so for some time due to their bandwidth demands. But the inability of the VW285 to operate at this rate (it was limited to 13.5Gbps) set that model up for significant criticism from potential buyers concerned about future proofing. Seeking out future proofing may be a fools-errand in today’s fast-moving tech world, but it can still be a deal-maker (or deal-killer) among I-want-it-all—now buyers.

Other changes include Motionflow that now operates in 4K (likely of limited interest to movie fans who abhor the soap-opera effect), HDR options that fall “closer to the director’s intentions” (in Sony’s words), enhanced reality creation, 4K input lag reduction useful to gamers (this had been limited to 2K in the VPL285), and a 4K-capable vertical stretch mode for use with an anamorphic lens. Sony claims improved contrast as well.

But important similarities to the VW285 remain. Available in October, its price remains at $5000. There are white-balance controls along with a full color management system (CMS). While there’s motorized control of lens zoom, shift, and focus, there are no lens memories—a notable shortcoming for those of us with a 2.35:1 screens (and no anamorphic lens) who will have to fully reset the lens every time the source changes to 1.85:1 (16:9)—or something else. The VW295, like the VW285, is a lamp based projector, with a rated lamp life of up to 6000 hours (in Low lamp mode). (The VW685 also uses a UHP lamp with the same claimed maximum life.)

Like the VW285, the VW295 also has no iris control, either automatic or manual. You can use the contrast control, lamp setting (High or Low), or Dynamic Contrast to adjust the overall image brightness, but apart from the lamp setting none of these are optimal for that purpose. That’s why the best flat screen televisions offer either a backlight control (for LCDs) or an OLED light control (for OLEDs) to precisely set the overall brightness without affecting anything else. Sony’s new VW695ES, like last year's VW385ES offers iris adjustments and lens memories.

Getting Down to Business
There was no time for a thorough calibration on the VW295 for this initial report. I prefer to hold off on a projector calibration until there are at least 100 hours in the lamp to allow it to settle in (200 hours would be even better, but that's impractical for a review). Sony also needed it returned in time for the 2019 CEDIA EXPO. But we do expect to get it back after that show for Part 2 of this report.

While a comparison with the long-since returned VW285 wasn’t possible, I did spend many hours watching the VW295 with both SDR and HDR sources, tweaking its basic controls as needed but leaving its Color Temperature (white balance) in its D65 out of the box settings and its Color Correction (color management system or CMS) control also set as delivered (all zeros).

HD/SDR (1080p) material fared beautifully, with exceptional resolution suggesting excellent upconversion, It looked as close to 3D quality as I’d expect to see from 2D sources. (And yes, the Sony also still offers 3D—more on that in Part 2). Particularly notable was the Blu-ray of 1964’s My Fair Lady, with its brilliant colors and intricate detail, especially in Higgins’ home with his books, furniture, and phonetics gear littered about in typically excessive Victorian style. Ditto for the Ascot racetrack scene (despite the fact that the filmmakers had the horses running the wrong way round). And this wasn’t even from the latest and best Blu-ray release of the film, which has had additional restoration. (With the tapering off if disc sales, I wonder if film studios will be as receptive to restoring their other treasured titles, instead assuming that no one will notice the flaws with streaming—or care for a one-and-done viewing).

I also noticed something on the Sony that I’ve begun seeing on other top-level projectors. The resolution was so good that I could sometimes spot scenes that were shot against a green-screen, with characters in the foreground and the backgrounds matted in later—something you’d never notice in a typical movie theater. This was particularly visible in a scene from the UHD Blu-ray of Murder on the Orient Express where detective Hercule Poirot is sitting outside with one of the suspects in front of a snow-filled background.

The VW285 is compatible with both HDR10 (but not HDR10+) and HLG (Hybrid Log Gamma). As with all HDR-capable projectors we know of, the Sony can’t do Dolby Cinema, but will display Dolby Cinema sources as HDR10.There are several optional settings for HDR that I’ll have more to say about in Part 2 of this report, but for my viewing here I used the Auto setting for HDR.

Ultra HD titles with HDR were more variable in quality than SDR/HD, and I often had to adjust the available controls differently as I moved from one title to another. Even with that, most of the titles I tried were impressive, including Avengers: Infinity War, Coco, Murder on the Orient Express, Ready Player One, and Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2.

Less impressive, but still highly watchable, were Allied, The Great Wall, and The Greatest Showman. While projectors can’t yet equal the levels of HDR that the best flat screen sets offer, they still provide an image with more pop than SDR can manage. For SDR sources, a set’s gamma can remain the same even when the overall brightness level is shifted up or down. The gamma for HDR sources (the so-called PQ curve) is more critical of overall level, which can only be set properly through calibration. But HDR standards were set with flat screen sets in mind, and don't apply rigorously to projectors, none of which can equal the peak brightness levels of their LCD or LCOS flat screen siblings. I’ll have more to say about that, as well as other critical aspects of the VPL-VW285's performance and specifications, in Part 2.

drny's picture

Now the bad news for Sony's new 4k projectors is that their arch nemesis JVC, is finally fully on board with 4k (RS45000K doesn't count, too expensive).
JVC's DLA-N5, N7, NX9 now have three DLP chips.
I expect Sony's new line up will come at a lower price point compared to JVC's new 4k Line up.
Tom, hopefully next year you could give us a three way shoot out between Sony, JVC, and a yet to be realized Epson 4k projector.
Come on Epson you are the volume king, bring on the juice with full native 4k affordable projector line up.
Tom, don't let your old Editor (my man Rob Sabin, now at Projector Central) steal your thunder.