Sony VPL-VW50 "Pearl" Projector SXRD Projector Page 3

Before getting to the obvious in blacks and contrast, let me say something about three-chip technology and continuous color. While I've no trouble sitting down night after night to watch movies on the most recent generation single-chip DLPs, three-gun CRTs were better back in the day and today three-chip digital is also better. And it's not just eliminating the dreaded rainbows, which nowadays are practically an extinct species in the better DLPs. No, there is a certain something that feels better when the image is always there, on screen, with no color wheel chopping it up fast enough for your eye-brain to be fooled. Not only is this more relaxing, there's something about how natural and real the image looks and feels that lends something of a natural depth to it, a kind of reality. I don't get headaches sitting in front of a single-chip DLP as some have claimed, far from it. I've lived with single-chip DLPs more than any other kind of projector for the last few years. But I can tell you unequivocally that I notice when the color wheel's gone and don't miss it one bit.

The CRT also had a relaxed and easy way of presenting image detail and sharpness. CRTs in general weren't as bright, and its beam spots were tightly focused and brighter in the middle and softer, less bright and less distinct at the edges. Fixed pixel projectors are much brighter and, optics allowing, pixels are uniform in sharpness and brightness from edge to edge, making both the pixels and the dead spaces surrounding them sharply visible. Although this has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, digital displays can thus look a bit overly sharp and unnatural, with more hard lines and less natural looking edges and contours than CRT, which in my opinion looked a little more film-like.

Among digital technologies, LCoS in general, and SXRD in particular, have a high "fill factor," which means the dead areas around the pixels are less noticeable and distinct. On top of this, the alignment of the three imaging chips is seldom perfect, which further decreases the visibility of the pixel structure. While I'll have more to say about this later, for this argument I'll say that although single-chip DLPs of the same resolution are inherently sharper looking, the slightly soft, but still detailed look of the Pearl reminds me a bit more of the old CRT, analog look. There is unquestionably high resolution there on the screen, but it lets you come to it rather than jumping off the screen at you. I've read the adjective "creamy" used to describe video before and never liked it because it implies shape without detail. But I'm going to use it here since the Pearl's picture has loads of textural detail, and yet has that indescribably smooth, natural quality.

I'll confess that I'm seduced by both sides: I liked the creamy look of the Pearl, but there were indeed times when I missed the dizzying resolving power of something like the Marantz VP-11S1. But for those of you who remember that to this day all but a handful of feature films are shot on analog film, the Pearl will remind you less of the digital nature of the signal chain than any fixed pixel projector I've seen.

But for the times I wondered if I could live without the razor sharp image of the Marantz, there were others when I wondered if I'd ever be able to go back from the Sony's groundbreaking contrast and blacks. They are simply a wonder to behold. This projector holds up to the most brutal dark scenes in movies better than any other digital display I've ever seen, hands-down. Watching the dark, but richly detailed images in darker DVD transfers like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and X-Men United, I wasn't just blown away by the depth of black, but also by the surprising amount of detail down very close to absolute black. I haven't seen subtle gradations near black like this since, well, you know when! Even with test patterns to set the Brightness level I was amazed at how many small steps I could take and still see test signals just above digital black.

Much of the excellent HD DVD transfer of Batman Begins takes place in dark, nighttime streets of Gotham. This projector was simply amazing at holding detail down into those shadowy crevices, especially in chapter 24 as Batman fades into the dark apartment's background. The Pearl also held its black levels low as more of the screen lit up impressively, always showing striking contrast.

Yes, there's no question that as excellent as the blacks and shadow detail of competing designs certainly are, this projector, with its auto iris is better still. And this foundation of deep blacks and contrast served to always make the image look deep and three-dimensional even though the image isn't as razor sharp as some of the Pearl's (far) more expensive competitors. Does the dynamic iris have a downside, or is it that free lunch we've all been looking for? Both in my opinion, but much more of the latter.

When I reviewed Sony's Cineza VPL-HS51, the first front PJ I saw that incorporated a dynamic iris system, I saw blacks that I'd never seen from an LCD, but also noticed some artifacts involved in the process. Bright white areas of an otherwise dark image took on an almost nuclear glow. I noticed this first on a darkish scene in a black and white movie in which an actor wore a black suit with a white shirt and cuffs. Not only did the white shirt and cuffs sear on the screen, I noticed that it also exhibited a noticeable green color shift. In addition, some users and reviewers noted that in bright white areas of dark scenes, some white detail could be crushed completely. The color tint was especially apparent if one tried to calibrate that projector's grayscale using the white windows that we typically use- disengaging the Advanced Iris or using full field white patterns were required to get a proper calibration, and even still the tinting and crushing problems could persist with some program material.

With this history in mind, shortly after receiving the Pearl I double-checked myself with white windows and white fields during grayscale calibration and found no difference whatsoever in the readings, suggesting that Advanced Iris 2 really is an advance. Moving to program material, over the weeks I used the Pearl the Advanced Iris never made its presence detectable, in spite of my having this in the back of my mind.

Since I didn't see these artifacts, I decided to be crotchety and go looking for them using scenes from sci-fi movies that have bright ships and their engines firing in the pitch black of space, and other material I thought I might use to trip up the Advanced Iris. On some extreme examples, I could see a smidge of detail in bright white areas being crushed compared to watching the same scene with the Advanced Iris turned off (and the black levels higher and the contrast lower as a result). But this is not the kind of thing that will distract you if you're actually watching the movie and not being a video equipment nerd. To me the benefits of the improved blacks and contrast was more than a fair trade for these minor artifacts, which I only found by looking real, real hard.

Those who read my Short Take, and have seen some of the smaller references to it here, know that the Pearl is very high in resolution, but not as sharp as the best single-chip 1080p DLPs I've seen. That remains the case, and look to the "Measurements" section for further comment. But let me reiterate that this is not a soft looking projector. The best Blu-ray and HD DVD transfers look spectacular, if not quite as dazzlingly tack-sharp as on something like Marantz's VP-11S1, which at $20K costs a full 4-times the Pearl's price.

The Pearl was indeed quite able to discern subtle differences among HD sources and program material, and was of immense help in reviewing the recent spate of Blu-ray players that have hit the market. The differences between these players were revealed, and I could even see slight differences between excellent VC-1 encoded transfers like Blazing Saddles and Phantom of the Opera when compared across the two formats, on two different players. This extraordinary resolution isn't always a filmmaker's friend. On Universal's HD DVD of King Kong the Pearl clearly showed how surprisingly poor some of the daytime CGI looked, and on DirecTV the Pearl clearly showed me which programs were the best and which were just slightly off from those benchmarks.

There are points in the Pearl's favor even in comparison to the superlative and much more expensive MarantzVP-11S1. While the more expensive rig is sharper overall as noted, and I thought the colors on the Marantz were a bit more natural looking, the Marantz can't match the absurdly inky blacks or contrast of the Pearl (although it did seem brighter, punchier and more dynamic with bright material and sports). And although the Marantz virtually eliminates the rainbow artifacts, it's not a three-chip device and the visual advantages involved there go to the Sony.

There is no question that the Pearl does better than hold its own in comparison to the outstanding VP-11S1, which costs a full four times as much. While the Marantz pulls ahead in some areas, it's not by as wide a disparity as the prices of the two systems suggest, and in a couple of areas (blacks, and three-chipness) the Pearl is unequivocally preferred. That's a hell of a feat at $5K.

Many projectors in the lower end of the price spectrum skimp on video processing, but not here. The Pearl's deinterlacing of both 480i and 1080i is superlative, even with the dreaded torture tests from the Silicon Optix test discs. And whatever is being done to upconvert lower resolutions to 1080p is remarkably adept as well, because on a big front projection screen there is nowhere for artifacts to hide. Even run of the mill broadcasts from DirecTV look palatable, and I think they, too, benefit from the Pearl's smooth overall image.

The grayscale tracking of the Pearl is about as perfect as I've seen, and while its color palette isn't exactly matched to my own palate in this regard, it is more satisfying to me than many digital displays I've seen. My only minor gripes here are that green is just a bit more yellow than I'd like and red a bit more orange, which I also covered above in relation to RCP. I'd not likely notice this at all had I not spent so much time living with stellar (and more expensive) projectors like theMarantz VP-12S4 and VP-11S1. This wasn't something that persistently bothered me while watching movies, making it more of an observation than a criticism.

A few final comments on the Pearl's ability to accept 1080p/24 signals and display them at an artifact-free 96Hz. A direct multiple of film's 24fps, this feature eliminates the time distortions inherent in the 3/2 pulldown. I watched the 24p output of Sony's BDP-S1 standalone Blu-ray player and compared with the player's 1080p/60 output, as well as the 1080p/60 output of Sony's PS3. I did think that the 1080p/24 output was subtly sharper and crisper. Sometimes I also thought the image looked a bit smoother overall, and sometimes thought I was just imagining it. I admit it's not as big a difference in direct comparison as I expected, and I had a hard time consistently seeing and identifying these artifacts. Perhaps I'm so used to the "judder" caused by 3/2 pulldown that I just don't notice it anymore. And it's also possible that over time I might get so used to 24p multiples that there would be no going back. While I know intellectually that eliminating judder can't do anything but help, the brief time I spent with the Pearl and the BDP-S1 just didn't show me enough to have me crowing just yet.

The Pearl would also take a few seconds to lock onto the 24fps cadence when a chapter was skipped, or even when going back to real time playback after scanning forward or backward. It looked like slightly slow motion for those few seconds before normal motion would resume.

Sony's Pearl hasn't simply demonstrated that it's the best projector I've ever seen for five grand. It's definitely the best projector I've seen for less than ten grand, and maybe even more. Regardless of whether this projector or that outpaces the Pearl in some respects, this Sony has established such a high watermark in performance at such a price that you have to spend exponentially more to get just a bit better performance in perhaps just one or two regards. And in some respects, blacks and contrast in particular, this projector simply can't be trumped by anything currently out there at any price.

To accomplish all this at such a price point does more than lift Sony's head high; it lifts up the entire front projector category. It also probably turns the stomachs of the manufacturers and reps of the megabuck projectors. Nevertheless, this isn't just another in a run of great projectors from Sony, it's a gift to all of those who've wanted to get in the front projection game but never had the bucks to do it right. The Pearl does it right, and earns my highest recommendation as a borderline budget-priced product that offers elite performance.

Standard setting blacks and contrast
Smooth, naturally detailed three-chip image
Excellent feature set and usability
Standard setting value in front projection price/performance ratio

Slightly softer image than the single-chip 1080p DLPs we've seen