Moving my viewing position from ten-plus feet away to six feet from my 100-inch screen, I could see no visible pixel structure in the image and, when I moved three feet from the screen, the same was true. In fact, with my nose touching my screen, my eyes inches from the canvas, no pixels were visible. It was at this point that I began to laugh, for at these extreme angles, 4K content projected in my home appeared no different than that of 35mm film and its inherent grain structure. It's somewhat ironic that it took the pioneering of a technology such as 4K in order to achieve true 35mm-like performance at home and digitally in theaters. Why not stick with 35mm film, then? Well, like vinyl, 35mm film degrades rapidly over time, whereas in a properly set-up commercial theater and/or home theater, a digital performance should look the same at viewing 100 as it did initially. With the release of the VW1000ES, that level of cinematic presentation is now possible in the home - when it comes to viewing 4K content, that is.
Granted, what I was enjoying from the VW1000ES was 4K in resolution, but the other factors that make 4K great, such as the expanded color space and bit depth, were missing, as was evident in the banding present throughout the Spider-Man trailer. Sony's short film didn't suffer from the same banding issues, leading me to believe it was actually mastered to the full DCi spec, whereas the Spider-Man trailer was little more than a high-res QuickTime-like download. When viewing brief clips off the trailer for my film, the presentation was as I remember it to be in our post-production suites, which used commercial Sony 4K Cine Alta projectors some three years ago. The system we used to monitor our color grade cost close to a half a million dollars several years ago, whereas I was able to achieve some semblance of the same performance in my home for less than $25,000. A tremendous value, if you view the VW1000ES in that context.
Performance - Part 2: 1080p Upscaled to 4K
Since 4K content doesn't yet exist, the VW1000ES will mostly be upscaling 1080p content to 4K resolution. Well, to see exactly what this meant, Ray and I fired up the Blu-ray disc of The Fifth Element (Sony) and chaptered ahead to the scene where Leeloo is "assembled." With an empty DVD case temporarily covering the JVC's lens, we watched the scene through the VW1000ES. From a distance of roughly ten feet away, the upscaled footage looked sharp, possessing more punch, contrast and detail, especially in the scene's brighter elements. Black levels seemed good, with surprising texture and detail throughout. Colors, despite our knowledge of their imperfection, looked natural and of reference quality. The scaling appeared to work beautifully, as noise levels didn't increase, allowing the image to retain its natural 35mm flavor. Also, neither of us detected any anomalies or artifacts as a result of the VW1000ES' upscaling.
Covering the Sony lens and uncovering the JVC resulted in a performance that was decidedly less awe-inspiring. Black levels were better than when played on the Sony, but colors lost a bit of their luster and, because the light values weren't as pristine, the image appeared to lose its edge. While Ray thought the JVC's performance felt more "movie-like," I didn't like it and immediately requested the JVC's lens be re-covered so that I could bathe in the VW1000ES' glory. But what was it that I was responding to? Was it the VW1000ES' upscaling, or was it the VW1000ES' light output?
A quick check-up on the JVC's light output revealed that it was projecting a mere eleven foot-lamberts at the screen. To ensure a level playing field, we dimmed the Sony's light output by closing the VW1000ES' iris until we matched the two projectors' light output at roughly 11 foot-lamberts. Keep in mind that the THX standard calls for 14 foot-lamberts (SMPTE standard is 11-16 foot-lamberts), which the JVC wasn't able to achieve in this particular setup, but the Sony was. Normally, you wouldn't dull down a projector capable of properly lighting a screen to reference specifications, but since we wanted to test resolution and upscaling rather than light output, this was the best way for us to compare the two. Believe it or not, a lot of what we perceive as increased resolution or a clearer visual experience has more to do with our perception of light and color than it does the number of pixels we're actually being shown.
Beginning with the VW1000ES, the dimmer image appeared less "alive." Colors were still nicely saturated and natural in their appearance, but didn't pop off the screen with plasma-like gusto the way they had before. Black levels improved, but some of the inner detail was now lost in the dimmer image. Motion remained the same, as did edge fidelity. Switching to the JVC produced an eye-opening experience, as there was no difference to the image when sitting ten feet away. I couldn't believe it. Keep in mind that this test only evaluated resolution, for both projectors were displaying the same Rec.709 color space using Blu-ray's eight-bit color standard, not DCi's expanded color space and greater bit depth. From ten and even eight feet away from a 110-inch screen, the difference between the JVC's native 1080p image and the VW1000ES' upscaled 4K product were so negligible that neither of us felt comfortable proclaiming a winner.
Returning the VW1000ES' brightness to 16 foot-lamberts resulted in an image that appeared to be of a higher quality, even though we knew it wasn't - it was simply brighter. It was only when I stood three feet from the screen that I was able to observe the difference between the two projectors' 1080p performance, for at three feet, I could easily see the JVC's pixels, whereas with the Sony, I could not. However, at three feet away, I also couldn't make out what was happening on the sides of the screen without turning my head, which isn't how many of us like to watch movies. Now, if you have a screen in excess of 140 inches, the VW1000ES would be a more suitable choice regardless of the source material, for it simply has the light output and pixel density to accommodate such a screen, but then again, I can also think of a few DLP-based projectors that can accommodate a screen this size as well and cost much less, such as Digital Projection's M-Vision Cine 260.
Performance - Part 3: 3D
While I normally dislike 3D, given the VW1000ES's brightness, I was actually excited to give it a try. I fired up Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount), which was recently released on Blu-ray 3D. To my eyes, the 3D picture appeared to be only marginally less bright than in 2D mode. Despite the active shutter glasses, the image was vivid, well-saturated and with plenty of punch, both light and dark. Motion was smooth and, after a few moments, either my eyes relaxed or adjusted to it, but 3D crosstalk was next to nil, resulting in one of the finer active 3D demos I've seen. That's the good news and to the credit of the VW1000ES. The bad news is that 3D doesn't really do many films a whole lot of favors. With Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it definitely was a distraction, for between the VW1000ES' upscaling and light output, the CG elements (aka the Transformers) just didn't sit within their surroundings at all. This may not be the fault of the VW1000ES per se, but one area I did find fault with was the constant game of peek-a-boo the Sony insisted on playing with me during my 3D demos.
Earlier, I mentioned that the front of the VW1000ES is finished in a highly reflective high-gloss finish. The finish, despite being black in color, is basically a mirror, enabling you watch the projected image upon the projector's face. It was also the cause of a nasty reflection that I caught on more than one occasion in the lenses of my 3D glasses, which caused my eyes to shift their focus, thus ruining my 3D experience for a moment. This issue had more to do with my setup in relation to my seating position, but truthfully, I've set up a number of projectors in much the same way and have never encountered this problem before.
Still, the VW1000ES' 3D performance, like its 4K performance, with nothing but my own experiences with which to compare it, was exemplary and among the best I've seen - though I still preferred the look of Transformers: Dark of the Moon in its 2D form over 3D via the Sony.
The biggest, most obvious downside to the VW1000ES is the lack of any 4K content for potential customers. Depending on who you talk to, 4K Blu-ray is coming as soon as the fourth quarter of 2012, or it is more than 18-24 months away. Regardless of which is true, buying a VW1000ES today will net you little more than a really expensive, though highly capable, 4K upscaling projector. If you have a large screen and need the light output and/or are a fan of 3D, then the VW1000ES has two big selling points going for it, but I've also seen projectors of similar light output, with better than average active 3D, selling for much less.
The VW1000ES' lack of any onboard color management at its price point is simply unforgivable and one of the projector's biggest faults, if not the single largest one. Furthermore, Sony's proposed fix for said problem is almost insulting. Customers who have already spent $25,000 for the projector are simply expected, at this juncture, to spend a few thousand more on an outboard device like a DVDO, which can correct for the Sony's lack of CMS. The only problem with this solution is that the DVDO and other products like it are 1080p-based, meaning when a home 4K format is finally brought to market, your corrected CMS values will be rendered null and void, for you won't be able to pass a 4K signal through the outboard scalar. This means you'll have to buy another product, this one 4K-compatible, with which to fix the VW1000ES' CMS. It is to be hoped that Sony will issue a firmware update to address this issue, but there is no official word on when or if such an update will come to fruition.
The VW1000ES is quite huge and bulky, which makes it difficult to install in any scenario, short of having a professional do it for you. Furthermore, its three finish options are just weird and appear as if chosen at random from a hat. Like I said, from a distance, the VW1000ES is rather striking, but up close, it turns into a bit of troll. My wife called it a Ninja Turtle shell on more than one occasion. The gloss front baffle is annoying, the grip tape top and sides are stupid and the back, well, you can't see it.
The dual door lens cover is also too complicated for its own good. I'm a firm believer in less being more, as more often results in more problems. In this instance, I wonder how long it will be until one or both of the doors break. Granted, the VW1000ES does have a pretty comprehensive three-year warranty, but if forced to send the 44 pound VW1000ES back for warranty repairs because of its overly complicated lens door system, I'd be pissed.
I will say this: the VW1000ES runs quieter than any projector I can recall, which is quite a feat, considering its raw horsepower and girth. However, it does run incredibly hot, especially out the back vents, leading me to think that it needs to be installed in either an open-air environment or placed within a booth, box or room with some sort of forced air system.
Lastly, the biggest issue I have with the VW1000ES isn't with the projector itself, but with its manufacturer. Sony has a storied reputation for coming to market a bit too soon with revolutionary hardware. In doing so, the company tends to either a) poison the market to an extent, or b) drop the product altogether - remember Qualia? To say that the VW1000ES is ahead of its time is an understatement. Because of a lack of available 4K content, it comes across as somewhat incomplete, in that it only marginally beats out or equals the performance of many top-performing HD projectors available today. Those in need of the VW1000ES' enhanced capabilities may find its 4K performance to be irrelevant, for they'll undoubtedly respond to the Sony's light output and 3D performance. But for others, the VW1000ES' introduction to the consumer space may cause more confusion than elation.
Competition and Comparison
There is only one other consumer-grade 4K projector available, the JVC DLA-RS4000U (4000U), which retails for a staggering $175,000. Like the VW1000ES, the 4000U is a true 4K projector, though it requires the use of multiple DVI connections in order to achieve its true 4K potential. The 4000U is brighter than the Sony at 3,500 ANSI lumens, courtesy of its Xenon bulb, which makes it not only brighter but more expensive to operate, both from an electrical standpoint and in terms of upkeep. I would argue that the 4000U is aimed at much larger venues, such as professional screening rooms and/or small commercial theaters, whereas the VW1000ES is clearly a home product - albeit a high-end specialty one.
However, since there is no viable 4K format, the VW1000ES must be compared to 1080p projectors for, as I illustrated above, from certain distances and in certain scenarios, there is no perceivable difference in picture quality between the VW1000ES and a good 1080p projector. That said, the VW1000ES' chief competition comes in the form of another JVC projector, the DLA-RS65U. At $11,995, the RS65U is less than half the cost of the VW1000ES and, despite being a true 1080p projector, it can scale HD images to QFHD or 4K levels. This does not make it a 4K projector, for when a 4K standard is made available in the home, the JVC will not play it back. Still, as an interim solution, it's far more cost effective than the VW1000ES. While I have not yet tested this projector or its less expensive sibling, the DLA-RS55U ($7,995), JVC's commitment to excellence in the calibration arena leads me to believe that the RS65U will be able to be calibrated to both ISF and THX standards, resulting in a more accurate image overall than the one afforded by the VW1000ES. Where both JVCs come up short in comparison is in terms of their light output, with both listed at 1,200 ANSI lumens, as opposed to the Sony's 2,000. Still, for those with screens between 84 and 120 inches, 1,200 ANSI Lumens should be enough for bright, punchy, 2D viewing.
Still, if light output is your goal, there are always DLP-based projectors like Digital Projection's M-Vision Cine 260, which is listed between $8,495 and $8,995, depending on its configuration. Regardless, the Cine 260 has a reported ANSI lumen rating of 3,500, which is more than that of the Sony. On the less expensive side, there's Epson's Pro Cinema 6010, which is rated at 2,400 ANSI lumens, is THX-certified and 3D-enabled, all for around $4,000.
As a person who has worked with 4K as director from capture to exhibition, I know the benefits it provides viewers and professionals as a format. Because of this, I hold out hope for its eventual release into the home markets. Because of what I know about the format and its standard(s), I could make the argument that the VW1000ES is currently possibly the only true 4K-capable projector we as consumers will ever see, for all signs point to our home 4K format as being little more than a trumped-up version of our current HD one. Knowing all of this, I should love the Sony VPL- VW1000ES. As a 4K projector viewing only 4K content - well, minus the whole "you can't calibrate it" part - it's pure genius. However, since no 4K content or format exists at this present time, and the powers that be are being somewhat noncommittal about its eventual release, I simply can't give the VW1000ES my sincerest hand on heart endorsement. While it excels at being a future-proof 4K solution, the future simply isn't here yet.
What we're left with regarding the VW1000ES is a perfect cart before the horse scenario. In the race for technical innovation, Sony has created a king, but has given it no kingdom to rule. Furthermore, it has been given an army of one with which to defend itself, for even the peasants known as HD can equal the king's might in many situations. As a technical statement, a sort of Concord moment for Sony, the VW1000ES is brilliant, for it's a showcase of what is possible and ultimately coming soon to a living room near you. As a mainstream consumer product for all but the top one percent - it's simply not worth it. While my review of the VW1000ES may seem scathing in parts, I still believe it to be a valid product, provided Sony continues to support it and provide early adaptors with the necessary updates it requires in order to be truly competitive and class-leading in every regard. Moreover, I hope the VW1000ES' release and enhanced capability puts the pressure on those responsible for bringing 4K home to do it right and not cut corners like they did with HD in order to just have something new to sell.