Videophiles who are on the bleeding edge of technology must wonder why someone would willingly buy a 1080p projector in 2015, given the emergence of 4K. But for many of us with tighter budgets, perhaps due in part to our large DVD and Blu-ray libraries, a high-performance 1080p projector is an ideal display device to hold us over until there's sufficient program material to warrant conversion to a 4K display.
The Sony VPL-HW40ES has an MSRP of $2,499.99. For those viewers whose eyes are especially sensitive to rainbows from the color wheels of single-chip DLP projectors, the HW40's SXRD (LCoS) technology will seem like the equivalent of a visual bromide. I find SXRD viewing to be a far less fatiguing experience than any single-chip color-wheel DLP projector. As someone who is sensitive to rainbows, my go-to projector for the past nine years has been the Sony VPL-VW50, which employs earlier-generation SXRD display technology. The big question is, how much have Sony 1080p projectors improved over the years? Let's find out.
Upon unboxing the VPL-HW40ES, I was struck by how similar its size and shape were to my Sony VPL-VW50. The biggest visual difference was that the VW50 has a shiny silver chassis, while the HW40 is matte black--which is better, in my opinion. The HW40's 1.36 to 2.16 throw-ratio zoom lens is center-mounted and has provisions for up to 71 percent vertical and 25 percent horizontal lens shift. Weighing approximately 22 pounds and measuring 16.13 by 7.13 by 18.38 inches, the HW40 shouldn't tax any decent ceiling- or wall-mount.
Since this was the first projector I've set up in my new home, it took somewhat longer than expected--as I needed to build a multi-purpose projector-mount system. Because the HW40 has a very similar lens configuration and physical layout as my Sony VW50, projector placement was relatively simple. Although 71 percent of vertical lens shift sounds like a lot, the HW40 is not a projector that you can place "anywhere" and then use the lens shift and keystone correction to square up the geometry. I had to build a second projector-mount system to get the Sony HW40 into the right location so that I did not run out of correction room. If you have a difficult space where you are forced to put the projector into a non-standard position, you may find that the HW40 doesn't offer enough range for radical position corrections.
I used a 90-inch-diagonal Stewart Filmscreen StudioTek 130 screen (previously owned by J. Gordon Holt) in my light-controlled viewing room. The Sony's rated 1,700-lumen maximum light output was more than adequate to fill the screen with no hot spots or noticeable edge fall-off. Even after calibration (which required turning down the overall output some), the HW40 was still so bright that, at times with some material, I did turn the brightness down via the DVDO iScan scaler/switcher. The bright modes "Bright TV" and "Bright Cinema" were both much too bright for my light-controlled room, but they could come in handy if you plan to install your projector in a room with lots of windows and a high ambient light level.
The HW40's fan noise was quite low. The published specification is 21 dB. Since I live in Denver, the mile-high city, I used the "high altitude" higher fan setting, which was somewhat louder than the regular fan setting but still well below noise levels I've experienced from past DLP projectors.
One particular area where the HW40 surpassed my earlier Sony model was the inclusion of panel-convergence alignment adjustments. Pixels can be shifted slightly so that any alignment issues or shifts between the Sony's three panels can be corrected after the installation by the end user. I wish the older Sony had included this feature.
Another feature that can be found on many Sony projectors but not on the HW40 is an automatic lens iris. An automatic iris--such as you will find on the BenQ W7500 and the more expensive Sony VPL-HW55ES ($3,999.99)--can not only improve black levels, but also deliver better overall sharpness (a stopped-down lens has better depth of field and resolution than a wide-open one).
The HW40 includes Sony's MotionFlow or creative frame interpolation, which is similar to the "smoothing" function found on most flat-panel displays. On the high setting, the "soap opera effect" renders everything with an artificial, almost-waxy texture while at the same time reducing frame judder. The high setting is best reserved for sports or American Bandstand reruns. For most viewing, I used the "off" or "low" setting.
Sony's Reality Creation technology can make the HW40 image seem noticeably sharper, but at some cost--the picture exhibits more apparent noise artifacts. I preferred to turn this setting down (or off) to get the smoothest, most film-like picture.
The HW40 has a complete set of adjustment controls on the same side of its chassis as its input connections. While the controls on the projector were handy during the initial installation (while I was up on a ladder), I never touched them after the install. The 10- by two- by one-inch Sony RM-PJ25 remote provided all the necessary controls to adjust the HW40 from my favorite seat. The remote lights up, and it's so well laid out that after a few days of use it becomes almost second nature. Truth be told, though, after the first couple of days of setup, the remote's primary function was to turn the HW40 on and off. I used only one HDMI input on the HW40; and, once the setup was dialed in, there wasn't any reason to continue messing about.
Speaking of inputs, the HW40 offers two HDMI, one DB15, one set of RGB component inputs, an RJ-45 (3D Sync) connection, an infrared connection, and a DB9 connection. I used a 25-foot length of WireWorld Starlight HDMI cable to connect the HW40 to my DVDO iScan Duo scaler/switcher. Sources included an OPPO BDP-95 player and Apple Mac Mini to stream Hulu.
Anyone buying a projector in the Sony's $2,500 range is most likely not going to hire an ISF-certified technician to calibrate it, so out-of-the-box performance is even more important than it would be with Sony's $9,999 VPL-VW350ES 4K projector, for example. HTR's managing editor, Adrienne Maxwell, is an ISF-certified technician, and she spent several hours measuring and calibrating the HW40 during the review process. The Reference picture mode measures fairly accurately out of the box; the color temperature is generally neutral, with a gamma average of 2.03 and a gray-scale Delta Error of just 3.19 (a Delta Error under five is good, under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye). The color points were further off the mark--green was the least accurate, with a Delta Error of 9.07. We found that calibration did improve the results across the board; the overall gray-scale Delta Error improved to 2.01, and we were able to significantly improve the accuracy of all six color points. For me, the most noticeable difference between the default and calibrated images was that, in calibrated mode, the greens lost their tendency to glow and sparkle unnaturally. (See the measurement charts on Page Two for more details.)
I was surprised to discover that the HW40's black levels were only slightly better, but not drastically better than what I can get from my older Sony VPL-VW50 projector. This is probably because the VW50 has an automatic iris, while the HW40 does not. Personally I've never been a big fan of the automatic iris on most projectors--the stopping-down is almost always noticeable and distracting. I prefer a manual iris, since it can make a lens perform better by increasing the depth of field at the plane of focus, which usually results in a sharper overall picture with less edge sharpness fall-off. The HW40 has neither option. As a result, the dark scenes in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, of which there are many, had good but not exemplary black detail and separation. Unfortunately, some information was lost in the dark shadows. In full-range scenes, such as Leelu on the balcony in The Fifth Element, the HW40 does such a superb job of rendering a smooth and film-like image that any concerns about ultimate black levels will slip away like a waif falling into the back of a taxi.
As I mentioned earlier, one thing the HW40 does have is a lot of light output, making it a good fit for a room with more ambient light. At its default settings, the Reference mode measured 50 foot-lamberts on a 100 percent full-white screen. During calibration, we brought that number down to about 36 ft-L, which is still pretty bright for a light-controlled theater room like mine--that's another reason why the black level wasn't as deep. I could watch the TV news with the lights on and not miss much because the image was so bright, but for anything else, I preferred the room lights lowered to see the projector's full capabilities. However, if you want to use the HW40 in a high ambient level room, coupled to a selective-angle high-gain screen, it certainly has the power to deliver a great picture.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...