Steven Stone is the former editor of AudiophileReview.com. He a longtime audiophile and home theater writer, as well as a musician and recording engineer. Steven has written for publications like Stereophile, as well as HomeTheaterReview.com, AudiophileReview.com, and The Absolute Sound.
Steven is plays guitar, mandolin, and Ashbory bass and is a collector of fine musical instruments.
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...
Here are the measurement charts for the Sony VPL-HW40ES. Click on each chart to view it in a larger window.
The top charts show the projector's color balance, gamma, and total gray-scale Delta Error, below and after calibration. Ideally, the red, green, and blue lines will be as close together as possible to reflect an even color balance. We currently use a gamma target of 2.2 for HDTVs and 2.4 for projectors. The bottom charts show where the six color points fall on the Rec 709 triangle, as well as the luminance error and total Delta Error for each color point.
For both gray scale and color, a Delta Error under 10 is considered tolerable, under five is considered good, and under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye. For more information on our measurement process, check out How We Evaluate and Measure HDTVs.
For anyone who's planning on a DIY installation of the Sony VPL-HW40ES, the main problem will be placement. Unlike some projectors that allow for substantially off-center locations, with the HW40 you should pay close attention to Sony's placement instructions. If you try to place the HW40 too high, too low, or too far off to one side, you will quickly run out of both lens and keystone corrections.
Although the HW40 is 3D-capable, Sony does not include any 3D headwear or glasses with the projector (and did not send any with my review sample for me to test this feature). If 3D content is important to you, set aside some additional money for glasses.
Probably the single most expensive part in a projector is its lens. While modern manufacturing has found many ways to reduce the costs of circuit board components, glass lenses are still made much the same way now as they were in the 1950s. The lens in the HW40 is acceptable, but not as sharp as it might be. Even during the initial setup, I noticed that getting perfect focus was more difficult than with the older Sony VW50 projector. Once set to maximum sharpness, the HW40 lens was not as crisp in the center as the VW50, but it did have less sharpness loss at its edges. Unfortunately, since it lacks an iris or adjustable diaphragm, you don't have the option to manually stop down the HW40's iris slightly to improve the lens' depth of field and sharpness.
On the subject of edges, the HW40 has some light spillover at its outer frame edges. If your screen lacks a light-absorbing frame, this spillover could be distracting. My Stewart screen's frame edge is matte metallic black, but not felt-covered. It proved adequate to reduce the spillover to the point where it was no longer distracting.
One last detail that could negatively affect your attraction to the HW40: its replacement bulbs are somewhat pricier than most other projectors at a similar price level. A new bulb for the HW40 will set you back $369, while the Epson 5030UB's lamp lists for only $249.
Comparison & Competition
At $2,499, the VPL-HW40ES is currently the lowest priced 1080p projector in Sony's lineup. If you prefer the picture quality offered by LCoS projectors, you won't find a lower-priced option. JVC also uses LCoS technology and previously offered the 1080p DLA-X35 for about $3,500; however, that model appears to be discontinued, which leaves the $5,000 DLA-X500R as the entry-level option.
Of course, there's no shortage of competitive projectors priced at or below the VPL-HW40ES that use DLP or LCD technology--one of the most notable being Epson's Home Cinema 5030UB LCD projector at $2,299. The Panasonic PT-AE8000U LCD projector sells for $2,400 on Amazon. BenQ's HT1075 DLP projector--which is essentially the same as the HT1085ST we recently reviewed--is a good performer and carries a much lower price tag of $1,199, but it has limited setup/image-positioning tools.
Some early adopters might see 1080p projectors as obsolete in this emerging era of 4K; however, for many videophiles who don't want or need to be at the bleeding-edge of technology, a high-performance 1080p projector can still be an ideal display device. Although the new Sony VPL-HW40ES may not offer the ultimate in terms of black level and image clarity, its overall performance is so good that, even without a professional calibration, the picture quality was impressive. If your current projector is getting long of tooth but you're still not ready to go to a 4K projector, the Sony VPL-HW40ES offers a cost-effective high-performance solution that should deliver many years of happy viewing.
• Check out our Video Projectors category page to read similar reviews.
• Sony VPL-VW350ES 4K SXRD Projector Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the Sony website for more information on the company's projectors.