4K, next to OLED, is arguably the next big thing in home theater and Sony's new VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector is among the first to try to take the reigns of what is sure to be an interesting transition from our current HD-entrenched world. Before I get too far into talking about Sony's new flagship projector, I feel it is important to give you a bit of background as to what 4K really is all about. As a person who has been involved with 4K from image capture to exhibition, I can assure you there is more to the format than just resolution - even if 4K's increased resolution is what dominates much of the conversation.
4K's origins stem from your local cinema, where it was created to combat the resolution issues that plagued early digital cinema projectors. Early D-Cinema projectors couldn't keep up with 35mm, despite being so-called "more advanced technology," so 4K was created. 4K refers mostly to the format or, in this case, the digital projector's native resolution, which is 4,096 pixels across by 2,160 pixels tall. Depending on the content's aspect ratio, the resolution numbers can be fudged a bit, but the general accepted standard is 4,096 x 2,160. But there's more. In 2002, representatives from the major studios, as well as the American Society of Cinematographers, got together to form a group now known as DCi. DCi's goal was to create and agree to a series of standards for digital cinema exhibition, standards that are somewhat fluid, but still manage to set a baseline that everyone can follow. In other words, DCi sought to create a level playing field. Looking past the copy-protection aspect of the DCi standard, it's pretty clear what else plays into presenting a proper 2K/4K image. For starters, the compression method used is JPEG2000, as opposed to h.264/MPEG-4 AVC VC-1, which is commonly found in many of today's Blu-ray discs. JPEG2000 is less evasive than h.264, resulting in much larger file sizes. Next up, we have a different color space in CIE 1931 XYZ, which is vastly larger than HD's Rec. 709 - seriously, the Rec. 709 triangle fits inside the native CIE space with more than just room to spare. Also, DCi standard mandates 12-bit color, whereas our current Blu-ray standard calls for only eight-bit color, though deep-color-enabled devices do their best to increase bit depth to 10-bit. What does that mean? Without going crazy with technical details, Blu-ray's eight-bit color equals just under 17 million (16,777,216) possible colors displayed, whereas DCi's 12-bit standard equals over 68 billion. Add it all up and it means that, when properly implemented, 4K should give you a visual presentation that begs belief, one that is both richer in color and contrast than what you can see at home, as well as one that is sharper in detail. That, my friends, is what 4K is truly all about: the combination of increased resolution with a larger color space that not only allows for more color to be seen, but color that is also more acutely defined. Sounds awesome, right? It is, and no doubt you've all experienced it, which is why having a true 4K projector such as the Sony VPL-VW1000ES available for home use all the more exciting.
The VW1000ES is Sony's latest flagship SXRD front projector, offering up a native resolution of 4,096 x 2,160, or true cinema 4K, along with quad full HD (QFHD), which may ultimately prevail as the resolution of choice. Regardless of 4K's final resolution, the VW1000ES has you covered. The VW1000ES is large, okay, huge, measuring twenty-and-a-half inches wide by eight inches tall and twenty-five-and-a-quarter inches deep. It tips the scales at 44 pounds, which puts it a bit of the hefty side among today's modern front projectors. From a distance, the VW1000ES is a beauty. However, closer inspection reveals a sort of mash-up of visual styles. For example, the rear vents look as if they've been taken off the new McLaren MP4-12C, whereas the top of the unit appears to have been lifted off Tony Hawk's skateboard. The front of the VW1000ES is finished in high-gloss piano black, which looks nice until you point the projector at a screen and turn it on - more on that in a bit. The VW1000ES' 2.1 zoom lens is center-mounted and protected by a pair of motorized lens doors that meet in the middle. Motorized lens doors are nothing new. However, I've never seen doors made up of two pieces as opposed to the customary one, which begs the question: why have two moving parts when one will do? As for the VW1000ES' lens itself, it too is motorized, giving you control over its shift, zoom and focus options, though there is no digital keystone correction present, which is a good thing.
In terms of inputs, the VW1000ES has the usual array of options, beginning with two HDMI inputs, followed by a component mini D-sub 15-pin analog RGB, two 12-volt triggers, RS-232, LAN, IR and 3D SYNC (RJ45) inputs. All of the VW1000ES's inputs are side-mounted below a mild overhang, with the AC power cord receptacle resting in the rear, also below an overhang.
Under the hood, the VW1000ES features three three-quarter-inch SXRD panels dishing out true 4K resolution. Because the VW1000ES is a native 4K projector, it upscales (internally) all incoming signals to 4K. The VW1000ES' list of accepted video signals is pretty much everything from 480/60i to 4K. However, since there is currently no consumer-available 4K material, or format for that matter, the VW1000ES is somewhat reduced to being a 1080p upscaling projector for the time being. The VW1000ES is different from JVC's 4K upscaling projector, in that the VW1000ES will accept a 4K signal when it becomes available to consumers, whereas the JVC will not. The VW1000ES uses a UHP lamp rated at 330 watts, which is good for a reported ANSI Lumen rating of 2,000. Other notable specifications include a reported contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1. Along with being a 4K projector, the VW1000ES also handles 3D, and comes with a built-in 3D emitter and two pairs of active shutter glasses as standard - thank you, Jesus.
The VW1000ES' remote is a fully backlit affair, with hot keys for pretty much every feature and image control the VW1000ES offers. There are nine image presets that dominate the top half of the remote. Below the customary direction pad rest nine more hot keys for aspect, motion enhancer, 3D, color space, color temperature, reality creation, gamma correction, black level and advanced iris. There are three buttons at the bottom for sharpness, brightness and contrast.
I've purposely waited until now to discuss the VW1000ES' price tag, because honestly I wanted you to read this far into the review before potentially stopping. The Sony VW1000ES costs $24,999, which is more than my car. Now, I should mention that the next-nearest 4K projector in terms of cost will run you $175,000, which makes the Sony's roughly $25,000 asking price seem like a bit of a bargain. Make no mistake, the VW1000ES is aimed at a very specific customer, one who has high demands and exacting tastes. I'm talking about those with true, cost no object screening rooms and/or home theaters that many of us either wish we had or could at least buy a ticket to enter. Those perhaps looking for an upgrade to their aging entry-level or mid-fi HD projectors are more than likely going to have to sit this round out, which may work in your favor, as I later found out.
The VW1000ES was shipped to me shortly after CES, along with Sony's 4K "server," which was preloaded with a few clips and short films captured or otherwise encoded in 4K. I only had the server for a few short days and the projector for a week beyond that, so I had to pack as much testing into as tight a timeframe as possible. To do this, I enlisted the help of my friend and certified THX calibrator Ray Coronado of SoCalHT. I would also like to point out that Ray is an active member of our forum over at Home Theater Equipment, where he goes by the screen name RayJr., should you want to interact with him directly. Ray and I were unable to work out a time for us to get together with both the VW1000ES and the server, so I flew solo while evaluating the projector's 4K performance. This wasn't an issue, as I have extensive experience with the format - hell, I even have my own 4K footage.
My home setup for the VW1000ES consisted of the projector being set atop a Lowes hardware shelving unit at the back of my room, which put the lens roughly 14 feet from my reference 100-inch, 1.2 gain Dragonfly screen. I connected it to my reference Blu-ray player, the Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD, using a 20-foot HDMI cable from Planet Waves. I connected Sony's server to the VW1000ES via a three-meter HDMI cable, also from Planet Waves. I didn't connect the server to my surround sound system, for I didn't care how the sample material sounded, nor did I want to be distracted by it when trying to evaluate the VW1000ES' 4K performance. Obviously, for casual viewing, I turned the sound on, but that was only after I had concluded all of my 4K tests.
The second environment where I chose to set up the VW1000ES was in Ray's dedicated home theater space, which featured a 110-inch, 1.1 gain screen from Da-Lite. The VW1000ES was placed roughly the same distance away from the screen as in my theater but, more importantly, it was in near-perfect alignment with his reference JVC 1080p projector, which is calibrated to full THX specifications. Both projectors were fed the same 1080p signal at the same time, courtesy of the 751BD's dual HDMI outputs, and were even connected using the same brand and length of HDMI cable from Monoprice (and yes, the cables are good enough for this test). We did all of our tests silently, so as to not be distracted or swayed by the content's audio performance.
Since Ray is a professional calibrator, I had to rely on the VW1000ES' picture presets for my 4K tests and wait for my session with him in order to properly fully calibrate the Sony projector. Now, before you go off and begin dismissing my findings, claiming I didn't see the true picture the VW1000ES is capable of due to my lack of calibration, let me say this: you won't either. We attempted to calibrate the VW1000ES using a professional suite of Spectracal software, signal generators and two different meters, only to find that Sony does not provide you with any advanced picture controls outside of the norm. That's right: the VW1000ES at $25,000 retail has no CMS (color management system) control of any kind, which means that, as accurate as many of the colors were out of the box, there is no way to make them exact without using an outboard device, such as a DVDO. In other words, without spending additional money, the VW1000ES cannot be made to conform to either ISF or THX standards - forget D-Cinema. The VW1000ES' lack of CMS is an oversight on Sony's part and one that needs to be remedied immediately.
Now, out of the box and in its "Reference" picture mode, the VW1000ES did measure quite well. In fact, we found its picture quality in terms of gamma, white level, contrast, sharpness and the like to be near-perfect, or at least, closer to perfect than any other out-of-the-box projector we had seen in recent memory. Putting the VW1000ES in low lamp mode with the iris set to manual, the brightness was near textbook, hovering at or just around 16 foot-lamberts. However, out of the box and in reference mode, we measured a staggering 29 foot-lamberts, with low lamp mode dropping the VW1000ES' light output to 20 foot-lamberts, which is still too bright but more manageable. With regard to the VW1000ES's color space, it can display the broader DCi spec color space I talked about earlier, as well as Rec.709, which is our current home standard, if you will. The reference picture preset is set to use Rec.709. Ray's measurements showed that it was off - not by a lot, but by enough that adjustment would be necessary for the most accurate color presentation possible. In comparison, both Ray's reference JVC projector and my Anthem LTX-500 (also a JVC) can be made dead accurate in every regard and manage to cost less than probably the sales tax on a new VW1000ES.
Performance - Part 1: 4K
Since there is no viable 4K footage for comparison, the VW1000ES' 4K performance looked positively brilliant. The picture was bright, precisely defined and full of the kind of detail and texture that you simply don't get from 1080p material. Colors were rich, punchy and natural, with solid but not reference-level blacks, if I'm honest. However, the VW1000ES' color performance had little to do with its 4K prowess and more to do with its sheer light output, which during my 4K tests would've been hovering above 20 foot-lamberts. Those of you with screens in excess of 140 inches diagonal should definitely take note.
Read a lot more about the VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector's Performance, Comparison and Competition, and the Conclusion on Page 2 . . .
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.
For more on these projectors and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Front Projector page.
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.