For the videophile who demands a true 4K front-projection system, the search begins and will probably end with Sony. Yes, JVC offers the $35,000 DLA-RS4500 4K laser projector to compete in the ultra-high-end category against Sony's VPL-VW885ES ($25,000) and flagship VPL-VW5000ES ($60,000). But for those who do not have five figures to spend on a native 4K projector, Sony is the only game in town.
The company made big waves at the CEDIA Expo back in the September when it finally broke the $5,000 price barrier for native 4K with the introduction of the VPL-VW285ES ($4,999.99). This SXRD projector has a true 4,096 by 2,160 resolution, with no pixel shifting or mirror switching involved. The VW285ES has a rated light output of 1,500 lumens (Sony does not specify a contrast ratio) and supports High Dynamic Range playback in both the HDR10 and HLG formats, as well as Rec 2020 color mapping. Sony's Reality Creation and Motionflow technologies are also onboard, as are motorized zoom, focus, and lens-shift controls. The projector has a built-in 3D RF transmitter, and Sony's 3D glasses are sold separately.
At the CEDIA Expo, Sony also introduced the step-up VPL-VW385ES ($7,999.99), which has the same rated light output but adds an automatic iris to improve black-level performance, with a rated dynamic contrast ratio of 200,000:1. The VW385ES also adds an auto calibration function and the ability to customize and store up to five Picture Position Memories. Otherwise, the VW385ES has the same specs as the VW285ES.
Setup and Features
Much like its higher-end brethren, the VPL-VW285ES feels quite substantial in its build quality. It looks virtually identical to the 2015 VPL-VW350ES that I reviewed, which isn't surprising given that the VW285ES holds the same entry-level position in the company's line. The projector measures 19.5 inches wide by 7.69 high by 18.25 inches deep and weighs 31 pounds; the cabinet has the same shimmering, textured black finish as the higher-end models. The center-mounted lens is flanked by two fan vents, and the projector uses a 225-watt high-pressure mercury lamp, rated at up to 6,000 hours in its lowest lamp mode.
The input panel includes two HDMI 2.0a inputs, both with HDCP 2.2. It's worth noting that they're not full 18Gbps HDMI inputs to pass 4K/60p at a full 4:4:4 color bandwidth; Sony says that the inputs support up to 13.5 Gbps. This might affect how you need to set up your UHD source devices, but we'll get to that later. Like many 4K-friendly projectors, the VW285ES has no legacy analog inputs, and it also lacks a PC input. For control options, the panel includes RS-232C, an IR in, two 12-volt triggers, and a LAN port for IP control. The projector has integrated control drivers for most of the big names in the automation industry, including Control4, Crestron, and Savant. A single USB port is onboard for firmware updates and the powering of accessories like a wireless HDMI receiver.
The VW285ES has a recommended screen size from 60 to 300 inches. Positioning the image on my 100-inch-diagonal Visual Apex VAPX9100SE drop-down screen took just seconds, thanks to the generous lens-shifting capability (+85/-80 percent vertical, +/-31 percent horizontal) and 2.06x zoom. The fact that these controls, along with focus, are motorized makes it all the easier. Sony's SXRD technology is based on LCoS, which requires the use of three panels. Panel alignment can sometimes be an issue; as with LCD technology, if the panels are not properly aligned, you can see traces of red, blue, or green around objects and text. Sony does include a panel alignment tool in the setup menu, but I did not need to use it with my review sample. I was thoroughly impressed with how well aligned the panels were from the get-go.
The setup menu includes all the desired picture adjustments to calibrate the image, beginning with nine picture modes. Advanced adjustments include: four color temperature presets (D93, D75, D65, and D55) plus five custom modes in which you can adjust RGB gain and bias; 10 gamma presets; noise reduction; multiple color space options (BT.709, BT.2020, and several custom modes); and a full color-management system with hue, saturation, and brightness controls for all six color points. Within the Cinema Black Pro sub-menu, you can choose between high and low lamp modes and adjust the Contrast Enhancer function (off, low, middle, high). Contrast Enhancer automatically optimizes the contrast on a scene-by-scene basis. Its effects are very subtle with HD/SDR content, so I left it off. However, with HDR content, it makes a more noticeable difference, and I did choose to engage it at the Low setting to help the image pop it little more.
Sony's Reality Creation allows you to adjust the crispness and detail of the image, while Motionflow is designed to reduce blur and judder. The Motionflow menu includes six options: off, True Cinema (which outputs 24p film signals at their native frame rate), Smooth High, Smooth Low, Impulse, and Combination. The Smooth modes use frame interpolation to reduce judder, creating that super-smooth look with film sources. Impulse adds grey frames between video frames, and Combination adds both dark frames and interpolated frames. In my tests, I saw little to no obvious improvement in motion detail using the Impulse mode, but the Combination mode did a fantastic job with blur reduction--probably the best I've seen from a projector. The setup menu also includes Input Lag Reduction to improve response time with a gaming console.
The VPL-VW285ES has five aspect-ratio options: Normal, V Stretch (for viewing 2.35:1 movies with an optional anamorphic lens), Squeeze (for viewing 1.78:1 and 1.33:1 content in its correct shape with the anamorphic lens), and 1.85:1 Zoom / 2.35:1 Zoom modes (to minimize the visibility of black bars at the top and bottom). You can also adjust the projector's blanking. If you mate this projector with an anamorphic lens, you can designate a 1.24x or 1.32x lens.
The VPL-VW285ES is an active 3D projector with a built-in RF emitter. 3D glasses are not included, nor did Sony send any with my review sample. Luckily, I still had a pair of the recommended Sony TDG-BT500A glasses ($50) from a previous review, so I was able to perform a 3D evaluation. 3D setup tools include the ability to adjust the 3D depth and the glasses' brightness.
My formal evaluation process always begins with me measuring the various picture modes to see which one is closest to our current reference HD standards right out of the box, with no tweaking. In this case, the Reference picture mode was the most accurate, beating out the Cinema Film 1 and Cinema film 2 modes by only the slightest margin. Any of these three modes would make a great starting point for your HD viewing enjoyment, but I stuck with the Reference mode--which, out of the box, had a very neutral color balance (just a tad warm, or red), a 2.2 gamma average, and a maximum gray-scale Delta Error of just 2.95 (any error number under 3.0 is considered imperceptible to the human eye). Its color points were also wonderfully close to the Rec 709 standard; only the red point had a Delta Error over 3.0 (it was 3.2, to be exact). With numbers this good, calibration is not an absolute necessity, but the process did yield even better results. With very little effort, I was able to further tighten up the color balance and get the gamma average closer to the 2.4 target we use for projectors (2.37), with the max Delta Error falling to 1.21. Through the color management system, I was able to further improve the accuracy of all six color points, with blue being the least accurate with a DE of 1.36. All in all, these are fantastic numbers, which equates to a wonderfully accurate image with neutral skintones and natural colors.
All of the VW285ES's picture modes are set to the High lamp mode out of the box, and they all measure within a few foot-lamberts of each other. Interestingly, the Reference, Cinema Film 1, and Cinema Film 2 modes were the brightest, measuring around 45.7 ft-L with a 100-IRE full white field on my 100-inch, 1.1-gain screen. One might logically conclude that modes like Bright TV and Bright Cinema would be brighter, but they weren't. 45 ft-L is pretty bright for dark-room movie watching; so, when calibrating the Reference picture mode, I switched to the Low lamp mode and reduced the contrast setting a bit, resulting in a more suitable 28 ft-L. Because this projector lacks a manual iris that allows you to further reduce the light output, that's as low as I could go.
Since the CF1 and CF2 modes are nearly identical to the reference mode in their accuracy and light output, either one of them would make a fantastic choice for TV/movie watching in a room with more ambient light. I did a good deal of daytime TV watching and was able to enjoy a nicely saturated image, especially for bright sporting events. Mate this projector with a good ambient light rejecting (ALR) screen, and your bright-room results will be even better.
Now let's talk about the VW285ES's black level, that all-important parameter that dictates just how good the image will look in a dark room. Overall, I was very impressed with what I saw in this department. The VW285ES served up a respectably dark black level, combined with good brightness, to produce an image with great contrast and depth. This Sony didn't rival JVC's DLA-X970R in its black-level performance, but it was still very good. I found myself wondering how much improvement the step-up VW385ES might offer, given its addition of a dynamic iris function. I did some direct comparisons with the older Sony VPL-VW350ES that I use as my reference projector, as well as the Optoma UHD65 that I recently reviewed--using scenes from Gravity, Flags of Our Fathers, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Not surprisingly, the VW285ES's black-level performance wasn't dramatically different from that of the 350ES (neither model offers an auto or manual iris), but I did see a slight improvement in black-level depth in the newer model. It's also worth noting that, when outputting these Blu-ray movies at a 1080p resolution, I felt the newer VW285ES produced a slightly sharper, more detailed image than the older VW350ES.
Comparing the VW285ES with the Optoma UHD65 was interesting. The Optoma is half the price of the Sony, and in my review I lauded its good black-level performance when its Dynamic Black function is enabled. In the nighttime battle sequence in chapter two of Flags of Our Fathers, the Sony had a visibly better black level and a better overall sense of depth, but the black-level difference wasn't as huge as you might expect. The bigger difference was in the accuracy of these dark scenes. The Optoma's Dynamic Black function does alter the gamma and color temperature a bit, making the picture look greener to my eyes--whereas the Sony rendered a more natural-looking black and more neutral skintones and white accents. The Sony also did a better job keeping the bright elements bright, which is why the overall contrast looked better.
In terms of its video processing, the VW285ES renders a sharp, wonderfully detailed image that's very clean, with little digital noise. The word "natural" is spread all over my notes. I use a couple of scenes to check for banding and bit-depth issues: In chapter 14 of the Batman vs. Superman UHD disc, there's a simple shot of the empty Daily Planet office, with white ceiling tiles that can exhibit notable color shifting in displays with lesser processing--but not through the Sony. Also, in chapter 12 of the Sicario UHD disc, as the commando enters a dark cave with a dim blue sky behind him, the transition from light to dark was perfectly pristine, with no uneven steps or banding. Finally, as I mentioned above in the Setup section, if you're especially sensitive to motion blur, the Combination Motionflow option does a great job of reducing blur without producing the Soap Opera Effect of the Smooth modes.
Now let's move on to UHD/HDR content. The VW285ES is set up to automatically detect an HDR signal and switch into HDR mode. There's no onscreen icon to tell you that this is happening, though. The projector will launch into the HDR version of whatever picture mode you're already in; and really, the quickest way to confirm that you're in HDR mode is to go into the Picture settings and see if the Contrast control has a little "(HDR)" note next to it. Also the projector will kick into the High lamp mode for HDR, if it wasn't in that mode to begin with. Under Expert Settings, you'll see an HDR menu with options for Auto, HDR10, HLG, and off. The projector is set to Auto by default--plus, the Gamma menu goes away entirely in HDR mode, which I think is a wise choice. Some display manufacturers don't lock the Gamma/EOTF in HDR mode, which is just confusing.
I watched a variety of UHD discs, including Planet Earth II, Batman vs. Superman, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Sicario, and The Revenant. Of course the VW285ES's core strengths--its good black level, accuracy, natural color, and excellent detail--served UHD content just as well as it serves HD content. While I thought the Reference picture mode looked good with HDR, I preferred the Cinema Film 2 mode: its accuracy is still good, but having the Contrast Enhancer set to Low gives the picture just a little more pop that suits HDR (I thought a Contrast Enhancer setting of Middle or High was too much and added some noise to the picture). Due to technical difficulties, I wasn't able to measure the peak brightness of the VW285ES in HDR mode (see the Measurements section for more detail); but, in my experience with projectors thus far, HDR brightness isn't dramatically different from SDR brightness, so I'd estimate around 46 ft-L or 157 nits--probably not quite as high in peak brightness capability as the JVC DLA-X970R and definitely not as high as the Epson Pro Cinema 6040UB, but still good. A projector isn't going to rival a TV in the area of peak brightness, but that doesn't mean UHD content can't look great. It can, and it does through the VW285ES. I watched the Mountains and Jungles episodes on disc one of Planet Earth II, and the lush color, excellent contrast, and exceptional detail made them a pleasure to behold. In the nighttime Jungles sequence where we see the luminous fungi and the glowing railroad worm, the neon elements popped nicely against the black background, and the finest black details were evident.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...