For those who desire a truly big-screen 4K viewing experience, front projection will be, ultimately, the most affordable way to go. The problem is, right now there aren't very many native 4K projectors to choose from on the consumer side. Projection stalwarts like JVC and Epson have yet to embrace native 4K in their home theater lineups, instead offering pixel-shifting "4K enhancement" solutions that still rely on 1080p chips.
Sony is leading the charge in native 4K projection for the consumer market, as the company recently introduced its third and lowest priced native 4K projector, the $9,999 VPL-VW350ES. Granted, $10K isn't exactly chump change, but it's far below the $27,999 asking price of Sony's flagship VPL-VW1100ES and a good step below the $14,999 VPL-VW600ES. When you consider that a 100-inch-plus UHD TV will cost you roughly $100,000 and you can mate the projector with an even larger screen, the value proposition comes into focus...so to speak.
The VPL-VW350ES is an SXRD projector (SXRD is Sony's name for LCoS) with a 4,096 by 2,160 resolution and a rated light output of 1,500 lumens (Sony does not give a rated contrast ratio for this model). The step-up 600ES and 1100ES have a rated light output of 1,700 and 2,000 lumens, respectively. The 350ES supports 3D playback (for 1080p, not 4K) and the addition of an anamorphic lens to mate with a 2.35:1 screen. The VPL-VW350ES boasts a number of convenient setup and control features. How does it perform? Let's find out.
In its build quality, the VPL-VW350ES feels substantial but not unmanageable. Its footprint is not that much larger than my old Sony VPL-HW30ES, measuring 19.5 inches wide by 18.25 inches deep. It's taller than the HW30ES, though, at almost eight inches high. Its weight is 31 pounds, and the cabinet has a nice textured black finish.
The projector has a center-mounted lens flanked by two fan vents, and its 4,096-by-2,160 resolution technically gives it a 17:9 aspect ratio, although it still shows the more common 3,840-by-2,160 resolution in a pixel-for-pixel form. The recommended screen size is from 60 to 150 inches, and its throw ratio is 1.38 to 2.83. Generous lens-shifting capability (80 to 85 percent vertical, 31 percent horizontal) and a 2.1x zoom made it very easy to position the image on my 100-inch Visual Apex VAPX9100SE drop-down screen in a matter of seconds. It helps that the zoom and lens controls are all motorized. Later, I switched to the 92-inch Screen Innovations Zero Edge Pure White 1.3 fixed-frame screen, and again it took just seconds to reposition the image on the new wall-mounted screen. Sony includes a helpful pattern tool with various grids to position the image on a 1.33:1, 1.78:1, 1.85:1, or 2.35:1 screen. There are no keystone adjustments in this projector.
The input panel instantly tells you a little something about Sony's target audience for this 4K projector. You get two HDMI 2.0 inputs, one of which supports HDCP 2.2, and that's it. There are no legacy analog inputs and no PC input. Only the top-shelf VPL-VW1100ES has legacy analog connections; however, many AV receivers will transcode analog to HDMI, so there's an easy workaround if you're still holding on to legacy source components.
For control options, the panel includes RS-232, an IR in, two 12-volt triggers, and a LAN port for network control. The projector has integrated control drivers for the following protocols: Control4 SDDP, AMX Device Discovery, Crestron Connected, Savant Partner in Excellence, RTI, and URC. The LAN port does not allow for firmware updates over the network; for that, you must use the single USB port, which can also power a WirelessHD receiver but does not support media playback.
The setup menu has all the desired picture adjustments, beginning with nine picture modes. This is not an ISF- or THX-certified projector, so you don't get those 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; four color-space options and the ability to set up a custom color space; and a full color-management system with hue, saturation, and brightness control for all six color points. Sony has been criticized in the past for not including a CMS in its higher-end projectors, and the company's answer was that the projectors didn't need it. Well, this projector didn't really need it either (more on that in a minute), but Sony went ahead and added it anyhow.
The VPL-VW350ES includes Sony's Motionflow technology for blur and judder reduction, with 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 and create the soap opera effect. The Combination mode appears to use much less aggressive frame interpolation. In the company's TVs, the Impulse mode inserts black frames and works very well to reduce motion blur but creates a lot of flicker; however, in this projector, the Impulse mode didn't seem to do much of anything to improve motion resolution. The setup menu also includes Input Lag Reduction to improve response time with a gaming console.
Sony's Reality Creation option is available, which is essentially Super Resolution technology in which you can fine-tune the detail and noise filtering. I experimented with these controls but ultimately preferred to leave Reality Creation turned off.
The most notable omission is the lack of an auto iris. The higher-end 600ES and 1100ES both have an auto iris, so this is one key feature that you give up when you opt for the entry-level model. We'll talk about how its omission affects performance in the next section.
The VPL-VW350ES has five aspect-ratio options: Normal, V Stretch, Squeeze, 1.85:1 Zoom, and 2.35:1 Zoom. You can mate this projector with an anamorphic lens and designate a 1.24x or 1.32x lens elsewhere in the setup menu. The 600ES and 1100ES add lens memory to automatically adjust the lens to remove the black bars without an external lens. Panel alignment tools are available, but my review sample looked good out of the box.
It's worth noting that, when you feed the VPL-VW350ES a 4K signal, you lose a few picture controls like the noise reduction and smooth gradation tools. Motionflow options are limited to off and Impulse, and aspect-ratio options are limited to Normal and 2.35:1 Zoom.
The VPL-VW350ES is an active 3D projector with a built-in RF emitter, so you no longer need to attach an external sync emitter. Unfortunately, 3D glasses are not included in this $10,000 package, but Sony sent along the TDG-BT500A glasses so that I could test the 3D function. 3D setup tools include the ability to adjust the 3D depth and the glasses' brightness.
We begin the Performance section, as always, by talking measurements. How close to reference standards is the VPL-VW350ES in its default picture modes, and how close is it after calibration? I first measured most of the projector's picture modes as they come out of the box, with no adjustment, and found the Reference and User modes to be the most accurate (the owner's manual confirms that these two modes are essentially identical). The Reference mode had a fairly even color balance that's just a tad lacking in blue, an average gamma of 2.2, and a gray-scale Delta Error of 3.78 (anything under five is very good, any error under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye). The color points were even better; all of them came in well under a Delta Error of three, with cyan behind the furthest off the mark with a DE of just 1.43. Sometimes when measuring a display, I'll find that a color point will technically come in under the DE3 target, but one element (hue, brightness, or saturation) will be too far out of balance. That wasn't the case here, where all three elements were in good balance for each color.
What this means is that a professional calibration is not essential to getting an image that's very close to accurate. Nevertheless, if you're dropping ten grand on a projector, you still might want to invest the extra couple hundred dollars to edge this projector even closer to current reference standards. I calibrated the Reference mode and was able, with minimal effort, to get better RGB balance to create a more neutral white, a more theater-friendly gamma average of 2.27, and a gray-scale Delta Error of 2.67. I did some very minor fine-tuning of the color points to bring the hue, saturation, and brightness of each color into even better balance. You can see the results in the Measurements section on Page Two. Overall, it's safe to say that video purists should be pleased with the accuracy of the VPL-VW350ES.
In terms of light output, all of the picture modes are set to the high lamp mode out of the box; the fan noise in high mode is about four to five decibels higher than the low mode--which is certainly noticeable but not excessive. The brightest picture mode was, not surprisingly, Bright TV, which measured about 35 foot-lamberts of peak brightness on my 100-inch, 1.1-gain screen. That doesn't quite measure up to the high-brightness home entertainment oriented projectors, but it's still plenty of light output to enjoy well-saturated images in a room with some ambient light. This projector does not have to be confined to a fully light-controlled theater space.
The Reference mode measured about 32 ft-L at its default settings. During calibration, I switched to the low lamp mode and knocked down the contrast control a bit (which crushed white detail when set at its maximum)--the result was about 21 ft-L, which for me was ideal for movie watching at night, even with a little ambient light in the room.
Usually, good light output can lead to a sub-par black level, unless you have an auto iris that automatically adjusts itself to suit scenes with a lower light level. As I mentioned, the VPL-VW350ES does not have an auto iris, as its more-expensive brethren do. However, it still produced a solidly deep black level in my demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy, Gravity, Flags of Our Fathers, and Kingdom of Heaven. In Gravity, it successfully created that sense of deep, dark space while still preserving brightness in the stars and planets. Fine black details were also reproduced very well.
I compared the 350ES's black level to that of the (far less expensive) Sony VPL-HW30ES 1080p model that I still use as a reference projector. When I manually set the 30ES's iris to its dimmest position, the 30ES's black level was a hair (and I mean a hair) darker, but its bright elements were also much dimmer, so the overall image contrast was not as good as that of the 350ES. When I set the 30ES to one of its auto iris options, brightness improved, but the black level got worse than that of the 4K model. In other words, the VPL-VW350ES's black level and overall contrast were excellent for nighttime movie-watching, even without an auto iris. I have not tested the higher-end 600ES and 1100ES; both of them boast a higher light output and an auto iris, so I would expect that their image contrast and black level would be even better.
I took this opportunity to finally rent the Captain America: Winter Soldier Blu-ray disc to ready myself for The Avengers: Age of Ultron. While watching this movie on the VPL-VW350ES, I confess I really didn't give the projector much thought, and that's a compliment. There was nothing about its performance that distracted me from the movie. It just looked great. Okay, a few times, I did take note of how nicely detailed the upconverted Blu-ray image looked, but that was it.
The VPL-VW350ES also did a good job with my 3D demos. The 3D image was very bright, crisp, and colorful, and I saw virtually no crosstalk. There were times when fast motion seemed a little off, almost as if a Motionflow mode was enabled when it wasn't, but overall the 3D performance was solid.
Next it was time for some native 4K. Thus far, for reviews of UHD TVs, I've relied primarily on a few UHD demo clips stored on a USB drive for my evaluations, and Sony was kind enough to send along one its retail-oriented servers that runs through native UHD clips. Naturally, these clips are all super-bright and colorful, and they looked great through the VPL-VW350ES. But this time, I really wanted some real-world 4K content, so we invested in Sony's FMP-X10 4K media server to tide us over until Ultra HD Blu-ray arrives. (A full review of the server is coming soon.)
I compared the downloaded 4K version of The Amazing Spider-man against the same film on Blu-ray, upconverted to 4K by my Oppo BDP-103 player. The improvement in detail didn't necessarily jump out at me in quick switches between the two versions. It's certainly not an SD-versus-HD difference, even on a 100-inch screen. However, when I paused various scenes and focused on those fine details, I could see the improvements. The texture in Spidey's suit, the fine background details in buildings, and the lines of Spidey's web in the underground sewer scenes were sharper and more defined, giving the entire image a bit more crispness and clarity. Add in the projector's accurate skin tones and color, the dark blacks, and the great contrast, and the result was a high-quality cinematic experience. (And, after spending a good amount of time watching those 4K downloads, I certainly noticed the step down in detail when I returned to a compressed 1080i satellite signal.)
I'm a fan of LCoS projection technology because I like how clean an image it can render, and the VPL-VW350ES is no exception. In fact, because of its higher native resolution, the picture looked even smoother, and I saw little to no distracting digital noise. As for motion blur, with Motionflow disabled, the motion resolution test pattern on the FPD Benchmark BD showed lines to about DVD resolution, which is typical. The Smooth and Combination modes produced the best motion resolution, offering clean lines to about HD720 and a few visible lines up to HD1080. I'm not a fan of the smoothing effects of frame interpolation, so I avoided the Smooth modes; however, the Combination mode is very subtle and a good choice if you want some blur reduction without excessive smoothing.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...