Editors' note, April 16, 2008 The rating on this review has been lowered from 7.5 to 7.2 due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
Sony shook up the high-end front projection market last September when it introduced the VPL-VW50 SXRD front projector at a list price of $5,000. The unit, dubbed the "Pearl," is still among the least expensive 1080p front projectors available. It does some things really well, although it falls short in a couple of important areas of performance. Nonetheless, given its price point and image quality, it's hard to argue against the Pearl's status as one of the best values among 1080p front-projectors.
As far as external appearance goes, Sony's VPL-VW50 is certainly one of the most attractive front projectors I've seen yet. It combines elegance and high-tech into a sleek look with smooth, rounded lines that was downright sexy. All of the connectivity is located on one side of the projector, cleverly hidden under the curve of the top of the chassis. The projector measures 15.6x6.9x18.6 inches (WHD) and weighs just over 24 pounds.
The remote control looks much like earlier Sony remote designs from the company's budget front projectors. It is rather basic with direct access keys for the picture formats, lens control, brightness, contrast, and aspect ratio selection. Fortunately the control is fully backlit, which makes use in a darkened home theater much easier. Unfortunately, input selection is not direct, which means you have to scroll through all the inputs by hitting the input key repeatedly. The internal menu system is also identical to previous Sony projector designs, and I found it easy to navigate and fairly intuitive to use.
The most important feature of the VPL-VW50 is its 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p) native resolution, which allows it to display every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources without scaling. All other sources, including 720p HDTV, DVD, and standard-definition television, are scaled to fit the pixels. A high native resolution is especially important in front projectors because you're dealing with screen sizes much larger than typical TVs.
The VPL-VW50 has a few extras that will help you optimize the picture, although it lacks convenience features like PIP and the like. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lens features (Focus, Zoom, and vertical shift) are all electronic. This enabled me to stand right up at the screen when sizing and focusing the image, which makes that chore far easier than if the lens features were manual. Of course, there are multiple preset picture modes to choose from including several user modes. I chose Standard to do my evaluation. Selectable color temperatures are on board, and the Low setting comes quite close to the industry standard color temperature of 6500 Kelvin. You can choose from four aspect ratio modes.
One of the most important picture-affecting features is the Iris setting in the Cinema Black Pro menu. The Advanced Iris should either be set to off or Manual. The Auto settings mean that the Iris will change depending on the picture content, effectively giving you black and white levels that are moving targets and constantly changing. The Manual setting will allow you to fix the Iris to the level of light output you need, and High and Low Lamp settings add a second level of light output control depending on how big a screen you need to fill. The Black Level Adjust and Gamma Correction features should both be turned off for the best performance. A Color Space option gives you the choice of Wide or Normal, with Normal coming a little closer to the system specifications for the primary colors of red, green, and blue. The RCP feature is a poorly implemented color management system that doesn't work at all and should be shut off. Click here to see the best settings we found or visit the Tips & Tricks section.
Connectivity options on the VPL-VW50 are relatively generous for a front projector. It sports two HDMI inputs, one component video input, one 15-pin VGA input for computers (which can handle resolutions up to 1,920x1,080), one S-Video and one composite video input, an RS-232 control port, and a 12-volt trigger for activating electric drop-down screens. I was pleased to find that the HDMI inputs both deliver the full resolution of 1080p signals (both 1080p/24 and 1080p/60), and disappointed to find that the component video input won't accept 1080p at all.