Projectors have a loyal following among A/V enthusiasts, and as prices fall, they become more appealing to average Joes with a penchant for wall-size images. Sure, you need a dark room to enjoy a projector fully, but once you've experienced a 96-inch-wide picture in your own living room, it's difficult to go back to a mere TV. Sony's VPL-HS20 is one of a new breed of lower-priced HDTV-capable models; you can find much cheaper projectors, but most lack the resolution to do HDTV justice. Given the HS20's competitive price ($3,500 list), we were pleasantly surprised by its performance. This Sony actually produces a credible picture and provides a good entry point for front-projection home theater. We found the HS20 online for $2,999, which, if you're counting, is about what you would pay for a good 65-inch HDTV-capable, CRT-based rear-projection set.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. The VPL-HS20 won't win any industrial design awards. Shaped like a bulky horseshoe, it has a purple-and-white color scheme matches Sony's VAIO computers. The front of the unit sports a grille that camouflages the intake and outtake vents on either side, and a discreet Memory Stick slot also gets front-panel real estate. Buttons for power, input, menu access, zoom, and focus are mounted to the side.
Weighing just less than 12 pounds, this compact, lightweight projector should be easy to tuck away on the ceiling. If you leave it exposed, however, you'll appreciate the extremely quiet fan.
The remote is on the smallish side. Most of the principal buttons can be backlit, and we found it fairly intuitive to use. Sony's internal menu system is well designed and relatively easy to navigate. Thanks to new LCD panels, the HS20's native resolution of 1,386x788 is a bit higher than its predecessor's total of 1,366x768. It has more than enough pixels to display every detail of 720p HDTV material. This Sony can handle just about any source, from 1080i HDTV to VHS to computer desktops, and everything is scaled to fit the available pixels.
A Memory Stick port lets you easily view Memory Stick-based digital pictures on the big screen. Another convenience is Side Shot--Sony's name for digital keystone correction--which allows you to place the projector off-center relative to the screen. It's best to avoid using this feature, however, since it decreases resolution. The HS20 also features a power 1.20:1 zoom lens and power focus--although we would have preferred the ease of manual focus.
The HS20 has some notable picture-enhancing features as well. Selectable color temperatures include three presets: low, middle, and high. There are three preset picture modes--Dynamic, Standard, and Cinema--and three user modes that allow you to customize the picture and store it into memory. Aspect-ratio choices are extensive, including Full (anamorphic), Normal (4:3), Zoom (letterbox), Wide Zoom (for expanding 4:3 sources to fill the screen), and several others. Finally, Sony's cryptically named DDE (Dynamic Detail Enhancer) gives you the choice of Film, Progressive, and Off, which all affect the video processing. The Film setting should be used for DVD movies because it engages 2:3 pull-down for motion artifact reduction.
The connectivity options on the HS20 are also quite generous. The projector includes two kinds of digital video input, DVI and HDMI, both of which comply with HDCP copy protection. There's also one each of component-video, S-Video, and composite-video inputs, as well as one USB port for computer hookup. Finally there's a PJ Multi-Input connection that comes with a 33-foot breakout cable that terminates in component-video, S-Video, and composite-video connections. This is very similar to Xbox and Sony PlayStation configurations, and we recommend you don't use this for your high-resolution video sources such as DVD and HDTV. Save it for video games. Black-level performance on the HS20 leaves a bit to be desired. In fact, the projector can't do a true black, which also compromises the color saturation (the amount of color) of the picture. That said, the HS20's ability to deliver darker images represents a significant improvement over previous versions and is among the best we've seen with LCD projectors. It's still not as good as we expect from DLP projectors, but then again, this Sony costs a good deal less than DLPs with similar resolution.
The color decoder in the HS20 is excellent, exhibiting virtually no red push, and greens also look quite good. This is perhaps the HS20's strongest suit in picture quality.
The HS20's grayscale--its ability to produce a consistent color of gray from darker to lighter colors--was actually somewhat close to the NTSC standard in the low color-temperature setting. After calibration, we were able to get it much closer, but it still wasn't perfect: the unit measured 6,150 at the bottom of the scale and 6,650 at the top (6,500K is ideal).
We did notice the screen-door effect on this LCD, where it looked as if certain areas (usually bright ones) were covered by a faint grid. This effect can be reduced if the image is smaller or you sit further back. As we would expect from an inexpensive projector, the lens has some chromatic aberrations, which show up as blue and red fringing around white objects. On a large portion of the right side of the picture, red and blue were off by about one pixel. Finally, and most disturbingly, a large portion of the picture was missing on all sides, which is probably due to the internal video processing. We were unable to correct this.
The shuttle launch on Digital Video Essentials looked pretty good after calibration, and the restaurant sequence had good color saturation. The unit's less than ideal black-level performance causes color saturation to be a bit washed out, which is a real shame considering its excellent color decoding. The real acid test came with the new release of Alien, which is a very dark movie throughout. There was some lack of detail in most of the dark scenes.
After a separate calibration for HD material, we sat back to watch some of the DirecTV HD channels. Both the Discovery HD Theater and the HDNet channels looked good with bright material, but again, dark scenes revealed some visible artifacts and an overall lack of shadow detail and depth.
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