Sony VPL-HW50ES review: Extra features, extraordinary image quality

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MSRP: $3,999.99

The Good The Sony VPL-HW50ES projector produces huge images with excellent black levels, full shadow detail, and reference-quality colors; very good value for this level of image quality; highly accurate picture is available using preset picture modes; lots of setup options; quiet even at full lamp power; extra lamp and two pairs of 3D glasses bundled with projector.

The Bad Somewhat more expensive than the comparably performing JVC DLA-X35; focus, zoom and lens shift aren't remote controlled; won't work with standard-compliant third-party 3D glasses.

The Bottom Line The Sony VPL-HW50ES costs more than most TVs, but for a fantastic big-screen cinema experience in the home it's a very good value.

Visit for details.

8.1 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Value 7

Review Sections

If you're really into home theater, and you have the dark room for it, you should be considering a projector instead of a television. Based on the performance of two recent examples, the Sony VPL-HW50ES and the JVC DLA-X35, you no longer need to buy an old movie theater to get an amazing projected image.

My colleague David Katzmaier and I spent a lot of time with both of these projectors, and there isn't much to separate them in terms of picture quality. As he is reviewing the JVC and I the Sony, I feel it is my duty to argue the case for the Sony, old-school debate style.

While the image quality of both are virtually identical after calibration, the Sony has three main things in its favor: 1) it offers a better picture out of the box; 2) it has a better selection of included features including two sets of 3D glasses and even a spare lamp; and 3) it makes less noise in its highest lamp mode.

"On the other hand," argues David (Editors' Note: Yes, this is me), "the JVC is less expensive even after you buy the 3D accessories, and High lamp mode is useless unless you're watching in brighter environments. I'll concede the precalibration superiority of the Sony, however, making it the better choice for those who don't want to invest in a professional setup."

Personally I (Ty) would be happy with either projector as they both offer spectacular picture quality and a great price-to-image-size ratio. As far as we know, there's no other projector -- let alone 70-inch-plus flat-panel TV -- that comes close to either one for the price.

The HW50ES continues the design aesthetic begun with the Sony VPL-VW90ES released in 2010: a long slab of onyx tapering toward the middle of each end. To my mind, these projectors look like electric guitar tuning pegs or even a hip flask -- Dr. Rorschach would no doubt be intrigued by this.

This projector shares design elements with previous Sony projectors Sarah Tew/CNET

As befitting a Sony ES (Elevated Standard) component, it is large at 16 inches wide by 7 inches high by 18 inches long, and it's also weighty at more than 21 pounds. While many less-expensive projectors have the power button on the top, when a projector is ceiling-mounted there is no "top" as such, so Sony places its controls on one side, along with the inputs and other connections. The lens shift dials are topside, while zoom and focus are on the lens itself, just like an SLR camera.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you think normal remote controls are dangerous in the wrong hands, then the Sony HW50ES remote could be disastrous -- even in the right hands. While tweakers such as myself appreciate -- in theory, at least -- dedicated buttons for settings like Brightness, Contrast and even the Color Management System (labelled RCP), it only takes one knock to potentially screw up your settings. The remote is backlit however, which could help reduce some potentially hazardous fumbling in the dark. It would be great if Sony offered a second, smaller remote without all of the extra doohickeys for everyday usage.

Key TV features
Projection technology SXRD (LCoS) Native resolution 1,920x1,080 (1080p)
Lumens rating 1,700 Iris control Yes (static or auto)
3D technology Active 3D glasses included Two pairs
Lens shift Horizontal and vertical Zoom and focus Manual
Lamp lifespan Up to 3,000 hours Replacement lamp cost $290
Other: Includes one replacement LMP-H202 lamp; Additional 3D glasses (model TDG-PJ1, $130 list)

While the HW50 has design and feature-set similarities to the original VW90, it has price that is a lot easier to swallow: $4,000 instead of $10,000. Like all high-end Sony consumer projectors, it uses three SXRD (silicon X-tal reflective display) chips, which is the company's proprietary LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon)-based projection technology. JVC uses an LCoS variant too, which it calls D-ILA, and both can outperform most LCD and DLP-based projectors.

Since the VW90 appeared in 2010, Sony has improved its image-processing chops as well, and it's likely the new model performs even better. The HW50 uses a Reality Creation engine similar to that featured in the $25,000 XBR-84X900, which tries to enhance each image based on a database of similar images. It's a feature we would still likely leave turned off, since we're interested foremost in preserving the image as close to the original as possible, but nonetheless it's an option some people might like, and that the JVC lacks.

The projector includes two sets of glasses and a spare lamp. Sarah Tew/CNET

A couple of other key points differentiate the Sony from the JVC. The HW50 offers an automatic iris mode that dynamically opens or closes the iris according to program content. We prefer to disengage it for critical viewing, but some users might appreciate its extra pop (see below for details). The JVC also offers power control of focus, zoom, and lens shift, while the Sony's are manual. Sony's 240Hz refresh rate is also higher then the JVC's 120Hz, although this has little visible effect.

This Sony features two sets of active 3D glasses included in the box. Unfortunately, extras designed for this projector, model TDG-PJ1, cost about $120 each. We tried a cheaper set of Sony glasses, model TDG-BR250, but they refused to sync reliably despite Sony telling us they should work (albeit with reduced picture quality since they lack "a secondary polarization that compensates for screen reflection," according to Sony's engineer). On the other hand, the Xpand YOUniversal worked great, and cost less than half the price of the Sony PJ1's, at only $52 online. And no, we didn't notice any lack of polarization.

While the JVC doesn't include 3D capability in the box, with the addition of $99 RF emitter it is compatible with the Full HD 3D standard, so it can be used with third-party glasses like the $20 Samsungs. Sony's projector cannot, since it uses the company's own IR-based communication protocol. Generally RF (radio frequency) is also a better technology for 3D because IR (infrared) requires line-of-sight that can be broken, not to mention having a shorter range.

In an unexpected value-add, the projector includes a spare lamp (a $300 value) which will save you having to find a retailer when the existing 3,000 hour lamp expires, or wait days for an online delivery.

Setup: The Sony comes with a fairly wide range of manual setup options including a lens shift (vertical and horizontal) and adjustable front feet. JVC's projector is a bit easier to set up however because its lens controls are all power-operated via remote, so you can be close to the screen when fine-tuning focus, for example. With the Sony, if you leave the projector on the ceiling you're gonna need a ladder if it goes out of focus.

The HW50ES comes with a "1/10th pixel-step" panel alignment feature which is designed to (re)align the three colored LCDs; we found it more precise than JVC's system on the X35. The Sony is capable of a maximum 1.6x magnification and is capable of screen sizes from a "why-would-you-bother" 40 inches up to a respectable 300 inches.

The CMS looks powerful, but we ended up not using it. Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture settings: If you thought TVs were complicated once you got beyond the usual Brightness and Contrast adjustments, then a projector ups both the power and complexity. Virtually every aspect of the HW50ES is configurable -- from the iris to the panel alignments -- and the CMS appears comprehensive. Despite its potential though, we ended up turning off the Real Color Processing CMS, however, because it did nothing to improve the projector's one semiproblematic area, blue color saturation.

For the less technically inclined, the Sony comes with nine different picture modes, from Film presets to Bright Room Cinema and Bright Room TV. The Reference mode is so good it's almost capable of being your "set-and-forget" option.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Connectivity: It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want a laundry list of connections, you need to spend a lot less money. While a $1,100 projector like the BenQ W1070 boasts every connector type known to mankind, the Sony is more selective. You essentially get three sorts: two HDMI ports, one component, and one VGA; the latter isn't available on the JVC. The assumption, of course, is that you'll be using an external switch or an AV receiver to connect multiple sources.