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

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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.

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8.1

Sony VPL-HW50ES

Pricing Not Available

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.

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.

Design
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.

The excellent Sony VPL-HW50ES projector (pictures)

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"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Key TV features "="">Other: Includes one replacement LMP-H202 lamp; Additional 3D glasses (model TDG-PJ1, $130 list)
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

Features
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.

Picture quality
The picture quality of the Sony can be summed up with one word: superb. Color and shadow detail were excellent and black levels were among the best I've seen in a home theater projector. Both the Sony and JVC are capable of jaw-dropping pictures, and if having to choose between two very good projectors is your only concern, it's a great problem to have.

Thanks to its more-accurate picture presets, however, the Sony is the better choice if you're not going to invest in a professional calibration. Just pop it into Reference mode, adjust the manual iris to taste (lower means a dimmer image but better black levels) or set it to "auto" if you like that look, and you're done. Of course, a disc like Disney's WOW would also be beneficial. The Sony's better light output and quieter fan do make it superior to the JVC for situations where your room isn't completely dark.

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Comparison models (details)
JVC DLA-X35B LCOS
BenQ W1070 Single-chip DLP
Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 3020 LCD

Black and white level: If you think that projectors belong in the boardroom and not the living room, then the Sony HW50ES will quickly disavow you of such a notion. Its black levels stand up well against almost any flat-panel TV that you could care to name. Using the manual iris setting in its minimum position, we were still easily able to get enough light for comfortable viewing (16 footLambert) while also providing an inky shade of black. There was also no noise hit when moving to the higher brightness lamp mode, whereas the JVC in High did noticeably engage the noisy fan.

Whether displaying the dark, gloomy "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II" or the pastoral scenes of "Tree of Life," the images the Sony produced popped off the big screen with excellent levels of contrast. As David mentioned in his JVC review, the two measured essentially the same for depth of black across all types of scenes.

We also spent some time deciding between the static and auto iris modes. We ended up choosing static because the image looked more natural -- the highlights in auto appeared a bit too bright compared to the dark areas (yes, there is such a thing as too much pop). Auto worked great, however, as seen during our comparison using the opening fight from "Watchmen," a great mix of very dark and bright material, with lots of sudden shifts in light level. There was no detectable "iris effect," where dark-to-light transitions, and vice-versa, cause black and white levels to noticeably fade up or down. Auto iris might be a look some viewers appreciate, and it's a nice option to have.

While mostly indistinguishable from each other, the Sony seemed to have a little better shadow detail than the JVC in the very darkest areas, pushing aside a bit more of the gloom hiding in "Deathly Hallows." It was still almost impossible to tell the two apart, though.

The Sony delivered somewhat higher light output. With a full-screen white pattern in the brightest default picture modes (Stage for the JVC and Bright TV for the Sony), the JVC measured 39.1 fL while the Sony measured 45.3 fL. In lumens, a measurement that eliminates the variable of different screens, that works out to 1,284 and 1,488 lumens, respectively (thanks to Chris Heinonen for the lumens calculator).

Color accuracy: The Sony is among the most accurate displays we've measured, period. If you look at the Geek Box, you'll see its error numbers are all well south of 3, the standard threshold of perception. The lone exception, Blue, is still good enough that its error is almost impossible to see in program material.

Chapter 5 of The Tree of Life features a shot of the mother (Jessica Chastain) as she lies on the grass, and in its mix of blues, greens, and skintones, you have to look very closely to see the differences between the Sony and JVC -- but they were there. The grass on the Sony was very slightly blue/green, while it was a little more yellow and foresty on the JVC. In addition, the mother's face was a tiny bit rosier on the JVC during this shot. For what it's worth, the Sony measured as being more more accurate, although to my eye the slightly-off JVC might have been a bit more pleasing.

We are talking ever-so-slight differences though, and only in comparison to another amazing projector. Overall, the color of the Sony could be termed "great" and whether watching the visual feast of "The Tree of Life" or the gritty "Watchmen," it was hard not to be impressed with the projector's lifelike color and saturation.

Video processing: Given Sony's heritage in cinema, it's no surprise to find excellent video processing here. For example, the fly-by of the USS Intrepid from "I Am Legend" (24:58) was just smooth enough, demonstrating that the projector had a vicelike grip on the 24p signal. Similarly, it was able to replay the 1080i film deinterlacing test without any issues. For this price, you should expect nothing less.

The Sony's 240Hz refresh rate allowed it to achieve a higher motion resolution score than the JVC, but in our direct comparisons between the two, using real-world material FPD Benchmark Blu-ray disc (a metronome and a shot of cars passing quickly past a static camera) it was impossible to discern any real difference. As with the JVC, you'll need to engage a smoothing mode -- Sony calls it MotionFlow -- and suffer the Soap Opera Effect if you want to take advantage of the higher motion resolution. That's OK for higher frame-rate video like sports, but it spoils the 24p effect of film.

Speaking of Film, Sony also has a "Film Projection" mode that supposedly mimics the look of, well, a film projector. We found it created too much flicker, however, so we left it turned off.

Bright lighting: The Sony is capable of a higher light output, and this translated to a better performance than the JVC in a lit room -- especially when using the Bright Cinema or Bright TV mode. But if bright lighting performance is your main concern, just get something cheaper. Numerous less-expensive business projectors, like the Optoma TH1060P for example, are capable of brighter light output and thus filling a screen in a lit room.

3D: As with all of the other aspects of the two competing products' performance, 3D replay was very similar on both the Sony and JVC. At first we thought we detected a little more flicker on the Sony, but after some to-ing and fro-ing between the two, there wasn't much in it. On contrasting scenes there could be a little flicker out of the corner of your eye on the Sony, but the effect was there on the JVC, too. Both projectors exhibited an excellent resistance to cross-talk but not always immune -- there was still a small amount of crosstalk on Hugo's hand as he reached for the clockwork mouse ("Hugo," 4:44).

GEEK BOX: Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.0019 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.21 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 0.5787 Good
Near-black error (5%) 0.351 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 0.487 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 0.4087 Good
Avg. color error 1.4770 Good
Red error 0.473 Good
Green error 1.0192 Good
Blue error 4.226 Average
Cyan error 0.6317 Good
Magenta error 1.6804 Good
Yellow error 0.8318 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i De-interlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 750 Average
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 300 Poor

Sony VPL-HW50es calibration report by

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8.1

Sony VPL-HW50ES

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Value 7