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Sony VPL-VW350ES review: 4K projector actually shows the difference, for a price

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The Good With the best 4K content the Sony VPL-VW350ES 4K projector delivers images more detailed than any of its competitors in this price range. It exhibited outstanding picture quality overall, with very good light output and black levels, superb color accuracy and best-in-class video processing. Setup options are comprehensive, operation is whisper-quiet and its styling is sleek and modern.

The Bad With most 4K current sources and all 1080p material, its resolution advantage over 1080p projectors is negligible. Its black levels are lighter, for worse overall contrast, than JVC's comparable D-ILA projectors. Despite its low cost compared to other 4K projectors, it's still very expensive.

The Bottom Line The $10,000 Sony VPL-VW350ES is the least expensive true 4K projector available, and it finally delivers on the promise of 4K resolution.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 10
  • Value 5

"No Good Deed" is no good movie, but it delivers the sharpest picture quality experience I've ever seen from a Hollywood film in CNET's test lab. When I compared the 4K version to the Blu-ray, using Sony's new VPL-VW350ES 4K projector and a couple of high-end 1080p projectors, I finally saw the big, clearly visible difference 4K TV makers have advertised for years.

All it took was a $10,000 projector paired with a $700 dedicated 4K media player, seen on a 120-inch diagonal screen from 9 feet away. Those aren't the kind of dollars and dimensions most people have in their living rooms, which is why we've been saying ( for years) that 4K is basically a waste at normal screen sizes and seating distances.

But if you can afford it, hoo boy. The Sony VPL-VW350ES is actually the least expensive 4K projector yet at $10,000, and Sony is still the only mainstream projector maker to bring true 4K resolution to market. Its principal competition comes from JVC and Epson, whose DLA-X700R and LS10000 projectors I compared directly with the Sony. Both are 1080p projectors that make do with faux 4K enhancements that, from what I saw, are best left disabled anyway.

Nonetheless the JVC is arguably a better performer with 1080p material thanks to its superior contrast, and it costs significantly less than the Sony. And the majority of actual 4K content showed little to no improvement compared with good old Blu-ray. The VPL-VW350ES proves one thing, however: with the right material and a big enough screen seen from close enough, 4K resolution is actually worthwhile.

Editors' Note May 4, 2015: This review was updated to add 3D test results. No other changes were made.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design

The VPL-VW350ES' pleasingly symmetrical, no-nonsense exterior is mostly rectangular in shape but for distinctive rounded edges along the top and a slight bow to the front and rear. The predominant finish is a textured matte charcoal gray tinged to blend into a dark home theater ceiling, complemented by glossy black around the lens.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Prominent vents flank the lens, which is encircled by a thin iris of silver crenelations that contrasts with the black to make the VW350ES appear even more cyclopean than other projectors. The inputs and controls are discreetly mounted on the right and left sides, respectively, along the bottom of the body.

This is a big projector at 18.25 inches wide by 7.7 inches high by 19.5 deep and weighing 31 pounds. It's around the same size as the JVC X700R, albeit not quite as colossal as Epson's LS10000.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony's clicker is roomy and easy to use. It offers dedicated keys for each of the nine picture modes, as well as shortcuts to many of the most important adjustments. Rockers for brightness, contrast and sharpness are available too, and every key is fully backlit. I wish Sony had a "hide" or "video mute" button to quickly douse the image, much like JVC, but otherwise I have few complaints.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The menus are relatively clear and simple for a projector, with a logical nesting layout. I'd appreciate on-screen explanations of the various items, but their omission isn't a major misstep in a high-end projector.

During operation the VW350ES was basically silent on my ceiling mount, and engaging the "High" cooling mode barely increased its noise level. Fan noise is not an issue with this projector.

Key projector features
Projection technology: SXRD (LCoS) Native resolution: 4096x2160 (4K)
Lumens rating 1,500 Iris control No
3D technology Active 3D glasses included No
Lens shift Horizontal and vertical Zoom and focus Power (remote)
Lamp lifespan 3,000 hours Replacement lamp cost $499 (model LMP-H230)

Features

Much like JVC's D-ILA, Sony's SXRD technology is a brand name for LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) three-chip projection tech. So far SXRD is the only mainstream projection technology to bring true 4K resolution to market. The closest the others have come is with JVC's e-Shift and Epson's "4K Enhancement Technology" on select models, and in my testing neither offers much improvement over standard 1080p.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The VPL-VW350ES is Sony's least expensive 4K projector so far. It is basically a de-featured version of the VPL-VW600ES , which remains in Sony's lineup at 15 grand. Saving $5,000 loses you the 600's advanced iris, which likely means the VW350ES lacks some of the 600ES's contrast and punch.The 350ES is also rated slightly dimmer, at 1,500 vs. 1,700 lumens.

Nearly every 4K TV has a native pixel resolution of 3,840x2,160, but Sony 4K SXRD projectors' native resolution is 4,096x2,160. That difference points to the Sony projector's heritage in the cinema. In practicality the slightly wider aspect ratio (17:9) and higher pixel count make little difference, and according to my 4K test patterns the projector correctly scales incoming 3,840x2,160 sources (such as those from Sony's FMP-X10 4K media player ) to a 1:1 ratio -- preserving every pixel of their native sharpness -- in the default Normal aspect ratio setting.

Unlike many projectors, including much less-expensive ones, the VPL-VW350ES still requires you to spend extra for the privilege of watching 3D. The RF emitter is built-in, but you'll have to buy Sony or third-party glasses separately. The unit complies with the full-HD 3D standard, so you can pair it with any glasses that also comply, down to the $20 Samsungs.

It's worth noting that Sony touts no support for HDR, expanded color gamuts or other newfangled 4K/UHD advancements on this projector. Such extras are available in numerous 2015 TVs, and I expect the next generation of projectors to incorporate some of them as well--although the peak light output requirements of HDR, in particular, seem difficult to affordably achieve with current projector technology.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Setup: Thanks to the four independently adjustable legs, and power zoom, focus and lens shift, setup was easy. The generous lens shift should accommodate numerous installations, in particular tricky ceilings, without having to resort to complex extended mounts. Focus was extremely sharp everywhere on the screen, a testament to Sony's excellent lens.

The VW350ES can work with anamorphic lenses (both 1.24x and 1.32x) but it lacks the multiple lens memories of a JVC's projectors and step-up Sonys, for example, so it's not as convenient to use with ultra-wide (2.35:1) screens. As I expect from a three-chip projector in this range, there is a panel alignment control, which I didn't need to use since there were no panel alignment issues on my sample.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture settings: Sony errs on the side of relative simplicity among high-end projectors, but there's still plenty to choose from. A total of nine adjustable picture mode are available for each of the two inputs.

Sony's Reality Creation processing adjustment includes a great new extra labeled "Test." It allows you to toggle between an unprocessed image and one that's affected by whatever "Resolution" and "Noise Filtering" value you set using those sliders, allowing you to easily evaluate the effects. As usual for high-quality sources (4K in particular) I preferred to leave Reality Creation turned off, but for lower-quality sources it can be a real boon. There's also a MotionFlow control that handles various smoothing and motion handling modes, from extreme Soap Opera Effect to true 24p film cadence.

Sony's Cinema Black Pro settings allow you to choose toggle a Contrast Enhancer on or off -- it's just processing, since the VW350ES lacks a mechanical iris whether dynamic or static -- and choose between high and low lamp settings. We stuck with Low since the unit has plenty of light output for a dark room and 120-inch, but for larger screens and situations with some ambient light, High might come in handy.

There are four color temperature presets and five custom color temperature memories, but true to Sony form, none of them allows 10-point adjustment, just two-point. Gamma is also likewise reliant on presets, with a total of 11 different choices. I did appreciate the inclusion of a color management system, however, and it worked relatively well.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Connectivity: Both of the two HDMI inputs can handle input resolutions up to 4K at 60 frames per second (4:2:0 chroma subsampling only), so they qualify as HDMI 2.0. Only the HDMI 2 input offers HDCP 2.2 compliance, however, so if you have a device that requires it -- like Sony's FMP-X10 4K media player, for example -- you can only use that one input.

I expect forthcoming 4K Blu-ray players will also require HDCP 2.2 connections, so it would be nice if both inputs supported it, but that isn't the case. On the other hand, most high-end projection installations utilize a single long HDMI cable as an umbilical between a single HDMI port on the projector and an HDMI switching device, like an AV receiver, it's not a deal breaker. Some new high-end AV devices, such as Sony's ES line, offer multiple HDMI inputs and an HDMI output with HDCP 2.2. I'm sure Sony would be happy to sell you one to go with your new projector.

Some projectors at this level, like Epson's LS10000, also include analog video inputs and RGB PC inputs, but their omission on the Sony isn't a big deal in our book.

Beyond the two HDMI the projector also includes a USB port (for software updates only) an Ethernet/Lan port (for control only), two remote triggers, an IR remote port, an RS-232 serial remote port.

Picture quality

The VPL-VW350ES delivers an amazing picture. The best-performing projector we've ever reviewed is still JVC's DLA-X700R thanks to its stellar contrast ratio, anchored by inky-deep black levels. The Sony VPL-VW350ES comes extremely close to its overall picture quality, such that both deserved a 10 in my book. I still prefer the JVC's contrast to the Sony's slightly more accurate color and shadow detail (and, with certain 4K sources, extra resolution) but I can certainly see how some viewers might disagree.

Aside from the lighter black levels I could find almost nothing wrong with the Sony's performance compared with its peers. From color accuracy to gamma to video processing, all was top-notch and as good as I expected from a projector this expensive.

As always with my projector tests I used a 120-inch diagonal Stewart Filmscreen StudioTek 130 G3 screen. For comparisons I used my lab's custom two-shelf ceiling mount in conjunction with a floor stand that allowed me to compare all three projectors calibrated to 22fL on the same screen by sending the same source (for 1080p testing) or different sources (for 4K testing) and alternately block light from each. This method has disadvantages compared with the side-by-side testing I do for TVs, but it's as effective as I can get without getting CNET to spring for three screens (and the space to set them up). Maybe next year.

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