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

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These guys are psyched for projector testing. Sarah Tew/CNET

4K sources testing

The number of 4K sources is steadily growing, and for this review I was fortunate to have the best one currently available on-hand: Sony's own FMP-X10 media player, loaded up with a variety of shorts and full-length movies. The majority of my 4K testing was performed with the X10.

Most of its 4K videos looked spectacular, but the most visually impressive to me was "The Official 2014 FIFA World Cup Film." The documentary mixes slow shots of Brazil and its fans with soccer football highlights from the games. All of it looked breathtaking, but the game footage in particular was superb. This is one of the few pieces of content I've seen in 4K/60, and the faster frame rate lent the games a visceral immediacy that, combined with the huge, sharp image and highly saturated (some might say oversaturated) colors, was a visual feast. The wide crowd shots, the carnivale costumes, the faces of the players and of course the blades of green (too green?) grass and the flying balls, all of it looked unbelievably good.

Unfortunately there's no 1080p Blu-ray version I know of, so to isolate the impact of 4K resolution itself I turned to Hollywood films. For my resolution comparisons I sat about 9 feet from my 120-inch screen, which is basically the front row of a very large home theater. At that distance the huge image was exceedingly immersive, and sitting any closer verged on being uncomfortable for me. Closer distances also exposed the 1080p projectors' pixel structure (the screen door effect) in brighter areas, but at the distance I chose the 1080p grid of pixels was invisible. I connected the Sony projector to the Sony 4K player directly, and connected the JVC and Epson projectors to an Oppo Blu-ray player playing the corresponding Blu-ray disc at 1080p.

Sony's FMP-X10 4K media player Sarah Tew/CNET

I started with "After Earth" not because I'm a masochist, but because it's one of the newer films available from the X10's 4K service, and was shot using Sony's own F65 digital camera. I was a bit surprised to see that, even with such a large image from relatively close, it was difficult to discern a difference.

In most scenes I couldn't tell the 4K projector from the 1080p units in terms of detail. Yes, other picture quality characteristics like black level/contrast, color and gamma were more obvious. But in terms of actual resolution, the differences I noticed were very subtle and only visible in select scenes. For example, during Cypher's bout with the painkiller in Chapter 5 (35:25), the pores on and stubble in the extreme closeup of his face looked just a bit sharper on the 4K projector.

Other scenes I checked, for example the interior of the wrecked ship at the beginning of Chapter 4, the plants and rocks and the face of Kitai in Chapter 5, and the trees, field and undergrowth in Chapter 6, all appeared basically identical in detail between the three projectors. If I was shown these scenes in blind test, I would have to guess which was the 4K version.

I compared scenes from a few other films from Sony's 4K player as well, namely "Elysium," "Fury," "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Lawrence of Arabia," and none of them showed an eye-opening increase in detail and sharpness compared to the Blu-ray versions.

Looking closely I did notice something slightly sharper in some scenes, for example scuffs on the robot and the droplets and pores in Max's face from Chapter 4 of "Elysium," or the faces and uniforms as well as the tank exterior, from Chapter 3 of "Fury," or the hair and harness of the camel from Chapter 6 of "Lawrence." In every case it was quite subtle however, and in most scenes I couldn't easily discern differences.

I had the highest hopes for "Lawrence" but 4K didn't really deliver a noticeable improvement. Perhaps it's because the Blu-ray restoration is so good, or maybe the 4K version on the Sony X10 could be better, but whatever the reason it was tough to tell the two apart, despite looking hard at multiple scenes. Among all the films I watched "Lawrence" does have the most film grain, and "Fury" is pretty grainy, too. I wouldn't be surprised if that contributed to the less than massive improvement to those films when seen in 4K.

Among all the films I sampled on the Sony player I saw the biggest differences in "No Good Deed," another terrible movie shot on the F65. Most scenes looked noticeably sharper in 4K than on the 1080p Blu-ray version. During the parole hearing in Chapter 1, for example, I saw a bit more detail in Colin's face, as well as in the the rich pattern of the jacket of the outspoken parole board member. In Chapter 2 the house of Teri showed a bit more detail too. Certain scenes showed less of a difference, but in most that I compared, I could tell. The JVC looked better than the Epson in most scenes for detail, but both lagged a bit behind the 4K Sony.

Again, however the Blu-ray still looked great in terms of detail and I doubt most viewers would find anything "soft" about its image from any of these projectors, even at 120 inches seen from nine feet away. After while of comparing both, however, I learned to look for the telltale clarity of the 4K version, and on the huge screen from my close seat it truly looked even more spectacular.

In terms of resolution the 4K version of "No Good Deed" from the Sony FMP-X10 is the best-looking Hollywood film I've seen in my lab, and makes me excited to see how good 4K Blu-ray will look -- given a suitably large screen and close seat, of course.

I did run into a strange issue with the X10 and the VW350ES. At times with film sources (3,840x2,160/24p) I'd notice unnatural judder and when I checked the projector's info screen, it indicated it was receiving a 3840x2160/60p signal. The issue persisted no matter which of the two MotionFlow settings (Off or Inpulse) I tried. I assume there's some kind of HDMI handshake or EDID issue between the two units, but either way it was annoying. Stopping and restarting the film was usually enough to get the projector to revert to the correct 24p display. I have a query in to Sony about this issue.

I didn't test 4K gaming or any 4K streaming sources for this review. With the 4K TVs I've reviewed in the past, 4K streams from Netflix and Amazon, for example, look as good as the Blu-ray at best, and often look worse. Games and other PC sources can look great in 4K, however, and obviously gaming on a huge screen at 4K is pretty much the epitome of friggin' awesome. I hope to explore that aspect of 4K more in the future.

One quick note on 4K gaming with this projector: while the VW350ES' input lag reduction circuit performed very well with 1080p sources (see below), I was not able to measure input lag in 4K since my Bodnar lag tester only puts out 1080p. So I don't know whether 4K gamers with this projector will experience the same low-lag performance as they would gaming in 1080p.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

1080p sources testing

The remainder of my tests with the Sony VPL-VW350ES were conducted as normal with high-def sources, typically 1080p Blu-rays and my usual array of test pattern generators.

Black level and white level: The Sony got nice and deep, but it couldn't match the depth of black delivered by the JVC. During "After Earth" as the ship cruises through space, for example, the black of the letterbox bars and the void itself appeared deeper and inkier on the JVC compared with the Sony. Meanwhile the Epson looked about as good as the Sony, although if I had to choose between them for black level I'd pick the Epson. According to my meter the Sony also measured the lightest black, with the JVC by far the winner.

Shadow detail was impressive on the VW350ES, and after calibration it hit my target gamma very well. In dark scenes, such as the dim interior of the crashed ship, I saw slightly more detail in the Sony than on the JVC, while the Epson was about as good as the Sony.

The Sony can get somewhat brighter than the JVC but it's no light cannon -- and that's fine for the dedicated, light-controlled theaters for which these projectors are designed. With a full-screen white pattern in the brightest default picture modes (Bright TV/Bright Cinema) the Sony VW350ES measured 36.5 fL. Compare that to the JVC (32.7 in Stage) and the Epson LS10000 (52.5 in Dynamic). The Epson is quite a bit brighter than the others but its Dynamic mode is exceedingly, sickeningly green, a trick many projector makers use to increase brightness (the Epson's brightest mode with decent color is LIving Room at 28 fL). The JVC's Stage mode is also quite green, so between the three, I'd still pick the Sony if I was worried about light output and wanted to get good color.

In lumens, a measurement that eliminates the variable of my screen, those measurements work out to 1199 for the Sony, 1074 for the JVC and 1725 for the Epson in Dynamic mode (920 in Living Room). Thanks to Chris Heinonen for the lumens calculator.

Color accuracy: Speaking of good color, the Sony has it in spades. Our measurements both before calibration pegged Reference as the best mode of the bunch, but its color temperature was off significantly. After calibration--something I highly recommend with any projector this expensive -- it was nearly perfect, with all color measurements coming in below the nominal threshold of perception (DeltaE 2000 < 3).

In program material skin tones, natural objects and shadows all looked appropriately realistic, and as good or better than the other two projectors. On the "Samsara" Blu-ray, for example, the green of the jungle around temples and the tones of the monks' and prison guards' faces looked natural and realistic. All three projectors were exceedingly accurate but the Sony had the best measurements, and to my eye produced the most accurate color by a nose over the JVC, and a bit more over the Epson.

Video processing: The VW350ES did very well in this category. Its MotionFlow options are extensive and varied enough that even film buffs might want to try one or two aside from Off (for HD sources, that is; only Off and Impulse are available with 4K sources). Three of the modes, Off, TrueCinema and Impulse, kept proper 1080p/24 film cadence according to my "I Am Legend" test. Between the three I'd use TrueCinema for most film-based (24p) material since I'm sensitive the the occasional flicker of Impulse, but some viewers might like its more "old-timey cinema" effect.

The Smooth High and Smooth Low modes are basically two strengths of Soap Opera Effect, and unlike the three with proper cadence they do deliver 600 lines of motion resolution. If you're the kind of viewer who's very sensitive to blurring you might want to check out the last mode, called Combination. It manages the same motion resolution as the Smooth modes but with a less smoothing.

Sony has always been a leader in reducing input lag (maybe it's the company's heritage in gaming) and the VW350ES is a great example. With the Input Lag Reduction setting engaged I measured about 36.5ms lag, lower than the JVC and the Epson, and any other projector we've tested aside from the BenQ W1070 at 33.7ms. If you disable that mode on the Sony, lag nearly triples to 122ms.

The upconversion of HD sources to the Sony's 4K resolution was superb, but as usual it didn't add any extra detail I could discern. I compared all three projectors using the "Samsara" Blu-ray at 1080p and it looked equally (spectacularly) sharp and detailed during select scenes, such as the face of the Himalayan woman and the monks' Mandala in Chapter 5, and the jewelry and visages of the yellow-clad dancers from Chapter 29. Flipping back and forth between the three projectors, if I had to pick one as the sharpest I'd choose the Sony, but the difference was so minuscule that I doubt I could guess correctly with any consistency.

Bright lighting: With cheaper projectors we test how the image looks with some light in the room (usually pretty bad), but in this projector's case that's a waste of time. If you're spending $10K on a projector this good and you're watching in a room with any light at all, you're doing it wrong.

3D: [updated May 4, 2015] When this review was originally published I was unable to test 3D because none of the 3D glasses I tried would properly pair with my review unit. I asked Sony to send its newest glasses, the TDG-BT500A, and they paired properly, allowing me to test 3D.

Compared to the JVC and the Epson, the Sony is the best 3D performer, delivering the least crosstalk (that ghostly double image that plagues active 3D systems) and the best pre-calibration image. I checked out all three using the "Hugo" Blu-ray, my go-to 3D test disc, and while the Epson and Sony were relatively close in terms of crosstalk reduction, the Sony was the best.

Some crosstalk was visible, especially in the most difficult scenes like the stomach-churning extreme 3D of the Inspector leaning in toward Hugo (44:27), but the Sony's was consistently the least-noticeable. The Sony also handled tough high-contrast adjacent areas, like the bright edges of the railing (2:06) or the black lines of the drawing on the white pages of the sketchbook (at 6:18), the best. The Epson did look better in other spots, like the edge of Méliès head and hand as he dozes in Chapter 1, however, and generally held its own against the Sony. The JVC fell a good deal behind the other two in its crosstalk reduction.

I don't calibrate for 3D but it's worth noting that in their best default picture settings--THX 3D for the Epson and JVC, and Reference 3D for the Sony--the image on the Sony was the most pleasing to my eye. Its image was punchy, vibrant and relatively bright, with accurate color and shadow detail. The Epson looked flatter, less saturated and dimmer by comparison, while the JVC was dimmer still, with crushed blacks and inaccurate colors. Of course a good 3D calibration would likely put them all on a much more even plane, but I suspect the Sony (as it did with 2D) would still manage to deliver the most light (with accurate color), which is much more important in 3D because the glasses attenuate light so much.

I also found Sony's TDG-BT500A specs the best of the three. They're the lightest and most comfortable, followed by the medium-weight Epsons and the relatively chunky JVCs. Of course, Epson has the cost advantage in that it's the only one of the three to include glasses in the box.

I also tried pairing a number of other 3D glasses with the projector, including the Sony TDG-BT400A, the Panasonic TY-ER3D4MU , and the Samsung SSG-5150GB and SSG-5100GB. All worked properly. I'm not sure exactly what failed during my first test--perhaps it was an issue of interference from other Bluetooth devices--but in any case things worked much better the second time.

Geek Box

Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.003 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.39 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 1.285 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 1.799 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 1.558 Good
Avg. color error 0.789 Good
Red error 1.029 Good
Green error 0.416 Good
Blue error 1.599 Good
Cyan error 0.581 Good
Magenta error 0.586 Good
Yellow error 0.525 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i De-interlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 600 Average
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 300 Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 36.1 Good

Geek Box

Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.003 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.39 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 1.285 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 1.799 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 1.558 Good
Avg. color error 0.789 Good
Red error 1.029 Good
Green error 0.416 Good
Blue error 1.599 Good
Cyan error 0.581 Good
Magenta error 0.586 Good
Yellow error 0.525 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i De-interlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 600 Average
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 300 Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 36.1 Good

Sony VPL-VW350ES CNET review calibration results

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