Sony VPL-HS3: projection for less
Over the last year or so, LCD front projectors have made great leaps forward in producing deeper blacks. The Sony VPL-HS3 ($1,499 list) is a good example. It's not perfect, but its image would look right at home in a shoestring home theater.
The projector's curved box is a refreshing departure from the little rectangular boxes that you usually see on projectors in this price range. Power, input, and menu buttons are joined on the left side by a small joystick for menu navigation. Like most projectors, the VPL-HS3 ships with a tiny remote. This one covers all the basics and has dedicated buttons for each picture mode. Most of the buttons are backlit.
At only 858x484, the HS3's native resolution falls well short of HDTV but still has plenty of pixels for wide-screen DVD. Unlike some projectors in this class, the VPL-HS3 includes both vertical and horizontal keystoning. Sony calls the horizontal variety Side Shot.
In fact, Sony has a special little name for everything. The HS3 has six picture modes, including three user-defined modes keyed to each input. The best option for movies and television is the Cinema setting, which engages the projector's iris control to keep the black level as low as possible. There's also a Black Level Adjust menu option that "emphasizes black color," according to Sony. To get the most out of the dark end of your grayscale, it pays to set this to High.
You can turn on the 2:3 pull-down circuit by setting Sony's Dynamic Detail Enhancer (DDE) to Film. Aspect-ratio controls include Full (anamorphic), Normal (4:3), Zoom (letterbox), Wide Zoom (to expand 4:3 sources so they fill the screen), and more.
Connectivity options include one S-Video, one composite-video, one stereo RCA, and one HDMI input, in addition to Sony's proprietary PJMulti input. The projector ships with a breakout cable to connect the PJMulti input to the component, S-Video, or composite-video output of a source. You have to order another cable if you want to connect a PC.
Out of the box, the VPL-HS3's color temperature measured better than that of many displays but was still blue (see the geek box). After calibration, it became noticeably more accurate, especially for a relatively inexpensive LCD. The color decoder evinced some red push and not quite enough green. Regrettably, the service menu does not include a fix for this. While reds looked a little too orange and greens looked somewhat limey, they looked more accurate than those on many LCDs we've seen.
The VPL-HS3 delivered decent black-level performance during The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In the dark battle scenes of chapter 23, "Retreat to the Hornburg," much of the delicate detail in the combatants' armor remained visible. We also enjoyed the VPL-HS3's near lack of false contouring. The restaurant sequence of Digital Video Essentials looked almost completely smooth.