Sony BRAVIA VPL-HW15
1080p SXRD Home Theater Projector
September 9, 2009
Sony's newest projector, the Sony HW15, was just announced today at the CEDIA expo. This 1080p SXRD projector, which is Sony's implementation of LCOS, features a 60,000:1 contrast ratio, whisper-quiet operation, and a flexible 1.6:1 zoom lens with vertical and horizontal shift. Most importantly, it has a great picture, with bright highlights, inky deep blacks, and vibrant color.
The HW15 succeeds Sony's HW10, which we reviewed in November of last year. While the spec sheets look similar, the HW15 does have some improvements which should make it even more attractive to the home theater enthusiast. Most notably, brightness has been increased in Cinema mode by 20%, on/off contrast has been improved with deeper blacks and brighter highlights, and the price has been lowered, making it the least expensive 1080p LCOS projector ever released. You can expect to find the HW15 very soon for $3000 retail.
Lumen output. The HW15 is rated at 1,000 lumens, as was its predecessor, the HW10. In Cinema mode, using high lamp and the lens's widest angle setting, our test sample measured 830 ANSI lumens. This is a modest boost from the HW10, which already had a very bright Cinema mode at 697 lumens. This gives the HW15 one of the brightest Cinema modes we've seen, and makes it a versatile, flexible projector for use in almost any viewing environment.
Low lamp mode introduces a significant drop of 30%, so Cinema mode is reduced to 575 lumens. This setting still produces enough light for a 150" screen in a light-controlled room. If you find high lamp mode to be too bright for your room, which is quite likely if you have good light control, low lamp mode can help curtail lumen output to a more reasonable level.
The HW15, like the HW10, has a 1.6:1 manual zoom lens. This lens transmits the maximum amount of light when using the wide angle setting, or the largest possible image at a given distance. Using the telephoto end of the zoom lens introduces a drop in lumen output of 22%. In a worst-case scenario, when using Cinema mode with the low lamp setting and the telephoto end of the zoom lens, the HW15 measures 443 lumens. This is still more than enough light for a 120" diagonal 16:9 screen in a light-controlled room, so the bottom line on the HW15 is that it's bright enough for just about any traditional home theater application. The high maximum light output also means you could use the projector to watch HD sports or play video games with the room lights turned up and still have a fairly pleasant picture.
Contrast. The HW15 is rated at 60,000:1 on/off contrast, while the HW10 is rated 30,000:1. There is indeed an increase in apparent contrast when compared to the older model, but it does not appear to be two-fold. Even though there has been a clear increase in on/off contrast, ANSI contrast is about the same. The HW10 measured 416:1, which is the highest ANSI contrast we've measured on any LCOS projector, while the HW15 measured 409:1. This is functionally irrelevant, and one can say that the HW10 and HW15 have identical ANSI contrast.
The projector's auto iris is effective, and significantly boosts on/off contrast in typical use. However, its adjustments can sometimes be seen with the naked eye, and it is one of those phenomena that, once seen, cannot be unseen. If the action of the auto-iris bothers you, the automatic adjustment can be disabled, and it can then be adjusted manually on a scale from 0 to 100. Closing the iris completely reduces lumen output by 87%, so it is an effective way to curtail lumen output if you are using low lamp mode and still find the image too bright for your liking.
Color. The HW15 has fairly accurate color straight out of the box. The "Medium" color temperature setting tracked closer to the ideal 6500 Kelvin white balance than the default "Warm." For videophiles, the HW15 includes several custom color temperature settings which can be fine-tuned to your specific preferences and saved. Each custom setting has one of the existing presets as a baseline, so (for example) you can start from "Medium" color temperature and work towards your goal. This makes adjusting color balance much less arduous. The controls are intuitive and responsive, so tuning the HW15 is a snap. When placed next to the Samsung A900, which has reference-quality color when calibrated correctly, it was often difficult to see a difference between the two projectors in terms of color accuracy. For a projector at its price point, the Sony HW15 does an excellent job.
No visible pixelation. The HW15 has no visible pixelation - not even a hint. Even when standing with your nose to the screen, it is difficult to discern any sort of inter-pixel gap or screen door effect. This inherent smoothness makes the HW15 a good choice for very large image sizes, as the audience will not see any pixelation. While 1080p projectors usually have images which are nearly free of pixelation, the HW15 is outstanding even among its peers.
Placement Flexibility. The HW15 has a 1.6:1 manual zoom lens with vertical and horizontal lens shift, making it simple to install and position. Horizontal lens shift has a range of 1.6 screen widths (a shift of 30% in either direction), while vertical shift allows for a total range of two image heights. This allows the image to be placed completely above or completely below the centerline of the lens, making it easy to mount the projector on a coffee table, rear shelf, or ceiling mount. One thing to note is that the extreme edges of the vertical and horizontal shift cannot be used simultaneously. Think of the lens shift range as an oval, rather than a rectangle -- the more horizontal shift you use, the less vertical you can apply, and vice versa.
Quiet Operation. Fan noise on the HW15 is almost nonexistent. The projector only produces 22dB of audible noise in high lamp mode, and even less in low lamp. Even using high altitude mode, the projector did not get loud enough to engage the sensor on our sound pressure level meter. Unless you position the projector directly next to your ear, chances are very good that you'll never hear it in operation.
Inexpensive. At $3000, the HW15 is the lowest-cost 1080p LCOS machine yet released. This new price point opens up the benefits of LCOS performance (excellent black level, no visible pixelation, and extra-quiet operation) to many more consumers who may have previously been too budget-conscious to consider the technology.
Panel alignment feature. One of the little-acknowledged truths of projectors is that any multi-panel light engine may be susceptible to alignment problems. LCOS, LCD, and 3-chip DLP projectors, each of which use three panels to create an image, can sometimes have issues with imperfect alignment, resulting in color shift across part or all of the image. The easiest way to check alignment is to display a white-on-black crosshatch pattern and inspect the individual bright lines. If you see any colored pixels around the edges of the white pixels, this could be an alignment problem.
With most projectors, there is no way to fix this issue - you can either send it back to the manufacturer and hope that it's covered under warranty, or you can buy a new projector and hope for the best. The HW15, though, has a feature which allows the user to adjust the alignment of the LCOS panels, which should correct for any mild panel misalignment issues you come across.
No frame interpolation. Frame interpolation is a feature of interest to many people these days. Some people enjoy the reduction of judder associated with 24p film content, while others feel that it detracts from the "purity" of the image or that it looks artificial. Personally, I like to keep my options open, so I appreciate it when a projector includes an optional frame interpolation system, even if I do not plan to use it myself. The HW15 does not offer this, so if you want your next projector to incorporate such a feature, you're out of luck.
Lens not powered. The HW15 has a manual zoom and focus lens, which makes it more difficult to adjust the projector. 1080p projectors represent the pinnacle of home theater, and bring an exceptional amount of detail and clarity to the screen. Other projectors in this price range often have powered zoom/focus lenses, which make it much easier to obtain perfect focus.
Cumbersome remote. The HW15 uses a larger remote control than the HW10 did. The remote has all of the typical adjustments, as well as some odd choices, such as brightness and contrast. These seem like the type of controls which, once adjusted, one would want to avoid accidentally changing; direct-access buttons on the remote seem counterproductive. Furthermore, the remote uses a bright blue backlight which can momentarily ruin your vision if you're not careful.
BRAVIA Sync. The HW15 has a feature known as BRAVIA sync, which allows HDMI devices to "talk" to one another. We discovered this when we turned off the power to the HW15 and found that our Panasonic Blu-Ray player had shut itself down as well. It turns out that we had inadvertently discovered BRAVIA Sync, and we can independently confirm that it functions quite well, even with non-Sony devices. This is more of a quirk than a limitation, and many people might even think of it as an advantage. The only reason we're listing it as a disadvantage is that we can't seem to find a way to turn it off.
Sony's new HW15 is their lowest-priced 1080p projector yet released. Despite the price, Sony has made few compromises regarding image quality and feature set. The HW15 improves upon the HW10 in several ways. It brings the best features of LCOS, like a silky-smooth film-like picture, deep black levels, and silent operation down to a price point that's accessible to more consumers.
Last year, in reference to the Sony HW10, we said it was "easily the finest projector from Sony we've yet seen." This year, we find ourselves in the pleasant position of having to make such a declaration once again. Sony have truly outdone themselves, taking a great projector and making it better - brighter in cinema mode, higher in contrast, and more accurate in its representation of color. It does all of these things, and yet manages to cost less than the HW10 did at launch. We give the Sony VPL-HW15 our Highly Rated award without reservation.