Sony got into the widescreen projector business long before most other vendors were even thinking about it. Due to their long track record of delivering more and better performance for the money, each new Sony widescreen projector is anticipated with eager enthusiasm. The new VPL-HS20, which just started shipping last quarter, represents the best value for the money that Sony has yet delivered.
The HS20 is a native 16:9 widescreen format projector with three 0.87" 1386x788 resolution LCD panels incorporating Micro Lens Array. It is rated at 1400 ANSI lumens of brightness, and up to 1300:1 full on/off contrast.
The HS20 features vertical keystone correction as well as horizontal keystone correction under the marketing name "Sideshot." This enables you to set the projector off axis either vertically or horizontally from the center of the screen and still square up the image. It also offers an "IRIS," which is an adjustable lens aperture that the user can open for maximum brightness or close for lower lumen output and better contrast.
Air intakes are on the bottom of the unit, and exhaust is out the front panel, making it suitable for shelf-mounting on a rear wall should that be a desired option. Bear in mind however that the projector is 15" from front to rear, and the connection panel located on the rear of the unit will require an extra six inches of clearance for cables. Therefore the mounting shelf will need to be larger than that of a typical bookshelf.
Standard lens. Power zoom and focus with a moderate throw distance. A 100" diagonal 16:9 image is attained from a throw distance between 12.6 to 15 feet. The zoom range is 1.25x, which has been rounded to 1.3x in published specs. (Note: if the standard lens does not meet your throw distance requirements, Sony offers (at extra cost) an optional short throw conversion lens or a long throw conversion lens. These conversion lenses were not tested in this review.)
Size and Weight. The unit is 14" wide, 15" deep, 5" tall, and weighs 12 lbs.
Connection panel. Located on the rear of the unit. Includes one DVI-D (w/ HDCP) digital input for RGB and component, one HDMI port, one set of 3-RCA component jacks, one of Sony's custom "PJ-Multi" ports that will accommodate computer, component, video and S-video signals via a single 10-meter custom cable that is provided with the unit, one S-video port, and one composite jack. In addition to the signal input connections on the rear panel, the HS20 has a MediaStick slot on the front panel that lets you view either still pictures or movies recorded on that medium.
Signal Compatibility. 480i, 480p, 575i, 575p, 720p, 1080i, and computer resolutions VGA 640x480 through XGA 1024x768 and 1280x768. Color systems include NTSC, NTSC 4.43, PAL, PAL-M, PAL-N, SECAM.
Fan noise. Two operating modes are available. In normal mode with highest light output the audible noise is low and quite usable for home theater. Low fan mode reduces light output by about 20%, increase lamp life from 2000 hours up to 3000 hours, and reduces fan noise incrementally.
Color-correcting filter. Sony offers an optional light magenta glass filter for the HS20 which screws onto the lens housing. Magenta is the absence of green, so you can think of this as a "minus green" filter that absorbs excess green light emanating from the lamp, thus rendering more accurate color overall. The color shift is particularly evident in flesh tones. By blocking some of the light in the green portion of the spectrum, the filter reduces overall lumen output of the projector. This filter does not come standard with the HS20, but the part number is 4-091-845-01. It can be ordered domestically by calling Sony at 1-800-488-7669.
Overall, the HS20 is an excellent projector for the money, with unique and particularly impressive performance in HDTV. Due to its very high resolution LCD panels with Micro Lens Array and superb hi-def scaling, HDTV 1080i images are rendered with no pixelation, and with acute precision that is unmatched in projectors in this price range. If your primary concern is for the best possible picture from HDTV for street prices in the range of about $3,000, read no further-go order an HS20.
With DVD sources the HS20 also delivers very satisfying images. However overall image quality from DVD does not stand out above the competition in the same manner that its HDTV performance does. Part of this is due to the resolution limitations of the signal itself which do not improve with the incrementally higher physical resolution of the display. But it is also due in part to the plastic lens shield that covers the recessed lens. This shield is required to keep dust out of the machine, but it slightly softens the image on the screen. If there is an HS30 in our future, we hope Sony engineers will either eliminate the need for the shield, or incorporate a shield of higher optical purity. (Yes, the shield slightly compromises HDTV also, but the acuity of the HDTV image is so pristine to start with, it is still amazing even with the shield in place.)
There has been a lot of confusion over light output of the HS20. Some say the unit is quite bright, and others have reported that it is unexpectedly dim. The fact is that it can be either, or anything in between depending upon how you set it up. Sony's published specifications indicate 1400 ANSI lumens. As reported earlier, upon arrival our test unit was putting out less than 400 lumens even at its brightest settings. However, it turns out that the lamp was faulty. With a new lamp installed, brightness immediately improved by a factor of 2.5x.
Nevertheless, the theoretical brightness rating of 1400 lumens gives consumers the impression that this unit is substantially brighter than other widescreen LCD projectors on the market. Not so. There are a variety of ways to set up the HS20 depending on your needs and uses. But once you have optimized the system for video display the HS20 will not deliver anywhere close to 1400 lumens to the screen. All projectors fall below their theoretical lumen output specs after calibration, but this one falls farther below spec than most.
You attain the brightest possible output on the HS20 with the IRIS open, lamp/fan on high, color temperature on high, and no color-correcting filter in place (in other words, worst possible settings for good video). With this combination of settings we measured our test sample at 952 ANSI lumens. Then we began to make changes and measure the impact on lumen output.
First, we switched the color temperature from factory preset high to factory preset low, which brought it closer to the ideal temperature for NTSC video. That dropped lumen output 20%. Second, closing the IRIS to increase contrast dropped lumen output by 33%. Third, we added the optional color-correcting filter. That reduced lumen output by 40%. Finally, dropping the lamp mode from high to low reduced lumen output by 15%. So the bottom line is that, depending upon your choices in setting the unit up, you will net anywhere from 300 to about 700 ANSI lumens of actual light on the screen.
The largest single factor that impacts lumen output is the color correcting filter, which as we said cuts brightness by about 40%. Videophiles will want to use this filter for optimum film viewing in a dark theater environment, but it is not needed for video games, television, sports events, and other subject matter where precise color is already nonexistent. Keep in mind that the human brain deploys its own real-time color-compensating filters, and your brain will think flesh tones will look largely natural in most scenes on the HS20 even when the color-correcting filter is not in use.
So you can experiment with the filter to see if it is right for you. Sony is to be commended for including it as an option. You may wish to use the filter part time based upon subject matter if you table mount or shelf mount the unit. But if you ceiling mount it, climbing the stepladder and taking the filter on and off is not a routine you will want to incorporate into your daily life. [Personally speaking, though the color on the HS20 is already quite good, we achieved even better overall color balance with the use of the filter. Though it cuts lumen output, the overall screen illumination on a 100" diagonal screen is still plenty sufficient to produce a very satisfying image. If I were to install the HS20 permanently in my theater (which I would be quite happy to do by the way), I would use the filter. EP 2/5/04]
Therefore to sum up the lumen discussion, we advise that you disregard the published lumen specifications. Also, be suspicious of any retailer who sets up an HS20 demo on a relatively small projection screen and runs Toy Story or some other animated film as the demo clip. The brilliant image you see in that demo is not going to be what you get once you install it and optimize it for quality film viewing. The fact is that you do not buy the HS20 for its lumen output. You buy it for its image quality.
LCD makers continue to improve the contrast performance of this technology, and this is the highest contrast unit we've seen from Sony. From a competitive perspective, contrast on the HS20 is on par with the other new widescreen LCD products. Contrast performance is variable based upon the way you prefer to use it. We saw a bit more blocking up in the shadow details that we would have expected from a projector with a 1300:1 rating, even with the system set to optimize contrast. So as with the lumen rating, the contrast rating is not really indicative of the results you will see on the screen. Nevertheless there is more overall snap and sparkle on the HS20 than there was on earlier Sony products. Having said that, if your primary criterion in the selection of a projector is contrast performance, you will probably want to consider DLP-based products rather than any of the new LCD units.
Two especially noteworthy attributes of the HS20 are brightness uniformity and the lack of visible pixelation. For all practical purposes, brightness uniformity is perfect on this unit. Light intensity faded by about 10% from the center of the screen to the left edge, and but only 5% from the center to the right edge. These subtleties are imperceptible to the human eye. The evenness of illumination on the HS20 is simply as good as it gets on digital projectors.
Due to the very high physical resolution (1388x788) of the LCD panels and the use of Micro Lens Array, pixelation is not visible at all from any normal viewing distance. The HS20 cannot really be beat in this regard. You'd need to spend at least double the money for a 1280x720 resolution DLP projector to match the invisible pixelation of the HS20.
Sony promotes the "SideShot" horizontal and vertical keystone correction feature as a benefit of the HS20. And it is true that if you have no other option but to set the projector off center this feature works quite well in letting you square up the image. Keep in mind however that setting the unit far off center and using radical keystone adjustments will reduce both physical resolution and brightness of the image on the screen. It is not the ideal way to deploy the HS20, or any other projector for that matter.
In terms of pure price/performance the VPL-HS20 is the best widescreen home theater projector Sony has yet delivered. We recommend using it in a darkened viewing space to take full advantage of its video optimizing features, which consequently reduce its light output. It is easy to use and easy to install, a great multipurpose projection system for television, HDTV, DVD, video games, and Internet surfing. You get a lot of projector for the money with the HS20. And if you plan to watch a lot of HDTV 1080i, the HS20 is the best deal in town in its price range. Due in particular to its exceptional performance as an HDTV projector, we are pleased to include it among our Highly Recommended home theater projectors..