Sony's newest home theater projector, the VPL-HW50ES, is making quite a splash. This is not because it brings any revolutionary new features -- its feature list looks largely the same as other home theater projectors -- but because it produces an image that is technically perfect. Its picture is razor-sharp, crystal-clear, perfectly color-balanced, with outstanding contrast and black levels. It manages to do all of this while also cranking out north of 900 lumens.
However, for that additional technical picture precision, there is a commensurate increase in cost. The HW50ES costs $3,999 direct from Sony, putting it above direct competitors that are under $3,000. While the HW50 does come with some extras like a spare lamp and two pairs of 3D glasses, some will see value in the HW50's incrementally precise picture while others will not.
The Viewing Experience
If there's one thing we learned about the Sony HW50ES it's that a light-controlled room is required to bring out the best this projector has to offer. While the HW50ES can produce upwards of 1300 lumens in a 6500K color-calibrated mode, using it in a living room or other area with significant ambient light will neutralize some of the projector's best features.
We set up the HW50 in a light-controlled room on a rear shelf. "Light-controlled," in case you're not familiar, means that not only is there no ambient light, but also that reflective surfaces are covered or otherwise made non-reflective. Reflected light bouncing back onto the screen is often responsible for a loss of contrast, and controlling it as much as possible can give you a better picture. We went with a rear shelf placement because the projector's manual H/V lens shift and 1.6:1 zoom lens make it easy to use such a mount.
The first thing learned about the HW50 is that it's bright. Using Cinema Film 1 mode with the lamp at full power and projecting a 100" diagonal image, we measured 31.5 foot-Lamberts on our Stewart Studiotek 100 -- almost double the recommended 16 fL. If you were to use a 1.3 gain screen, it would measure about 41 fL. The solutions, as always, are to switch to low lamp mode (thereby lowering light output by almost 40%), use a larger or lower gain screen, and to use the zoom lens to soak up some of the excess output. You can also curtail light output by closing down the iris manually, which can be extremely useful.
A 120" diagonal 1.3-gain screen would measure 18 fL with the HW50 in Cinema Film 1 and low lamp mode. That is just about perfect. Even using the maximum telephoto end of the zoom lens only drops screen brightness to 15 fL. In other words, you're in the ideal range for screen brightness on a 120" diagonal screen and you still get to take advantage of low lamp mode's increased lifespan. And because the HW50 is capable of producing much more light when necessary, you can keep that same 120" screen size when watching 3D without worrying about image brightness.
Once you have the HW50 set up properly, it's not hard to get a great picture out of it. Our testing mostly used the projector's Cinema Film 1 mode plus some adjustments of our own, which we'll get into more fully later in this review. With those adjustments, the HW50 put a picture on the screen that's not just bright but also high in contrast, well color-balanced, and exceptionally sharp and detailed. The HW50 has all of the hallmarks of a videophile projector, the most important of which is a faithful, accurate reproduction of the source material.