Native 4K SXRD Home Theater Projector
January 15, 2014
Though 1920x1080p has become the standard resolution for home theater projectors, the next wave of technological advance is upon us. 4K Ultra HD has a native resolution of 4096 pixels by 2160 pixels (the 4K name comes from the first number, rounded off). 4K has four times the pixels of 1080p, and it shows. 4K resolution projectors are now starting to become available, though they tend to be very expensive. The first reasonably priced 4K projector to make its way into our hands is the Sony VPL-VW600ES.
The VW600ES is a unique projector: a full 4K resolution SXRD home theater projector for $14,999. Though priced higher than most home theater projectors we review, it represents an outstanding value.
The Viewing Experience
At the moment there is not a lot of native 4K content available, so anyone purchasing the VW600ES will no doubt spend most of their time watching content that is not native 4K. So we tested the VW600ES using a wide variety of content, ranging from native 4K films to HD Blu-ray movies to standard-def DVDs, to see what the projector does with a variety of sources.
The most remarkable thing about the VW600ES is that, without fail, it knocked all of our tests out of the park. Every source we threw at it looked better than it ever had before. And we're not just talking about Blu-ray movies, either. We tested a number of DVDs, including some especially poor transfers like Bottle Shock. The DVD release is full of digital noise and compression artifacts and has a picture that could charitably be described as "messy." Nevertheless, the VW600ES did an admirable job of cleaning up the digital noise and up-converting the picture, performing nearly as well as our Oppo BDP-103 reference Blu-ray player did. And when given better quality source material, like Pixar's Ratatouille, the VW600ES can really shine.
Since 4K is equivalent to four times the pixels of 1080p, all non-4K sources are up-converted to 3840 x 2160 on the VW600. But rather than doing a simple line doubling pass in each direction, the VW600ES analyzes each frame of video and then interpolates to 4K in order to maximize detail clarity and sharpness. As a result, even highly detailed HD films appear to have more detail still when viewed on the VW600.
Usually, the farther you sit from your screen, the larger your screen has to be before you see the benefit of higher resolution. In other words, super high resolution is more obvious when viewed from up close. But the benefit of 4K resolution can be evident even at longer viewing distances. The THX maximum recommended seating distance for 1080p displays is 1.5 times the screen width. At this distance, there is more visible detail in the VW600's image than on a native 1080p display. In fact, this detail advantage is still visible at even longer viewing distances -- up to about 2 times the screen width by our testing, or about 14.5 feet from a 100" diagonal image.
While it is true that the maximum benefit of a 4K picture is not truly obtained until you are sitting very close to the screen, the cumulative effect of all of those extra pixels is not lost on the eye when seated farther away.
Let's spend a minute on the subject of visual acuity, which is the ability of our eyes to resolve detail. "20/20 vision" is defined as the ability to differentiate two points of light separated by one minute of arc (that is, 1/60th of one degree). For a 100" diagonal screen at a viewing distance of 1.5x screen width, the screen is roughly 2200 arc-minutes wide. In other words, you can see all of the 1920 pixels in a 1080p image, but that image does not "max out" your visual resolution -- there's room for more detail. Furthermore, 20/20 vision is actually the lower limit on "normal" human vision. It is used as a diagnostic cut-off, above which no further testing is necessary. "Perfect" human vision is actually closer to 20/16 or even 20/12. Someone with 20/12 vision can resolve detail down to 0.6 minutes of arc, and would see some benefit to 4K even at a viewing distance of 2.25x the screen width. However, if you want to get the most out of a 4K projector, you'll want to be seated at a distance between 1 and 1.5 times the screen width. At this distance, the benefit of the extra pixels is visible to just about everyone.
Actual native 4K content is limited right now, but it does exist. We set up the VW600ES with Sony's FMP-X1 network media player, a hard drive-based 4K player with access to Sony's Video Unlimited 4K store. The VU4K store has about 70 commercial movies available, plus a variety of shorts, documentaries, and TV shows.
The FMP-X1 media player is entirely hard drive-based and has an internal 2-terabyte drive capable of storing up to 45 full-length feature films. It requires a hardwired ethernet connection and needs to be paired with a Sony Xperia Tablet Z that serves as a remote control. Due to the sheer size of the files being downloaded, the FMP-X1 cannot stream 4K content, so movies have to be downloaded completely before use. Depending on the speed of your internet connection, a feature film (roughly 50 GB) can take between 8 and 50 hours to download completely. The player does have an option to download new content automatically during off-peak network times, though it is disabled by default.
Using the FMP-X1, we watched several 4K films including A Few Good Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, Battle: Los Angeles, and Salt. The quality of the 4K transfers was a little hit-and-miss, with some films showing fantastic detail and others not looking much different from 1080p. This also may be due in part to the content itself; Battle: LA and Salt are heavy on action sequences in which high resolution detail gets lost, while A Few Good Men and The Amazing Spider-Man have some long takes with stationary cameras, making it much easier to see detail. All 4K movies, regardless of the amount of detail we saw, showed above average digital noise. What's more, the FMP-X1 locks out the VW600's noise reduction circuits, so it isn't removable.
There is definitely more detail in 4K content than there is in 1080p content, and it is clearly visible from normal viewing distances. We tested this in two ways using A Few Good Men. First, we watched the Blu-ray version of the film on a 1080p projector while watching the 4K version on the VW600ES in a side-by-side test. In this comparison the 4K source's advantage in detail resolution was quite obvious. Next, we sent both the Blu-ray 1080p version and the native 4K version to the VW600ES for an A/B test. Here the VW600ES gave the 1080p version noticeably improved detail over the 1080p projector - though still not as good as the 4K version. It confirmed what we already knew about the VW600's upscaling capabilities, as well as demonstrating the potential of 4K source material.
Since current 4K content is limited, this just means that the VW600's primary benefit at the moment is as a high-resolution display that upscales standard-definition and 1080p HD content. But that benefit by itself is quite significant.
In 3D, the VW600's picture is clean and bright without any of the usual 3D pitfalls or artifacts. There's barely a hint of crosstalk at the glasses' default High brightness, and while there can sometimes appear to be a slight jitter or instability in bright areas, it never rises to the level of a serious distraction. The projector gives an excellent impression of depth and a strong 3D effect, and the included radio-frequency glasses are lightweight and comfortable -- though not rechargeable.