Sony VPL-VW325ES-B 4K SXRD Projector
Projector Central Editor's Choice Award

Editor's Choice Award

Our Editor's Choice award goes to products that dramatically exceed expectations for performance, value, or cutting-edge design.

  • Performance
  • 5
  • Features
  • Ease of Use
  • Value
Pros
  • Native 4K resolution
  • Deep native blacks
  • Effective HDR
  • Great out of box color
  • Good 3D
Cons
  • Relatively low brightness may be insufficient for some large screens or high ambient light viewing
  • No dynamic iris to deepen black levels
  • No lens memories for motorized lens to accommodate CIH setups
Our Take

Despite a $500 price hike over its predecessor, Sony's entry-level VPL-VW325ES still delivers the least expensive native 4K projection you can buy in a home theater projector, and it comes with impressive, LCoS-driven image quality.

sony vplvw325es frontangle

I currently find myself in the unusual position of simultaneously holding review samples of Sony's entry-level and most expensive native 4K home theater projectors. The VPL-VW325ES we're reviewing here costs $5,499. The top-of-the-line VPL-GTZ380 is a ground-breaking 10,000-lumen commercial projector that does double-duty as the new home theater flagship. At 112 pounds, it is about three-and-a-half times heavier than the VW325ES and six-and-a-half times brighter. It lists for $80,000 without a lens. I'll be working on that review next.

For an AV journalist who has spent decades covering Sony's product introductions across a range of video and audio categories, the dichotomy between these two is a reminder of a culture and commitment to innovation and quality that very few brands have managed to maintain through the years. I see a lot of projectors these days, and though many of them do a respectable job of delivering a big picture and represent good value to the end user, there is something about the very best projectors that just leaps out when you turn them on. It's an "Ah-ha!... ohhh yeah!" moment that telegraphs you're in the room with an outfit that knows what they're doing and has been at it a long time. If you're like me and you love technology, you get a feeling that is comforting and soul-satisfying. And, as a reviewer, you know in advance to prepare yourself for a touch of sadness when it's inevitably time to pack the thing up and send it back.

This is not to say that either of these projectors is perfect, or even necessarily a good value—the latter being something we each have to define for ourselves. That's something I'll explore in these reviews. But the VPL-VW325ES and VPL-GTZ380 are most certainly in a special class in terms of engineering and execution. So, let's start now at the low end of the spectrum and take a close look at the VW325ES.

Features

The VPL-VW325ES is Sony's new replacement for the VPL-VW295ES, which in turn replaced the VPL-VW285ES back in October 2018 as the company's least expensive native 4K SXRD projector. After holding both prior models to $4,999, Sony has raised the price of the VW325ES to $5,499. And thus marks the formal end to Sony's long-running claim of offering "4K under $5K." I guess nothing is forever.

The VW325ES starts out identical in most respects to the VPL-VW295ES I reviewed two years ago. The cabinet cosmetics, dimensions and weight are the same, with the exception that the new model is being offered in either black or—for the first time—white. At 31 pounds with an 8.1 x 19.50 x 18.25-inch case, it's a substantial and solid-feeling package.

sony vplvw325es top

The 1,500 ANSI lumen brightness rating also remains unchanged. That spec was disappointingly low by the standards of two years ago and is even more so today given a generally stronger propensity for ambient-light viewing and the push for higher peak brightness for HDR. It's made even more the worse by the fact that our sample, at least, came up a bit short of hitting its full spec, measuring in at 1,233 ANSI lumens in its brightest mode despite my best efforts to push it. But in fairness, this projector is clearly designed for a dark-room theater. On my 92-inch, 1.3 gain white reference screen, it provided more than enough punch not only for satisfying HDR but also a decent image for TV viewing in moderate-to-bright ambient light. Much larger screens or those with less gain will naturally be more challenged. Sony rates the projector for a maximum image size of 200 inches.

The same lens is also carried over from the VW295ES, and as before, is shared with all but the top-tier Sony models—those feature the company's high end ARC-F lens. But this step-down is by no means a slouch. It is a 14-element lens with glass throughout except for the outer element, which is formed from acrylic material to allow for the benefits of an aspherical design without the enormous cost associated with shaping an aspherical glass element. Aspherical lenses are understood to provide better sharpness out at the edges but are expensive to produce, so this is a reasonable measure that Sony says sacrifices little.

Similarly, the VW325ES's lens offers the same motorized 2.06x powered zoom as its predecessor as well as powered focus and generous powered lens shift spec'd at +/-85% Vertical and +/-31% Horizontal. The projector throws a 100-inch 16:9 image with the lens approximately 10.75 to 22 feet from the screen. You can use the ProjectorCentral VPL-VW325ES throw calculator to see the range of distance for your particular screen size. As before with the VW295ES, there is no ability to store lens memory settings that might allow execution of a constant image height (CIH) installation for a 2.35:1 aspect 'Scope-style screen. The only accommodation in this regard are two settings to fit an outboard anamorphic lens (1.24x and 1.32x), which is obviously a costly (albeit superior) solution. Lens memories can be found in the step-up model, the VPL-VW715ES, which goes for $9,999.

sony vplvw325es white topangle
The Sony VPL-VW325ES is one of the first of their projectors to be offered in white.

Also still missing in this upgrade of the VW295ES is any kind of dynamic iris that might help deepen the blacks. That can also be found in—you guessed it—the VW715ES. Still, the VW325ES at least starts with the excellent native black level of Sony's 0.75-inch LCoS-based SXRD panels. Having a trio of them—one for each primary color—allows the 325ES to fully dodge two troublesome issues common to single-chip DLP projectors: unequal white and color brightness, and rainbow artifacts. Another benefit of LCoS imagers generally is the high "fill factor" that comes from requiring little space between the pixels. With LCoS, all the electrical leads for addressing the pixels are behind the reflective layer at the back of the chip. So the pixels on this projector are vanishingly small and the grid between them virtually undetectable with a 100 inch image, even with your nose at the screen.

With so much directly carried over from the VW295ES—including its most obvious omissions—you might be wondering what you get for your extra $500 when you step up to the VW325ES. The answer starts with inclusion of Sony's new "X1 for projector" processor family that has resulted in recent updates to nearly every model in Sony's pre-existing home theater line-up (the exception so far being the former flagship, the 5,000-lumen VPL-VW5000ES). The X1 Ultimate for projector processor is the most powerful and is found currently only on the VPL-GTZ380, while the others have the X1 for projector chip. Both are optimized versions of the X1 processor used in Sony's best panel TVs. Across all the new models, the extra speed and brain power enable two key new or updated features: Dynamic HDR Enhancer and Super Resolution Reality Creation.

  • Dynamic HDR Enhancer. As the name implies, this is a dynamic frame-by-frame enhancement to Sony's HDR tone-mapping scheme, as we've now seen in some other projectors, including JVC's native 4K models and LG's UST and long-throw laser projectors. One benefit of dynamic tone-mapping is that it should—at least theoretically—eliminate the need to manually adjust the projector's tone-map to adapt for the varying peak and average brightness of different programs. More important, it should ideally modify the image to provide the widest possible dynamic range between the peak highlights and darker areas of the image. As you'll read in my assessment below, Sony's execution doesn't fully eliminate the need to ride the controls with all different movies. But it does use intelligence in tamping down peak highlights when needed and, with Sony's higher end models that are equipped with a dynamic iris or laser, it can deepen the black level where appropriate.

    Sony Dynamic HDR comparison2
    Sony's Dynamic HDR Enhancer technology looks at each frame of video, and then applies a combination of mechanical iris adjustments and/or laser modulation (where available) to deepen blacks, while simultaneously driving brighter highlights through signal processing. (Photo Credit: Sony)

    Sony's product management provided us with a briefing for this review of the 325ES as well as for last year's review of the VPL-VW715ES in which they described in detail how the company expects or wants projected HDR to look. This is important context for interpreting my observations below on HDR viewing, as well as for understanding what you're getting today with any Sony HDR projector.

    For background, I'll first repeat what we've previously reported in reviews and in this comprehensive article on HDR about the challenges of reproducing HDR on a projector. HDR video, and specifically the HDR10 format we've seen employed for most content, was designed with flatpanels in mind that are capable of peak highlights that hit close to 1,000 nits or more. By contrast, home theater projectors typically top out around 150 nits, sometimes closer to 100 nits depending on the lumen specification.

    With some HDR content being mastered today with peaks of 4,000 nits or greater (and with a theoretical maximum of 10,000 nits for HDR10), today's consumer panel TVs and projectors must all perform "tone-mapping" to adapt the brightest highlights and deepest blacks to the capabilities of the display. The best TVs have self-emissive pixels (as with OLEDs) or multizone local-dimming backlights (as with LED-driven LCD sets) to allow the TV to simultaneously darken specific pixels or zones while pumping up the brightness on others. This makes them well-suited to HDR.

    Projectors, on the other hand, do have some individual pixel control, but at any given moment the maximum peak brightness being applied by the lamp or laser is fixed for the entire image. You can, for example, modulate the light with an iris or adjust the laser power at specific moments to darken or brighten the image, but all the pixels at that moment are subject to whatever level is chosen for the projector's output. At that point, it's all up to the processing and how much of the available light you choose to allow to pass through each pixel.

    Given these limitations, we've seen a wide variety of HDR employments come along in projectors. Most provide an HDR tone-map trim control, wherein the top (brightest settings) will often blow out highlights for more eye-catching visual impact at the expense of retaining detail around those areas, and sometimes at the expense of deep black and contrast—something most projectors struggle with to begin with. Depending on the projector, some controls provides a wide range in "shifting" the projector's limited dynamic range up and down the brightness scale; some controls provide only modest range of adjustment.

    Sony's implementation of its Dynamic HDR Enhancer uses a combination of signal processing and modulation of a dynamic iris or laser where available to boost highlights and deepen blacks. In its laser projectors where both an iris and laser are present they can use a combination of both—which they dub Dual Contrast Control. In this regard, it does a better job than most projectors in truly extending the dynamic range of the projector rather than merely boosting highlights at the expense of lightening the dark areas.

    That said, Sony has been very clear in its communications that the handling of these mechanisms are intended to mimic on screen as close as possible the creator's intent. They define this as how they believe a movie's master would look when rendered by their own BVM-HX310, a professional 1,000-nit HDR mastering monitor that's used widely in Hollywood. If you think about it, it is perhaps logical that a creator would never sign off on a master that obviously blows out and clips the brightest highlights on their monitor. So Sony's algorithm seeks to boost the highlights as bright as possible without creating oversaturation and blooming, and then rolls off the signal above that. On overall dark scenes with low average picture level that don't require the full lamp or laser power, it will apply the dynamic iris and/or lower the laser output while using signal processing to boost brightness or enhance contrast in the areas of the image that demand it.

    The result of all this is that Sony's latest dynamic HDR execution provides what they deem a more cohesive, undistorted, and truthful rendering of a movie. But our experience so far has been that it generally also results in tamer, less bright highlights compared with other projectors that push harder on those areas, and also has the potential to bury shadow detail in darker parts of the image or make the image darker overall. This was reported by our reviewer Tom Norton with the VPL-VW715ES, which does apply both the high-powered frame-by-frame image processing to boost highlights along with application of that lamp-based projector's dynamic iris to establish the black floor.

    The VPL-VW325ES, which has neither an iris nor a laser, by necessity performs a truncated version of this process in which only the frame-by-frame signal processing is employed to best optimize both bright and dark areas of the image. Perhaps the lack of an iris—and the inability to drive down blacks even further—may have contributed positively in some way to the much better experience I had with HDR on the VW325ES than Tom did with the VW715ES. I'll say more about the settings I used that worked and didn't work in the Performance section below, but suffice to say that choosing one of the projector's brighter modes for HDR content and then making adjustments as needed to its Dynamic HDR Enhancer settings and Brightness control resulted in images with punchy highlights and very good contrast without burying shadow details into a patch of black.

    SonyDigitalRealityCreation2
    Sony's Digital Reality Creation technology uses pattern recognition to identify objects from a database developed over many years and updated periodically. (Photo Credit: Sony)
  • Super Resolution Reality Creation. Sony's Reality Creation upscaling and noise reduction engine has been a fixture in its TVs and projectors for years, and has always been a strong feature of its displays. In its current iteration, it analyzes the image, uses object and pattern recognition to compare the signal to a database the company has developed over years of movie production, and uses the information to sharpen the object while recognizing and eliminating digital noise. The additional processing power in the X1 for projector chip allows for better results with very fine textures, such as hair, than was possible with previous versions—hence the "Super Resolution" affixed to the name. This feature is employed across all projector models using the new processor. I'll discuss the projector's superb scaling below.

  • Digital Focus Optimizer. Sony does not technically attach this previously introduced feature to the new processor, but it's worthwhile to mention here as a step-up feature found in the higher end projectors in the line, and it may very well have been enhanced in some way from the faster processing. Start here with the premise that all projection lenses are by nature sharpest at the center of the image and lose at least some degree of sharpness out toward the far corners of the picture. The best lenses have the greatest consistency and will demonstrate less degradation at the edges.

    Sony Digital Focus Optimizer 2
    Sony's long familiarity with its lenses allows it to account for the zoom and lens shift settings in a given installation and predict where processing is needed to deliver a tack-sharp image across the entire screen. (Photo Credit: Sony)

    That said, one of the benefits of Sony retaining the same lenses it has used now in two prior generations of projectors is that they know intimately where and how much it begins to inevitably distort the image. So they are able to take into account the motorized lens position to determine where exactly the image will begin to subtly blur and apply processing to correct for the optical degradation, thus improving corner sharpness and delivering better edge-to-edge consistency. Like lens memories and a dynamic iris, this feature is withheld from the entry level VW325ES, but it is found in all the step-up models including those that use the ARC-F lens. Nonetheless, my VW325ES sample exhibited extraordinary sharpness, even out at the corners. I never had a reason to complain.

sony vplvw325es remote

Moving on to other features: the side connection panel on the VW325ES mimics that of the VW295ES it replaces; it is modest but sufficient for most applications. The pair of HDMI ports are version 2.0b, not the latest HDMI 2.1 ports that could potentially support 4K gaming at 120 Hz from the newest game consoles. It's another disappointment to see a new generation of projectors from Sony that doesn't have HDMI 2.1. But this model does carry over from the VW295ES the Input Lag Reduction switch in the menu that cuts input lag from a rated 80 ms to approximately 27 ms with 4K 60Hz signals. That's not exactly gaming projector territory but is far better than most projectors. Unfortunately, I couldn't fully verify this spec because our Bodnar 4K lag meter wouldn't sync with the projector when putting out 4K/60 signals (I had the same problem with the VW295ES). But we got 36.2 ms with 1080p/60. The Input Lag Reduction function is available for any preset picture mode and has essentially the same effect, though it is only on by default in the Game mode.

Other connections include a USB Type B port strictly for firmware updates (no media player), and for control, wired Ethernet, RS232-C, 12v trigger and IR inputs. The projector is full HD 3D compatible but does not require any sort of outboard emitter; I had no trouble syncing up a pair of Xpand Vision 3D Glasses Lite RF active shutter glasses.

Sony's remote is essentially the same full-size wand that has come with all its projectors since time immemorial. It's a great remote—backlit, with large well-spaced buttons that provide direct access to virtually any image adjustment a serious tweaker could want, including the Dynamic HDR Enhancer control to help trim up the HDR picture. Likewise, the remote also includes big +/- rockers to adjust the Contrast (which becomes "Contrast (HDR)" with HDR programs) and Brightness, which are among the most frequently used for optimizing different programs.

Performance

Color Modes. The VPL-VW325ES has the same large selection of preset picture modes for SDR as its predecessor, nine in total. As before, there really isn't a dog among them. I ultimately zero'd in on the Reference mode, which provides a spectacularly accurate and natural looking image for dark room viewing right out of the box. Everything from flesh tones to foliage to other "memory colors" just looked fundamentally right on the 92-inch, 1.3 gain matte white reference screen. Little tweaks on the Brightness control and Sony's Contrast Enhancer function were all I really touched based on the content.

Eventually, I did get around taking measurements and verified that the 325ES in Reference mode measured very well without calibration, though some work with the 2-point grayscale controls and the full RBGCMY color management system for the primaries and secondaries allowed me to nearly zero out any errors. For this mode, I stuck with the default D65 color temperature (there are nine options, some of which are duplicates) and ended up lowering the Brightness control to 36 from its default 50 to get the perfect gamma curve in the darkest part of the scale. With real content that setting proved deliciously black but unnaturally crushed shadow detail, so with most content I ended up between 42 and 50 to make things look right. After calibration, I measured peak white at 39.2 foot-Lamberts on my 92-inch diagonal/1.3 gain screen, or the equivalent of 30.2 ft-L on a 1.0 gain screen.

The VW325ES recognizes HDR signals and automatically goes into an HDR version of whatever of the nine picture modes you were last in. There is no single dedicated HDR mode as is found in most other projectors. So if you're watching Reference mode with SDR and pop in an HDR disc, it will switch to the Reference HDR mode. However, Reference HDR proved much too dark for effective HDR—it buried the shadows and did almost nothing for peak highlights; it was dull and lifeless in a way that was exactly opposite what the regular Reference mode did with SDR.

sony vplvw325es front

I eventually singled out the Bright Cinema (HDR) mode as a much punchier alternative that still had fundamentally accurate color. I had to manually switch to this as my preferred and separately calibrated HDR mode, but there was such a noticeable difference that there was no chance of forgetting to make the swap. I never calibrated grayscale or the color points but did do some subjective tuning by eye to make things right for my taste. I left this mode with its default D75 color temp (which measured around 7,300K) to get a bit more pop and neutrality out of whites than with the subtly pink-leaning D65 used for Reference, and sometimes used the Custom 5 color temp, which the manual describes as a "Setting that prioritizes brightness." It also measured around 7300K but at noticeably higher brightness than the regular D75 setting.

Beyond this, you have the Contrast (HDR) control, which will push the peak white up to a point before it actually starts backing the highlights off. The default setting is 80 on a scale of 0-100, and I typically found that the 75- 80 range looked best depending on content. I also immediately and significantly bumped up the Brightness control to avoid dark, muddy shadows that were inky but unnatural and crushed too much shadow detail. The default setting is 50 but I ended up setting Brightness at around 70-75 for average HDR titles. Although it raised the black level this provided the best visual balance and overall contrast on my screen. Finally, I tamped down the Color setting from the default 50 to 45 to take a touch of oversaturation out of reds and Caucasian faces. The projector measured 80-82% DCI-P3 gamut in this and its Reference HDR modes with the BT.2020 color space active, and I still got very punchy and saturated reds and other colors even with this tweak.

Once you are settled on any mode for HDR, there other controls beyond the Contrast (HDR) slider that will have some effect on the tone-map. Most dramatic is the Dynamic HDR Enhancer menu (directly accessible from the remote) that offers positions of Off, Low, Medium, and High. As you move up the scale you gradually brighten the peak highlights of any given scene though without noticeably lifting the black level or overall brightness as happens with the HDR control on many projectors that merely shift the available dynamic range up and down the brightness scale. I suppose on Sony's higher end projectors with an iris or laser you might see the blacks deepen as well depending on the content.

I tend to prefer my HDR to err on the side of brighter highlights with more visceral impact and don't mind some modest loss of detail if that's what it takes to get there. So I found that the default position of Medium and the High setting worked well for my taste with typical 1000-nit peak HDR titles. High sometimes provided just a bit too much push, but that's a good thing—it means the system has the ability to go just beyond the edge of what's acceptable and you can always dial it back a notch.

Additionally, there is a dedicated "HDR Reference" option in a separate HDR mode menu where you can choose between HDR 10, HLG, HDR Reference, or the default AUTO selection. The HDR Reference mode is intended to provide what Sony feels is the optimum tone map for HDR titles with a max brightness (MaxCLL) of 1,000 nits, which is common for many titles. In the VW325ES, it typically had a subtle effect with these titles that primarily tamped down the highlights a bit to preserve subtle gradations and detail. The Dynamic HDR Enhancer control in this mode was locked in the Middle setting. I left HDR Reference off for most of my viewing and just used the latter control for fine tuning HDR to my taste. After adjustments and with the Dynamic HDR Enhancer set to High, I measured a maximum of 190 nits/55.3 ft-L on my 92 inch/1.3 gain screen, or the equivalent of 146 nits/42.5 ftL on a 1.0 gain reflector. Once again, larger screen sizes or those with less gain will exhibit less brightness.

sony vplvw325es rear

SDR Viewing. I can't say this emphatically enough: Sony has 1080p SDR projection absolutely nailed on this projector. A wide range of my go-to test clips viewed in Reference mode all looked so good that I quickly got sucked into watching more and more of each movie—with no audio, which I leave off during evals just to avoid this sort of distraction. That's how good it was.

The punchy colors used for the costumes and sets in La La Land just leaped off the page and were dead-on accurate, even on those items I've seen slip up other projectors—a yellow dress that perhaps turns a bit orangey; an azure police car that some projectors push toward purple, or oversaturated reds that look cartoony.

The ruddy skin tones in Oblivion of lead character Jack Harper (played by Tom Cruise) and the pale, almost silky skin of his partner Victoria were gorgeously rendered, as were the many stunning outdoor scenes showing desert terrain, sparse rocky outcrops, lush mountain valleys, and vibrant blue skies. In Draft Day, the familiar NFL team colors found on football helmets, jackets, and stadium decor all rang true, and the green grass on the practice fields looked spot-on and inviting.

Contrast and the overall dimensionality of the image were also really outstanding thanks to the deep native black of the SXRD imagers. A big part of the allure of this projector is that things pop so well off the black floor, even if the letterbox bars don't exactly disappear into the velvet frame on my screen. In particular, typical mixed scenes with both dark and bright elements really had an amazing sense of depth and dimensionality.

The VW325ES was outstanding with overall dark content as well. Yes, I would have loved having a well-functioning dynamic iris to take them down even more on the really dark stuff, but I was genuinely surprised and pleased at how well the Sony handled my torture-test scenes even without an aperture. The shot of the Deatheaters on a moonlit cliff at the beginning of Chapter 12 in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 looked about as engaging as I've ever seen it. The faces of Voldemort's followers all popped brightly from their black robes and the nighttime sky, and I could see well into the shadows in the valley below to make out the terrain that so many projectors can't pull out without raising the brightness control to the level of a washout. And there was no obvious gray haze over the image that usually occurs when projectors are outmatched by this clip. Similarly, the early cave sequence in Prometheus exhibited good black levels and shadow detail, again with no hint of haze. An early scene in Bladerunner 2049 that takes place in a dark cabin also fared exceptionally well with pulling details out of the shadows and avoiding the dreaded haze.

blade runner 2049 cabin opening
Details in the shadows of Sapper Morton's home at the beginning of Blade Runner 2049, a challenging HDR movie for projectors, were evident without hazing. (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

I mentioned earlier that the VW325ES looked exceptionally sharp. Optically speaking, the lens demonstrated nearly perfect corner to corner uniformity on the dot test pattern I used to fine-tune focus, with only the very slightest geometric smearing detected on the far right of the screen. This was actually better performance than I recall from the VPL-VW295ES sample I reviewed two years ago, which showed more smearing in the same region but was still very good.

Perhaps more impressive, the scaling from 1080-line content to the projector's native 4K array was truly outstanding at the default settings for the Super Resolution Reality Creation function. From the standpoint of detail, good 1080p Blu-ray transfers looked virtually indistinguishable from native 4K content at my 10 foot viewing distance. Even 1080i news and sports from my crappy cable box looked better than I can remember seeing, with a substantial reduction (though not full elimination) of mosquito noise around alphanumeric characters and an exceptionally sharp and stable image that, yet again, demonstrated good colors and fleshtones.

HDR Viewing. During my SDR auditions I watched the last few chapters of First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong's time in the astronaut program leading up to the first moon landing. Thanks to the projector's excellent contrast, the combination of dark interiors in the Command and Lunar Excursion modules that were punctuated by bright highlights coming in from the windows looked wonderfully dimensional, as did as the incredibly lifelike sunlit lunar landscapes shown against the black of space. I couldn't wait to pop in the HDR transfer. But I was initially taken aback by how awful and flat the 4K disc looked in the HDR version of the Reference mode that had looked so good in SDR. I wondered if Sony's insistence on "following the creator" would result in the same issues Tom Norton experienced with too-dark HDR on the VPL-VW715ES.

first man moon
Thanks to the 325ES's excellent contrast, the space suits had great dimensionality against the black of space. (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures)

Fortunately, moving to the Bright Cinema HDR mode and making the other adjustments noted above gave me a very punchy and satisfying HDR experience on most titles without dramatically sacrificing the projector's excellent blacks and contrast. Still, the SDR had looked so good that I decided to set up a second disc player and informally compare the same scenes from the same movies in their HDR versions, using Bright Cinema HDR on one HDMI input and Reference mode for SDR transfers on the other. It took a few seconds for the inputs to switch, but it was a reasonably effective A/B test.

As wonderful as SDR looked, I can report that, in every case, the HDR version delivered and outclassed the SDR in terms of dynamic range and impact. In La La Land, a painted mural touting California oranges on the side of a building bathed in afternoon sun showed the orange fruit and a stylized deep blue sky popping spectacularly off the screen, with textured reflections off the shiny paint. It looked awesome in SDR, but really came alive in SDR. More subtle effects, like sunlight streaming in through a window and lighting up a wall of stacked up music memorabilia, just looked more natural and convincing thanks to the bright highlights and dimensional contrast. I had similar experiences watching my favorite scenes from First Man—including the dark LEM sequences, and Oblivion.

Exceptionally bright highlights like sunsets were well managed in most cases by the Dynamic HDR Enhancer processing, though in this Bright Cinema HDR mode they could be pushed beyond the realm of good taste, even in the Middle setting. Even so, a slightly blown-out sunset in a scene from Oblivion still left intact the shadow detail in the clouds at the bottom foreground of the frame. Nonetheless, the system's limitations were laid bare by The Meg, a serious HDR torture test with 4,000 nit peaks and 1,193 nits average brightness. I simply couldn't find any settings in Bright Cinema HDR mode that did not completely clip the sun reflections on the open water and obliterate a good chunk of the image. Moving to the less bright Cinema Film 1 HDR mode brought this unruly outlier title under control and looked great once I dialed it in.

3D Viewing. As if things couldn't get any better, the 3D coming off the VPL-VW325ES was strikingly good. Not as bright and punchy as, say, the 4,000-lumen Epson LS500 I reviewed a while back. But while 3D is obviously limited by the projector's humble lumen count, it was more than acceptable for dark-room viewing and I don't often see color this accurate or contrast rendered as well through the glasses.

As with HDR, there is no specific 3D mode and you can enter 3D playback from any existing color mode. I chose the Game mode, which offered similar lumen output to the Bright Cinema mode, to create a dedicated 3D mode, and watched scenes from Pixels to make a few tweaks that boosted its brightness and optimized contrast. (You'll find my final calibrated settings at the end of the review.)

Pixels is a silly but amusing Adam Sandler vehicle in which the characters and creatures from your favorite video arcade games from the 80's come to life and attack the earth. It's a good 3D test because, aside from the nice 3D effects, it mixes live actors in modern, well-lit environments with CGI animation. The skin tones looked natural and were surprisingly well delineated, and colors for things like a red brick tavern, the White House in Washington D.C., and the green grass on the White House lawn all looked right despite the glasses. There was no distracting green or other color tinge to mar the experience. Same with the nice saturated yellow of a giant Pac-Man racing through the streets, and the deep red of an oversized Donkey Kong who appears in the finale.

Conclusion

Despite Sony raising the price of its entry-level 4K projector $500 while still holding back some key features like a dynamic iris, I have a hard time finding serious fault with the VPL-VW325ES. Its image is outstandingly crisp, its color is richly saturated and accurate with little or no tuning, and its contrast and native blacks are a cut above all but the best LCoS projectors from Sony or JVC. Its HDR tone-mapping, despite what I feel is Sony's heavy-handed and perhaps too-conservative approach out of the box, actually looked great and performed in the top tier once I found some settings that suited my taste. This projector may not have the firepower that some people will want for screens much larger than 100 inches or for viewing regularly in high ambient light. But if you stay within its capabilities, it's hard to imagine anyone but the harshest critic not loving the VW325ES.

That said, at $5,499 it's not a cheap projector—only the least expensive native 4K projector currently available. At that price, it's a long step up to Sony's next projector, the $10,000 VPL-VW715. On the other hand, it's only another $500 to JVC's $5,999 DLA-NX5, which we also recently reviewed favorably. That projector, which similarly uses LCoS imagers known for their low native blacks, comes with 300 more lumens of rated brightness, a dynamic iris to boost contrast, and JVC's well-regarded Frame Adapt dynamic tone mapping. Without a side-by-side comparison to see how the projectors fare against each other with SDR, HDR, and 3D, we can't make a judgement about which is better. But on paper at least, the JVC would seem to offer a lot of additional value for not too much more money, which will make this a tough decision for those who can afford either.

That aside, there's no denying that this Sony falls into a special class of projector, and also continues to represent good value in this rarefied top tier. Whatever Sony has done in upgrading from the VW295ES, whether with new features or other refinements wrought by a more powerful processor, they've absolutely managed to eek out a little more performance at the low end of the high end. The VPL-VW325ES is an impressive piece of engineering and one good-looking projector, and it's well deserving of our rare Editor's Choice designation.

Measurements

Brightness. The nine picture presets on the Sony VPL-VW325ES tend to look alike (which is to say, essentially accurate) and deliver light output that falls within a narrow range. The brightest reading I got from the projector in SDR with the zoom lens in its widest position and a full digital-level 255 white pattern feeding the projector was 1,233 ANSI lumens in the Bright Cinema mode, though the Bright TV and Game modes were essentially the same. This is about 82% of the rated 1,500 lumen specification. The Reference mode, which was the most accurate out of the box, measured 1,115 lumens. The numbers for the same modes in HDR were close enough to the SDR numbers to be within the error tolerance of instrumentation.

All of the picture modes default to the High setting for Lamp Control. Engaging the Low setting for any mode results in a 28% measured reduction in light output.

The measured ANSI lumens for all the SDR and HDR modes are shown below.

Sony VPL-VW325ES ANSI Lumens

SDR Mode High Low
Bright Cinema 1,233 888
Cinema Film 1 1,128 812
Cinema Film 2 1,183 852
Reference 1,115 803
TV 1,202 865
Photo 1,003 722
Game 1,224 881
Bright TV 1,222 880
User 1,122 808
HDR Mode
Bright Cinema 1,224 881
Cinema Film 1 1,141 822
Cinema Film 2 1,148 827
Reference 1,143 823
TV 1,231 887
Photo 1,023 737
Game 1,233 888
Bright TV 1,233 888
User 1,143 823

Zoom Lens Light Loss. Moving the 2.06x zoom from its widest to its longest telephoto position resulted in a measured 20.1% loss of light. This is a reasonable number for such a long zoom, though given the projector's somewhat limited brightness it is prudent to mount the projector as close as possible to the screen.

Brightness Uniformity: 87.6%

Frame Interpolation. The projector's Motion Flow processing has three settings besides Off including True Cinema, Smooth High, and Smooth Low. Smooth High vastly improved motion resolution on fast pans but yields noticeable sheen to the image in the form of video soap opera effect. Smooth Low is less egregious but still noticeable in this regard, and suitable for slower pans. True Cinema seemed to have little effect at all on judder or smear, but also didn't impart any noticeable artifacts to the image. I mostly left this control off or in its True Cinema setting, though the Smooth High mode was helpful for viewing sports.

Input Lag. As with its predecessor, the VPL-VW295ES, the VW325ES is equipped with an Input Lag Reduction switch that can be activated with any picture mode. It is only on by default in the Game mode. With Input Lag Reduction turned off, Game mode (as an example) measured 138.4 ms input lag with a 1080p/60 signal. Flipping the switch resulted in 36.2 ms input lag. The results were similar in other modes. Game mode with a 2160p/60 signal and Input Lag Reduction turned off measured 75.2 ms lag. Our Bodnar 4K lag meter would not sync with the projector when Input Lag Reduction was turned on, but Sony says to expect approximately 27 ms with 2160p/60 signals. These days, the fastest gaming projectors have input lag under 10 ms, but anything less than 30 ms is still vastly better than most projectors and suitable for most gamers.

Fan Noise. Like the VPL-VW295ES that preceded it, Sony rates the VW325ES for 26 dB of fan noise in its Low lamp mode in laboratory conditions and presumably using the industry standard measurement that averages noise from multiple positions. In my casual real-world measurements taken in a room with 27dBA background noise, at a distance 5 feet away and slightly below the projector (to simulate a ceiling mount above and behind the listener) I measured 36dBA in the High lamp mode used throughout my audition. The noise had a pleasantly low pitch and was neither distracting nor noticeable over any soundtrack. In Low lamp mode noise dropped to 32dBA.

Sony recommends the High Altitude mode at 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) or higher. Fan noise measured 42dbA and was distracting enough to consider acoustic isolation or placement further away from viewers.

Connections

sony vplvw325es connections
  • HDMI 2.0b (x2, both with HDCP 2.2)
  • USB Type A (for firmware updates)
  • IR In (3.5mm minijack)
  • LAN (RJ-45, 10BaseT, 100BaseTX)
  • RS-232c (D-sub 9-pin)
  • 12v trigger (3.5mm minijack, 100 mA),

Calibrated Settings

Calibrated image settings from any third-party do not account for the significant potential for sample-to-sample variation, nor the different screen sizes and materials, lighting, lamp usage, or other environmental factors that can affect image quality. Projectors should always be calibrated in the user's own space and tuned for the expected viewing conditions. However, the settings provided here may be a helpful starting point for some. Always record your current settings before making adjustments so you can return to them as desired. Refer to the Performance section for some context for each calibration.

SDR

Picture Mode: Reference

Reality Creation On
Resolution: 20
Noise Filtering: 10

Cinema Black Pro
Contrast Enhancer: Off or to taste
Lamp Control: High

Motion Flow: True Cinema

Contrast: Max 100

Brightness: 42 or to taste

Color: 50

Hue: 50

Color Temp: D65
Gain: R -4, G 0, B8

Bias: R3, G0, B-3

Sharpness: 50

EXPERT SETTING

NR: Off

MPEG NR: Off

Smooth Gradation: Off

Gamma Correction: Off

Color Correction:
Red: Hue-1, Saturation1, Brightness1
Green: Hue14, Saturation8, Brightness0
Blue: Hue-2, Saturation-1, Brighness-2
Cyan: Hue0, Saturation0, Brightness0
Magenta: Hue5, Saturation0, Brightness2
Yellow: Hue0, Saturation-8, Brightness0

Clear White: Off

Color Space: BT.709

Input Lag Reduction: Off

Dynamic Range
HDMI1: Auto
HDMI2: Auto

HDMI Signal Format: Enhanced

HDR

Picture Mode: HDR Bright Cinema

Reality Creation: On
Resolution: 50
Noise Filtering: 10

Cinema Black Pro
Contrast Enhancer: Middle or to taste
Lamp Control: High

Motion Flow: True Cinema

Contrast (HDR): 76

Brightness: 74 or to taste

Color: 45

Hue: 45

Color Temp: D75 or Custom 5

Sharpness: 50

EXPERT SETTING

NR: Off

MPEG NR: Off

Smooth Gradation: Low

Gamma Correction: Off

Clear White: Off

HDR: HDR 10

Color Space: BT.2020

Input Lag Reduction: Off

Dynamic Range
HDMI1: Auto
HDMI2: Auto

HDMI Signal Format: Enhanced

3D

Picture Mode: Game

Reality Creation: On
Database: Normal
Resolution: 20
Noise Filtering: 10

Cinema Black Pro
Contrast Enhancer: High
Lamp Control: High

Motion Flow: Smooth High (to reduce flicker and add brightness) or to taste

Contrast: Max

Brightness: 50

Color: 55

Hue: 50

Color Temp: Custom 5

Sharpness: 50

EXPERT SETTING

Gamma Correction: 2.0

Color Correction: Off

Clear White: Off

xvColor: Off

Color Space: BT.709

Input Lag Reduction: On

FUNCTION MENU

3D Settings
2D-3D Display Sel. 3D (Auto)
3D Depth Adjust: 1 or to taste

Dynamic Range
HDMI1: Auto (options: Limited, Full)
HDMI2: Auto

HDMI Signal Format: Enhanced (options Standard, Enhanced)

For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-VW325ES-B projector page.

To buy this projector, use Where to Buy online, or get a price quote by email direct from Projector Central authorized dealers using our E-Z Quote tool.

 
Comments (7) Post a Comment
Jeff Posted Jun 5, 2021 12:43 PM PST
I have an old 1080p Sony VPL-HW15 that's about 10 years old. But it does have a dynamic iris. I'm looking at making the plunge for this 4k projector. Any idea how black levels would perform on the VW325 compared to my current one with a dynamic iris?
Rob Sabin, Editor Posted Jun 5, 2021 8:49 PM PST
Jeff, I was very impressed with the contrast and black levels on this projector despite lack of an iris. I do believe that Sony's latest SXRD chips are very likely far superior in this regard to what's in your HW15.
Matt Fritz Posted Jun 6, 2021 5:12 PM PST
Hey Rob! Thank you for the very detailed review of the Sony 325es. I'm curious about something. I own the 715es and so far I've been overly impressed. I read Tom's review of the 715 and his biggest complaint was with the HDR implementation and that it just wasn't bright enough and there wasnt enough punch in the highlights and other areas. What's surprising to me is that you listed Effective HDR as one of the pro's for the 325es. Have you viewed the 715es? I'm confused as to how the HDR in your view can be viewed as effective but for double the price on the 715, the HDR is actually a con. Can you help me wrap my head around this? Lol. Does the 325 actually have better HDR than the 715? If so, Im gonna be upset for spending so much more on a projector that doesn't display HDR as well. Thank you!
Rob Sabin, Editor Posted Jun 6, 2021 5:25 PM PST
Matt, two things to put in perspective here. One is that Tom is a bit more stringent than I am in wanting things to measure right and there was no way to get the 715 to look the way he wanted on the HDR EOTF curve in Calman. I initially agreed with him when I began watching HDR on the 325 that Sony's HDR tends to look dark and bury the shadows, but I was perfectly happy to move to one of the slightly less color accurate brighter modes and adjust by eye to get a result I liked. HDR is one of those things with projectors that just doesn't calibrate easily, especially with Calman software designed for flatpanels,and I have almost given up on using it for HDR beyond a bit of tuning to get RGB in balance on the grayscale and reasonably close to whatever color temperature you're targeting. At this point, I believe my HDR assessment of a projector should be based on whatever image the manufacturer provides out of the box and whatever else I can do (mostly by eye) to make it look satisfying to me.

That said, the 715 has both a dynamic iris to deepen blacks and the Dynamic HDR Enhancer signal processing to brighten highlights. I think it may be possible that the ultimately limited black level on the 325ES (due to the lack of an iris) may have made it easier for me to get the result I wanted on screen. Or maybe Tom was just being more critical than I for whatever reason. I have little doubt that the 715ES has the wider dynamic range, but how Sony chooses to lift the signal out of black and/or limit the highlights to preserve detail may or may not be to someone's liking. Here's what really counts: do you like what you're seeing on screen? If you feel like your HDR makes the image come alive and elicits a visceral response from you, it's a success. I don't know what settings you're using, but on the 325 I had to bypass Sony's special HDR Reference setting as described in the review, even in the Bright Cinema HDR mode, so I could have more control using the Dynamic HDR Enhancer and Brightness control to get what I wanted on screen. Based on my experience with the 325 I believe that the 715 must be an amazing projector, but we couldn't award it with a Highly Recommended or Editor's Choice based on Tom's serious misgivings with the HDR tuning, even after several attempts and consultations with Sony. I also felt that when you get to the $10,000 price for the 715, it's a much more considered decision given the competition, namely the JVC NX7 at $9K. By comparison, the 325 really delivers on value at its $5499 price.
Matt Fritz Posted Jun 7, 2021 7:27 PM PST
Thank you Rob! I kinda figured that about Tom's review. I'm not the biggest fan of having the most accurate picture because to me, accurate looks kind of dull. I'm not dogging it by anu means. Everyone has their own preference. I've been for the most part very impressed with the way my 715 handles HDR. Was it as bright as my Epson 5050? No. But what it makes up for in clarity, sharpness, color and other areas make me happy tht I upgraded. Thank you for explaining your take on the HDR for the 325. This helps solidify for me that just beauty of a projector is in the eye of the beholder.
Lauren R Anderson Posted Jun 8, 2021 2:55 PM PST
Sony, like Apple, has mastered suckering customers into paying exorbitant amounts for minor upgrades. $4,500 more to get lens memory which only requires a slight software change? Well played, Sony. Of course their target customer one willing to pay (almost) anything to have a boutique device that, on paper, is superior to other projectors costing much less, though the perceived image quality difference would be noticeable to almost no one except in a side-by-side comparison. I still want one, but I'm not a Sony kind of consumer. Yet.
Kevin Chipman Posted Jun 14, 2021 12:13 PM PST
Lauren Anderson, I totally agree! Sony has been repackaging and charging more for the same and with very low lumens. Let's get one thing straight low lumens does mean better black level due to its dim, that's just basic illumination knowledge. Have you looked at Rob's review of the LG hu810p? I own this projector and I have seen up close a Sony projector costing 2 times the price of mine and mine has the exact 4k image, very crisp! But when I had the demo person put a tiny bit of light in the room the sony was unwatchable while mine looked spectacular. The lumens on the LG are 2700 true lumens due to the laser light source. Check out Rob's awesome review for it.

Post a comment

 
Enter the numbers as they appear to the left