- Good image quality after adjustments
- Effective on-board Harman Kardon sound system
- High value compared with competition
- Requires calibration for accurate color
- Attractive but poorly executed menu system
- No user-adjustable HDR picture mode or HDR brightness control
Promising newcomer VAVA has its principles in the right place and has produced a good-looking but unpolished UST living room projector at an attractive price.
[Editor's Note: In mid-April, VAVA updated firmware for its VA-LT002 UST projector to Version 1.64, which among other things addressed image quality issues with both SDR and HDR videos and added promised 3D functionality. Our extended and detailed review below was delayed pending the update, and reflects our opinions with that firmware version.—Rob Sabin]
VAVA is one of several electronics brands used by Sunvalleytek International Inc., which is based out of Silicon Valley. The name has been used for marketing car dashboard cameras and other lifestyle products, but never projectors—this is the company's first. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, the VA-LT002 ultra-short throw laser projector we're reviewing here garnered considerable attention and put VAVA on the projection map, so to speak. The product officially began shipping to non-backers in October via Amazon and VAVA's own website.
The fact that several hundred backers purchased a relatively expensive, non-existent projector months in advance of its release, from a company with no prior track record in projection, can likely be attributed to a combination of brilliant social marketing and the same pent-up demand for 4K, ultra-short throw living room projectors that spawned competitive introductions or announcements in 2019 from the likes of LG, Optoma, ViewSonic, and Epson. At its current price of $2,799 , the VAVA is a high value proposition compared with what's currently offered or pending from those other brands, costing at least $1,000 less than its nearest direct competition. So, how did all those Indiegogoers make out on their early bet? Let's take a close look.
The VA-LT002, which is marketed and best known simply as the VAVA 4K, is a well-constructed, solidly built projector whose relatively small dimensions (21 x 14.5 x 4.2 inches (WDH) belie its substantial 23.8-pound weight. It's an attractive component, with a gray fabric wrap surrounding the body of the projector that doubles as the grille for the front-facing speakers, and a fashionably shaped cabinet design with soft curves all around. The VA-LT002 is rated at 1,800 ANSI lumens image brightness driven by the well-respected Appotronics ALPD 3.0 laser engine. [Editor's Note: See our revised comments regarding the VAVA 4K's brightness in the Measurements appendix.] The projector is compatible with HDR10 high dynamic range content (though not HLG) as well as Full 3D. Contrast is rated at 1.5 million:1. It uses the 0.47-inch DLP XPR imaging chip, a blue-laser source, and a phosphor wheel to achieve the required RGB primary colors. The laser light source is rated for 25,000 hours, and requires no maintenance for the life of the projector. Covered color gamut is rated at minimum 85% NTSC, which is a wider gamut than the Rec.709 color space used for HDTV but smaller than the DCI-P3 gamut that currently defines the limits for most 4K programming. I measured the VAVA's color volume at 133% Rec.709, 90% DCI-P3, and 61% Rec.2020.
The VAVA's lens has an aggressive 0.23:1 throw ratio. This isn't quite as short as the 0.19:1 throw ratio on LG's HU85LA UST projector, but like that projector, it's intended to cast a large image from a relatively close distance to the screen. This facilitates placement on an A/V credenza of standard depth without needing to move the furniture far from the wall. The VAVA is spec'd to throw a 100-inch diagonal 16:9 image with its rear face 7.2 inches back from the screen surface. In my studio, it indeed did so from 7.5 inches out and with the top surface of the projector 9.75 inches below the bottom of the screen. Factoring in the 4.5 inch height of the projector and its feet, as well as the cabinet's 14.5-inch depth, you can expect to place it on a surface about 14 inches below the bottom of a 100-inch screen, and with the audience-facing speaker grille about 22 inches from the screen wall. ProjectorCentral's VAVA VA-LT002 Throw Calculator shows the throw distances for other screen sizes.
Minimum image size is specified as 80 inches. While most of the competitors' USTs are spec'd for a maximum of 120 inches, VAVA's goes out to 150 inches. I have no open wall in my home large enough on which to try this, but due to their nature most UST projectors generally have trouble maintaining perfect focus at the center and the four corners simultaneously and one might expect this to be more noticeable at 50% larger screen size. In any event, an ambient light-rejecting UST screen is pretty much mandatory if you intend to use this or any UST TV in a lit environment, and most of those currently top out at 120 inches.
Due to the steep angle of projection, UST projectors can be challenging to set up; small shifts in position create wide swings of the image boundaries. To assist, most have a multi-point warping function in place of standard keystone correction. To preserve image quality, it's always best to physically level the projector and nudge it into perfect geometry without using warping, but if you need it VAVA's UST allows you to pull the edges of the image inward from up to 8 points around the perimeter to bring it into alignment. The company has also thoughtfully included an onscreen tutorial with diagrams to help newbies figure out how to move the projector around, though like some other USTs only the two feet closest to the viewer are adjustable, which can complicate the leveling a bit. A nice safety feature provides auto-detection of a nearby body when the laser is active to prevent eye damage from looking directly into the light source, which is critical for protecting the little ones once the projector is situated but may be troublesome during setup. It can be deactivated in the menu as needed.
The VAVA UST offers a thoughtful mix of connections on the back panel. There are three HDMI ports, all version 2.0b, one with ARC for feeding sound from connected source components to a soundbar or A/V receiver. There's also a 3.5 mm analog composite video input if you need it for an aging legacy component. A USB Type A facilitates a built-in media reader and will accept a flash drive with video, photo, and audio files on it. (As a nice plus, the projector has 32GB of memory for storage of your own media that can be accessed via the Home menu.) For audio, along with the HDMI ARC connection, there are both a S/PDIF optical digital audio output and a 3.5 mm analog stereo output for feeding an outboard audio system or wired headphones. Bluetooth is also available, and can be set as an input—say, for feeding music into the VA-LT002's speakers from your mobile device—or output, for feeding movie sound to a pair of wireless headphones or a standalone Bluetooth speaker. There's an ethernet port for directly connecting to your network if you prefer that to the onboard WiFi.
Similar to Optoma's CinemaX P1 (repriced from $3,299 to $3,799 in response to tariffs) and the $10,000+ Hisense Laser TV, the VAVA UST is promoted as an all-in-one entertainment center and comes with a substantial built-in sound system and an on-board smart streaming platform. The Harman Kardon-branded two-channel stereo system consists of a 2.75-inch ABS+PC midrange and 1.5-inch ABS+PC dome tweeter for each of the left and right channels, mounted in their own enclosures and supported by a passive radiator to help optimize the bass. These are driven by 30 watts of rated amplifier power to each channel, or a total of 60 watts. The system has Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD decoding on-board, which usually delivers noticeably better audio quality to the speakers than standard PCM digital audio. However, DTS bitstreams on Blu-ray discs from all three of my disc players (an Oppo Blu-ray and Sony and Panasonic UHD Blu-ray players) were consistently out of lip sync on both 1080p and 4K Blu-rays, with no sync adjust in the projector to correct this. The same thing occurred with both short and long HDMI cables from different brands, so the cable integrity wasn't at issue. Dolby Digital bitstreams were fine and sounded great, but for convenience, I usually just set the players for PCM output knowing everything would play correctly. The projector's audio menu offers three sound settings, including a Theatre mode that helps spread the image out a bit and make things more dimensional. I'll say more about the audio system in the Performance section below, but it left a good impression.
The VA-LT002 runs the Android operating system and uses the independent Aptoide smart TV platform (not to be mistaken with the Google Play store) for downloading of streaming apps into the VAVA. Once downloaded, they can then be accessed readily from the projector's Home-button menu. With the projector's latest firmware version 1.64, I was able to connect with the Aptoide store and downloaded several apps, including those for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and others. Apps for PBS and PopcornFlix played fine in what looked like high definition (unlike most other home theater projectors, the VAVA has no Info screen or button with which to confirm the incoming signal). The NBC app loaded but wouldn't play; I got a message indicating it "requires Google Play services, which is not supported by your device." The Amazon Prime Video app opened and allowed me to navigate to individual shows, but resulted in a "try again later" error message with every attempt to play. The Netflix Player app also loaded and allowed navigation to specific programs, but when I tried to play any of them I got a message that I needed to load the Microsoft Silverlight Plug-In—unfortunately the on-screen button provided for had no effect. To be fair, we've been equally unimpressed with the Aptoide platform and its apps in any projector we've seen it in to date. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved by adding an inexpensive Roku, Amazon Firestick, Google Chromecast or other 4K-compliant streaming player and plugging it into one of the projector's HDMI ports. These devices are guaranteed to have a wide range of fully compatible apps, are easy to navigate, and should receive the highest quality signals from the major services.
Ergonomics and User Interface
Putting aside the feeble streaming platform, the lip-sync problem with DTS soundtracks, and some other oddities and omissions I'll mention here, the VAVA's day-to-day user experience was generally positive. The projector is designed for ease of use, with a very simple Bluetooth connected remote featuring a modest complement of raised buttons and good physical separation among the keys. It's not backlit, but once learned it is easily worked in a dark room. The Power and Mute buttons are wisely placed at the top, and a horizontal rocker for volume is at the bottom. A Home button takes you to the Home screen for selecting sources or your loaded media, or accessing the extended Settings menu. There's also a Menu button that will call up some of the key picture controls and other settings on a slide-out menu. I found the onscreen graphics and presentation attractive and polished-looking, and the menus were intuitive.
That said, there were a good number of other quirks, some potentially impactful, that made the VAVA harder to use or inhibited its performance, and in total with the previously mentioned items, seemed indicative of an unfinished, first-time product from an inexperienced projector manufacturer. It's not usually our way at ProjectorCentral to nitpick a product to excess, but frankly, the VAVA UST proved to be an otherwise very good projector at a good price burdened by obvious rookie mistakes that were solved long ago by other projector brands. Fortunately, there's the potential for many of the issues or omissions I found to be fixed in firmware going forward, something the company seems willing to consider. So I'm just going to mention everything I found here in one place, get all my complaints big and small out of the way, and move on to talking about the mostly good image and sound quality.
Unfriendly adjustment menus. The picture adjustment menu accessed via the remote's Home button are full-screen and fully mask the image— so they are essentially useless, lest you be guessing at the effect of your changes only to back out via seven or more keystrokes to see what you've done...and repeat that process endlessly. Fortunately, you can skip that menu entirely and go with the sliding pop-out menu accessible via the remote's Menu button. That said, this slide-out menu, while attractive, covers about a third of the screen and casts a shadow effect on another third, so you're still left guessing about how many clicks you need to get where you want when you're adjusting the picture. VAVA should lose the redundant Display menu behind the Home button (whose confusing labels didn't even perfectly match or track the controls on the slide-out menu's) and make the slide-out menu less invasive so it doesn't block most of the image.
Another smaller, but annoying misstep: the Sound menu, only accessible from the Home menu, cuts off the audio when accessed, and so does not allow you to hear the effect of cycling through the audio presets—try one, back out eight keys, give a listen, go back and repeat. VAVA says it will consider adding an Audio option to the slide-out menu to resolve this. Yet another small complaint: the projector's motorized focus control calls up a mandatory test pattern with multiple focus targets across the screen that is cleverly designed and reasonably effective, but there is no option to focus the lens against live content, as can be done with pretty much every other projector offering motorized focus. Given the aforementioned inconsistent focus uniformity associated with this and most other UST lenses, you'll likely be visiting the focus control more often than with a standard long-throw projector. Having to leave the live program (both video and audio) to guess where you are on a test pattern and then come back was a pain.
Ineffective laser brightness adjustment. The VAVA UST has a two-position Brightness control that allows you to switch from the Standard default power setting to a High setting, but the Standard setting is already working near the projector's full capacity and the boost in brightness is so modest as to be barely noticeable. There is also a distinct shift in color temperature that occurs when you engage the High setting—an effect I've never seen with any other projector's power setting. Perhaps more critically, the projector will not memorize the High Brightness setting when selected and defaults back to Standard each time it powers up. So if you do tune the image to use that extra brightness, you must return to the Brightness menu every time you turn on the projector and reset it to High. I might have used the extra brightness for ambient-light viewing, but didn't bother due to to this ongoing inconvenience.
No independent settings memory for different color modes. This function is important for those who know and care about image quality, particularly because the VAVA's out-of-box picture presets didn't provide terribly accurate color to start with and even the best of them could benefit from some degree of tuning.
Most projectors and TVs today will save any tweaks made to key picture controls (i.e., Contrast , Brightness, etc.) in any given picture preset/color mode (Movie, Sports, etc.). This is a particularly important feature for this new class of UST living room projectors because optimal use of these products ideally requires independent, easily recallable settings for (at the least) dark-room SDR, bright-room SDR, and dark-room HDR viewing. The VAVA only allows the saving of one tuned picture preset per HDMI input, and any tweaks made to its RGB Gain color temp controls are actually applied across all picture presets on all inputs. So even if you inconveniently choose to use separate HDMI inputs for, say, a dark-room SDR calibration and a bright-room SDR calibration in order to store independent custom Brightness and Contrast settings for each, you won't be able to separately tune the color temp for both beyond selecting a custom color temp for one and one of the default color temp settings (Warm, Standard, Cool) for the other.
Independent settings for multiple presets on each input, or at the very least fully independent memory for each input, is customary on most TVs and even budget projectors now. So is a separate settings memory that applies only to HDR signals when they are recognized—which is also missing here. VAVA has acknowledged that adding more customizable picture modes for memory storage is something they can do in firmware and will consider for a future update. That would go a long way toward allowing users to quickly optimize the image for different viewing conditions and content types.
Missing picture adjustments. The VA-LT002 omits some key picture adjustments that are common today on many projectors, and which may be missed by home theater enthusiasts. To start, it has no control for selecting overall gamma with SDR content, but more critically, also has no dedicated control to tune the HDR tone-map. Every HDR-compatible home theater projector we have tested to date has some kind of dedicated user control for tuning the HDR "brightness" (specifically, the gamma) to accommodate the wide variations in the mastering of different HDR programs. This allows the projector to maintain the best contrast and neither look too dark nor washed out with different titles. The VAVA UST can be set to recognize HDR10 content automatically and engage its fixed HDR tone-map, but it's the first home theater projector we've encountered with no variable HDR control or, in lieu of that, automated dynamic tone-mapping. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all with HDR. I'll say more about this below, but this is a noticeable limitation if you plan to watch a lot of HDR content.
On another note, VAVA is to be commended for including independent red, green, and blue gain controls for tuning color temperature, which affects the tint of white and is a critical contributor to color accuracy. But the projector omits the RGB Offset controls that typically accompany these, thus limiting the ability tune accurately across the entire brightness range of the grayscale. Even more sorely missed was a color management system (CMS) to adjust the red, green, and blue color points that define the color space. Admittedly, we don't always see that feature on every projector these days. But it's more and more common even on budget models, and it was necessary here to correct excessive red push that affected caucasian skin tones and ultimately could not be fully eliminated with the other controls.
Glitchy color settings. A critical last item worth reporting on the ergonomic front is that I observed a strange effect during my testing with the new firmware in which I found that the projector, under certain conditions I'll describe, subtly altered the color balance of my calibrated image even though I hadn't made any changes to the settings. I can't say with certainty if this didn't also happen with the previous firmware and just went unnoticed. This will take some space to explain, so bear with me.
As disussed below, I was able with some work to calibrate the VAVA for a good-to-excellent image that largely tamed the pushed reds which ran across most of the default presets and made caucasian flesh tones too pink or orange. I noticed, however, that whenever I temporarily visited the Home screen (required to select or resync the input) or the focus test pattern, a noticeable amount of the rosy cast I had worked to reduce suddenly returned to the image. Fixing this and restoring my fully calibrated picture required calling up the slide-out display menu (still set to the Customize mode), and clicking once in any direction on the Saturation (ie, Color) control. The added red then noticeably dropped away, and any further single clicks on the Saturation control, including back to my original setting, resulted in the usual small change this control typically imparts. The effect on the image from this unexpected color shift was subtle on most parts of most images, but very noticeable on faces.
I was able to verify that something odd and unanticipated was going on by testing this sequence of keystrokes on a 100% magenta full-screen test pattern that made the effect more obvious. I also verified that this happened with both 1080p/SDR and 4K/HDR content, and that the behavior was perfectly consistent every time.
Furthermore, by switching to another, uncalibrated input I verified that a similar color shift happens even with the default picture modes. For example, setting the projector to the PC color mode (the least red and oversaturated) resulted in a subjectively paler image and more accurate flesh tones until such time as I went to the Home screen. Upon returning, a degree of red tint was added to the picture even though the slide-out display menu settings remained unchanged at the defaults. Restoring the image to what I saw before going to the Home screen or focus pattern required temporarily changing the color mode to any other setting than PC, then returning to PC. The image stayed this way after exiting the menu—that is, on the preferred image—until such time as I had need to return to the Home screen or focus pattern, when it became necessary to repeat this pattern upon returning to full-screen viewing.
What this means is that there are essentially two versions of every default or even custom color mode: one you encounter when you first directly access or adjust a mode from the slide-out display menu, and one slightly altered version you'll encounter with the same settings after you've come back from the Home or focus screens that will remain in play unless you take corrective action. If you're starting out with a customized color mode or the PC mode that is not excessively red to begin with, you'll likely notice the extra red cast as I did. Therefore, pending any future firmware fix, users must be prepared to visit the slide-out display menu every time you select an input and follow the described sequence to restore the preferred default or customized image as you originally specified in the display menu, or else just live day-to-day with what you get. This is obviously a serious impediment for critical viewers who want to view a carefully tuned image, though I don't doubt that many of VAVA's target customers—every day TV watchers looking to replace a flat-panel with a much bigger image—will likely find one of the default modes as experienced straight from Home screen acceptable and never notice that the default color mode they initially selected in the slide-out menu looked a little different.
Hopefully, VAVA will address this issue going forward. In the meantime, in fairness to the projector and reporting on its full potential performance, I was careful to insure that the preferred end result of my calibration or the default user modes was engaged and onscreen during my subjective image evaluation. My observations below reflect this.
Color Modes/Calibration. The VAVA offers a choice of five selectable color mode presets for each input including Standard (the default), Movie, Colorful, Sports, Customized and PC (apparently intended for a computer). Within each, there is a choice of four Color Temperature settings: Warm, Standard (the default), Cool, and Customized (the latter makes available the RGB Gain controls when selected). As noted above, adjustments to most basic picture parameters are only allowed for each input in the Customized mode; attempts to tweak Contrast, Brightness, or Color (labeled Saturation) in any other mode—Movie, for example— automatically changes the picture mode back to Customized and its most recent settings, leaving the default Movie (or other) mode as found. On the other hand, the Color Temperature setting for each picture mode is memorized, including the RGB Gain color temp settings. So, if you're in Movie mode, you are allowed to cycle through the Color Temp settings, and can select the Customized color temp option to tune it for the Movie mode. However, once you do that, it is the only tweaking you can do for RGB gain—those Gain settings will come up under the customized color temp option on all color modes on all inputs.
As I reported, most of the color modes pushed red out of the box and, with the Standard color temp default, leaned a little blue on the whites. Subjectively, Movie mode, with its Color Temp set to Warm, looked the best out of the box in a dark room viewed on my 92-inch, Stewart Studiotek 130 1.3 gain matte white reference screen. But caucasian and even dark-skinned faces still leaned too far toward orange and the projector struggled with delineating a wide range of skin tones. Measurements taken with Portrait Displays Calman software connected to an Xrite i1Pro2 spectroradiometer and Murideo Six-G signal generator revealed that the color temperature was relatively close to the 6500K neutral-gray industry standard at 100% brightness with these settings, however. Also, the red, green, and blue elements that make up the white balance were easily calibrated to track closely together (as they're supposed to) from from 20% brightness up to 100%. That's good, but the overall luminance across the full brightness range was not consistent, and got brighter as it moved up to 50% brightness before dropping back again in hump-like fashion. So, mid-tones were brighter than they should be relative to the rest of the grayscale, which could have the effect of slightly brightening some objects in some images (those that fall between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows) and hurting the overall contrast.
Dark-room SDR tuning. Ultimately, I used the one storable Customized mode to calibrate for SDR dark-room viewing, first setting its controls to mimic the Movie mode's and working with the Customize color temperature setting, which registered a very blue 11,000K in its defaults before adjusting the RGB gain controls. On my first go-around with the projector using the previous firmware version 1.42, the mid-brightness bump in the luminance was so severe that it was impossible to tune the grayscale using the RGB Gain controls without suffering visually noticeable errors in this mid-brightness region. But the new firmware addressed this to some degree (after VAVA received feedback that SDR images were too bright). Post update, the measured hump in the luminance response was still there, but was far less severe. Even at its peak error at 50% brightness I was able to get close enough to the target luminance to achieve a maximum deltaE of just 4.4, relatively close to the ideal of 3 and well within acceptable limits. (DeltaE describes how far off from accurate a color is; under 3, or some say under 4, is considered indistinguishable from perfect.)
Along with the grayscale issues, the projector showed red, green, and blue color primaries that were well off of their Rec.709 targets, though in my tuned Customize color mode they did measure just outside the boundaries of full Rec.709. But it was impossible to bring the color points into full alignment without a color management system. Using the Calman software I was able to work with the Saturation (overall color) and Tone (tint) controls to bring the luminance for red down to an acceptable level and help tame most of the red push that was affecting flesh tones. In the end, deltaE's for the color were higher than I'd like but mostly acceptable, with 100% blue being the exception at just over 11. Fortunately, few or no objects in real content ever need to be reproduced at 100% blue, and the less saturated blues were more accurate. After calibration, Calman's Color Checker, which checks the accuracy of 47 color swatches for the primaries, secondaries, common objects, and skin tones— including blue sky—showed an average deltaE of 3.8. That's a very good result. My calibrated settings can be found in the appendix at the end of the review.
Before calibration, the projector put out 52.4 foot-Lamberts as measured off my 1.3 gain white screen from a 3 foot distance. Post calibration for dark-room SDR viewing, it measured a fairly bright 39.0 ft-L with 6,471K color temperature at 100% white—close to the industry-standard neutral gray 6,500K target.
Dark-room HDR tuning. For dark- room HDR on my white, 1.3 gain screen, I was happy to find that my calibrated SDR settings worked well with a decent range of HDR10 content. This was a big change from my first go around with the VAVA and reflected a significant improvement associated with the new firmware, which also addressed complaints that HDR was too dark at the projector's previous default HDR tuning. Given the lack of a dedicated HDR adjustment, the only available controls to tune for different HDR programs are Brightness and Contrast. With the old firmware, I found that programs could not be tuned with these controls to produce bright highlights without demonstrably washing out the blacks; or if I tuned for a deeper black it made the image too dark overall. The new firmware largely fixed this and either looked great with my calibrated settings or could be honed with slight tweaks of the Brightness and Contrast. Most movies were fine, with only the very brightest titles or some particularly challenging bright scenes continuing to look a bit washed out.
Bright-room SDR tuning. I had no way to store separate Contrast and Brightness settings for bright-room SDR viewing on my UST ALR screen, which I can hang at will in front of my white reference screen. Its gray material by definition darkens the image and slightly shifts the color temperature bluer, but I found that for most viewing in moderate ambient light, I had great success just by cranking the Contrast (peak white) control on my calibrated Customize user mode and perhaps going up a click or three on the Brightness (black level). I usually stuck with the calibrated Customize color temperature setting, though for viewing in much brighter light, switching to the Standard color temp on the same calibrated Customize picture mode added a touch of additional blue to the whites and punched up the image further without causing it to suffer the oversaturated orange/red flesh tones of the even-brighter Standard user mode.
For those who don't calibrate—which I know will be most users— I also got very good results for day-to-day TV viewing in moderate light using the default PC mode with the Standard or Warm color temp setting. This mode was too undersatured and green-leaning on my white screen in a dark room, but with soft LED room lighting to the left and right of the ALR screen it provided the least amount of red push and acceptably accurate and well-delineated flesh tones.
Before moving on to some detailed viewing observations, a note here about dedicated ALR UST screens. Get one! I can't be more unequivocal about it. The Elite Aeon CLR I use was reviewed favorably by us and is among the more affordable options out there, but most UST ALR screens use a similar sawtooth optical structure to reject light from overhead while reflecting light from below back at the viewer. Mated to a sufficiently bright UST projector with acceptably dark blacks, as we have here, it vastly improves bright-room viewing—to the point where most viewers will find it a more than sufficient replacement for a flat-screen TV. No, it won't deliver the blacks of an OLED panel (no projector will, even in a dark room), and bright light shining directly on the screen can still wash out the image—as also happens with a panel TV. But the effectiveness of the screen is so startling as to almost seem magical. At the same time, I saw no demonstrably negative effects when using the ALR screen for dark-room viewing as well. As mentioned, the 0.6-gain screen dims the image compared with a higher gain white screen and shifts color temperature slightly (theoretically requiring a different calibration), but turning out the lights basically just improved the black level further while otherwise retaining color and subjectively similar brightness on the highlights.
Dark-Room SDR Viewing. I did most of my dark-room evaluation on my matte white reference screen, which allowed me to do direct A/B comparisons with my long-throw reference projector, a JVC DLA-X790 (set in this case to its default Natural (Rec. 709) color mode). Post calibration, my go-to Blu-ray test clips looked excellent on the VAVA and satisfyingly close to the reference. The opening close-up in Oblivion of Tom Cruise's face in the morning sunlight showed just a very subtle touch of extra warmth on the VAVA compared with his browner, more ruddy skin tone on the JVC, but they were close enough that either was in the realm of natural skin tone and might be considered right. Ditto for his very fair-skinned partner Vika, who was just a faint touch more pink on the VAVA.
Beyond the slight differences in facial tones, other colors looked accurate and well-saturated after calibration, without being overdone and cartoony as they were in the default settings. After my color temp adjustments to the grayscale, an aerial view of Cruise's character Jack walking to his helicopter-hovercraft showed an appropriately neutral white on the ship, and the walkway leading to the heliport exhibited just the right off-white; only a slightly darker gray border that surrounds the roof of the attached domicile was ever so slightly warmer (more red) in color temp than seen on the reference projector. Later, when Jack is visiting his mountain hideaway, the sandy-gray granite cliffs in the background and all the green foliage surrounding the cabin looked spectacularly natural and inviting—and they were a near-perfect match to the JVC.
Detail and sharpness were a mixed bag on the VAVA. With the lens adjusted for the best focus at center screen, the hyper-close-up on Jack's face mentioned above shared a similar level of detail on his stubble and skin pores on his nose as seen on the reference projector—which is only a 1080p pixel-shifter against the VAVA's full UHD spec, but has a much better lens. The VAVA always showed finer pixel delineation up close, but was typically equal or only slightly sharper in some areas of some scenes. On a later scene with a close-up of Jack's hand watering a potted flowering plant as he sits on a sunny rock ledge, the flower at center screen appears equally sharp on both projectors. However the fine weaving in his uniform at the upper left was essentially lost on the UST projector, a result of both the normally modest edge sacrifice associated with UST lenses when they're focused for the center as well as a slight bit of additional softness the VAVA always exhibited in this corner compared with the rest of the screen. Fortunately, this is hardly noticeable since most live scenes have inconsequential and out-of-focus content in the far corners and the viewer is always concentrating on the action in the middle of the screen.
Contrast was very good on most mixed bright and dark scenes, and the black levels were more than acceptable for most dark-room viewing. The Brightness control allows you to dig deep into black if you want, and when adjusted properly the projector's default gamma curve did a surprisingly good job of pulling out shadow details on most scenes—for example, in delineating the outlines of the lapels on black suits while retaining good contrast in the rest of the image. Only on scenes that were really dark overall did my reference JVC—a projector known for its state-of-the-art blacks—totally crush the VAVA. For example, Clint Eastwood's now classic western Forgiven opens with a sequence of shots on a dark, rainy street that's full of shadows. It was easy to see on these and other dark scenes viewed in a dark theater that the VAVA only musters a modest gray for its black that washes out the more challenging shadows. Similarly, the opening sequence of Aquaman has a shot looking down into a rocky lagoon with crashing waves lit by violent lightning strikes. The JVC had noticeably more contrast, with deeper blacks and better shadow detail in the darker areas of the rocks, and it did a better job delineating the streaks of rain, which looked more like random haze on the VAVA. But the VAVA really left nothing for the average viewer to complain about here, and in the absence of a direct comparison most wouldn't know what was missing. Also, keep in mind that all of these differences are largely wiped out when viewing in ambient light.
I watched a bit of animation on the VAVA, and found it mesmerizing. Browsing through a few chapters of Minions, I found the familiar little yellow guys appropriately banana-shaded and their blue denim overalls perfectly rendered, and when they encountered their heroine Scarlet Overkill, her red dress and lipstick were a nice punchy red, not orange. The Secret Life of Pets, in which efforts are obviously made to render photo-realistic colors and detail to common objects—like a beautifully roasted chicken or the green felt of a pool table—was also gorgeously reproduced in a spectacular range of colors and dimensionality. With calibrated settings, the bright white fur of Gidgit, a fluffy pomeranian, was essentially neutral with just a slight hint of warmth, and with retention of the fine detail in her coat that was otherwise obliterated in the default color modes.
Dark-room HDR Viewing. Prior to the new firmware, HDR on the VAVA was a big disappointment. That's true of almost any projector when viewed in ambient light, but even in the dark where the benefits of HDR should be more visible the VAVA didn't come up to the standard of even the latest generation budget projectors in the $1,500 to $1,700 range. That all changed with the recent update, which seems to have altered the tone-map to brighten up the dark areas of the image on most HDR discs while still allowing the image to hit reasonably bright highlights. It isn't near the top tier for HDR projection—some long-throw projectors, such as the high-end JVC DLA-NX7/RS2000 ($8,999) and the Epson HC5050UB ($2,999) both start with better blacks and have more sophisticated (and adjustable) tone-mapping. But the HDR versions of most movies, which were a "don't even bother" with the old firmware, now show a better result than their SDR versions.
One example is Aquaman, where the previously mentioned lightning flashes generated some real visceral impact, as did the flaming explosions depicted when Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) throws her triton into an old tube televsion, and when the Atlantis military police blow a hole through the wall of her home. Another demonstrable example was the opening scene of La La Land, a big production number with dozens of actors dressed in riotously bright colors dancing on a sunny Los Angeles highway ramp. This was a scene that, with the older firmware, could only be adjusted with the Brightness and Contrast controls to either look too dark or too washed out. With the new firmware, and without any tweaking of controls from my calibrated SDR settings, it looked fabulous. The specular highlights seen as the camera catches the sun while it tracks across a couple of car windshields were delivered with a nice bright flash, and the deep red, blue, green, yellow and orange wardrobe that is intentionally repeated on all the dancers appeared well-saturated and punchy.
As mentioned, it was only on very brightly mastered titles that the VAVA's new default tone-map was clearly insufficient, even with attempted tuning of Brightness and Contrast. The Meg, for example, was mastered for maximum peak highlights of 4,000 nits and a very high average light level of 1,193 nits. Compare that to a more typical HDR title today that's mastered for max peaks of 1,000 nits and a few hundred nits average. Faced with such brightness, most of this disc just looked washed out in HDR on the VAVA, whether it was a brightly lit indoor scene or especially any of the many outdoor scenes shot on the ocean.
Bright-Room SDR. With my calibrated and goosed-up settings in a lit room using the ALR UST screen, the VAVA was consistently excellent and always impressive. I'm not suggesting the image got better when the lights were turned on, but casual bright-room viewing brings a different and less stringent set of criteria, and the job this projector/screen combo did convinced me that a UST projector can easily replace a day-to-day flatpanel for the average viewer. As noted, most of its default modes were still too red/orange out of the box, but the PC mode with the Standard (slightly blue) color temp setting provided enough punch to overcome moderate-to-high ambient light, and largely tamed the oversaturated pink/orange-leaning skin tones. As also mentioned, my calibrated dark room settings, with adjustments to raise the Contrast and sometimes with selection of the Standard color temp instead of my Customize color temp, delivered a slightly more palatable result with a small sacrifice in brightness.
I ran the VAVA for many hours out in my basement studio while I worked in the adjoining office, and when I stuck my head out or walked by I found myself repeatedly startled at how engaging and satisfying the picture was. Caucasian flesh tones sometimes continued to lean ever slightly pink or orange on some broadcast programs depending on the channel, but neither this nor the lack of deep black was an issue in the light. I tried a lot of different lighting sources, including ceiling high-hats to the far left of the screen, a moderately dim table lamp on an end table next to my seating, and high-hats that brightly lit up the main viewing area, including one positioned dead-center and three feet forward of the screen. Only with the latter conditions—a true torture test for either a ceiling-light-rejecting ALR screen or even a panel TV—did the screen moderately wash out on the blacks and exhibit some reflective sheen. But even then it remained highly watchable with news and sports, and only a bit less so on darker film-based content.
What I'm saying here is that when you set aside the most critical criteria that dark-room home theater enthusiasts hold dear to their hearts—perfect color accuracy, deep black level and shadow detail, tack-sharp focus—and look at the VAVA UST as the affordable bright-room TV projector for average viewers that it is designed to be, it handily lives up to its promise.
3D Viewing. VAVA's mid-April firmware update turned on promised Full-3D playback with the addition of a 3D menu that allows the user to manually select the type of 3D when a 3D disc is played (Left Right, Top Bottom, or Frame Encapsulation). There is no automatic detection of 3D content and no dedicated 3D picture mode, so you are left to cycle through the normal color mode options and, if you so choose, use your one storeable Customize color mode per input to create separate settings for 3D. Standard off-the-shelf DLP-Link glasses are required.
I watched some segments of Minions in 3D as well as The Walk, the hair-raisingly convincing depiction of Philippe Petit's high-wire act between the old World Trade Center towers in 1974. Even on my matte white screen in full darkeness, 3D playback was surprisingly dark given the projector's high lumen output, and this remained true even in the projector's brightest modes and with the Bright setting activated for the laser power. There was also an obvious red tint to all 3D content in every color mode that was particularly apparent on a black and white sequence at the beginning of The Walk, and remained so on color scenes even with my tuned Customize color mode and color temp settings that largely tamed this with regular 2D content. The Minion's familiar capsule-shaped bodies leaned heavily toward orange instead of yellow and had none of their usual punch. Viewing 3D in ambient light was really not a viable option, and switching over to the lower gain UST screen, even for dark-room 3D viewing (which may be the default screen for many users), just made things even darker.
On the plus side, I saw no ghosting and little in the way of parallax error, though care should always be taken to insure the glasses are set to properly position the left and right images on the correct eye. In the end, it was a reasonably watchable 3D image once you got into the movie, but hardly the exemplary 3D experience I've had with some lamp-based projectors of similarly-rated brightness. Fans of 3D shouldn't expect too much here.
Audio. Part of what contributes to the VAVA's success as an oversized family-room TV is its reassuringly capable audio—excellent for an integrated sound system in a projector, and well beyond what you'd get from a traditional flat-panel TV. My basement studio is a wide open space of nearly 3,000 cubic feet with short, 6'3" ceilings (it's a hundred year-old home) and I was getting peaks of about 86 decibels from 10 feet away from the speakers on action soundtracks in the Theatre mode with the volume fully cranked. That would be louder in a smaller room and should be more than enough for most folks. Along with a goodly amount of dynamics, the system delivered both intelligible dialogue and essentially distortion-free sound at any volume setting, an indication of well-engineered digital processing and limiting circuitry that optimizes the sound quality and bass performance while preventing either the amplifiers or drivers from over-reaching their capabilities.
Speaking of bass performance, I tried hooking up my 10-inch subwoofer to the projector's 3.5 mm analog audio output, which I'd hoped would remain active even with the projector's internal speakers selected. This would have allowed it to function as a subwoofer output (with the sub's crossover providing the low pass filter to the sub) and would have greatly enhanced the system's ability by adding more dynamic range and much deeper and more dynamic bass. Unfortunately, once a plug is inserted into this port, it cuts off the internal speakers as you might find with any traditional headphone jack. Perhaps an option to keep this port active or select it as a subwoofer output can be added in the future.
VAVA's online marketing and technology choices in the VA-LT002 suggest the company is earnest about wanting to make a great projector, and that impression has been reinforced in my interactions with company execs. Whether they continue to simply evolve this projector or add new models to their line, they will likely be a significant and high-value contributor to the projector market going forward, and a competitor that other projector manufacturers should now take notice of.
The execution of the VA-LT002 suggests further work is needed on the out-of-box picture tuning if they expect to be taken seriously by enthusiasts, as well as the addition of some of the missing features I cited along with honing of the user interface. That said, we're looking here at mostly very good components and truly excellent build quality, and, with the latest firmware and some judicious adjustments, a very good picture. Unfortunately, there's enough stuff here beyond the final image quality that's either not quite right or just simply wrong to prevent us from making a strong recommendation for the serious enthusiast. Less demanding viewers—or reviewers—can rightfully be more enthusiastic.
Perhaps with future firmware improvements we will be able to rejudge the VA-LT002's standing; with the addition of some otherwise common calibration controls, one or two better-tuned out-of-box color modes, and a more polished and less glitchy user interface it would have easily earned at least our Highly Recommended award. But even with its caveats, it's hard to deny the incredible value that VAVA has brought to the emerging living-room UST landscape with the VA-LT002. It is a promising first effort that makes me anxious to see what's coming next from this brazen newcomer.
Brightness. Editor's Note: Our comments here regarding lumen measurements for the VAVA 4K were updated in March 2022 following resolution of an Epson lawsuit claiming that VAVA's published rating of 2,500 ANSI lumens (as well as an early claim on their website of 6,000 unspecified lumens) were untrue and misleading. Epson's independent testing confirmed a maximum of 1,800 lumens, which is now reflected on the VAVA website and those of its resellers. Our original review explained the difficulties of accurately measuring the brightness of UST projectors with our usual handheld meters and cited our measurement of 2,708 ANSI lumens, though with the advisory that it be taken with a grain of salt. We did not publish lumen measurements for all the picture modes as we normally do, but the chart below reflects accurate center-screen measurements in a dark room off a 92-inch diagonal, 1.3 gain screen that were published with the original review, as taken with a Klein K10 colorimeter pointed at the screen from a ten foot distance. Readers can reduce the foot-Lambert measurements by 30% to get a more accurate picture of the result on a unity gain screen. The brightness reflected to the viewer for each color mode is shown below along with the color temperature of white in each of the color temperature default settings. Note that the measurements were the same for nearly every mode, with other settings beyond Contrast, Brightness, and color temp accounting for visual differences.
The numbers in the chart reflect the fact that, at the 92-inch image size used for our evaluation, I never had concerns about a lack of brightness with the VAVA 4K, though the results could be much less desirable in higher ambient light, with a much larger screen size (the maximum 150-inch image would be ill-advised here, for example), or with an ALR UST screen with low gain—such as the popular lenticular screens with gain in the 0.6-0.8 range. Unfortunately, I did not have an ALR UST screen available at the time of this review. In any event, as outlined in our very detailed review, there are many other considerations that work against the VAVA 4K beyond any limitations on brightness. —Rob Sabin
|Mode / Color Temp||Brightness (ft-L)||Color Temp (K)|
|Standard / Standard||54.8||9,290|
|Standard / Cool||41.3||9,680|
|Standard / Warm||44.1||6,460|
|Movie / Standard||50.9||9,320|
|Movie / Cool||38.1||9,680|
|Movie / Warm||41.4||6,120|
|Colorful / Standard||54.8||9,310|
|Colorful / Cool||41.4||9,690|
|Colorful / Warm||44.1||6,460|
|Sport / Standard||54.9||9,320|
|Sport / Cool||41.4||9,700|
|Sport / Warm||44.1||6,460|
|PC / Standard||54.8||9,880|
|PC / Cool||41.4||9,700|
In the Standard color mode with the Standard color temperature setting, changing the laser power Brightness control from High to the default Standard power mode reduced the reflected light output on the screen from 55.6 ftL to 45.7 ftL, about an 18% decrease. However, the color temperature also shifted from 9,340K to 6,280K, and in any event the perceived difference on the screen was minimal at best with live content.
DLP Rainbow Effect. I'm not particularly sensitive to rainbows, but the only time I saw any with the VAVA was when my eye happened to catch a glimpse of the light emerging from the lens. I never saw any on screen in any content—not once. Still, it's a one-chip DLP with a wheel, so if you're sensitive to rainbows and bothered by them the usual caveats apply about buying from source that accepts returns.
Fan Noise. The air intake for the VAVA UST is on the right side panel as you see the projector in its setup position, and the outtake vent is on the left side. It is a quiet projector rated at less than 32 dB. Even with no sound from the speakers in a room with about a 35 db noise floor, fan noise was minimal at best in normal conditions, even from nearby the projector, and accompanied by a very mild electronic hum that tends to mask it. The three-fan design kicks in if the projector heats up, which might then be detectable (though not bothersome) at viewing distance in a quiet room. VAVA made some adjustments to the algorithm controlling the fans in its mid-April firmware update to further reduce noise, but even prior to that I rarely heard the fan or hum over the any live soundtrack and was never distracted by it. There was no switchable High Altitude mode in the projector.
Input Lag. With a 1080p/60Hz input signal, the lowest input lag measured for the VA-LT002 with a Bodnar lag meter was 98.1 ms. For a 3840 x 2160/60Hz UHD signal, the lowest measurement was 100.8 ms. A reading of even 50 or 60 ms might be considered acceptable for casual gaming but much too slow for competitive first-person shooters, and the best gaming projectors have input lag of 16 ms or less.
- HDMI 2.0b (x3) with HDCP 2.2, one with ARC
- Composite video in (3.5 mm)
- S/PDIF optical digital audio out (Toslink)
- Analog stereo audio out (3.5 mm)
- Bluetooth wireless (BT4.2 dual mode for audio in/out)
- USB Type A (for media, firmware updates)
- Ethernet (RJ-45)
- WiFi (802.11ac, 2.4Ghz/5Ghz)
IMAGE PARAMETER MENU:
Color Mode: Customize
Color Temp: Customize
Red Gain: 1012
Green Gain: 852
Blue Gain: 777
Trapezoid Correction: none
Screen Ratio: 16:9
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our VAVA 4K projector page.