The new Ultra High Definition 4K resolution is making a big splash in home theater. At four times the resolution of 1080p, 4K brings picture detail to a whole new level. In the projector world, the recent release of two high-profile products - the Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema LS10000 and the Sony VPL-VW350ES - has drawn even more attention to Ultra High Definition. Both projectors will display native 4K source material, but the Sony VW350ES does it with native 4K resolution imaging chips, while the Epson LS10000 uses native 1080p chips and a 4K enhancement process. To make the competition even more interesting, Sony has announced a temporary introductory sale price of $7,999 on the VW350ES, putting it exactly at the price of the Epson LS10000. So the big question is how do these two projectors stack up? Which is the better for the money? Let's take a look.
Update 1/27/15: Epson has revised their estimate of the laser's lifespan in High brightness mode to 17,000 hours. We have edited the "Light output" and "Light sources" sections to reflect this change.
The Sony VW350ES and the Epson LS10000 differ in both features and picture quality. With regard to picture quality, they show noticeable differences in contrast, brightness, and picture detail as follows:
Contrast. The LS10000, with a Dynamic Contrast system and a laser light source, has a visible advantage in on/off contrast and a much deeper black level in dark scenes where black is predominant. In rolling credits, the black background is more deeply solid black on the Epson. However, in most cases the VW350ES has higher contrast within any given frame. In scenes of average or above average light level, its picture not only appears higher in contrast, but also has a black level much closer to that of the LS10000. Both projectors also feature user-adjustable gamma curves, though the factory settings on each were quite good.
Light output. A projector's light output can change dramatically based on how it is installed and how you plan to use it, so it's best to consider these factors before making a purchase. On the LS10000, some folks will opt for Cinema mode, which creates a theater-quality image at 1275 lumens. Others will prefer THX mode (1095 lumens) or Digital Cinema (1038 lumens) for their reference-quality color accuracy and wide color gamut, respectively. On the VW350ES, Reference mode is the obvious choice with 1370 calibrated lumens. It is both brighter and more accurate than its other theater-appropriate image mode, Cinema Film 1.
The VW350ES loses fewer lumens when using the zoom lens (25% versus 31% at maximum telephoto) and has less of a decrease in low lamp mode (21%, versus the LS10000's 24% in Medium or 45% in Eco). The decrease in light output due to zoom is a straight-line decrease, so someone using the midpoint of the zoom lens would see a 12.5% drop on the VW350ES and a 15.5% drop on the LS10000.
For installation planning purposes, you should also consider how a projector's light source will lose brightness over time. The VW350ES uses a high pressure lamp that is expected to lose brightness relatively quickly over the first 500 hours of use, then degrade more slowly thereafter. The LS10000 uses a laser light source that is expected to lose brightness slowly on a straight-line basis over its lifespan.
We initially reported on a 10,000 hour lifespan for the LS10000 at full brightness, but Epson has since revised that number to 17,000 hours. Since light source lifespans are based upon the time they are expected to reach 50% of their initial lumen output, the LS10000 should see a straight-line 25% decrease in light output over 8,500 hours of use.
Historically, high pressure lamps degrade by 25% in roughly 500 hours, though this is an approximation. We have no way to predict precisely how fast lamps in the VW350ES will lose brightness, and Sony does not publish anticipated lamp life statistics. Assuming for the moment that the VW350ES's lamp will in fact degrade by 25% in 500 hours, the LS10000 would lose 1.5% of its brightness during that same time period.
The VW350ES loses brightness more quickly than the LS10000, so after several hundred hours the VW350 becomes less bright than the LS10000 until you change the lamp. Replacement lamps run $499 on this model. The good news is that the VW350ES can always be periodically returned to maximum light output with a new lamp, whereas the laser light source on the LS10000 cannot be replaced.
Color. Both projectors have comprehensive color controls that allow adjustments to both grayscale and gamut, so color can be dialed in with precision through professional calibration, which for a small additional investment will ensure that you obtain peak performance from either projector. The LS10000 includes support for the DCI (P3) color gamut via its Digital Cinema mode, which places a filter in the light path but slightly reduces light output (1,038 lumens) versus THX mode (1,095 lumens).
Image Resolution-1080p source material. Until there is a wider selection of 4K content, owners of 4K projectors will probably spend most of their time watching 1080p content. When displaying 1080p source material on the Sony VW350ES, rather than straight no-frills line doubling, the projector analyzes each frame of the input signal and interpolates to 4K to reduce jagged edges, maximize detail clarity, and create smoother color gradations. This is tied to the projector's Reality Creation system, which is controlled using two sliders (one for resolution and one for noise reduction) that run from 0-100. Even if you're usually not a fan of smart sharpening systems, we recommend leaving Reality Creation turned on even if you have both sliders set to zero. There is a marked difference in detail between Reality Creation set to zero and Reality Creation turned completely off.
On the Epson LS10000, you can adjust the degree of 4K enhancement to be applied in the Super Resolution menu. These options are labeled 4K-1 through 4K-5. In our side by side testing, we opted for a moderate 4K enhancement effect using either 4K-1 or 4K-2; at very short viewing distances it is easier to spot edge enhancement artifacts, however minor. The optimal setting is dependent upon several factors: the type of material being viewed, the viewing distance of the audience, and the viewer's personal taste.
In our tests with Blu-ray material, both projectors rendered images with much higher apparent resolution than a standard 1080p projector. However, the VW350ES had an incrementally cleaner, clearer, more natural picture with better definition in super-fine detail and less digital noise. This advantage was most evident in images with an abundance of detail, but even less detailed content showed it to some degree.
Image Resolution - 4K source material. Our 4K tests used demo material from a Sony media server, short clips from a REDRAY player, and test patterns from the DVDO AVLab test pattern generator. With 4K content instead of 1080p, the VW350ES again had the advantage in fine detail resolution. But the gap between the two projectors narrowed, making the difference in image clarity less evident than it was when upscaling 1080p. Fine details that were crisp on the VW350ES appeared slightly softer and less defined on the LS10000. It is impressive how close to native 4K the LS10000 was able to come with its enhancement technique, but there is still an apparent benefit to the VW350ES's native 4K chips.
Viewing distance. In our review of the VW350ES, we mention seeing differences between 4K and straight 1080p as far back as 2x the screen width, but the differences were more obvious at a viewing distance of 1x screen width. When comparing native 4K against the LS10000's 4K Enhancement, the range at which we can make those distinctions is even smaller. We could not see much difference in fine detail between the VW350ES and LS10000 if seated at more than 1.3x the screen width. Past that distance, both projectors still look much higher in resolution than straight 1080p, but it becomes difficult to say with conviction that one looks more detailed than the other.
Picture quality in general - and detail in particular - is obviously essential to the comparison of the Epson LS10000 and the Sony VW350ES. However, these two projectors have many differences in features and functions that could be just as important in determining which to buy. These include the following:
Light sources. Before making a purchase, you will want to forecast your hours of usage. If you play a lot of video games or watch a lot of TV (or binge-watch Netflix like everyone else on Earth), you might predict an average of 4 hours per day of usage. At that rate it would take almost six years on the LS10000 to burn through the 8500 hours and reach its 75% lumen output point, assuming Epson's predicted lifespan is correct. The number of lamps you would need to buy to keep the VW350ES at near maximum light output would depend on whether you need that much light (most dedicated home theaters don't need anywhere near 1370 lumens, but you may need it if you plan to view in ambient light situations).
If you are a more conservative user and anticipate watching, say, four movies a week in your theater, either of these projectors will supply your needs for many years without much concern for lamp costs or light erosion, and the lifespan of the light source becomes less of an issue.
Brightness control. If consistent image brightness is important to you, the LS10000's manual lens iris makes it easy. The iris can curtail light output by as much as 50%. As the light output from the lasers slowly degrades, the iris can be opened incrementally to give the same level of illumination over a very long period of time. The LS10000 also has three power levels (High, Medium, ECO) for greater control over light output. Since the VW350ES has no manual iris, screen illumination will vary somewhat more over the life of the product as lamps degrade and are replaced.
3D. If you watch a lot of 3D, you may want to consider some additional points. We saw less crosstalk on the LS10000 than we did on the VW350ES, though neither projector's image was completely clean. There is also less flicker on the LS10000 which is especially visible in bright areas of solid color. On the other hand, as for 4K 3D, the VW350ES has a major advantage. The LS10000 does not allow 4K Enhancement to be used when watching 3D content, so it is limited to 1080p 3D. The VW350ES is native 4K, so you get the benefits of the higher resolution all the time, no matter what you watch.
Anamorphic Widescreen and Lens Memory. The LS10000 has a lens memory system that can maintain constant image height on (typically) a 2.4:1 screen regardless of the aspect ratio of the source material. It has ten user memory locations and one-button access to the first two slots via the remote control. The VW350ES does not have this capability, though it is available in the more expensive VW600ES.
If you're more traditional and want to use an external anamorphic lens, both projectors are able to accommodate. Both the LS10000 and the VW350ES have vertical image stretch and 12V triggers for screen masking or motorized lens sleds.
Input lag. The LS10000's fastest mode, at 56 milliseconds, can't keep up with the 32 ms performance of the VW350ES. What's more, the Input Lag Reduction feature of the VW350ES does not reduce picture quality as dramatically as Fast image processing does on the LS10000, so you get a quicker response time and a better looking picture.
Audible noise. Both projectors are very quiet, but the VW350ES is the quieter of the two. Practically speaking, this will only be a concern in very small rooms, and then only if you are seated directly in front of an exhaust vent. In a ceiling mount, it will be difficult to hear either projector.
The Epson LS10000 is a highly refined and feature-rich home theater projector with a laser light source, lens memory, DCI gamut support, and a 4K Enhancement feature that gives it an image significantly more detailed than 1080p.
The Sony VW350ES is a feature-reduced version of the VW600ES, removing the iris and lens memory systems in order to hit an aggressive price point for a native 4K projector. Its key advantage over the LS10000 is an incrementally sharper image with both 1080p and 4K source material, although the practical advantage of this will vary based upon your desired viewing distance from the screen.
The VW350ES also has an advantage in simultaneous contrast and light output (when the lamp is new), while the LS10000 has a better black level in dark scenes, more control over lumen output, and a degree of future-proofing thanks to its DCI filter.
Where other features are concerned, the LS10000's Lens Memory is very popular in home theater these days, and its laser engine will eliminates lamp replacement costs. But lasers are a new technology and it remains to be seen whether predicted performance over tens of thousands of hours will bear out. The VW350ES will require fresh lamps over time, but high-pressure lamps are a known quantity, and a fresh lamp also tops off light output. Doing periodic lamp replacements to keep a high-performance projector operating at peak efficiency is no more of a problem for owners of a VW350ES than doing regular oil changes on a Porsche.
In the end, the Epson LS10000 and the Sony VPL-VW350ES are both cutting edge home theater projectors, each with their unique advantages and value propositions. They are both extremely engaging to watch, and a major step beyond 1080p. Both have earned solid 5-star ratings and our Editor's Choice Award. We will be fascinated to watch the remarkable competition between these two outstanding projectors play out in the marketplace.