Highly Recommended Award
Our Highly Recommended designation is earned by products offering extraordinary value or performance in their price class.
NOTE: This review has been updated to include discussion about how the Sony HW45ES compares to two primary competitors--the Epson Home Cinema 3900 which is at the same $1999 price as the HW45ES, and the Epson 5040UB, which is currently about $700 higher in price. In the Contents box to the upper left, the sections pertaining to these two competing projectors as well as the Conclusion are new as of today. The other portions of the review have not been changed. [EP 4/12/17]
The $1,999 Sony VPL-HW45ES is a full HD 3D, 1920x1080 home theater projector with a 1.6x manual zoom lens, vertical and horizontal lens shift, and a wide selection of enhanced video processing features. It is a solid performer for film/video viewing in a dark or low ambient light setting, and its unusually short 22 ms input lag makes it an outstanding video gaming projector as well.
Like most Sony home theater projectors, the HW45ES delivers an impressively high-quality image with rich color, deep blacks, and the full range of subtle gradation that adds three-dimensionality to 2D images. The unit weighs a substantial 20 lbs, and gives the impression right out of the box of a thoroughly professional home theater projector, with an elegant, piano-black design and a center-mounted lens.
The HW45ES offers eight color presets and one User mode that are all customizable, with more than enough menu options to let you tweak each mode to taste. All of the preset modes score well on video quality straight out of the box. The three-chip SXRD technology guarantees that there won't be any rainbow artifacts, and it eliminates the possibility of differences between color and white brightness, which can affect both color quality and the brightness of color images.
The high contrast ratio yields deep, dark blacks in theater dark lighting and unusually dark blacks even with the lights on. It also gives color that much more pop, adding to a sense of three-dimensionality. Color balance is excellent in all preset modes, with suitably neutral grays at all levels from black to white. There are minor differences in color from one mode to the next, but all the presets offer color that's well within a realistic range, which means you can pick the one that matches the brightness you need without any meaningful loss of color quality. From a subjective viewpoint, though obviously not in terms of precise calibration, colors hit the mark for hue, saturation, and brightness in all modes.
Sony VPL-HW45ES Home Theater Projector
You'll likely want to adjust some settings to taste. I saw some noise in clips that tend to cause that problem, for example, but got rid of it without noticeably compromising image sharpness by adjusting noise reduction. The filter works so well that setting it high enough even eliminated noise that was purposely designed into one clip.
You may also want to turn off Motionflow (frame interpolation) for filmed material if you don't like the digital video effect that it can produce, or set it to High for live and recorded material, where it can do more to enhance the image rather than distract from it, or experiment with some of the additional settings for viewing 24 frame-per-second content. Similarly, you may or may not like the Super Resolution technology that's part of Sony's Reality Creation video processing. It brings out detail, but can also add artifacts if set too aggressively.
Picture controls include the usual basics--like brightness, contrast, hue, gamma, and color temperature--as well as more sophisticated choices like Motionflow, Reality Creation, contrast enhancement options, and a choice of four color spaces, including Rec. 709. You can also calibrate each color space individually and can set lamp brightness to High (bright) or Low (eco) for each mode, so you can automatically change lamp brightness when you change from one preset to another. The nine preset modes (counting User mode) make it easy to find a setting that offers a good balance between the ambient light level and the material being displayed, and the wealth of settings let even those with the most critical eye best match their tastes.
3D Video. The HW45ES supports 3D with Vesa RF glasses, and includes a built-in RF emitter. As with most projectors, for those aspects of image quality that apply to both 2D and 3D, it delivers essentially the same quality for both. It also handles 3D-specific issues well. I didn't see any crosstalk and saw only hints of 3D-related motion artifacts. The loss in brightness with 3D is a tad more than typical, but not enough to be a problem. And unlike most models, the HW45ES lets you choose any of its color presets for 3D.
Data Presentations. Although not designed for data and graphic presentations, the HW45ES can do a great job with them. Its 1800-lumen rating is lower than most data projectors offer today, but having the same color brightness as white brightness means full color images can easily be as bright as you'd expect from a 3000-lumen DLP data projector with low color brightness.
The match between color and white brightness translates to stunning color quality even in the brightest mode. And, of course, if your presentations include photos or video, the HW45ES is well equipped for them. It also does a great job with detail, which helps even more for data than video. In my tests, both white text on black and black text on white were crisp and readable at sizes as small as 4.5 points.
Brightness. Using the widest angle setting for the zoom lens (the shortest throw for the image size), we measured the ANSI Lumens for High and Low lamp settings for each of the predefined modes as follows:
Sony VPL-HW45ES ANSI Lumens
|MODE||Game||Cinema Film 1||Cinema Film 2||Reference||TV||Photo||Bright Cinema||Bright TV|
Video Optimized Lumens. Video quality is easily good enough in all modes to simply pick the mode with the best brightness match for the ambient light level and screen size you want to use. For our video optimized setting, we started with Bright Cinema and tweaked it for slightly better color. That actually boosted the brightness to 1719 lumens, making it bright enough for a 190" diagonal 16:9 image in theater dark lighting, or a 120" image with moderate ambient light.
Presentation Optimized Lumens. For data and graphics presentations, Game mode offers top-tier balance between brightness and color quality at the HW45ES's full 1831 lumens.
Zoom Lens Effect. When set to the telephoto end of the 1.6x zoom range, light output is curtailed by only 17% compared with the wide angle setting-a rather modest loss for a 1.6x lens.
Brightness uniformity. The 85% brightness uniformity measurement is better than most projectors manage, and barely enough to show a difference on a solid white image even if you're looking for it. It's impossible to see with any image that breaks up the field of view.
Color brightness. The three-chip SXRD design eliminates any possibility of rainbow artifacts. It also ensures that color brightness matches white brightness, guaranteeing that full color images are as bright as you would expect based on the white brightness.
Fan noise. Calling a projector whisper quiet is overdone, but the HW45ES actually has the sound quality of a soft whisper and a rating in Low mode of 22 dB. That makes it quiet enough to be barely noticeable if you're sitting a foot away and making an effort to listen for it. According to Sony, switching to High mode makes a "very slight" difference, but I couldn't hear any change in either volume or sound quality.
Even more impressive is that High Altitude mode, which Sony recommends for altitudes of 4,900 feet or above, doesn't make much difference either. The volume goes up just a hair, but not enough for me to find bothersome even sitting just two feet away.
Input lag was measured at 22 ms with Input Lag Reduction on, which is the default for Game mode, and 102 to 107 ms, depending on the mode, with it set Off.
Lamp life. Sony rates the lamp at 6,000 hours in Low lamp mode. There is no rating for High lamp mode. Replacements are $299.99.
Warranty. The price includes a three-year warranty for parts and labor and a 90-day warranty for the lamp.
The HW45ES throws a 120" 16:9 image from a range of just under 12 feet to not quite 19 feet. The Projection Calculator will let you determine the range for the screen size you want.
With the projector sitting on a table and the image at the middle position of its vertical shift, the centerline of the lens is at the geometric center of the image. The measured vertical shift is 80% of the image height up or down from that center position, which is a little more than the plus or minus 71% that Sony claims. The horizontal shift varies from 0% of the image width to plus or minus 26%, depending on where the lens is in its vertical range.
At 20 pounds and 7.1" by 16.1" by 18.4" (HWD), the HW45ES is obviously meant for permanent installation. The 1.6x zoom and the vertical and horizontal lens shift make it equally appropriate for a ceiling mount, a table, or a large rear shelf on a back wall behind the seating area. The front-facing exhaust vents, on both the front of the projector and near the front of each side, help make it particularly appropriate for a rear shelf. The intake vents are on the rear. Sony recommends leaving a 2-inch gap on all sides. However the rear panel curves in a tight arc, so even if you accidentally have the rear panel touching the wall, most of the vent area will have a one-inch or greater clearance.
Sony HW45ES Side View
Connection Panel Close up
As with any projector with a standard lamp, keep in mind the rule of thumb that the brightness will typically fall by about 25% in the first 500 hours of use, and then continue to decline more slowly.
One easy way to counter the loss in brightness as the lamp ages is to set the projector up with an image size that will give you suitable brightness in the Low lamp mode. You can then boost brightness as the lamp ages by switching to High mode. Another strategy--which you can use by itself or in combination with the first--is to start with one of the lower-brightness predefined modes, then switch to a brighter mode when you need to. With most projectors, that would also mean switching to a noticeably lower level of color quality. However, the HW45ES has good enough color in all modes to make this a far more acceptable strategy.
Epson Home Cinema 3900
The basic conclusion from our side-by-side comparison between the Sony VPL-HW45ES and the similarly priced Epson Home Cinema 3900 is that the HW45ES delivers higher contrast and deeper blacks, which is ideal for dark theater viewing, while the Epson 3900 is brighter and thus has an advantage in the presence of any ambient light.
Straight out of the box, the HW45ES delivers more than acceptable color fidelity for movies and other photorealistic images. As discussed above, colors come close to the mark for hue, saturation, and brightness in all preset color modes. That's not to say they all look same, but none are far enough off from being precisely correct to be subjectively erroneous. Without a light meter you wouldn't be able to pick out which is the more accurate.
The side-by-side comparison shows that the Epson 3900's default settings deliver better color fidelity, with the default settings on the HW45ES having a slight blue bias, which is easiest to see in flesh tones.
Few people will stay with default settings, however. Take the time to adjust the colors on both projectors, and the blue bias on the HW45ES preset can be calibrated out such that it delivers more natural-looking color both overall and for skin tones in particular, with hues that are closer to spot on. The difference in color between the two projectors is little enough that you probably wouldn't notice it without a side-by-side comparison.
In most scenes the HW45ES has the advantage of deeper black levels, with the sole exception being a solid black screen after the 3900's auto iris kicks in. In a dark theater room the HW45ES shows higher contrast, which enables it to define more shadow detail and greater image depth. However, with ambient light, as in a family room, the advantage on this score isn't as significant, since the ambient light will compromise dark areas on screen. But at low ambient light levels the difference is still visible.
The HW45ES's frame interpolation (FI) is another plus. Both projectors have FI with several options for how aggressively you want it applied. Both include a low setting that succeeds in smoothing motion somewhat without slipping into a digital video effect very often. Between the two, however, the HW45ES's TrueCinema mode crosses the line to digital video effect less often than the 3900's Low mode.
A significant advantage for the Epson 3900 is that it is substantially brighter when the projectors are in their brightest operating modes - 3130 lumens for the Epson 3900 compared to 1830 on the HW45ES. This advantage is increased if you are using the long end of the zoom range. Both projectors have a 1.6x zoom lens, but the 3900 loses only 9% of its light at the telephoto end compared to 17% on the HW45ES. So if you expect to be viewing in ambient light the 3900 has the lumen muscle to deliver a more sparkling image. Though color accuracy is not as precise in the brightest modes it is close enough for enjoyable viewing without creating any distracting or obvious color biases. In Video Optimized settings the 3900 still has a brightness advantage over the HW45ES although not as dramatic - 1930 lumens vs. about 1720 lumens. On the other hand the Sony HW45ES is amply bright for dedicated dark room theater use, and this is where its advantage in black level and contrast is most apparent.
For gamers, the HW45ES has a slight edge in input lag, measuring 22 ms compared to the Epson 3900's 28 ms.
Epson Home Cinema 5040UB
The advantages of the Sony HW45ES compared with the Epson 5040UB include its lower price, a slightly shorter input lag for gaming, and it is somewhat lighter weight and smaller size compared with the 24.3 pound 5040UB. As you should expect from a model that costs $2,699, the additional price for the 5040UB in many respects buys a much more capable projector.
If you are a serious gamer and a difference of 6 ms of input lag makes any difference to you, the HW45ES measures 22 ms vs. the 5040UB's 28 ms, when all processing on both projectors is turned off. If all other things were equal or irrelevant, the Sony would be the choice for the gamer between the two. However, if the difference in 6 ms of input lag is a primary deciding factor between these two exceptional home theater projectors, you might not want a home theater projector at all, but rather a faster gaming model such as the BenQ HT2150ST, at 16 ms lag.
The extra $700 you will spend for the Epson 5040UB over the Sony HW45ES buys you four noteworthy performance advantages: (1) 4K compatibility, (2) powered zoom lens/focus and automated Lens Memory, (3) incrementally higher contrast and deeper black levels, and (4) more lumen power.
Epson's 4K Enhancement on the 5040UB uses pixel-shift technology to boost the apparent resolution to make both 1080p source material and native 4K source material appear much closer to 4K resolution than is normally possible using conventional 1080p chips. It is not true 4K resolution but the big advantage is that it is substantially less expensive than native 4K projectors. And for many typical home theater screen sizes and seating distances from the screen, the human eye can't resolve much more detail, if any, in a true 4K image than with this pixel shifting approach.
The second advantage of the 5040UB is its 2.1x power zoom, focus, and lens shift, compared to the manual 1.6x zoom/focus/shift on the HW45ES. If you are setting up a Cinemascope 2.39:1 screen and want to do Constant Image Height display, the automated Lens Memory supports this. Or if you are installing two screens of different aspect ratios, one behind the other, the 5040UB's Lens Memory will quickly and automatically reset the projector's lens to hit either screen with whatever aspect ratio material you have.
With respect to picture dynamics, the 5040UB delivers an even darker black than the HW45ES--if only slightly so--combined with vibrant, spot-on color. That helps give it a sharper picture than the HW45ES even with standard 1080p source material and 4K Enhancement turned off. The advantage increases if you turn on 4K Enhancement, and jumps up yet another step with 4K or 4K HDR input.
Finally, when it comes to lumen power, the 5040UB comes in at about 2400 lumens for its Video Optimized setting, compared with 1720 lumens for the HW45ES. It is also close to double the brightness of the HW45ES in its brightest mode, about 3500 lumens compared to 1830 lumens. If the 5040UB is too bright you can cut the light either by eco mode or by an adjustable manual iris provided for this purpose.
For $1999 the Sony VPL-HW45ES is a stand out performer for both dedicated home theater and less formal home entertainment and video gaming in low ambient light. It is bright enough in its video optimized mode for up to a 120" diagonal image with moderate ambient light or up to a 190" image in theater-dark lighting. It delivers vibrant color, dark blacks, and the full range of subtle gradations to give 2D images a three dimensional look; it offers a long list of video processing features to let you adjust the image to taste; it's quiet enough to make fan noise a non-issue; it supports full HD 3D; and its 22 ms lag time is very fast compared to most home theater projectors.
If you can stretch your budget to $2,699, the Epson Home Cinema 5040UB will be easy for many videophiles to cost justify, with its 4K compatibility and image resolution enhancement, its brighter and incrementally higher contrast image, and its power lens features.
If you don't want to spend more than $2000 and you need extra brightness to stand up to ambient light in your viewing room, the extra lumen muscle of the Epson 3900 may be enough to make it your preferred choice. If so, see the review of the Epson Home Cinema 3100 or the review of the Epson 3700. These two models are very similar to the 3900 in performance, but much less expensive. Our review of the Epson 3900 discusses the key differences.
That said, if you don't need extra lumen power to combat ambient light, the Sony VPL-HW45ES continues to stand out as a state of art dedicated home theater projector for under two thousand bucks. And that makes it is easy to recommend.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-HW45ES projector page.