Editor's Choice Award
Our Editor's Choice award goes to products that dramatically exceed expectations for performance, value, or cutting-edge design.
Thus far, Sony has been an industry leader for 4K home theater projection. 4K projectors have a native resolution of 4096 x 2160, or four times the resolution of 1080p. Sony is the one of the only manufacturers building native 4K projectors for home theater right now, having brought three to market already, and they show no signs of slowing down.
Their latest projector, the VPL-VW350ES, is another native 4K machine. Like the VW600ES before it, the VW350ES includes a 2.06:1 lens with powered zoom, focus, and lens shift, "Reality Creation" detail enhancement, MotionFlow frame interpolation, full HD 3D compatibility, a panel alignment system, low input lag, and a three-year warranty. The VW350ES is also the first 4K projector to break the $10,000 price barrier, coming in at an MSRP of $9,999. An introductory sale lowers the retail price to $7,999 until the end of February, making the VW350ES an outstanding value.
All of the native 4K home theater projectors we've seen thus far have been Sony models, and we've yet to see a bad one. We've definitely seen some lackluster 4K content, but the projectors themselves have all been stellar. The VW350ES is no exception.
There's a lot more 1080p content available these days than there is 4K content, so anyone who buys a 4K projector will likely spend a lot of time watching content that isn't native 4K. For this reason, we spent most of our time testing the VW350ES with high-quality 1080p content and even a few standard-def DVDs, just to cover the spectrum of what one might watch on this projector until a decent library of 4K material comes along.
No matter what type of content we used, the VW350ES upscaled it to 4K and delivered it looking better than ever. When watching a 4K projector for the first time, the most striking change from 1080p is the complete lack of visible pixellation. Even sitting with your nose nearly touching the screen, it can be hard to make out individual pixels - and the inter-pixel gap is practically nonexistent.
If we had to sum up picture quality in one word, it would be "smooth." That smoothness doesn't just describe the projector's physical resolution (although it's certainly true). It also describes the natural and realistic color performance, high simultaneous (in-scene) contrast, and gentle enhancement of fine detail and motion performed by the projector's Reality Creation and MotionFlow systems. There's very little digital noise, and the picture seems to pop off the screen without ever losing that film-like quality.
The best part of the VW350ES's image is the exquisite sense of detail, present either from 4K source material or (more commonly) upscaled 1080p Blu-ray content. Despite the use of Reality Creation, that detail never looks forced or artificial in any way, and the picture looks almost as good if you turn the whole RC system off.
The VW350ES's primary benefit, in our estimation, is that it makes existing DVD and Blu-ray movies look better than they ever have before. That is true regardless of the availability (or lack thereof) of 4K content. In our Sony VW600ES review, we found that high-quality 4K movies do indeed have more detail than their 1080p counterparts. However, as with Blu-ray movies, the picture quality of a 4K movie has much more to do with the quality of the transfer than it does with the extra resolution of 4K. Some early Blu-ray movies didn't look much better than DVD. Some actually looked worse. So one should not think that 4K content will automatically result in perfect image quality, or that 4K content is required before you can enjoy a 4K projector.
At $7,999 during the introductory sale, many buyers will opt to spend a few extra bucks on professional installation services. However, the projector has extensive zoom and lens shift, so folks who opt to DIY the installation should be able to keep the swearing and sweating to a minimum. The lens is centered in the front of the case to simplify mounting.
The VW350ES has a 2.06:1 zoom lens with powered zoom, focus, and both horizontal and vertical lens shift. Using the shift, you can place the projected image entirely above or below the lens with room to spare, for a total range of 2.6 image heights. The horizontal shift allows a leftward or rightward movement of just under 50%, allowing you to put the image almost completely on one side of the lens - useful if you have to mount your projector in a corner.
The VW350ES is a big projector, measuring roughly 20 inches to a side, so a rear shelf placement will require a very large shelf. The projector also needs substantial clearance for air movement to ensure that the air vents on the front and rear panels are not obstructed. Adequate clearance will help prevent overheating.
Our VW350ES had a maximum calibrated light output of 1370 lumens in Reference mode, which is enough light to power a very large screen. Low lamp mode reduces output by 21%, and the 2.06:1 zoom lens loses only 25% of the total light output when used in the maximum telephoto position. A "worst-case" scenario using both low lamp and maximum telephoto puts Reference mode at just over 800 calibrated lumens with a fresh lamp.
Lamps lose brightness as they age, so one way to ensure satisfactory brightness throughout the lamp's life is to underestimate your lumen needs. For example, if you only count on having 600 lumens available instead of 800, you can still light up a 140" diagonal screen of 1.3 gain at 13 fL even after the projector loses 25% of its light output. A fresh lamp would put brightness at 17.3 fL, which is a touch over the recommended 12-16 fL range but not bright enough to give you a headache.
A note on viewing distance: due to the short viewing distances required to get the maximum benefit from 4K, some very smart people have questioned the merits of 4K resolution in TVs. At least one analysis suggests that maximum benefit from 4K is only obtained when sitting no further from the screen than 90% of the screen width. Others have pointed to this as an indicator that 4K is worthless, or at least not as important as 1080p was. While that may be true for TVs, it's not the case for projectors.
We conducted some viewing distance tests using the VW350ES and an otherwise comparable 1080p projector. To get the full benefit of 4K, it is best to sit back no further than one screen width, if not slightly closer. At this distance, the difference between 4K and 1080p is dramatic and clear. However, you can still see a difference between 1080p and 4K at twice that distance, or 2 screen widths, so users who don't want to sit quite so close can still enjoy the benefits of the higher resolution projector. Applying this to our 140" diagonal screen above, the ideal viewing distance puts your eyeballs between 10 and 20 feet from the screen.
Picture quality. The VW350ES has a killer image, and that's the primary reason why most folks will want to buy it. Astounding levels of detail and clarity, great contrast, accurate color, and a natural smoothness create an image that's hard to beat. And that's just using 1080p source material.
Full HD 3D. Though the VW350ES does not include glasses, it does retain the internal RF emitter found in the VW600ES and is fully compatible with the HDMI 1.4 3D standards. RF glasses don't interfere with infrared remote controls, and they don't require line-of-sight to stay synchronized. 3D on the VW350ES was clean and bright, with little crosstalk even in the most difficult scenes.
Panel alignment. This feature is rapidly becoming a staple of three-chip home theater projectors, but it is especially important on the VW350ES due to the smaller pixels and tighter tolerances required for maximum 4K performance. The VW350ES can adjust convergence globally or in individual zones, giving you precise control.
Our sample of the VW350ES did require some adjustment, but we're used to that; review samples frequently endure more bumps and bruises than retail projectors do. Adjusting convergence can be an arduous job, but it is also incredibly important if you want to ensure maximum performance. If your projector does need adjustment, set aside at least an hour or two - and try not to rush.
Three year warranty. When you drop this kind of money on a projector, it's nice to know that your investment is protected. A three-year warranty will keep your projector running well into the future. Three years is as good as it gets for manufacturer warranties on home theater projectors, so you can rest easy knowing that you're getting the best.
MotionFlow. Sony's frame interpolation system has a variety of settings, ranging from the aggressive Smooth High and Smooth Low to the practically undetectable True Cinema. Depending on the content and your own personal preferences, you may find yourself favoring one or more of these settings. We encourage you to explore the system in depth; there is no "correct" setting, and each mode favors one type of content or another.
Input lag. Sony's VW600ES projector had very high lag on the order of 120 milliseconds, making it a bad choice for gaming. But the VW350ES has an "input lag reduction" feature that drops lag to 32 ms, or just under two frames at 60 FPS, which is perfectly acceptable for most gaming use. The regular movie modes still measured 120 ms, but the faster option did not significantly degrade image quality or reduce resolution in our tests.
Fan noise. We thought the VW600ES was a quiet projector, but if anything the VW350ES is even quieter. This might be a consequence of the lower wattage lamp it uses, or it may be due to some other factor. All we know is that you won't hear the VW350ES during operation unless you sit with your ear up to the exhaust vent.
Light output. Rated at 1500 lumens, the VW350ES should be dimmer than the VW600ES. But despite the lower-wattage lamp, the VW350ES is brighter than its predecessor in every comparable image mode. Cinema Film 1 mode measured 1354 lumens with the lamp at full power and the lens at its widest angle setting, 20 lumens brighter than Sony's previous 4K projector. Reference mode shows an even larger difference, clocking in at 1370 lumens. Reference mode is our preferred mode for film, as it has the best grayscale and gamut of all the projector's image modes. Videophiles will still want to make a few tweaks, but folks who want a fantastic image out of the box will be more than satisfied with Reference.
The projector's other image modes are: TV (1413 lumens), Photo (1205 lumens), Game (1384 lumens), Bright Cinema (1428 lumens), and Bright TV (1413 lumens). Game mode, despite its name, does not reduce input lag by itself. To do that, you need to toggle Input Lag Reduction, available from any image mode. So if you'd rather play games in Reference, go ahead.
Contrast. Because it lacks an iris, the VW350's on/off contrast suffers in comparison to the VW600. Unfortunately, the lack of an iris makes the projector's high light output more difficult to control, and that makes it harder to use the VW350 on smaller screens. One may question the use of a 4K projector on a small screen, and it's a valid point, but it's a limitation nonetheless.
On the other hand, the VW350ES does just fine with contrast in any given scene, creating a realness and sense of depth that's hard to argue with. This is aided by a near-perfect 2.2 gamma in Reference mode which ensures shadow detail is never lost and highlights are distinct, not blown out. The only time the projector's contrast comes up short in any way is in very dark scenes, because black level, while respectable, isn't as deep as some of its competitors.
The "easy" solution to both of these problems is to use a neutral density filter, which will both cut light output and deepen black levels. The hard part is that unlike camera lenses, projector lenses aren't built to take filters. You'll need to rig up some kind of mounting system on your own.
Color. Most projectors these days can manage an accurate grayscale. Many can also manage a decent approximation of the Rec.709 color gamut. Very few can do both straight out of the box. The VW350ES can.
Our test sample's Reference mode was a touch too warm, measuring about 5900K across the grayscale, but it was a remarkably flat and even 5900K. By pushing the projector's color temperature control from D65 to D75, we ended up with this perfect 6500K grayscale:
As for gamut, our test unit measured quite close to the Rec. 709 standard, and every color had a delta-E value less than 3 except green, which was over 3 but less than 4. That's a very technical way of saying that there's room for improvement, especially if you're the kind of person who enjoys display calibration, but you can also use the projector without changing a thing and get accurate, true-to-life color out of it.
The good news for the fine-tuning folks is that the VW350 has all of the controls necessary to perfect grayscale and gamut, and those controls are both responsive and easy to use.
Detail and clarity. Not to belabor the point, but the VW350ES is a 4K projector. Sharpness, resolution, and clarity of detail are its defining characteristics. The VW350 is supremely detailed and a real joy to watch, especially when you feed it reference-quality source material.
Input lag. In its regular image modes, the VW350ES measured 120 milliseconds of input lag - just over 7 frames at 60 fps. New to this projector is a feature called Input Lag Reduction which turns off all of the image processing features and brings input lag down to 32 milliseconds (2 frames).
The most affordable native 4K projector to date sacrifices little in comparison to the more expensive VW600ES. It lacks a comprehensive manual/automatic iris and the latter projector's lens memory system. Since the VW350 still has powered lens adjustments, you can still accomplish the same effect as a lens memory system by adjusting zoom and focus. The lack of an iris is more noticeable; the combination manual/auto iris found in the VW600 can stabilize light output over the life of the lamp while also giving black level a boost in dark scenes. Folks with dedicated blacked-out theater spaces will notice the black level difference, but they'll have to decide for themselves whether the alternatives (a lower resolution projector or the VW600ES at a much higher price) are worth the trade-off.
Native 1.89:1. Since the VW350ES has a resolution of 4096 x 2160, its native aspect ratio is 1.89:1. That's wider that the 1.78:1 (or 16:9) aspect ratio of 1080p and 720p, so it won't perfectly fit an existing 16:9 screen. However, most of the content you'll be using is 1080p to begin with, and much of the content we call 4K is actually Ultra High Definition (UHD), which is 3840 x 2160 and therefore 16:9.
The VW350ES includes two features to help you deal with this situation. The first is a pair of guidelines in the lens adjustment pattern that indicate the borders of a 1.78:1 image. These lines help you center the 16:9 image on your screen perfectly instead of just eyeballing it. The second is a blanking feature that "blacks out" the remaining pixels, creating a blacker black bar. Once blanking is engaged, the extra pixels are very easy to ignore. Blanking allows for separate adjustments to each edge of the image, so it's also useful for anamorphic widescreen movies.
Special 4K Limitations. While the VW350ES is a native 4K projector with full 4K resolution, it's still missing a few features that some folks think will be important. Namely, it lacks support for the next-gen DCI P3 and Rec. 2020 color gamuts, and 60FPS 4K video is limited to 4:2:0 chroma subsampling and 8-bit color.
If your eyes just glazed over, here's the simple version. In the future, as 4K content becomes more common, the VW350 may not fully support some of the formats that become standard. It will still be able to play those formats, but there will be some loss of color data. The only way this would impact your viewing with today's content is if you play 4K video games at 60 FPS and have very high standards for color.
When Sony released the HW40ES last year, they showed that a stripped-down version of a successful projector at a lower price point could be wildly successful. Applying those lessons to the VW600ES gets you the VW350ES, a super-detailed 4K projector at the lowest price point that resolution has ever seen.
The VW350ES isn't perfect, and the HW40 comparison doesn't completely apply. As a high-budget projector, the VW350ES appeals to the kind of people who demand perfection from their projectors, and the lack of an automatic or manual iris makes it difficult to use the projector in a dedicated, blacked-out theater room without noticing the black level deficiency or adding an aftermarket ND filter.
Still, it's difficult to find fault with the VW350ES, especially when it's one of only a handful of 4K home theater projectors on the market and the most affordable one to date. It retains most of the things we loved about the VW600ES, and the sacrifices it makes seem small in comparison to the enormous drop in price compared to the higher-end model. When all's said and done, we have no reservations about giving the VW350ES our Editor's Choice Award, because it is a fantastic value for the money.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-VW350ES projector page.