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Sony has been making high-quality home theater projectors for years. Sony's SXRD technology, which is their implementation of LCoS, produces projectors with high contrast ratios and impressive HD performance. Until now, though, those projectors have all carried price tags of at least $3000, putting them out of reach for many potential buyers.
Sony has just released the VPL-HW40ES, a 1080p SXRD home theater projector. At $2,499, it is the most affordable Sony home theater projector on record. It contains many of the best-loved features of more expensive Sony home theater machines, such as Reality Creation, MotionFlow, and a 1.6:1 zoom lens with H/V lens shift. It makes HD film and video look beautiful. And despite the lack of an automatic iris, contrast and dynamic range on the HW40ES are neck and neck with its competition.
Update 6/16/14: Added missing information on HW40ES lens shift range.
The first time you turn it on, the HW40ES starts up in Cinema Film 1 mode. Cinema Film 1 looks great, especially for such a bright image mode, and is suitable for film and video when ambient light is present. But at just over 1400 lumens, Cinema Film 1 could light up a 160" diagonal 1.0 gain screen at over 16 foot Lamberts, so it's not meant for home theater at normal screen sizes.
It's not difficult to calibrate Cinema Film 1, but those who want to, in the words of the great huckster Ron Popeil, "set it and forget it" can use Reference mode. Reference mode gives you a picture that hews close to the Rec. 709 color gamut and a smooth, even 6500K grayscale at its factory settings, without any work on your part. On our test sample, Reference mode is still over 1100 lumens, so you give up some light output compared to Cinema Film 1 but get a more accurate picture.
The HW40's picture stands out due to the sheer amount of detail it includes. This is at least partially due to Sony's Reality Creation system, a feature we last saw on their VW600ES 4K projector. And while detail enhancement systems are nothing new, Sony's system is one of the best available. It helps take an already-sharp projector like the HW40ES and turn it into something more.
The Sony HW40ES, like other Sony home theater projectors, uses a 1.6:1 manual zoom/focus lens. It can display a 120" diagonal 16:9 image from throw distances between 11' 10" and 18' 10", giving you a good amount of flexibility during installation. The HW40ES also has manually controlled horizontal and vertical lens shift, controlled by knobs mounted just over the lens on the top panel. The image can be shifted vertically by 0.7 screen heights up or down, allowing the image to be placed completely above or below the lens centerline, or 0.25 screen widths to the left or right. The projector's zoom and shift range allow it to be installed just about anywhere, though the most popular options will be a shelf mount in the back of the room and a ceiling mount just behind the audience.
Light output is not a major limiting factor on the HW40ES. With the lamp set to low power, Reference mode still produces over 700 lumens -- enough to light a 120" diagonal 1.0 gain screen at 16.6 fL. The 1.6:1 zoom lens only reduces light output by 18% at the maximum telephoto setting. So even using Reference mode at low power in the back of the room, the HW40ES outputs roughly 590 lumens. If you want to use a 120" screen from that distance, a 1.3-gain surface will boost brightness to just above 16 fL.
One of the defining features of Sony's home theater models is their low fan noise. The HW40ES is almost completely silent with the lamp set to low power, and even at full power it's difficult to hear the projector in operation if you're more than a couple of feet from the exhaust vent. The lack of audible noise makes it a good projector for smaller rooms.
The HW40ES has an estimated lamp life of 2,000 hours at full power and 5,000 hours in low power. The replacement lamp (model LMP-H202) sells for $369.99.
Picture quality. A bright, high contrast picture with accurate color: that's what you get when you fire up the HW40ES. The projector produces a natural, well-balanced image with excellent sharpness and clarity of detail. Black level is very good despite the projector's lack of an automatic iris. Features like Reality Creation and MotionFlow increase apparent detail and reduce judder in 24p content, respectively. The overall experience is vivid, vibrant, and three-dimensional.
High light output. The HW40ES is notable for its ability to produce a well-balanced video image at very high levels of brightness. With an ANSI lumen rating of 1700, the HW40ES doesn't sound very bright compared to some of the competition, but its brightest video modes produce upwards of 1400 lumens even after calibration. Reference mode, which is the projector's most accurate image mode before calibration, measures about 590 lumens even with the lamp set to Low and the zoom lens at its maximum telephoto setting.
Low fan noise. In Low lamp mode, the HW40ES is as close to silent as any projector we've ever reviewed. High lamp mode is slightly louder, but still almost inaudible if you are more than a handful of feet from the projector. In a ceiling mount or a rear shelf mount, audible noise is not a concern.
Useful image modes. The HW40ES has a variety of pre-calibrated image modes, but very few are superfluous. In addition to Cinema Film 1 and Reference mode, which are our preferred film and video modes, the HW40ES also has Cinema Film 2 with a preset 5500K color temperature for black and white films. Game mode reduces input lag and boosts brightness, while Bright Cinema and Bright TV offer alternative calibrations more appropriate for use in ambient light. Many of these modes are already well-calibrated straight out of the box.
Low input lag. Game mode on the HW40ES measured only 24ms of input lag, or just under 1.5 frames. This is excellent performance for any projector and one of the fastest response times we've seen in recent years, making the HW40ES a great choice for gamers who need a big-screen display.
Reality Creation. These days, most home theater projectors in the $2000-$3000 range have some kind of detail enhancement system. Sony calls theirs Reality Creation. It consists of two sliders: Resolution, which adjusts the level of detail in the picture; and Noise Filtering, which controls the signal-to-noise ratio. Both sliders start out at 20 (out of 100). To make adjustments easier, there is a "Test" function that switches the system on and off so you can see the effects of your adjustments.
MotionFlow. MotionFlow actually encompasses two systems. One is Film Projection, which reduces judder in certain content by inserting black frames in the video stream. This lowers light output, but also reduces judder without using frame interpolation. The second system, Motion Enhancer, is Sony's version of frame interpolation. Motion Enhancer has two settings, High and Low. Low smooths out judder with a bare minimum of digital video effect. High is more aggressive and best suited for video. Neither produces much in the way of visible artifacts, and the implementation is one of the better ones we've seen.
Panel Alignment. Any projector that uses a three-element light engine is prone to convergence errors, where the imaging elements drift out of precise alignment. When this happens, you'll see color fringes where they don't belong, such as around the borders of white text. The HW40ES's panel alignment system allows you to correct for small errors in convergence without sending the projector in for service.
Warranty. The HW40ES comes with a three-year warranty, which is above average in its price class.
Light output. The HW40ES, at 1700 lumens maximum, isn't unusually bright by home theater standards. What makes the HW40ES special is how much of its light output is still present after calibration.
Cinema Film 1, a bright and colorful mode that's well-suited to living room use, measures 1421 lumens on our test sample after calibration. CF1 has very good grayscale tracking, averaging 6550K across the board. Color saturation is overdriven to create a vibrant, larger-than-life image. Cinema Film 2 is similar to CF1, but it is balanced at 5500K, making it ideal for black and white films. CF2 measured 1016 lumens.
If you want pure home theater performance, Reference mode is the way to go. At 1136 lumens, Reference mode is well-balanced and natural, with an average grayscale of 6500K and a gamut that's very close to the Rec. 709 standard. Many folks will be able to use Reference mode without making adjustments, making calibration effectively optional.
Game mode, at 1719 lumens, is the projector's brightest mode. It also boasts the lowest input lag at only 24 milliseconds. Game mode has a slight blue tint, since its grayscale averages 7200K, so it's all set for living room use. Folks intending to play games in a theater environment should adjust color temperature down to 6500K, which is easily done.
Other image modes include: TV (1123 lumens), Photo (1016 lumens), Bright Cinema (1501 lumens), and Bright TV (1396 lumens). The "Bright" modes aren't brighter in terms of light output, but are calibrated for use in ambient light.
Contrast. Contrast specifications these days are getting more and more inflated, so it's almost refreshing that the HW40ES does not have a published contrast spec. In Reference mode, the HW40ES produces an image rich in shadow detail with deep, velvety black levels. Comparative testing puts the HW40ES neck-and-neck with other projectors in its price range despite its lack of an automatic iris.
Color. These days, it's not unusual for a projector to produce accurate color after calibration, but it is still rare to see accurate color straight out of the box. But that's what you get with Reference mode on the HW40ES. There's a little bit of room for improvement in the gamut if you want to spend the time fine-tuning things, but it is by no means required.
Sony HW40ES color gamut, Reference mode, factory settings
As for grayscale, Reference mode measured 6500K from 0% to 50% illumination and then slowly rose to 6600K between 50% and 100% illumination using the projector's D65 preset. Since the presets are locked, any adjustments have to be made using the Custom 5 preset, which starts out around 7400K. Some folks may decide that full calibration isn't worth the hassle, especially with this level of performance out of the box.
SonyHW40ES RGB levels, Reference mode, factory settings
Input lag. In most of its image modes, the HW40ES measures 60 milliseconds of input lag, or about 3.5 frames. Its fastest mode is Game mode, at 24ms, or 1.5 frames. Input lag measures the time between when a signal is sent to the display and when it actually appears on screen. Higher numbers indicate more lag, which manifest as slow response time in games and audio arriving before video in movies and television.
No iris. The HW40ES does not have an automatic iris. Other Sony home theater projectors, and indeed most other projectors in the HW40ES's price class, do have an iris. An iris can help to reduce black levels in dark scenes, thereby boosting apparent contrast. Sony projectors typically also have the option to use the iris in manual mode in order to reduce maximum light output for smaller screens. The HW40ES does include the Contrast Enhancer feature, which adjusts images to fill the projector's dynamic range, but this does not adjust the brightness or black level of the projector itself.
Locked presets, few custom settings. Certain presets, like the projector's color temperature and gamma modes, are locked -- you can't adjust them. This can be frustrating. For example, the D65 color temperature preset is almost perfect, but it could use another point or two of red gain. The same goes for the projector's gamma presets. Allowing adjustment on these settings would make it easier to calibrate the projector.
Most Sony home theater projectors (like the more expensive HW55ES) do have several custom presets for color temperature, and each preset starts from a different point on the grayscale. The HW40ES, however, only has one customizable memory (Custom 5) which starts out around 7400K. In order to bring color temperature to perfect 6500K, we had to drive Red gain almost to maximum.
Lamp replacement. The lamp access door on the HW40ES is located on the bottom of the case. When it's time to replace the lamp, you will need to dismount it from the ceiling or remove it from your shelf in order to make the swap.
UPDATE 10/3/14: Since the initial publication of this review, the Epson 5030UB has received a firmware update that significantly changes its overall performance. As a result, the shootout below has been updated to reflect the Sony HW40ES's performance against the updated Epson 5030UB.
The Sony HW40ES's most direct competitor is the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5030UB. At $2599, the 5030UB is price-competitive with the HW40ES and fills the same niche. Figuring out which projector is right for you is a matter of deciding what qualities you find most important.
When we set up the HW40ES and the 5030UB in a head-to-head comparison, it is amazing how alike the two projectors are. After calibration, Cinema Film 1 on the HW40ES is almost identical to Living Room on the 5030UB: they are similarly bright (CF1 is 1421 lumens while Living Room is 1550). Both projectors produce accurate color and calibrate well. The Epson 5030UB is capable of deeper blacks in dark scenes thanks to its automatic iris, but scenes with a higher average illumination are higher in contrast on the HW40ES. There is a slight delay in iris adjustment when the 5030UB suddenly switches between bright and dark scenes, and this can occasionally cause a distracting "flicker" artifact that is never seen on the HW40ES due to that projector's lack of an auto-iris.
The HW40ES's Reference mode, at 1136 lumens, is visibly brighter than the 5030UB's Cinema mode at 805 lumens. However, dropping to Low lamp on the HW40ES brings Reference to 716 lumens, while Cinema measures 596 in ECO mode, thereby closing the gap somewhat. If you need maximum light output in the projector's best calibrated mode, that's something to keep in mind.
Before the firmware update, the Epson 5030UB could not quite match the sharpness of the HW40ES's image. Post-update, that gap has narrowed significantly. By adjusting the Super Resolution and Reality Creation settings on the 5030UB and HW40ES respectively, it is trivially easy to make one projector appear sharper than the other. Over-driving either control results in an over-sharp artificial appearance, but used in moderation, each projector's smart sharpening system produces a highly detailed image.
The HW40ES's "MotionFlow" frame interpolation system has two settings, Low and High; the Low setting reduced judder to a greater degree than the 5030UB's own Low setting. However, the 5030UB's Frame Interpolation system has three settings instead of two, and the middle setting reduced judder more than the HW40ES's Low setting. One quirk of the two systems is that the 5030UB's frame interpolation can "stutter" for a frame or two before taking full effect; we did not see a similar phenomenon on the HW40ES.
The HW40ES shows less digital noise when both projectors have smart sharpening enabled and noise reduction engaged to a moderate level (one which does not result in loss of fine detail, which can occur when NR is turned up too high). But more than that, the HW40ES conveys a natural smoothness that is very compelling, reminiscent of the best qualities of film projection. It is that smoothness that makes us so enamored with the HW40ES's image, more so than any of its numerous technical advantages.
The HW40ES also has some advantages that don't relate to image quality. It has much lower input lag than the 5030UB: 60ms in normal modes and 24ms in Game mode compared to 91ms/37ms on the 5030UB. There is less audible noise on the HW40ES in both High and Low lamp modes. In fact, the HW40ES is quieter in High lamp mode than the 5030UB is in Low lamp mode. Color is more accurate out of the box on the HW40ES, though the two projectors are just about equal after calibration. It also has a three-year warranty to the 5030UB's two years.
The 5030UB is not without its selling points, of course. The 5030UB uses radio frequency synchronization for its 3D glasses, which is less susceptible to interference than the infrared sync used on the HW40ES (though an optional RF emitter is available for the HW40ES). Full power lamp life is longer on the 5030UB, at 4,000 hours in full power mode versus 2,000 hours on the HW40ES. Low power lamp life is 5,000 hours on both projectors.
The 5030UB has more flexible lensing, with a 2.1:1 zoom lens versus the 1.6:1 found on the HW40ES and a wider lens shift range. The 5030UB has a total range of three image heights and two image widths, while the HW40ES has a total range of 2.4 image heights and 1.5 image widths. The 5030UB gives you a bit more latitude to place the projector where you want it to be. On the other hand, using that extended range can cause a sharp decrease in light output, up to 44% at maximum telephoto, while the HW40ES loses only 18% at maximum telephoto.
The bottom line is this: the Epson 5030UB is an excellent projector, and the HW40ES cannot match its placement flexibility or deep black levels in the darkest scenes. However, in situations where the additional zoom or lens shift of the 5030UB are not needed, the HW40ES has a brighter picture with excellent detail and less digital noise that is also higher in contrast in most scenes. A quieter fan also makes the HW40ES the go-to choice for smaller rooms.
The Sony VPL-HW40ES is the newest addition to Sony's home theater line. Powerful and affordable, it combines some of the best features found on Sony's more expensive projectors with an affordable price that makes it very competitive in today's market.
The HW40ES is, in some ways, a "budget" version of Sony's very successful HW55ES, so some features like an auto-iris and custom gamma and color temperature memory are missing. But the HW40ES produces a high-quality image that makes the most of high definition film and video, adding another highly capable projector to this already competitive category of home theater machines.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-HW40ES projector page.