Sony has just begun to ship their newest entry level home theater projector, the BRAVIA VPL-AW15. The AW15 is a native 16:9, 720p resolution LCD projector that retails for the low price of $1,299. As such it is the least expensive home theater projector yet released by Sony. Advantages include excellent contrast in Cinema mode, and a long 1.6x zoom range and generous lens shift capability which means it can be easily installed in a variety of locations.
The AW15 is not a bright projector, and visible pixelation can be more pronounced on this unit than it is on competing models of the same resolution. These two factors argue for its use in a dark room, with seating at a greater than average viewing distance. But if you're setting up your projector this way anyway, lower brightness and visible pixelation become non-issues, and the AW15 can give you an impressive, rich, natural, high contrast image.
ANSI lumens: 1100
Contrast (full on/off): 12,000:1 (with auto iris active)
Light Engine: 1280x720, native 16:9, 3x 0.7" PolySi LCD with a 165W UHP lamp.
Video Compatibility: HDTV 1080p/60, 1080p/50, 1080p/24, 1080i, 720p, 576p, 576i, 480p, 480i. NTSC/PAL/SECAM.
Connection Panel: One HDMI input, one VGA input, one component YPbPr input, one S-Video input, one composite input, one RS-232C port.
Lens and Throw Distance: 1.6:1 manual zoom/focus lens with manual H/V lens shift. Throws a 100" diagonal 16:9 image from 9.6' to 15.7'
Lamp Life: No official quotation.
Warranty: Two years.
As you open the box and pull it out for the first time, the BRAVIA VPL-AW15 gives the immediate impression of a solid, well-built projector. It weighs almost 13 pounds and there is nothing flimsy about it at all. The dark gray case has simple, clean, rectangular lines and is designed to be placed discretely on a rear shelf. The connection panel is on the rear of the unit, so you need to allow a few inches of clearance between the projector and a rear wall. The exhaust is to the front and side, well away from the light path, so shelf mounting is a particularly good option for this unit.
Access to the air filter and lamp is on the underside of the projector. So if you ceiling mount it, you will need to take it down from the mount to clean or change the filter. That makes this periodic maintenance task more of a nuisance, which is a good reason to avoid ceiling mounting if you can. Practically speaking, since this is an entry level projector priced at $1,299, most users will not want to incur the added expense of a ceiling mount and long run video cables if they can avoid it. So when thinking about deploying the AW15 in your home theater space, look for a shelf mounted option if you can-the easy access to the projector will be well worth it in the long run.
Our test unit, acquired at random through retail and not supplied by Sony product management, was as perfectly aligned as an LCD projector can be. Often LCD projectors have subtle misalignments of the LCD panels. Slight misalignments can contribute to a subtle softening of the picture, but they also reduce the visible pixel structure and minimize the screendoor effect. The net effect of a slight misalignment, overall, can be positive since pixel grids are quite noticeable, whereas small differences in picture sharpness are apparent only in side by side comparisons.(Significant misaligments are always a bad thing since they not only soften the picture but can produce undesirable color shifts.)
We currently have four different 720p resolution LCD projectors on hand, and the AW15 is clearly the most perfectly aligned of the four. However, that means that the pixel structure is more distinctly visible in the AW15's image than any of the others. For this reason we recommend a minimum seating distance of 1.8x the screen width. For example, you should be sitting at least 13 feet from the screen if the image size is 100" diagonal. At this viewing distance, pixel structure becomes invisible, and the eye comfortably resolves the image to an integrated whole.
That in turn means if you want to set the projector behind the seats, you will need to use the telephoto end of the zoom range. Why? Because the projector produces a 100" diagonal image from a distance of between 9.6 to 15.7 feet, and if you want to sit at least 13 feet from the screen, you only have a couple of feet to play with. In essence, the projector must be placed on a shelf immediately above and behind the seating area, or conversely, on a table between the seats, or on a coffee table in front of the seats.
(By the way, we should note that there is no way for us to judge the degree to which the samples we have are representative of the production runs in general for each of these models. Most LCD projectors that are perfectly aligned will have the same pixelation issues we are discussing here in regard to the AW15, unless they happen to have some type of pixel suppression filter as is the case on some Panasonic models.)
A fairly extensive range of vertical and horizontal lens shift makes it easy to put the projector where you want it. Vertically the image can be moved up or down within a range of about 2.3 screen heights, so the image can be placed entirely above or below the centerline of the lens with some room to spare. The shift range allows for placement on a rear shelf, a coffee table, or ceiling mount if desired, all without having to tilt the projector to hit the screen except in the most unusual of circumstances. Horizontal shift lets you move the image to the left or right about 25% of the screen width from the neutral position.
Connectivity is minimal but functional for a home theater projector. There is one HDMI input, one VGA port, one component video, and one each of S-video and composite. This configuration is typical of entry level home theater projectors, although a number of them also offer a 12-volt trigger which is not available on the AW15.
As a general rule, manufacturer's specifications regarding brightness and contrast are not particularly reliable guides for consumers to use when trying to select a projector. Theoretical ANSI lumen output is usually irrelevant since actual picture quality suffers dramatically when brightness, contrast, and color temperature are pushed to the limits to maximize light output. And with contrast ratings being based on the action of a variable iris in different scenes rather than the actual maximum contrast in a given frame, the buyer should expect contrast specifications to bear no resemblance to actual contrast as perceived when viewing the projector. With a few exceptions, the brightness and contrast specifications published by home theater projector manufacturers are, by and large, meaningless.
There are no exceptions to that general rule when it comes to the AW15. The official brightness specification is 1100 ANSI lumens. However, when we push all relevant settings to the maximum, with lamp on full power, iris wide open, and all controls pushed to squeeze out the most light possible, we measured our test unit at 634 lumens, far short of the stated specification.
Though the AW15 does not come close to meeting its published lumen rating, the interesting thing is that once you begin to arrange calibrations for better picture quality, the AW15 falls more closely in line with the actual light output of competing models. With picture mode set to the precalibrated "Standard" mode, lamp on full power, the lens set to wide angle and color temperature set to "middle," we measured a very respectable 536 ANSI lumens.
Furthermore, regular readers of this website know that a long zoom lens can have a dramatic impact on light output depending on where you set it. All projectors are at their brightest when the zoom lens is set to its maximum wide angle position, and lumen output diminishes as the lens is moved toward its telephoto end. For a zoom lens with a range of 1.6x, as is the case on the AW15, it is not unusual to find a light loss of one-third or more when moving from wide angle to telephoto. But on the AW15, the loss was a trivial 16%. So in the calibration setting just noted above, moving from the extreme wide angle setting to the extreme telephoto reduced lumen output from 536 to 450-relatively speaking, an inconsequential sacrifice. This is good news for those who want to sit back a ways from the screen and use the telephoto end of the lens as suggested above.
A more costly sacrifice of light output occurs when putting the lamp into low power mode. Though this apparently extends the life of the lamp up to a potential 3000 hours according to one Sony representative, it reduces light output by 34%. Unless the projector is being used in a dark room, this is not a trade-off most users are expected to find acceptable.
The precalibrated Cinema mode causes the projector to default to low lamp mode, and it drives lumen output down into the mid-200's depending on where the zoom lens is set. In a dark theater space this is still plenty of light to successfully illuminate a 120" screen because the contrast on the projector is sufficient to pull it off. Last night I watched the American Ballet Theater's presentation of Swan Lake on DVD, using the Sony AW15 in low lamp Cinema mode on a 120" Stewart Grayhawk RS screen. The image was rich and satisfying, with solid blacks, excellent color saturation, no muddiness in the shadows, and no sense that the picture was not bright enough. And this despite the fact that the projector was putting out only 240 ANSI lumens. The reason - contrast on this projector was adequate to pull it off.
As far as contrast is concerned, the rated specification of 12,000:1 is based on the activity of the variable iris. This means that the real potential contrast in any given frame is much lower. In actual viewing, the picture as perceived does not appear to be higher in contrast than competing units with lower contrast ratings. And if you have any ambient light in the viewing space, the advantages of the AW15's contrast capability get thrown out the window. Brighter projectors with lower contrast ratings will always appear to be higher in contrast than the AW15 if you routinely have ambient light in the viewing space.
On-board video processing is first rate, with the deinterlacing and jaggy test patterns we use being presented as cleanly as anyone could possibly expect. There was surprisingly little digital noise in the picture. So the only noticeable artifacts that can intrude to distract you from the viewing experience are related to visible pixel structure.
In theory, one competitive advantage of the AW15 over other entry level 720p resolution projectors is that it will accept 1080p/24 signals-the format native to HD DVD and Blu-ray discs. However, this is more of a marketing/spec advantage than anything else. In practice there is virtually no discernable difference in image quality between HD disc material being transmitted in 1080p/24, 1080p/60 or even 1080i/60. Almost any other performance characteristic of a digital projector will have much more impact on the final image quality than which variation of 1080 signal you are using.
Fan noise is very quiet when the lamp is on full power, and the projector is virtually silent in low lamp mode. But there is no need to drop the projector into low lamp mode to alleviate fan noise, so you are free to exercise the lamp options based strictly on desired lumen output.
The replacement lamp is $349. Sony does not quote official lamp life on this model. The unit is programmed to display a message after some number of hours that says, "Please replace the lamp," but Sony will not indicate how many hours that is. Nevertheless, regardless of the lack of an official lamp life spec, if we were buying the AW15 for our own use, we would plan to replace the lamp every 1000 hours. The reason is that lumen output on high pressure lamps drops significantly over the life of the lamp. Since this projector is not overly bright to begin with, a lamp that is putting out only 50% of its original energy will result in an image that is too dim. To keep this projector running at peak performance, the lamp will probably need to be changed more frequently than the internal "Please replace the lamp" indicator might suggest. (This is true of all projectors using high pressure lamps, but it is more critical on projectors that have less lumen output to begin with.)
Overall, I like the Sony AW15 and would recommend it subject to two important caveats: (1) it must be used in a dark viewing space to get the true contrast benefit from it, and (2) the viewer must sit at a distance of at least 1.8x the screen width in order to eliminate the intrusion of pixelation and screendoor effects. However, if you have a theater room that can accommodate these requirements, the AW15 is capable of producing a beautiful picture for the money.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony BRAVIA VPL-AW15 projector page.