One of the new products generating the most buzz at this year's CEDIA trade show in September was the Sony VPL-HS51 home theater projector. It was the talk of the show due to one truly amazing claim: this LCD projector carries a contrast rating of a stratospheric 6000:1, which as far as contrast is concerned trumps every DLP projector on the market. By now observers of the projector industry are used to regular breakthroughs in performance. But nobody expected that a projector featuring LCD technology would ever claim to beat DLP technology in contrast. This one does. So we were particularly anxious to get this one in for a closer look to shoot it out against the other hot products currently on the market.
As with all projectors, this one is not without its weaknesses. But it is an impressive product that, when set up correctly, produces beautiful home theater video. It is being added to our Highly Recommended list, but with an important qualifier: it must be used with the DVDO iScan HD+ front end video processor for optimum performance results.
Brightness: 1200 ANSI lumens
Native resolution: 1280x720, 16:9 format
Technology: Three 0.73" LCD panels with microlens array.
Lens: Manual zoom/focus with 1.55x zoom range
Lens shift: Vertical and horizontal
Lamp life: 2000 hours in normal mode, 3000 hours in eco-mode
Brightness. Upon release there was some confusion on the ANSI lumen spec on the HS51--initial indications were 800 ANSU lumens, but Sony now informs us that the official spec is 1200 ANSU lumens. The official specification does not change the measurements we have in the lab. When operated in Cinema mode for best contrast performance, the actual light output of the HS51 is about 240 ANSI lumens. So in video mode this is not a bright projector by any means. All home theater projectors benefits from a dark viewing space, but for the HS51 a dark room is more important than most.
Contrast. This projector is capable of producing better blacks than any digital projector we've seen. High contrast is achieved via a dynamically reconfiguring aperture. Thus actual contrast varies by scene content. Nevertheless the effect is one of significant dynamic range. People can and will debate whether contrast ratings achieved by the use of a variable aperture are "apples and oranges" compared to contrast ratings on projectors not using this technology. But the only practical issue is whether the picture actually looks higher contrast on the screen. When viewed side-by-side with the DLP-based BenQ PE8700, with a contrast rating of 2500:1, the HS51 does appear to to deliver a visibly higher contrast image. The BenQ is certainly brighter, roughly by a factor of two, but the HS51 delivers a very satisfying high contrast picture that is simply remarkable for LCD technology.
Manual zoom and focus. The manual zoom lens has a range of 1.55x. The throw distance range is typical of many projectors in this class, with a 100" diagonal image being achieved from a minimum throw distance of 9.5 feet to a maximum of 14.7 feet. If you are viewing the screen from a distance of 1.5x the screen width, the seating area will be in the middle of the projector's throw distance range (or 11 feet in the case of a 100" diagonal, 87" wide 16:9 screen). Thus the zoom range allows the latitude to place the unit either on a coffee table immediate in front of the seating area, on a table between the seats, on a shelf or mount immediately behind the seats, or ceiling mounted above the seats. If you wish to place seating further than 1.5x the screen width, (as many may wish to do) you lose the option for shelf or stand mounting behind the seating area.
By the way, for those thinking about bookcase or shelf mounting, note that the HS51's 14" length plus at least four inches for cable connection and rear clearance means that the front of the projector will extend about 18" from the back wall. This may be an aesthetic concern for those who have typical shelving that is 10" or 12" deep. Nevertheless, mounting on a rear shelf or stand behind the seating area is easier than ceiling mounting, and it can provide the best optical performance by allowing you to avoid aggressive use of the lens shift.
Horizontal and vertical lens shift. The HS51 provides horizontal and vertical lens shift, which lets you adjust the position of the projected image on the wall relative to the projector. In neutral position the centerline of the lens strikes the center of the projected image. From that position the image can be moved up or down in a range equal to 100% of the picture height, or side to side in a range equal to 100% of the picture width. In other words the entire image can be positioned so that it is 50% of the picture height above or below the centerline of the lens, or 50% of the picture width to either side of the center position. However, if you use the vertical lens shift, the range of horizontal shift is reduced, and vice versa.
Five video inputs. The connection panel on the rear of the unit offers one HDMI (digital with HDCP) input, one 3-RCA component video input, one S-video, and one composite. There is also one VGA 15-pin D-sub for computer connection.
Lamp life and fan noise. In normal operation, estimated lamp life is 2000 hours. In eco-mode or cinema mode, fan noise is reduced and lamp life is increased to 3000 hours. Overall, fan noise is low in Cinema mode, but not as low as the 24 dB rating would lead one to believe. It is not distracting, but the other new LCD 1280x720 high contrast projectors, the Panasonic AE700 and Sanyo PLV-Z3, are quieter in their cinema modes.
Screendoor effect and pixelation. There is no screendoor effect from normal viewing distances on the HS51. Initial concerns based upon the CEDIA demo that there may be more visible pixelation on this unit proved to be unwarranted. Visible pixel structure in rolling credits and subtitles (where it is most visible) disappears at a viewing distance of about 1.4 times the screen width. Since viewers will usually set up to watch from this distance or farther from the screen, screendoor and pixelation effects are non-issues.
Vertical banding. There is no manifestation of any vertical banding on this projector.
Certainly the most compelling feature of the HS51 is the remarkable black levels that it can achieve, which are blacker than even most DLP projectors. However the black levels and contrast, while they are clearly leading-edge for an LCD projector, vary based on scene content. This is not noticeable at all. In general the visual effect is one of remarkable dynamic range. Most notably, in dark scenes there is terrific shadow detail, and blacks are solid. When the Men in Black pull up in front of Jack Jeeb's pawn shop at night, early in the first MIB film, the car is jet black and the detail in the street scene is fully intact. The black level reaches a performance that is amazing for LCD.
The HS51's native 1280x720 LCD panels produce clean, very sharp images with both 1080i and 720p HDTV sources, through either the HDMI or component video ports. Standard definition television and DVD are also fine as long as they are fed through the HDMI port.
The one significant weakness of the HS51 is in its scaling of standard definition material through the analog ports. For example, with a DVD source input via 480i or 480p through the component video port, there is an edge enhancement in the horizontal dimension that is not related to the sharpness control. This has the effect of imparting an artificial sharpness to the image which makes it appear decidedly more digital and less film-like. Once the signal is upscaled externally to 720p, bypassing the internal scaler, the artifact is eliminated and the picture is smooth and clean.
This scaling artifact has more of an impact on a DVD picture than on other sources like standard definition television or VCR. That is because television or VCR signals are of lesser quality than DVD to begin with. Therefore the impact of the scaling artifacts is partially masked by the inherent noise and instability of the signal. It is still there, but in a side by side comparison with another 1280x720 LCD projector such as the Panasonic AE700, the HS51's television picture is only marginally compromised. Conversely, since DVD is a cleaner signal, the scaling artifacts become quite a bit more visible. Using analog component inputs side by side with the AE700, the HS51 appears to be noisy and digital, whereas the AE700 appears smoother, better integrated, and more film-like.
In addition to the scaling artifacts on standard definition material through the analog inputs, there is some picture loss due to overscan. The loss amounts to about 5% of the image on each side of the picture. This is more than is typical, as 2% to 3% is more the norm.
Thus there is a practical consideration in setting up and using the HS51. In order to get the best image performance, owners will want to avoid using the component, S-video, and composite video inputs ports for standard definition sources whenever possible. For DVD, one way to avoid it is to use a DVD player like V's Bravo D2, and output the signal in 720p via DVI. You will need a cable with DVI on one end and HDMI on the other, or a DVI/HDMI adapter to achieve this interface. But these accessories are available from outside suppliers, it is easy to do, and the picture quality is superb. This solves both the scaling and the overscan problem at the same time.
However, by using the Bravo D2 with DVI output you will have committed the HDMI port to your DVD player. That means that HDTV, standard television, VCR, other sources must be input via one of the analog ports. This works fine, as long as you are willing to accept slightly less than ideal image performance from these sources. For those primarily interested in quality DVD performance, this is a practical and cost effective way to go.
The better but more costly alternative is to use the DVDO iScan HD+ video processor as a front end to the HS51. This unit will upscale all of your standard definition sources, including DVD, VCR, laserdisc, television signals, etc., from 480-line format to 720p and deliver them to the HS51 via DVI. It will also pass through all of your HDTV signals, including any that are HDCP flagged for copy protection. This eliminates both the scaling issue and the overscan loss, giving you 100% of the picture on the screen.
Thus the iScan HD+ lets you achieve the best possible image quality on the HS51 from all sources. As with the Bravo D2, you need a cable with DVI on one end and HDMI on the other, or a DVI/HDMI adapter. Note that the iScan HD+ is not able to make your VCR or television signal look as good as DVD, so you should not have unrealistic expectations in this regard. But it improves all standard video sources across the board.
The DVDO iScan HD+ is about $1500, less whatever discounts might be available. So it is not an insignificant incremental cost factor in optimizing the HS51's performance. Nevertheless it works beautifully and is a comprehensive solution to optimizing the HS51's display of standard definition material. Unless you are a DVD-only user and can get by with just the Bravo D2 DVD player, the iScan HD+ is strongly recommended as a front-end accessory for this projector.
The combination of the Sony HS51 and the DVDO iScan HD+ falls into a price range of about $4500 to $5,000 depending upon discounts available. Therefore, this combination competes directly with the Yamaha LPX-510 and the Epson Cinema 500, both of which are also 1280x720 resolution LCD projectors. In this competitive match-up, the "HS51 + iScan HD+" is the clear winner in overall image performance due to the HS51's superior black level and contrast performance, and the iScan's superior video processing. Therefore we can say that the Sony HS51 is highly recommended, contingent upon it being combined with the DVDO iScan HD+. Without the iScan HD+, many users will be better off to opt for the Panasonic AE700 or some other lower cost product that offers a better price/performance proposition for standard definition sources.