Sony is coming out strong this year. Just in time for football season, they have already released the VPL-HW30ES, a 1080p SXRD 3D projector that once again raises the bar on what we can expect from a Sony 3D projector. The HW30ES builds on the successful Sony VPL-VWPRO1 from earlier this year, maintaining similar features and image quality while incorporating the 3D capability that Sony first introduced in the VPL-VW90ES. But it is not just a copycat. The HW30ES makes some improvements, chief among them being higher brightness and decreased cross-talk in 3D. There's one other thing that the HW30ES shares with the VWPRO1, and that's price. At approximately $3700, the HW30ES offers strong value for the money.
Editor's note 10/10/11: We have corrected an error in our comments regarding screen size and brightness.
Sony Overview - HW30ES vs. Previous Models
First, let's talk about the differences between the HW30ES and its predecessor, the VPL-VWPRO1 (known in some circles as the HW20). The two projectors share a lot of similarities, from the casework and lensing to the overall quality of the projected image. The specifications have changed slightly; the VWPRO1 is rated at 85,000:1 contrast, while the HW30ES is rated at 70,000:1. While the specifications indicate a decrease in contrast, it's not visible in normal use. Black is just as black on the HW30ES as it is on the VWPRO1, while white is just as brilliant.
The two projectors use the same 1.6:1 lens that is standard on all Sony home theater projectors to date, which is good news because this particular lens does not lose much light across its zoom range. The horizontal and vertical lens shift ranges are likewise identical, with 2.5 image heights of total vertical range and 0.5 image widths of horizontal range. This allows you to place the image either completely above or completely below the lens' centerline and gives you a touch of leeway in horizontal placement as well. The connection panels are nearly identical, as are the menu systems. The two projectors even have similar light output in Cinema 1 mode--about 850 lumens.
So where do they differ? The best and most obvious answer is that the HW30ES has 3D while the VWPRO1 does not. This capability was first introduced by Sony in the VW90ES, a $10,000 1080p projector released nine months ago. Now, the VW90ES is a much more refined projector in 2D than the HW30ES, with a smoother, more natural picture. In no way does the HW30ES supplant the VW90ES in this area. But it is interesting that the HW30ES is priced at only $300 more than the VWPRO1 ($3700 versus $3400 MSRP), which keeps 3D affordable. Granted, the HW30ES does not include the required 3D infrared emitter (model TMR-PJ1, $80), nor the cable to connect it to the projector (standard ethernet, $15), nor the active shutter glasses used to actually view the image (model TDG-PJ1, $130). All of these accessories drive up the price of the 3D system, so the total cost for a family of four would be $4300. Sony also sells a version of the projector called the HW30AES, which includes the emitter and two pairs of glasses and sells for $3,999.
The Viewing Experience
The Sony HW30ES is particularly well suited to two different uses. It makes a great projector for a room with some ambient light, but it also does well with a large screen installation in a dark room - we're talking 120" diagonal and larger. The reason is simply that the HW30 is very bright in its Cinema 1 mode. In ambient light, this brightness keeps the image from washing out at screen sizes up to 120" diagonal. In a pitch-black room, the HW30ES can easily support images of 130" diagonal or greater without breaking a sweat when using high lamp mode. Indeed, when we used Cinema 1 with the lamp set to Low at 120" diagonal, we both thought the picture was actually too bright. For those with classic home theater conditions (namely a darkened space with non-reflective wall coverings), screen size may be limited by the size of your wall before the projector starts to look washed out.
As far as image quality in 2D goes, the HW30ES is very reminiscent of the VWPRO1 (you can read Projector Central's VWPRO1 review here). The projector only needs a bare minimum of adjustment. After half an hour with a good meter and some standard test material, we had the HW30ES calibrated very close to published standards. The HW30ES has little visible pixelation even at a viewing distance of 0.8 times the screen width, much closer than the THX-recommended 1.35x. Default sharpness settings require a small boost; on a scale from 0 to 100, the default is 10 and we brought it up to between 15 and 20. This causes detail to pop more strongly without introducing the uglier side effects of edge enhancement. Black level in dark scenes is very deep thanks to an aggressive auto-iris, though more typical scenes feature less extreme blacks. Shadow detail is maintained well, especially using the Gamma 8 preset, which our instruments indicate is the closest to the 2.2 gamma standard. This accurately recreates the look of the film and video you are used to watching.
The HW30ES shows marked improvement over the VW90ES in 3D. The image looks much, much brighter. In mild ambient light, we ran Avatar at 100" diagonal and the picture was easily bright enough to be enjoyable (the movie, on the other hand...). In a darkened theater, a 120" to 130" diagonal image is still bright and vibrant. Color saturation does not look as dull as it did on the VW90ES in 3D, nor does crosstalk seem as severe. Sony has released new 3D glasses that allow a little more room for people who already wear glasses and feel more comfortable on the head. As I have a large enough head to have trouble buying hats, this last point is of great personal importance.
Installing the HW30ES is easy in most instances. The 2.5-height lens shift makes ceiling or rear shelf mounts simple, while the 1.6:1 zoom lens can project a 120" diagonal image from 12' 2" to 18' 5" of throw distance. Placement on a low table can be tricky, since the HW30ES's lens shift cannot place the bottom edge of the projected image far above the lens' centerline. If your table is too low, or you want to place the projector under the table, the lens shift range might limit your options.
Light output. The projector has two presets designed to maximize lumen output, called Dynamic and Standard. These modes produce 1119 and 1071 lumens maximum. Dynamic has a noticeable blue/green tint to it, while Standard is more balanced and has better contrast than its brighter counterpart. The preferred mode for film and video, called Cinema 1, measures 846 lumens on our test sample. The HW30ES has two other cinema modes that measure 896 and 970 lumens respectively, but lack the accurate color and balanced appearance of Cinema 1.
While Sony does not publish lamp life estimates, Low lamp mode increases lamp life at the cost of some light output on nearly every projector ever made. Low lamp mode on the HW30ES decreases light output by 36%, which is higher than the average 20% found on most projectors. However, as the HW30ES is so bright, Low lamp mode is crucial when you want to use the projector on a smaller 80" to 100" diagonal screen in ambient light, or a 120" screen in a dark room. In Cinema 1, this still leaves you with 540 lumens--more than enough for a typical home theater.
Contrast. On the HW30ES, black is quite deep thanks to the aggressive auto-iris system, which strikes a good balance between enhancing black and keeping the picture vibrant and watchable. On a completely black screen, it can be difficult to tell that the HW30ES is running at all. While watching movies and video with mixed illumination levels (i.e. not a black test pattern), black level is on par with other projectors in this price range. Shadow detail is likewise competitive, though the default gamma settings can crush shadows in some instances. Switching to Gamma 8 makes the picture much more balanced and open in these areas.
If you are not a fan of auto irises, the HW30ES has a manual iris option as well. This can be useful in darkened theaters where the Cinema 1 preset is simply too bright, even after switching to Low lamp mode. The scale runs from 0 to 100, with 0 being fully closed and 100 being fully open. In total, the iris can decrease light output by 55%, bringing Cinema 1 to 380 lumens. In a dark room with a screen size of 120" diagonal, we ended up using Cinema 1 in Low lamp mode with the iris at 45, giving us about 400 lumens. The projector's contrast ensures that the image doesn't look washed out or dull at this setting.
Color. The HW30ES needs some adjustment from the factory presets before it is ready for prime-time, but compared to other projectors in this price range it is quite easy to accomplish. The gamut was already nearly ideal, and those adjustments typically take a long time to perfect. Color temperature, on the other hand, required some work. You can make approximate adjustments just using your eyes, but precise calibration requires a color meter. If you do not own one, they can be obtained for less than $250 and make a world of difference. Alternately, there are folks who will happily come to your home and adjust your projector for you, though some do a better job than others. If you can find an ISF certified A/V technician in your area, these men and women are more than capable of doing the job.
Since color in 3D can look significantly different than color in 2D, the HW30ES includes the ability to independently calibrate each mode. That way, you can calibrate Cinema mode for 3D without changing your 2D settings.
Placement flexibility. Sony has been using a 1.6:1 lens on its projectors for many years now, and each one is a little bit brighter than the one before. The HW30ES' lens does not suffer much of a lumen reduction when using the telephoto end of the lens, with a mere 13% reduction between maximum wide angle and maximum telephoto. For comparison, the VW90ES lost 28% and the VWPRO1 lost 24%. The loss is small enough that it should not play a major role in most users' installation decisions.
3D. Sony's first 3D projector, the VW90ES, suffered a few typical first-generation problems. For one, the 3D was not very bright, so users were limited in their screen size selection if they intended to use 3D frequently. Secondly, the projector had a problem with crosstalk, even at the lowest 3D Glasses Brightness setting (which is designed to reduce crosstalk). Third, the projector lost color saturation in 3D to the point where the image looked somewhat dull. Finally, while the projector had a 2D to 3D conversion setting, it would only remain active for 60 minutes at a time.
The HW30ES has fixed every one of these problems. The picture is much brighter, to the point where large screen sizes are not only possible but also recommended. Crosstalk has been reduced significantly, though it is still fairly evident in high-contrast transitions in 3D material. If you have a white object next to a black background with a hard edge between them, you will see some crosstalk. The 3D Glasses Brightness control makes a return, and while brightening the picture still increases the instance of crosstalk, it does so less egregiously than did the VW90ES. Color saturation is much improved, as well. Finally, 2D to 3D conversion has returned, this time without the associated time limit for viewing. To see all of these improvements in a projector that cost less than half of the VW90ES's street price is impressive, to say the least.
Audible noise. The HW30ES continues Sony's streak of making near-silent projectors. In High lamp mode, the projector is audible at a distance of a few feet, present as a low humming noise in the background that fades to insignificance when the movie begins. In Low lamp mode, though, it can be hard to tell if the projector is running at all. At one point, someone in our offices left the HW30ES idling on a black screen in low lamp mode for more than 24 hours, not noticing that it was still running. Oops.
MotionFlow. Last, but not least, the HW30ES sports an improved version of Sony's MotionFlow frame interpolation technology. The effectiveness of this processor depends on the content being viewed, but there are some general trends to be aware of. Video sees the most improvement, with a natural smoothness unimpeded by artifacts or jerkiness. In particular, animation and live events (concerts, sports, etc.) look smoother and more natural with MotionFlow engaged. The "digital video" effect is actually desirable when watching video, as it gives the content a hyper-real quality that's almost as good as being there. Film, on the other hand, also shows a good deal of the effect, though less than several other projectors in this price range. There is some benefit, especially in horizontal panning shots, but action scenes still tend to fall apart. In any case, if you are not a fan of the effect in film, it can be disabled easily.
Brightness. The HW30ES has a very bright cinema mode - 846 lumens with the lamp at full power. And while Low lamp mode reduces light output by almost 40%, that still leaves you with 540 lumens. Now, the higher in contrast a projector is, the less brightness it needs in order to look its best. So with the HW30ES, 540 lumens can be too much light in a dark room. To put things in perspective, a truly dark theater only requires about 300 lumens to light up a 100" diagonal screen, and going to 140" diagonal (double the screen area) still only needs 600--less than that if you use a higher-gain screen. At 540 lumens, the HW30ES looks best on a 120" to 130" diagonal screen in a dark room with a screen gain of 1.0-1.3. Now, those with smaller screens can still lower light output using the manual iris option, which is a great way to cut brightness down to a more appropriate level for your environment. This of course disallows the use of the projector's auto iris, but it can also save you from the eye strain of a too-bright picture on a too-small screen.
3D quirks. While 3D is greatly improved, the HW30ES adds some quirks of its own. For starters, the onboard IR emitter of the VW90ES is absent, replaced by an outboard model (TMR-PJ1) that must be purchased separately. What's more, the emitter requires an ethernet cable with a length not to exceed 15 meters (the instructions are quite specific about this point) to connect it to the projector. Such a cable is not included with the emitter, but there is no indication on the box that anything is missing. Having to make a surprise trip to the store to get a required cable that the manufacturer did not mention or see fit to include in the box is annoying.
The emitter itself is small, made up of a tubular housing lined with infrared LEDs set upon a small stand. The stand itself is delicate and prone to tipping over; we ended up taping ours to the coffee table in order to make it stay put. It is also light, so the weight of the cable can pull the emitter out of alignment if one is not careful. As far as its use in actual 3D viewing, we obtained the best results by placing the emitter in front of us on the table and pointing it back towards our eyes. Aiming it towards the screen does work up to a certain point, but there were more instances of the glasses losing sync when the emitter was arranged this way. Emitter placement would be of most concern when the projector is ceiling mounted, as there is no easy way to wire it to the screen or set it in front of the audience.
Another quirk is that the HW30ES gives no indication that it is a 3D projector until the emitter is plugged in and the projector undergoes a hard power cycle. By "hard" cycle, I mean the projector must be powered off, unplugged, then plugged back in and restarted. Merely turning the projector off and on again did not consistently allow it to detect the emitter. On the upside, automatically deleting all references to 3D settings and controls when the emitter is not attached keeps the menu system uncluttered for those who do not care about 3D.
Noise. When compared to other projectors in its price range, the HW30ES shows more digital noise, especially in solid color areas like backgrounds and faces. The noise reduction system does a good job of combating this problem in standard definition, but HD content seems to throw it for a loop. Even with noise reduction at its maximum, the HW30ES still had a good deal of digital noise in HD. Noise reduces the three dimensionality of an image and can make it appear softer around the edges. It also gives the picture a slightly artificial appearance, lacking the film-like smoothness and natural character of the best cinema projectors we've seen. This digital look can be distracting to some, while others are not bothered by it.
These days, change can come quickly and without warning. When we first started writing this review, the HW30ES was the least expensive 3D 1080p projector on the market, and there was little else on the horizon to compete with it. In the span of a couple of weeks, that has changed. Panasonic announced their PT-AE7000, another 3D 1080p that competes directly with the HW30ES on price. Optoma just announced two new 3D 1080p projectors that cost even less than the HW30ES, though it is likely that they will be commensurately lower in performance. Epson is going to release a 3D 1080p of their own that will compete with both the AE7000 and the HW30ES, though details are still scarce. In addition, there are several other companies planning 3D 1080p releases this fall. We have details on some of these models, though we aren't allowed to talk about them yet.
All of this goes to show that the landscape of the home theater projector market can change, sometimes drastically, in a short amount of time. As a result, we have made the decision to assign star ratings to the HW30ES on a preliminary basis, reserving the right to alter them in the future as the fall releases trickle in for review. The current ratings are valid for the moment, and we feel they accurately reflect the HW30ES' standing in the market.
The VPL-HW30ES is a major milestone for Sony. Not only have they improved upon one of their best projectors in recent memory, they have done so without significantly raising the price. The end result is one of the least expensive 3D 1080p projectors currently on the market. While the CEDIA expo is right around the corner and this fall's new offerings will rearrange the playing field in interesting ways, right now the HW30ES has three things going for it: it has an attractive, engaging high-quality picture, a comparatively low price at the moment, and it's available now. It's hard to argue with that.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-HW30ES projector page.