Highly Recommended Award
Our Highly Recommended designation is earned by products offering extraordinary value or performance in their price class.
Sony's newest home theater projector, the VPL-HW50ES, is making quite a splash. This is not because it brings any revolutionary new features -- its feature list looks largely the same as other home theater projectors -- but because it produces an image that is technically perfect. Its picture is razor-sharp, crystal-clear, perfectly color-balanced, with outstanding contrast and black levels. It manages to do all of this while also cranking out north of 900 lumens.
However, for that additional technical picture precision, there is a commensurate increase in cost. The HW50ES costs $3,999 direct from Sony, putting it above direct competitors that are under $3,000. While the HW50 does come with some extras like a spare lamp and two pairs of 3D glasses, some will see value in the HW50's incrementally precise picture while others will not.
If there's one thing we learned about the Sony HW50ES it's that a light-controlled room is required to bring out the best this projector has to offer. While the HW50ES can produce upwards of 1300 lumens in a 6500K color-calibrated mode, using it in a living room or other area with significant ambient light will neutralize some of the projector's best features.
We set up the HW50 in a light-controlled room on a rear shelf. "Light-controlled," in case you're not familiar, means that not only is there no ambient light, but also that reflective surfaces are covered or otherwise made non-reflective. Reflected light bouncing back onto the screen is often responsible for a loss of contrast, and controlling it as much as possible can give you a better picture. We went with a rear shelf placement because the projector's manual H/V lens shift and 1.6:1 zoom lens make it easy to use such a mount.
The first thing learned about the HW50 is that it's bright. Using Cinema Film 1 mode with the lamp at full power and projecting a 100" diagonal image, we measured 31.5 foot-Lamberts on our Stewart Studiotek 100 -- almost double the recommended 16 fL. If you were to use a 1.3 gain screen, it would measure about 41 fL. The solutions, as always, are to switch to low lamp mode (thereby lowering light output by almost 40%), use a larger or lower gain screen, and to use the zoom lens to soak up some of the excess output. You can also curtail light output by closing down the iris manually, which can be extremely useful.
A 120" diagonal 1.3-gain screen would measure 18 fL with the HW50 in Cinema Film 1 and low lamp mode. That is just about perfect. Even using the maximum telephoto end of the zoom lens only drops screen brightness to 15 fL. In other words, you're in the ideal range for screen brightness on a 120" diagonal screen and you still get to take advantage of low lamp mode's increased lifespan. And because the HW50 is capable of producing much more light when necessary, you can keep that same 120" screen size when watching 3D without worrying about image brightness.
Once you have the HW50 set up properly, it's not hard to get a great picture out of it. Our testing mostly used the projector's Cinema Film 1 mode plus some adjustments of our own, which we'll get into more fully later in this review. With those adjustments, the HW50 put a picture on the screen that's not just bright but also high in contrast, well color-balanced, and exceptionally sharp and detailed. The HW50 has all of the hallmarks of a videophile projector, the most important of which is a faithful, accurate reproduction of the source material.
2D image quality. The main draw of the HW50ES is the fantastic 2D image it produces. This is not due to any single factor; in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The HW50 puts up a sharp, clear, detailed HD picture that is high in contrast, has great shadow detail, plenty of brightness, and perfect color.
The practical result is that you end up seeing detail in HD content that you didn't know was there. There's a sense of three-dimensionality in the picture that gives it depth and pop, making it easy to forget about the projector and get sucked in to the movie.
3D image quality. The HW50ES has a native panel refresh speed of 240 Hz, and 3D content takes advantage of the full refresh rate to eliminate flickering and judder in the 3D picture. As a result, the HW50's 3D picture is smooth, flicker-free, and does not have any artifacts to speak of. Crosstalk was only occasionally seen in very difficult content and even then its effects were minor. Light output is always a concern when displaying 3D content, but the HW50ES has brightness to spare. A 100" to 120" diagonal 3D picture is still bright enough to enjoy.
Detail. The HW50 has one of the sharpest, most detailed pictures available in its price range. This performance is assisted by the HW50's Reality Creation system, a smart sharpening algorithm that boosts detail definition. Even set to its bare minimum, this control had an appreciable effect on the picture without introducing much in the way of artifacts. It also has its own noise reduction filter to prevent noise being interpreted as detail.
Excellent color. The HW50 has several things going for it with regards to color performance. One, it has comprehensive color controls that are easy and intuitive to use. Two, the color gamut is almost perfect even at its default settings. Three, the actual color on screen is well-saturated and accurate out of the box and only gets better after making some small adjustments. This all adds up to a projector that has the accurate color needed for a great home theater image.
Customizable light output. Beyond just having a lot of lumens to throw at the screen -- the HW50 can produce over 1300 lumens in a color-calibrated mode -- there are also numerous options for reducing lumen output without sacrificing contrast or color performance. This customizability makes the HW50 a good fit for almost any size of screen, not just large ones, and puts it a cut above some of its competitors that have a "lumen floor" below which they cannot go. For a 100" screen in a dedicated theater room, you don't need anything more than 400 lumens, and on some projectors it is hard to get that low.
Silent. When you press the power-on button on the HW50, the first indication you'll get that it has turned on is when the picture pops up on the screen. The projector has almost no fan noise, to the point where it becomes difficult to hear if you are standing more than a foot away from the exhaust vents. In a world full of low-noise home theater projectors, the HW50 raises the bar on what constitutes "quiet."
Frame interpolation. Frame interpolation on the HW50 has three settings: Low, High, and Off. The Low setting smooths out motion in 24 frame per second content without adding any of the dreaded "digital video effect" that many people despise. The High setting is a great choice for live sports or other 30 FPS content, but it is a bit overzealous for film.
144-zone panel adjustment. As a three-panel projector, the HW50's SXRD chips can sometimes drift slightly out of alignment after years of use or an impact of some kind. This is a common problem that affects all three-chip projectors. To counteract this, the HW50 has a comprehensive panel alignment system. In addition to global adjustments that shift Red or Blue across the entire image, Zone mode allows you to adjust any one of 144 different points across the image independently of the rest. So it doesn't matter if one corner had a touch of blue haloing on horizontal lines and another corner has a red tint on verticals. You can fix both.
Included accessories. Packed in with the HW50ES are two pairs of 3D glasses and a spare lamp. That's roughly $650 worth of gear. Not included is an infrared 3D emitter, but the projector has one built-in already. The optional external emitter is only required if you have a very large room and the built-in emitter isn't cutting it.
Warranty. The HW50ES has a three-year warranty. That stands out in a market segment where two years is the norm.
Light output. Home theater projectors keep getting brighter as users demand the flexibility to use larger screens or set up in rooms with ambient light. On most projectors, the super bright modes also have significantly degraded color performance, but the Sony HW50 is not most projectors.
The brightest mode on the Sony HW50 is called, appropriately enough, Bright Cinema. In this mode, our test sample measured a whopping 1386 ANSI lumens, and that's after calibrating the grayscale to 6500K. In other words, when needed the HW50 can crank out almost 1400 lumens of color-calibrated picture. That's more than enough to play video games or watch a sporting event with some lights on, though black level will of course suffer in these situations.
Most people don't need that much light, and in fact most people would find that much light to be uncomfortable. For more traditional dark-room use, the HW50 has Cinema Film 1, which measured 931 lumens on our test unit after calibration. It is in Cinema Film 1 mode that the projector exhibits its best contrast and color performance. In high lamp mode, Cinema Film 1's 931 lumens can light up a 140" diagonal 1.0 gain screen to the recommended 16 foot-Lamberts.
The HW50 has an additional lumen-reduction option that many projectors do not have -- a manual iris. Using it, you can reduce lumen output by up to 70%, which is a great option if you have a smaller screen you don't want to replace. Using the iris in manual mode means you can't use it in Auto mode, but there is an "Auto Limited" option that allows you to set stop points for the iris while preserving its automatic abilities.
Contrast. Despite its relatively low 100,000:1 contrast specification, the HW50 is competitive with other projectors in its price range and in fact surpasses some of them in performance. Its black level is excellent, thanks in part to its fast, silent auto iris. This iris has four modes:
- Automatic, full range
- Automatic, limited range
The limited range option is a great choice when you need to reduce lumen output and don't want the iris to open up completely on a bright image. Once your projector's lamp ages and dims somewhat, you can open the iris back up to the full range and thereby maintain consistent screen brightness.
Color. The HW50 comes out of the box with a near-perfect Rec. 709 color gamut. This is significant for two reasons. One, it's rare that a projector comes out of the box with a perfectly-calibrated anything, and two, because color gamut is difficult to calibrate without some very specialized equipment.
The default D65 grayscale on our test unit did need a few tweaks before it could be called "perfect." Below are our test sample's default RGB levels for Cinema Film 1, our go-to movie mode.
As you can see, red is slightly too pronounced, especially in the low end, but those who just want to plug and play should still be quite happy with performance. To get closer to the ideal, we switched to Custom 3 color temperature and made the following adjustments:
These adjustments led to this post-calibration measurement on our test unit:
The same numbers might not lead to the same result on your projector, so don't take them as gospel. However, they may be useful as a generalized guideline, so we include them for completeness' sake.
The brightest useful mode is Bright Cinema, which is capable of producing over 1300 lumens at 6500K. While pre-calibration color balance is biased towards blue, this can help compensate for yellow incandescent ambient light. We started with the Custom 2 preset and made the following adjustments:
Our final RGB levels look like this. It is rare to see this kind of color performance in a bright mode.
Input lag. In Cinema Film 1 and Bright Cinema mode, we measured 50ms (3 frames) of delay. That is already quite good by 3D projector standards, as they tend to be a bit more sluggish than their 2D counterparts. However, if you're looking for an additional speed boost, Game mode will reduce input lag to 34ms, or 2 frames.
Sharpness and detail. The HW50 produces a very sharp and detailed image. With all detail- and edge-enhancing features disabled, the HW50 still produces a razor-sharp picture. This perception is increased when using Reality Creation, a system that selectively sharpens areas of the picture to increase the perception of detail. A system like this cannot create detail that does not exist in the source material, but it can intelligently enhance certain areas. This comes with a trade-off as the HW50 has more digital noise than many of its competitors. Careful use of the noise-reduction controls can help to reduce the appearance of digital noise, and the HW50 has no fewer than three different noise reduction features.
Manual lens controls. The HW50 has a manual 1.6:1 zoom lens and manual H/V lens shift adjustments. Consequently, there is no lens memory system, so if you want 2.35:1 projection you'll have to use an anamorphic lens or zoom manually every time. More importantly, focusing a high-definition projector perfectly using a manual zoom lens can be a chore, and while it usually only has to be done once, it is best accomplished by two people working together. With one person standing at the screen and the other making adjustments, it is possible to achieve perfect focus in much less time than one person working alone.
It does not help that the HW50's adjustment knobs tend to stick, and when you apply more force to un-stick them the control will jump, causing a large adjustment where you wanted a small one. These factors combine to make setup kind of a pain, despite the HW50's otherwise good placement flexibility.
Digital noise. As a consequence of the HW50's extreme sharpness, it often has to deal with an extreme amount of digital noise. With all noise reduction features turned off, the HW50 could become difficult to watch if you are particularly sensitive to the appearance of noise. You'll have to find a balance of the HW50's three noise reduction circuits that reduces it to a tolerable level for you. Overdriving these controls can soften detail, however. It is a delicate balancing act, but the end result appears no more noisy than the HW50's competitors.
Some people looking at the Sony HW50 might also be looking at the Panasonic AE8000, which is also a fine home theater projector and comes in at around $2499 to the HW50's $3999. The AE8000 has a more impressive set of specifications, but as we're keen to remind our readers, specs never tell the whole story. Let's see how these two projectors really stack up.
A vitally important area of comparison is 2D image quality. In this area, the Sony HW50 holds a slight advantage in several image characteristics. Both projectors produce a rock-solid image, but the HW50 is brighter (in equivalent modes), slightly higher in contrast, slightly more three-dimensional, and a touch sharper. Meanwhile the AE8000 tends to have less noise and a smoother, more film-like quality. However, if you boost the AE8000's digital clarity processor you end up with incremental sharpness with a bit more noise, and a picture that looks more like the HW50. Conversely, if you push the HW50's noise reduction filters, you get less noise and a slightly more film-like image that looks closer to the AE8000's default settings. These are tiny, almost minuscule differences that are only noticeable in side by side comparison; in many cases we agonized over these judgments for hours, deciding if they were worth commenting on at all. In the end, viewers may differ on which image they prefer, as some may value the contrast and sharpness of the HW50 over the smoothness of the AE8000.
This is becoming a more common situation these days. All of the home theater projectors in the $2000-$5000 price bracket share some similarities and all calibrate well. In many cases, the difference between one projector and the next might be a tiny bit of detail in one area of the image that looks a bit sharper on one projector. That's the level of similarity being dealt with. With this in mind, we hope you do not take our comments as evidence of a massive performance gap -- because that gap does not actually exist.
With regard to 3D image quality, the HW50 has the advantage. Both projectors appear very clean with regard to crosstalk and artifacts, though the HW50 shows fewer instances of crosstalk in the most difficult circumstances. But the HW50 is also quite a bit brighter, and 3D brightness is currently the most important factor in getting a good 3D picture. The simple fact is that the HW50 can produce a watchably bright 3D image at 120" diagonal, so you can watch your 2D and 3D on the same large screen. The AE8000 has quite a few 3D features that are missing on the HW50, such as a depth of field control and 3D motion correction, but its 3D screen size is limited by lower 3D light output.
Light output. As you might have guessed from the previous section, the HW50 has an advantage in the management of light output, but it is not the brightest projector. In terms of actual numbers, here is an apples-to-apples comparison of calibrated light output:
|Sony HW50||Panasonic AE8000|
|Bright calibrated||1386 (Bright Cinema)||1612 (Cinema 2)|
|Cinema calibrated||931 (Cinema Film 1)||822 (Cinema 1/Rec709)|
As you can see, the AE8000 is brighter than the HW50 in its bright calibrated setting, while the HW50 is slightly brighter than the AE8000 in its cinema calibrated setting. Both projectors have a low-lamp mode that reduces light output by about 35%. So brightness is a toss-up, right? Not so fast.
Let's say you have a 100" diagonal 1.3-gain screen in a dark room and you want to light it up with the recommended 16 foot-Lamberts. A screen like that only requires about 400 lumens to light properly. But even in low lamp cinema mode, the AE8000 is producing 535 lumens while the HW50 is producing about 600 lumens. In both instances, that's noticeably too much light. The standard advice is to use more of the zoom lens such that the projectors soak up some of that light output, but that isn't always an option. On the HW50, you can use the Auto Limited iris mode to reduce maximum brightness using just the on-board controls. What's more, you can always disable it if you want to turn the lights on and watch something at full blast. The AE8000 does not have an equivalent option. While many folks prefer a bit more brightness than the 16 fL recommendation, it's also nice to have the choice.
Our tests revealed that the HW50ES is nearly twice as bright as the AE8000 in 3D. As noted this gives the HW50 a decided edge in the 3D viewing experience.
Contrast. The AE8000 and the HW50 are roughly equal when it comes to black level, and both projectors look similar enough in this regard that picking them apart would be arbitrary and a little silly. The HW50 appears to have more depth and three-dimensionality in quite a few scenes, but the AE8000 appears to have more depth in others. Deep shadow detail is more evident in default settings on the HW50, leading to an impression of higher contrast. Really it's just that the HW50 has a more accurate gamma curve in factory default settings, and you can bring the AE8000 up to parity with a few adjustments.
Color. Both projectors have accurate color right out of the box. The HW50's Cinema Film 1 mode is already close to 6500K without adjustment, as is the AE8000's Rec709 mode. Both projectors also have a near-perfect color gamut out of the box using those image modes. The AE8000 has overdriven color saturation in default settings, while the HW50 appears anemic in this same area. Saturation controls can be reduced on the AE8000 and increased on the HW50 such that they match. The HW50's lower saturation default settings may be truer to the source, but many viewers will want to give it a boost.
Clarity and detail. With all sharpening controls disabled completely on both projectors, the Sony HW50 appears slightly sharper and higher in detail. Once you turn on Detail Clarity on the AE8000 and Reality Creation on the HW50, though, the two projectors are just about identical. Neither projector appears to have any sharpening artifacts until you turn the controls up to about 2/3 of maximum.
Digital noise. Digital noise is one area where there's a clear difference between the two projectors. The AE8000 has very little noise in its cinema modes, while the HW50 has quite a bit. The difference between the two is striking when viewed side-by-side. However, with careful use of noise reduction, you can reduce the appearance of digital noise on the HW50 to the point where it appears more or less identical to the AE8000. Overdriving those controls, though, can reduce sharpness. The AE8000 has an advantage in that that those adjustments are not necessary.
Audible noise.While the AE8000 is quiet, the HW50 is dead silent. You cannot hear the AE8000 during normal use, but you cannot hear the HW50 unless you practically have your ear up to the exhaust vents.
Placement flexibility. The AE8000's powered 2.0:1 zoom lens surpasses the manual 1.6:1 zoom of the HW50 in range and convenience, though both projectors have excellent (and very similar) manual H/V lens shift ranges.
Warranty. The HW50 comes with a three-year warranty to the AE8000's two-year / 2,000 hour warranty. A promotional offer extends the AE8000's warranty to three years / 3,000 hours, but it is slated to end on March 31, 2013. The offer may be further extended, but that is not yet known.
Input lag. The AE8000 is fairly quick when it comes to input lag, at 67ms (4 frames) in its Cinema modes and 34ms (2 frames) in Game mode. The HW50 is slightly quicker at 50ms (3 frames) in Cinema Film 1 and 34ms (2 frames) in Game mode. The single-frame difference will not be noticeable to most gamers and both projectors are quite fast.
Frame Interpolation. Both projectors have frame interpolation systems and both systems are quite good. But we saw fewer artifacts on the HW50 without any increased perception of the digital video effect.
Automated lens memory. On earlier home theater projectors, Panasonic pioneered the Lens Memory system that allows for the automatic resetting of the lens to display either 16:9 or 2.35:1 material at constant image height on a Cinemascope format screen without an anamorphic lens. This feature continues in the AE8000 and is made possible by the powered zoom and focus lens which the HW50 lacks.
Automated panel alignment. Though the AE8000 features Lens Memory it does not have the panel alignment capability found on the HW50. Over time, panels can drift out of alignment due to heat, bumps, and stress, thereby degrading image quality. Panels need to be re-aligned for maximum performance. On the HW50, this is a five-minute fix you can do at home. On the AE8000, this means shipping the projector out for service.
Purchase price. The AE8000 wins on price, as it comes in at $1500 less than the HW50. However, keep in mind that the HW50 comes with an extra year's worth of warranty in addition to a spare lamp ($379) and two pairs of 3D glasses (at $129/ea). Panasonic currently has a mail-in promo offer for two free pairs of glasses, a $100 rebate, and an additional year of warranty coverage, but that offer is slated to end on March 31, 2013 and it is unknown whether it will be extended. The AE8000's warranty also includes a limitation on operating hours (2,000 hours for two years or 3,000 hours for three years) that is not present in the HW50's warranty.
The Sony VPL-HW50ES is a videophile's dream. It combines a crisp, detailed 2D image with a nearly flawless 3D image and a light engine that is powerful enough to put both images on some seriously large screens. It provides excellent customizability, so the tinkerers out there will not be disappointed in their ability to fine-tune almost every aspect of the projector's performance without having to crack open a service menu. Digital noise can be an issue, but onboard controls for noise reduction make it manageable. And while the price tag is higher than some competing models, the included accessories are a nice touch. Overall, this is a Sony home theater projector we can recommend whole-heartedly.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-HW50ES projector page.