Sony has been making high-quality 1080p projectors for years, but the VPL-VW90ES is their first foray into 3D. This SXRD projector (Sony's marketing brand for their implementation of LCOS) features a bright, smooth, film-like image in 2D with contrast to spare. In 3D, the picture is attractive, but image size must be kept small due to brightness limitations. An MSRP of $9,999 puts the VPL-VW90ES in a higher price bracket than many home theater projectors, and while its 2D performance has some advantages over lower-priced models, 3D still has some growing pains.
Applications / Best Uses
The VW90ES is a high performance home theater projector, built for use in a darkened theater environment where its deep black level can be appreciated. It is a large projector finished in glossy black and shaped a bit like a flying saucer--wide, flat, and rounded at the edges. At 26.5 pounds, it can be installed by one person working alone, though ceiling mounting is always easier with a friend in tow.
The projector's lens adjustments are all powered. The 1.6:1 zoom lens allows you to put up a 120" diagonal image from 12' 2" to 18' 5". It also has powered horizontal and vertical lens shift, allowing 2.25 image heights of total vertical range and a bit over 50% of the image width in horizontal movement. The range on these adjustments is wide enough to allow mounting in a variety of situations, from ceiling mounts to rear shelves to a tucked-away installation under a low table. In any installation, but especially rear shelves and table mounts, one must take care to ensure adequate ventilation. Air intake comes from the projector's rear as well as the front panel directly underneath the lens, while exhaust is expelled from the front left and front right panels. Enclosing the projector too tightly can obstruct airflow or force hot exhaust back through the projector's intake vents which can lead to overheating and premature lamp failure.
Let's talk about the image itself for a moment. When viewing 2D content, the VW90ES has a wonderfully bright, high-contrast picture. Highlights are bright and sparkling while black levels are so deep as to be nearly imperceptible. At one point during the review, we mistakenly left the VW90ES running overnight because we could not tell that it was still on, so deep was its black and so quiet was the fan noise. Color, even at defaults, is calibrated well enough for casual use; however, the typical consumer buying a $10,000 projector is probably not interested in "casual use." Calibration was a breeze, and the end result was a projector with nearly-perfect reproduction of every shade of the rainbow. The picture is sharp and clear enough to really show off the details of 1080p HD content.
3D is a different story. All projectors using active shutter glasses lose at least 50% of their overall light output when viewing 3D, but some lose more than others--50% is a minimum figure. The VW90ES goes from having a very bright picture in 2D cinema mode to having a very dim one as soon as 3D is put on screen. Color saturation takes a hit as well, making colors appear dull as opposed to bright and vibrant. To combat this, we did three things: switched to Standard mode, increased color saturation by 10-15 points, and reduced the size of the image. By the time we reached about 60" diagonal, the image seemed bright enough for extended viewing.
This introduces another problem; namely, the projector cannot display both a 120" diagonal and a 60" diagonal image from the same mounting location, since it only has a 1.6:1 lens. If you use the lens' widest angle setting to display your 120" picture, the smallest you can make the image without moving either projector or screen is 80". If you plan to watch a lot of 3D, then, a better plan of action is to install a 100" diagonal screen for 2D viewing and use the lens' wide angle setting, so that the telephoto end of the lens will allow for a smaller 60" diagonal picture. This discards some of the advantage of having a bright 2D Cinema mode, but this might represent the best compromise available.
Light output. Our test sample measured 783 lumens in Cinema 1 mode with the lamp set to High and the lens at its widest angle. Considering that the projector's specified maximum output is 1000 lumens on a fresh lamp, this is solid performance. Dynamic mode was a little brighter at 819 lumens, adding a slight blue cast to the picture as well as a small lightening of black level. The brightest mode was Standard, with a maximum output of 890 lumens. The blue cast was more evident here, and color saturation needed a boost. Most projectors' Dynamic modes are much brighter than their Cinema modes, but this is not the case with the VW90ES. If you want to watch football or some other event best seen with the room lighting turned up, stick with Cinema mode and shrink the image down until it is bright enough for easy viewing. This way, you'll have a bright picture and good color.
In any mode, brightness can be reduced by using the low lamp setting. While most projectors' low lamp modes cause a roughly 20% reduction in light output, the VW90ES underwent a 32% reduction from this switch. This brings Cinema 1 to 537 lumens, which is still more than enough light for a 120" diagonal image in a darkened room. The position of the zoom lens also affects light output; the difference between the lens' widest angle and its narrowest is 28%, which is about average for a 1.6:1 lens. This brings Cinema 1 light output to 564 lumens in high lamp mode and 387 lumens in low lamp mode. While a 120" image is still possible with 387 lumens, a 100" diagonal image will appear brighter and more engaging.
Contrast. With bright highlights and inky dark shadows, the VW90ES does not lack for on/off contrast. When it comes to dynamic range, it puts in a good showing. There is on occasion some muddiness in fine shadow detail, especially in scenes without many highlights or deep shadows. In other words, rendition of low-contrast scenes can sometimes be less impressive than a $10,000 home theater projector should be.
Color. When it comes to color, the VW90ES really shines. Straight out of the box, color temperature has a slightly bluish tinge, but this is easily fixed. What is particularly impressive is that the gamut on our test sample needed no adjustment to produce a picture that was virtually indistinguishable from published standards for color reproduction. Saturation needed a slight boost from defaults, but this is easy enough to accomplish. Most people who purchase the VW90ES probably will not be calibrating it themselves; however, they can rest easy knowing that the projector responds very well to fine-tuning. The end result is about as good as it gets.
3D. The VW90ES is a 3D projector, compatible with HDMI 1.4 and all of the transmission formats listed therein. Two pairs of glasses are included in the box, both with soft storage pouches to prevent damage when not in use. The projector gave a good sense of depth, though not as clear as some other 3D projectors. It has several additional features designed to improve the 3D viewing experience, not the least of which is a 3D brightness adjustment. This control alters the shutter timing of the 3D glasses to change the amount of light coming through. More brightness can be gained by increasing the shutter time, but this also increases cross-talk artifacts where one eye sees the image intended for the other eye.
In addition to the VW90ES's ability to display 3D movies, there is also a feature called 3D Simulation which transforms 2D content from any source into 3D. The effect is subtle but visible, adding depth and dimension to DVD and Blu-ray movies. The downside is that switching to 3D mode causes a loss of both brightness and color saturation, and contrast is one of the things that makes a 2D picture appear three-dimensional. As a result, most content did not seem significantly more three-dimensional in Simulated 3D than it did in regular 2D. In essence, the two effects canceled each other out.
Placement flexibility. Long, powered zoom lenses are good for more than just mounting. If you are interested in a constant image height super-widescreen setup, you can use the VW90ES's zoom lens to simulate the effects of an anamorphic lens. Using a 2.4:1 cinemascope screen, fill the screen when watching 2.4:1 movies by zooming in until the black bars at top and bottom are cast off the edges. Then, when you want to watch a 16:9 film, zoom back down so that the whole image sits on the screen, with black pillars to either side. The end result is an effect very similar to an anamorphic lens without the expense and hassle of installation.
Frame Interpolation. Sony's implementation of frame interpolation is called MotionFlow. The system has only three settings: Low, High, and Off. The default is Off. Low mode does wonders for animated films and all types of video, from sports to news, though live action film does show signs of motion artifacts. High mode is best reserved only for video, as it tends to create highly visible artifacts when used with any type of film content. When used with video, the system effectively smooths motion and enhances detail, creating a flawless experience that was particularly impressive when watching HD video, especially live performances like concerts and even ballet. With content like this, the feeling of "being there" makes it feel infinitely more satisfying.
Fan noise. The VW90ES is almost silent in operation, even with the lamp set to full power. Fan exhaust is directed forward and to the right, but even when sitting directly in front of the exhaust vent noise never rose above the level of a low sound of moving air. Indeed, it is occasionally difficult to tell if the projector is on at all.
Panel alignment. All three-element projectors are prone to panel misalignment, but few have the ability to correct for this defect. The VW90ES has a panel alignment feature designed to bring the red, green, and blue SXRD panels into convergence for optimal image clarity. Over time and long use, the imaging elements in a projector may shift slightly. A panel alignment feature like this one helps you fix the problem at home, rather than send the projector back to the manufacturer for repair.
BRAVIA Sync. Control over HDMI is available in many devices these days, and Sony calls this feature BRAVIA sync. Other manufacturers have other names; Panasonic calls it VIERA Link, for example. When you turn on the projector, a signal is sent to turn on the Blu-ray player--and vice versa. The same works when turning devices off. This gives you some small degree of integration, normally an expensive feature, and does so without any additional wiring or programming. It also allows you to use one remote for most functions. The VW90ES's remote even has a set of buttons to control an attached DVD or Blu-ray player. While not as flexible as a real automation system, it is also much less costly. If this feature does not appeal to you, it can be disabled in the projector's menu system.
3D issues. Arguably the biggest concern in the effective use of 3D is brightness, and the VW90ES loses quite a bit of its brightness when viewing 3D--more so even than many other 3D projectors. However, this can be mitigated by using a smaller screen size. Of equal concern is the prevalence of cross-talk, which was clearly visible even at the lowest glasses brightness setting. Cross-talk occurs when one eye sees image data intended for the other eye, resulting in a doubling effect where a ghost image can be seen. Cross-talk reduces the effectiveness of 3D and can be annoying to people (like your humble reviewer) who cannot force themselves to ignore the effect.
3D also affects color saturation, which in both 3D and Simulated 3D modes was greatly reduced. Boosting color saturation through the picture controls goes a long way toward fixing the problem. One should consider creating a special calibration just for 3D viewing, with color saturation boosted; the VW90ES's "User" setting would be perfect for this.
Sony tells us that new 3D glasses will be released in July that increase 3D brightness. We will be anxious to see what effect the new glasses will have on both brightness and cross-talk.
One other quirk: the 3D Simulation feature turns itself off after an hour has passed, and there is no menu setting or option to stop it from doing so. If you want to watch an entire movie in simulated 3D, you must open the menu every hour and turn the effect on again.
Film Projection. The VW90ES has a function labeled Film Projection, designed to make film look more film-like by reducing the effects of judder. However, it has some side-effects. Engaging Film Projection when using 1080p/24 makes the image appear to flicker, as if a shutter is opening and closing rapidly. It also causes a noticeable reduction in brightness. Contrast and depth are slightly increased, but the flickering effect can be very distracting. Flicker is much less noticeable in video, but the brightness reduction is still evident. As this feature creates distracting artifacts and has only a little tangible benefit, it is not something we would use.
Shootout: Sony VPL-VW90ES versus Sony VPL-VWPRO1
Sony's other SXRD projector released this year, the VPL-VWPRO1, is essentially a smaller and less capable VW90ES. With an MSRP of $3400, the VWPRO1 is also much less expensive than its counterpart (you can read Projector Central's review of the Sony VWPRO1 here). What is intriguing is exactly how similar the two projectors look when it comes to pure image quality.
Both the VWPRO1 and the VW90ES are 1080p SXRD projectors built for home theater. Both feature very bright Cinema modes of about 800 lumens as well as deep black levels, making them both well-suited to use in a blacked-out theater environment on a large screen. Putting the two projectors side-by-side, slight differences begin to emerge. While light output is almost identical, the VW90ES has noticeably deeper black levels in just about every situation, giving it an edge in dynamic range. Out of the box color is more accurate on the VW90ES, and while calibration improves both projectors, the VW90ES maintains its edge even afterwards. The VW90ES's higher contrast causes it to appear slightly sharper than the VWPRO1, though actual sharpness differences are small, if any exist at all.
The difference in features is more obvious. The VW90ES has powered lens adjustments while the VWPRO1 is all manual. The VW90ES's MotionFlow frame interpolation system gives it a leg up in video performance. The VWPRO1 is slightly louder than the whisper-quiet VW90ES, though it is still quite low in fan noise compared to other 1080p projectors. Most importantly, the VW90ES has 3D capability, both actual and simulated, while the VWPRO1 does not.
What was most striking about the comparison was not the differences between the two projectors, but the similarities. Both projectors have beautiful, film-like images that look great with 2D Blu-ray and even high-quality DVD content. Both look even better after calibration by a professional or competent amateur. Both projectors have very flexible lensing, allowing for myriad mounting solutions. The two projectors will appeal to the same sort of consumer, someone looking for a high-quality home theater projector with great picture quality first and everything else second. However, looking at them side-by-side, there is not the night-and-day difference one would expect when one projector costs $3,400 and the other costs $9,999.
The Sony BRAVIA VPL-VW90ES looks great in 2D, while its 3D picture suffers from lower than average brightness and more cross-talk than we'd like to see. Nevertheless, in 2D its exceptionally bright cinema mode makes the projector especially useful on large screens of 130" diagonal or greater. Strong contrast, excellent color, and a natural image will appeal to videophiles and those looking for a pure, film-like picture. Powered lens adjustments make it easy to use 2.4:1 theater without an anamorphic lens, and if you'd prefer to use an A-lens the VW90ES has the required anamorphic stretch mode. MotionFlow frame interpolation improves video smoothness significantly, though it is less useful for film.
The Sony VW90ES is a solid home theater projector that we have thoroughly enjoyed viewing in 2D. If you are looking for a projector primarily for 2D viewing, and you'd like to have 3D capability for an occasional diversion, the VW90ES may fit your needs perfectly.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-VW90ES projector page.