Sony has been in the widescreen digital projector business longer than anyone. Starting with the original 1068x480 resolution VPL-W400Q back in 1997, Sony established its industry leading commitment to widescreen formats early in the game. Since that first very popular model Sony has produced a series of higher resolution WXGA models, including the VPL-VW10HT, the VPL-VW11HT, and in 2002 the VPL-HS10 Cineza, and the VPL-VW12HT, each delivering better contrast and video processing electronics than previous models.
The competition in widescreen digital projectors has become intense, driving prices down across the board. In terms of price, the VPL-VW12HT goes head to head with the Sanyo PLV-70. The next step up in price and performance would be to the InFocus Screenplay 7200. And Sony's own HS10 delivers reasonably close to VW12HT performance at a fraction of the price. Comparison notes on these projectors will be offered at the end of this review.
The VW12HT is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens of brightness, and 1000:1 contrast. It features three 1.35" polysilicon LCD panels with MicroLens array. Physical resolution of the panels 1366x768. It is powered by a 200-watt UHP lamp with a lamp life of 2000 hours in standard operating mode, and 3000 hours in a reduced light output mode Sony calls "Cinema Black."
Compatibility: The VW12HT will accommodate NTSC, NTSC 4.43, PAL, PAL-M, PAL-N, and SECAM. Signal compatibility includes 480p, 540p, 575p, 720p, 1080i, and computer resolutions from VGA to SXGA.
Connector panel: The connector panel, located on the left side of the unit as you are looking at it from the rear, has four video inputs-one composite video, one S-video, and two sets of five RCA jacks for HDTV, component video and computer inputs. For input cables that have BNC connectors, BNC to RCA conversion adapters (available at Radio Shack) solve the problem. There is no DVI input on this unit, which these days is a rather notable omission on a projector in this price range.
Zoom lens: The standard projection lens is a manual 1.2x zoom. For a 16:9 diagonal image size of 100", the throw distance range is from 10'8" to 12'4". Sony recommends clearance of at least one foot in all directions for heat dissipation. If the standard lens doesn't fit your needs, there are two optional projection lenses; one is a long throw with 1.5x zoom range, and the other is an extra wide angle with 1.1x zoom range. Throw distance calculations in our Projection Calculator are based on the standard lens.
Remote control: The remote control unit is one of the best we've seen--it is easy to use and the projector responds immediately from a distance of at least 30 feet. A key feature of the remote is six Video Memory buttons that let you instantly select up to six programmable calibration settings for different types of material you may be viewing.
LCD technology in general has come a long way. The screendoor effect that everyone objected to in the past is rapidly disappearing. On the VW12HT, screendoor is not visible at all from a distance of 1.5x the screen width. Only those who like to sit in the front row at a movie theater and wish to set up their home theaters for similar effect should be concerned about it.
Contrast on the VW12HT is also significantly improved over earlier models. Most of the time projectors rated at 1000:1 are capable of producing entirely satisfactory results in terms of shadow detail and overall snap. However we were not able to get quite the results we were looking for from the VW12HT. Separation in the shadow areas, while quite good compared to earlier Sony models, was not as defined as we would have hoped.
Though rated at 1000 ANSI lumens, the actual lumen output is below 500 once you calibrate for optimized video, put the unit into Cinema Black mode, and attach the light magenta Cinema Filter that is provided with the projector. With a bit of inherent weakness in the shadows combined with low lumen output, the image from this projector washes out rather quickly if there is ambient light present in the room.
Color accuracy was overall very good with the only notable flaw being a modest orange bias in the red channel. Flesh tones were perfect, and overall color is natural and well-balanced. If the VW12HT is set up with a not overly large screen, color saturation is great. However, it tends to lose saturation fairly rapidly when stretching the image to larger formats (more on this below).
Brightness uniformity was very close to ideal. Illumination was even through the entire center and right portions of the image (when table mounted). Illumination fell off by only about 15% toward the left edge. This is excellent performance.
Fan noise was relatively low in Cinema Black mode, and low to moderate in normal mode. Especially for those using the projector in a small room, Cinema Black mode has the additional important benefits of noticeably reducing fan noise and increasing lamp life to 3000 hours, up from the 2000 hours you get in normal mode.
After dissecting all the performance factors, what was the end result? The bottom line is that we were able to get a stunning picture from the VW12HT by setting it up with a 90" diagonal Stewart Firehawk. We note the Firehawk in particular because of its 1.35 gain, and its ability to significantly boost definition in the shadow areas--a perfect complementary product for this projector.
Why 90" diagonal? There is always a trade-off between image size and image quality. With any projector you compromise most of the picture dynamics when you stretch the image too big. Since both lumen output and apparent contrast are comparatively low on this projector, keeping the image smaller concentrates the light and generates huge bonuses in image quality.
Now, are we saying you can't get a big picture from the VW12HT? Absolutely not. You can take it all the way to 25 feet diagonal if you want to. However, with every incremental expansion of the image you lose contrast and color saturation (among other things). As an aside, this is one of the reasons many dealers set up projector demos on small screens. Thousands of consumers have had the experience of being sold a projector being demo'd on an 80" screen, only to find that it doesn't look quite the same when installed in their home with a 100" or 120" set-up. So be very conscious of screen size and type when auditioning a projector in a prestaged dealer demo--if it is not the size and type of screen you intend to install, you are not seeing the picture you will end up with.
As far as the VW12HT is concerned, the solution that is right for you is a personal judgment call. Many folks have set it up with a 120" screen and are delighted with the results. However, for us the VW12HT is all about image elegance, not size. So for us the optimal point on the size vs. quality trade-off curve was at 90" diagonal. This is the size at which the image pops with contrast and detail, and the integrity of the image is sufficiently tight to elicit that "Wow" response. Throw distance required for this screen size is about 10 to 11.5 feet. So the VW12HT is an ideal solution for those with smaller viewing rooms in which ambient light can be eliminated.
After calibration, in practical terms the HS10 and VW12HT are comparable in brightness. The VW12HT has a noticeable but not dramatic edge in contrast, shadow detail, and black level performance. Neither one has a visible screendoor problem from normal viewing distances. The fan noise on the HS10 is noticeably louder, but the difference is not large enough to make it a big issue. And the HS10's DVI input gives it an edge in image stability and sharpness for users who use an HTPC or set-top boxes with DVI output. All things considered the HS10 is the better price performer overall. However, for those buyers who want the set-up in which the VW12HT excels and are willing to pay extra to get the better image, the VW12HT will be worth the step up.
[NOTE: By the way, we have found no evidence of product reliability problems with the HS10. Following our request last month for user feedback on this product, a small army of HS10 users wrote in to describe their experiences. The vast majority of users reported no problems at all. Overwhelmingly users were delighted with the unit. Of those who did have problems, almost all of them were found to be related to ventilation and overheating problems in the user's environment that were under the user's control. After discussing these issues with the owners, we received updates back from them saying that correcting heat dissipation and intake vent clearance issues resolved their problems.
All projectors need adequate clearance for heat dissipation, and intake vents must never be blocked. In dusty environments filters need to be attended to on a regular basis. Setting a unit like the HS10 on a carpet to project video games onto a wall (a usage unfortunately depicted in the HS10 manual) is a bad mistake since it inhibits air flow into the intake vent underneath the projector.]
The VW12HT is an exceptional projector capable of producing beautiful video imagery from both DVD and HDTV. People who own it will get superb performance from it. However, considering the competition, it occupies a relatively small niche of users for whom it is ideal.
On the lower end of the price scale, the HS10 has set a new price/performance benchmark for widescreen machines under $3,000. Though it is half the price, it is much more than half the performance of the VW12HT. This has to some degree eroded the viability of VW12HT pricing. Meanwhile, for those ready to spend $5,000 or more the Sanyo PLV-70 and the InFocus Screenplay 7200 each offer unique advantages that the VW12HT lacks. Those who want a more powerful machine to deal with ambient light and larger screens will opt for the Sanyo. And those with the extra cash in the budget will step up to the InFocus/Toshiba. Therefore, though the VW12HT is an excellent video projector, we believe its price needs to come down to accommodate the competitive realities of today's market.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-VW12HT projector page.