Editor's Choice Award
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Though 1920x1080p has become the standard resolution for home theater projectors, the next wave of technological advance is upon us. 4K Ultra HD has a native resolution of 4096 pixels by 2160 pixels (the 4K name comes from the first number, rounded off). 4K has four times the pixels of 1080p, and it shows. 4K resolution projectors are now starting to become available, though they tend to be very expensive. The first reasonably priced 4K projector to make its way into our hands is the Sony VPL-VW600ES.
The VW600ES is a unique projector: a full 4K resolution SXRD home theater projector for $14,999. Though priced higher than most home theater projectors we review, it represents an outstanding value.
At the moment there is not a lot of native 4K content available, so anyone purchasing the VW600ES will no doubt spend most of their time watching content that is not native 4K. So we tested the VW600ES using a wide variety of content, ranging from native 4K films to HD Blu-ray movies to standard-def DVDs, to see what the projector does with a variety of sources.
The most remarkable thing about the VW600ES is that, without fail, it knocked all of our tests out of the park. Every source we threw at it looked better than it ever had before. And we're not just talking about Blu-ray movies, either. We tested a number of DVDs, including some especially poor transfers like Bottle Shock. The DVD release is full of digital noise and compression artifacts and has a picture that could charitably be described as "messy." Nevertheless, the VW600ES did an admirable job of cleaning up the digital noise and up-converting the picture, performing nearly as well as our Oppo BDP-103 reference Blu-ray player did. And when given better quality source material, like Pixar's Ratatouille, the VW600ES can really shine.
Since 4K is equivalent to four times the pixels of 1080p, all non-4K sources are up-converted to 3840 x 2160 on the VW600. But rather than doing a simple line doubling pass in each direction, the VW600ES analyzes each frame of video and then interpolates to 4K in order to maximize detail clarity and sharpness. As a result, even highly detailed HD films appear to have more detail still when viewed on the VW600.
Usually, the farther you sit from your screen, the larger your screen has to be before you see the benefit of higher resolution. In other words, super high resolution is more obvious when viewed from up close. But the benefit of 4K resolution can be evident even at longer viewing distances. The THX maximum recommended seating distance for 1080p displays is 1.5 times the screen width. At this distance, there is more visible detail in the VW600's image than on a native 1080p display. In fact, this detail advantage is still visible at even longer viewing distances -- up to about 2 times the screen width by our testing, or about 14.5 feet from a 100" diagonal image.
While it is true that the maximum benefit of a 4K picture is not truly obtained until you are sitting very close to the screen, the cumulative effect of all of those extra pixels is not lost on the eye when seated farther away.
Let's spend a minute on the subject of visual acuity, which is the ability of our eyes to resolve detail. "20/20 vision" is defined as the ability to differentiate two points of light separated by one minute of arc (that is, 1/60th of one degree). For a 100" diagonal screen at a viewing distance of 1.5x screen width, the screen is roughly 2200 arc-minutes wide. In other words, you can see all of the 1920 pixels in a 1080p image, but that image does not "max out" your visual resolution -- there's room for more detail. Furthermore, 20/20 vision is actually the lower limit on "normal" human vision. It is used as a diagnostic cut-off, above which no further testing is necessary. "Perfect" human vision is actually closer to 20/16 or even 20/12. Someone with 20/12 vision can resolve detail down to 0.6 minutes of arc, and would see some benefit to 4K even at a viewing distance of 2.25x the screen width. However, if you want to get the most out of a 4K projector, you'll want to be seated at a distance between 1 and 1.5 times the screen width. At this distance, the benefit of the extra pixels is visible to just about everyone.
Actual native 4K content is limited right now, but it does exist. We set up the VW600ES with Sony's FMP-X1 network media player, a hard drive-based 4K player with access to Sony's Video Unlimited 4K store. The VU4K store has about 70 commercial movies available, plus a variety of shorts, documentaries, and TV shows.
The FMP-X1 media player is entirely hard drive-based and has an internal 2-terabyte drive capable of storing up to 45 full-length feature films. It requires a hardwired ethernet connection and needs to be paired with a Sony Xperia Tablet Z that serves as a remote control. Due to the sheer size of the files being downloaded, the FMP-X1 cannot stream 4K content, so movies have to be downloaded completely before use. Depending on the speed of your internet connection, a feature film (roughly 50 GB) can take between 8 and 50 hours to download completely. The player does have an option to download new content automatically during off-peak network times, though it is disabled by default.
Using the FMP-X1, we watched several 4K films including A Few Good Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, Battle: Los Angeles, and Salt. The quality of the 4K transfers was a little hit-and-miss, with some films showing fantastic detail and others not looking much different from 1080p. This also may be due in part to the content itself; Battle: LA and Salt are heavy on action sequences in which high resolution detail gets lost, while A Few Good Men and The Amazing Spider-Man have some long takes with stationary cameras, making it much easier to see detail. All 4K movies, regardless of the amount of detail we saw, showed above average digital noise. What's more, the FMP-X1 locks out the VW600's noise reduction circuits, so it isn't removable.
There is definitely more detail in 4K content than there is in 1080p content, and it is clearly visible from normal viewing distances. We tested this in two ways using A Few Good Men. First, we watched the Blu-ray version of the film on a 1080p projector while watching the 4K version on the VW600ES in a side-by-side test. In this comparison the 4K source's advantage in detail resolution was quite obvious. Next, we sent both the Blu-ray 1080p version and the native 4K version to the VW600ES for an A/B test. Here the VW600ES gave the 1080p version noticeably improved detail over the 1080p projector - though still not as good as the 4K version. It confirmed what we already knew about the VW600's upscaling capabilities, as well as demonstrating the potential of 4K source material.
Since current 4K content is limited, this just means that the VW600's primary benefit at the moment is as a high-resolution display that upscales standard-definition and 1080p HD content. But that benefit by itself is quite significant.
In 3D, the VW600's picture is clean and bright without any of the usual 3D pitfalls or artifacts. There's barely a hint of crosstalk at the glasses' default High brightness, and while there can sometimes appear to be a slight jitter or instability in bright areas, it never rises to the level of a serious distraction. The projector gives an excellent impression of depth and a strong 3D effect, and the included radio-frequency glasses are lightweight and comfortable -- though not rechargeable.
As the VW600ES sells for a touch under $15,000, most buyers will opt for professional installation. Therefore, the fact that it is exceptionally easy to set up is more of a benefit to installers than it is to owners, but still worth noting.
The VW600ES has a 2.1:1 powered zoom lens with powered H/V lens shift. The vertical shift can place the image either completely above or completely below the centerline of the lens, with some leeway in either direction, for a total vertical range of 2.6 screen heights. Horizontally, the image can be shifted 50% in either direction, for a two picture width total range. This is about as good as it gets for home theater projectors. The lens shift range is elliptical, not rectangular, meaning you cannot reach maximum vertical and horizontal shift at the same time.
The lens flexibility makes it simple to place the VW600ES in a ceiling mount or on a rear shelf. The projector has a center-positioned lens that desired by installers. A ceiling mount has the benefit of pulling the projector up and out of the way, as well as being the more "professional" option from an aesthetic perspective. On the other hand, a rear shelf mount is about as simple as it gets, allows for the use of short-run cables, and it keeps the projector near your equipment stack. Be aware, though, that at roughly 20 inches on a side, the VW600ES has a large footprint. Your rear shelf will need to be rather large to ensure that the projector has adequate ventilation.
Whichever placement suits your needs, be sure to give the VW600ES plenty of room to breathe. The projector has two air intake vents on the rear panel and two exhaust vents on the front panel. For rear shelf installations, the projector has a second air intake on the front panel, situated around the lens itself. This will help prevent the projector from overheating if you have no choice but to back it up against a wall.
Picture quality. While the VW600ES is chock full of features, the primary reason to buy the projector is for the stellar image quality. The VW600ES is a videophile's dream, rendering every image in bright, pixel-free Ultra HD. Actual 4K content does look great, but the VW600ES does not need native-resolution material to produce an impressive picture.
MotionFlow. The VW600ES includes MotionFlow, Sony's frame interpolation system. MotionFlow contains a number of different presets. Smooth High and Smooth Low were the most aggressive settings. Smooth High removes all traces of judder while adding significant edge enhancement and digital video effect, while Smooth Low is a milder version. Impulse reduces but does not remove judder without adding edge enhancement or digital video effect. Our favorite mode for film and video is called Combination; it reduces judder more than Impulse but less than the Smooth modes without adding digital video effect. We did notice during testing that Combination and Impulse both reduce light output by 25% to 30%, so consider using a different mode or disabling MotionFlow entirely if your installation requires maximum brightness from the projector.
Reality Creation. Sony's answer to Panasonic's Detail Clarity and Epson's Super Resolution is Reality Creation, a detail enhancement system. Reality Creation improves the appearance of fine detail and is adjustable based on your own tastes. The Reality Creation system includes a useful on/off Demo feature that will show you what the picture looks like with and without your adjustments, in A/B format. The two pictures flash back and forth until you press Enter to stop the demonstration.
Reality Creation has two sliders for adjustment. The first slider controls how much enhancement is applied to the image. The second adjust the signal to noise ratio -- in essence, it tells the detail enhancement system where to draw the line between real detail and digital noise.
Full 3D. While the primary draw of the VW600ES is its crisp, clean 4K image, it can also process full HD 3D sources over HDMI as well as any 1080p projector. This includes 3D content from Blu-ray disc as well as satellite and cable set-top boxes. Like all content, 3D movies are up-converted to 4K before display. If and when 4K 3D movies arrive, the VW600ES should have no trouble displaying them.
The VW600ES uses radio-frequency (RF) synchronization for its 3D glasses and has an internal emitter. Unlike infrared (IR) glasses, RF glasses do not require a signal in the same range as a projector's remote control. As a result, you will not find it any more difficult to use the VW600's remote control while watching 3D content. They also do not lose synchronization if you break line of sight with the projector or screen, On the downside, RF glasses are more susceptible to having the battery run down unless you remember to turn off the projector or switch out of 3D mode when you are not actively using it. Since the VW600's glasses are not rechargeable, this can be a concern for heavy 3D users.
The glasses themselves are feather-light and the arms are very flexible, which is useful when you have a larger-than-average head. The nosepiece is removable, so users with prescription glasses can take it out to reduce the distance between their real glasses and the 3D glasses. The glasses use CR2025 button-style batteries which replace through a small access tray in the nose bridge. Replacing the batteries is simple and only takes a few seconds.
As far as 3D picture quality is concerned, the VW600ES does just as well with HD 3D content as it does with the two-dimensional variety. Detail is razor-sharp after up-conversion, and the projector shows very little crosstalk or jitter even at the default High brightness setting.
Dropping 3D brightness to Normal from the default High removes any trace of crosstalk, but crosstalk is mild enough with brightness at High that we do not recommend the switch unless you are exceptionally sensitive to the artifact.
Auto/manual iris. The VW600's iris system is quite flexible. The iris has only two controls. The first, labeled Dynamic, can be set to Full, Limited, or Off. The second, labeled Brightness, can be set between 0 and 100. With Dynamic set to Limited, the Brightness control will only allow the automatic iris to open partially, effectively limiting the projector's maximum light output while still giving you the black-boosting benefits of an automatic iris system. With Dynamic set to Off, the iris reverts to full manual control. In other words, using these two controls, you can use the iris system as a full dynamic iris (Dynamic: Full, Brightness: n/a), a limited dynamic iris (Dynamic: Limited, Brightness: 0-100), or a manual iris (Dynamic: Off, Brightness: 0-100). This is perfect for those with excellent light control and/or smaller screen sizes who do not need the projector's full light output.
This has a side benefit as well. As a projector's lamp ages it loses brightness. By using the Limited dynamic iris function, you can limit the projector's brightness at the beginning of a lamp's lifetime, then gradually allow more light to pass as the lamp ages, effectively stabilizing light output over the life of your lamp.
Picture Position. If you are a fan of the 2.4:1 CinemaScope screen format, you'll love the VW600's Picture Position system. This feature stores up to five combinations of lens settings (including focus, zoom, lens shift) and aspect ratio and stores them in memory banks. The most practical application of this is in 2.4:1 screen format home theater without an anamorphic lens. It works like this: you set up the VW600ES on a 2.4:1 screen, then save settings for 1.85:1 movies in one memory location and a zoomed-in setting for 2.4:1 movies in another setting. When you want to switch between them, it takes three button presses instead of ten minutes of adjustment.
Low fan noise. The VW600ES is a very quiet projector. High lamp mode produces a low rush of air that is nonetheless quieter than many other home theater projectors, while Low lamp mode is as close to silent as a running projector can get. Either way, you won't hear audible noise from the VW600ES unless you're sitting right next to it.
Panel alignment. Proper panel alignment in three-chip light engines is critical, and that goes double for a 4K projector. The VW600ES has an electronic panel alignment system to help correct small errors in convergence without sending the projector back to Sony for warranty service. The panel alignment system is capable of both global adjustments, in which the entire panel is shifted, or zone-by-zone adjustments, in which a small section of the screen is tweaked. Since it's an electronic system, the panel is not physically moved, and all changes are easily reversible.
Light output. The Sony VW600ES is a bright projector that's perfect for a big screen. In its brightest calibrated theater mode, we measured 1325 lumens on our test unit. This mode (Cinema Film 1, high lamp power, wide lens angle) also produces accurate, highly saturated color and a while balance that is within 100 degrees Kelvin of the desired 6500K across the grayscale.
Cinema Film 2 is similar to CF1, but it uses the Dynamic Limited setting for the automatic iris with a Brightness of 70 to reduce maximum light output to 860 lumens. If you switch the iris to Dynamic Full or increase Brightness to 100, CF2 and CF1 become identical.
Reference mode, at 1227 lumens, is designed to reproduce the Rec. 709 color standard exactly, and it does an excellent job. It does not have the same levels of color saturation as CF1 and CF2 modes, nor does it have the same extreme contrast, so it tends to appear flatter than the two aforementioned image modes. But it is quite accurate, and just about perfect if you are looking for a reference mode.
TV mode, at 1116 lumens, has a bluish tint that brings color temperature to around 7200K. This tint is not unpleasant when watching television and other video content, but it is also not difficult to calibrate TV back to 6500K if you want to.
Game mode, at 1350 lumens, is slightly brighter than Cinema Film 1, but not enough for the difference to be meaningful. Game mode is very bright, has a blue tint, is comparatively lower in contrast, and does not offer any benefits to input lag (some Game modes in other projectors and televisions automatically activate faster processing, but that is not the case here).
Bright Cinema, despite its name, is not actually brighter than Cinema Film 1. Instead, at 1239 lumens, it offers a picture with more open mid-tones and less dramatic gamma, as does its counterpart Bright TV at 1269 lumens.
In any of these image modes, Low lamp mode reduces light output by 28%. Since the VW600ES produces over 1,000 lumens in all of its image modes save CF2, Low lamp can help to reduce light output for smaller screens.
All of our measurements were conducted with the VW600's zoom lens at its maximum wide angle setting, where it passes the most light through to the screen. However, in real-world use, most people end up using at least some portion of the zoom lens and incurring some light loss. The VW600's lens loses up to 30% of its light output as it travels from wide angle to telephoto zoom, and the loss is approximately linear across the lens' zoom range. In other words, if you use the mid-point of the projector's zoom, you will lose about 15% of the maximum potential light output. This is due to the optical properties of zoom lenses in general and is not unique to the VW600.
Contrast. The VW600ES has some of the best contrast performance we have seen on any home theater projector to date. The projector has a black level that is unparalleled. This is due in no small part to the projector's fantastic iris system, which smoothly and silently adjusts to any change in light level without causing any distraction to the viewer.
Dynamic range is set such that there is no clipping of highlight or shadow detail and mid-tones are preserved perfectly while giving the image the sort of three-dimensional pop that is usually reserved for actual 3D.
The VW600ES has several features that alter contrast and dynamic range. The first of these, Contrast Enhance, raises the cut-off point for black. This is actually not desirable most of the time, because the VW600ES is more than capable of rendering deep shadow detail. The second, Smooth Gradation, improves the projector's handling of gradients and eliminates any instances of color banding. We prefer to leave this control on Low or Medium, as the Off setting does show some color banding on a standard gray ramp pattern.
Color. The VW600's color performance is superb, even straight out of the box, with a color gamut that closely matches the Rec. 709 standard and good saturation that is not overpowered. White balance is very near the 6500K ideal even before adjustment, and some gentle fine-tuning brings the projector exactly in line with the published standards. Your installer will likely calibrate the projector for you, but even before calibration it is a treat to watch.
The VW600ES has a feature labeled "Clear White" which pushes the color temperature of 100% white towards blue. This has the effect of making white appear "whiter," but it is less accurate, so we left it disabled.
Sharpness and Clarity. The key selling point of the projector, its 4K resolution, gives it a level of detail clarity that 1080p projectors cannot match. This is evident in all types of content, from standard definition DVD up through Blu-ray and native 4K material.
Input lag. The VW600's beautiful picture requires some hefty image processing, and that processing does have a downside. The VW600ES measured 120 milliseconds of input lag in all image modes, or a touch over seven frames of a 60 fps signal. This makes it too slow for gaming, at least when non-native sources are used. This 120ms lag was not affected by MotionFlow, Reality Creation, or any of the VW600's other optional processing circuits.
High input lag. The VW600's high lag makes it an inappropriate choice for high-performance gaming. If you enjoy playing video games on the big screen, you may want to consider a second projector with lower input lag for dedicated gaming use.
4K sources are currently limited. This is no news. It will take a while for native 4K source material to become widely available. But it will happen rather quickly. Sony is rolling out new titles, and Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have both announced plans to offer 4K streaming, including the second season of Netflix original series House of Cards.
However, the limited 4K content is not as much of a limitation as one might imagine. As discussed above, the VW600's 4K resolution provides substantial benefit for all types of content. Standard-definition DVDs and 1080p Blu-ray discs look undeniably better on the VW600ES than they do on native-resolution 1080p displays. In our opinion, the VW600ES is worth the price even if you never watch a single 4K movie on it.
Sony VW600ES vs Runco X-200i
It's easy to say that the VW600ES is superior to 1080p projectors that cost a fraction of its $14,999 price. But how does the VW600ES fare against something in its own price class?
The Runco XtremeProjection X-200i is a 1080p projector built for the custom installation and specialty design market. This boutique projector also sells for $14,999 with the standard lens through authorized Runco dealers. Runco has a reputation for building some of the finest projectors available at any price. How it stacks up against Sony's new 4K powerhouse?
The Runco X-200i is a beast of a projector. It is clad in an all-metal black chassis and it weighs nearly 60 pounds, about double the size and weight of the VW600. The centrally-mounted lens is interchangeable, and Runco offers lensing options with throw ratios between 1.85:1 to 4.00:1. It produces 1430 lumens after calibration and uses a single-chip DLP light engine with an all-RGB color wheel. It lacks many of the user-friendly features found on today's more consumer-oriented models, and is clearly designed to be professionally installed and calibrated. As such, you won't find features like powered lens adjustments, extensive zoom and lens shift, lens memory, frame interpolation, or smart sharpening on the X-200i.
The most noticeable similarity between the images of the X-200i and VW600ES is color. Both projectors are capable of producing near-perfect color, and any differences between them can be chalked up to variances in the individual calibrations rather than inherent differences in the projectors themselves. Neither projector has any obvious flaws in the color gamut or gave us any difficulty during calibration.
Perhaps the biggest image quality difference, though, is the sheer amount of detail produced by the VW600. Placed head-to-head against the X-200i, the VW600ES clearly has the more detailed image. This is true even without the benefit of the VW600's Reality Creation system, and turning it on only increases this perception.
Digital noise. The X-200i lacks an effective noise reduction feature. In sources with a moderate to high level of noise, that noise is more apparent on the X-200i than on the VW600. The X-200i has a noise reduction control that defaults to zero, but runs up to 200. At 200, noise is eliminated but the picture quality is substantially softened to the point of being unwatchable. Pushing the control up to just 50 produces a limited reduction of noise but already begins to impact image sharpness. We found the noise reduction feature on the X-200i of limited use, and noise to be a distracting artifact on many sources.
Light output. Both the X-200i and the VW600ES produce about 1300 lumens in their video-optimized modes, but the VW600ES's light output is highly variable while the X-200i is more or less fixed. The X-200i has a 1.3:1 lens, so it does not lose a significant amount of light due to zoom. On the other hand, the VW600ES can lose up to 30% of its light by using the telephoto end of its zoom lens. The X-200i lacks a low power or low lamp mode, does not have any preset image modes, and has no manual or automatic iris, so it is more or less locked at its maximum output. In contrast, you can use the zoom, iris, and lamp power to reduce light output on the VW600ES by up to 72%. So while the X-200i produces roughly 1300 lumens no matter what, the VW600ES can output anywhere between 1325 lumens and 370 lumens.
The X-200i's constant high light output makes it difficult to use in rooms with small screens. On the other hand, the VW600's light output is extremely adjustable, so it is trivial to fine-tune light output to fit your needs.
Contrast. The VW600ES wins when it comes to black level. In point of fact, it's not even a contest; the X-200i's black level is one of its weakest points. Dynamic range, on the other hand, is a very close match, and the X-200i is neck and neck with the VW600ES with each projector winning the comparison in certain scenes and losing in others.
Input lag. If you are the kind of person who wants to use your $15,000 projector for video games, the X-200i's input lag of 30 milliseconds beats the pants off of the VW600's 120ms time. The difference between the two is palpable. Controls feel sluggish on the VW600ES but snappy on the X-200i.
Audible noise. The VW600ES is near-silent during use. The X-200i, by contrast, has a louder fan that occasionally resonates with the projector chassis, causing a rising and falling rattle/hum during operation.
The bottom line is that the VW600ES is a more fully-featured projector that produces a cleaner, more detailed image than the X-200i. The VW600ES has significant advantages in clarity of detail, digital noise, black level, variability of light output, placement flexibility, overall feature set, and audible noise -- not to mention the fact that it is a 4K projector and thus capable of displaying native 4K content once more of it becomes available. The Runco X-200i, on the other hand, manages to tie the VW600ES in dynamic range and maximum light output, while also having a significant advantage in input lag. Overall, in terms of pure bang-for-the-buck performance, the VW600ES is a far better use of $15,000.
Combining a native 4K light engine with all of the features and functions that have made Sony home theater projectors popular in the past, the Sony VW600ES is a total package. It contains every major advancement in home theater projector technology made since the advent of high definition, and most of these systems are executed quite well. The choice to focus on up-conversion of non-native content was the right one, and as a result the VW600ES is a worthwhile projector even for those who never intend to watch a single 4K movie. Every piece of content sent through the VW600ES is improved.
Quite often, early examples of any new technology are more tech demos than a finished product. The Sony VPL-VS600ES breaks that mold. Not only is the VW600ES a fully featured 4K home theater projector, it is also worth every penny of its asking price, even with 4K content being as scarce as it currently is. If you have $15,000 to spend on a projector, the Sony VPL-VW600ES is the projector to buy.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-VW600ES projector page.