Highly Recommended Award
Our Highly Recommended designation is earned by products offering extraordinary value or performance in their price class.
Update 2/28/2008: We have added comparative notes on the Epson Cinema 1080 UB. They can be found at the end of the comparison section in this review. -wl
Sony's newest home theater projector, the BRAVIA VPL-VW40, has a lot going for it. This 1080p projector uses Sony's SXRD technology (a version of LCOS), which has proven itself as a solid performer over the years. More important, it marks the first time a 1080p LCOS home theater projector has broken the $3,000 price barrier. With superb contrast and a razor-sharp image, the VW40 is a great choice for dark room home theater.
High in contrast. The VPL-VW40 has several features which boost contrast, from an auto iris to gamma adjustments to a "Black level adjust" control which can make blacks blacker, though it does sacrifice some shadow detail in the extreme low end. Overall, the projector offers excellent dynamic range which is only really taken advantage of in a pitch dark room.
Razor sharp, crystal clear image. Details in HD material can be clearly seen in the VW40's image, such as an actor's pores in close-up or individual hairs in a beard. It is easy to spot textures in fabric or on buildings, as each individual characteristic is displayed in pristine, lifelike detail. The only downside is that this extreme sharpness tends to make the image appear more "digital" than some of the competition, which looks much more film-like in comparison.
No visible pixelation. Some projectors, such as the Panasonic PT-AE2000, have no discernible pixel structure. The VW40 has a pixel structure that you can see with the naked eye, but it is incredibly subtle - if you are anything more than a few inches from the screen, it disappears. The end result is that images appear pixel-free and smooth as silk.
Long, powered zoom/focus. Incidentally, the visible pixel structure makes the VW40's powered zoom/focus easier to use. Standing near the screen, you can clearly see when the projector is in perfect focus, yet pixelation disappears as soon as you step back. The focus itself is simple to use: hold down the button to adjust quickly, and tap it to adjust slowly. The same goes for the VW40's 1.7:1 zoom, which can display a 100" diagonal 16:9 image from 10'2" to 17'6". That's plenty of leeway to adjust the projector to your room.
Two picture height lens shift. The VW40 has a vertical lens shift range of two screen heights, so the image can be placed completely above or completely below the lens centerline. Coupled with the long zoom lens, this makes the VW40 ideal for a rear shelf mount.
Good remote, clear and concise menus. Normally something we take for granted, the VW40's remote has excellent range and responsiveness. This is vital in rear shelf installations, since the projector can be several feet behind the audience. This means the remote signal must bouce off the screen in the front of the room and then come all the way back - or the user must turn around completely. The VW40's remote control has sufficient range to overcome this potential problem. The menus, like those on the VW60, are clean and logically organized with a shallow learning curve.
Low fan noise, little heat exhaust. The VW40 uses the same 200W UHP lamp as the older VW60. When standing more than a few feet away, the VW40 is completely silent - even in high lamp mode. Heat exhaust is likewise minimal, and is expelled out through the front of the case, using one of the vents beside the lens. Both of these features should make the VW40 more adaptable to projection in a small room.
Low lumen output. Though the VW40 is rated at 900 ANSI lumens, its actual calibrated output is much lower. The highest reading obtained from our test sample was 423 ANSI lumens, in Dynamic mode with the lamp on high, the iris open, and the zoom lens at its widest angle. Cinema mode, which is the default and our preferred mode for watching high definition movies, measured 373 ANSI lumens. Changing the lamp to low power mode drops lumen output by 30%, and moving the lens to its longest throw results in another 32.5% drop. In rooms with perfect light control, this will not pose a problem. For other rooms, you can either place the projector anywhere you'd like and use a 100" diagonal screen, or give up the advantage of the long zoom lens by keeping the projector closer to the screen and go up to 120" diagonal. By eliminating the zoom lens, you can maximize lumen output for large screen installations, but that eliminates part of what makes the VW40 so easy to use.
Greenish color. Out of the box, the VW40's image was biased heavily towards green. After some fiddling, we managed to get a respectable image, with much better color balance and saturation, though the greenish cast was not completely gone.
Slow iris. The VW40's auto iris enhances on/off contrast by letting more light through in bright scenes and letting less light through in dark ones - and most of the time it works very well. However, at times the iris can be painfully slow, especially when there is a quick cut from a dark scene to a light scene or vice versa. During these cuts you can see the effects of the iris in motion as the screen gets brighter or dimmer over the course of about a second. While this is not visible in most scenes, it is still worthy of note.
Sony VPL-VW40 versus Panasonic PT-AE2000
This is an intriguing comparison. Here you have two projectors, both priced slightly under $3000. The Sony VW40 is clearly built for dark room home theater, while the Panasonic PT-AE2000 sacrifices some dark room performance in exchange for excellent flexibility. While there's no "best" projector, there are some clear differences:
Lumen output. The AE2000 is far brighter than the VW40; if you'll recall, the AE2000 measured well over 900 ANSI lumens in "Normal" mode, which has good color balance and contrast. The two are just about tied in the "Cinema" modes, but the AE2000 has the potential to be much brighter while the VW40 cannot exceed roughly 425 lumens.
Contrast. The VW40 presents a picture with incrementally superior black level and shadow detail when compared to the AE2000. In a room with perfect light control, the VW40 would be the clear choice for this reason alone.
Sharpness/Clarity. The VW40 wins out again in this area. While it is not as noticeable as is the difference in contrast, there is a subtly sharper picture on the VW40. Depending on how far you sit from the screen, you may not even notice this.
Lensing. The AE2000 has a longer zoom than the VW40, at 2:1 versus 1.7:1. The AE2000 also has vertical and horizontal lens shift, while the VW40 only has vertical. The VW40's two screen height range seems a little anemic when compared to the AE2000's three screen heights. The auto zoom and focus on the VW40 are easier to use; we found it more difficult to put the AE2000 in perfect focus since the powered zoom lens moves so fast. With the VW40 this was a snap.
If you are in a room with perfect light control, the VW40 will give you incrementally better black level, shadow detail, and sharpness in exchange for lumen output that you won't use. However, if you don't want to turn your viewing room into a cave, or plan to use it for other purposes as well, the AE2000 is the preferred choice.
Sony VPL-VW40 versus Optoma HD80
Last summer, Optoma's HD80 made headlines as being an excellent 1080p DLP projector selling under $3,000. Six months later, let's see how it stacks up to the only LCOS 1080p selling under $3,000.
Digital Noise. The HD80 has some definite image noise, though it's relatively minor when compared to many other models. Meanwhile, the VW40 has "LCOS Sparkle," where light, solid colors look shimmery or unstable, like there is a sparkling material in front of the screen. It's hard to tell which is better or worse, as it's a matter of personal preference - some people aren't bothered by noise at all, while others absolutely cannot abide its existence. This category is a draw.
Lumens. Once again, the VW40 finds itself outclassed here. The HD80 is capable of nearly 700 lumens in its brightest mode. In Cinema mode, it can pump out 420 lumens - the Sony's maximum - in low power mode.
Contrast - The HD80 has better dynamic range than the VW40, giving both blacker blacks and brighter highlights. What makes this so intriguing is that the HD80 has no auto-iris, so this superior contrast is native. The VW40, though, has more open midtones, which make the picture appear more life-like. Contrast has always been one of the HD80's strong suits, and it shows no signs of stopping.
Lensing - The VW40 takes this category hands-down. Its 1.7:1 powered zoom lens and vertical lens shift run circles around the HD80's paltry 1.2:1 manual zoom and fixed throw offset. To make a long story short, the VW40 will fit in many rooms that the HD80 will not.
Between these two projectors, the HD80 is preferred in rooms where its lack of placement flexibility will not be a burden. While the HD80 has some incremental advantages over the VW40 in terms of image quality, the VW40 is far easier to install in a rear shelf mount, which is arguably the easiest way to install a projector.
Sony VPL-VW40 versus Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080 UB
Epson's most recent 1080p offering, known as the Pro Cinema 1080 UB, received our highest praise and an Editor's Choice award for outstanding performance and value. With less than $1000 price difference between the 1080 UB and the Sony VW40, it is interesting to see how they stack up against one another.
Lumen Output. The Epson 1080 UB is one of the brightest 1080p projectors available, with lumen output topping out at 1600 ANSI lumens. When calibrated for dark room home theater use, the 1080 UB still produces 470 ANSI lumens, which is still more than the Sony can produce in its brightest mode.
Contrast. In our review of the 1080 UB, we commented on its excellent contrast performance, rivaling that of the more expensive JVC DLA-RS1U. When placed side-by-side with the Sony VW40, it is apparent that in comparable image modes the Cinema 1080 UB has both brighter highlights and deeper blacks than the VW40, making for a significantly wider dynamic range and a more three-dimensional image.
However, this is not the whole story. It is true that the Cinema 1080 UB has deeper blacks than the VW40 in comparable image modes. The Sony VW40 can, in fact, produce a deeper black than the 1080 UB, but lumen output suffers greatly for it. If you are using the VW40 in a pitch black room, with absolutely no ambient light, you might not need the extra lumen output of the Cinema 1080 UB and may still want to go with the VW40.
Sharpness/Clarity. In side-by-side testing, the VW40's picture is incrementally sharper and more detailed than that of the 1080 UB. Please note that this does not in any way mean that the Cinema 1080 UB's picture is soft. On the contrary, it produces a lovely, detailed, film-like picture that really does HD material justice. The Sony VW40 projects one of the clearest, most detailed images we've yet seen, which makes many other projectors seem slightly soft in comparison.
Fan Noise. The Epson Cinema 1080 UB is smaller, lighter, and brighter than the VW40, and as a result, it is also louder. While fan noise is not obtrusive or obnoxious on either projector, it is more noticeable on the Cinema 1080 UB. You would need to be sitting very close to your projector for this to make a difference, however.
Lensing. The Cinema 1080 UB has a 2.1:1 manual zoom lens, which is one of the longest available in this class of projector. The VW40's 1.7:1 powered zoom is nothing to sneeze at, and powered lenses are generally easier to adjust, but the Cinema 1080 UB has some extra range. And as noted earlier, the Cinema 1080 UB's extra lumen output can help to compensate for the lumen dropoff associated with using a long zoom lens, making the 1080 UB a better choice for long throw installations. The Cinema 1080 UB also has a wider vertical lens shift range in addition to horizontal shift, which the VW40 lacks completely.
As stated before, the Sony VW40 is ideal for a pitch black room, and it can beat the Epson Cinema 1080 UB in black level, sharpness, clarity, and audible noise. However, the Cinema 1080 UB is a versatile projector, and is the more capable performer in rooms with ambient light due to better lumen output and overall dynamic range. The Cinema 1080 UB's superior placement flexibility also lessens the frustration of installing your projector perfectly. Which one you choose depends entirely on what you plan to do with it.
As you can see, the Sony VPL-VW40 fits nicely within the current lineup of 1080p projectors. It lacks the extreme lumen output or placement flexibility of the AE2000 or 1080 UB, but compensates with a sharper picture and superior black. Even then, it falls short of the HD80's exemplary dynamic range, but it is far easier to install. While the VW40 does not emerge as the clear winner in any one category, it offers a package that compromises between the extremes.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony BRAVIA VPL-VW40 projector page.