Sony made a huge splash at this year's CEDIA trade show with the release of the VPL-VW60, a new 1080p resolution home theater projector with a sensational contrast rating of 35,000:1. The buzz on this projector has been intense, to say the least. Reader curiosity has driven the VW60 to the #1 position (as of this writing) in our Top Ten Most Popular Projectors in the 1080p resolution class.
The big question is .... does the VW60 live up to all the hype? Well, yes and no. The fact is that if you buy the VW60 without seeing the competition in a side by side shootout, odds are you will be wildly enthused with its performance. My first reaction upon seeing the brief demo at CEDIA was, "Wow, now that is a good-looking image." With nothing to compare it to, it will be easy for owners to imagine it must be the best new projector on the market. However, there are two things to keep in mind. First, most of the new 1080p competitors are equally impressive. Some actually outperform the VW60. They all look beautiful when viewed by themselves in a light controlled environment. You could pick any one of the new 1080p projectors at random and it would be hard to imagine you'd be disappointed in its image quality.
The second thing to keep in mind is that Sony's official 35,000:1 contrast rating, even if technically accurate, is misleading-it makes the consumer imagine that the VW60's picture must be higher in actual contrast (as you experience it on the screen) than the competition. This is not the case. Several of the competing 1080p models with contrast ratings in the 12,000:1 to 16,000:1 range produce images that are visibly higher in contrast than the VW60. So forget the light meters and the technical specs. In reality, though it looks quite sparkling on its own, contrast is the VW60's most evident shortcoming when it is put up against its most formidable competitors.
Since everyone is asking questions about how Model A compares to Model B, this and all other 1080p reviews to be published this fall will include a larger focus on competitive issues than our reviews of the past.
ANSI lumens: 900
Light engine: Three SXRD panels, 1920x1080 native resolution.
Connection panel: Two HDMI ports, one VGA, one 3-RCA component video, one composite video, one S-video, one serial port, one 12V relay.
Video Compatibility: 480i, 480p, 576i, 576p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p/24/50/60
Zoom lens and throw distance: 1.8x powered zoom/focus lens. Powered vertical lens shift.
Lamp life: Anticipated 2000 hours in full power mode, 3000 hours in low power mode.
Replacement lamp price: $350
Warranty: Two years
There are a number of advantages to the VPL-VW60. It comes packaged in sleek, attractive high gloss, dark gray casework that makes it look like an elegant projector. It has a long 1.8x zoom lens, and vertical lens shift that covers a range of 1.95 picture heights. This lens configuration makes it easy to install on a rear shelf above and behind the seating area. Ceiling mounting is a bit more problematic since the lens shift range is not sufficient to get a downward throw angle from the centerline of the lens. In many cases a drop extension tube will be required in order to avoid tilting the projector to hit the screen.
Fan noise is extremely low, even when the lamp is on full power. Thus it can be placed immediately behind and close to the viewing area without worry that it will be distracting.
The VW60 is reasonably bright when set up using the wide-angle end of the zoom lens and running in full power mode. We measured 525 lumens once we had it custom calibrated for optimum video in its brightest configuration. This amount of light, along with the VW60's good contrast performance, makes the projector capable of rendering a dazzling image on the screen. However, be aware that setting the projector back and using the telephoto end of the zoom lens will reduce lumen output by one-third. Thus, at its longest throw distance for any given screen size, maximum lumen output for a video optimized picture is reduced to about 350 lumens.
Anticipated lamp life in full power mode is 2000 hours, and the replacement lamp is $350. This is typical of this class of projector, and actually the replacement lamp costs a bit less than competing units which run up to $400 or even $450. You can extend lamp life up to 3000 hours by running in low lamp mode, but this cuts lumen output by one-third as well. Therefore, if you are using the telephoto end of the zoom lens, that 350 lumens we just mentioned gets cut to about 235 lumens in low power mode. Most users are not going to want to sacrifice that much light unless the screen size is about 90" diagonal or less.
There is, practically speaking, no visible pixelation on the VW60. Sony's SXRD technology (their proprietary version of LCOS) produces a distinct pixel structure when viewed up close, but it rapidly disappears as you back away from the screen. It is invisible by the time you are viewing from a distance of about 3/4 the screen width, which is closer than anybody we know would ever want to sit for normal viewing. Seeing the distinct pixel structure up close, while using the powered zoom/focus controlled by the remote, makes it exceptionally easy to stand at the screen and focus with precision.
The VW60's two areas of weakness are in color balance and contrast. Color balance out of the box using precalibrated operating modes is poor. In particular, the Cinema mode on our test unit was decidedly biased toward green and yellow/green. Even with color saturation set to zero, or with only the luminance cable in the component trio connected, what should have appeared to be neutral gray had a pronounced greenish hue. One needs to go into the Custom color temperature controls to correct this, and it is not easy to get it balanced out where all colors are perfectly accurate. Based upon our experience with this one test sample, we recommend that any owner of the VW60 get it professionally calibrated by a trained technician in order to get the best color performance from it.
In one of the supreme ironies among this fall's product releases, the VW60's 35,000:1 contrast rating which has attracted so much attention does not ultimately translate into an image that is higher in visible contrast than the competition. This is not to say that the VW60's contrast is poor. Viewed by itself it has ample contrast to deliver a richly saturated image with solid blacks and reasonably good dynamic range. The projector will indeed achieve an exceptional level of black when there is nothing but black on the screen. But in normal viewing of subject matter with a range of tones from bright highlights, to mid-tones, to shadows and blacks, the blacks are less deep than one would anticipate from the extreme contrast rating. Total dynamic range in any given scene, while very good, is only average when compared to the competition. Other 1080p models in the VW60's same general price range (including the JVC RS1, the InFocus IN82, and the Panasonic AE2000) show better black levels and dynamic range despite their more conservative contrast ratings.
A Comment on Contrast Specifications
We have reached a point in the evolution of the industry where contrast specifications have become worthless as guides to a product's actual performance. The Full On/Full Off (or FO/FO) measurements taken on projectors that operate with active dynamic irises yield contrast ratings far in excess of what the user experiences on the screen. Moreover, when the FO/FO method of contrast measurement is applied to a product that does not use a dynamic iris, the result can be a comparatively low specification. One need look no further than the VW60's 35,000:1 rating compared to the JVC DLA-RS1, which is rated at 15,000:1 without a dynamic iris. When you set these two projectors side by side, you find that the JVC RS1 delivers an obviously higher contrast image than does the VW60. But the unsuspecting consumer would never anticipate this based on the specs.
Some have been arguing that vendors should include the ANSI checkerboard method of contrast measurement in addition to the FO/FO spec. Clearly there are advantages to this. The ANSI method measures contrast range within a given video frame, so it eliminates the effect of the dynamic iris. It also takes into account light that is refracted and scattered within the lens that can compromise black levels. Accordingly, the ANSI method always generates a more conservative contrast specification.
Why don't most vendors publish ANSI contrast specifications? There are a couple reasons. First, many consumers have been taught to interpret a projector's value based in part on its contrast rating. So why would a manufacturer want to promote a product as having a 600:1 ANSI contrast rating when competitors are quoting 35,000:1, albeit on a completely different measurement scale? Most consumers are not tuned in enough to know that there are real differences in how the contrast numbers are derived. So one cannot blame the manufacturers for their reluctance to publish ANSI contrast specs when their competitors are not doing so.
Beyond the marketing dilemma, the fact is that the ANSI contrast method is not perfect either. The problem is that it does not measure the effects of a dynamic iris, which can in reality be surprisingly effective as a contrast enhancing device. In the latest products to come to market, the action of the iris is so fast that it is not detectable by the human eye. The iris in the Panasonic AE2000 reconfigures itself on a frame by frame basis, 30 times per second. Sony does not disclose how fast the VW60's iris cycles, but we cannot see it happening. The action of the iris in these projectors contributes to an enhanced perception of contrast that the ANSI spec by itself would not take into account.
The bottom line is that no matter which contrast specification is used, it cannot be applied universally across the population of projectors as a normative indicator of what you will see on the screen. The wise consumer will take contrast ratings with a huge grain of salt, knowing that they can be enormously misleading.
The Sony VPL-VW60 retails at $4,995. Two noteworthy competitors to the VW60 in this general price range are the JVC DLA-RS1, and the newly announced Panasonic AE2000. In terms of street prices, the JVC is selling for about $1,000 more than you'd pay for the VW60. As of this writing, pricing on the Panasonic AE2000 has not been announced.
The JVC RS1 is worth the premium you will pay for it. When set up side by side with the VW60, the RS1 shows deeper blacks, more brilliant highlights, better color saturation, more accurate color, and overall a brighter picture. The RS1 is clearly the more formidable of the two projectors.
By the way, the lumen ratings on these units are another source of potential confusion-the VW60 is rated at 900 ANSI lumens and the RS1 at just 700 lumens. That means the VW60 must be brighter than the RS1, right? Well, yes and no. The confusion stems from the fact that the RS1's specification is based on an "after video calibration" measurement. Thus it retains an actual lumen output in optimized video mode of about 700 lumens in its brightest configuration. Meanwhile, the VW60 registers about 525 lumens once it is set up in its brightest configuration for best video performance. Therefore, when they are being used in video optimized modes, the JVC RS1 is the brighter of the two. On the other hand, the VW60 has a Dynamic Mode that can put out about 790 lumens, if you don't care much about color balance. These differences in how lumen specifications are measured are rarely made clear, so you can easily end up comparing apples to oranges and not even realize it. For this reason it is wise not to put a lot of stock in lumen specs when you are comparing projectors.
The VW60 has a powered zoom/focus lens whereas the RS1 is manual. So if you are setting up your projector on a 4:3 screen and want to move the lens back and forth to maximize the size of both 16:9 and 4:3 material, the VW60 has an obvious advantage with its powered lens.
The VW60's fan noise is slightly quieter than the RS1, but both are quiet enough as to not be a concern. The RS1 has a slightly longer zoom range, 2.0x compared to the VW60's 1.8x. The difference is on the long throw end--both will produce a 100" diagonal image from as little as 10 feet. However, the maximum throw distance for a 100" screen is 17.8 feet, and for the RS1 it is 20 feet. The difference here would be a relevant factor in selecting between the two only in rare situations.
The bottom line is that the primary advantages of the VW60 as compared to the JVC RS1 are its powered zoom lens and lower price.
Another highly competitive unit will be the Panasonic AE2000, which will hit the market momentarily. Like the RS1, this projector outperforms the VW60 in actual image quality. Its advantages over the VW60 are similar to those of the RS1-better color accuracy, deeper blacks and overall longer dynamic range in any given scene. The AE2000 does not quite match the RS1 in dynamic range. However, there is an impressive incremental clarity to the AE2000's image that becomes obvious when they are viewed side by side. The sharpness and clarity of the image is one of the AE2000's strongest assets, and in this particular regard it has an advantage over both the VW60 and the RS1. There is no pixelation at all on the AE2000 due to the SmoothScreen filter. In the past we have wondered whether the SmoothScreen filter was taking the edge off of the picture's ultimate sharpness. On the AE2000 it clearly does not.
If you are interested in placing your projector on a rear shelf, the AE2000 has the advantage of offering a compact, horizontally oriented case that is only 11.5" deep. The VW60 is 18" deep, so would require a deeper shelf for this type of mounting. The AE2000's connection panel is on the rear, and the VW60's is on the side, so a few extra inches are needed to accommodate cables behind the AE2000. Nevertheless, if the real estate on your shelf is limited, the AE2000 offers a more compact solution, and that few inches can make a big difference.
Pricing on the AE2000 has not been announced as of this writing. There will be more to say about the relative value of this model once that information is known.
A third 1080p competitor worthy of note is the Sanyo PLV-Z2000. The Z2000 is an LCD projector that has just begun to ship at prices under $2,500, or a whopping $2,000 below the VW60. Despite its much lower price, the Z2000 does a remarkable job going head to head with the VW60. We were able to calibrate the Z2000 such that it looks virtually identical to the VW60 in terms of color saturation, black level, and contrast. It is rare to find two different projectors (with two different display technologies) delivering almost identical images, but that is what we were seeing in this shootout. We just received the Z2000, and will have more to say about it once we've had more stick time with it. But it is not too early to say that the Sanyo Z2000 is offering a phenomenal value for the money.
In summary, the Sony VPL-VW60 is an impressive 1080p projector that will give its owners an exciting home theater experience. Compared to previous generation projectors, its contrast and black level performance is quite good. Its only immediate flaw is that color is out of balance on out-of-the-box precalibrated settings. But this can be largely overcome with some careful tweaking, or by a professional calibration.
As good as the VW60 is, the competition is fierce. In a stand-alone demo the VW60 looks outstanding. Not until it is set up against its strongest competitors do its weaknesses become apparent.
We are waiting for all street prices on the new 1080p models to become apparent before making any statements regarding value or price/performance. So for now we can conclude by saying that if you buy the Sony VPL-VW60, odds are you will love it. However, the same can be said for pretty much all of the new 1080p models you have to choose from.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Sony VPL-VW60 projector page.