For those who have about $8,000 to spend on a home theater projector, the Optoma HD8600 ($7,499), and the Sony VPL-VW85 ($7,999) are two excellent options. We set them up using the using the Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player to drive both projectors simultaneously, and projected them side-by-side onto the Stewart Studiotek 100 screen. Seeing this "naval battle," with the two flagship models fighting it out for home cinema supremacy, has been very revealing.
The bottom line is that both of these projectors are excellent performers. Installing either one in your theater will make your home theater the envy of the neighborhood, if not the town. But there are some small differences, some of which could make one projector better than the other for certain users.
Light output. Once calibrated, our test sample of the VW85 measured 763 lumens in high lamp mode. This is more than ample for a projector built with a conventional size dark room theater in mind. However, the HD8600 is a bit brighter still. With comparable settings, the HD8600 produces 945 lumens. If that is not enough light, the iris can be opened to provide up to 1200 lumens. And if 763 lumens is enough for your screen size and room, the HD8600 can output that amount in low lamp mode. The VW85's low lamp mode measured 490, which is still sufficient for most home uses in a light controlled room. But if you need to go for a larger than average screen, say 135" diagonal or larger, the extra lumen potential of the HD8600 will become an advantage.
Contrast. The VW85 is capable of producing an incrementally deeper black than the HD8600 under certain circumstances. However, with the iris half-closed, the HD8600 has extremely good black level performance also, almost the equal of the blackest black the VW85 can produce. The difference between the two is minuscule. Meanwhile, the HD8600 has higher potential dynamic range in any given scene, so pictures with both highlights and shadows tend to look higher in contrast and more three-dimensional than they do on the VW85. For those who lend too much weight to contrast specs (in this case 120,000:1 on the VW85, and 50,000:1 on the HD8600), this might be a surprise. But contrast ratings never tell the whole story.
Color. As far as color accuracy is concerned, the HD8600 and VW85 are for all practical purposes equal. Both projectors conform very closely to the Rec. 709 standard specified for HD display, and both track very closely to the 6500K standard for grayscale. At factory defaults, color saturation is a bit low on the VW85 and too high on the HD8600, but these are easy adjustments to make. Once calibrated, the two are impossible to tell apart when it comes to color.
Sharpness and Clarity. When viewed from up close, the HD8600 is incrementally sharper than the VW85. However, the difference is hard to see from any normal viewing distance, and would never be noticed unless the two images were side by side and closely scrutinized. The HD8600 also has slightly less digital noise than the VW85. As a whole, when placed side-by-side, the HD8600 looks a little sharper and a little more three-dimensional overall, in part due to less noise and in part due to the advantage in dynamic range in a given scene.
Features. Aside from the image quality differences, there are several features that set the two projectors apart. First off, the HD8600 has interchangeable lenses, but no single lens matches the flexibility of the VW85's onboard 1.55x zoom lens, and none of the Optoma's lenses have powered adjustments while the Sony lens does.
Since the VW85 has a powered lens, you can use it on a 2.35:1 screen and zoom the picture to fill the screen when watching a Cinemascope movie. When you go back to 16:9 content, you simply zoom the picture back down. This can be done with the Optoma's 1.3x manual zoom lens also. But the projector needs to be mounted within easy reach of the user. It also needs to be placed with great precision relative to the screen, since a 1.3x zoom is the minimum range required to accommodate both 2.35 and 16:9 formats on a given screen. Lens shift controls, which are normally needed to vertically reposition the image properly after the zoom, are hidden away under a panel in the case that needs to be clicked open. Overall, it is more of a nuisance to use the HD8600 in this manner.
Both projectors have frame interpolation systems, though that of the HD8600 produces fewer artifacts.
As far as connectivity goes, the HD8600 has three HDMI ports to the VW85's two, and also sports a USB port. Other than that, the two have the same connections - two 12V triggers, component video, VGA, s-video and composite.
Noise and Heat. With a bright lamp and a smaller case, it is no surprise that the HD8600 expels more heat than the VW85 does. It is also louder by a small amount--the VW85 is silent unless you put your ear up to the case, while the HD8600 can be heard, softly, from a few feet away. Either projector in a ceiling mount would be almost undetectable.
Warranty. The HD8600's three-year warranty gives you an extra degree of comfort and security over the two-year warranty of the VW85.
Both of these projectors produce great images for home cinema. However, projectors at this level of performance have subtle differences which can make one better than the other for a given application. The Sony BRAVIA VPL-VW85 has an impressive feature set and virtually silent operation, plus ample brightness to light up even a 130" screen in a dark viewing space. The powered zoom will be an advantage to those who want to set up a 2.35:1 format screen.
The Optoma HD8600 has extra brightness for larger screen installations. It has incrementally higher dynamic range, and a bit more clarity and three-dimensionality. Fan noise, while not loud at all, does have a presence if you are sitting close to it. It can take optional lenses, but these cost quite a bit extra, so most users will want to stay with the standard lens if at all possible.
This year saw stiffer competition in the $8000 price bracket than we've seen previously. Optoma's HD8600 squared off against the Sony VW85 as well as JVC's offering, the DLA-RS25U. All three bring a lot to the table, but our opinion, the HD8600 edges out the competition when it comes to image quality. Therefore it is the HD8600 which takes our Editor's Choice Award for the $8000 price category.