While the JVC DLA-Z1 might have stolen the 4K projector spotlight at this year’s IFA technology show in Berlin, Sony also had a new 4K projector to show off. With a price of ‘just’ £8,800 versus the JVC Z1’s £30,000, the Sony VPL-VW550ES has a much bigger chance of finding its way into your home, however desirable the Z1 might be.
At first glance it doesn’t look like the VW550ES has changed much from its acclaimed predecessor, the VW520ES. Its design features the same ‘squashed Darth Vader’s helmet’ shape. Its brightness is still rated at 1,800 lumens. Its core native 4K SXRD optical chipset is the same. And there doesn’t seem to have been the same wholesale redesign of the innards that happened with the Full HD HW45ES.
Related: What is HDR TV?
Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear that Sony’s projector division certainly hasn’t been resting on its laurels. For starters, the VW550ES’s claimed 350,000:1 contrast ratio is around 20% higher than that of its predecessor. This contrast boost has been joined by a couple of extra features: HDR Contrast and a Contrast Enhancer processing system.
HDR Contrast lets users adjust the contrast manually in HDR mode across 100 steps, so people can achieve their own preference between brightness and contrast when watching HDR. The Contrast Enhancer, meanwhile, assesses incoming HDR content scene by scene to figure out how best to enhance the brightness without spoiling contrast.
The VW550ES is also designed to present HDR pictures using a higher baseline brightness value than the VW520ES did. This is in response to feedback from customers saying they didn’t like the way the VW520ES made HDR images look darker than SDR ones, as it tried to give itself room to deliver a sense of HDR peaks.
Another key difference, now that UHD Blu-ray is well established, is the VW550ES’s use of true 2nd-gen HDMI connections. Both HDMIs can now accept 10-bit 4K at up to 60 frames a second.
The VW550ES also features a new object-based HD-to-4K upscaling system that applies different levels of sharpening and detail enhancement to different areas of the picture to reduce video noise. Finally, it introduces support for the horribly named Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) broadcast HDR format likely to become a ‘thing’ in 2017.
I managed to attend two demos of the VW550ES at IFA: one, unexpectedly, in a recreated living room environment on Sony’s main stand, and one in a more conventional blacked out cinema environment in a private room. In both cases the VW550ES looked very promising.
The idea behind the living room demo was to show visitors that the VW550ES doesn’t need a dedicated blacked out room to deliver an enjoyable performance - and it really did counter the room’s white walls and subdued ambient light well.
Despite there being no increase in brightness over the VW520ES, the VW550ES’s extra contrast meant that even quite dark movie images remained watchable in the relatively ‘uncontrolled’ living room setup. More consistently bright content, meanwhile, such as some 4K Champion’s League footage, looked pretty much as good in the ambient light and white-walled room as it did in the blacked out theatre.
Fun though it was to see the VW550ES being ‘domesticated’, the dark room demonstration was much more revealing of the new Sony projector’s true talents. It was only here that I was able to appreciate just how much brighter the VW550ES’s HDR pictures look versus those of the VW520ES, during HDR/4K clips of Angry Birds and the recent Ghostbusters remake.
There is a trade off for this in a reduced sense of HDR’s brightness peaks - but at the same time dark areas looked more natural and less forced, resulting in a more balanced image overall.
To put it another way, the VW550ES to be doing a better job of accepting and working within its HDR limitations than the VW520ES, delivering a more all-round watchable image that felt more consistently like a step up from standard dynamic range.
The VW550ES reminded me, too, of how effective a native Ultra HD resolution is when you get to the sort of 135-inch screen sizes used for Sony’s dark room IFA demo. Unfortunately Sony didn’t have any non-4K sources available, so I wasn’t able to form any early opinions on the VW550ES’s new 4K upscaling engine.
Coming to the VW550ES demo after seeing the JVC Z1, the VW550ES’s colours with HDR content looked much less richly saturated - especially with the Angry Birds clip. The Sony’s black levels weren’t as deep either (though they were better than those of the VW520ES). Its picture generally didn’t look as stable and almost three-dimensionally full of depth and image solidity as the JVC’s.
But then the VW550ES is more than £21,000 cheaper than the JVC Z1. With this in mind, all it needs to do to be considered a success is to outperform its illustrious predecessor. From my time with it at IFA, it does so more successfully, thoughtfully and helpfully than the VW520ES did.
If this is borne out by in-depth testing following its launch at the end of October, Sony will surely have another high-end projector hit on its hands.