Is native 4K enough?
If you're looking for native 4K projection, then Sony is currently the only game in town.The Japanese manufacturer has invested huge sums in the higher resolution format and wants to take advantage of its unique position as the only company that is involved in every aspect of 4K. The main Sony stand was full of Ultra HD 4K TVs and although there is a concerted effort to use 'UHD' as the identifying logo, Sony still prefer to use '4K' to identify their products. Undoubtedly this is to emphasise their involvement in professional 4K cameras, film production and 4K projectors for the cinema.
It's the latter expertise that the company has relied on the most to give themselves a competitive advantage and the result is the only range of domestic native 4K projectors currently available to consumers. Since these projectors port over much of the technology used in the professional market, they actually can justify the use of the 4K logo because their native resolution is 4096 x 2160, as opposed to the 3840 x 2160 resolution adopted by Ultra HD TVs.
At present Sony offer the high-end VW1100, the mid-range VW500 and the entry level VW300, all of which offer native 4K resolution but with differing build qualities and features. So it was no surprise when Sony announced two new projectors at IFA, even if both seem more like iterations rather than quantum leaps in terms of performance. New for this year is the VPL-VW320ES and the VPL-VW520ES, with the latter offering High Dynamic Range (HDR) support for the first time.The VW520 appears to have been designed with Ultra HD Blu-ray specifically in mind.
The VW520 boasts SXRD panel technology with a native 4K resolution and 10-bit depth but also includes increased brightness, with a rated output of 1,800 lumens. This higher brightness, coupled with a dynamic iris, delivers a claimed contrast ratio of 300,000:1. The projector includes Triluminos display technology for a wider colour space, although Sony admit that it can't reach full DCI, which is the colour space that will probably be used for Ultra HD Blu-rays.
Other features include a lens memory feature for those that use a 2.35:1 screen, Motionflow frame interpolation and Reality Creation for upscaling lower resolution content to match the native 4K panel. The VW520 supports 10-bit video, there's a built-in RF transmitter for active shutter 3D and an auto calibration feature. It uses the same chassis as last year, comes in a choice of a white or black finish and includes support for HDCP2.2, along with HDMI 2.0a for HDR content.
The VW320 uses the same chassis as the VW520, offers a choice of a white or black finish and also boasts SXRD panel technology with a native 4K resolution and 10-bit depth. It offers 1,500 lumens and also includes Triluminos display technology and Reality Creation upscaling, along with HDMI 2.0 and support for HDCP2.2. However it doesn't support HDR, so no need for HDMI 2.0a, nor does it include a dynamic iris or the lens memory feature for those with 2.35:1 screens.
One area that has created a bit of controversy since the projectors were announced is the exact nature of their HDMI inputs. We spoke directly with Sony and they confirmed that both the VW520 and VW320 are using 10.2 Gbps HDMI inputs that can accept 4K 24/25/30p YUV 4:2:2 at 8/10/12-bit. However they can only accept 4K 24/25/30p YUV 4:4:4 at 8-bit and 4K 50/60p YUV 4:2:0 at 8-bit. Of course in the case of the VW520 it also uses HDMI 2.0a to identify the HDR metadata.
Sony's argument is that since movies are encoded at 24p, these inputs will be sufficient for most content. Whilst that might be true, especially where Ultra HD Blu-ray is concerned, it does seem rather limited with respect to future broadcast standards. No doubt there will be another range of projectors announced this time next year that reflect any new Ultra HD broadcast standards but it's clear the VW520 and VW320 are aimed primarily at the Ultra HD Blu-ray format to be launched early next year.
The overall performance of the VW520 was impressive but just how much impact HDR has will depend on the content.Of course technical capabilities are one thing but the real question is how do the new projectors actually look with actual content? We had an opportunity to take a look at the VW520 in action at IFA, with Sony showing a mixture of 4K content with and without HDR. The VW520 was setup in a darkened room with a very large screen, which meant the Sony had nowhere to hide in terms of performance and overall the image the projector produced was excellent.
The first 4K clip was a scene from the TV series Blacklist and the Sony did a remarkable job of filling the big screen with a highly detailed image. The colours looked nicely saturated and the black levels and dynamic range were also impressive thanks to the increased brightness and dynamic iris. However we could occasionally see the dynamic iris in action as the content moved from a dark to a brighter scene and vice versa. The projector was also clearly applying some processing, giving the image an enhanced appearance, and there was a degree of smoothing to the motion.
You never know exactly how things are set up in these demos but, as always, these are the kind of features we would recommend turning off. After that we watched the same scene from The Amazing Spider-man 2, first in HDR and then in SDR and then in HDR again. It was the scene where Spider-man first faces off against Electro and it takes place in Times Square at night. This was an interesting scene for Sony to choose because it wasn't about the overall brightness of the scene or even showing brighter highlights, it was more about showing how much detail HDR can deliver in darker scenes.
There is a common misconception that HDR is all about brightness but this isn't true, it's about extending the dynamic range between the darkest and brightest parts of the image. The demo that Sony chose was a good example of this, with more detail being apparent in the night time skyline, along with the electrical pulses within Electro giving him a greater sense of dimensionality. In addition the neon signs in Times Square appeared more detailed, the electrical bolts discharged by Electro had more impact and light reflecting off Spider-man's eyes were more pronounced.
The demonstration certainly showed the potential of both 4K and HDR but we had a feeling that Sony is relying too much on the native 4K aspects of the VW520 and VW320, at the expense of other possible improvements. As we have said on many occasions, Ultra HD 4K isn't just about more pixels, it's about better pixels and features such as HDR, wider colour gamuts, higher bandwidths and 10-bit video will be just as important when it comes to a superior viewing experience.
In the case of the VW320 in particular, it feels as though all Sony have really done is add a slightly brighter bulb, rather than delivering a projector that can take full advantage of all the new and proposed standards. Of course we won't be able to fully establish the capabilities of the VW320 and VW520 until they come in for review but Sony might find that they face stiffer competition than they thought this year from JVC. The VW320 and VW520 will be available in October at prices similar to the models they replace.
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