Sony refine their entry level model but how does it stack up against the competition?
What is the Sony VPL-HW55ES?
Given Sony's recent drive to promote all things 4K, there was a real danger that their high definition projectors might get left behind.This seemed a genuine possibility when the Japanese manufacturer failed to launch a replacement for their mid-range VPL-VW95, effectively leaving that part of the market to JVC's new DLA-X500. Thankfully that didn't prove to be the case at the lower end of the market, where Sony have released the latest iteration of their hugely successful entry-level home cinema projector. The VPL-HW55 replaces last year's VPL-HW50 and whilst not markedly different, it does introduce a number of refinements that have filtered down from Sony's higher-end models.The design of the HW55ES reflects the fact that Sony expect the model to be used in environments that might be less than ideal for big screen projection. As such the emphasis is on brightness, in order to combat ambient light and a dynamic iris to improve the perceived blacks and dynamic range of the image. Other features include Reality Creation, Motionflow, 3D support and a colour management system. That's quite an impressive list for a projector that costs around £2,799 and Sony even includes two pairs of 3D glasses. So let's see if HW55 delivers on its promise...
Design and ConnectionsThe HW55 retains the same chassis as last year's model and is again available in either black or white, reflecting the lifestyle nature of the projector's design. The curved chassis is very attractive, retaining much of Sony's design flair, despite the HW55's entry-level status. The build quality is excellent and overall there is a solid and well-engineered feel to the construction. In terms of dimensions, the HW55 measures 407 x 179 x 464mm and weighs 9.6kg. The entire chassis sits on adjustable feet, with intake vents on the sides and a large exhaust vent at the rear. On the left hand side there are some basic controls including on/off, input, menu, up/down/left/right and enter; just in case you misplace the remote.
The HW55 uses a x1.6 zoom lens with an improved lens shift range for more flexible placement and installation. However the controls for zooming, shifting and focusing the lens are all manual which prohibits the inclusion of a lens memory feature. Whilst such a feature isn't vital, it's very useful if you use a 2.35:1 screen so it's worth bearing in mind. The vertical and horizontal lens shift controls are directly above the lens housing and the zoom and focus are adjusted using rotating rings around the edge of the lens itself. We found the manual controls to be rather crude in operation, lacking the fine adjustment capability found on projectors with motorised lens controls, and accurately focussing the image becomes a two man job.
Beneath the control panel, in a recessed area along the bottom left hand side of the projector are all the connections. Here you'll find two HDMI 1.4a inputs, a VGA input and a component video input using RCA connectors. There is also an RS232 connector for serial control, an IR port and an external 3D sync emitter, although there is already one built-in.
The HW55 comes with Sony's standard projector remote control and it's well built, comfortable to hold, sensibly laid out and includes a backlight. There are buttons for all the main functions and you can also directly access certain image controls such as 3D, aspect, motion enhancer, colour temperature, colour space, RCP, gamma correction, advanced iris and the reality creation feature.
Unusually for a recent projector, the HW55 doesn't use RF for syncing with the 3D glasses and instead has a built-in infrared 3D emitter. It comes with two pairs of active shutter glasses (TDG-PJ1), which have large lenses affording a wider field of view. The glasses can also fit over prescription lenses and the width of the frames and the sides make them very effective at blocking out any ambient light. There is an on button and a small LED indicator on the top right of the frames and a micro-USB connector hidden under a cover on the right hand side of the glasses for recharging.
The HW55 uses the same stylish chassis as last year and the build quality remains excellent.
MenusThe HW55 uses the same monochromatic menu system as last year and includes a number of calibrated presets that can also be accessed directly from the remote control. These include Cinema Film 1 and 2, Reference, TV, Photo, Game, Bright Cinema, Bright TV and User. The Picture menu also includes all the usual image controls such as Contrast, Brightness, Colour, Hue and Sharpness; with Contrast, Brightness and Sharpness directly accessible from the remote control.
In this menu you will also find Reality Creation and Cinema Black Pro, which is Sony's name for their dynamic iris feature; with a choice of Auto Full, Auto Limited, Manual and Off. Here you will also find the Lamp Control, where you can select High or Low, although the projector will automatically go into High lamp mode when projecting a 3D image. Motionflow is where you can set the frame interpolation feature and also select the Film Projection mode, which uses black frame insertion.
The Expert Setting sub-menu provides additional controls for Noise Reduction, MPEG Noise Reduction, Contrast Enhancer and x.v.Colour. There is also a control for selecting the Film Mode, with a choice of Auto 1, Auto 2 or Off; we found that Auto 2 produced the best results in the video processing tests. There is also a control for selecting the Gamma Correction which provides options from 1.8 to 2.6, as well as four other curves and an off setting. Finally there is a control for selecting the Colour Space with a number of choices, including BT.709 which is the industry standard for most consumer content.
The HW55 includes a Colour Temperature setting which lists the correct colour temperature standard of D65 along with custom colour temperature settings which allow access to a two point white balance control for calibration. The Custom 3 setting uses D65 as its starting point, so it can also be used in lieu of the actual D65 setting if you wish. There is also a menu called RCP (Real Colour Processing) which gives you access to Sony's colour management system (CMS). Here you can calibrate the primary (red, green and blue) and secondary (cyan, magenta and yellow) colours by adjusting Colour (saturation), Hue (tint) and Brightness (luminance).
In the Reference calibrated preset the HW55 delivered a pleasingly accurate image right out of the box.
Perhaps unsurprisingly we found that the Reference calibrated preset offered the most accurate out-of-the-box option and in this preset the Colour Temperature was already set to D65, the Colour Space to BT.709 and the Gamma at 2.2 which is good news. We were also pleased to note that in the Reference calibrated preset the Noise Filtering was off, the Advanced Iris was off, the Motion Enhancer was off and the Contrast Enhancer was off. All that left us to do was optimise the Contrast and Brightness settings and just check that the Sharpness control was set to minimum.
As you can see in the graph above left, the greyscale is measuring quite accurately, with red and green tracking close together. There is an excess of blue energy, which was apparent when looking at a greyscale pattern, but it didn't noticeably impact on actual viewing material. The gamma was tracking around our target of 2.2 and the overall DeltaE (errors) are all below 4 and most are below the threshold of 3, which is very good for an out-of-the-box preset. The colour performance was even better, with a high level of accuracy in terms of the luminance (brightness) of the individual colours, and the overall errors were all below 3. This is an excellent performance and with both a white balance control and a CMS available, we should be able to improve it further.
A few clicks down on blue in the two-point white balance control and the greyscale quickly fell into line. There was now a smooth transition from black to white with no discolouration, errors that were all well below 2 and the gamma curve that was still tracking around 2.2. The colour performance was also excellent, white was measuring precisely at D65, the luminance and hue of each colour was spot on and the overall errors were all well below 2. There was only some minor undersaturation to spoil the party but as the graph below shows, all the colours were tracking very close to their target coordinates at lower saturation points. Overall this is an excellent greyscale and colour performance for a projector at this price range.Video Processing
The HW55 correctly scaled the SMPTE 133 test pattern without any loss of detail or unwanted ringing and the video deinterlacing tests were equally as impressive with no jaggies, except at an extreme angle. In the motion adaptive deinterlacing test the performance was also excellent, with only very slight jaggies on the bottom line. In the cadence tests the HW55 correctly detected both the 2:3 (NTSC - USA/Japan) format and the 2:2 (PAL - European) format without any issues. It also had no problems displaying mixed film material with scrolling video text and was able to reproduce the text without any shredding or blurring.
The HW55 performed just as well in the tests with 1080i content, correctly deinterlacing and displaying both the video and film resolution tests and showing excellent scaling and filtering performance as well as good resolution enhancement. The projector had no difficulties in showing video text overlaid on film based material and also handled 24p content without any problems. In the Dynamic Range High test, the Sony showed all the video levels up to peak white (255) and in the Dynamic Range Low test, it showed detail down to video level 17; whilst there was also no clipping in the peaks for the luma channels of the three primary colours.
In general the motion handling on the HW55 was very good but there were occasional losses of detail and smearing with fast movement and camera pans. However, as mentioned, 24p material looked excellent, with movement that was smooth and judder free. The HW55 includes Motionflow technology which uses frame interpolation to create better motion handling. Whilst we wouldn't recommend using Motionflow with film-based content, it can be useful with fast paced sports action shot on video. We found the Film Projection mode to be very effective in producing a more film-like experience but some people may find it creates distracting flicker.
One of the key features on the HW55 is Sony's Reality Creation technology which uses algorithms that have filtered down from their 4K projectors. This feature works by using dynamic sharpening and contrast adjusting algorithms at a pixel level to give the appearance of a more detailed image. It certainly works and can often be quite effective but with live action material the image can have a slightly processed look, especially where film grain is concerned. However for films shot digitally or with computer animation, Reality Creation worked very well, so to a certain extent it is a matter of personal preference. There are separate controls for Resolution and Noise Filtering, so there's plenty of room for experimentation.
Brightness, Black Levels and Dynamic Range
The HW55 has a claimed brightness of 1,700 lumens, which Sony hope will make the projector better suited for use in peoples' living rooms and boost the brightness in 3D mode. The HW55 uses a 200W bulb and includes Sony's Dynamic Lamp Control Technology which is designed specifically to boost the brightness of 3D images. Sony have also included Bright Cinema and Bright TV modes, which they claim can boost the brightness whilst retaining colour accuracy and contrast, to allow the projector to be used in well-lit environments.
The reality is that these brighter settings quickly lose any semblance of accuracy, although it could argued that it's not as important when using a projector in a well-lit room. In actual fact, the brightness begins to drop off very quickly as soon as you start using the low lamp mode (which is much quieter) and a more accurate preset such as Reference. This brings the brightness down to around 1,000 lumens which, in fairness, is still quite bright and can certainly light up a decent size screen. It will certainly be more than sufficient for a light controlled room and given the option we'll take better blacks over increased brightness any day.
Whilst Sony's SXRD technology is similar to JVC's D-ILA technology, the latter is capable of producing better native blacks, although Sony have certainly improved in this area. We measured the native contrast ratio at 6,165:1 with the lens wide open, which is very good, and the black levels were impressive, especially given the brightness of the image. The perceived dynamic range can be improved using the dynamic iris and in the Auto Full mode the contrast ratio increased to 11,215:1, whilst in the Auto Limited mode it measured 9,195:1. Both, it has to be said, are a long way from the 120,000:1 that Sony claim in their marketing literature.
Sony recommend the Limited mode for viewing in a darkened room but the actual difference between the auto modes was minimal when watching the same content and the Full mode will give you a slightly wider dynamic range. We watched a number of dark scenes with all three settings and ultimately preferred the image with the dynamic iris off. There was very little real difference in terms of the perceived dynamic range, suggesting that the dynamic iris wasn't crushing blacks or pumping the whites excessively, but we found images had slightly better detail in dark shadows with the dynamic iris off. The use of a dynamic iris is largely a matter of personal preference but Sony's implementation is excellent and a nice option to have.
The HW55 delivered lovely big screen images, with accurate colours and plenty of detail.
Sony VPL-HW55ES Picture Quality 2DSince we've already covered the greyscale, colour gamut, black levels, contrast ratio, dynamic range, video processing and motion handling in detail - all that's left is to say that the HW55 delivered a terrific performance with 2D content, producing some of the best images we have seen from a projector in the £2,000-3000 price range. Whilst it isn't vastly different from last year's model that's hardly surprising as the HW50 was already a great projector but the new model remains a fantastic all-round performer. It delivers bright and accurate images that retain a pleasingly natural appearance. We watched all of season three of Game of Thrones on the HW55 and the clean digital images were reproduced with plenty of detail and impact.
Whether you use the Reality Creation, Cinema Black Pro and Film Projection features will largely be a matter of personal choice but you certainly won't be disappointed with the big screen images the HW55 produces. The projector can definitely light up a large screen, even in low lamp mode, and it's also extremely quiet in operation which is good news. In fact our only real complaint concerned the quality of the lens used, which seemed rather small and cheap. However the screen uniformity and panel alignment were good, so given the price point it was a minor complaint. So whether you intend to use the HW55 for watching movies, TV viewing or for gaming, you won't be disappointed.
Sony VPL-HW55ES Video Review
The HW55's 3D performance was very good but the provided glasses proved to be the limiting factor.
Sony VPL-HW55ES Picture Quality 3DOverall we were quite impressed with the 3D performance of the HW55 and thanks to its inherent brightness, the Sony could deliver a reasonable amount of punch. To achieve this brightness the projector automatically goes to high lamp mode, which obviously increases the noise output but not excessively so. The colour accuracy, greyscale and gamma performance were all excellent and the motion handling was also very impressive. The HW55 uses active shutter technology and could deliver detailed full high definition images that were largely free from crosstalk or other distracting artefacts. When it came to Alfonso Curaon's remarkable Gravity, the HW55 really did the widescreen 3D effects justice but the Sony also handled the colourful visuals in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 equally as well.
In fact the only thing stopping the Sony from scoring higher when it comes to 3D were the provided glasses. Whilst we like the larger lenses and the bigger frames that help block out any ambient light, they are very heavy and quickly became uncomfortable to wear. The glasses pinched quite painfully over the bridge of the nose, making them a chore to wear as we sat through the 3D extended version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The glasses are also very intolerant to tilting your head, causing unnecessary crosstalk and the lenses are very dark, robbing the 3D images of some of their punch despite the HW55's inherent brightness. You can reduce the darkness of the lenses but in doing so you just add crosstalk, so it isn't ideal. It's good that the HW55 comes with two pairs of 3D glasses, it's just a shame that they're not particularly good.
- Excellent black levels and dynamic range
- Reference greyscale and colour accuracy
- Impressive video processing
- Excellent 2D and 3D performance
- Extremely quiet in operation
- Manual lens controls
- 3D glasses are poor
Sony VPL-HW55ES 3D Projector ReviewThe Sony HW55 might not differ much from last year's model but it's good to see that Sony is still supporting the lower end of the price range, even in the midst of the manufacturer's 4K assault on the higher end. The HW55 remains a great all-round projector that delivers lovely images and an impressive set of features. The design and build quality are excellent, the remote control is effective and the menu system simple but intuitive. There are sufficient connections at the side and whilst the lens controls are manual, they get the job done. The greyscale and colour accuracy are excellent out-of-the-box and this can be improved further thanks to some useful calibration controls. The native black levels are also impressive, motion handling is good and the HW55 can produce plenty of brightness when needed without creating excessive fan noise.
In terms of the picture features, Reality Creation, Motionflow and Cinema Black Pro all worked very well, although whether you use them or not will largely come down to personal preference. In terms of criticisms the lens is obviously quite small and cheap, which is to be expected at this price point, and the manual lens controls also prohibits the addition of a lens memory feature. So if you use a 21:9 ratio screen you should bear this in mind. Whilst the HW55 comes with two pairs of 3D glasses, they still use infra-red rather than the more common RF and the glasses themselves are incredibly uncomfortable to wear for prolonged periods of time. They also have very dark lenses in the crosstalk minimising setting and are rather intolerant to tilting one's head, resulting in unnecessary additional crosstalk.
In terms of direct competition the obvious choice is JVC's DLA-X35 and although that projector was released in 2012, it remains a strong contender and is currently cheaper to buy. It also uses an RF emitter and the glasses are more comfortable to wear, have lighter lenses and are more tolerant to moving your head. The native black levels are superior, as is the quality of the lens used and the motorised controls mean that it offers a lens memory feature. So if you have a 'scope screen or a very dark room, then the X35 remains the preferred choice. However, if you use a 16:9 ratio screen or there's a lot of ambient light in your room, then the Sony VPL-HW55ES makes an excellent alternative and remains highly recommended.
Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black levels8
2D Picture Quality9
3D Picture Quality8
Ease Of Use9
Value For Money8
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