Sony VPL-VW520ES 4K Projector Review
Let's go native!
What is the Sony VPL-VW520ES?The Sony VW520ES is the latest native 4K (4096 x 2160) SXRD projector from the company and replaces the outgoing VPL-VW500ES which was released in late 2013. If you own the VW500 your first question will likely be about upgrading and if it is worth it for the added features. The answer is probably not. The new addition on the VW520 is in line with making sure the projector can handle Ultra HD 4K content with High Dynamic Range (HDR) capabilities. To that end the HDMI 2 input is now HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 so it can pass the metadata for HDR content. The only other obvious difference between this new model and the outgoing VW500 is 100 more claimed lumens brightness and a claimed contrast ratio of 300,000:1 which is 100,000 higher.
The rest of the features and design are identical to the previous model. So with Sony remaining the only producer of native 4K projectors on the market for now, and the VW520 offering HDR support, is it the best you can buy? Let’s find out.
Design and ConnectionsLet’s just establish that there are no changes in the physical design of the VW520ES over the outgoing model. With the main changes being internal and software related, there has been no need to change the actual hardware and chassis. It would be correct to think of the VW520ES as a tweaked VW500. As such the high standard of build quality is once again present and correct with a nicely sculpted top which rounds off to the sides along with the centrally mounted lens and air vents and exhausts to the sides of the front plate. This means that you can place the projector up against the back wall of your room or in a shelf or box to hide it and the cooling won’t be affected. This will be a big plus point for installers.
The VPL-VW520ES uses a 14-piece lens array with 13 glass elements and a large aspheric plastic lens at the front. This not only reduces weight over the bigger glass lenses used by the top of the line VW1100 and VW5000 4K machines; it also saves significant money, making the VW520 possible at the £8,800 price point (January 2016). There is certainly no ill-effect in terms of image resolution or focusing and the detail on offer is resolved correctly. Lens shift is a healthy 85% vertical and 31% horizontal with a 2.06x zoom capability. Added to this is the lens memory function which allows stored aspect ratios if you use a scope or 4-way screen. Sadly at this price point there is no electronic lens cover which used to be a feature of the VW models from Sony. Instead you are given a plastic bung to place over the lens when not in use.At the left side of the chassis (looking from the front) are the connections. Here you will find two HDMI ports with HDMI 2 being a 2.0a (10.2Gbps) connection that is HDMI 2.2 compliant, which means it should be compatible with the new Ultra HD Blu-ray standards. Obviously Sony could have used more up to date chip sets to improve the HDMI specs to 18Gbps for higher frame rates at 10bit, but the argument from Sony’s engineers is that the VW520 is more than capable with standards and content that will exist for the next few years. There's also an Ethernet slot for IP control, a RS232 Serial port, an IR in and two 12v triggers and a USB (software update) slot.
The supplied remote control is the regular projector model from Sony which is backlit for use in dark environments and features most of the commonly used functions as direct access keys. It is a little on the big side but it sits in one hand comfortably with a nice weight and most keys are easily reached with your thumb. Our only complaint would be the lack of direct keys to change lens memory settings from 1.85:1 to 2.40:1 ratios, like the latest JVC’s offer. Overall it’s a good remote that feels sturdy.
Features and SpecsThere is not a lot of difference between the VW520ES and the outgoing VW500ES when it comes to features. The main thrust of the new unit is High Dynamic Range (HDR) compatibility where the projector supports the CEA (HDR10) standard and will also be firmware updated for any broadcast standard that is accepted. According to Sony it will not support the Dolby Vision standard.
Actually feeding the projector HDR metadata material has proven to be very difficult and the only clips we were able to get running from a media box and Sony’s own 4K Media Player didn’t have any metadata that switched the HDR setting on. So we had to manually set HDR to on with the clips. Every other HDR clip we tried including Life of Pi wouldn’t play in any of the media players and on the Sony player there were no pre-loaded clips to demo. The Sony machine did have 4K Netflix and we added to that with a 2015 Fire TV for Amazon 4K material. This highlights for us the issues we currently have in the market with clips or shows supposedly using the same standard (HDR10) not actually playing back or containing or sending metadata and the projector not picking it up. This is likely due to HDMI2.0a not being available on media players as yet. We had the same issues with the JVC DLA-X7000.
One clip we did get to work was shot by Sony on CineAlta cinema 4K cameras and is called Odaiba in Tokyo but again we had to manually switch HDR on for this. Performance wise the HDR highlights were present as a mother and her daughter enjoy a boat ride around Tokyo bay. The bright interior shots where the two sit against the inky black night outside the windows are extremely effective. You can clearly make out the dark water with reflections of light and the street lights of the city. Some of the shots are really quite breath-taking, although more subtle than on HDR TVs, but again it's demo clips and not real world content. This is the position we find the market in at the moment and it is frustrating that it took nearly three weeks of waiting to finally get a media player with no pre-loaded clips from Sony and only one effective HDR demo clip to test. The one major new feature of the VW520ES can only be tested with this approach at the moment and it shows the metadata doesn’t work and HDR only works with certain clips. It would be accurate to describe the situation as a mess and one we hope to revisit when content, like UHD Blu-ray, is available for full testing.
One area of the market that is maturing nicely is Ultra HD 4K content being available from more outlets. Streaming is taking advantage of this technology with both Netflix and Amazon 4K services now available in standalone devices, like the 2015 Fire TV box. We also have access to film material via demo content and of course we have our own shot 4K footage using the Panasonic GH4. The VW520ES is a full 4K projector meaning that it has a 17:9 (4096 x 2160) panel so we were able, for the first time, to playback our own Canada footage that had been shot in that exact resolution. Of course the Sony also accepts and displays 16:9 (3840 x 2160) Ultra HD resolution material as well. It is also bright with a claimed 1700 lumens and, in the menu system, we find a rather intriguing BT.2020 setting for the colour gamut, but as we’ll find out, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has a DCI wide colour performance. It is classed as a triluminos display which should mean excellent Rec.709 coverage at all saturation points, and let’s face it for the next few years 99.9% of material watched will still be mastered at that standard.
The rest of the features available are identical to the VW500 with Reality Creation still dominant for image processing using Sony’s propriety algorithm and database to make the most out of image sharpness and definition, including the ‘Mastered in 4K’ setting for the Sony Blu-rays mastered in 4K. Motionflow also has the same options available including the film projection mode (dark frame insertion) which is now called Impulse and a number of other features that introduce frame interpolation and a mix of both. There is also the Cinema Black Pro selection which allows access to the Dynamic Iris (DI) settings or the ability to switch to a manual Iris setting and level. We have to say that in both advanced Iris modes we found the DI to be quite noticeable in use, especially the high setting which became unwatchable for us quite quickly. The Lower setting wasn’t as disruptive in viewing, but it was still noticeable. We found that setting a manual level to suit the screen and viewing room gave us the best black level performance.
Finally we are once again given a panel alignment tool with 153 zones of adjustment for the Red or Blue panel. However, on this sample of the VW520ES the panels were more or less bang on and we saw no issues of misalignment at all. (Believe us as ex-CRT projector owners, we are quite sensitive to alignment issues!)
Out-of-the-Box SettingsUsing the Reference picture mode and D65 white balance settings we set the contrast and brightness for our room and also switched off the auto dynamic iris settings and set a manual iris brightness for our viewing environment, which is a bat cave. We also set the colour gamut for BT.709 and made sure motionflow and reality creation were switched off.
As you can see (top left) the greyscale tracking was very good for a preset with just a small rise in red energy at the brighter end of the scale and a dip in blue. This results in a small yellow tint being visible in brighter scenes onscreen. DeltaE Errors were under 4 across the board but Gamma was an issue with a setting of 2.1 (in the menu) actually resulting in a slight 2.4 s-curve with a large dip in the brighter reaches that translates to a slightly washed out image, and a dip at 10ire which lightens the shadows slightly. It’s a shame that gamma is not controllable via the menus as it is the one area that lets the side down out-of-the-box.
The colour gamut (top right) was also reasonable with slight over saturation in red and blue with a large hue error in green, but they all track reasonably well at 75% saturation and below. Brightness (luminance) is also very good and overall errors are small. We doubt any viewers would be able to pick out any obvious errors with onscreen material without a side-by-side reference. Overall the out-of-the-box performance is very good with just the gamma skew letting things down slightly.
Calibrated SettingsThe VW520ES has a full suite of calibration controls but care should be taken to make sure you are using the correct controls, especially performing a full calibration. The old RCP Colour Management System (CMS) still exists and can be found under the colour correction menu. This is a full 3D CMS that covers all axis including brightness. Under colour gamut you are also presented with a 3 axis CMS-like control, however note that this does not fully adjust the colour points, especially those under 100% saturation and should not be used. In terms of the greyscale we have a two-point correction tool.
Using the two-point White balance controls we were able to flatten out the greyscale tracking (top left) and get DeltaE errors under 2, but the controls were quite coarse and we couldn’t do anything with the Gamma to completely correct the tracking to 2.4 with a brightness dip still present at the brighter end of the scale. There is software available to professional calibrators which should allow more accurate gamma tracking, but we really want to see Sony fixing this out of the box, and we didn’t have access to the software for this review.
The colour gamut (top right) could be corrected using the CMS and this was also the case at 25, 50 and 75% saturation points (bottom left) where we saw only a few slight issues at 75% with just a slight undersaturation for the primary colours and magenta. Once again these issues would not be visible to viewers of normal content onscreen and should be considered as an excellent result for a built-in CMS system. Even though this is a native 4K projector the content we watch will still be 99.9% Rec.709 based for the colour gamut and as such, the VW520ES can show this content accurately. We also tested the BT.2020 gamut selection (bottom right) available on the Sony. Now, don’t expect this to reach the extremely wide gamut of Rec.2020, it doesn’t and very few displays will. However under the Rec.2020 name we will see the adoption of the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) colour gamut for 4K TV and Blu-ray content in the future. This is sometimes mistakenly called P3, but that is a recommendation for cinema projectors and nothing to do with home standards going forward. As you can see the Sony VW520ES is capable of covering around 86% of the DCI gamut and nearly able to line up at key points. As we don’t have any material available to check this, we are unable to give any further objective assessment other than the measurements, so bare that in mind when choosing a display at this time.
Picture QualityWith 4K Ultra HD content becoming more common and available from an increasing number of sources we had plenty of material to play on the VW520ES to test its image quality. We should point out that every piece of 4K material we had available, be it Netflix or Amazon streaming or footage we shot ourselves to clips available online, are all mastered at Rec.709. So we made sure that the VW520ES was calibrated for that colour space. We also see a lot of comments on the forums and have been asked the question a number of times in relation to a native 4K projector versus something like JVC’s E-Shift4 technology and which is better. It just so happens that we had the new JVC DLA-X7000 in the same review room as the VW520ES and we did some side-by-side tests to see what the results would be.
The first thing to note is that we loved the outgoing Sony VPL-VW500ES for its 4K performance and cinematic images and the same is true for this new model. The VW520ES offers up an excellent image full of detail and with strong black levels and shadow detail. Motion is good for an SXRD model with just the slightest of unnatural blurring in fast moving scenes and the colour performance is excellent. Skin tones are realistic and natural without any unwanted noise reduction in the background robbing detail and the fact the panel has so many pixels really helps with zoomed 2.40:1 content on our scope screen. Images are pin sharp thanks to the excellent lens quality on offer and with native 4K content at 4096 x 2160 (our own Canada video shot on a Panasonic GH4 at this resolution) it looks stunning even from 8ft back. The solidity of the image is what hits you first of all and then the crisp detail in everything you see that gives it genuine sharpness.
Our one complaint at this stage is the skewed gamma. We are used to watching this material over and over (and we colour corrected it so know what it should look like) and it just felt a little washed out and didn’t quite have the realistic depth it should. Playing the same clip on the JVC and it instantly added back that depth thanks to a correctly set gamma curve. At 8ft back and with brightness matched on both projectors, the Sony just edged it in native sharpness terms against E-Shift, but it was other image attributes that showed up the real differences between the two projectors, namely correct gamma on the JVC and a slightly different colour performance due to that. Moving to upscaled Blu-ray and Amazon/Netflix 4K streaming from a Fire TV box we struggled at the 8ft viewing distance to again notice any real night and day differences in resolution between the two projectors, it again came down to other attributes to see a difference. Both projectors excelled at what they do.
With upscaled Blu-ray, which will be the main diet of this native 4K projector until Ultra HD Blu-ray appears, the Sony yet again excelled with a superb performance without any artefacts being visible and content looking sharp and detailed. Sadly we didn’t have any ‘Mastered in 4K’ content to fully test the reality creation mode, but we doubt it would be night and day when compared to excellent transfers like Lawrence of Arabia, Jurassic World or our demo favourite, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Once again it was the slightly washed out gamma that just took away the absolute hint of image perfection and became a personal bug bear of mine during the testing. It became very obvious when doing side-by-side tests and we just wish Sony would sort this out.
So what about the black levels? Well we just had one major issue here and that was with the Dynamic Iris modes, with full being overly aggressive and very noticeable. This is a shame as Sony normally don’t have any issues with their DI’s and whilst personally in our test room I would go with a manual setting every time, we do appreciate that many users do find the DI useful in their set ups. Even the low setting had the occasional issue with difficult material. We ended up with a manual iris setting for our viewing room and set to match the X7000 for side-by-side testing. Black levels were very, very good with excellent shadow detail and just a slight lightness to the darkest areas of the image. Scenes like the raptors talking to the Indominus Rex during the hunt in the forest at night look superb. There is real depth and texture to the tree bark and ferns and the image appears to go back into the screen, giving it a real three dimensional feel. We can also make out the texture of the dinosaurs skin and flashes of fire and light sit within the same dark frame without blooming or crushing that detail on show. If we could get the gamma curve perfect we would be scoring this projector even higher as it really does look stunning at times and really competes well against its fierce rival, whose ace has always been black levels and just above black excellence.
As we mention earlier in the review the real main difference between the VW520ES and the VW500ES is the HDR capabilities it should have. But there are so many issues surrounding HDR metadata, how to get clips to playback and automatic switching, we felt rather underwhelmed when it came to image quality. The only clip we managed to get playing that seemed to work was the Sony Odaiba CineAlta footage. One other item we got to play was a Fox TV clip of a fire burning with logs and flames. Again we had to manually switch on the HDR button but this time it robbed the image of detail and crushed the blacks. It actually looked better and had more depth when HDR was switched off. This just highlights the issues surrounding HDR content and that each manufacturer is approaching it without really knowing what content will or won’t play. It’s not just the VW520ES, we have the same issues with the JVC X7000 and that has no on or off switch.
Finally we gave 3D content a quick blast on the VW520ES and were treated to a very average performance for such a high-end machine. We know 3D is no longer the focus of manufacturers, but it has also been around for a number of years now and you would think that as a technology it should have matured well and just work. Well sadly the VW520ES is not the best 3D projector we have seen and it had real issues with crosstalk and ghosting, even in some not too difficult scenes. We also had issues with the background appearing blurred and appeared to be inverted on occasions. We have seen this before with Sony VW models and the VW500 that Steve tested two years ago was similar. It didn’t make watching 3D a disaster, it just could have been so much better than it was and it becomes tiring after a while.
Sony VPL-VW520ES Video Review
- 4K native panels
- Excellent calibrated colours and greyscale
- Picture processing is very good
- Excellent black levels
- Good build quality
- Gamma is skewed unless you have it professionally calibrated with special software
- Mediocre 3D performance
- No 3D Glasses supplied
- A little noisy in full lamp mode
Sony VPL-VW520ES 4K Projector ReviewLet’s get that big fat elephant in the room out of the way. The VW520ES is identical in every way possible to the outgoing VW500ES. The one difference is an HDR on/off/auto selection in the menu system. But as we have found out the Sony doesn’t read metadata and has to be switched on manually with HDR content. That’s two clips of HDR to be exact and it works with one and not with the other. It more or less sums up the market when it comes to HDR at present. Nobody knows what is going on and whether content will play on their products and look correct, or if you can actually get clips to even play on media players to feed the projector. In other words it’s a mess! That’s a real shame as the VW520ES is a cracking projector that is capable of producing some stunning images.
The picture quality with native material, UHD content and upscaled Blu-ray is excellent with stunning sharpness, highly accurate colours and very good black levels indeed. The only issue we have is a poor gamma curve that robs the image of depth and tonality and would be such an easy fix for Sony to correct. Especially at this price point where it competes against the JVC-X9000 and where the VW520ES should be a statement product like the VW500ES was in 2013. The problem we have is that this is a VW500ES in all but name and a HDR feature that doesn’t appear to work correctly. The VW500ES was a statement of intent and a stunning piece of technology to hit the price point at that time. However, being native 4K is not the be all and end all when it comes to image quality and wider colour gamuts and HDR will also be important. In fact in our testing side-by-side with what many call ‘fake’ 4K in JVC’s E-Shift technology, we found that resolution at normal viewing distances isn’t the be all and end all. In fact it is other attributes that make the image appear different and in this case the better gamma curve of the JVC just highlighted that fact (and that’s the JVC X7000 not the X9000 this projector competes with).
It feels like Sony has just stood still and hasn’t pushed on with 4K native technology, wider gamut colours or HDR that works. This just feels like a bit of a let-down, especially when the price is so high and hasn’t budged in those two years. If you have a VW500ES then hang on to it and get the most out of its great performance for a few years yet. You do not need to upgrade to this model as it isn’t an upgrade. If you are looking for a 4K native projector this is the only game in town that might be able to offer some future proofing with HDR and the slightly wider colour gamut, but at a high price. The VW320 is identical to the VW300 and will not be coming for review because, well, it’s the same as the VW300 so Sony doesn’t have review samples. We think that says it all.
The Sony VPL-VW520ES is a very capable projector with native 4K panels and excellent colour performance to Rec.709 standards. It has very good black levels with excellent shadow details and a cinematic image that offers great contrast. However, it is expensive and will have a fight on its hands when compared to cheaper rivals that manage to get around the resolution red herring and offer similar or even better performance for much less risk. We wanted to see Sony knock it out the park yet again, but they turned up with the same technology as two years ago. It might be that Sony feels that as they are the only native 4K band in town they get the automatic win. If that’s the case they might just get a shock. However saying all that we would recommend a demo because it may tick the boxes for you personally and it is, after all, the only native 4K projector with HDR ‘support’ available right now.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £8,800.00
Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black levels9
2D Picture Quality9
3D Picture Quality7
Picture Quality Out-of-the-Box8
Picture Quality Calibrated9
Ease Of Use7
Value For Money6
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