Sony VPL-VW550ES 4K HDR Projector Review
Still the only native in the village...
What is the Sony VPL-VW550ES?The VPL-VW550ES is Sony’s latest native 4K (4096 x 2160) SXRD projector and replaces the outgoing VW520ES although it keeps the same chassis, remote and connections. The changes are within with full support for HDCP 2.2 on both HDMI inputs and the ability to reproduce the Wide Colour Gamut (WCG) and High Dynamic Range (HDR) images from the new UHD Blu-ray format and other native 4K sources. The VW550 auto detects the metadata from HDR content and now automatically goes into HDR mode within the menus which is a big step up on the outgoing model. The claimed contrast ratio increases by 50,000:1 to 350,000:1 and the claimed brightness is now 1700 lumens which promises to help deliver a decent level of dynamic range to images. So let’s find out just how much value for money we get from this £8,500 (December 2016) projector.
Design, Connections and Control
Much like a number of projector manufacturers who keep the same design and chassis over a number of years, Sony is no different and the VW550ES looks identical to the two previous 4K models at this price point. As such the only real way of telling which model is which is by looking at the serial logo and reading the model number from there. There has to be some cost cutting to get the native 4K chipsets into the domestic market ahead of anyone else and those cuts come from making sure there are no major changes to the parts used. Long gone is the motorised lens cover that used to be part of Sony’s high-end models – nowadays you get a plastic cover to place over the lens when you are finished using it. Also gone are the stunning materials that used to adorn the best of the best from Sony, like the black top plates which used to have an almost marble look to them, such as the old VW200 and before that the sleek looking VW100, also known as the ‘Ruby’. Once again in today’s market and to get the technology to reasonable price points we have a solid yet very plastic feeling chassis to the VW550ES, which is well designed if a little bland. We do get to keep the very nice air intake around the lens which is gold in colour and does add a nice degree of much needed design flair to the Sony.
Looking from the front of the projector on the right side of the chassis is a number of access and menu keys should you lose the remote control, one of these buttons is a multi-directional key for moving through the menu system. To the left side of the chassis are the connections along the bottom plate. Here you’ll find two HDMI 2.0 slots with HDCP 2.2 compatibility for 4K signals along with an Ethernet port, a USB service slot, a RS232C port, an IR and two 12v triggers. The power socket is to the rear of the chassis. The air intake is around the lens and the exhaust is to the side of the lens housing so the projector, with the connections to the side, can be placed up against a back wall to get maximum image size without blocking any air intakes. It also means that in a custom install it should be possible to place the Sony in a hush box out of the way without overheating issues.
Finally we have the supplied remote control that will be familiar to anyone who has used a Sony projector of any price point in the last 5 years. It is a long and slender affair with the main menu and directional keys towards the centre and within easy thumb reach. It sits neatly in the hand and also has a blue backlight that allows for use in the dark. It’s nothing special and at the price point you might have thought Sony would make an effort, but once again you can see the corners being cut to hit the price point with the native 4K chips. That is not a negative as the remote is more than functional.
No other projector manufacturer can yet offer native 4K resolution
Features and Specification
This is an SXRD 4K projector with the ability to accept and display all currently available 4K Ultra HD source formats and HDR material. Both HDMI inputs support HDCP 2.2 copy protection compatibility to accept signals from Ultra HD Blu-ray, Netflix and other 4K services currently available. The Sony is a native machine which means it supports ‘true’ 4K at 4096 x 2160 in the 17:9 aspect ratio but it also accepts an Ultra HD resolution at 3840 x 2160p in a 16:9 aspect ratio. Sony boast that the contrast ratio is 350,000:1 and that brightness reaches 1700 lumens (the same as the VW520ES). The projector is also classed as a triluminos display and Sony claims it can match the Wide Colour Gamut of the Ultra HD Blu-ray standard (currently DCI-P3 although not named as such in official descriptions, it’s within the Rec.2020 container). Sony say that the VW550ES will be firmware upgradable to support Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) when it becomes common place for broadcast HDR content. The Sony will not support Dolby Vision nor can it be updated to do so.
Moving on and there are the proprietary technologies from Sony on-board such as MotionFlow frame interpolation which includes the impulse mode, along with the dynamic iris control that has two settings (full & limited) as well as a manual brightness setting that doesn’t move with the material on screen These are found under the Cinema Black Pro section which also includes the Contrast Enhancer and Lamp Control selections. Finally we have Sony’s Reality Creation which uses various methods of image processing to add sharpening and enhancement from a propriety algorithm and database. This also includes the ‘Mastered in 4K’ mode for use with the Sony Studios Blu-rays.
Other features worth mentioning are the fully motorised lens shift, zoom and focus controls which 85% vertical and 31% horizontal adjustment along with the lens memory functionality for use with scope screens. For custom installations the projector is also compatible with AMX, Crestron and Control 4 interfaces and software for full operation of the projector and its functions. If you find that the three panels are slightly out of alignment (our review sample was about average for this out of the box with a slight blue edge to text) there is a full electronic panel alignment tool to try and fix these issues. You can also buy an optional wireless HDMI emitter/receiver kit to do away with long cable runs and connect to consoles or source equipment that may be at the other end of the room (we did not test this functionality). Finally this sucker is also 3D capable and you can buy the required RF glasses separately – more on this later.
Out-of-the-Box SettingsAs always we set about measuring the out-of-the-box (OOTB) picture presets to find the ones that are closest to the standards for D65 white and Rec.709 colours. These are the standards for Blu-ray, TV and other HD programming material and we will cover Ultra HD in the HDR section. As always we used our Klein K-10A colour meter, a Murideo Fresco Six-G pattern generator and CalMAN Ultimate calibration software to complete these measurements. We decided on the User setting but reference was identical if you prefer to use that. We switched off all the image adjustment or enhancement features and set the contrast and brightness for the room, selected D65 for the white balance, Rec.709 for the colour gamut and 2.4 for the gamma.
As we can see in the greyscale tracking graph (top left) the Sony is really rather disappointing out-of-the-box with green high and blue low from 30ire onwards towards white. DeltaE errors are well above 4 from the same point but gamma tracks fairly well, if a little high in the middle. On-screen images certainly have a yellow tint to them that is visible quite easily. When a £2,200 Epson can nail this aspect OOTB you have to wonder what Sony are doing when they can’t produce a reasonably accurate greyscale on a £8,500 machine. Of course it can be fixed with professional calibration and the argument would be that anyone buying a VW550ES will get it calibrated or it is going into a Custom Installation and that will be the same. But, we would expect better to be honest for an out-of-the-box cinematic looking image. Are the colours any better?
Looking at the colour gamut (top right) we can see that because white is towards Yellow in the greyscale it has affected the gamut performance with some hue errors for magenta and green. The tracking looks reasonable with some over saturation of red, yellow and green but the saturation points are not too far from where they should be landing. Of course we should be able to fix this with calibration, but again the cheaper Epson that we were testing at the same time as this Sony managed to be far more accurate at a quarter of the price. We would like to see a little more care from Sony OOTB.
Calibrated SettingsThe Sony VPL-VW550ES has full white balance and Colour Management Systems (CMS) on-board to allow us to calibrate the image to meet the standards for Rec.709 colours and D65 white. Once done the projector should be capable of showing Blu-rays, TV shows and streaming content in HD as it is intended to be seen in terms of colour accuracy and the colour of white.
As we can see from the greyscale tracking (top left) we were able to flatten the tracking and also get DeltaE errors under 3 which is below the visible threshold. Now greys no longer have any colour tint to them and the image looks natural and balanced when it comes to white. The gamma tracks our 2.4 target but we were unable to do anything with the slight rise from 20ire to 60ire. There is a professional calibration software tool that can be downloaded and used on most Sony projectors to correct the gamma further, but we didn’t feel we needed to do that for this review. We were overall very happy with the calibrated greyscale and gamma.
Moving to the colour gamut (top right) most of the errors OOTB were fixed by correcting the greyscale tracking and the colour of white and once that was done we just tidied up the tracking of the primary and secondary colours and checked the luminance was correct (not shown in the graph). The only issue we continued to have was the slight oversaturation of Red at 25 and 50% but this didn’t manifest its way into any obvious issues with actual viewing material. Overall the Sony once calibrated was very accurate indeed.
HDR ResultsThe Sony VPL-VW550 automatically detects an HDR signal via metadata and switches to BT.2020 colour and the contrast rises to 100 and has (HDR) next to contrast in the menu, so you can see it is in HDR mode. We fed the Sony VW550 with HDR metadata via a 3840 x 2160 24p BT.2020 signal from our Murideo with HDCP 2.2 applied. The Murideo then produced the test patterns we needed in the correct resolution, bitrate, format and colour.
As with any picture the most important aspect to get correct is the underlying greyscale and luminance levels, and looking at the (top left) EOTF PQ results we can see that the VW550 did a superb job of tracking the PQ curve without clipping and the greyscale remained flat with DeltaE errors under 3 for the most part and up to 6 in the centre of the tracking. This is a very good result indeed, especially the lack of clipping. Moving to the coverage of Rec.2020 only resulted in a coverage of 63%, but this is more for interest than performance at this stage, the real result to take notice of is the tracking of DCI-P3 within the Rec.2020 container.Here we can see that the Sony does a reasonable job, without any use of a filter in the light path, to track DCI-P3 fairly well at the lower % points. There is a restriction in colour volume with green, cyan and blue with yellow and red not quite able to reach the full points of the gamut. However, with the curve to blue of magenta also noted, the results here are really rather good when you consider that we are looking at achieving this without any physical filter (ala JVC and Epson) getting in way of the light path.
The problem for the Sony is that the lower price units, especially the Epson, produce more accurate results towards the standards, so we really need to see how all this translates to onscreen viewing with actual content. In terms of peak nits and contrast the Sony really does win out over the other two projectors we had at hand with a high lamp mode (read loud fan noise) maximum of 323nits on a 10% window and blacks of 0.01nits which equals 32,300:1 in contrast terms. In low lamp calibrated mode we had a peak of 188nits on a 10% window and 0.009 blacks giving us 20,888:1 on/off contrast. Obviously we have to also point out that HDR on a projector does not look the same as on a 1000nit LED TV (or OLED) as a projected image is just not capable of the same peaks and specular highlights. However where it does matter is in the extended dynamic range capabilities.
Picture QualityAs we did with the Epson let’s start with some expectation management when it comes to the HDR performance of projectors when compared to TVs. There is basically no comparison and there should be no expectation that a projector will be capable of the 1000nits specular highlights we get on our reference Samsung UE65KS9500 in our other room. With such a reference point it is easy to see how HDR is different on a projector, but not in any way redundant. It is a different expression of the higher dynamic range and as such in a fully blacked out room with a projector like the Sony the experience has its own highlights (pun intended).
With numbers out of the way and expectations managed what is the Sony like with HDR content. We used what is fast becoming one of our main reference UHD Blu-rays, The Revenant, to see just what the Sony is capable of. In one of the opening scenes there is a hunting party stalking a stag in a forest. They are walking through a stream towards the prey with rifles ready to shoot. The surroundings are lit by the sun coming in through the trees with most of the stream and trees in shadow. This is also applied to the fur and clothing being worn by the three hunters. With the VW550ES the low light details and shadow detail retrieval is stunningly good, highlighting the natural dynamic range of this projector. You can make out the pattern of tree bark and moss in the deepest of the shadows and make out the structure of the fur coats being worn and the individual hairs within the darker areas of the surface. But at the same time the light reflects off the water with a decent intensity that again highlights the range in the scene of light and shadow. And the streams of light coming in through the trees are also detailed and not just a block of light on the screen, but there is a sense of dimension to the light and reflections that look completely natural. The fact that natural light is being used for the majority of the shots during this scene is more obvious due to the superb dynamics of the image. You can almost feel the cold coming off the screen. Detail levels are also extremely good with superb sharpness to edges without any ringing and facial hair and pores look stunningly detailed. Colour performance is also stunning with superb accuracy to skin tones and the natural surroundings, yet there is layered detail to the sun and clouds thanks to the stunning cinematography. The Sony really brings the cold and bleak surroundings on screen to life in HDR. Once again this is not comparable to the far brighter TVs out there, but in a bat cave with the excellent dynamic range of the Sony, the presentation is superb.
Moving to normal Blu-ray which will still make up the vast majority of your viewing the Sony also excels here with excellent black levels, shadow detail and brightness. Once calibrated the colour accuracy is also top notch with superb detail on show without any unwanted ringing due to the excellent video processing. Our favourite Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was once again put into loop mode as we examined just how well the Sony handles upscaling BD to 4K resolution without any artefacts at all. Once again detail and colour are stunningly good with the green of the moss and ferns of the forest looking natural and lifelike. Colour gradations are handled with ease with no signs of banding or bloom and the shadow detail retrieval once again adds a real depth to the image. Motion is also handled very well with no unnecessary image blur and 24p material is superb with no induced judder present. We also tried our favourite streaming show Stranger Things with its difficult and dark final episode and the Sony excelled in pulling out depth and detail in the shadows and having no issues with mixed light scenes. Again skin tones were superb and once again the accurately calibrated greyscale and colours bring the image to life with superb depth and brightness.
Finally while most TVs have now dropped 3D the projector market, with its big screen attributes which suits the format is still strong and on the Sony VPL-VW550ES 3D playback is superb. Normally Sony can be a bit of a hit or miss company when it comes to the performance of some of their projectors, but thankfully this flagship model produces superb 3D images with no crosstalk or ghosting for the vast majority of the testing time we had with the Sony. What started out as a quick scene test from Star Wars: The Force Awakens on 3D Blu-ray soon turned into the entire run time of the movie as it was so compelling we just sat back and drunk it all in. So overall we are really struggling to find any weak points in the picture performance of the VW550ES.
Sony VW550ES Video Review
- Excellent dynamic range in Rec.709 and HDR modes
- Great colour once calibrated
- Superb 3D playback
- Superb shadow detail retrieval in HDR mode
- Very good black level performance
- Good DCI tracking
- Not accurate out of the box in Rec.709 modes
- Needs to be calibrated for all source playback to be accurate
- Could be better at DCI tracking compared to cheaper rivals
Sony VPL-VW550ES 4K HDR Projector ReviewSumming up a projector like the Sony VPL-VW550ES is a difficult task because it really is about diminishing returns when it comes to the value for money question. There is no doubt that this projector puts in a superb performance when it comes to picture quality and it is the only ‘native’ 4K projector at this price point. It can handle the new Ultra HD Blu-ray format and give a very compelling HDR performance for a projector. It also has a good stab at DCI colour accuracy for wide colour gamut content, although not as wide as some of the cheaper competition. It also has fabulous black levels with stunningly good dynamic range when used in its ideal environment which is a complete bat cave. However we also have an £8,500 projector that is not very accurate out of the box in terms of greyscale and colour, it uses the same remote control as its cheaper siblings, is made of plastic and doesn’t have any motorised lens cover. At the price point you would think that is odd, so it must point to the fact that using native 4K panels is still very expensive and costs had to be cut somewhere, thankfully picture performance didn’t suffer those cuts.
Is this projector £3k better than the JVC X7000 or even £6,300 better than the Epson TW7300? The Epson while very good cannot compete when it comes to black levels and dynamic range of the JVC and Sony models. But it does colour and DCI colour better than both and manages to map the EOTF curve and greyscale very well. But again it is about the diminishing returns as you spend more. The Epson does very well at its price point and is a best buy, but the real test for the Sony is against the JVC X7000 and here it gets very close indeed. The VW550ES has just that little bit more composure with HDR content than the JVC, with more shadow detail retrieval in the lower reaches of HDR content where the JVC crushes the detail. And the same for the highlights where the JVC clips white detail if following the PQ standard and the Sony doesn’t. But with normal Blu-ray using the Rec.709 standard the JVC is probably just slightly ahead. So that £3000 difference is really going to be down to the individual and their priorities.
But there is no denying that the Sony VPL-VW550ES is a superb home cinema projector that can keep up with today’s changing technology and provide a very compelling HDR performance for a projector. If you are in the market for something at this price point we highly recommend you get a demo and see for yourself how good the Sony is.
MORE: Projector Reviews
Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black levels9
2D Picture Quality9
3D Picture Quality9
Picture Quality Out-of-the-Box7
Picture Quality Calibrated9
Ease Of Use9
Value For Money7
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