Sony has been making incremental improvements across its SXRD range of projectors in the last few years, with this years top end VPL-VW85 that competes with the reference JVC projector in every department. So in this review we take a look at the entry model in the SXRD line to see if it can shake up the £2k market level it is aimed at. Can the VPL-HW15 claim top dog status in this high competitive market sector?
Design and Connections
The first thing that struck me on seeing the HW15 for the first time (back in August last year), was that it looks identical to the outgoing HW10 it replaces. The chassis has not had any redesign so it’s difficult to see from the externals what improvements are onboard the new projector. Of course as with most display devices the new features are part of the electronics inside the unit, so the design doesn’t tell us much about the performance. However, it is one of the better designed entry level projectors that looks like it is purposely built for home cinema use, and not just a business model clone.
The chassis features a centrally mounted lens unit and light path which has manual operation wheels on the top plate of the unit to set the lens shift. The lens is a Sony ARC-F (All Range Crisp Focus) design that offers a 1.6x manual zoom with 65% vertical and 25% horizontal manual shift adjustments. Focus is also a manual affair using the focus ring on the end of the plastic lens cover.
The heart of the VPL-HW15 is its Silicon X-tal Reflective Display panels (SXRD) which offer a full 1920 x 1080 high definition resolution. There are three such 0.61 inch SXRD panels used in the unit offering a 6,220,800 pixel count with a 200 watt UHP lamp providing the light output. Contrast is claimed to be in the 60,000:1 range with around 1000 lumens brightness on offer and the unit also features the new Advanced Iris 3. The HW15 offers a throw ratio of 1.47 - 2.18 which should suit most installations in UK homes.
The chassis does look a little cheap with its moulded plastic looks, plastic lens rings and plastic lens shift wheels. However, the unit does feel sturdy and well built and measures in at 407.4mm x 179.2mm x 463.9mm (W x H x D) and weighs in at 10Kg. The remote control that comes bundled with the projector is one of the best we have seen at this price range. It is a sturdy unit with a blue backlight and all the buttons are well laid out and intuitive to use. You could be mistaken for thinking that it belongs with a far more expensive projector than the Sony, so top marks here.
Moving around the side we have the connection for sources and control devices. These are positioned on the left hand side of the chassis (looking from the front). Here we have two v1.3 HDMI slots, one component, s-video, PC RGB and an RS232c port. The power socket is also positioned to the rear of these inputs with manual controls for the projector positioned 4 inches higher on the chassis. Air vents make up the remaining body work with the main input and output to the front of the projector.
The feature count on the VPL-HW15 is also quite promising, with many that I wish some more expensive machines would implement. Picture processing is managed by the company’s Bravia Engine 2 with support for the x.v.Colour gamut along with a real colour processor, which is basically a 2-D colour management system. Also included is full 24fps playback and HDMI CEC controls. Sony also claim that the HW15 offers a 35mm like filmic image due to SXRD providing film-quality smoothness by minimising the space between pixels (0.35um) for smooth and dot-less pictures. A big claim that will be fully tested.
Menus and set up
Note that none of the settings shown in the images are calibrated settings.
The VPL-HW15 menu system follows that of the high-end model and offers excellent control over the set up of the projector and picture. The main menu features the main picture settings that allow a good level of control and calibration. The main front panel controls (Brightness, Contrast, Colour and Sharpness) are straight forward to explain and of course to use. There are a number of picture presets available from the usual ‘Dynamic’ that could cause sun tans through to the more accurate ‘Cinema’ mode.
The ‘Colour Temp’ set up when highlighted gives the user a number of options to chose from including a number of ‘custom’ options that allow manual calibration of the greyscale at two points (Gain and Bias). These controls are quite cause in use but accurate enough to calibrate the RGB channels to the correct D65 white point and greyscale - as seen below in the calibration report.
The expert options include the noise reduction settings in the now familiar graph layout employed by Sony. The black adjustment control adjusts the Iris system where I preferred to set it up manually (like the JVC) rather than using the auto system. The auto options while fast are still guilty of reducing the overall image consistency. Gamma set up is also easy to follow with presets that in mode 3 are close to the desired 2.2 curve. The colour space options give you ‘Wide’ or ‘Normal’ presets with ‘Wide’ providing the native gamut for the HW15 and ‘Normal’ reining the gamut in. We will discuss this in more detail in the measurement area of the review.
We have to move away from the main picture menu to access the Real Colour Processing (RCP) settings that are effectively a 2D Colour Management System (CMS). This has not really moved on from the HW10 but it does offer some control over the gamut performance. What we would like to see here is a full traditional 3D CMS with control over all three axis of colour management to calibrate the gamut to the industry standards.
Wrapping up the menu system are the usual set once and forget controls which will not have any use after initial set up. However, one thing that is missing (and surprising seeing as this projector is up against the Panasonic PT-AE4000) is the lack of an anamorphic stretch mode or an auto zoom and focus system for use with a 2.35:1 screen. Should you choose to go the scope route you are restricted with a manual zoom, shift and focus route. This was tested and works well with no noticeable issues of seeing pixels when blown up in such a set up. It will however depend on the throw distance and size of screen you decide to use as to whether this approach will work for you. Seeing as almost every projector now released at any price point features at least an anamorphic stretch mode, this seems to be an oversight for Sony. Especially when one of its main competitors has the auto zoom features’.
Out of the Box Measurements
Starting as we normally do with projector reviews, we take a look at the UHP lamp light spectrum.
As we can expect from a UHP lamp, the green part of the spectrum is not fully resolved, with energy moving towards the yellow wavelength, pointing to a design to achieve as bright an image as possible. Plus as with almost all UHP lamps, the red wavelength is low, which means calibration will reduce brightness or lumens. This will result in calibrated images losing some lumens. Overall it's an expected result that shows nothing out of the ordinary in terms of design or wavelengths available from a UHP device.
Next we found the best out-of-the-box colour and greyscale settings. These results are the most important here for an image that doesn’t introduce any colour casting to the image and allows shadow detail/white balance to be correct to the material you watch on the projector.
Taking the greyscale first we can see that in ‘Cinema’ mode with Gamma at ‘3’ and colour balance at ‘Custom 3’ (the closest to D65 in the options), we managed to get the following results. Also note that Brightness and Contrast have been set using test patterns and by eye as an end user would.
Overall the out of the box results from the HW15 are more than acceptable in its attempts to mirror the industry standards for playback material. The errors are quite large at an average of around 4.5 on the deltaE chart and green is pretty low in the level tracking and balance. This means that on-screen whites take on a slight blue look but skin tones remain natural looking. Gamma also tracks quite well considering the results here. So performance for greyscale out of the box is above average but some errors will be visible. As the RGB tracking is pretty uniform across the stimulus points we should be able to get the greyscale accurate with a pro calibration.
Moving to the colour gamut, we have two charts as there are two main options we could use with the HW15. In the colour space menu we can select ‘Normal’ or ‘Wide’ for the gamut selection. The differences can be seen below.
The wide option is the native colour gamut of the HW15 that you can see in the CIE chart. As the name suggests the colour gamut performance (the broken line triangle against the solid Rec.709 triangle) is wide of the desired colour points for playback material. What this means is that all the colour points outside the solid Rec.709 triangle are over saturated and also have hue errors where they are to the sides of the colour points. This means that green, red and yellow colour intensity onscreen is too high and primary colours in material you watch will not be natural or follow what you are supposed to see. However, because the Sony has a basic colour management system we should be able to bring the colour points back to where they should be; providing we can also control their brightness (luminance).
The normal option brings the colour points in the broken triangle back towards the Rec.709 solid triangle. By being inside the solid triangle the colours are now under saturated against the standards for watching playback material. On screen this will show primary and secondary colours (and all those inbetween) to be rather muted, and again they will not mirror the intended look of what you watch on the projector.
So, in terms of colour gamut, users need to chose which option they prefer as neither is perfect. If you want a picture as close to the standards as possible, you are going to need a professional calibration. However, if you cannot afford to take that route and wanted to choose the best setting, I would select the 'normal' option given the smaller errors overall.
Given the out of the box results, and the fact we have controls to calibrate the projector towards the standards, we set about giving the HW15 a professional calibration.
Taking the greyscale results first we have managed excellent results with a two point correction using the custom colour balance controls. The controls are quite coarse in their use, but it was not severe enough to cause any issues. The results speak for themselves with good gamma tracking, deltaE errors under 2 and good greyscale tracking. So overall it's an excellent result.
Finally, we have the colour gamut which was calibrated from the ‘Wide’ option. By doing so I had to compromise with the brightness (luminance) as the Sony doesn’t allow a full adjustment to tame this area. Overall, I managed an excellent result with blue being the one area that I couldn’t fix completely. Looking at the overall errors, only blue gives us any concern, but at the same time doesn’t bring in any visible issues on-screen when compared to the out of the box results.
With regard to video processing, the HW15 manages well with a mixture of various materials and formats. 24fps playback is nice and smooth without any signs of induced judder. With SD material the HW15 does better than most with no obvious signs of edge ringing on upscaled material and no obvious signs of jaggies. Indeed the HW15 managed to handle all the tests thrown at it with aplomb and we were not aware of any issues which would cause problems.
Starting with our viewing tests in out of the box settings, the Sony is an impressive performer with good black levels and image depth where required. Blacks were strong and competes with models such as the Panasonic PT-AE4000. Its colour performance (in normal colour space mode) was better than we expected. Colours are very slightly muted when compared to the calibrated settings, but I found this more acceptable than the over-saturated wide mode.
The gradations of colours was also well handled by the on-board processing, with reduced signs of banding in scenes containing blue skies, where different shading is required. And shadow detailing (in a light controlled room) was also strong at this price point with good gradation of blacks without any greyness to ruin things. Overall image depth is determined by the native contrast and dynamic range of the image and the Sony matches its rivals here with a good standard black level and no obvious signs of losing finer shadow detail. Only in the extremes did shadow detail disappear to a block of blackness, (a restriction of its dynamic range and not clipping.) Whilst used mainly in a light controlled room, the HW15 could be used in less than ideal locations but expect a reduction in contrast and black levels.
The other advantage of the SXRD technology and where the Sony again matches the Panasonic is with its reduced pixel gaps; which gives the image what we Could describe as cinematic picture quality. What I mean here is that while very sharp the image doesn’t show up a false looking sharpness usually caused by pixels becoming more obvious in the image. I’m not a fan of using flowery terminology and it becomes difficult to explain fully the look of the HW15 in this regard. I guess the cheap way out here would be to say the image doesn’t look falsely digital but more cinematic in its appearance.
The accuracy of the calibrated images build on the strengths already mentioned by adding more vivid colour and added depth where required. I can’t underestimate the advantages of correct image set up, and would recommend any prospective owners add some cash to get it ISF calibrated for maximum performance.
- Good black levels and contrast performance in light controlled environment
- Good greyscale performance out of the box with acceptable colour
- Excellent calibrated performance for greyscale and colour
- Video processing is very good
- Good value for money
- Quiet in eco mode
- 2D RCP is only adequate
- No anamorphic stretch or auto zoom for 2.35:1 screen use.
Sony VPL-HW15 SXRD HD Projector Review
Looking at the performance of the VPL-HW15 in out of the box settings, added to its price point and then looking at how accurate we can get the images, we have not found anything that would spoil the party. When comparing it against its market rivals, the Sony competes on a level playing field against models like our Highly Recommended Panasonic PT-AE4000 in terms of image quality and black levels, and the only way to separate them is with their added features.
The VPL-HW15 offers an excellent performance at its price point and is certainly a projector you should seek out for a demo.
Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black levels
2D Picture Quality
Ease Of Use
Value For Money
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