What is the Sony VPL-VW520ES?
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 Connections
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.
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 Specs
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.
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!)
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.
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 Review
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.
Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black levels
2D Picture Quality
3D Picture Quality
Picture Quality Out-of-the-Box
Picture Quality Calibrated
Ease Of Use
Value For Money
Our Review Ethos
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