Sony VPL-VW790ES 4K Laser Projector Review

Tripping the laser light fantastic

SRP: £11,999.00

What is the Sony VPL-VW790ES?

The Sony VPL-VW790ES is the latest 4K HDR SXRD projector from the company, and replaces the previous VPL-VW760ES. This new projector uses an identical 4096 x 2160 chipset and Z-Phosphor laser light source as the earlier model with a claimed 2,000 lumens, along with all the same features such as motorised lens controls, lens memory, dual contrast control (dimmable laser light and dynamic iris), and digital focus optimiser for improved sharpness across the entire image.

The VW790ES adds the new 'X1 for Projector' picture processor, which ports over technology used in Sony's high-end BRAVIA TVs. The projector also adds a new feature – Dynamic HDR Enhancer. This is designed to improve the perceived HDR image by using scene-by-scene processing, although it should be stressed that it doesn't use dynamic tone mapping. Unusually, the VW790 is £3,000 cheaper than its predecessor, and costs £11,999 as at the time of writing (December 2020).

So let's put the Sony VPL-VW790ES through its paces, and see if it's worth the upgrade.

Design, Connections and Control

The Sony VPL-VW790ES looks identical to the earlier VW760ES, with the same curved, elegant and understated design. This projector looks functional rather than fancy, with grilles at the front and rear, connections along the left-hand-side (as you face the lens), and some basic controls on the right. The build quality is good, although not as impressive as you might expect from what is a premium product. The VW790 measures 560 x 223 x 496mm (WxHxD) in size, and weighs in at 20kg.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Sony VPL-VW790ES lens close-up

When the VW790ES first arrived, it looked as though something had fallen off around the lens. There was a large gap, making the inside the projector visible. However, after checking the earlier review of the VW760, it was apparent that this is how the projector looks. It's understood that the laser light source generates a lot of heat, and thus it needs extensive cooling, but it does look shoddy on what is a high-end product. At this price point, a motorised lens cover would also be expected.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Sony VPL-VW790ES connections

The connections are identical to the VW760ES, with two HDMI 2.0 inputs that can handle 18Gbps of 4K (3840 x 2160 and 4096 x 2160) video at up to 60p, 4:4:4 and wide colour gamut (BT.2020), with support for high dynamic range (HDR10 and HLG), and HDCP 2.2 copy protection. Other connections include a LAN port (RJ-45, 10BASE-T/100BASE-TX), two 12V triggers, an IR in, an RS232 connector for serial control, and a USB slot (for service use).

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Sony VPL-VW790ES remote control

There are some basic controls on the projector itself for on/off, input, menu and enter/navigation. These are included incase you misplace the provided remote control, although that seems unlikely given its size – it's the same huge controller that Sony has been including with its projectors for a while. The remote fits comfortably in your palm, and is easy to use with one hand. It's logically laid out with blocks of three or nine keys grouped together around a central directional pad and direct menu button. The top three are power, light and input, then nine picture modes, followed by zoom, focus and shift. Beneath the central directional controls are nine direct picture attribute options, and to the bottom are sharpness, brightness and contrast controls. The light control at the top activates a blue backlight for use in a darkened home cinema.

Features and Specs

The Sony VPL-VW790ES is a native 4K projector with a chipset that uses 4096 x 2160 pixels and SXRD (Silicon X-tal Reflective Display) technology. Instead of a traditional UHP lamp, it uses a Z-Phosphor laser light source which Sony claims will last 20,000 hours and deliver up to 2,000 Lumens. A laser light source has a number of advantages over a bulb, other than long life, such as significantly less dimming or drifting, which results in greater consistency over its life. Other benefits include fast on and off (20 seconds to turn on and near instant off), along with higher quality colours, better black levels and improved shadow detail. As the projector uses three SXRD panels, these need to be aligned properly, and on the review sample this was excellent, with no obvious misalignment.

Since the VW790ES uses a 4096 x 2160 panel, 4K Ultra HD resolution material (3840 x 2160) is shown with a slight black border at the sides of the image. There is a zoom function that scales up to the native resolution of the panel, but this introduces artefacts, and it makes more sense to zoom up the image to fit the screen using the lens controls. The lens appears to be high quality, with precise and detailed images. Test patterns look sharp and uniform, without any soft edges or chromatic aberrations. In terms of white field uniformity, this was also excellent with no colour shift or dark edges visible. This performance is helped by Sony's Digital Focus Optimiser, which uses optical analysis to apply an algorithm that compensates for any lack of focus in the lens, producing sharper and more detailed images.

 

The lens memory feature is annoyingly inaccurate, never correctly returning to a saved aspect ratio

The VW790 includes fully motorised lens shift, focus and zoom controls, and also has a lens memory feature for use with scope ratio screens. This allows the projector to change from 1.78:1 material to other aspect ratios such as 1.85:1, 2.00:1, 2.20:1, 2.35:1, 2.39:1 and 2.40:1, gradually filling up the scope ratio screen as the aspect ratio widens. There's also masking controls, so you can reframe content to its original wider aspect ratio, if presented opened up on a disc. The lens memory was something of a disappointment, and never correctly returned to one of the saved aspect ratios. This was very frustrating, and a far cry from the lens memories on the JVC 4K projectors, which work perfectly every time.

Other features include Reality Creation, which uses sophisticated algorithms and databases to analyse images, and apply adaptive sharpening and edge enhancement to improve the perceived crispness of the picture. Sony claims this works without adding digital noise, but if turned up too high it adds ringing and aliasing, masking genuine image detail, particularly in 4K content.

 

There are Reality Creation and Motionflow features, along with support for 3D, but the glasses are extra

The Motionflow controls include True Cinema, which results in excellent 24p playback, with 300 lines of motion resolution and no signs of judder. For sports broadcasts, you could try the low or high Smooth mode, which increases the motion resolution to around 600 lines and applies frame interpolation for smoother movement. However, don't use the Smooth mode with films or TV dramas because the frame interpolation will introduce the soap opera effect (SOE), which makes film look like cheap video.

The VW790ES supports active-shutter 3D, but if you want to take advantage of this feature you'll need to buy the necessary RF-capable glasses separately. Sony no longer makes its own glasses, and instead recommends you buy the XpanD X105-RF-X1 glasses for use with this projector.

The projector is fairly quiet in operation, although Sony's claims of 24dB fan noise are a little optimistic. In fairness, even up close the noise never went above 30dB, but we found that whilst the VW790 is quiet with SDR material, the tone and frequency of the fans does change depending on the brightness of the image being projected. As a result, with HDR content we did notice the pitch of the noise changing from time to time. How noticeable the fan noise is will really depend on where you install the projector and how far away it is from the listening position. But in our home cinema, we didn’t really notice the fan noise at all, and we sit fairly close to the projector. Fan noise only really became obvious with certain HDR settings where the laser brightness was increased over 80.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Sony VPL-VW790ES menu system

The VW790ES uses the standard Sony projector menu system and user interface, which is generally intuitive and easy to follow (aside from a particular setting that I'll mention in the HDR section). There are plenty of options for optimising the image, along with numerous controls for professional calibrators. There's even an Auto Calibration feature, which measures the colour accuracy against a factory default and adjusts accordingly. By Sony's own admission this approach is relatively course, and if you're spending £11,999 this projector deserves to be professionally calibrated.

 

There are two new features: the 'X1 for Projector' image processor and the Dynamic HDR Enhancer

The VPL-VW790ES includes a couple of features not found on the earlier VW760ES, the first of which is the 'X1 for Projector' picture processor. This ports over much of the sophisticated image processing found on Sony's high-end 4K BRAVIA TVs, which is then optimised for video projection.

The second new feature is connected to the introduction of the 'X1 for Projector' processor, and takes advantage of the added processing power to apply the Dynamic HDR Enhancer. This analyses the HDR content on a frame-by-frame basis, and uses the laser brightness and dynamic iris to enhance HDR, making bright scenes brighter and dark scenes darker. We'll discuss both of these new features in more detail later in this review.

Since the new X1 chipset is a physical upgrade, Sony cannot add the Dynamic HDR Enhancer to the older VW760 via a firmware update. This is an area where JVC clearly have an advantage, with two major firmware upgrades adding significant new features to its existing 4K D-ILA N Series projector line-up over the last two years.

Measurements

SDR Out of the Box

The Sony VPL-VW790ES was measured out of the box against the industry standards for SDR – D65 white balance and the BT.709 colour gamut. We used the Reference picture preset for these measurements, setting the contrast and brightness controls for our viewing room and screen. We switched off all the unnecessary settings like Motionflow, laser dynamic, clear white and so on, and set gamma at 2.4 and colour temperature to D65. Laser output was left at the default setting of 80%, and the colour gamut was set to BT.709.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Out-of-the-box greyscale measurements
Sony VPL-VW790ES
Out-of-the-box colour saturation measurements

We recommended getting your new VW790ES professionally calibrated in the previous section, but if it's as accurate as this review sample there might not be much point. The greyscale and gamma performance was excellent, with only a slight excess of blue energy in the former, and the latter tracking our target of 2.4 very closely. As a result the deltaEs (errors) were all below the visible threshold of three.

 

The VW790ES delivered near-reference greyscale, gamma and colour accuracy right out of the box

The colour gamut performance was equally as impressive, with the Sony hitting the saturation targets for BT.709 very closely. The luminance measurements, which aren't shown on the graph above, were spot-on, and the overall errors were well below the visible threshold of three. In terms of the greyscale, gamma and colour gamut performance, the VW790ES delivers a near-reference performance right out of the box.

SDR Calibrated

The VW790ES boasts a full suite of calibration controls, including Colour Temperature (two-point white balance) and Colour Correction (a full colour management system). However, given the accuracy shown above, there isn't much to do with these controls, aside from a few minor tweaks.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Calibrated greyscale measurements
Sony VPL-VW790ES
Calibrated colour saturation measurements

As you can see above, all that's necessary is to tickle the two-point and you have a reference greyscale and gamut, with errors that were all well below one - which is essentially perfect.

 

A few minor tweaks on the calibration controls and this projector delivers a reference level of SDR accuracy

It was the same with the colour gamut measurements, with the Sony hitting all the saturation targets accurately, along with perfect luminance measurements and errors that were also well below one. The result is a reference level of calibrated SDR accuracy after some very minor adjustments on the two-point white balance and CMS.

HDR Results

The VW790ES automatically goes into HDR upon receipt of a signal, and the picture mode is based on the one previously being used in SDR. So, if you are using the Reference picture preset for SDR, on receiving an HDR signal the projector uses the Reference preset with a few specific changes for HDR. For example, the default Contrast setting for HDR is 50, the PQ EOTF is ST.2084, and the Colour Space is BT.2020, although the target for Colour Temperature remains D65.

The projector can accept two versions of high dynamic range – HDR10 and hybrid log-gamma (HLG). There is an HDR setting with options for Auto (HDR10/HLG or HDR Reference/HLG), HDR10, HDR Reference and HLG. The best option is Auto (HDR10/HLG), which applies the correct setting depending on the incoming signal. The HDR10 setting will apply the correct tone-mapping for 1,000, 4,000 and 10,000 nits content, whereas the HDR Reference setting is designed to replicate a Sony professional monitor and hard clips at 1,000 nits. As a result, HDR Reference is best avoided unless you know the content was graded at 1,000 nits.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
HDR greyscale and PQ tracking
Sony VPL-VW790ES
HDR DCI-P3 within BT.2020 tracking

The VW790ES delivered excellent greyscale accuracy and was able to track the PQ EOTF curve very well. However, to achieve this did require some manual adjustment in terms of the Contrast setting, Dynamic Control and Dynamic HDR Enhancer. The default settings produced an HDR image that appeared too dark, and this was borne out by measurements.

You can increase the overall brightness of the HDR image by moving the Contrast control up, but this will result in clipped highlights if you move the setting too high. The Dynamic Contrast control offers a choice of Limited or Full, and uses the laser brightness and dynamic iris to improve the perceived dynamic range. However, it seemed to work best on low APL scenes, and had no apparent impact on high APL scenes.

 

The HDR performance is good, but lacks a degree of pop and does not apply dynamic tone-mapping

According to Sony, the new Dynamic HDR Enhancer analyses the HDR signal on a frame-by-frame basis, and adjusts the laser light and iris accordingly to optimise the contrast. However, this is not a dynamic tone-mapping feature like the Frame Adapt mode found on the JVC 4K projectors. It doesn't appear to retrieve any details in clipped highlights by dynamically changing the tone mapping, and instead seems to apply an S-curve, which deepens the blacks and brightens the mid-tones to give HDR more pop. This curve also appears to be constant in its application, and the dynamic aspect relates to changing the laser light and iris, rather than the tone-mapping itself. This feature offers a choice of off, low, mid and high settings, but to get the HDR to track the PQ curve we needed to select the highest setting.

HDR is always challenging for a projector compared to a TV, with the former lacking the inherent brightness or ability to deliver the peak highlights associated with the format. However, as long as the tone-mapping is being performed correctly and the projector is reasonably bright, this shouldn't prevent it from delivering an enjoyable HDR experience. The power and consistency of the laser light source allows the VW790ES to produce a suitably bright image, hitting 100 nits on a 100-inch screen with a gain of 1.0. You can adjust the overall brightness of the laser light source using the Laser Light Output control, but the higher the setting the greater the fan noise. Sony's SXRD tech delivers decent blacks, although they still aren't as good as those found on JVC's D-ILA projectors. As a result, the on/off contrast ratio is a respectable 12,000:1 in HDR mode, and 4,500:1 in the calibrated SDR mode.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
DCI-P3 colour gamut coverage
Sony VPL-VW790ES
BT.2020 colour gamut coverage

The VW790ES doesn’t use a filter to create its wide colour gamut, allowing it to retain brightness in HDR. In terms of coverage the Sony managed 89% of DCI-P3 and 65% of BT.2020, which was slightly lower than expected for a projector with a laser light source. However, the VW790 tracked DCI-P3 within BT.2020 extremely well, and aside from some slight hue errors in magenta, and green not quite reaching 100%, the rest of the results were very good. The overall colour luminance remained impressive in HDR, and fidelity was good thanks primarily to the laser light source.

Performance

The Sony VPL-VW790ES delivers an excellent performance overall, although there are a few areas where it could be better. If you're watching SDR content, the results are often superb, especially with a really good 1080p Blu-ray. The remake of Total Recall might not be a good film, but it's an impressively mastered disc, and the VW790ES draws out every last pixel of detail. The new 'X1 for Projector' processor does an amazing job of upscaling lower resolution content, making full use of the native 4K panel to deliver astonishing images. The overall picture accuracy, decent black levels, and inherent brightness also combine to produce gorgeous SDR images that are sure to please.

However, while the picture is undeniably sharp and detailed, the images also subject to a degree of backdoor processing. The Reality Creation feature can be very effective with lower quality content, but with higher resolution material it tends to introduce artefacts and aliasing. But even with all those controls turned off, there is still some noise reduction being applied to the picture. You can bypass this to a degree by selecting the Game mode, or turning the Input Lag Reduction control on (we did the latter). However, even then images looked overly sharp and digital in appearance, especially when compared to the softer but more film-like qualities of the JVC D-ILA 4K projectors.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Sony VPL-VW790ES top view

The HDR performance is equally as impressive, but once again there were a few minor issues to mention. The first is that this projector isn't 'setup once and forget' when it comes to HDR, and depending on how the content is graded you may have to fiddle about with the settings. In fairness, this sometimes applies to the JVC projectors as well, but in that case you're usually just switching between the mid or high Theatre Optimiser modes. In addition, the application of an S-curve by the Dynamic HDR Enhancer also results in some loss of shadow detail above black and the introduction of a degree of posterisation in very dark scenes.

As a result, watching the opening of The New Mutants on 4K Blu-ray revealed these inherent limitations. As a Native American village is destroyed by an unseen attacker at night, there's a combination of bright and dark scenes. The VW790 delivered some nice detail in the main shots, but lacked punch when it came to explosions. In addition, as a character hides in a hole in a tree, the blacks appear crushed with no real detail in the bark in the dark background. This shadow detail is definitely more apparent when watching the same scene on the JVC N7, and on the Sony there appears to be an ethereal glow around the character that shouldn't be there.

 

This is a great all-round projector that delivers impressive big-screen images whether it's SDR, HDR, 3D or gaming

However, in later scenes the image looks fantastic, with the projector making the most of the film's native 4K image to deliver exceptional levels of detail. The colours also appear beautifully rendered, with a highly nuanced quality. The deliberately drab hospital interiors are contrasted with the greens and browns of the surrounding woods, while the explosions during the final battle are suitably saturated. Give the VW790ES a colourful film like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 and the primaries jump off the screen, whether it's the golden hues of The Sovereign, or the psychedelic stylings of Ego's home planet. There's no doubt that colours are a definite strong point of this projector.

All these strengths and weaknesses come into play when watching the new 4K release of the original (and vastly superior) Total Recall. The native 4K scan of the film's original camera negative allows the VW790 to draw out all the crisp detail in the film's Oscar-winning model work. The excellent motion handling also ensures the swooping camera moves around the alien artefacts on Mars are delivered with smooth precision. The deep, saturated and nuanced reds and pinks of Mars itself are also gorgeously rendered, while flesh tones appear suitably natural (apart from the mutants). However, as before, the highlights lack some pop and there is occasional loss of shadow detail.

Sony VPL-VW790ES
Sony VPL-VW790ES rear view

The VW790ES is a great choice for gamers, largely thanks a 36ms input lag, which is pretty low for a projector. This measurement also applies to any picture mode, as long as you have the Input Lag Reduction control engaged. The images produced are detailed, bright and colourful, regardless of whether you're gaming in SDR or HDR, while the motion handling ensures smooth and responsive gaming. The laser light source also means you don't have to worry about wearing out the bulb because of marathon gaming sessions. The result is highly engaging big-screen action, that is a suitably immersive gaming experience. 

Finally, if you're still interested in the third dimension, the Sony delivers an excellent performance with 3D movies. We happened to have a pair of XpanD X105-RF-X1 glasses, so we charged them up and popped on the 3D torture test on the second Spears and Munsil test Blu-ray. The VW790 handle these extremely well, with no signs of crosstalk. The images had wonderful depth, with bright and detailed images, plus some nice motion handling. Movies were equally as impressive, and the climactic battle in Avengers: Endgame was a real treat. There was staggering amounts of depth and detail in the image, especially during the "on your left" scene as the heroes arrived through portals.

Verdict

Pros

  • Impressive SDR images
  • Excellent HDR images
  • Great 3D performance
  • Good black levels and shadow detail
  • Stable and long-life laser light source
  • Accurate out-of-the-box measurements
  • Reference calibrated images
  • Fully motorised lens zoom/shift/focus
  • Good lens and sharp images
  • Low input lag for a projector

Cons

  • Doesn't apply dynamic tone-mapping
  • Some backdoor noise reduction
  • Build quality could be better
  • Gap around lens looks strange
  • Lens memory doesn't work properly
  • Can be noisy in higher light mode

Sony VPL-VW790ES 4K Laser Projector Review

Should I buy one?

The Sony VPL-VW790ES is an undeniably impressive SXRD projector that makes full use of its bright laser light source, so if you want a long lifespan and consistent performance, this is the model for you. It also delivers wonderfully detailed images, thanks to the native 4K panel and new 'X1 for Projector' processor. The VW790's exceptional sharpness does occasionally look slightly digital in appearance, and there's some backdoor noise reduction being applied, but the overall accuracy, brightness, black levels and colour reproduction are sure to please, as will the excellent 3D performance and 36ms input lag.

The HDR performance is generally good, even if sometimes lacks the pop of other projectors, and the colours are often exceptional. The Dynamic HDR Enhancer is effective at improving the perceived HDR, but it doesn't use dynamic tone-mapping, applying a static S-curve and using the laser brightness and dynamic iris instead. In terms of other issues, the build quality could be better given the price, and the lens memory feature is frustrating – never seeming to return correctly to a saved position. However, overall this is a cracking all-rounder, and the Sony VW790ES 4K laser projector comes highly recommended.

What are my alternatives?

The obvious alternative is the JVC DLA-N7, which is not only a fantastic projector, but also £3,500 cheaper. Of course you don't get the benefits of a laser light source, and the N7's bulb is only rated at 1,900 lumens, but in all other respects this is a superior beamer. There's a native 4K D-ILA chipset, all-glass lens, and fantastic level of build quality, plus a host of useful features that includes a lens memory that works perfectly every time, and impressively crosstalk-free performance with 3D.

The images are accurate, detailed and wonderfully film-like, and while not quite as sharp as the Sony, they never look processed or digital in appearance. The N7 also benefits from JVC's legendary black levels, which results in impressive contrast ratios. The SDR performance is superb, and the HDR images are the best we've seen from a projector thanks to dynamic tone mapping. Best of all JVC has already released two major firmware updates, ensuring this projector remains up-to-date.

Highly Recommended

Scores

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black levels

.
9

Colour Accuracy

10

Greyscale Accuracy

10

Image Uniformity

.
9

Video Processing

.
9

2D Picture Quality

.
9

3D Picture Quality

.
9

Picture Quality Out-of-the-Box

.
9

Picture Quality Calibrated

.
9

Features

.
.
8

Ease Of Use

.
9

Build Quality

.
.
8

Value For Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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