Introduction to the Sony VPL-HW30AES 3D Projector
Since so many displays, both flat panel and projector, are now adding 3D to their feature lists, it’s getting harder and harder to write a witty intro for these products. Suffice it to say that 3D is here and we’re going to have it in our next TV or projector whether we like it or not. I was fortunate recently to have the opportunity to check out Sony’s version. Back at the CEDIA Expo in September of 2011, they introduced two new 3D projectors, the VPL-VW95ES and the VPL-HW30AES which is the subject of this review. Both are part of the ES line of components. This means you’ll need to visit an ES dealer to check them out, they aren’t available at most Sony shops or online. It also means you get a three-year warranty with replacement or loaner service and a special support line only available to ES customers.
The VPL-HW30AES is an LCoS projector. Sony calls their version of the technology SXRD but functionally it’s the same as the LCoS implementations used by JVC. They work similarly to LCD in that three panels are used, one for each primary color. The panels contain a microscopic matrix of liquid crystals which align to either let light through or block it. LCoS differs from LCD in that the light is passed through the panels twice; once from the source then a second time when it is reflected back. This results in significantly higher contrast and deeper black levels than LCD. It also reduces the visible pixel separation, also known as screen door effect, to almost nothing. The end result is, in my opinion, the best quality image available from digital projection.
Knowing Sony’s commitment to quality imaging, I was anxious to put the HW30 through its paces. Let’s have a look, shall we?
SONY VPL-HW30AES 3D PROJECTOR SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: 3-chip SXRD (LCoS) Digital Projector
- Native aspect ratio: 16:9
- Anamorphic Lens Support: Yes
- Native Resolution: 1920×1080
- Maximum Refresh Rate: 120 Hz
- Throw ratio: 1.39-2.1:1
- Lens Shift: 65% Vertical, 25% Horizontal
- Light Output: 1,300 Lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 70,000:1
- Iris Control: 2 Auto modes, Manual (100 steps)
- Image Size: 40” – 300”
- Inputs: HDMI 1.4a (2), Component (1), 3D Sync RJ45 (1)
- Control: RS-232 (1), IR (1)
- Lamp Power: 200 Watts
- Dimensions: 7.1″ H X 16″ W x 18.3″ D
- Weight: 22 Pounds
- Warranty: 3 years
- MSRP: $3,999 USD with 2 Pairs of 3D Glasses and IR Emitter
- 3D glasses – $130/pair
- SECRETS Tag: Projectors, 3D, HDTV
Design of the Sony VPL-HW30AES 3D Projector
The VPL-HW30AES comes in a case that is distinctly Sony. Their SXRD models have always had a design that is unique and instantly recognizable as a Sony product. This one is basically a square with beveled corners and an arched top. The lens is front and center with louvered vents in the corners that expel heat from the lamp. The intake is around back which is nice because you don’t need much rear wall clearance when mounting the projector. The fan is almost imperceptible when running. Even in my super-quiet room, I could barely tell it was on. On the high lamp mode the noise increases a tiny bit but it’s still the quietest projector I’ve ever tested. On the bottom are two leveling feet with a wide rubber strip supporting the chassis in back.
Up top, the only controls are the two lens shift dials. With 65 percent (screen height) of vertical lens shift available, the HW30 can work in a variety of positions both above and below the screen. Zoom and focus are accomplished with rings around the lens barrel. On the right side are basic controls for turning the power on and off, switching inputs and accessing the menus. Below that is the jack panel with its two HDMI, one component, and one VGA input. This is the first projector I’ve encountered that forgoes composite and S-video inputs – no loss there. For control, RS-232 and IR are provided. One jack I did not see was a 12-volt trigger. This is normally used to activate an anamorphic lens or a retractable screen. Omitting this means you’ll have to operate the lens or screen yourself rather than automatically. The final jack is an RJ45 connector for the 3D sync emitter. This device is about the size of a large pen and must be placed below or above your screen. You then run a standard Ethernet cable between the projector and the emitter. Since the sync is achieved via infrared, you must sit in line-of-sight with the emitter. I found if I tilted my head up enough, I could break the connection. I hope Sony and other manufacturers will consider using RF for future products as Optoma has with their current line of 3D projectors.
The menu system is well thought out and similar to past Sony projectors I’ve worked with. All the image adjustments are contained in the first two sections, Picture and Advanced Picture. This includes the iris controls which Sony calls Cinema Black Pro. There are two Auto settings, a manual aperture, and Off. Though I calibrated with the iris off, I found the Auto 1 option worked quite well at increasing the perceived contrast of actual content without being visible in its operation. Sony is one of the best in the business with its iris implementation and the HW30 was no exception. Also available is Motionflow, Sony’s version of frame interpolation, with three choices, High, Low and Off. Though the High and Low settings work as intended with no noticeable artifacts, I preferred to leave this off with one exception detailed in the In Use section. Color Space (gamut) presets number four with Wide 1 being the best starting point for calibration.
The next section, Screen, is where you’ll find all the aspect ratio choices. It was not immediately obvious whether the HW30 would support an anamorphic lens or not. The main aspect choices are 4:3, 16:9 or Zoom but a separate option, Vertical Size, can be used to stretch the image vertically and eliminate the black bars on 2.35:1 content. You’ll have to move the lens into place manually since there’s no 12v trigger. Additional choices let you dial in overscan or view images without scaling.
The Function menu has all the options for 3D viewing. You can choose your format or do as I did and leave it on Auto. The HW30 does offer a 2D to 3D conversion feature. The manual states this will have varying effects depending on content. You can adjust the depth of the conversion to five different levels. It doesn’t really add dimension as much as place objects on multiple flat planes. Some viewers may like it; I did not. One control that piqued my interest here was the 3D Glasses Brightness slider. The most significant penalty for going 3D with any display is the loss of light output. Turning up this control to Max improved the image markedly with no penalties. Kudos to Sony for including this; it’s something that should be on every 3D TV and projector. If you use other Sony components with HDMI CEC, you can add the HW30 to the chain with options in the HDMI Control section.
The Installation menu has options for placement, keystone (which should never be used since it cuts resolution), and image masking. There is also a Panel Alignment that lets you tweak the convergence of the three SXRD panels. This is a great tool and only Sony has a system that allows changes of less than a single pixel. There is no multi-zone adjustment like on the CRTs of old but it still allows you to achieve nearly perfect convergence which translates to sharper images with better edge-to-edge uniformity. The final menu is labeled Information and simply displays the model and serial number and all signal info. This is always useful when setting up a system and optimizing your sources.
The remote is a typical Sony wand with full backlighting and nice feel in the hand. I had to point it directly at the screen to execute commands; lazy waving of the handset produced less consistent results. Given its extreme length, I wish Sony had included discrete input keys instead of the single Input button. There are discretes for the picture modes and also rockers for adjusting Sharpness, Brightness and Contrasts. Another set of keys toggles Gamma presets, Color Temp, aspect ratio, Motionflow and other image parameters. I had no real issues with the remote except for its large size. Either make it smaller or give me more buttons!
Setup of the Sony VPL-HW30AES 3D Projector
With its generous lens shift and zoom range, I had little trouble placing the HW30 on my usual shelf and fitting the image to a 92-inch diagonal screen. All controls are manual, not uncommon in this price range, so I had to do a bit of back and forth to get the focus just right. Patterns are provided in the projector’s menu or you can use some of your own if you wish. To activate the 3D function of the projector, I had to unplug the power cord and do a power cycle after connecting the emitter. If you don’t do this, the 3D menus will not appear. One item Sony did not include was a cable to link the emitter with the HW30. The manual says to use an Ethernet cable of no greater than 15 meters. All I had on hand was a 20 meter length and it worked fine. After connecting my HDMI cable, I was ready to rock.
The menu system places all calibration controls in the Picture menu with the exception of the color management system which is in the Advanced Picture section. Full facility is provided for adjusting grayscale, gamma, color sharpness and video processing. There are nine picture modes including the dreaded Dynamic setting for those who wish to assault their eyeballs with cartoonish colors, edge enhancement, and a color temp so cool it gives me the chills. I turned, as always, to the three Cinema modes. After eyeballing them (they are subtly different) I settled on Cinema 1 as the best starting point. I usually make this choice based on which mode offers the best color accuracy and gamma performance. Lamp power was set to Low and the iris was turned off and left fully open. One should never calibrate a display with the iris on as it will skew gamma measurements and can even affect color. There are also two User modes but since the Cinema modes are fully adjustable, I didn’t need them.
To dial in the gamma, you can choose between eight different curves or turn it off which makes it linear (undesirable). The number 8 setting tracked closest to 2.2. You can tweak it further with a Black Adjust and White Adjust control which affects the two ends of the range. This is a nice way to give you some flexibility without the complexity of a multi-point gamma system. Calibrating grayscale was easy with high and low controls for each primary color that didn’t interact too much. One cool thing I noted – the color temp presets contain the usual High, Middle and Low options and five Custom modes. Each of them offers a different starting point which really speeds calibration. I chose Custom 3 which corresponds to the Low 1 setting. This is pretty close to D65 so I didn’t have to make big adjustments to get things right on the money.
When I started working with the CMS, which Sony calls Real Color Processing, I discovered a few challenges. In the past, RCP only included the mysterious Range and Position controls, which did nothing to actually improve color accuracy, along with traditional Color and Hue controls. Now they’ve added the third dimension with Brightness adjustments making the CMS far more useful. I was able to dial in the CIE points and luminance for all six colors to an excellent degree of accuracy. The challenge appeared when I revisited the grayscale. I found I could not tighten the tracking back up to my usual nit-picking standard of all errors below 1 DeltaE. I went back and forth for quite a while but could not get both grayscale tracking and color to line up perfectly. In the end, I chose to maximize grayscale accuracy and color luminance and allow the CIE points to be a little off. This gave me the most natural image and was a perfectly acceptable compromise. As you’ll see in the Benchmark section, the end result was quite excellent with only the tiniest flaws.
The Sony VPL-HW30AES 3D Projector In Use
When you put in a 3D Blu-ray, the projector automatically selects the Dynamic picture mode along with the higher lamp setting. Contrast is maxed and Color is bumped up 10 percent. I didn’t like the extra edge enhancement and the very blue color temperature that resulted so I switched back to my calibrated Cinema 1 preset. After a few changes which are detailed in the next paragraph, I had a reasonably bright, naturally-colored 3D image.
Sea Rex 3D, an Imax film, was the first Blu-ray I tried after calibrating the projector. I thought the image looked quite dim so I began tweaking a few controls. In the 3D menu, I set the Glasses Brightness control to Max, which improved the picture considerably. A major enemy of good 3D is the light reduction from the glasses and upping this setting helped a lot. I also changed the Black Adjust parameter in the Gamma menu to the lowest value. This helped deepen the black levels which had increased in the 3D mode, mainly due to the higher lamp setting. Once these changes were made, I settled in to watch. The 3D effect was quite convincing and I was quickly immersed in the film even though it was not the most entertaining fare. I did notice occasional ghosting but it was quite rare and only lasted for a few seconds. I also noticed a bit of motion blur which is sometimes visible with sample-and-hold technologies like LCoS and LCD. It did help to turn on the Motionflow to the Low setting but then you have the looks-like-video issue that may or may not be to your liking. I left it on for the whole film and enjoyed the improved resolution and reduced smearing.
Meet the Robinsons is a better example of 3D than Sea Rex. Although it’s a conversion, its bright image and saturated color make for a more effective presentation. I still saw ghosting for brief moments but the overall result was quite good. I tried turning off the Motionflow and found resolution to be well-preserved even in the fastest motion-oriented scenes. CGI will always make a display look good, and in this case, the Sony looked superb. I didn’t change any settings (other than Motionflow) and was rewarded with deep contrast, sharp detail and a bright, dynamic picture.
Captain America is another super-effort from Marvel Comics. This one takes place during World War II so the color palette runs a wide range from cool dankness to a warm soft glow. Depth and dimension were evident no matter what the material. Even in the more monochromatic scenes, detail and contrast always held up nicely. Film grain was present in the dark areas but it was never intrusive and the image never looked flat.
Unstoppable is at its heart an action flick, but it also provides a very realistic look at the challenges of several Pennsylvania railroad workers. The image has a very gritty feel with lots of subdued color. It relies more on texture, and this comes across extremely well from the HW30. I still believe LCoS provides the most film-like picture of any micro-display technology and this movie just reinforced that belief. Every piece of dirt, every greasy smudge, and every cold raindrop, could be felt and experienced as well as seen. I saw some neat motion effects where the edges of objects were blurred just so, to give the impression of speed. This sort of thing is a real torture test for any projector because the slightest flaw is shown big-as-life on my 92-inch screen. The Sony passed with flying colors.
The Sony VPL-HW30AES 3D Projector On The Bench
Equipment used: EyeOne Pro spectrophotometer, CalMAN Professional 3.7 analysis software, Accupel HDG-3000 signal generator, Spears & Munsil Benchmark Blu-ray disc.
All measurements were taken off the screen (Carada Brilliant White, gain 1.4) from the seating position (10 feet back). Video processing tests were performed using an Oppo BDP-93 connected directly to the projector and set to Source Direct mode.
Cinema 1 provided the best starting point for calibration as it was fairly accurate at the factory settings. Of the available color gamuts, Wide 1 is the closest to Rec 709 (HDTV) with only a slight oversaturation of Green. Color luminance is nearly perfect. Many displays don’t measure this well after adjustment much less before.
Pre-calibration grayscale and gamma was less accurate than the color measurements. Gamma was extremely bright especially as the signal level increased. This manifests as a washed-out and flat-looking image. Grayscale wasn’t great either with a bluish bottom end and a reddish top end.
After much fiddling with the CMS, I decided the results weren’t enough of an improvement to accept the grayscale issues that cropped up. Since the luminance is so good, small errors in one primary color are not visible since the overall balance is excellent. You can see it looks pretty much the same as the pre-calibration chart.
In cases where I cannot achieve a perfect color gamut chart, I check the ideal secondaries where cyan, magenta and yellow are recalculated based on the actual primaries. The chart below shows that the HW30 gets this right.
Post-calibration grayscale and gamma are pretty much perfect. Gamma runs a tiny bit light but tracking is flat enough that the error is invisible. White balance is also in the realm of perfection with errors of less than 1 DeltaE from bottom to top. This is superb performance.
Video processing was among the best I’ve tested from any display. The only failures were below black and above white signals in the PC mode and on the jaggies test. As always, take these results with a grain of salt. Any system using this projector is likely to have a disc player or video processor which will exceed the performance of the display’s. I couldn’t help noting though that the HW30 locked on to film and video cadences faster than my Oppo BDP-93! Although all the luma burst patterns looked fine, RGB and 4:4:4 looked better than 4:2:2.
Contrast performance was excellent though not quite at the level of the JVC models which are Sony’s principal competition. The HW30 does offer more light output however so it’s a tradeoff between the deepest blacks or a brighter picture. Ultimately it will depend on your particular application, screen size, throw distance, light control and other factors. Suffice it to say the minimum black measurement of .001 fL is at the lowest limit of my meter. With a peak calibrated output of 17.36 fL, that makes the on/off contrast ratio 17,360:1 which is superb. This is at the Low lamp power setting. By comparison, I have to set my Anthem LTX-500’s lamp on High to achieve 18 fL. There is significant light reduction in the 3D mode due to the glasses although the Glasses Brightness control helps somewhat. In 2D, the HW30 has more than enough light available for small to medium theaters.
Brightness and color uniformity was excellent in full-field patterns with almost no color tinting anywhere on the screen. This shows the effectiveness of the sub-pixel convergence adjustment which is only offered by Sony. Optical performance was about average for this price range with a small amount of softness visible around the edges of cross-hatch patterns.
Conclusions About the Sony VPL-HW30AES 3D Projector
- Lots of light output in 2D mode
- Excellent black levels
- Full set of calibration controls including a functional CMS
The Not So Good
- Light levels significantly reduced in 3D mode
- Occasional motion blur artifacts
- IR emitter needs to be installed on the screen with a long cable that is not included
- Calibration somewhat tedious due to controls that interact
While flat panel displays are in their second generation of 3D implementation, front projection is seeing its first examples hit the market. A few teething pains are to be expected. As a 2D projector the VPL-HW30AES offers a bright, accurate image with plenty of available light output for a very reasonable price. It wasn’t long ago that a sub-$4000 projector only offered basic calibration controls and merely average performance. Now manufacturers are offering everything including the kitchen sink for prices that compete with flat panel TVs. Though there are still high-end models that tickle the underside of $10,000, the question is beginning to loom – why? When you can get 95% of the performance for less than half the price, the choice seems to swing heavily in favor of the value priced units. Bravo to Sony and others for bringing front projection to the rest of us. It’s no longer only the stuff of high-end theaters.
Slight flaws aside, the HW30 is one terrific projector. And don’t forget the three-year warranty and ES-level service. You won’t find this in any other projector at this price point. Currently I have to give the 3D edge to DLP with its brighter picture and perfect motion rendering. LCoS is only a fraction behind though and I suspect in the near future, there won’t be a difference worth mentioning. I have no qualms with giving this Sony a high recommendation.