Sony VPL-VW550ES Reviewed

I cannot tell a lie, I was very tempted and, in the end, I simply couldn’t resist. I’m only human…

Sony’s UK PR department contacted me to see if I would be interested in reviewing a projector, the VPL-VW550ES UltraHD projector, based on Sony’s own SXRD LCOS technology and at the top of the range of home cinema projectors as it has genuine 4096 x 2160 resolution, with no wobbulating or other ‘cleverness’.

How could I say “No!”? The review was supposed to be done in early December, but there was a delay, which meant that we got the unit only just before the Christmas break. Needless to say my extended family was not unhappy about having the device over the holiday period!

We’re not set up here to perform a really detailed technical review of the product, but we did try it in a range of applications and with different content. Sony sent us its UltraHD Blu-ray player, but as we already had access to a Panasonic UB700 UltraHD Blu-ray player which was ‘known’, we used that as the main source, although we also drove the projector with a PC and with a ChromeCast Ultra (more later).

I’ve always been very impressed with the ‘smoothness’ of the images from the SXRD system, which are very ‘film like’ to me and this unit was no exception. In the range of content that I tested which included a number of UltraHD movies, including those that are technically demanding, such as ‘Sicario’ and also the Lego Movie, I didn’t see anything that I would describe as a noticeable artefact from the display. Images were, frankly, of fantastic quality, with great colour, resolution and motion performance. The UltraHD Blu-ray disks that we tried all gave great results and the images were so compelling that it was hard work to keep coming back to thinking about the image, rather than the content – and that’s always a good sign.

We used the display on the 77″ projection screen that we have and it would have been good to have been able to go to even larger. However, that is what we had. The screen is a matt white unit, with no gain and image quality was very good and with the relatively small diagonal, it was also bright. Sony claims up to 350K:1 dynamic contrast, but that is way beyond what was achievable in our non-optimised domestic arrangement.

Setting up is very simple. The projector has no keystone correction, but has a wide range of motorised shift adjustments and was easy to line up accurately and consistently with the remote. Focus was also easy to adjust. There were very small chromatic aberrations if you inspected very closely, but nothing that was visible from any realistic viewing distance. There is an adjustment for panel alignment, but this didn’t seem necessary to us. Geometry seemed excellent.

The projector worked seamlessly with the Panasonic player which correctly identified the UltraHD and HDR capabilities. We did some testing of UltraHD content scaled down to 1080P in the player and also with HDR on and off. Frankly, on most motion video, it really was hard to see a huge difference in the image quality with the different resolutions, although I think the UltraHD native mode was, marginally, more detailed. Inevitably, with the same UltraHD imagers being used and probably some automatic internal scaling (we couldn’t see a way to disable it), the differences between FullHD and UltraHD content were small. In the end, the only way to really judge the impact of the resolution would be to try it alongside a FullHD SXRD product.

We tried some content with the HDR mode on and off and it certainly seemed to allow more detail in the highlights in HDR, which tended to be blown out when we compared in SDR. However, in projectors there is not the same level of ‘pop’ from HDR that you tend to see in flat panel displays. That’s nothing to do with this unit, just the limitations on black levels in anything other than a dedicated black room.

We tried a range of different settings for the video, but generally went back to the built in ‘cinema’ modes. There are lots of settings available for mavens that want to delve into the calibration, but, frankly, you’d have to be very picky not to love the images ‘out of the box’.

We did note a couple of things that are worth remarking on. When showing content from our STB (a Sky HD box), there was a need to increase the audio delay quite a bit compared to our reference TV, but we tried some gaming with a PS3 and there was not enough of a lag to cause it to be unusable. However, without the projector being ceiling mounted, it wasn’t an extended test. The projector does have a fast response mode, had we had a problem with game play. We also saw some banding in the blue of the sky on some (Sony!) demonstration UltraHD HDR content on YouTube, but we can’t be sure that this wasn’t the content. We didn’t see the effect in any of the Blu-ray-based or STB-based content, so we don’t want to blame the projector.

We also hit a snag with the ChromeCast Ultra. The Sony projector is a high end piece of kit and doesn’t have any integrated audio. Nobody would use such a high end display without a decent sound system, so that doesn’t seem a silly decision. However, the ChromeCast Ultra that we wanted to use to test streamed UltraHD content doesn’t have any separate audio output – all the audio goes over the HDMI. Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to the right kit to split this out (our receiver doesn’t support UltraHD and we didn’t have time to get hold of a dedicated splitter), in the end we didn’t get to spend much time with Netflix UltraHD content, although we did briefly test it and it looked good.

We also ran the projector from a PC to have a look at some test patterns and data content and the projector worked very well. I certainly wouldn’t worry about using it in an application where data display is an important factor. It has plenty of brightness for this application (1800 lumens and as it’s a three display system, 1800 lumens of Colour Light Output) and as a user that has an UltraHD monitor on his desk, I appreciated that I didn’t have to compromise the image quality when projecting – which is my normal experience. Our reasonably recent ThinkPad supports UltraHD over the integrated HDMI, so the projector was easy to set up and operate.

The projector is big, but reasonably quiet. In our set up, the unit was closer than we would generally like to the viewers and the fan could be heard in quiet passages, but if it had been ceiling-mounted and further away from the viewers, which it would be in a permanent installation, I don’t think that fan noise would be an issue.

The connections are limited compared to a commercial projector, but given that this product is designed for the home, it looked like enough to us as such a projector would probably be connected to a high end receiver to control audio and video.

So, in summary, if money was no object, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one of these projectors. The performance was great and with good quality content it really is almost ‘transparent’ – you don’t notice the display, you see the content. The very minor issues that we had with the operation (such as no sound) would go away if the projector was properly installed and connected, so shouldn’t be taken into account.

I also suspect that you would need an even bigger screen – around the 100″ to get the full advantage of the UltraHD resolution, although it could be argued that having the displays and up-scaling that it does, makes having true UltraHD content less important (and that is probably a good thing, considering the recent reports from IHS that suggest that a lot of current UltraHD content is merely well upscaled from FullHD originals*).


*It’s one of the ‘dirty little secrets’ of Hollywood that, although UltraHD and 4K were used in production from more than ten years ago, the difficulty in archiving finished content at higher resolutions at the time meant that virtually all content until the last year or two was archived at 1080P.