|Sony VPL VW50 "Pearl" SXRD Video Projector|
|Home Theater Front Projectors SXRD Projectors|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Thursday, 01 March 2007|
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The performance increase of home video products over the past three years, paired with precipitous price drops, is nothing short of unprecedented. 50-inch HDTVs that only a few years ago cost $20,000 today cost less than $2,000. Never before have we seen video technology get so good so fast and for so little money. Companies like Vizio have gone from no-name brands to literally billion-dollar ventures today, providing consumers with access to HDTV video that can be the core of a truly respectable home theater at Costco prices.
Not to be outdone, Sony has stepped into the fray of incredibly powerful video with their Pearl projector that at last fall’s CEDIA trade show threw the world of consumer video projectors on its ass. This $4,999 projector drew attention from reviewers, dealers and competitors alike with its bright image, 1080p resolution, slick aesthetic and amazingly low price tag.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, I need to point out that if the projector’s model name, VPL-VW50, seems a bit odd or dare I say pedestrian, it’s because of the fact that most folks have come to call the VW50 by its code name: the Pearl. What makes the Pearl so special? For starters, it is a sight to behold; it’s simply stunning to look at, with its opalescent white top and graphite colored sides. The Pearl is rather large by most front-projection standards, measuring 15-and-a-half inches wide by seven inches tall and 18-and-a-half inches deep. The Pearl is also quite heavy, weighing in at a hair over 24 pounds. The Pearl is rather unassuming in terms of flaunting its technology. In fact, aside from its center-mounted lens, the rest of the Pearl’s casing is virtually void of any hi-fi paraphernalia. The Pearl’s inputs are located on the right side (looking from the front) of the projector, tucked neatly back (or behind, depending on how you mount the projector) and somewhat out view, furthering its sexy industrial design. Turning my attention to the Pearl’s inputs, I was pleased to find a barrage of options, most impressive being not one but two 1080p-capable HDMI inputs. The Pearl also has a PC monitor input, as well as single S-Video, composite video and component video inputs. The Pearl has a trigger input, which can be used in conjunction with your motorized projection screen, as well as a RS-232 port for third-party control support from the likes of Crestron or AMX. The Pearl’s detachable power cord receptacle is located towards the backside of the projector to keep it clear of your video connections, as well as hidden out of view. The Pearl’s manual controls rest above its input connections. However, the Pearl was clearly designed to be calibrated and operated via remote, which I’ll get into later.
Under the hood, the Pearl boasts some rather impressive specs. For starters, the Pearl is a true 1080p projector, with a native resolution of 1920 by 1080 produced by its three HD SXRD panels. For those of you new to SXRD (Silicon Crystal Reflective Display), it is essentially Sony’s adaptation of LCD technology. It’s not a true LCD design in that SXRD is “reflective” (much like DLP and LCoS), with light “sandwiched” between liquid crystal panels, whereas in a true LCD design, light is passed through the liquid crystal panels directly. This “reflective” approach helps the Pearl to use its lamp more efficiently, resulting in higher contrast numbers and light output.
The Pearl also supports standard-definition resolutions (480/60i, 575/50i, 480/60p, 575/50p), as well as other high-definition formats (720/60p, 720/50p, 1080/60i, 1080/50i, 1080/24p, 1080/60p). However, its 1080p capabilities are reserved for its HDMI inputs. The Pearl has a reported contrast ratio of 15,000:1, with a maximum light output of 1,200 ANSI lumens. The total contrast ratio and light output is achieved when the projector is set to dynamic, with its Advanced Iris feature engaged but, once calibrated for optimum picture quality you can expect those stats to decrease significantly. Still, the Pearl should produce one hell of an image on any reasonably-sized screen (roughly 120 inches diagonal) in a darkened environment, specs be damned.
Which brings me to the remote. While ISF calibrator and fellow AVRev.com writer Kevin Miller generally praises Sony remotes, I have not previously shared his enthusiasm. In this case, the Pearl’s remote is rather good. It is simple is as simple does and performs what is asked of it with relative ease. It features full backlighting, albeit with the press of a button, and is easy enough to navigate without having to concentrate too hard. The Pearl is sometimes sluggish to respond to the remote’s signal, but this is a minor annoyance compared to my past experience with other Sony remotes. The design team gets a pat on the back from this picky editor.
This past holiday season, I bought a new house and immediately began the ever-stressful process of renovating it. At the heart of my reno is my new state-of-the-art dedicated home theater. While construction has been anything but smooth, due mainly in part to the truly incompetent national chain Empire Today, which I hired to do my flooring, the ordeal is nearing its end, giving me time to spend with my new video projector.
In the past, I’ve been a bigger is better sort of guy when it came to screens. However, after spending some time with Kevin Miller, I’ve changed my tune a bit. In reality, your projector is only as good as your screen and, if you go too large, you won’t be getting all of the performance you paid for. So, with Kevin’s guidance, I settled on a 92-inch diagonal screen from Screen Research. Screen Research, for those of you who may not know, is a Parisian company specializing in THX and ISF-certified, acoustically transparent projection screens. Acoustically transparent screens are nothing new. However, Screen Research’s take on them is a bit different in that they use a proprietary woven technique and material unlike the competition’s micro-perforated designs. The layout of my room was going to necessitate my center speaker being installed in-wall and behind the screen and their system fit my needs for picture quality and sonic transparency amazingly well.
I mounted the Sony Pearl about 12 feet back from my screen, using a universal ceiling mount from Sanus. The Sony Pearl has a pretty generous vertical lens shift, which allows it to be mounted fairly close to the ceiling without having to use a great deal of keystoning to correct for the angle, although it has zero horizontal lens shift. The Pearl’s lack of horizontal lens shift isn’t a deal-breaker here, but it does mean you have to pay attention to insure that the Sony’s lens falls dead center on your screen. Once the Pearl is mounted, you can use the remote to better dial in the image through the use of several Tron-like green grids. I found this part of the installation rather tedious, since the Pearl is sluggish to respond to the remote’s commands. You end up having to calibrate by anticipating the remote’s timing, then by being able to make exacting moves. This is especially bad when you’re trying to focus the projector. I can’t say for sure how many four-letter words were spewed out during this process, but it was enough to best my 3,000 word quota. If you’re at all uncertain or nervous about what I’ve just said, then you should consider allowing your local Sony dealer to install your projector for you.
Once I had the Pearl mounted, I connected it to my Meridian G68 controller via a set of component video cables from Ultralink. I let the G68 do all of the video switching between my Dish Network HD receiver, Toshiba HD DVD player and Meridian G98 transport. I connected my Sony BD-1 Blu-ray player with Ultralink’s HDMI cable directly to the Pearl to better take advantage of its 1080p capabilities. As for speakers, I went with my new Meridian in-walls (review coming soon) with the low bass being handled by my ever-ready LFM-1 Plus subwoofer from Outlaw Audio. All cabling came by way of Ultralink and XLO.
With my system in place, I began the calibration process. I cued up Digital Video Essentials and began going through the Pearl’s video controls to better enhance the video experience. Out of the box, the Pearl is very impressive with its rich, detailed blacks and vibrant colors. However, as you begin to calibrate the Pearl, it becomes apparent that the projector is way too bright and has a distinct blue shift throughout its color pallet. This is easy enough to fix with little effort, thanks to the Pearl’s stellar menu layout and control options. In about an hour, I was able to achieve a beautifully accurate image.