Sony Qualia 004 SXRD Video Projector 
Home Theater Front Projectors SXRD Projectors
Written by Michael Levy   
Sunday, 01 May 2005

Sony, an undisputed heavyweight in the world of home and professional video, has introduced a new product and product line designed to achieve the often elusive and transient goal of creating the best video image in the home theater world. With their new Qualia brand, Sony has invested significant design resources in creating a variety of special products, from 70-inch rear projection sets to headphones to the object of this review, the Qualia 004 SXRD, which is a most impressive $30,000 video projector.

Sony is no stranger to top of the line video, considering the historical market dominance of their G90 nine-inch CRT projector. In its day and for its price, the G90 was a home theater champion. Today’s consumer market no longer supports CRT projectors nor do I recommend them, considering the advances made in digital projection in the past few years. Gone are the days of low light output and the need for the constant calibration and support one will find on a CRT projector. However, some hardliners have remained steadfast in their belief in the CRT’s ability to create the best possible picture for top home theater systems. The Qualia 004 was created to prove them wrong.

The Qualia Concept
Qualia differs form the traditional Sony line in that it cannot be found in mainstream consumer electronics dealer shops. Qualia is sold at two dedicated Sony stores, one in Manhattan and the other at the Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas, and by top custom installers, specifically trained AV dealers. Qualia’s customer service mandate is a refreshing change in the home theater industry and a needed one in the cutting edge world of ultra-video. Sony created an 877.QUALIA3 phone number with highly trained 24/7 customer support for dealers and consumers alike. Each customer (or dealer) can use the Qualia concierge to coordinate logistics and/or arrange delivery. The actual delivery includes unpacking and removal of boxes and packing if desired as part of Qualia’s “white glove” service. This is specifically useful with the 70-inch rear projection Qualia 006, considering its size. Qualia is sold by dealers who are capable of both installing and calibrating projectors like the 004.

Description and Design Philosophy
The handsome exterior of this top-of-the-line consumer video projector hints at the innovative symmetrical straight path design contained within. The metallic blue and brushed aluminum exterior does not stand out, but silently makes a statement of quality. Measuring 23-and-one-half inches wide by 29-and-three-eighths inches long by eight inches high, weighing in at 88 pounds, it is larger than most digital home theater projectors, but is considerably smaller than a CRT projector. It has an understated elegance. The Qualia 004 lets the image it projects speak for it.

If you are ever in New York City or Las Vegas, a trip to the Sony store is a very worthwhile experience. For me, it was easy to see that the Sony store concept works extremely well in this bustling section of Manhattan. The store is full of people looking to find or find out about various Sony products. Downstairs, the Qualia division displays its products, and in the back of the store, there is a demonstration room for the Qualia 004 SXRD projector. Traditional DVDs, as well as a prototype Blu-ray disc featuring HDTV, can be played there. Although the room and screen are smaller than what I would expect this projector to normally be coupled to in clients’ homes, from a position at just under twice the width away from the screen, the image took command of the room and had the same color values and detail that I would expect from a pristine film viewed from the same perspective. Because of cost and logistics, this was the venue where I mainly evaluated the Qualia 004 projector for this review.

Film is really what it’s all about. A video projector that is designed for home theater is expected to recreate the film experience. Most projection systems were originally designed for presentation purposes. This is where Sony's design team took a new point of view. First, they looked at the application the product is being designed for. With that in mind, they dissected it into its components to find the best way of making them an integral unit with one purpose: to recreate the look of film on the screen. Everything, including the bulb, the imaging panels, the light path and the lens system was examined. The smooth detail, the deep colors, the contiguous image, the corner to corner detail and accuracy of the images this projector can display are well beyond the abilities of a normal home theater projector and are the result of this concept of what a home theater projector should do.

Start at the source. The UHP bulbs used in most projectors have a peaky light spectrum that diminishes the color detail when the imaging panel is used in an attempt to control those peaks. The pure Xenon bulb used in the Sony has the smoothest and most natural light spectrum available. The color spectrum of the bulb is very important for accurate reproduction of color. Think of it like looking at someone under a florescent bulb, compared to viewing the same person under an incandescent bulb and compare that to how they appear in sunlight. A rosy complexion in sunlight may look pale under a fluorescent lamp. The spectrum of light makes a very big difference in our perception. You get the same effect with the spectrum of light coming from a projector’s bulb.

In order to create the full color spectrum, the projector splits the light from the bulb into red, green, and blue. The industry standard does not call for monochromatic colors. It is designed to use these three video colors, which contain a band of frequencies centered at each color. Therefore, the width and smoothness of the bulb’s spectrum can alter the accuracy of the colors reproduced. Some but not all problems normally caused by a UHP bulb’s spectrum can be alleviated by filtering, but you must always pay a price in brightness. Sony solves the problem in the Qualia the old-fashioned way, by having the right spectrum coming from the bulb. The pure Xenon bulb used in the Qualia 004 has a smooth wide spectrum that closely tracks the sun’s spectrum. The result is deeper and better defined colors.

The light path is the same distance for all three colors. This ensures that the lens system will align the colors correctly from edge to edge of the image, and focus them at the same distance. The projector uses three of their proprietary 0.78 inch SXRD (Silicon X-tal Reflective Display) panels, with each panel dedicated to one main color, rather than using one panel and a color wheel. This increases the gray scale detail in each color, allowing for a much more detailed spectrum of colors. It also prevents the rainbow effect that can be seen with fast motion when using a color wheel. The SXRD display technology utilized here is a reflective technology that minimizes the space between pixels. Only eight percent of the image is lost to the space between pixels, with 92 percent dedicated to reproducing the image. The small space between the pixels and the high pixel count (1920 by 1080) makes the image so smooth that the pixels are invisible until you are nearly standing with your nose to the screen. The straight path design of the projector allows the cabinet layout to have enough room for low restrictive air flow to cool the bulb properly and quiet the noise from the fans. Additionally, the case is internally lined with foamed aluminum that helps both cool and quiet the projector.

The lenses for this projector are additional. Three choices are available: a wide-zoom, a mid-zoom and a tele-zoom. They are what you would expect from a contender for a state of the art product, made by the world-renowned Carl Zeiss lens company. Any camera enthusiast knows Zeiss’ reputation. They have a multitude of elements (the mid zoom has 15 elements, for example), with at least five elements in each lens that have extra low dispersion. The result is excellent focus and color alignment from edge to edge.

Sony does not publish the rated light output of this projector, but simply states that it has enough light output for up to a 300 inch 16x9 screen. I think the decision not to publish a lumens specification is the result of the industry marketing projectors by light output, as though they were selling flashlights. In my work, I have found many companies’ ratings to be inflated and based on the wrong color settings in most projectors. The truth is that most digital projectors are now too bright for their respective screens. The Qualia 004 provides a remote-controlled iris with three settings and two lamp wattages for the bulb, allowing you to adjust the light output to match the screen. Setting the light output too high for a particular screen will degrade black level and thus image dynamics. Needless to say, unless you are designing a theater with a 20-foot-wide screen, the Qualia will likely have enough light output for your needs.

Viewing Movies on DVD and High Definition Blu-ray Discs
We compared the DVD of “Spider-Man 2” to the trailer for the movie in HD on Blu-ray laser. There literally was no contest. While the edge enhancement and noise level were visible on the DVD, the smooth detailed image in HD was as good as the best film. The image did not break down and the individual pixels remained invisible. I could find no digital artifacts. All colors were not only perfectly saturated, but also showed intimate details. Reds had depth and detail equal to the best transfers on film. The differences were most obvious on Spider-Man’s costume and on faces. A projector of this quality brings out the strengths and weaknesses of sources because of its incredible ability to reveal details. It also demonstrates how amazing HD can be. This is the only projector I have ever reviewed where I can use terms like “best” and especially “just like film.” Make no mistake, I consider these to be the highest accolades.

“Lawrence of Arabia” was originally filmed in the 70mm widescreen format. The detail, depth of field and color balance of the original film is legendary in the movie industry. The demonstration at the Sony store included a side by side comparison of the HD image with the DVD image. The line separating the two images could be shifted across the screen. As it crossed over fine details, they would disappear on the DVD side. Faces in the background that were clear became indistinguishable. The DVD had been recorded onto the Blu-ray laser for this comparison and it looked as good if not better than any DVD source I have ever seen. No obvious artifacts or ringing were evident. As you might expect, there was still no contest with the HD version.

“Star Trek: Insurrection” is one of my reference DVDs. I use the opening scenes to test the dynamics of brightly lit outdoor images, and the scenes in the caves to test the dynamics of dimly lit scenes. The outdoor scenes lacked nothing. Color and detail were state of the art and mimicked film in their character. The scenes in the caves had excellent black detail and dynamics when compared to film or any projection system using a bulb, but they did not give you the feeling that you were really in a dark cave. This is an experience that I have never had from a digital projector.

“Raging Bull” is my black and white test disc. It is a rare projector that can reproduce it as though it is really a black and white celluloid image. There usually is some artifact on the screen to let you know this is not film. Incredibly, no such artifacts were visible with the Qualia 004. Strikingly, even the slightly sepia tone of black and white film was evident from edge to edge on the image.

“Master and Commander” evoked so much of the feeling of being at sea that I found myself walking like I had my sea legs on. You know, that rubbery feel they have after you have been on a ship for a while. The fog, the mist and the ocean came across so well that I was too involved in the film to be critical. I got sucked into the movie, which in retrospect is the goal of any great home theater system. Despite my goal of nitpicking and evaluating a great projection system, the projector got the best of me and suspended my disbelief. It took me until my drive home to fully realize what had happened and how impressive it was.

The Downside
While the internal scaler for the 004 is as good as any internal processor I have seen to date, it is not as smooth or as free of artifacts on non HD sources as some of the better available external processors. If you are a stickler for the absolute best image and have at least an extra four figures to invest, I could recommend using a top video processor for DVD-Video sources. Be sure to choose one that can output at 1080i. The projector does not accept 1080p 60 frame sources. It will only accept 1080 format HD material from 1080i 60 field sources that it converts to 1080p internally. I recommend using the digital input. Using the component input with a DVD source, the noise level was elevated, and ringing was evident at the edges of images, even when I set the detail level to zero. These artifacts are caused by image enhancement and they were far less evident on digital sources. They disappeared on high definition sources, which truly had the look and feel of film.

Contrast ratio is comparable to a fine film projector. It is a very dark gray that the eyes see as black on almost all images. It only fails when compared to a CRT on low-contrast, dimly lit scenes like those in the caves on “Star Trek: Insurrection.” Please understand that I am not suggesting people go out and buy nine-inch CRT projectors. However, while it is no longer the reigning champion of video, the nine-inch CRT can still make some very black blacks. Still, the Qualia 004 gets exceptionally close to that long-standing standard. Sony has started using a dynamic iris on its new LCD projectors to improve black level on dimly lit scenes. I don’t mean to try to redesign what is a truly fine video projector, but it makes me wonder if this technology could be adapted to make the Qualia 004 even better.

Understandably, the retail venues where I was able to view the Qualia 004 limited my ability to calibrate and test the projector, so I asked a fellow calibrator, Jeremy R. Kipnis of Video Calibration Labs in Connecticut, for his measurements. He personally owns two Qualia 004 projectors and was among the first to get one in the United States.

According to his measurements, a brand new bulb put out approximately 16 foot-lamberts on an 18-foot-wide screen. This equates approximately 2,900 lumens. The bulb’s light output diminishes with time as it burns down, and after about 600 hours at the high bulb setting, it stabilizes at 50 percent of light output. After 1,500 hours, one of the bulbs indicated that it needed changing. Sony replaced it for free as defective – a hint as to how responsive the Qualia folks are. Strangely, there is no published life expectancy for the bulb. Other top projectors promote life expectancy of 1,000 hours with the hardware no longer functioning after that point, so the Qualia 004 can be considered to have a long-lasting bulb even at 1,500 hours, with the potential to last considerably longer, especially if you use the bulb at the lower setting.

Gray scale calibration at 6,500 degrees Kelvin was so accurate that it could be brought to within single digits of the reference. The true contrast ratio was about equal to film and approximately 33 percent of a reference CRT. Also, the projector has a color correction program that allows you to correct the color temperature in eight zones to level the lighting across the screen for an exceptionally evenly lit screen. In this aspect, it amazingly outperformed film.

While $30,000 may seem a high price to pay for a projector, it is actually a price breakthrough for a state of the art unit. Without question, the Sony Qualia outperforms systems that cost over $100,000 just a few years ago in almost every way I could experience or measure. To say I am impressed is to understate the obvious.

I will go on record to say that, at $30,000, the Sony Qualia projector is an outright value for its price, in addition to being a technological breakthrough at the high end of video. Because of its ability to create a picture that handily beats the best CRT ever available at any price and to impressively compete with the all-time reference of film, the Qualia 004 should be considered a cornerstone for any home theater system being designed in the $50,000 to $75,000-plus range. In comparison, to get the state of the art in audio today and create sound as impressive as the picture you would see from the 004, you would need to spend much more than the price of the Qualia 004.

When watching an HD source on a Qualia 004 on a good screen, you have the best image available in the home theater world at any price. In many ways, the Qualia 004 has the chops to compete favorably in the professional world, where projectors can cost far more than $100,000. It is time for the hardliners to give up the fight. There is a new champion being crowned in the home theater arena: the Qualia 004.
Manufacturer Sony
Model Qualia 004 SXRD Video Projector
Reviewer Michael Levy

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