4K ULTRA SHORT THROW PROJECTION
True native 4K projection doesn’t come cheap, but Sony has certainly made it convenient with its Ultra Short Throw VZ1000ES.
Sony delivers true native 4K in an upfiring short throw projector.
Sony still seems to be the only serious supplier of front projectors capable of natively delivering Ultra High Definition video at a range of frame rates. Despite the lack of competition, the company has expanded its range into something rather unexpected: an ultra-short-throw model. Indeed, an ultra-short-throw model with a laser phosphor light engine. Let’s dig in, shall we??
First: Ultra HD. As is Sony’s wont, the resolution is actually 4K rather than UHD. That is to say, 4096 (the 4000-ish number that fits comfortably into the binary system) × 2160 pixels, not 3840 × 2160 pixels. If for some reason one were using this as a computer display, perhaps with custom graphics in a public arena, one would use the full 4K. In a home, the projector would be installed with a 16:9 screen and placed so that the pixels to the left and right of the 3840-pixel-wide area overlap the edge of the screen, falling on the light-absorbent frame. That way you get proper 1:1 pixel mapping with Ultra HD Blu-ray, and simple whole number scaling with regular Blu-ray. (Lower resolutions? Heck, the 720 pixel width of 576i/p and 480i/p doesn’t divide neatly into either 3840 or 4096, nor for that matter into 1920, so anything goes there.)
Sony uses three 19mm SXRD panels (SXRD is Sony’s version of LCoS, or Liquid Crystal on Silicon) with that full 4096 × 2160 pixel resolution. Unlike LCD panels, the light does not shine through SXRD panels; it reflects from their surfaces. So in that sense they are like Digital Micromirror Devices, except that they are solid state. The mirror state is achieved by the application of an electrical signal to the crystals, not by prompting a physical mirror to move.
While on the subject of resolution, I should note that Constant Image Height projection is not possible. The ultra-short-throw nature of the projector means it uses mirrors and an extremely wide spread of light as it emerges from the projector, so there can be no add-on anamorphic lens used.
The projector is very, very wide — 925mm — and nearly half a metre deep. It weighs a not inconsiderable 35 kilograms. So this is a big beast. But as you can see from the pictures, it will be up very close to the screen. For a 16:9 screen the range between the front of the projector and the screen needed to produce a screen-filling image for a 100-inch screen is just 155mm. Effectively the projector is going to be right at the foot of the screen, or installed immediately above it (note Sony tells us it is capable of ceiling or even rear mounting, but that “we don’t support it”; we’re not sure what that means, so ask your dealer if that’s your plan). Sony recommends it for a maximum 120-inch screen size.
There’s a tiny amount of zoom and lens shift adjustment, but they are sufficient only for tweaking the final image placement, not for overcoming any significant problems in installation.
The other part of a projector’s ‘engine’ is the lamp, or the device that produces the light which is to be split into primary colours, reflected from panels and focused through a lens and mirror assembly. Sony has gone for its high end Z-Phosphor system. Rather than a lamp and filament, this uses a high powered blue LED laser to shoot its output at a spinning disc coated with a whiteglowing phosphor. Well, it glows white when hit by the laser. And that’s it, that’s the light source.
Advantages? Despite the moving parts, it’s relatively solid state. With normal projector lamps, care has to be taken with their orientation because undue stress on the lamp’s filament (due to gravity pulling in the wrong direction) can shorten its life. This system doesn’t care.
Another advantage: instant on and off. That’s not to say the projector is instant on and off; it has to boot up and cool down. But this ‘lamp’ can be switched off in dark scenes with no damage. It can also be turned down and up on the fly, to assume the effect of a dynamic iris.
Finally, lamp life is enormous. You’re looking at 20,000 hours, with the first 12,000 hours (or five years, whichever comes first) under warranty. To use up the 12,000 hour allowance in that five years you’d have to watch stuff for 11 hours every day.
The hard part of installing this projector is, as with any ultra-short-throw projector, getting the picture aligned perfectly. A millimetre of twist and the picture distorts grievously and the focus is thrown way off. I spent a lot of time nudging things this way and that, using a variety of ad hoc positioning aids, since I had to get the projector to work with my existing screen. Normally you (or better, a professional) would install projector and screen with a mind towards the needs of both.
In the end I achieved a satisfactory, although far from perfect, compromise. There was still a little rhomboid distortion (that’s the shape, not the muscle, although in view of the projector’s weight the latter might also suffer distortion from too much handling of this projector).
The first thing to note was the smooth and immensely detailed picture. Particularly, of course, with Ultra HD content and high resolution photos. Sony says that the output of the projector is 2500 lumens and the contrast is ‘infinite’. But the latter is with a picture setting that applies an aggressive dynamic brightness adjustment, and thus brings the output of the ‘lamp’ to zero when the picture fades to black. In practice, the black levels — when there was still something showing on the screen — were very good, but certainly nothing suggesting an infinite contrast ratio. A projection screen being much bigger than a typical TV, one’s eyes are less swayed in their assessment of one part of the screen by content on another part. Subjectively the projector was good on black levels just about all the time, but in some dark scenes the sense was more of different levels of deep dark greys, rather than subtlely-lit areas over full black.
The colour was lovely. The blacks might not have gone to the OLED depths to which we’ve lately become accustomed, but the projector does accept the full HDR signal, along with wide colour, and it makes a fair fist of delivering the latter. With Ultra HD discs there was no banding — ever, at any point, no matter how subtle the colour graduations demanded by the signal. That’s the kind of thing you don’t actually notice. What you do notice is when a projector fails to deliver that smoothness, because it defies the sense of reality a scene should present and thus pulls one’s attention out of it. There was no such pulling out here.
At the less subtle, bolder end of the scale — the reds of Deadpool for example — the projector positively glowed with life. Greens in the pastoral scenes in the middle of Logan almost made one want to go there to luxuriate in the grass.
The projector can be extremely revealing. I was using The Fugitive Blu-ray disc to assess the motion smoothing system (it has the best scene — a Chicago flyover around one hour in). The ‘TrueCinema’ setting didn’t seem to do much. ‘Smooth High’ made things very smooth, but produced modest amounts of heat-haze distortion’; it was clearly generating more than one intermediate frame between each pair of real frames. ‘Smooth Low’ was a happy medium. It created one new frame for each gap, so some judder remained, but
only on the worst scenes, and even then it was much reduced. There was no apparent distortion.
But the projector reminded me that this particular disc had been recreated to 1080p/24 from a 1080i source (why? I don’t know). This was obvious with the size and sharpness of the image created by this projector. I could see the little lines of mismatch in the recreation. As always, a higher-resolution and more revealing display can sometimes make things uncomfortable.
As I’ve previously noticed with other Ultra HD/4K Sony projectors, standard-definition interlaced signals (576i/50 and 480i/50) are simply not accepted. You will need to have them pre-converted to progressive scan. With 1080i/50, you can use the default ‘Auto’ for film mode, or switch it off (which means that motionadaptive deinterlacing suitable for video content is used). ‘Auto’ was reasonably competent at detecting film versus video content, although the my film test clips did briefly trick it into using video processing in two places.
Sony’s picture ‘improvement’ processing generally comes under the name of ‘Reality Creation’. I did a little search through my reviews and found a couple dating to the year 2000, when TVs still contained vacuums. Back then it was called Digital Reality Creation (these days, ‘digital’ goes without saying) and if my younger self is to be believed, it doubled resolution vertically and horizontally! Now it does a little bit of edge enhancing and generally attempts to make things sharper. I’d normally criticise this, and I suppose I shall again, but more out of theory than any conviction that it does a lot of damage. The photos here of my UHD test pattern taken with this setting ‘on’ (which is the default) and ‘off’ show some darkening of aspects of the picture along with that edge enhancement. But sitting in my viewing seat, 2.7 metres from the screen, it was very hard to see any difference. With Ultra HD, processing artifacts tend to be too small to be particularly noticeable, even when delivered to a large projection screen.
Sony so far still seems to be the only choice for Ultra HD projectors able to work elegantly with 24 and 50 frame per second material, in addition to 60fps. Whether you’d want Ultra Short Throw or normal throw really comes down to your viewing room. I like it. It took me a couple of evenings to get used to it, but it really was great to be able to stand up at any time and not have my shadow cast on the screen, mid-movie. Your other consideration is price versus specs, since Sony does offer other more conventional native 4K projectors for less — half the price, indeed. Stephen Dawson
RIGHT: Sony’s VZ1000ES is 925mm wide and nearly half a metre deep; it weighs 35kg. But it delivers the real thing — native 4K at all common frame rates, with no need for any jiggery-pokery.
ABOVE: The projector unit is large, but being ultra-short-throw, it can be relatively conveniently situated. RIGHT: ‘Reality Creation’ off and on, close-up detail taken using a camera. The differences were minor (see text).
Reality Creation OFF
Reality Creation ON