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.

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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??

Equip­ment

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.

Per­for­mance

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.

Con­clu­sion

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

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