“Like a blast of hairspray”
FOR 4K and HDR support; fine SD and HD upscaling; set up AGAINST Nothing noteworthy, even at this price
Following the Award-winning success of Sony’s debut 4K HDR projector (the VPLVW520ES), Sony’s second spec-heavy model could walk in greater footsteps only if it travelled to Bath and took the Jane Austen tour.
While most in the AV world are still readying their first native 4K projectors (though JVC has now launched its first model – at £30,000), Sony has supplied the market with a fair few over the past year or so – all high-end, all highly commendable. As if the competition didn’t already have to play catch-up to keep up with the brand’s 4K projector output, it’s now also got to contend with its HDR inclusivity.
The VPLVW550ES is more a replacement in the Sony projector line-up than an addition, with the VPLVW520ES (£9000) now being filtered out for this somewhat less expensive model.
Price (not spec) saver
The kinder sticker price seems to be more evidence of Sony’s magnanimity than any downgrade in specification. The 550ES is still a great hulk of a projector, and sticks with its predecessor’s 1800 lumens of brightness and 6000-hour lamp life. It marginally ups the contrast ratio to 350,000:1 and now both HDMI 2.0 inputs (which join LAN, PC and USB inputs) are compatible with HDCP 2.2, to allow passthrough of a 4K and HDR signal. Delivering the 4096 x 2160 resolution (the native 4K figure for projectors) is Sony’s SXRD projector technology, a fixture in its models for more than a decade. SXRD is a hybrid of DLP and LCD projectors’ methods, and works by lamp-light shining onto a reflective mirrored surface topped by a layer of liquid crystals, which twist to let the required light for the picture through, and block the light that isn’t wanted.
While not quite the pop-up tent equivalent of a projector, the Sony comes close. Plonk the hefty (14kg) unit on a sturdy shelf, and set-up requires simply spending a few minutes with the supplied remote. Focus, zoom and lens-shift are all motorised, controlled by three separate and, thankfully, responsive buttons.
It’s a more straightforward process than twiddling old-school dials, although we can't help feeling the lack of a true hands-on touch is a bit like cheating – like when we used a CD player rather than a turntable for the first time. If you’re all for making life easier for yourself, though, the Sony’s methods can’t be faulted.
A fine 4K picture
For those looking for their next 4K fix, we recommend Netflix’s Tale of Light which, as we load the streaming service via Sony’s 4K server, grabs our undivided attention – partly down to the accomplishments of the videographers, but mostly due to the projector’s delivery of them.
Like its predecessor, the VW550ES fills our 96in screen with the sharpness and percipience that has you thinking twice about leaving the room.
As we get up close and (almost too) personal to Alaskan grizzlies frolicking in the river, the picture reveals the texture and fine detail that gives their shaggy coats an almost unnerving tangibility.
The Sony proves equally adept with mountain gorillas’ wrinkled faces and the mossy trees in the forests of Uganda. Even with streaming – inherently not quite as clean or stable a format as Ultra HD Blu-ray discs – the Sony’s 4K performance is clearly head, if not shoulders, above the best Full HD projector pictures.
‘Cinema Film 1’ is our preferred picture mode of the eight available within the menu, although ultimately we’d plump for ‘User’ (where you have most control over the tweaking of individual picture settings). The Sony’s contrast is natural without additional processing, although despite the picture being pleasingly steady in the default mode, we would make use of Motionflow – especially when playing Full HD material. It acts like a blast of hairspray, making things just a bit more stable.
While in every other way the Sony is an irrefutable showman, its colour palette is, to its credit, more focused on realism and accuracy than eye-catching saturation. Muggy forests look natural, animal coats don’t appear single-toned, and shades of green reveal themselves as the camera picks out moss clinging to trees.
That’s not to say it can’t pop with colour when the material is there for it to – the thick red and yellow face paint and elaborately colourful costumes of a Papua New Guinean tribe come through with solidity and stunning richness.
Nature remains the theme of our testing as we move to Life of Pi on Ultra HD Blu-ray where, with the disc’s HDR and extra brightness adding to the equation, the Sony relishes the opportunity to perform at the top of its game.
There’s an even more broad approach to the colour palette in its wide range and subtlety, from skintones to snakeskin. The viewers eyes flit to places they perhaps wouldn’t normally: the shimmer of the sea, the shine of an animal’s wet coat, the glistening of fish scales. The fact that varying intensities of sunlight reflect off shirts is discernible, as is even the most subtle wear and tear on the boat.
HDR isn’t simply about added colour nuance, but also widening the parameters for brightness and darkness. 1800 lumens is by no means spellbindingly bright in projector terms, and blacks here are of a good LCD TV level rather than OLED. Yet this Sony never feels lacking at either end of the spectrum. A zebra’s stripes are velvety black and, as night falls, jellyfish luminesce through the water.
When handed the more mundane task of upscaling Blu-ray content, the Sony’s main preoccupation remains colour balance and fine detail, to the point where they can compete head to head with very decent Full HD projector performances.
As we put on The Lady in the Van on DVD, the Sony is mostly successful in its dogged determination to rid standard-definition pictures of blur and softness and kinder to viewers than Maggie Smith’s face in the process. It's not a miracle worker, it has no choice but to let some noise and softness creep in – after all, some serious upscaling goes behind the scenes here – but we find it more than watchable.
Big screen or big screen?
As picture technology advances, there’s no question projectors are now more closely aligned with their TV counterparts. But you have to pay a hefty premium to have the latest tech on a projector, and the choice of models is limited compared with largescreen TVS. Still, when there’s a projector as good as this Sony around, a limited choice is nothing to worry about.
VERDICT Sony’s sophomore 4K HDR projector delivers stellar performance at a lower price than its predecessor
“Alaskan grizzlies frolic in the river, and the picture reveals the texture and fine detail that gives their shaggy coats an almost unnerving tangibility”
It's a hey unit, but once set up and out of the way you can forget about it for 6000 hours of viewing Spend six grand on a projector and you want to be able to play all your sources on it – so there are plenty of inputs
The well thoughtout remote control handles set-up duties effectively and with almost worrying ease