“Like a blast of hair­spray”

FOR 4K and HDR sup­port; fine SD and HD up­scal­ing; set up AGAINST Noth­ing note­wor­thy, even at this price

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - First Tests -

Fol­low­ing the Award-win­ning suc­cess of Sony’s de­but 4K HDR pro­jec­tor (the VPLVW520ES), 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 VPLVW550ES is more a re­place­ment in the Sony pro­jec­tor line-up than an ad­di­tion, with the VPLVW520ES (£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.

Al­most cheat­ing…

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 heŠy 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

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