Projectors have been lagging far behind their TV cousins when it comes to the two latest TV technologies: 4K resolution and high dynamic range HDR. While seemingly every new mid- and high-end TV has 4K and HDR, the few 4K projectors available to consumers have been exceptionally expensive until just this year.
Sony was the first company with a true 4K projector, and more than two years ago CNET reviewed its VPL-VW350ES. It was great, but it cost $10,000.
The new VPL-VW285ES costs half as much. I got a private preview at CEDIA 2017, where two 160-inch screens showed it off alongside two competing 4K projectors.
My verdict? It makes some excellent pictures, and in the brief comparison I saw, it looked better with 4K and HDR than the other two (which both cost less than the Sony). Of course, a demo set up by a manufacturer needs to be taken with a big grain of salt, but what I saw looked promising.
Sony showed a mix of 4K Blu-ray content: "Ghostbusters (2016)," "Oblivion" and "Planet Earth II." Time was limited, but it was enough to get a rough idea about the performance.
Take "Ghostbusters" for instance. The wide color gamut colors were richly vibrant, especially noticeable in the brighter parts of the image, while still retaining detail in the shadows. While a high-end LCD or OLED TV would likely have a greater dynamic range, and of course be physically brighter, but the image quality on display here was excellent. In one scene, the Ghostbusters are using their proton packs to take out a ghost at a rock concert. The proton beams were bright and colorful.
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I would have liked to have gotten a more time to see "Planet Earth II" clips, but the small amount we saw was impressive. The deep shades of greens in the grass and the yellows and oranges of a sunset all were rather drool worthy.
With "Oblivion" the HDR aspect was less pronounced, though it there were stark differences with the lesser 4K projectors. Speaking of that…
It's a lot easier to get an idea about how displays stack up when you compare them side-by-side, which Sony had smartly done using a stack arrangement (above), similar to how CNET reviews projectors. I don't think it's entirely fair to name the projectors, since there wasn't an opportunity to ensure they were set up to look as good as they possibly could. Suffice it to say, one used DLP and one used LCD.
One takeaway is that what holds true for TVs also holds true for projectors: not all HDR is the same. For example, with the less-expensive DLP projector, there was obvious banding, solarization and noise. Perhaps not a fair comparison given the Sony is 2.5 times the price, but at the same time worth noting.
There's a scene in "Oblivion" where Tom Cruise is being interrogated by Morgan Freeman. Behind Tom in the darkened room is a spotlight with three elements. On the Sony, all three are visible. On the DLP, it's just a single blob.
This speaks more to correct HDR processing than the specific capabilities of the projectors, but that's still an important aspect. Especially since the DLP looked quite good, otherwise. On its own it'd be easy to enjoy it's colors, brightness and detail. The contrast ratio is almost certainly less than the Sony, which has always been the case with DLP vs SXRD, but it still looks good.
With the LCD, a different issue arose. Despite claiming to be 4K and HDR compatible, it can't accept a full bandwidth 4K HDR signal.
Even though $5K is a lot of money for a display in 2017, this is technically a low-end projector in its class. That means a few things go missing. One of the big ones is no motion-blur-reducing tech. No MotionFlow with 4K content, not even black frame insertion (though it does have it for 1080p content). This is disappointing, since SXRD blurs with motion much like LCD (and LG's version of OLED). There were a few moments in "Planet Earth II" where there seemed to be a bit more detail with the much cheaper DLP. Would you notice this without the PJs side-by-side? Hard to say. When I've reviewed SXRD projectors in the past, I could notice it, but then, I notice motion blur very easily.
The other disappointing missing feature is automatic lens shift. Other projectors in this price range let you set lens position and zoom so you can, for example, fill a 2.35:1 screen when watching movies, and zoom back in to show 1.78:1 TV shows in their correct aspect ratio. You do get that with the VPL-VW385ES, but it's $8,000. Ouch.
So yes, while the cost of 4K projection is falling, it's not going mainstream quite yet.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, TV resolutions explained, LED LCD vs. OLED, and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.