- Written by Chris Heinonen
- Published on 03 January 2014
Introduction to the Sony VPL-HW55ES Projector
In 2012, Sony produced my favorite projector of the year, the VPL-HW50ES. While many other projectors did certain things a little better, none has the combination of attributes that the HW50ES has. From movies to sports, bright rooms to dark, it managed to excel at everything I asked it to do.
In 2013, we some improvements with the VPL-HW55ES, including longer lamp life, contrast ratio, and brightness.
SONY VPL-HW55ES PROJECTOR SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: 3-Chip SXRD, 1920x1080p Projector
- Inputs: 2 x HDMI 1.4a, 1 x Component Video
- Brightness: 1700 Lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 120,000:1 with Iris
- Refresh Rate: 240 Hz
- Control: Remote In, RS-232
- Zoom: 1.6x manual
- Lens Shift: Manual; 25% horizontal, 65% Vertical
- Warranty: 3 Years
- Size: 7.1" H x 16" W x 18.25" D
- Weight: 22
- Included Accessories: Sony Image Director Software, Lens Cap, Power Cord
- MSRP: $3,999 USD
- SECRETS Tags: Sony, Projectors, Video
Design and Setup of the Sony VPL-HW55ES Projector
The VPL-HW55ES looks identical to the earlier 50ES. It has ta dark, glossy blue paint job on the top that looks almost black. The same dual HDMI inputs and single component video input are there along with RS232 for control. There is a DSub input for a computer but most people will likely use HDMI for a laptop or HTPC at this point.
One of the largest changes with the 55ES is an improvement to lamp life. The 50ES came with an extra bulb and is rated for 2,000-3,000 hours of use. The 55ES no longer includes that extra bulb in box but includes a coupon for one if you pay $5 for shipping. The bulb is now rated for 5,000 hours of use in the VPL-HW55ES. Even at 5 hours a day, you're approaching three years before you need to replace it. Any testing of this will require a long time, since even run continually that is almost 7 months of continuous usage.
The other improvement is in the dynamic iris that can now offer even higher contrast ratios. The most important factor in any iris system is how well it can work without drawing any attention to itself. An iris that delivers higher contrast ratios but causes constant pulsing of the image isn't what anyone wants so hopefully Sony has managed to control it well.
Other carryover features are the Reality Creation system that I found made poor quality films look a little better last year. There is also Motionflow for frame interpolation or black frame insertion to improve motion resolution, and a full color management system with Sony's Real Color Processing.
The initial settings on the VPL-HW55ES out of the box are very good. It very close to the HDTV Rec. 709 standards. When most companies opt for a more eye-catching, though inaccurate, preset it is good to see this. With a 1.6x zoom lens and both horizontal and vertical lens shift, it is easy to position the VPL-HW55ES. I mounted it using an OmniMount PJT40 projector mount around 13' from a 122" 2.40 Screen Innovations SolarHD 1.3 4K screen. If the 1700 lumen rating on the VPL-HW55ES is accurate then it is plenty bright for this setup.
The Sony VPL-HW55ES Projector In Use
The Sony VPL-HW55ES claims improved contrast over the prior generation through use of a better automatic iris system. I almost always find these easy to spot when used, so I really wanted to see if they improved it. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 will test any iris system with dark scenes where explosions can cause the light level to suddenly shift.
With the iris on the Auto Limited setting, I cannot see it activate in use. Even when Voldemort's army launches a barrage on Hogwarts the explosions against a night sky do not cause any visible iris movement to me. Last year I was able to see this in action so Sony has gone back and improved this feature.
Also improved is the Film Mode, or black frame insertion, that the VPL-HW55ES offers. By inserting black frames between real frames of 24p content, the Sony mimics the behavior of a film projector where the shutter activates between, and often during, film frames. Last year this created a choppy effect that is certainly film-like but not in a good way. I left it disabled after initially testing it out.
This year during films I hardly notice that same behavior. It reduces light output, but the Sony has plenty to spare. Motion is far improved to the point that you think frame interpolation is active. As I verify that Motionflow is off I notice the blurring you can see in LCOS and LCD projectors is missing. In really bright areas of the image you see a slight flicker but I might not notice it if I was not looking for it.
When I switch from a movie to full field test patterns I can clearly see the flicker. So if you spend all day looking at test patterns, I'd leave it off. If you want to watch movies on your projector instead, it's a nice feature and the drawbacks are very slight.
The Macau entrance scene in Skyfall shows off the nice contrast ratios that the VPL-HW55ES is capable of. When Bond enters the casino and is backlit you can still make out his dark suit in the shadows. Fireworks explode against the night sky without triggering a visible change in the iris but offering a wonderful contrast to the dark skies.
The dark, shadow filled images on Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are easy to make out on the Sony. From bright white snow to dark shadows, all the details come across. The film moves from bright exteriors to shadowy interiors rapidly but the iris and film mode are invisible in use. Dark suits have texture and detail, and faces look superb. The bit of tint that has been applied to the film comes across and looks just like the director intended.
The VPL-HW55ES handles 3D well and better than last year. Watching Hugo there are no crosstalk artifacts or other issues that I can see. Images coming out from the screen instead of back into the screen always bother me, but the 3D is well done. The glasses sync quickly and easily, and they extend back along the side to shield your eyes from stray light. They are a bit tight for my head but I like the design more than other models.
Watching Monsters University the textures and colors practically jump off the screen. There is nothing dull or lifeless about the image, as the bright, vivid images look amazing. The improvements that Pixar have made in their image quality really show off and the Sony can deliver all of it. The opening skyline scenes of Drive are my favorite for checking out the native contrast of a projector. The nighttime sky here is very dark against the bright windows of the skyscrapers. It can't quite hit the levels of black that a JVC projector can, but without them side-by-side you would be hard pressed to know the difference.
The VPL-HW55ES is bright enough to watch content even with the lights on. As I attempt to catch up on Breaking Bad I can easily watch an episode with the lights on in the room. As wonderful as watching moving in a dark cave is, sometimes being able to watch them with some lights on is preferred. Especially if you want to have friends over to watch the Super Bowl where being in a dark room is not as enjoyable.
The viewing experience with the Sony VPL-HW55ES is very rewarding. Images are accurate and there is light output to spare. The updated dynamic iris and film mode improve the contrast ratio as well. The main missing feature I would like to see is a motorized lens system. Beyond helping people with screen ratios other than 16x9, it would make focusing much easier.
The Sony VPL-HW55ES Projector On The Bench
With the VPL-HW55ES I measured directly from the lens of the projector. This removes the screen as a variable. Light output is also only measured in lumens, as a foot Lamberts number is completely dependent on screen size and material while lumens are universal.
Straight from the box the Sony comes setup very well. The only adjustments I had to make are brightness and contrast, and changing the Gamma to 2.4. After viewing the HW55ES for a while I decided that a gamma of 2.2 works better with the Sony as 2.4 gets too murky in the deep shadows. The average grayscale error before calibration is only 2.1 which is going to not be visible. The gamma tracks 2.4 almost perfectly and the largest issue is in Red.
Post-calibration our grayscale error is only 0.58 dE2000 on average and the gamma tracks even better to 2.4. The color checker and saturations average errors improve but the red is still an issue. The Sony color management system is only OK and so you cannot correct these errors that well. As they only happen in red with 100% saturations it is not something you will see often, and it didn't cause an issue for me.
Lens uniformity is measured using a 13-point pattern that is found on the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark, Version 2. Measured at the screen we see a fairly even light fall-off around the screen with the corners registering 70% as bright as the center of the screen. Some cheaper projectors will fall off to 50% or less in the corners so this is performance in line with the price.
In my calibrated mode, the VPL-HW55ES produces 678 lumens. That is more than enough to handle a large screen at the recommended 14-16 ftL. Switching it to the Bright TV mode I see 1,340 lumens which can handle the largest screen you probably ever want to install. The main benefit is that as the lamp ages (this has 115 hours of use when I measure it) and gets dimmer, you will have lots of headroom before you need to replace it. Since it is rated for 5,000 hours of use that is good to see. It also runs very quietly in high lamp mode so it is very usable in that setting.
The VPL-HW55ES handles RGB Video and 4:4:4 YCbCr signals correctly but has a bit of a roll-off with 4:2:2 YCbCr content. I thought that 4:4:4 looks slightly better with a little bit of extra sharpening possibly going on with RGB signals. I can only detect this with test patterns and not real content.
For video processing the VPL-HW55ES does fine with 2:2 and 3:2 cadence materials. The jagged edges on the Ship video off Spears & Munsil are worse with the Sony handling the processing than my Oppo BDP-105. They are not bad and there is no extra haloing around them as on some displays, but feeding the VPL-HW55ES a 1080p signal is your best bet.
For the gamers, Game Mode introduces only 26ms of lag time. That is very good for a projector and you cannot blame the Sony if you don't play well online. The calibrated Reference mode has 62ms of lag so I would pick the Game mode for fast twitch games.
The bench performance of the VPL-HW55ES is very good and should not disappoint anyone. The only negative is the red primary that is a bit off but in regular content will hardly be noticeable.
Conclusions about the Sony VPL-HW55ES Projector
Last year the Sony VPL-HW50ES was my overall favorite projector and the VPL-HW55ES might retain that title. The improvements to lamp life, 3D, and the dynamic iris are impressive. That Sony can also keep it whisper quiet when running in high lamp mode, which many others cannot, makes it a very flexible unit.
The biggest improvement to me is the improved iris and film mode performance. Once I set the iris to Limited On and enabled Film Mode, I never felt the need to disable them. The improved contrast ratio and motion make for a much better image and with no real drawbacks. I can see where some people might be more sensitive to the slight flicker that Film Mode can present but I found it almost invisible.
My only reservation on the VPL-HW55ES is that I received a unit with a bad lens to begin with. Focus was off and it never was able to look sharp. Sony replaced it and the new unit worked perfectly from that point on. They also told me that any consumer that has the same issue can easily get it replaced by their dealer as that flaw would be covered by the warranty. With a proper lens the Sony is very sharp, so you should expect yours to look as good as mine did.
The Sony VPL-HW55ES is one of the best projectors out there today. Highly accurate, very bright, and still my first choice for a do-everything unit under $5,000. Just like before there are other units that can do individual things better but nothing with the full package that the VPL-HW55ES offers. It is an all-around winner of a projector.