On paper, Sony's Cineza projector concept rocks: affordable, designer models designed to appeal to ordinary, non-technical home cinema fans. Some early models even shipped with a free screen!
But, so far, the picture quality of these machines has sadly fallen short of our standards. We're hopeful the VPL-HS20 will change that. The reason? Simply that it's actually not the range's entry-level machine (that's the disappointing VPL-HS2), and as such gives us our first glimpse of what a 'step-up' Cineza can do.
The VPL-HS20 is hefty by LCD standards, but it wears its bulk well thanks to a nifty half-circle shape, high-gloss cream body and contrasted dark fascia. It's well connected too. Treats include DVI and HDMI digital video inputs (near-miraculous to find both), high-definition and progressive scan-compatible component video jacks, and a MemoryStick slot via which you can view digital photos. There's also an unusual 'PJ-Multi' multipurpose socket able to take component, S-Video and composite feeds via a provided 10m adaptor cable.
The HS20 has tricks galore - which means it's harder to set up than its rivals here. Things to make you go 'hmm' include: 'Side Shot' (a shape corrector meaning you can place the HS20 to the side of your screen), remote control-based zoom and focus, progressive scan modes, various video presets (which, by reducing the brightness, impact the HS20's fan noise levels) and an Iris feature that uses a special shutter to reduce brightness but boost black level response.
The 1,386 x 788 native resolution LCD panels, massive 1,400 ANSI Lumens brightness and 1,300:1 contrast ratio are all indicative of an LCD projector aimed higher than the budget standard. But the HS20 doesn't eke as much quality out of these specs as it might have done - unless you're using a very high-level source, as we'll explain later.
For starters, the picture isn't any brighter than that of the cheaper Sanyo and Panasonic in this test. With Iris switched on, it's actually less bright. Radiant scenes, like Kill Bill's cuts to Budd in the desert, thus don't look as bright as they should. Then there's the contrast, which again struggles to better the efforts of Sanyo or Panasonic. The Iris feature certainly helps, but dark scenes - like The Bride's dumping of Sofie Fatale at a hospital - are still slightly flattened by a faint grey mist over what should be pure blacks. Also on the HS20's 'good but not perfect' list are colours. Saturations are rich and generally noiseless, but flesh-tones can suffer LCD's familiar problems of over-ripeness and greenishness.
Thankfully the HS20 does stand out from its budget brethren in one key regard, by dispensing almost entirely with the mesh-like panel structure that afflicts so many LCDs. It also scores points with detail, especially with a high-def or progressive source, and more so if you're using a digital input. With a progressive scan picture, Kill Bill's opening shot of The Bride's bloodied head enjoys the original grainy tone Tarantino intended.
So our conclusion is this. If you have kit with a digital video output, and/or a high-definition source, the HS20's step-up talents are well worth considering. For everyone else, though, the relatively high cost probably isn't worth taking on.