Sony's new VPL-VW100 projector has caught us rather on the hop. For while we have come across its ground-breaking new 'SXRD' technology before, it was on a crazily high-end machine costing upwards of £20k. So the last thing we expected was another Sony SXRD projector to appear mere months later costing an astounding £13,000 less. But hey, we're not complaining.
If you haven't heard of SXRD before, it's an exclusive-to-Sony system that rather frighteningly stands for Silicon X-Tal Reflective Display. It's actually based on the Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCOS) approach already seen on projectors from Canon and JVC.But Sony reckons its extensive refinements to the LCOS system justify giving its technology a new name - and looking at the SXRD specs, it's hard to disagree.
For instance, the whole chipset driving system has been completely redesigned, while the SXRD chipset itself has been constructed using a totally new Silicon Wafer Process Technology, to increase its efficiency and reduce its dimensions. Add in a new liquid crystal device design, and you're looking at a core imaging device for the VPL-VW100 that delivers more than twice the pixel density of normal LCD-based chipsets, and the smallest interpixel spacing in the world. So you shouldn't see any visible panel structure in the final image, no matter how big your screen.
SXRD also tackles LCOS's poor black level issues, by using a newly developed Vertically Aligned Liquid Crystal material. This helps the projector boast better driving voltages and optical properties, resulting in higher contrast levels.
Finally the sheer minuteness of the SXRD chipset and the efficiency of its drivers means that the technology works with a response time of just 2.5 milliseconds, avoiding motion blur or judder.
So much for the tech. The VW100 projector itself is a large but pretty affair, thanks to its glossy white finish, tastefully arched upper edge, and rounded corners.
Connectivity includes HDMI and DVI jacks for digital video, component video inputs, a standard PC interface, a network jack for allowing PC control, and a 12V trigger jack for, say, kickstarting a hydraulic screen.
Closer investigation reveals the HDMI port to be rather special, too, in that it's one of the first in the UK able to handle that buzzword format du jour, 1080p. Most HD sources now only deliver 720 lines of data progressively (720p) or 1,080 lines interlaced (1080i), but 1080p's 1,080 progressive lines of image data allegedly take high definition to a new level. We'll be using 1080p upscaling from Marantz's new, highend DV9600 DVD player to put these claims to the test later...
To further boost its HD Ready credentials, the VW100 claims a hefty native pixel resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. Also noteworthy is a phenomenal claimed contrast ratio of 15,000:1 - achieved with the help of an automatic iris system that continually adjusts the amount of light let through the lens depending on the brightness levels of the source image.
The VW100's onscreen menus, meanwhile, boast endless subtle user tweaks for the picture - far more than we can cover here, in fact. But fear not; we assure you that while it's almost infinitely flexible, the VW100 is actually unusually easy to get up and running. And you don't need to tinker with very many settings at all - beyond, perhaps, the auto iris - to be faced with as good a picture as we've ever seen from a single-chip digital projection technology.
With unusual restraint, we didn't go first for a 1080p feed, but started with a pure (rather than upscaled) 1080i picture of Alien from our resident JVC-D-Theater DVHS deck. And within seconds our jaws were hanging open at the sensational fine detail on show. Every tiny element of the Nostromo's background walls, every last pore on the actors' skin and every last dribble from the alien's mouth is breathtakingly clear - and all without a trace of accompanying grain.
Other noise types are remarkably absent too, including the 'rainbow effect' and motion fizzing of rival DLP technology, and the motion blurring and grid-like image structure of LCD technology.
Meanwhile, although the edges are wonderfully sharp, they aren't overcooked or accompanied by ghosting or haloes - even under the extreme conditions sometimes found in films such as Alien where a near-white object sits against a near-black backdrop.
Moving to a more vibrant source - Burnout Revenge in HD on an Xbox 360 - finds the VW100's colour response to be outstanding too. Saturations are extremely rich and bright, giving the game's gorgeous cars and courses an unusual intensity. But the game's occasional subtler, darker hues come over well too - an impression confirmed by returning to Alien and admiring the overwhelmingly natural tone of the actors' skin.
At first black levels are a touch disappointing. But careful play with the auto iris, black level and gamma settings soon rectifies the situation, leaving us with black levels that may not be quite as consistently deep as with the highest-end DLP projectors, but which contain impressive amounts of shadow detail and do even the darkest of movies proud.
We next checked out the VW100 with standard definition Sky Digital and DVD pictures. And again it impresses hugely, with the noiselessness of its SD images revealing the presence in the projector of some seriously premium-grade scaling processing.
And so, finally, to 1080p.And even though we could only feed in an upscaled rather than pure 1080p signal, the extra stability and smoothness of the picture on the VW100 is undeniable, and simply a joy to behold. If this is just a taste of what we can expect from pure 1080p sources like - hopefully - Blu-ray movie discs, then frankly they can't come soon enough.
It really is hard to fault the VW100. If you think you'll be hammering the projector enough to use up its 3,000-hour estimated bulb life, a replacement for the high-end Xenon lamp will set you back an intimidating £1,000 or so. Also, just occasionally the auto iris system causes the black level to 'jump'.
But these concerns will likely end up pushed well and truly to the back of your mind as for the vast majority of time you find yourself staring dumbstruck at a simply astounding picture from a triumphant new technology that must have its older rivals quaking in their boots. John Archer