Now this just isn't fair. Prior to the VPL-HS50, I was confident there are certain rules different technologies simply cannot break. I was sure that even in these days of price free-falls I could generally predict what's possible at a certain price and what isn't. So it's just not on for Sony's latest Cineza to come along and pull the rug so completely from under my feet, leaving me dazed, confused and no longer sure of the natural order of things. But that's precisely what's happened, so I guess I'd better start trying to deal with it...
From the outside, there's nothing particularly spectacular about the VPL-HS50. It's certainly been nowhere near the ugly stick, with its temptingly voluptuous curves and smartly retro-grilled fascia. And yes, the illuminated Sony logo on the top is nice. But it doesn't shout 'cutting-edge tech' as loudly as it could.
The first pleasing thing about the VPL-HS50 is its inclusion of an HDMI jack among its connections. Thankfully picking up on this key digital connectivity trick while Sony's flatpanel TVs are busy ignoring it, the VPL-HS50 is ready for Sky's upcoming high-definition TV service.
No need for a Scart
Other connections include component video jacks, plus an ordinary PC input and the usual lower-quality AV options. In an ideal world a Scart might have been appreciated - but frankly the VPL-HS50 is built for better things.
If you're wondering why I got so carried away at the start of this review, it's because tucked away in the VPL-HS50's specifications is the optimistic claim - 'contrast ratio: 6,000:1'. After a phone call to check that this wasn't a typo, I was left reeling at the potential revelation of a whole new world where traditionally low-contrast LCD technology suddenly not only matched DLP in the crucial area of contrast, but actually surpassed it.
Other specs worth mentioning are an exceptional (for sub-£2k) brightness of 1,200 ANSI Lumens, a remarkably quiet running volume of 24dB, and a respectable native widescreen resolution of 1,280 x 720. So far, so good.
The VPL-HS50's features list is also extensive. The contrast claims owe much to a sophisticated collection of processing features. Arguably the most important of these is Sony's new Advanced Iris Control function. This has an Auto mode that can continually adjust the iris (and therefore the amount of light emitted through the lens) in response to the content of the incoming image signal, so as to always ensure optimum contrast levels.
Other tricks and treats that warrant a visit at setup and can again affect that astounding quoted contrast range include black level adjustment, gamma correction and High and Low lamp modes.
Another final feature of interest is Real Colour Processing, which cleverly lets you adjust the colour and hue of selected portions of the picture independently of the rest.
If all this sounds a bit scary, fear not: in time-honoured Cineza fashion the VPL-HS50 is fabulously easy to use, with clear, concise onscreen menus, a decent instruction manual, and a spaciously laid out, backlit remote control. It's also supremely easy to adapt to your room thanks to vertical and horizontal image shifting, plus keystone correction. Amazingly, the VPL-HS50's contrast claims turn out to be more than just idle boasting. Okay, perhaps you don't realistically hit 6,000:1, but with the boosting options correctly set, the contrast range on show shatters any preconceptions held about the limited black levels I imagined LCD capable of. There's scant trace of LCD's tell-tale grey misting over dark areas, lending images a depth and solidity that's rarely seen on budget-priced LCD projectors.
Although its contrast is the VPL-HS50's most impressive achievement, it's not its only claim to fame. Pictures are also very detailed, eking out texture. This is especially true during 1080i highdefinition viewing, suggesting that the VPL-HS50's scaling technology must be seriously classy.
The picture is also pleasingly noiseless, even by LCD standards. Naturally I'm used to LCD projectors not suffering the sort of rainbow effect, green dot noise and fizzing over motion seen on most budget DLP projectors, but the VPL-HS50 also avoids common LCD issues of edge jaggies, tizzing and visible panel structure. Just occasionally you can spot faint horizontal lines, but overall only the Panasonic PT-AE700 suppresses this fundamental LCD problem as successfully.
Another plus of the VPL-HS50 is the naturalness of its colours. Unless you make a mess of things while playing with the reams of picture adjustments, there's none of the greenish tone or uncontrolled white balance that afflicts many LCD rivals.
The net result of all these positives is that the HS50 is one of the few affordable LCD projectors capable of a decent black level. It's also worth pointing out that provided you use the contrast-friendly low lamp mode, the VPL-HS50 becomes one of the quietest desktop projectors on the market.
Despite its obvious strengths, there are caveats. I've already commented on the (arguably inevitable) traces of occasional horizontal line structure. But rather less forgivable is the appearance of ghosting around some hard edges - especially noticeable over faces in mid-distance shots. Also, just occasionally the otherwise helpful Auto Iris feature leaves the image a touch too dark, and makes viewing in any sort of ambient light practically impossible (but then I'd never recommend that anyway!).
There's no doubt that the VPL-HS50 is the best Cineza-branded projector yet from Sony. It may fall a nose or two short of picture perfection, but if you think I'm going to let that stand in the way a genuinely exciting LCD projector, you're very much mistaken!