Last year Sony's VPL-VW50 'Pearl' won many friends, being one of the first affordable Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution projectors.
Of course, the awesome pictures that it produced, along with the beautiful styling of the cabinet, helped too. It's now been replaced by the rather less charming Sony VPL-VW60.
Gone is the glossy-white finish of the original. The all-new 'anthracite' look of the VW60 has led it to be dubbed, fairly predictably, the 'Black Pearl'. Colour apart, though, both look very similar.
Some impressive improvements by Sony
The claimed contrast ratio has been bolstered from 15,000:1 to a mind-boggling 35,000:1, thanks to refinements in the optical path and SXRD panels.
Naturally, the VW60 retains the Full HD resolution and 1080p compatibility of its predecessor, but both HDMI inputs are now fully compatible with the 24fps refresh rate needed to make the most of compatible Blu-ray players.
The VW50 - which was introduced before 24fps sources were available widely - was supposed to be, but many users reported picture 'tearing' problems.
Also new is HDMI CEC 'one-button' system control (Bravia Theatre Sync, as it's known in Sony circles). Scart-type (RGBs) sources can be fed into the projector's VGA-type PC socket, but only with a special adaptor cable. Sony doesn't sell these, either.
The backlit remote is neatly-designed and sensibly laid-out. My only criticism is the lack of 'direct' source-selection buttons. It nevertheless manages to provide access to a bewildering variety of functions related to configuration and usage.
The VW60 can be easily setup for desk/ceiling-mounting, front or rear-projection. The throw-ratio has been designed with the average home in mind, and the VW60 will yield a 4m 16:9 picture at a projection distance of 5m or so.
The motorised lens-shift feature makes 'centering' of the image a doddle (needless to say, focus and zoom can also be handset-driven). Keystone correction may be electronic, but it works well. And, to aid the adjustment of such parameters, a test pattern is displayed.
Another (cross-hatch) test pattern is available for the unusual panel-alignment feature that Sony has provided to ensure that the red, green and blue contributions are always in registration with each other, thereby avoiding 'fringing'.
You also get the ability to blank off unwanted areas adjacent to the displayed picture - I found this particularly useful during TV viewing.
Dedicated keys switch between various presets for colour temperature, colour space, gamma correction and iris aperture - some of which can be manually tweaked via the onscreen menu.
Cinema Black Pro, which can be defeated if need be, automatically adjusts the iris for optimum contrast range according to picture content - its sensitivity can be menu-adjusted.
Then there's RCP ('real colour processing') for balancing the red, green and blue levels - useful for professional calibrators. Proprietary to Sony is the DDE (Dynamic Detail Enhancer), which enables the Bravia's video-processing engine's deinterlacing mode to be forced manually.
In addition to all of these are the usual adjustments - brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, black level, sharpness and so on. Each input benefits from three user presets that will remember all of these settings, with the regrettable exception of blanking.
Also available are TV-like 'dynamic', 'standard' and 'cinema' factory-modes.
Dodgy digital TV
Now, maybe in the US and Japan digital TV is hunky-dory. But here the apparent decision to provide quantity over quality means that digital TV can look somewhat ropey. This is immediately evident on the VW60 - most notably when Freeview is your platform of choice.
Digital artifacts, like macroblocking and mosquito noise, are all too apparent, and this - coupled with the sheer magnitude of picture - can be rather off-putting. Oddly, using an analogue connection as opposed to an HDMI one gave me a softer but cleaner picture.
The VW60's ruthless transparency can also reveal such shortcomings with DVDs. Sony does provide a digital noise reduction feature, but working my way through its three available levels sadly demonstrates that it's of little aid here.
It doesn't help that the default sharpness setting is way too high!
Rich black levels
However, if the source is good, then the VW60 can furnish your home cinema room with pictures of a standard that belies what is, after all, a modest asking price.
With the Cinema Black auto-iris system engaged, black levels are rich and three-dimensional, especially in the low-power lamp mode. The projector is great at holding shadow detail; there is an exceptionally wide contrast range.
There may be DLP models which go deeper, but they come with the caveat of possible rainbow effect and higher operational noise.
Such positive traits were taken further when I fed high-definition sources are into the VW60. The Full HD resolution means that sources like SkyHD, Blu-ray and HD DVD are seen the way they should be - 24fps compatibility, should your players support it, is merely the icing on the cake.
Blown away by HD pictures
The HD DVD version of The Matrix is conveyed with plenty of visual 'snap', so much so that the world that engulfs Neo seems almost believable.
Also handled adeptly were the movie's murkier shadow details, and the slight green 'tinge' that deliberately permeates much of the movie. I can remember being blown away by Sony's first ever SXRD projector - I'd argue that this one does more, at a fraction of the asking price.
It was nothing to do with The Matrix, but my experience was that the default colour settings need optimisation to bring out the best in the VW60. This was borne out by our Tech Labs' findings of an out-of-the-box colour temperature of 8,097K with over-emphasised blues.
Manual adjustments delivered a much more pleasing colour performance. I would advise owners to be careful with the VW60's auto-iris settings, though; when set too severe, there can be a dramatic loss of brightness.
Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that the projector will accept 576i via HDMI. Experiment with this setting if your standard-def digital source (DVD, digital TV) allows it - you might find that the Sony does a better job at deinterlacing than the source's own circuitry, thereby keeping unwanted combing effects at bay.
A fantastic film projector
The VW60 is a wonderful projector. In my opinion, it's one of the most 'filmic' PJs you can buy for under £5,000. Although little has been added to the features roster of the illustrious VW50, marginal improvements have been made on the picture quality front.
There's a demonstrable improvement in contrast range, which can be easily tweaked to over 3,800:1. An exceptionally low running noise of 22dB stands heavily in the Sony's favour, too.
I've experienced plenty of projectors that offer excellent picture performance but sound as discreet as an ill-tempered vacuum cleaner.
So as far as the mass-market Japanese manufacturers are concerned, Sony now has something that can compete on level terms with JVC's highly-regarded D-ILA models. SXRD technology may still be ploughing a lonely furrow, but it's definitely heading in the right direction.
It gives the Award-winning Marantz VP-15S1 a run for its money, and for around £2,000 less...