posted on Thursday, 27th October 2016 by Steve May
The VPL-VW550ES is the most sophisticated native 4K HDR projector yet from Sony. Building on the brand’s SXRD imaging platform, it’s effectively an update on last year’s VW520ES that uses the same chassis and shares most of the same internal components. However it improves functionality (with more auto setup options) and boldly puts a foot in the door of future upgradability. Even though the Hybrid Log-Gamma HDR standard for broadcast has yet to be fully ratified, Sony has committed to offering a firmware update to ensure long-serving HDR compatibility. In this new era of UHD displays, where nothing seems truly future-proofed, the VW550ES promises greater longevity than any of its rivals.
Sony VPL-VW550ES 4K HDR projector: Build quality and features
Ostensibly, this new projector looks much like last year’s VPL-VW520ES. Available in black or white, it’s a handsome beast that measures 496 x 195 x 467mm (w/h/d) and tips the scales at 14kg. The model is Active Shutter 3D compatible, and has an integrated RF sync transmitter.
But while VW550ES may share the same chassis and lens as the VW520ES, there are significant improvements. For starters, the projector now auto-senses incoming HDR content. There's no longer a need to manually configure HDMI settings or delve into colour spaces.
It also introduces a new iteration of Reality Creation Pro, adding additional image processing to 4K content for enhanced detail. Before, the processor only worked on HD and SD source material. This may be a contentious area for purists, although I didn’t spot any unwanted artefacts when it was at work. In this context, Reality Creation Pro doesn’t actually upscale, but employs some clever algorithmic processing to bring out detail and nuance in textures. Dynamic range is variable between Auto, Limited and Full.
The contrast ratio has also been improved to 350,000:1, which is a slight increase from the 300,000:1 ratio of its predecessor. Throw distance and image adjustment are unchanged since the VW500ES.
To help installers (and tweakers) there's now also a handy one-touch lens reset which takes users back to square one if they want to reset lens adjustment or keystone correction.
Beneath the lid, those 2160p SXRD panels promise a fast 2.5-milliseconds response rate. This translates to a pixel-grid free image that’s smooth yet cinematic.
Both HDMI inputs are HDCP 2.2 compatible and support 4K/60Hz with 8-bit 4:2:0 content. 10-bit support is limited to 2160/30. There are two 12v triggers, IR in, USB and Ethernet connectivity.
Sony VPL-VW550ES 4K HDR projector: Performance
See that thing on the floor? It’s probably your jaw. The VW550ES is a humdinger of a 4K projector. Overall image performance is outstanding. Black levels are profound and colour vibrancy high. I’ve yet to see any consumer facing projector deliver the kind of bright spectral highlights a top flight LED HDR screen can manage, but that doesn’t mean images lack dynamism.
Viewing presets comprise Cinema Film 1, Cinema Film 2, Reference, TV, Photo, Game, Bright Cinema, Bright TV and User. The good news is that there’s little difference in 4K definition between any of these settings.
The projector is whisper quiet in Reference mode. The two Cinema settings are rather noisier in terms of fan noise. I found Cinema Film 2 a little punchier than Cinema Film 1, which can seems a little dull. The TV preset is, unsurprisingly, a lot brighter than both, and Bright TV positively luminous (definitely not recommended). The Game setting, however, seems nicely balanced.
Motionflow options are limited to Impulse On/Off. However test sequences reveal few actual differences in motion clarity and panning between the two settings.
The HDR contrast level is adjustable. This allows the image to be modified depending on the ambient viewing conditions, or it can simply be used to combat HDR images which appear too dark.
Delve into the Expert settings and you’ll find additional Colour Correction, Clear White, HDR (Auto) and Colour space control, which for HDR Blu-ray is BT2020. There's also adjustment of the Red, Green, Blue primaries, plus Cyan and Magenta.
Not that you’ll need to experiment. Colour fidelity is excellent from the get-go. In the 4K HDR release of Oblivion, the colour grading appears far more intense than the 2K Blu-ray release - the contrast between the desert and the skyline (chapter nine) more dramatic. When Cruise confronts his clone, sunlight gints brightly from the cockpit of his craft.
Our HDR test disc shows that the projector can effectively tone map from 0-1000 nits. This isn’t to say it delivers 1000nits peak brightness, merely that it can present a distinct grayscale up to 1000nits, without smooshing those brighter peak highlights into one.
In Mad Max Fury Road (4K HDR Blu-ray), there’s a sparkle to the madcap machinery which adds a hard-edged reality to the image. When Immortan Joe opens the floodgates to deluge the crowds with water, the colour saturation is high and dusty definition breathtaking.
Similarly, when Bats first fires up the Batsignal in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (4K HDR Blu-ray), there's a white intensity against the pitch black surround which is unusual for projectors. The driving rain before the light appear bright slivers, while the Dark Knight’s illuminated eyes glow from the cowl. The dynamic balance is artful, a perfect combination of searing highlights and convincingly deep near-blacks.
The projector may not offer the ebon depth of laser, but it sure looks good in a fully dark theatre.
There is no HDR upscaling option for SDR content. Indeed, there are no dedicated HDR viewing modes – HDR simply appears as an adjustable setting within the main menu.
Sony VPL-VW550ES 4K HDR projector: Verdict
The VPL-VW550ES is both revolutionary and evolutionary. The promise of HLG support is obviously encouraging, but it’s the projector’s everyday performance with UHD Blu-ray which is the real clincher here. It does a wonderful job with the format. Image clarity is delicious, with high dynamics allied to a gloriously wide colour palette.
The usability tweaks Sony has made are also to be welcomed. In terms of performance, functionality and value, the VPl-VW550ES stands head and shoulders above the 4K projector competition.
The Sony VPL-VW550ES is available now.
Retail price: £9000
The VPL-VW550ES is available through Marata Vision. For more news stories about Marata Vision’s product portfolio, visit our partner page here.
Steve is a veteran of the UK consumer electronics
industry, having covered it for
various media outlets for more than 20 years.