Sony VPL-VW290ES 4K HDR Projector Review
Tony O’Brien is wowed by this impressive 4K HDR projector…
VPL-VW290ES 4K HDR Projector
Sony’s new VPL-VW290ES may have just rewritten the playbook on affordable 4K HDR. Dynamic Tone Mapping (DTM) has been around for a couple of years but only made its debut in Sony new’s range of high end 4K HDR projectors in late 2020. Up until now, Sony hasn’t had a horse in the entry-level DTM projection race – but that’s just changed with the launch of the VPL-VW290ES SXRD. Not only does it bring the company into line with its competitors, but provides a new and unique solution to the problem of how to make High Dynamic Range Images work in projection.
Like Sony’s more expensive projectors, the VPL-VW290ES sports the same 4096x2160 resolution – in other words, it uses a native 4K chipset, without the need to use pixel-shifting or interlacing. But keen pundits will note that the UHD specification uses a resolution of 3840x2160, which is just shy of 4K—making the VPL-VW290ES and its ilk both true 4K, and higher in resolution than the current crop of 4K televisions. Of course, this also means it has an aspect ratio of 17.9 as opposed to the UHD 16.9 aspect ratio. The VPL-VW290ES addresses this by transporting the 16.9 signal in its native 17.9 container.
Like the pricier VPL-VW590ES, the 290ES uses a lamp-based light source with a quoted life of 6,000 hours in low lamp mode and quoted 1,500 lumens in high lamp mode. Be that as it may, you’ll likely be using it in high lamp mode for HDR viewing, and given lamps' tendencies to dim over time, it’s unlikely it will see out 6,000 hours.
While the VPL-VW290ES doesn’t have a dynamic iris or the digital focus optimiser of Sony’s more expensive models, it also boasts Sony's new X1 Projector Processor. This gives it a significant increase in horsepower over its predecessor and brings Sony’s proprietary Dynamic Tone Mapping (DTM) solution. Radically different from other implementations of DTM, the X1 processor seeks to emulate the HDR images found in Sony’s reference monitor – the BVM-X300 Mastering Monitor, as used by many filmmakers to master HDR content.
Incapable of reaching the 1,000 nits brightness the BVM-X300 produces, some trade-offs need to be made for projectors that can only muster 100 nits. The X1 chip tries to mitigate this problem by emulating the contrast of the BVM-X300. In other words, it seems to produce the same deep dark blacks and bright spectral highlights found on the BVM-X300 and by extension, High Dynamic Range television. The VPL-VW290ES does this by adhering to the ST.2084-or HDR- PQ curve as closely as possible, the X1 processor analysing the income signal on a frame-by-frame basis then intelligently applying its HDR Dynamic Contrast Enhancer.
The X1 chip also features Sony’s newest iteration of its Reality Creation Engine. This draws on Sony’s database of images, applying intelligent sharpening and noise reduction to incoming images. Sony also claims its new Reality Creation Engine is capable of increasing the quality of streamed content. Bold claims indeed! In addition to supporting HDR, the VPL-VW290ES supports Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG). As with all projectors, it doesn’t support Dolby Vision.
The VPL-VW290ES is identical in appearance to its VPL-VW270ES predecessor, and also to the more expensive VPL-VW590ES – aside from a gold ring around the lens enclosure. Finished in speckled flat black, the chassis has a curved gloss black front.
The lens is centrally mounted, has been made in house by Sony, and comprises thirteen elements. While the inner lenses are made of glass, the outer lens is plastic. Asked about this, Sony told me that the outer lens is an aspherical lens. Using a glass-aspherical lens – which needs to be hand-ground – would have been cost-prohibitive, and the choice of plastic over glass has no bearing on picture quality, the company claims. Typically found on much more expensive projectors than this, its aspherical lens gives it a broader focus area than its non-aspherical counterparts.
Air intakes and outlets are situated at the front of the projector. This, allied to the fact that all connections are located on the unit’s side, makes it possible to put it closer to a wall than would otherwise be possible.
The VPL-VW290ES has two HDMI inputs (HDCP 2.2) with an 18GB workflow (4K, 60p 10-bit signal processing). Other connections include an Ethernet port, two 12-volt triggers, an IR input, an RS232C connection and a USB-A input.
The remote control is unchanged, and except for the lack of dedicated lens control buttons – lens control functions are accessed via the pattern button – it is otherwise identical to Sony’s other projector remotes. There’s a Low Latency mode for gamers which bypasses much of the image enhancement circuitry.
When it comes to set-up, the VPL-VW290ES offers a fair degree of flexibility. Quoted as being able to fill a 100-inch screen at 2.54 metres, the Sony easily filled my 100-inch screen from 3.5 meters, temporarily replacing my own VPL-VW270ES. Motorised lens controls provide a vertical shift of +85% -80% and a horizontal shift of +/-31%, making it relatively simple to get the image centred. In addition to the convenience of motorised lens controls, they also afford a greater degree of precision over manual types.
There is no keystone correction to be found on the VPL-VW290ES. Given the lens shift controls, this should neither be necessary nor do such controls have a place in a serious home theatre projector. Digitally manipulating the image via keystoning has a noticeably softening effect on images.
A three-chip SXRD projector, it's not only worth taking the time to get the picture carefully aligned but also to complete the panel alignment process to get the sharpest possible picture. The included controls provide both ‘whole-picture alignment and ‘zone by zone’ alignment, affording a greater degree of precision. A minor nitpick is that the remote doesn’t contain short-cut buttons, meaning you can’t switch colours on the fly. If, for example, you’re aligning blue you can’t change to red without going back to the main menu and changing the colour. This is also a 3D projector. As Sony no longer produces glasses, they need to be purchased from a third-party manufacturer.
For this review, the VPL-VW290ES was connected with optical HDMI to the video outputs of a JBL SDR-35 AV receiver. Source devices consisted of a Panasonic UB9000 4K Blu-ray player and Apple TV. Images were projected onto a 100-inch (0.90 gain) Severtson Cinegray 16.9 screen. Speakers consisted of VAF Signature i91 front and centres and four VAF i90 speakers for surround and overhead Atmos channels. Two custom 10-inch VAF Gravitas subwoofers were used for a 5.2.2 Atmos layout. If you would like to learn more about how the VPL-VW590ES performed when measured and calibrated, then read on. Otherwise, feel free to jump directly to the PICTURE QUALITY section.
MEASUREMENTS AND CALIBRATION
Picture settings have a profound impact on image quality. Therefore, all the projectors we review are calibrated with a JETI Spectraval 1501 reference spectroradiometer and Klein Instruments K10A colourimeter with Calman Ultimate 2021 calibration software. Test patterns are generated with a Murideo 6G 4K HDR pattern generator. Additional test patterns are used from the Spears & Munsil HDR Benchmark disc and DVS HDR10 disc.
Contrast ratios and black levels are included but were measured in my viewing environment and not a controlled testing environment. Nonetheless, it does provide a means to compare contrast ratios between projectors at StereoNET, which are all measured in the same environment.
The VPL-VW290ES has nine selectable picture modes consisting of Cinema Film 1, Cinema Film 2, Reference, TV, Photo, Game, Bright Cinema, Bright TV and User. Calibration controls include two-point greyscale adjustment, nine gamma presets (2.2, 2.4 etc.) and a six-point colour management system (CMS). Sony’s Projector Calibration Professional software – which expands on these controls significantly – was surprisingly not needed for the review.
I chose to calibrate it in reference mode for SDR. After calibration in low-lamp mode, the VPL-VW290ES produced 53.85 nits with a measured back level of 0.0135 nits for an on/off contrast ratio of 3990:1. With the two-point greyscale controls, the VPL-VW290ES produced a remarkably accurate greyscale across a 20 point greyscale run, with an average dE of 1.26 and a max dE of 1.4025 at 90%.
Whereas Sony’s first entry-level 4K VPL-VW260ES produced a gamma curve that was choppy to say the least – and required the Sony Pro Calibration Software along with some blood, sweat and tears to fix – it was significantly improved in the VPL-WV270ES. This trend continues with the VPL-VW290ES, already producing good-if a little dark-gamma performance out of the box. Calibration produced a superbly accurate result with a slight bump at 90%, accounting for most of the dE mentioned above of 1.4025.
As I’ve come to expect from Sony, pre-calibration colour tracking was excellent. With Calman’s gruelling colour tracker, the VPL-VW290ES produced an average dE of 2.9 and a max dE of 5.3. The average colour error dropped to 0.9 dE with a max dE of 3 after calibration. It offers the same nine selectable picture modes in HDR; although the lamp changing to high lamp mode (with the option to switch back to low lamp mode), colour space changed to BT.2020 and three new options added EOTF consisting of Auto, HDR10/HLG and HDR Reference/ HLG.
Another much-needed addition is separate calibration controls for HDR and SDR. So for example, the VPL-VW290ES could have different settings for Cinema Film 1 picture mode in SDR than it does for HDR.
Sony’s Dynamic HDR Enhancer (Sony’s version of DTM) is also enabled, with the option to choose between Off, Low, Medium and High. Testing the Dynamic HDR Enhancer with the Spears & Munsil HDR Benchmark Contrast pattern revealed some high-level clipping with the highest setting producing the most loss of detail. If the clipping is indeed visible with actual viewing content, it’s likely to be limited to spectral highlight details, such as the brightest part of explosions.
In Cinema Film 1, the VPL-VW290ES produced a promising 103 nits in high lamp mode on a 100-inch 0.9 gain screen. It produced 88.57% (1976 uv) UHDA-P3 gamut and 83.66% (1931 xy) UHDA-P3 gamut coverage. Although I would have preferred to see a wider gamut coverage, HDR is arguably more important than a wider colour gamut. In this regard, the Sony’s high light output makes the promise of good things to come. Likewise, colour accuracy in SDR and the VPL-VW290ES’ improved greyscale/gamma performance means it should produce images that are not only colour-accurate but punchy with a good depth of field.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
The VPL-VW290ES produces bright, sharp images with a sense of contrast that gives HDR a clear edge over SDR images. Colours are nicely saturated in both SDR and HDR yet thoroughly convincing. Legacy SDR content has an excellent sense of depth, with objects at times having a 3D-like appearance. Streamed images have a sharpness and clarity not usually associated with streaming.
For instance, with the demonstration clips on the 4K Spears & Munsil HDR Benchmark disc, the Sony has a tremendous sense of contrast that leaves you in no doubt that you’re watching HDR. Turn the Dynamic HDR Enhancer off, and images lose all of their pop with the low, medium and high setting varying the strength accordingly. With a small amount of ambient light in the viewing room – so often the case in shared living room/home theatres – the Dynamic HDR Enhancer offers an interesting compromise. At its highest setting, it makes images vastly more watchable with small amounts of ambient light.
Delightfully over-the-top, lightning and M16 muzzle flashes in the 4K HDR of Rambo First Blood were bright and suitably HDR-like, in stark contrast to the dark forest environment. Switching to the reference-grade HDR disc of How to Train Your Dragon: The Lost World, there was some detail loss in spectral high-lights. The loss in detail could be seen around the flames surrounding Night Fury and Hiccup’s sword.
In fairness though, it’s a nitpick as you’re not likely to notice the slight loss of detail, which constitutes small and often fleeting parts of the image. In fact, I had to pause the movie on specific scenes and experiment with different Dynamic HDR Enhancer settings to find the loss of detail. Ultimately, I found myself using either the low or medium setting, which provided a smaller loss in detail, whilst still providing those punchy HDR images that I was enjoying.
Appearing on Stephen King’s top ten watch list, it was high time that I sank my teeth (claws?) into Netflix’s excellent 4K HDR transfer of Bird Box. It’s with modern content like this that the VPL-VW290ES truly shines. Again it provided a wonderful sense of contrast that left me revelling in the HDR transfer. Try as I might, I couldn’t see any loss of detail in the dark locks of Sandra Bullock’s hair, while colours were wonderfully saturated and often popping, particularly in the earlier parts of the film. Be that as it may, colour maintained naturalness and skin tones were bang-on.
Equally impressive is how the VPL-VW290 processes streamed content. Much of the softness I normally associate with streaming is gone, the X1 processor giving images a clarity and sharpness that shares more with disc-based content than streaming. The overall sharpness of images carries over to disc content. The intentionally dreary-looking transfer on the Blu-ray disc of Guy Ritchie’s excellent Wrath of Man was handled with ease by the Sony. Devoid of saturated colours, the film’s more neutral tones are an excellent test of greyscale tracking. Here this Sony stood aside, conveying the gritty transfer in all its glory, the grey tones of the film suitably neutral without any unwanted colour intrusion.
Longstanding stalwart of my review toolbox, the Blu-ray disc of 2013’s Wolverine was handled deftly. All the sharpness and colour I’ve come to expect from this projector were equally present with the SDR transfer. Meanwhile, the VPL-VW290ES’s accurate gamma tracking gave images a superb sense of depth and dimensionality. SDR images drew me in, helping to explore the confines in which the film takes place.
No qualms about it; Sony’s new VPL-VW290ES is both a bold and unorthodox approach to HDR in projection – and to the best of my knowledge, the only one of its kind. It’s also a resounding success. Its bright, punchy HDR images share more in common with television than I would have ever thought possible.
The Sony equally excels with streamed content, images enjoying a sharpness and clarity that my VPL-VW270ES can’t match. Rather than an incremental upgrade to its predecessor, the new machine provides not only a new direction but a much-improved picture, particularly in HDR. Equally impressive is its SDR performance, helped in no small part by the VPL-VW290ES’s exceptional gamma tracking and colour accuracy. So, if you're thinking about making the move into entry-level true 4K projection, I highly recommend that you audition it.
Tony is a certified ISF Calibrator by day, and an accomplished Audio-Visual reviewer specialising in theatre and visual products by night. Tony has calibrated and worked with some of the best home cinema designers throughout Australia.
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