Review: Sony VPL-VW285ES 4K HDR Projector

Sony VPL-VW285ES 4K UHD HDR Projector

The Sony VPL-VW285ES ($5000) is a compellingly priced entry point to true 4K and HDR projection. It promises AV enthusiasts and home-theater aficionados a comparatively affordable means to experience maximum visual impact from the latest Ultra HD movies, whether streamed or on disc. And, as Sony is eager to point out, no other true 4K projector costs less.

Of all the products to debut at CEDIA 2017, none arrived with a bigger bang. The 285ES is the first of its kind, a full 4K projector for under five grand (if only by a buck). And based on what I’ve seen, it’s a winner.

I received a review unit of the 285ES from Sony on October 20, 2017, so I’ve had a few weeks to use it with various types of content. So, let’s get on with the review!

Features and Specifications

The VPL-VW285ES may be the entry-level 4K offering in Sony’s lineup, and the least-expensive true-4K projector you can buy, but it’s still packed with appealing features.

This model relies on Sony’s SXRD (Silicon Crystal Reflective Display) technology, which is a variant of LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon). SXRD combines LCD panels (one for each primary color) with a reflective substrate that modulate light to create an image on screen. Each imager measures 0.74″.

LCoS derivatives like SXRD an JVC’s D-ILA (Direct-Drive Image Light Amplifier) have taken the home-theater market by storm, thanks to the impressive color and native contrast ratios they offer. But only Sony offers true 4K at this price.

The native resolution of the 285ES is 4096×2160, which is true, real-deal 4K like in commercial theaters. It is also compatible with UHD signals at 3840×2160 resolution, as well as 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 576p (PAL), and 480p signals. Furthermore, it is an HDR-capable projector with support for the HDR10 and HLG (hybrid log gamma) HDR formats.

Sony’s 285ES processes 4K HDR with 10-bit color depth at 24p and 30p frame rates, and it can handle 60p 4:2:0 HDR video, though that is displayed with 8-bit gradation. It can display various 4K SDR resolutions, including 60p, for broad compatibility with streaming devices and gaming consoles.

Specs for the VPL-VW285ES claim approximately 1500 lumens of light output using a 225-watt high-pressure mercury lamp. This light source is said to offer a 6000-hour lifespan in Low mode.

This projector has a motorized lens, albeit without lens memory for automated adjustment, which is typically used to accommodate different aspect ratios. Nevertheless, you can set focus, lens shift, and zoom using the remote control, which is more than some faux-K (pixel-shifed 4K) DLP projectors found at this price point can say.

The lens offers 2.06x zoom and +85%/-80% vertical shift as well as +/-31% horizontal shift. According to Sony, you can use the 285ES with screens measuring between 60″ and 300″ (16:9 diagonal measurement).

In terms of inputs, the 285ES sports two 13.5 Gbps HDMI ports with HDCP 2.2 for UHD/4K HDR compatibility. It has an Ethernet port and dual 12-volt triggers as well as a USB port. This is a very quiet projector, with a 26 db “acoustic noise” rating that translates to a whisper with Lamp Control set to Low. If you set the lamp to High, there’s more fan noise during extended bright scenes, but of course the image itself is brighter.

Power consumption is 350 watts, and the 285ES features a defeatable standby mode that activates after 10 minutes with no input signal.

This Sony is a fairly large projector. The chassis measures 19 .5″ (W) x 7.625″ (H) x 18.25″ (D) and weight 31 pounds, so you’ll want to consider that when mounting or placing it on a platform. Fortunately, the lens allows for flexible placement options.

My sources for the 285ES included an Apple TV 4K, a PlayStation 4 Pro, an Oppo UDP-203 UHD Blu-ray player, a PC equipped with an Nvidia GTX 1080 video card, and a Roku 4 (non-HDR) 4K streamer.

I’m using a 120″ (horizontal) 2.40:1 Stewart Filmscreen StudioTek 130 non-perforated, fixed-frame screen. I do not have an anamorphic lens, so I manually zoom to accommodate changes in aspect ratio in a constant image-height fixed-screen installation. Sound for this review was provided by a StormAudio I.ISP integrated processor and Klipsch Reference Premiere 7.2.4 speaker system, including physical height speakers.

I used SpectraCal’s CalMan software and a pair of Colorimetry Research meters (the CR-100 colorimeter and CR-250 spectrophotometer) to measure and calibrate the VPL-VW285ES. A DVDO AVLab TPG 4K signal generator worked in tandem with an HDFury Integral to prodive SDR and HDR test signals.

Movies used for evaluation—both streaming and on disc—included Transformers: The Last Knight, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Atomic Blonde, Spider Man: Homecoming, Arrival, and Kong: Skull Island. Additionally, I used the PlayStation 4 Pro and a GTX 1080-equipped PC to play 4K video games on the 285ES.

I set the projector on a steel shelf behind my couch and used the lens-shift and zoom functions to fit the image to the screen. I appreciate how flexible the Sony’s lens is; getting a perfect fit and sharp image takes a minute or two at most, and seconds once you are used to it.

Before getting into specifics, there’s no question that the quality you get for $5000 ushers in a new era of in-home entertainment, where beating the fidelity of what’s on screen at the local cinema does not break the bank.

Calibration

Calibration is highly recommended with a projector like the VPL-VW285ES. You get good color right out of the box, but it is capable of more. With the right gear and a few adjustments, you can achieve a degree of color accuracy that your eyes will recognize as being completely authentic.

Beyond color, this projector offers numerous image-processing options such as noise and banding reduction. The use of these features is optional and content dependent. I’m not going to dive into the topic here; suffice to say that Sony’s video processing is broadly regarded as being high quality.

For some of my luminance measurements, I zoomed the lens to fill the entire 120″ screen, which is equivalent to what you’d get on a 137″ (diagonal) 1.3 gain screen when using 3840×2160 pixel resolution. I also performed a measurement of the screen with the projector zoomed to show 16:9 with side-letterbox bars; the diagonal measurement of that image is 102″.

Ultimately, I got an SDR peak luminance reading of around 130-135 nits at the larger screen size, and 235 nits at the smaller size when the lamp was on High.

A quick comment on seeing 130 nits on screen—that’s about as bright as a TV calibrated for BT.709 SDR in a dark room. Since that’s how Blu-rays are mastered—and there are tons of Blu-ray titles out there—it’s great to have a projector that really aces the format at such a large screen size (with a new bulb). But it is also a lot brighter than the DCI standard for commercial cinema (48 nits), so if you want to view SDR content “cinema style,” you can use Low lamp mode with fairly sizeable screens.

Although I use a 1.3-gain screen, many acoustically transparent materials have a gain in the 0.8-1.0 range. For these screens, the 285ES can throw a nice, bright image at a fairly large size and still hit 50-60 nits, which is a nice range for SDR viewing.

When it comes to HDR, there are no standards for home projection; each manufacturer implements its own tone-mapping scheme to preserve highlight information and color. This is because projectors, unlike some recent TVs, cannot come anywhere close to the 1000-nit peak luminance to which much HDR content is mastered.

But HDR offers more than just brighter highlights; it’s also about 10-bit gradation, UHD resolution, and the DCI/P3 color volume inside a BT.2020 container. When the 285ES is playing UHD HDR content, it has great source material to work with. And to my eyes, it finds a good path to rendering HDR while accounting for the limitations of front projection.

Here’s a fact about HDR in 2017: If you want absolute adherence to a standard, stick to SDR content because you will not get it with HDR. But if you want the perks of HDR, then by all means enjoy.

Although the default out-of-the-box settings in the 285ES’s Reference mode were reasonably accurate, it took mere minutes to dial in something better. Sony keeps it simple to a good result; there’s enough adjustability in the menu to get neutral tonality and compensate for various screen types and viewing environments.

In HDR mode, the 285ES had the same peak brightness as SDR mode—235 nits with a 102″ 16:9 diagonal screen in High lamp mode (180 nits on a 1.0-gain screen).

I measured color gamut at various luminance levels to get an idea of how the 285ES performs when it comes to color volume. Ideally, when luminance goes way up or way down, colors will retain their saturation. The good news is that the 285ES maintains full BT.709 color volume at all SDR luminance levels, so when you watch HD Blu-rays, you’ll get “perfect” color reproduction.

HDR color-gamut coverage is a bit trickier to quantify. The VPL-VW285ES is not a fully DCI/P3-compliant projector. (DCI/P3 is the cinematic color standard often used in HDR mastering for HDR10 content.) The 285ES only gets part way there, but is better at reproducing some colors than others. The projector relies on internal processing that maps color to the gamut it can handle, just as it tone maps highlights.

When I performed gamut measurements, I saw that from 20% luminance up to 90% luminance, the projector technically covers about 84% of the DCI/P3 gamut. However, I observed that—post calibration—the constraints were green and cyan. Blue can achieve 100% DCI/P3 saturation levels, as can magenta and yellow. The main catch? A bit of a hue shift in red (toward yellow) that’s a workable compromise given how rich the colors wind up looking. In practice, the gamut covered by the projector delivers skies that are a rich blue, reds that blaze, and greens that look plenty green even if they are “BT.709 green.”

It should be noted that color-gamut coverage began to drop to below 80% of DCI/P3 at less than 20% luminance, with differentiation between color shades nearly disappearing at 5% luminance. Not the biggest deal—your eyes are used to deep shadows looking grayish. On the bright side of things, gamut coverage remained above 80% of DCI/P3 at 100% luminance, so you’ll get to enjoy the color that HDR10 tone mapping preserves.

Uniformity never crossed my mind when viewing actual content. With a full-screen white field on the screen, I measured roughly 20% less peak brightness in the far corners versus the center of the screen. There’s also some slight variation in color balance, but nothing noticeable to the human eye. With full-screen patterns, gray looks gray, white looks white, red looks red, etc.

Viewing Impressions

Movies are the stars of the show when it comes to the 285ES—they are the raison d’etre of this projector. Sure, you can use the Sony to play games and watch TV. But feed it a Hollywood production on Ultra HD Blu-ray and wow! Even regular HD Blu-ray looks better than I have seen on other displays I have owned, be it TVs or lesser projectors. And Ultra HD Blu-ray looks so good on the 285ES, it has spoiled me when it comes to screening films at commercial movie theaters.

With the VPL-VW285ES putting 8 million pixels on screen, Hollywood productions like Transformers: The Last Knight look profoundly colorful and detailed. While I have no way to quantify this, it’s remarkable how much more texture you get in a cinematic presentation, as opposed to watching the film on a TV.

While screening Kong: Skull Island, I marveled at the detail contained in the CGI battle near the end of the film. While it’s not 3D, visually it looked deep and realistic in a startling way. (The 285ES does support 3D, I just haven’t tried that yet.) That scene definitively underscored how well the Sony VPL-VW285ES brings home Hollywood thrills without compromising quality. I’m especially impressed with the lens on the 285ES; it stays sharp from edge to edge.

Another exceptional viewing experience was the recently released Spider-Man: Homecoming. Especially notable was the richness and crimson tonality of the red in Spidey’s suit. It’s always satisfying to see a tonally accurate, rich red, and there was plenty of action and hyper-detailed imagery to feast upon. Forgive me for simply being awed, but when I watched the 285ES, I would fall into the movie and forget I’m reviewing a projector, that’s how distraction-free it’s image is.

I also used various Netflix and Amazon shows to judge 4K HDR streaming fidelity. Once the streams got “up to speed,” the picture quality often surpassed HD Blu-ray (if not Blu-ray sound quality). From Chef’s Table to Bosch, and including dozens of streaming movies like Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the contrast and color the 285ES put on screen with streaming UHD HDR made the viewing experience something more than just watching TV.

Additionally, I checked out live sports (specifically, Philadelphia Eagles games) on the 285ES. I refuse to subscribe to cable TV, so I rely on streaming solutions. Going big with sports broadcasts inevitably results in a softer image than movies or 4K TV, but motion was crisply rendered thanks to the projector’s support for 60p input. I can’t wait for the day big games are broadcast in 4K, but for now, a big picture will suffice.

The only real issue I encountered with 4K HDR projection and the 285ES came when feeding a 60p 4:2:0 signal to the projector. Whether the source was the Oppo UDP-203, Apple TV 4K, or PS4 Pro, banding caused by 8-bit processing would occasionally show up on the screen and distract from what was otherwise a stunning-looking picture, despite being only 8-bit. But in the end, I opted to skip 60p HDR with the 285ES, because it’s not properly supported and I am allergic to banding.

At 24p and 30p, HDR provided eye-popping color and contrast with no visible banding. My PC was happy to serve up HDR graphics at 30p, which looks great with Forza Motorsport 7 and allows for gorgeous hi-res graphics. Besides, my GTX 1080 can’t do 60p with high-quality graphics settings engaged, which is the whole point of 4K HDR. For 60p gaming, SDR is plenty good, and the projector is effective at 1080p-to-4K upscaling—or you can rely on your console to do that.

SDR UHD at 60p from the PlayStation Pro4 looked fantastic with flagship titles like Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted 4, and I preferred how midtones looked in SDR versus HDR (independent of banding issues).

Sony points out that the 285ES has good input-lag performance for gamers. With lag reduction turned on, I can confirm a measurement of around 31 milliseconds while feeding it 1080p SDR or HDR. I don’t have a 4K lag tester, but there’s little reason to believe the lag would be appreciably different. If you don’t turn lag reduction off, you get stuck with 115 milliseconds of lag, so gamers will want to be sure to engage that mode.

Conclusion

Sony’s VPL-VW285ES is the first projector to make true 4K HDR affordable to home-theater enthusiasts. It improves upon its more expensive predecessor—the VPL-VW365ES—in more ways than one. It sports a sharp lens and outputs a punchy, vivid image that looks good right out of the box—and it can be made magnificent with calibration.

HDR may be a headline feature of the 285ES, but this projector really shines with SDR content. That induces Blu-ray HD video mastered for TVs as well as streaming video. Sony’s Reality Engine does a great job upscaling 1080p to 4K, and the projector’s ability to fully cover the BT.709 gamut means colors are exactly as the director intended. Plus, Sony’s effective image processing keeps banding and noise to a minimum on streaming content without impacting detail or creating an artificial look.

With the Sony VPL-VW285ES, you make a few minor concessions—no lens memory, limited greens and cyans in HDR mode—to gain incredible overall image fidelity. Its quiet operation, long bulb life, and genuinely seductive picture quality makes it an easy Top Choice for 2017.

Calibration Charts

Calibrating the VPL-VW285ES. Photo by Mark Henninger.


First, let’s look at the pre-calibration performance using the Cinema 1 Film defaults. Subjectively, this mode has boosted colors the can flatter some content (including video games), but it’s definitely not as accurate as the projector’s Reference mode:

133 nits in the default Cinema 1 Film mode on the v285ES.


Grayscale accuracy could be better, but it’s not distracting. Still, best to perform a quick calibration.


The Cinema 1 Film mode sacrifices some accuracy to create a pleasing image. But it’s still decent. I did not work to maximize contrast, but it still measures over 14,000:1.


ColorChecker shows a sizeable error in red. That’s because this mode exaggerates it.


Here you can see how Cinema 1 Film default settings overshoot the primaries, especially red.


Now let’s look at Reference mode using default settings. Here again the projector was zoomed out to fill the entire 120″ (horizontal) 1.3 gain screen:

Peak brightness is about the same here. 130 nits is plenty to work with.


Nothing much changed with the uncalibrated grayscale versus the Cinema 1 Film mode; it can use a tweak.


Here we see good overall performance with room for improvement with a calibration.


Reference mode does a good job accurately displaying the BT.709 gamut.


These are some nice looking saturation sweeps for an uncalibrated projector.


And now, let’s look at results after spending 10 minutes on the 2-point grayscale plus CMS adjustments. My apologies, I measured this while zoomed to the 102″ 16:9 diagonal image size, which resulted in the higher peak luminance reading of 235 nits:

With a 16:9, 102″ (diagonal) 1.3 gain screen and a new bulb, the VW285 ES can hit 235 nits.


With almost no effort, a calibration provided an accurate 2-point grayscale measurement.


You can see the effect of the calibration here; the average deltaE is below 1, a great result.


ColorChecker confirmed the calibrated VPL-VW285ES is doing a great job.


Nice saturation sweeps post-calibration.