Several years into the 4K/Ultra High Definition era and we are finally hearing announcements of 4K projectors from brands other than Sony, which has until now been alone in bringing the new four-times-higher resolution to home theatres. The company was so quick out of the gate with 4K because it could leverage its expertise from the movie-making end of the chain, and it has developed its 4K projectors over the past few years, culminating in the extraordinary new VPL-VW5000ES (see overleaf), an $89,000 beast of a projector delivering up to 5000 lumens of brightness.

But be reassured that other Sony 4K models offer home-friendlier sizing, and pricing — witness the VPL-VW520ES 4K home theatre projector reviewed here.

If the $14,999 price of this projector still sounds like premium pricing, we must stress, of course, that you do get premium quality for your money. In particular, do note that there is no real comparison between this native 4K projector and those that fake 4K through pixel shifting or some such trickery from mere 1920×1080 panels.

This is a true 4K unit, by which we mean that the horizontal resolution is 4096 pixels, rather than Ultra High Definition’s 3840 pixels. If you’re using the projector in some kind of professional capacity connected to a computer, you’ll probably want the full pixel count. For home cinema, you should stick with the 3840 pixels across.

The projector maps full-HD content on a one-incoming to four display pixel basis, so you set up the projector for the natively displayed resolution to overlap your projection screen to the left and right. A test pattern shows you the relevant area.

The light engine is based around Sony’s SXRD (‘Silicon X-tal Reflective Display’) reflective chip technology, with three chips to generate the colour. A 280W UHP lamp provides the light. The lamp is rated at 6000 hours of life (in ‘Low’ lamp mode) and a replacement costs $1150.

The projector has a wide zoom range of slightly over 2:1, plus vertical and horizontal lens shift to allow matching of picture to screen without keystone distortion. The zoom, lens shift and focus are all powered and can be adjusted by controls on the remote. (A menu setting allows these to be switched off so people can’t fiddle with them accidentally.) For a 100-inch (2.54 metre) 16:9 screen the projector needs to be located between 3.05 and 6.28 metres away.

The only inputs are HDMI, making clear this projector’s consumer orientation. They support HDCP 2.2. There are also useful integration connections, including Ethernet. This works with several of the major standards, including Crestron, and allows some control via a web browser on the same network.

The projector supports 3D for 1080p content (currently it seems there will be no 3D for 4K movies), although you’ll have to pay extra for the necessary active eyewear — $199.95 per pair. We didn’t have any for review so we can’t express an opinion on the 3D performance; if 3D is important to you, do ask for a demonstration before purchase.

We attached the projector to our usual ceiling pedestal, the only difficulty in installation being holding its weighty body in position while the attachment was made — bring a friend! Thereafter an exact match with our screen was quickly made with the powered lens shift and zoom, and getting a sharp focus was facilitated by being able to stand right at the screen while adjusting it. We did spend a bit of extra time adjusting focus, because with this projector there were no pixel boundaries to focus on! The eight-million-odd pixels were packed in so tightly, and the reflective pixels of the SXRD display have such thin boundaries, this was hard to spot. In the end, we projected something static and simply made it as sharp as possible.

Lacking as yet a 4K Blu-ray player to provide 4K source material, we supplied the projector with native 4K material via a media box. Oh, wow. The results were uniformly stunning. As they should be, given that just about all extant UHD content is designed to show off the high resolution performance of UHD display devices.

And with the ability to project a huge image, this was just so much the better. We’re going to borrow from an earlier characterisation of ours (not coincidentally, from our review of an earlier Sony 4K projector) and note that: “This projector just seemed to instead paint on colour in an analogue way, unconnected from any underlying dot structure.”

The colour was bold and the black levels excellent, not quite inky in their blackness but extremely satisfying nonetheless. There are tweaks galore so you can change all settings to match your preference, or indeed calibrate to the highest standard. But we think the defaults will be pleasing to most viewers.

We also ran through our favourite 1080p Blu-ray scenes, including discs that had been ‘Mastered for 4K’. There’s a picture mode for such discs, the main advantage being that these discs are a precisely known quantity for the projector. And they looked fine indeed. But then so did just about everything else. Even our test patterns looked ridiculously good.

Sony clearly employs some fine algorithms in working out how to map 1080p signals up to UHD. All jagginess was eliminated from hard edges, including those problematic ones which are just off the horizontal.

May we say at this point that if you are watching something from Blu-ray or lower resolution, do not allow your other equipment to upscale it to UHD. We doubt that any equipment will do a job half as good as this projector.

But you may need some upscaling, as surprisingly, the projector does not support 576i/50 or 480i/60 signals at all. It does support 1080i/50 and the auto cadence detector was largely adequate, although a little too easily fooled (only for a second or so, usually) into video mode when presented with ambiguous material.

On the other hand, Sony’s ‘Motionflow’ motion smoothing technology was first class. If you set it to ‘Smooth Low’, just about all judder is ironed out, with no visible artefacts created and very little artificial glossiness to the picture.

Given that Sony has had several years lacking competition on 4K/UHD front projectors, we should be thankful that with the VPL-VW520ES they’ve done such a fine job of it. And furthermore, when other vendors do come on stream (TI’s UHD DMD chips are being prepared as we write), Sony’s projectors have set an extremely high standard for the newcomers to try to reach.

Sony VPL-VW520ES 4K AV projector
Price: $14,999

+ Brilliant UHD picture, Ready for UHD Blu-ray, First-class motion smoothing
- Not inexpensive, 3D eyewear not included

Projection technology: 3 x 18.8mm SXRD panels

Resolution: 4096 by 2160 pixels

Lamp: 280W Ultra High Pressure

Lamp life: 6000 hours

Contrast ratio: 300,000:1 (dynamic)

Brightness: 1800 lumens

Lens: 2.06:1 zoom range

Inputs: 2 x HDMI

Control: 2 x 12 volt trigger, 1 x Ethernet,

1 x RS-232C, 1 x IR in, 1 x USB (for firmware updates)

Dimensions (whd): 496 x 203 x 464mm

Weight: 14kg

Warranty: Three years (first of 1500 hours of use or three years on lamp, first of 5000 hours or three years on optical block)