written by Mike Shea on 21 November 1999
The following article has now been outdated significantly. It remains here for archival and research purposes only. Many of the views outlined here are now out of date and may have changed. Please read Digital TV Part 2 for a newer look at home theater monitors. The VPL 400 Q is no longer a part of my home theater, after dying just two years into it's use. While it was a solid display during this time, the fan noise, bad contrast level and short life span kept me from buying a new one.
Home Theater means a lot of things to a lot of people. For me it was the recreation of a theater like environment in the comfort of my home. Building a system that fully recreates the environment the director intended when making a film. After working on the audio portion of this system for a couple of years, I decided it was time to take a good hard look at video. Most of the technical specs I was looking for can be found in Mike's Guide to Digital Television so I won't recreate it here, but what it really comes down to is a large screen. Not a 32" or a 40" or even a 56", but one that truly gives the impression of a screen at the movie theater.
This philosophy cuts out almost every rear projection or direct view video display on the market, and ups the price well into the four digit mark. Let me be blunt: In order for a home theater to truly capture the minds of the viewer as the director intended, you must use a front projection display. I know this sounds harsh and severe. Front projection displays are quite costly and require more room preparation than traditional displays, but they are the only ones that can give you truly large screens (into the 120" range). But while most are extremely expensive and difficult to set up (read CRTs), there are a couple of real values as well. This is where the Sony VPL-W400Q comes in.
This projector has been out for about two years, and has been the sleeper hit over the internet. LCD projectors have been bashed throughout many a magazine as offering little value over CRTs. There are many complaints of worse black levels, screen door like pictures and low bulb life. Only one projector fights to break a couple of these barriers and that is the Sony VPL-W400Q.
This projector is one of the only projectors (and the only one of it's time) to have a 16x9 LCD panel. This means that while other LCD projectors have to reduce the amount of pixels that are being displayed to view widescreen material, the 400Q displays it with every available pixel. This partners it perfectly with DVD players which are the only sources that output a true 16x9 picture for selected DVDs (everything else is just letterbox). It also threw away the data portion of normal LCD projectors in order to use an angular pixel shape that reduces the fly eye picture to unnoticeable levels.
The projector is extremely easy to set up. It takes in composite video and s-video on one input. NTSC component, HDTV component and 15.75 khz RGBYC are selected on the other input. It uses BNC connectors instead of RCA connectors for the composite, component, HD component and RGB so little adaptors are needed to accept the signal. One was included with the projector, so I was able to set it up in one evening even though the rest of my cables hadn't shown up. The s-video input is a standard type connector. One immediate disadvantage of the unit comes with the fact that you can't use the composite and s-video jack at the same time. Only one or the other can be used without unplugging one and inserting another. Only with an expensive external line switcher (about $200 to $300) can you run both composite and s-video. Why they didn't separate these out to different inputs is a mystery. It would be far greater if there were roughly four inputs for Composite, S-Video, Component and RGB. The component/RGB input is a little confusing as well. While it does NTSC inputs without a problem and can accept a 1080i component HD input (making this a fully HD compatible display!) it cannot do a 480p or 720p input. The RGB jacks are locked at 15.75 khz so this projector cannot accept a traditional external line multiplier.
Other features of this display include a manual zoom and focus. This allows a very large placement range depending on the screen size you are looking for. I was able to mount my projector from 106" to 160" for a 72" 16x9 screen. The projector has numerous aspect ratio settings including Normal, Wide, Zoom, Wide/zoom, subtitle and automatic. These proved to be as many as I needed. The full array of normal display settings are available as well. Other than aspect shifts, you shouldn't need to go into the menu. Unfortunately it lacks a single aspect shift button that would allow you to move to a different aspect ratio without entering and navigating the menu. The remote is a little strange (being almost three years old), but is simple in design and in use. Unfortunately the remote signal is not standard enough for a universal remote to send other than a learning one (see my review of the Phillips Pronto)
Upon first receiving the projector, I was only able to use composite sources since I was waiting for the 50' component cable to arrive. The initial setup had the projector facing a blank wall while sitting on top of the box it came in. Even in this far from ideal setup, I was floored by the sheer size of the picture and the clarity of the detail. The flaming chrome skull in the beginning of T2 was so detailed I would have sworn it was high definition. No scan lines were present and the LCD pixel structure was all but invisible. The black level suffered from the high brightness of LCDs (this is the one area that CRT projectors really stomp on LCDs) but after some tweaking to the rest of the brightness spectrum, it became much less of a problem. Every display has their flaws, and it is a simple matter of accepting them or moving to a different one. The loudness of the fan was also painfully evident upon first turning on the projector, but considering I was sitting next to it, I wasn't too surprised.
Finally I received my da-lite screen and my component cable. I could finally hook it up, tune it up and fire it up in the ideal conditions. Overall? Quite stunning. The problems with the black level, though still not CRT quality, were far removed once the blackness of the wall was no longer there to highlight the brightness of the projector. The screen did much to improve the contrast levels, making the blacks blacker and the brights brighter. After a little tweaking, I came up with the following favorite current settings. These were set using Video Essentials and are a tad darker than most people like. For nighttime viewing I find them much more accurate than the brighter HBM color temp setting.
Another setting has the brightness up to roughly 20 or 30 and the color temperature up to HBM. I use this more for daytime viewing where some light is spilling into the room. While this does look "better" to some, it is not as accurate as the settings above.
For $3600 you get a first rate front projector that blows away almost any other LCD projector and gives the lower priced CRTs a run for their money. The picture is big and bright. Going from a smaller 72" screen up to about 121" screen just blows away almost any CRT device available. The colors are rich and full without bleeding or blooming. The blacks when contrasted with brighter colors look as deep as they come. The built in line doubler all but eliminates the scan lines that are native to NTSC material. It is by far the best doubler I have seen built into a display (including the Panasonic 56" HDTV and the Toshiba 65" TV). There was no softening of the picture that I could see, contrary to the rumors I had heard. This is true even of non 16x9 enhanced material. Rushmore, a non-enhanced DVD, had a truly 3D picture in many scenes throughout the movie. The device can handle any source I can throw at it right now, and will handle a 1080i HDTV signal when I move to that route.
The size of the unit is only 25 lbs and is quite painless to install (especially if you have your boss up on the latter with the drill). Even in my apartment, only four holes had to be drilled for both the projector and the screen! Mounting it to the ceiling allowed me to regain a lot of space in my living room over my smaller 32" set. And moving it to a new house will be nothing more than putting it into a box. No moving company, no four huge guys trying to shuffle it up some stairs, no remodeling a hallway in order to bring it in, no hassles period. Focus and adjustment is far easier than any CRT device. LCD panels can't be bloomed or over saturated no matter how hard you try, so it is easier to do even rudimentary brightness and contrast adjustments than a normal tube TV. CRT projectors practically require a specialist to come in to do the alignment and color settings.
One of the difficulties with moving from a normal tube TV to a large screen is that there are prices to pay for such an increase in size. This is true with this projector as much as any. It has it's disadvantages. This projector really has movies it shines with and movies it can handle, but not extremely well while most tube sets will handle any material all the same way. The brighter and louder the movie is, the less you notice the projector's flaws and just enjoy the movie. Films like Out of Sight, Austin Powers, Fifth Element, Payback and Blade all do marvelously on this projector. The soundtracks usually do a lot to muffle the sound of the cooling fans and let you just enjoy the movie. Other films with more subtle pictures and higher use of silence to make a point show off the disadvantages of this projector a little more.
Interestingly enough, the initial disadvantages I expected were the least of my problems. I originally expected the black level and the lack of progressive inputs to be the main problems, but after properly tuning the projector, the black level was fine and the line doubler was so good I couldn't see getting much more out of a progressive player. There are some other issues with this particular projector that are worth mentioning. All LCDs and many CRTs require active cooling (fans) to keep the temp down inside the projector. During any heavy action sequence or any musical score, it fades into the background, but any time a soundtrack requires a subtile use of sound, the fan has a tendency to drown it out. The bank robbery in Out of Sight is a good example. In the beginning of that scene there is a man talking to a bank representative. Throughout the scene you should be able to pick up bits of the conversation as Jack Foley watches them. With the fan at full bore, most of this is lost. During Amadeus and Sphere (this is about the only sentence you will see these two movies related to each other!), certain low voiced dialog is hard to hear. This will require you to retune your audio system so that you can hear such dialog without blowing your ear drums when the asteroids hit.
The Green fog problem is a bit more subtile, and a little more vexing. Apparently all Sony VPL-w400Qs have a problem with the high heat causing a faint green hue over certain areas of the screen. To all but the most critical viewers (me) it is invisible, but if you know what to look for, it can be found. It is mainly visible when there is a dark section on the lower right side of the screen. Darks have a slightly green look to them, and if there is a low light on someone's face, their face gets a little greener than it should. The net folks who have discussed this at length say that it is visible on many projectors and it is unsure whether it will go away after being serviced. Apparently it is just a problem with a significant amount of the LCD panels that are used in this projector. As I stated above, it is easy to dismiss this issue unless you are obsessive about it. It seems that the green fog issue is also related to the length of time the projector is running. After a solid four hours of viewing, I noticed the picture to go a shade darker and a shade greener. After a few months of owning this projector, I have either become used to this problem or it was not near as severe as I first thought. Either way, this has become far less of a problem.
There are two other problems that occur in some of these projectors, but not in all. Burned out pixels can cause small points of discolored light to appear. This apparently can be distracting, but the three year warranty covers this, so a quick shipment to the manufacturer will alleviate this. If the projector doesn't exhibit them originally, it is unlikely to later.
The second problem is dust in the LCD cartridge which appears as fainter splashes of discoloration that are not associated with the LCD pixels. A blast from a can of compressed air on the panels can solve the problem, but voids your warranty. After mounting the projector I noticed this problem but was able to take care of it for the most part. There were a couple of messages on the VPL-W400Q message board about this problem, so it isn't just a one time issue. After a few months, this is about the only problem that I still notice on a regular basis. Overall this may be the biggest problem the projector has, and it varies greatly with each projector. If you see it, you may want to send in the projector for servicing or exchange.
In creating the true home theater experience, there is little doubting that size does matter (God I hate using that quote). THX has set the specification at roughly 1/2 the distance you sit from the screen is about how big the diagonal of your screen should be (this is a rough calculation, but it is pretty accurate and simple). For most of us, this means that front projection is the only realistic way to go. The VPL-W400Q allows those of us who demand high quality, large size and future upgradibility but don't have the wallets or accessibility for a higher priced CRT projector to get this large screen into our homes. With this mix of low cost and high performance there is a price. It's black levels aren't stellar, it is louder than a CRT, and it has a few picture issues (friggin dust!)as well. You have to ask yourself if these disadvantages outweigh or are dwarfed by it's advantages. For me, they were. Once you get out of the perfectionist stage and just begin to enjoy your movies, this is the only way to go. If you are looking for the $100,000 Vision One, you aren't going to find it, but if you are looking for a 72" screen (or far larger!) for half the price of a smaller screened HDTV set, this is the way to go. It is truly the way to bring the theater experience into the home.
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