Sony VPL-VW550ES review: The best 4K projector 9-grand can buy

£8999
Price when reviewed

Although 4K is fast becoming the standard resolution for new consumer TVs, in the world of projectors 4K is still beyond the budgets of even home cinema enthusiasts. You can’t buy a projector capable of projecting 4K at native resolution for less than £5,000, and most new 4K models more than £10,000.

That’s why, despite its £8,999 price, the Sony VPL-VW550ES isn’t actually all that expensive for what it is. Although it seems ridiculous to say it, it merely sits in the mid-range – above the cheapest native 4K projectors, but well below the level of professional laser light projectors, which can cost tens of thousands.

So, what exactly do you get for your nine grand and why would you pay £2,500 more than Sony’s “budget” VPL-VW320ES? On paper, it doesn’t look like much.

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Just like that projector, the VPL-VW550ES uses a mercury lamp light source and three 0.74in SXRD chips to project a 4,096 x 2,160 image on screen. It’s a slightly brighter projector at 1,800 lumens maximum, compared with the 1,500 lumens of the VPL-VW320ES, but you don’t really need a huge amount of brightness in a home cinema projector anyway.

More interestingly, the quoted contrast is higher, at 350,000:1 compared with 200,000:1 – but the big difference is that the Sony VPL-VW550ES supports HDR, including the forthcoming HLG standard. I was initially sceptical about this, though. After all, HDR is all about producing super-bright highlights, extending the dynamic range so explosions, headlights and reflections appear more lifelike.

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To achieve that, however, you need to be able to deliver hugely bright peak white and an equally low black level response. A projector in most rooms, mostly due to environmental factors, will never be able to deliver the same dynamic range as an HDR TV.

Still, if you’re going to be laying out this much on a home cinema projector, you’ll probably have it installed in a room where you can black out the windows completely, and in these circumstances a projector like this has a decent chance of producing an HDR-like effect.

It’s also good to see that Sony gives you the ability to tweak the balance between the bright peaks and the rest of the range using the HDR contrast mode so the picture doesn’t disappear into a morass of dark tones and shadows.

Sony VPL-VW550ES review: Features and specifications

At this price, you probably won’t be surprised to discover that the VPL-VW550ES leaves no stone unturned when it comes to features. The remote control is excellent, coming with backlighting so you can use it when the curtains are drawn and the lights are off, and loads of useful shortcut buttons to give quick access to important features – such as the projector’s various film, TV and low latency gaming modes.

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This is a big projector, measuring 464 x 496 x 195mm (WDH), and will need to be installed permanently, so it’s good to see decent motorised focus, zoom and image-shift capabilities, enabling you to precisely locate the image on your screen via the remote control. In fact, the flexibility of setup is excellent: the zoom gives you 2.06x leeway to play with, the vertical shift gives you a range of +85% to -85%, and the vertical shift is +/-31%. This gives you a huge amount of flexibility on where you can situate the projector, as does teh fact that the heat vents are front-facing, so you can butt it right up against a wall if you need to. 

As for video-input support, though, that’s slightly less impressive. The VPL-VW550ES offers only two HDMI inputs, although both do support HDMI 2.2. The rest of the connections comprise a pair of 3.5mm trigger ports, a nine-pin remote, a 10/100 Ethernet port, an infrared extension and a USB-A port for firmware upgrades. It’s worth pointing out at this point that although the projector does auto-detect HDR sources, you have to switch the HDMI input to “enhanced” mode first, or your player will think it doesn’t support HDR at all.

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In addition to that HDR contrast mode, there are plenty of other settings to play around with once you get into the onscreen menu, with a host of useful presets. I settled on the Film 2 mode with Motion Flow Impulse setting enabled in the end, but there’s no end of tinkering you can do here with full colour temperature, gamma correction and colour correction available. The projector supports both Rec. 709 and Rec. 2020 colour spaces (although it’s locked to Rec. 2020 when HDR content is present), there’s a reduced lag mode for gaming plus brighter Film and TV presets for those who, for one reason or another, simply can’t get the ambient light right down.

One setting I’d advise you to turn down to minimum, however, is the projector’s sharpening mode. Above a setting of around 10 I found it added a distracting, fizzing grain to the image.

Sony VPL-VW550ES review: Performance

All content projected by the Sony VPL-VW550ES, whether in HDR 4K or simply upscaled 1080p, looks spectacular. I’ve never been convinced of the benefit of 4K over 1080p on 40-50in TVs, but up the screen size to 80in or 100in and more and the advantage of those extra pixels becomes obvious, with Ultra HD sources simply bursting with clarity and detail.

This projector deals with all types of scene beautifully, including action sequences, with a welcome lack of motion blur, but it’s the sense of contrast and solidity the image imparts that truly impresses. There’s none of that greyness to darker tones and black that can afflict less expensive projectors. In fact, the picture quality has the appearance a great TV has, with wonderful presence, balance and natural colours.

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It’s also a pretty quiet projector, especially with the VPL-VW550ES’ low lamp mode engaged. Even with high lamp mode enabled, I measured a maximum 76.3dBA with my sound. This is far from silent, but the character of the noise – a soft whooshing rather than a noisy whining – means it isn’t too annoying.

That’s important because you need to set the projector to high to make the most of HDR, and it’s here that the VPL-VW550ES really steps up its game; despite my initial scepticism, the projector does a fine job here. The only slight irritation is that it does take a little tweaking of the brightness and HDR contrast settings to get just right, so that the shadow detail isn’t entirely crushed into black. I also found myself changing this depending on the film or TV show.

The reward, however, is frankly astonishing levels of contrast and colour richness. Fire up anything from Netflix’s Marco Polo to The Lego Movie on 4K Blu-ray and you’ll see deep, dark black and shadow areas, bright (occasionally blinding) highlights and a wondrous sense of solidity and realism. Flicking HDR mode on and off demonstrates the huge difference HDR makes to the picture quality on this projector. Without HDR enabled the picture looks great, but somewhat flat; with HDR engaged, the picture quality is simply jaw-dropping.

Sony VPL-VW550ES review: Verdict

There’s not much bad I can find to say about the Sony VPL-VW550ES. Picture quality is absolutely stunning whatever source you feed it, even if you stick with standard dynamic range content. It’s the surprisingly good HDR capability that pushes this projector into truly great territory.

The picture quality is simply stunning, the ease of setup is fantastic, and it’s pretty quiet, too. If you have £9,000 to drop on a 4K HDR projector, and you want the ultimate home theatre experience without having to spend tens of thousands on a professional setup, this Sony VPL-VW550ES is a wonderful choice.

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