As a preface to this review and summation of our recent “JVC vs. Sony” projector shoot-out, I’d like to share a little perspective gleaned from my own experience working with several of the major Hollywood studios while UHD / 4K standards were being finalized. About four to five years ago, I was involved with a project that attempted to get the major studios on board with higher resolution, anamorphic Blu-rays. Shawn Kelly of Panamorph had developed a technology where 33% more resolution could be “hidden” behind the black letterbox bars on Scope / 2.35:1 movies, and then reintegrated into the image when decoded by properly equipped projectors or Blu-ray players. At one point we had three of the major Hollywood studios seriously interested in this technology. As a side note, the timing of this corresponded with the rise of 4K flat panels in the consumer electronics industry.
As a result of my involvement with this project, I attended two events that were eye-opening. The first was one of the first tests of high resolution 4K native material at one of the major studios. It was a comparison of 4K scanned IMAX footage shown side by side on a Panasonic 1080P plasma and a Samsung 4K display. From anything approaching a normal viewing distance, differences were very hard to make out. In this test, the Panasonic "won out" thanks to its higher contrast and better screen uniformity. We were actually in the room with the XXXXXXX studio techs who were going back and forth trying to see differences in detail. They were there, but you had to get close to the screen to see them.
My take-away – the differences between 1080P and 4K material is in the ability to make out fine details and textures, not in overall sharpness. As we got deeper into this project and I started playing with native 4K footage myself, it became obvious to me that we needed picture content with ultra-fine textures or patterns to reveal any improvement at all with 4K displays and content. Examples would be fine textures on fabrics, leaves on trees, fine patterns containing lots of geometric shapes, etc. Sometimes differences could be seen in fine details on objects far away from the camera (such as being able to read the license plate numbers of cars during some of the helicopter shots in the film SICARIO).
It was also clear to me that you needed to be close enough to the display in order to actually see these differences. Typically, this means having to be less than 3 times the picture height from the screen. To put that into perspective, if you own a 65” 4K flat panel, you would need to sit less than 8 ft. from the display to see the improvement that 4K resolution brings. And you had to go looking for it, when it was present in the types of objects described in my previous paragraph.
The second event was a meeting of the Hollywood Post-Production Alliance in Palm Springs, CA. We witnessed Dolby making their argument that "we don't need more pixels, we need BETTER pixels." This is where the move toward HDR and wider color gamut was really kicked into high gear. Their argument was – and is - that differences in brightness, color and contrast can be seen at ANY viewing distance, while differences in resolution can only be seen at relative viewing distances. To be clear, this is not to say that differences in resolution are UN-important, just perhaps less important. That was Dolby’s point of view, and it has grown to be my own as well.
I’ll give another perspective, this time from a filmmaker's point of view. Having high resolution 4 to 6K cameras like the RED, Arri and others means that filmmakers can be that much looser framing the image during production because there is so much excess resolution captured by the camera sensor. Filmmakers and editors know they can go in during post-production and zoom and crop the image to their heart's content without losing sharpness (I did this myself when I edited the proof of concept trailer for my upcoming feature film, which was shot on a RED).
It’s also true that most movies – even if they are filmed and edited at 4K resolution or greater – are finalized on what is known as a 2K Digital Intermediate (2K DI). This means that the actual final product that makes it to Digital Cinemas and even UltraHD Blu-ray is actually only 2K in resolution. The reason? Right now, it’s simply because even the most modest films these days have some kind of digital, CGI based FX, and it’s much cheaper to render these FX at 2K resolutions than 4K resolutions. Of course, as with almost everything technology related, the cost and difficulty of doing 4K renders becomes less and less, so more and more true 4K movies and content will be coming down the pipeline.
(For anyone interested in finding out if their favorite UHD movie is actually sourced from a 4K master, here is an excellent resource: https://realorfake4k.com/).
All of that said, one of the great advantages of projection systems is the ability to deliver extremely large images. With a projection system, it’s not unusual for a viewer to be sitting within 3 picture heights of the screen, so differences in fine detail can be easier to make out (assuming native 4K material, of course). One of the major goals of our shootout was to determine how important ALL the different factors that go into the creation of UHD content (High Dynamic Range, Wider Color Gamut, and 4K resolution) are when viewing such content on the four excellent projectors we brought in for our shootout.
To begin, here is a list of the projectors we were able to test, with list prices and a basic feature breakdown:
Sony VPL-VW385ES: $7999 MSRP, native 4096 x 2160 4K panels, 1500 lumen light output, 13.5 Gbps HDMI inputs, dynamic iris, lens memory, 200,000:1 dynamic contrast, native contrast unpublished (from independent sources, likely around 15,000:1), approximately 80% reproduction of the DCI / P3 color gamut (unpublished, figure from independent sources)
JVC DLA-RS640: $7999 MSRP, 4K / 3840 x 2160 resolution capable via eShift5 “pixel shifting” processing of native 1920 x 1080 panels, 2000 lumens light output, 18 Gbps HDMI inputs, lens memory, 160,000:1 native contrast, 1.6 million to one dynamic contrast, 100% reproduction of the DCI / P3 color gamut (72% of REC2020)
Sony VPL-VW885ES: $24999 MSRP, native 4096 x 2160 4K panels, 2000 lumen light output, 18 Gbps HDMI inputs, lens memory, Infinity:1 dynamic contrast, approximately 100% reproduction of the DCI / P3 color gamut, 20,000 hour laser light engine
JVC DLA-RS4500: $34,999 MSRP, native 4096 x 2160 4K panels, 3000 lumen light output, 18 Gbps HDMI inputs, lens memory, Infinity:1 dynamic contrast, greater than 100% reproduction of the DCI / P3 color gamut (80% of REC2020), 20,000 hour laser light engine
Here is a picture of the projectors the day prior to the weekend long shootout. On the ceiling - the JVC DLA-RS4500. On the top shelf left, the Sony VPL-VW385ES, top shelf right, the Sony VPL-VW885ES, bottom shelf the JVC DLA-RS640.