Sony 4K RGB Laser Projector at CinemaCon 2017

rgb laser projector

Recent rumors have suggested that Sony would demonstrate a new RGB laser projector at CinemaCon 2017. Virtually all published information—from Sony or otherwise—has been woefully lacking in useful information and details, so speculation has been running high, leading to lots of confusion and questions regarding the new product.

Sony was kind enough to invite me to attend a private meeting and demonstration of the prototype before the show opened. I can now shed some light on the matter, clear up some confusion, and answer some questions that have arisen.

SXRD vs DLP

As of now, there are only four manufacturers who have received the prestigious Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) stamp of approval for their cinema projectors: Sony, Barco, Christie, and NEC. All use DLP technology except for Sony, which utilizes its own version of LCoS technology called SXRD.

SXRD offers some advantages compared with DLP. Perhaps most important is a significantly higher sequential contrast ratio (native on/off contrast ratio) and consequently better black levels.

Historically, the typical sequential contrast ratio of xenon lamp-based DLP digital-cinema projectors has been about 2000:1. But Sony’s existing SRX-R500 series of SXRD digital-cinema projectors typically exhibit a sequential contrast ratio of about 8000:1. Even the DLP-based Barco Thor, which costs around $400,000, struggles to achieve a contrast performance greater than 5000:1. Therefore, Sony’s cinema projectors stand head and shoulders above the competition in this regard.

That said, SXRD is not a unanimous victor in every respect. For example, there is a phenomenon described as “SXRD panel degradation.” If an SXRD projector is located in a humid environment and used infrequently, the contrast can decrease over time. However, the problem disappears if a projector is operated regularly and frequently. Therefore, this issue can be easily prevented by ensuring that the projector does not remain unused for prolonged periods in a humid environment.

Also, DLP projectors typically require a lot less uniformity correction. However, within the realm of six-figure pricing, it is simply unacceptable for any projector to have uniformity issues.

According to Sony, the prototype unit being demoed at CinemaCon suffered some trauma during transit. Apparently, this affected the prototype, but only with respect to its 3D performance, its de-speckling, and its uniformity correction. That said, Sony reassured us that the production units will suffer none of these issues, which I’m inclined to believe.

Next-Gen Laser Technology

The advantages Sony’s new RGB laser projector extend beyond the basic “pros” of SXRD technology. Firstly, unlike the competing offerings by Christie, Barco, and NEC, Sony’s new RGB laser engine is not the usual 6P laser, which I’ll explain shortly.

Also, despite the Sony press release/blog entry that seems to imply the new projector is an expansion of the existing SRX-R500 series, this is not, in fact, the case. It’s a totally new product that uses second-generation laser technology and incorporates a number of technological advances representing a significant evolutionary step forward.

Most of today’s RGB laser projectors use red and blue lasers, but the green component is generated by an infrared laser whose light passes through a special crystal that doubles the light’s frequency, generating narrow-band green light. Sony’s new RGB projector is among the first to use a direct green laser in addition to direct red and direct blue lasers. Christie also showed a prototype RGB laser-illuminated projector with direct red, green, and blue lasers at CinemaCon.

Using direct red, green, and blue lasers will indubitably yield significantly superior color performance compared with other projectors, including 3P/6P RGB laser projectors in which the green primary is synthesized. Theoretically, the color performance of the new Sony projector should be second to none.

Dual Optical Engine

There is another aspect that separates Sony’s new RGB laser projector from the rest the herd. Instead of the usual 6P array—two separate projectors each with RGB lasers tuned to slightly different wavelengths—the Sony projector features a dual-source optical engine comprising a single optical assembly with six panels. This is new technology developed by Sony and, as far as I know, it’s entirely unique to this projector.

Most RGB laser-projector systems use 6P “spectrum separation” for 3D. One set of RGB wavelengths is used for the left-eye image and the other, slightly different set of RGB wavelengths is used for the right-eye image. Viewers wear glasses that filter out the appropriate set of wavelengths for each eye. By contrast, the new Sony projector uses opposite polarization for each eye, which requires less-expensive polarized 3D glasses and a silver polarization-preserving screen.

That’s all well and good, but what does it mean?

According to Mark Clowes, Sony’s Product Manager for Professional Digital Cinema in Europe, “There are multiple advantages of this next-generation evolutionary step forward with respect to projector technology. Firstly, it means that the projector will offer the benefits of a single assembly, but with all the benefits and more compared with 6P. Additionally, the projector outputs two native 4K HDR images simultaneously through the same lens. This produces a more natural and realistic-looking image in 2D and 3D. But with 3D, the benefits are even greater. Because it’s not triple-flash-type 3D, we have eliminated the undesirable artifacts that occur with that technology.”

rgb laser projector
L-R: Chris Simpson (Sony National Manager Professional Digital Cinema America) and Mark Clowes (Sony Product Manager Professional Digital Cinema Europe).

The dual optical engine also benefits HDR performance. When I asked about which HDR criteria the new projector will meet and whether this will include support for Dolby Vision, I received no definitive answer. The unit is an early prototype, but I was assured that the projector will be fully HDR ready.

Smaller Size

Another distinct advantage of the new technology is that the size and footprint of the projector system will be greatly reduced compared with current models. That said, Sony made it very clear that the housing of the current prototype, seen in the photo at the top of this article, is by no means the one that will be used for production units; the actual product will be significantly smaller than that. Even so, the size and footprint of the prototype are significantly smaller than current DCI projectors, such as the Barco Thor.

barco-thor
Just to put things into perspective, here is a photo of the Barco Thor, which is a sprawling behemoth with multiple large boxes plus ducting, including heavy duty chillers that are an unfortunate necessity for first-generation 6P laser technology.

Target Market and Home-Theater Capability

Who exactly is Sony targeting with this new projector? Clearly, the predominant demographic is professional/commercial cinema. However, I had received word that Sony might be interested in selling this new projector into the high-end home-theater market as well, just as Barco does with the Thor.

Another reason to speculate about this is because it’s precisely what happened with Sony VPL-VW5000ES. In that case, Sony developed a singular product intended for the professional/commercial market—the VPL-GTZ270—then modified it, creating the product that became the VPL-VW5000ES.

At CinemaCon, Sony informed me that it intends to market the product differently compared with the VPL-VW5000ES and VPL-GTZ270. There will be only the one model, which will be focused on the professional cinema market. Still, it would be great if the product was sold into the high-end home-theater marketplace as well. Sony confirmed there should no problems integrating the projector into a home theater. The company pointed out that all SRX-R500 series projectors come with HDMI connectivity to allow for this, and it is highly probable that the new projector will as well.

The way I see it, at this particular price point—which was not disclosed explicitly, but I’m sure it will be in the six-figure range—the consumer and commercial markets overlap somewhat. It is within this shared commonality that the new Sony projector will reside, being of interest to both demographics.

Performance

So what about the actual video performance? What are the demos like? Sony provided me with performance details and data, which it requested not be published at the present time for obvious reasons. Of course, I will respect Sony’s wishes in this regard. However, I did ask a number of questions, and Sony is happy to let me publish that information.

rgb laser projector
Here’s the demo room at CinemaCon 2017 where I saw the new Sony RGB laser projector in action.

I am very impressed by the video performance of this new projector, especially since the unit I saw is essentially an alpha prototype. And as mentioned earlier, the unit suffered some trauma during transit that negatively affected its video performance in more ways than one.

Demo footage included native 4K HDR content, including some scenes from the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, all of which looked nothing short of spectacular. It was a wonderfully dynamic image, with superb colors and lots of luminosity headroom with no indication of bright highlights being clipped or shadow detail being crushed.

Most importantly of all, the sequential contrast and black levels looked very good. I am hesitant to quantify these elements more than that for now, since my opinion is based purely on subjective viewing without taking any measurements. However, I did ask Sony to confirm sequential-contrast performance figures, to which a rep said, “At least as good as the SRX-R500 series projectors,” which yield an average sequential contrast ratio of 8000:1.

Before you’re too disappointed by that figure, bear in mind that native contrast ratio and black level are interdependent. Bright images cause the iris in the human eye to close down, deepening the perceived black floor. In this particular instance, I saw sequential contrast similar to that of the VPL-VW5000ES, but with multiple times the light output, and consequently superior perceived black levels. This projector represents a significant step up in sequential contrast and perceived black floor compared with the likes of the Barco Thor.

Questions & Answers

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked about the new Sony projector and the answers I learned:

– What is the specification of the screen material being used for the demo?

Silver screen with 1.7 gain

– Does the projector have to be used with a silver screen?

Only for 3D; a standard white screen material can be used for 2D.

– What will be the MSRP?

Too early to say, but I’m sure it will be a six-figure sum.

– Estimated product launch?

2018

– Will the prototype be demoed at any other upcoming shows, such as IFA, CEDIA, CES, and/or ISE?

No

Summary

– New technology, not an expansion of the pre-existing SRX-R500 series

– Next-generation laser technology

– True RGB laser-illuminated projector

– Direct green laser yields significantly better color performance

– Dual-source optical engine comprising a single optical assembly with six imaging panels

– Projects two native 4K images simultaneously through single lens

– Negligible speckle due to dual-source light engine; much less speckle than 6P laser systems, no need for screen vibration or other de-speckling methods

– 30,000 lumens; multiple times the light output of the VPL-VW5000ES

– High native sequential (on/off) contrast; at least 8000:1

– HDR ready

– WCG with very high percentage of BT.2020 color

– Very high-quality lenses and optics; single lens for 2D and 3D, no need to swap lenses

– No uniformity issues

– Relatively small size and footprint

– Very bright 3D; polarized, not 6P; less fatiguing than 6P

– Supports frame rates up to 120 fps

– Capable of being installed in a home theater

– Shipping 2018

Nigel Archer (ARROW-AV on AVS Forum) is Managing Director of Arrow AudioVisual, a high-end home-theater integrator in Buckinhamshire, Great Britian. Learn more at arrow-av.com.