Vava's 4K Laser UST projector -  $2799.99 on Amazon  - has changed my view on projection and fully replaced in my living room. If you crave a bigger picture, be it for TV, sports, gaming or movies, take a serious look at replacing your TV with a UST projection system.

These are interesting times for pans of front projection. The combination of "pixel-shift 4K" DLP (using a 1080p DLP chip and 4X pixel-shift tech) and comparatively affordable laser light sources has resulted in a new crop of projectors that look great and behave much more like a TV than bulb-based units. Add UST (ultra short throw) in the mix and suddenly you have a viable option for putting a 100" or larger screen in your living room or media room, without the hassle of installing a long-throw projector. Just a few years ago, the cost of this capability was like buying a car. However the VAVA projector sells for only $2800, making it comparable to a premium 75"-class TV in cost.

When I first heard about the VAVA 4K UST Laser projector, I confess I was dismissive. The product launched with an indiegogo campaign and promised a lot, from HDR to Dolby Audio to an image size up to 150". That initial campaign was funded in a mere 22 minutes and ultimately raised over $2 million. Now, you can buy the VAVA 4K UHD Laser TV Home Theater Projector on Amazon  for under three grand.

So, what do you get for the money? A very slick projector that performs better than expected yet is easy to set up and use. While at CES 2020, I was glad to see that my primary concern—that I'd suffer the dreaded DLP "rainbow effect"—was unfounded. Although this unit uses a color wheel, I witnessed no artifacts while watching the VAVA. This continues to be the case after many dozens of hours of home viewing: The viewing experience remains rainbow-free.



FEATURES & SETUP

The packaging and the product show an attention to detail that befits a piece of AV gear in this price range. Un-boxing only took a minute and did not involve any awkward-to-handle packaging. It's arguably one of the nicest-looking projectors you can buy and looks perfectly at home sitting on a credenza, if you didn't know better, you might think it was a fancy smart speaker.

Let's talk raw specifications for a moment. The ALPD 3.0 light source is rated to last 25,000 hours, making this a projector that can withstand years of continuous use. Even if you watch 6 hours of TV and movies per day, you can expect to get over a decade of use out of the laser light source.

A key feature of this projector, especially if you have children and or pets, are sensors that instantly turn off the light source if something is detected in front of the lens. This safety feature can be turned on and off.

VAVA lists this projector's brightness at 2500 ANSI lumens, which is enough to overcome ambient light and the relatively low gain of UST screens. But the upshot is that by using a UST screen, you gain deeper shadows. You can in theory use a UST projector with a "Lambertian Diffusion" screen (a screen that reflects light evenly in all directions). But, to make it work, you'll need a dark room, but you can expect a dazzling image. This is a special use case, in most scenarios I expect this projector will be installed in living rooms with windows and white walls—just like mine.

This is a "Smart Projector" that connects to the Internet with Wi-Fi. It offers an app store, file manager (USB and network), multiscreen capability (to mirror what's on a phone or tablet) and the ability to select between the four HDMI inputs (one of which supports ARC).

The rear panel of the VAVA projector is easy to access, clearly labeled and reflects the overall clean design of the unit.

Setup was a cinch, with the only real challenge being to mount the screen at the right height (if you use a fixed-frame screen). Once you get the screen positioning right, it's just a matter of focusing lens, the result being a sharp image with minimal geometric distortion—even at the edges. The importance of good geometry is that it allows you to use a screen that has thin bezels with no light spilling over onto the wall, besides being a sign of a better lens and the fact that it is more faithful to the source. I did not see any significant chromatic aberration or blurriness near the edges, and unlike 3-LCD UST projectors, this DLP had zero issues with alignment. The result is a remarkably clean image that really comes alive when you feed it high-quality 4K source material.

I recommend that you use a screen specifically designed for UST projectors, it's especially important for daytime viewing, or any time when there's a lot of ambient light in the room. The good news is this is a bright projector that's able to create a 100" image when placed a mere 7.2" from the wall (or projection surface). I used it with a 110" screen.

This projector is a "TV" in the sense that it has smart apps built in, and a speaker system. Because it sits at the front of the room, instead of behind you, it means you need nothing more than the projector and screen to enjoy content. However, I do recommend adding a surround-sound system for a more immersive viewing experience, with the one caveat being that you must find a creative way to place the center channel since the projector goes where you'd usually find one. In my system, I forewent the center and use "phantom" mode.

I found the remote comfortable to hold and easy-to-use Thanks to its mercifully simple interface. You will have the position of the buttons memorized in no time, so you can use it without looking... that's the hallmark of a great remote. Menu navigation is snappy, and I could connect to my Wi-Fi network with minimum fuss.

Vava's well-designed and easy to use remote control.



PICTURE QUALITY

This is a very consumer oriented projector. AV enthusiasts looking for deep-dive calibration menus will not find them here. However, one of the positive characteristics of DLP is its consistency... You can factory tune a DLP projector to look good right out-of-the-box, and it will maintain that without the panel degradation that is an issue with LCD/LCOS technologies. Mind you, there are some basic color controls that would allow you to tweak the projector to better match a screen or hit a specific color temperature by adjusting RGB gain. Just don't expect to be performing at 20-point adjustment with CMS on this projector, it's not designed that way. Instead, it offers a minimalist selection of pre-tweaked options that are more than enough to get a good picture out of it. Even if you made no adjustments after unpacking this VAVA, what you'll see on screen looks good (with some room for improvement through optimization).

While you can set a custom color temperature, I switched between "Standard" for TV watching, because it's the brightest, and "Warm" during the evening when watching movies, because it is more accurate.

For the first week or so that I had the projector, I did not even realize that the "Brightness Mode: Standard" setting is actually the "Low" setting and that you have to choose "High" to get the maximum light output. Which is to say, the projector was bright enough for me in "Standard" mode. The benefit here is that there's less fan noise in the lower bulb brightness setting. The amount of fan noise will depend on how well ventilated the area around the projector is (the vents are on the sides of the unit, with the exhaust coming out the left side). Even on the "High" brightness setting it was only intermittent.

What's key is it's nice to be able to crank up the brightness on this projector by putting it on "Brightness Mode: High" when watching a daytime sporting event, or to get that extra "pop" that is missing from much projection-based HDR. With this VAVA, you can get highlights that "pop" and give you a good HDR effect.

As for contrast, DLP is a "known quantity" with modest black levels compared to the very best home theater projectors. Nevertheless, the Perceived contrast of this VAVA is great. Because there is no assumption of a totally light controlled, blacked out room, trying to achieve really deep black levels is actually a waste. Better to focus on those highlights and overall brightness, which for many scenes in many movies (anything bright and colorful) is what really makes the HDR version "pop." Plus, it really needs to be said... DLP (as long as there are no rainbow artifacts) looks really great. Crisp motion is a huge plus versus giant TVs, as is a level of screen uniformity that TV makers have only dreamt about since the demise of plasma. Taken together, the qualities of modern DLP projection are highly complementary to this application.

Buyers should be aware that this projector maxes out at 60 Hz and does not process 24 Hz natively, therefore it does have some "judder" when showing 24 Hz content (it did not pass the rtings.com judder test). However, I did not find it distracting in practice and I do feel it's better than big-screen TVs, even TVs that handle 24 Hz properly. The one exception to this are plasma TVs. Another thing to look out for is this projector has significant input lag, so it's not going to be the best choice for gamers. But considering its picture quality, with a focus on detail, brightness and light-source longevity, what you do get is worth the money, IMO.

It's important to note that this is not a native 4K projector and it is unable to render a 4K 1-pixel checkerboard pattern. But if you step away from test patterns, the reality of good pixel-shift projectors is they often (perceptually) look just as sharp as a native 4K model. There are various reasons this is the case, which I will not delve into here except to say it could be the content, it could be the lens and it could be the viewing distance. What's key is if you have 4K source material, it looks distinctly better than 1080p HD, in terms of sharpness and overall quality. This is thanks to the higher bandwidth of 4K, and when HDR is included in the mix, you also get richer colors and better (smoother) gradations.



AUDIO

Since the VAVA has built in sound by Harman/Kardon, I gave it a listen. Truth be told, it sounds at least as good as a budget soundbar, and certainly better than most TVs can muster on their own. Crucially, it gets loud and has enough bass to do a serviceable job with movies, and for sports you really need nothing more.

Another audio option is Bluetooth, you can either stream sound to the projector, effectively turning it into a speaker, or you can use the projector to output Bluetooth audio to another device, be it headphones, wireless speakers or a soundbar.

This projector is equipped with HDMI ARC, so you can connect it to an AVR with a single cable, like you would a TV. Additionally, there's an optical SPDIF output and a headphone/aux stereo analog output. In all, it's enough audio features to ensure you can enjoy this projector on its own, or else connect it to better speakers or a whole surround-sound system.



CONCLUSION

There is no one projector that can "do it all" but when it comes to ultra short throw options for the living room, the VAVA does many things right and presents a strong value proposition for anyone looking to super-size their living room/media room TV. Compared to an 85" TV, it is much easier to handle, even hanging a 11" screen is easier than dealing with a TV that size. And compared to the $25,000 Sony UST projector that I reviewed just two years ago, let's just say there's a lot you can do with $22,200.

Everyone's situation is different, but here is where I landed: I'm using the VAVA projector as my TV. Yes, at night when I watch a 4K movie on Ultra HD Blu-ray, I fire up the ole' 4K long-throw bulb-based projector. But for everything else I watch, I now turn on the VAVA instead and enjoy a 110" picture when catching s Sixers game or streaming Family Guy.

It is a huge relief to not have to worry about putting hours on a bulb, I can leave the VAVA on all day and see album art as I stream music. I find it preferable to a TV and have been using a projector in this capacity for the past two decades. Indeed, that's how I found AVS Forum to begin with, is researching screens for my living room system.

Now, with the VAVA 4K UST Laser projector, enjoying a top-notch big screen viewing experience in the living room is practical, and more affordable than ever. That's why it's a Top Choice for 2020 in this category.





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