We like our TV and gaming BIG and LOUD, and after dozens of hours of research, we decided the Sony VPLHW40-ES was a bad enough dude for the job.
Our Sony VPLHW40-ES Home Theater Projector rating:
If you’re in the market for a spectacular home theater projector and your budget is somewhere around $1600-2000, check out the Sony VPLHW40-ES. We’ve had this projector for 4 months and we just love it!
In this review, I’ll show you why we chose the 40-ES over competitor models, how we set it up, and what’s best about it.
Sony VPLHW40-ES features at a glance
- SXRD (Silicon X-tal Reflective Display) – Sony’s “spin” on the 3LCD technology common to modern projectors is by many measures an improvement
- No perceptible gaming lag
- 2 HDMI inputs – most competitor projectors in this price range just have 1 HDMI input
- HDMI-CEC – Enables other devices, like a receiver or Playstation 4, to turn the projector on on their own
- You can realign the panels – calibration grid, not available on all projectors. 3LCD projectors tend to drift out of alignment and you notice a black or white line and color seepage. With the Sony 40-ES, you can manually realign the panels instead of sending it in for service/repair
- Lens shift for a greater range of possible projector positions – in this price range all projectors have some degree of lens shift, but the ES-40 has 25% horizontal and 70% vertical lens shift (so you can mount way higher than your screen, or off-center of your screen).
- 3D – requires glasses, like these or these
- “Low” lamp setting – extends lamp life about 3x and gives you better black levels with little to no sacrifice to picture quality
- 1080p and can project up to about a 300″ screen (ours is 120″) – the smaller your screen, the sharper and brighter your image
- Runs quiet
- Backlit remote!
Sony VPLHW40-ES image examples – games, movies, cartoons
These photos were taken with my Samsung NX300 in a dark living room (windows covered by light-blocking curtains).
Below is Blizzard’s Overwatch at 120″ on our ES-40. The colors are rich and vibrant, and, even more importantly, the relatively small on-screen text and UI elements are clear and readable from the sofa 11 feet away.
Live action movie: dark scenes
These two scenes from Pacific Rim demonstrate how the ES-40 is still really good at showing detail in dark scenes, both on complex objects and on human actors. It’s even more impressive when you take into account the tricky nature of photography in a scene with low lighting – these scenes looked even better in person.
Live action movie: bright scenes
This scene from Mad Max shows the projector’s awesome capabilities at highly detailed well-lit scenes. This movie is pure eye candy to begin with and on this projector, it was like seeing it in theaters again.
This scene from Rick and Morty shows that even cartoons look awesome when blown up by the ES-40 for a 120″ size screen.
Things to know about projector image quality
The quality of image you perceive any projector to have depends on a number of factors, including
- the projector itself – in general, the more you pay for a projector, the better an image you’ll get
- the surface you are projecting onto – a screen’s gain level affects how bright the projected image appears (we project onto a Silver Ticket 120″ screen)
- how much you’re using lens shift and stretching to fill your screen
- the distance between your projector and screen
- how far you sit from the screen
With our particular setup, everyone who has seen our ES-40 in action agrees the picture is stunning. In a dark room, it’s plenty bright on the “low” setting, and in a partially lit room, the “high” setting is more than enough to compensate. (We don’t really run the projector in broad daylight.)
When you’re buying a projector, you’re looking for that sweet spot where you get the best picture without spending more than your budget, whatever that may be. Every major projector brand has its own pluses and minuses when it comes to image quality, and we determined that the Sony ES-40 had the best balance of these factors. Now that it’s on the wall, we’re confident we made the right decision.
For us, the most important aspects of image quality were:
Be aware of the “color wheel rainbow” effect
Lower-end projectors use “color wheels” to produce their images. Color wheels “overlay” the image on themselves really quickly to produce all colors, but if you look left/right while it’s projecting you might see a rainbow flicker. A lot of projector owners are looking for ways to reduce this effect in projectors they already own, so we thought it’d be better to try to avoid it in the first place.
We wanted a projector that used 3-chip LCD technology instead. The ES-40 uses Sony’s own proprietary LCD technology that does not produce the rainbow effect.
And the “screen door” effect
Lower-end and mid-range projectors often have a visible “grid” in their projected image, known as the “screen door” effect. The ES-40 has a mild screen door effect, but it’s far less noticeable than less expensive projectors. At my workplace, for example, the conference room projectors have very obvious grids if you look closely.
On projectors where it’s noticeable, the screen door effect looks like this (not from the ES-40):
Pay attention to black levels
Nobody likes seeing dim grey where they should see black. Generally speaking, more expensive projectors are better at isolating dark regions of an image than cheaper projectors. We’re very happy with the black levels on our Sony ES-40 and haven’t noticed any loss of detail, even in dark scenes.
Make sure it’ll look good on your size screen
When choosing a projector, figure out how big your target screen size is and work backwards from there. The bigger the screen, the more light your projector will need to put out. The ES-40 stood out in its price bracket for putting out a lot of light- enough to fill our 120″ screen.
There are other tradeoffs to consider, too: if you zoom in on the projector, you’ll get a sharper image but you’ll also lose some light, so you want some light to “spare” if you’re planning on zooming at all. Had we put the projector at 13′ back from the screen, we’d be full zoomed out (so really bright) but sacrificing sharpness. With the projector moved back to 16′, we use some zoom (about 50%) to fill the screen entirely, which seemed to be the sweet spot for sharpness and brightness.
These photos were taken with an iPhone 6 in a large room lit by the projector and natural light seeping in from around our window coverings.
This photo was taken 1 foot away from the screen. The large black rectangle is my phone’s shadow. The faint grid is the ES-40’s screen door effect, which is faint compared to other projectors we considered.
And get an actual screen (don’t use a wall)
The 1.1 gain screen made by Silver Ticket was absolutely worth the investment: we only had to project the image partially on/partially off the screen (and onto the eggshell-white wall behind the screen) during setup once to get an instant appreciation for our screen.
The black velvet border soaks up any spill-over light, so your picture looks perfectly rectangular, even if you didn’t (or couldn’t) line it up quite perfectly with the borders of the screen.
In the image below, the Silver Ticket screen is on the left and the painted wall on the right. Notice the fine bumps in the picture and blurriness on straight edges.
Why this projector? Sony 40-ES vs. competitors
In doing all our projector research, we found that home theater (as opposed to travel-size or professional grade) projectors tend to fall into one of three categories. These are very general categories, summarized here for people who aren’t huge AV nerds. (They’re also our categories, based on commonalities between models we researched, not some industry standard.)
In this section, I’ll tell you what other projectors we considered on our path to selecting the Sony ES-40. These runners-up are all good choices for their respective tiers, so if your budget isn’t quite enough for the ES-40, take a look at these projectors instead.
Entry level home theater projectors
These projectors cost around $500, and while they put out a decent amount of light they tend to fall short on image quality at large screen sizes and black levels.
They also tend to use “color wheels” to produce their images. Color wheels “overlay” the image on themselves really quickly to produce all colors, but if you look left/right while it’s projecting you might see a rainbow flicker. Some people are more sensitive than others.
Some manufacturers have ways to reduce this effect, but at a cost – and that additional cost can buy your way into the next tier. We were looking for something more cinema-quality and we wanted to fill a 120″ screen, so we skipped this category entirely from our consideration.
(If you’re actually looking for a travel or very small projector, we use and highly recommend the Sony Portable HD projector MPCL1)
Middle tier home theater projectors
In the next bracket up you’ll find projectors using “3 chip LCD”, often abbreviated as 3LCD. These cost around around $900-$1500 and boast a better picture quality than the entry level tier.
They don’t have the color wheel problem, but many of them do seem to have a visible LCD grid. If you have a sharp eye, you’ll notice this in many office-grade projectors (something to look for in the next boring meeting you sit through at work).
Some projectors we considered in this bracket:
ViewSonic PJD7820HD 1080p
Despite its good reviews and significantly lower price, we didn’t go with this ViewSonic because it’s still a color wheel projector and we thought we might be susceptible to the rainbow effect. It also lacks the horizontal shift we needed to have our screen centered on our wall while mounting the projector to an off-center ceiling joist.
Upper tier home theater projectors
At this price range, you’ll skip the color wheels and LCD grids and spend about $2000+ for the privilege. Most projectors in this range are 3LCD but they have proprietary features to come out ahead in other ways and remain competitive. SXRD Sony proprietary technology. This tier is where we focused most of our research and comparison efforts.
Epson Home Cinema 5030UB 1080p 3D 3LCD
The Epson Home Cinema 5030UB promises better black levels than the Sony 40-ES we ultimately went with we weren’t sold on that being the best feature. With a properly dimmed room and a high gain screen, there are ways to combat not having the very best black levels. Went with Sony because SXRD so we didn’t have the grid.
The Sony VPLHW55-ES is the next model up from the Sony 40-ES we ultimately chose, and it costs almost 50% more than we paid for ours. The big thing the 55-ES has that the 40-ES doesn’t is a dynamic iris. The dynamic iris gives you better black levels and the projector itself is a bit brighter with a longer lamp life. For $1000 we weren’t convinced it was worth the jump in price, so we stayed with our budget and the 40-ES.
Projector plugs and ports
The Sony 40-ES has the following ports:
- 2 HDMI ports
- Component (Y Pb/Cb Pr/Cr)
- VGA (RGB/ Y Pb/Cb Pr/Cr)
- IR in (for 3D glasses)
Note: It might be tempting to plug something like a Chromecast or an Amazon Fire TV Stick directly into one of the HDMI ports, but it requires more setup to get audio if you do. You’ll need to plug into a receiver instead to send the sound to your speakers and the picture to the projector (via the receiver). With a receiver (which typically have 5+ HDMI ports), you won’t find yourself feeling limited by “just” two HDMI ports on the projector.
The ES-40 comes with plenty of tools for getting your picture level and centered and the colors just so. You can adjust hue, contrast, sharpness, but there are also presets such as “Reference” and “Film”. With these, try them and see what you like. You can also adjust colors independently.
There’s several different grids for aligning the picture and you can spend as much (or as little) time as you want matching it up to your screen. We found this process straightforward and rather satisfying once we got it lined up.
Tradeoffs, shortcomings, and other things to know before you buy
It’s hard to find something negative to say about this projector. Most of its shortcomings (if you can call them that) are technical limitations that exist for all projectors that any would-be projector owner should be aware of.
It’s not a 4k projector
4K is the new hotness in TVs (and damn, is it ever gorgeous – I adore my 4K 55″ Vizio) but 4k projectors are still up in the pricing stratosphere. The most affordable 4k projectors start around $10k – yowch. That’s outside our budget.
At 1080p you can see a little bit of pixel stretching on a 120″ screen, but it depends how far away you are. We sit 12′ away from our screen and it’s not noticeable at all. In general, I think any stretching is subtle and hard to notice, even on things like captions and gaming UIs. You wouldn’t see it on a smaller screen, and you probably won’t notice it unless you’re looking for it.
At 27 lbs, it’s pretty heavy – and you’re almost certainly going to ceiling mount it
Due to its size, weight, and heat output, you’re best off mounting this projector to your ceiling (rather than, say, stuffing it in a bookshelf cubby or putting it on top of some shelving). How much of a challenge that is for you depends a lot on your ceiling and DIY skills, but we found the actual mounting process quite doable with a good household-grade drill.
In our case, our ceiling joists ran perpendicular to the screen, and none of them were exactly center in relation to the screen. The joist we chose was the lesser of two evils, and it’s off center by about 4″, which we made up for using lens shift.
Our DIY skills are just above novice, but we were able to mount it to a ceiling stud ourselves. This came with some trepidation and hand-wringing, but it’s been up there for 2 months now without incident. (We left a pillow under it the first night it was up, just in case – lol).
Lamp life is a thing
If you’re a heavy TV user (I’m talking 4+ hours a day of use), I would hesitate to recommend you a projector over a television. That’s because the bulb has a finite lifespan, and replacement bulbs for the 40-ES cost around $100.
On high setting, the lamp has a life of about 2000 hours. In some households I know that leave the TV on 8 hours a day, the lamp wouldn’t last a full year. There’s a reason so many reviews call this projector a “light canon” – you can get it BRIGHT (1700 lumens, according to Sony), but that brightness comes at a cost.
(Personally, we find the high setting to be too bright and prefer watching on the lower setting.)
On its lower setting, the lamp has an expected life of about 5000 hours. 5000 hours is more reasonable, but our hypothetical 8-hours-a-day household wouldn’t make it to 2 years on a single bulb.
The low setting looks totally fine in a darkened or partially lit room (and many viewers prefer it). Unless you’re watching in a daylit room, you’ll probably be happy with the low setting, too. Low also gives you better black levels.
There’s some math to do
You’ll need to mount your screen and your projector in such a way that they complement each other, and getting the distances right will take a little bit of measurement and arithmetic on your part.
Fortunately, there are online calculators to help. We also found drawing diagrams of the room to be a useful exercise.
Here’s what we read when we did our research:
- Projector Reviews has an in-depth review of the HW40-ES’s unique features
- Projector Central has a good review plus helpful questions from other readers in the comments
- Amazon.com reviews on the ES-40
Mounting bracket of choice: Peerless PRGS-UNV
We went with the Peerless PRGS-UNV Precision Gear Universal Projector Mount, which is a bit pricier than competitor mounts but worth it for two reasons:
- Spider adapter made it easy to center the mounting hole (it comes with 4 arms but we removed one because the 40-ES only needed 3)
- Precision gears made it easy to tilt and position the projector, then lock it into place
Our installation was probably fairly typical: drywall ceiling, wood joists (they run perpendicular to our screen, though, so it took some mathing to figure out which one was closer to center), no extension. We used the vertical lens shift to center the image on the screen (if you don’t use vertical lens shift, you’d have to align your projector with the very center of your screen). We used this calculator to help us with our projector position.
First, we attached the spider adapter to the projector. The bracket comes with 4 “arms”, but the 40-ES only needs three. The extra was easy to remove. It took some trial and error to find the best arrangement of the arms, and this is what we settled on. The goal was to center the circular hole as close to the middle of the projector body as possible.
There are two pieces to the mounting hardware – the one in my hand (below) gets attached to the ceiling, and the projector and its bracket slide into it. Here I am testing that the orientation is the way I want it by sliding the two halves of the bracket together.
The dry run was a success. It’s good to get familiar with the slide-in process and the adjustment knobs on this bracket while you can still see them – once it’s on the ceiling (assuming you don’t have any kind of extension on it) you’ll probably have to do some of this by feel.
These pencils mark where our screws will attach the bracket to the ceiling joist.
Make sure you are on a stud, preferably near the center of the stud.
We needed to use a longer drill bit to get both screws in place. Here’s a link to my DeWalt drill and the 3.5″ power bit I used for this project – I highly recommend them both for driving screws into studs (if you’ve never drilled into a stud before, this Q&A helped us troubleshoot when we got stuck while mounting our screen to studs).
The ceiling-mounted bracket is now on the ceiling. The projector itself will slide into position on this bracket, a process you hopefully practiced at least a couple times on the ground.
We spent far more time on measuring and double-checking the placement than we did on actually screwing the bracket to the ceiling and then sliding the projector onto it. This was a fairly painless installation, despite having to work with a heavy object over our heads.
Here it is in place:
About our screen
It’s a 120″ Silver Ticket screen, and it’s amazing. Much better than projecting onto a white wall. It’s smoother, the blacks are darker, and the light areas don’t get bright hot spots like they do on a painted wall. Click here to see how the screen assembles and how to mount it on the wall.
The bottom line
The Sony 40-ES is awesome and we love watching movies and playing games on it. With a baby on the way in a few months, we’re going to appreciate that cinema experience in our own home more than ever. 😀
Who it’s for: Home theater enthusiasts, people who want to project onto a big screen (120″), anyone susceptible to the “rainbow” effect, higher quality projector that doesn’t have a lot of the pitfalls a lot of the competitors at or below the same price have.