Until now, personal cinema devices have been notoriously bad: it simply wasn’t possible to fit nice screens into an acceptably small form factor. The advent of OLED screens has changed all that, and we’re about to see a resurgence in these virtual cinemas. The HMZ-T3W is Sony’s latest attempt – but is it a premium futuristic personal display or just a silly head gadget? Read on to find out!
The Sony HMZ-T3W Personal 3D Cinema retails at around $1000 – the biggest feature addition in this newest model being the ability to transmit HD content wirelessly from the powered base station. There’s a huge range of competing virtual screen devices you can find in the market, the best of which appears to be the Carl Zeiss Cinemizer at around $800; sub-$400 models like the Vuzix Wrap 920VR are generally have poor reviews.
Before I tell you about the HMZ-T3W, let me give you some context. Most of my movie viewing is done on a 47-inch wall mounted 3D plasma display. I don’t watch a huge amount of 3D content, but I will get a 3D version of a movie if it’s available. I don’t get any headaches or eye strain from active or passive 3D viewing methods. Throughout this review, I’ll be comparing the experience of this device to that plasma TV, as well as a 720p short throw gaming projector I played with earlier this year: that generated an image of around 150-inches.
Both can be purchased at about the same price point of $800-$1000. The review also wouldn’t be complete without comparison to the Oculus Rift developers kit. VR Cinema 3D is one of the most popular Rift applications, recreating both a realistic virtual cinema environment complete with seating, and able to playback 3D content within that environment – as is you were watching in an IMAX cinema. There’s even a multiplayer mode in development, so you can virtually sit with your friends in your own private 3D cinema. However, the Oculus Rift is limited by it’s terribly low resolution right now, so emulating a cinema inside a low-res virtual environment is understandably unsatisfying. For design and build aspects, I feel it’s a fair comparison.
First Impressions and Design
The packaging is typically uninspired recycled cardboard and polyethylene – there’s a lot to pack in, so they’ve aimed for utility over form. Hidden under the main headset, inside one of the bags, is a mass of cabling and adapters.
What in the box? Quite a lot, actually:
- Headset and attached battery pack
- Travel case
- USB charging cable and slimline power adapter
- Wireless transmitter and full size power adapter
- In-ear headphones
- Light-blocking rubber piece
- HDMI cable
The main headset unit has an attached battery and wireless receiver unit, in a separate box wired to the headset. This is annoying both in terms of simply having another wired box to mess around with, but it also introduces another point of breakage – forgetting about the box and ripping out the hardwired cable seems all too likely with regular use. It does, however, keep the headset lightweight, so there’s a tradeoff. It would have been nice if this had been optional, so you can directly plug a power adapter and mini-HDMI source into the headset, bypassing any external battery. The battery also has the wireless receiver – a small plastic stand is included to prop it up so it’s facing the transmitter if you’re having problems, but I didn’t experience any issues.
The headset itself is significantly smaller than the Oculus Rift – much sleeker, more lightweight. The screens fitted into the HMZ-T3W are incredibly high resolution, modern OLED panels. The front of the visor is mirrored: the intention is probably to give the device a futuristic look, but realistically, the effect is more like a cheap Robocop. A padded head rest ensures there isn’t too much weight placed on your nose.
Each lens can be moved left and right to allow for different IPDs (inter-pupillary distance). As with any infinitely-focussed lenses you’ll still need to wear glasses or contacts if you’re shortsighted – long sighted users should be able to get away without requiring glasses when using the device.
The only input for the Sony HMZ-T3W is a standard HDMI signal for both 2D or 3D; there is no analog input or separate audio in. Any HDMI device is supported – BluRay, TV, computers, AV receivers, consoles or even from mobile devices if you have the right cables this one for older iOS devices).
Both under/over and side-by-side 3D formats are supported. Say what you will about 3D movies – I have no doubt they look crappy on a $400 passive 3DTV or a horrendous “glasses free” Nintendo 3DS screen – on this headset, they look nothing less than stunning.
There are two ways to send your input to the headset – either by using the wireless transmitter box, which would sit between your source and TV, and requires power – or sending the signal directly into the battery unit of the headset. Both methods accept a full size HDMI plug, but if you’re connecting directly into the battery unit you can also draw power from HDMI (assuming the source supports it).
Charging the HMZ-T3W headset battery pack is done using a micro-USB cable. If you don’t have the supplied adapter to hand, do check the supplied current from your micro-USB charger as it requires 1.5 Amps to charge over USB – I checked a few mobile adapters and found they only went up to 1A.
The wireless transmitter box also acts as a source switcher, though if you have your own source switching AV receiver you’ll probably just hook this into the main output to the TV – still, it’s a thoughtful addition if you were to use this outside of a full home cinema setup, such as in your teen’s bedroom where they could hook up both a games console and PC, for instance.
Black Ops 2 from the Xbox 360 worked out of the box, the headset auto-switched to 3D mode once I’d enabled it on the game side. I used this to stress test the wireless HDMI transmission, too: if the box was introducing lag to a movie’s sound and video, it would be indistinguishable since there would be no additional output to compare it to. But for a game it would be obvious when your actions on the controller lagged behind on-screen action. There was no distinguishable lag at all – gaming over wireless video with this is absolutely fine, which kind of shocked me. Why aren’t there more of these wireless HDMI devices around?
Output from a PC was fine too, though it is of course, impossible to see a keyboard and mouse when wearing the headset, which somewhat limits the use there unless you have a console-style controller. You can remove the light-blocking rubber seal as a partial solution, allowing you to glance down but somewhat reducing the immersive feeling.
One thing to note is that you cannot pass-through HDMI video at the same time as using the headset: it’s one or the other. If you were hoping the family could watch on the big-screen while you huddle up in the next room, then think again. When you turn off the headset, the HDMI signal returns to the TV.
What Does It Actually Look Like?
The resolution is incredible: I was even able to clearly read text on the desktop when mirroring my Mac desktop.
I’m always skeptical when companies claim a huge screen at a large distance: the Sony HMZ-T3W is apparently displays a 750-inch screen at 20 metres, which is quite an impressively big number. Another, somewhat less impressive way of putting it would be something like “a 50 inch screen at about 5 feet” – which is a little closer than most people would sit next to their TV, but you get my point. While it’s certainly immersive, I didn’t actually get the feeling the screen was any bigger than my plasma TV, and certainly not as large as a short throw projector.
Watching a movie through the HMZ-T3W did give a cinema feeling though – it’s a great, natural way to watch 3D without headache-inducing active shutter glasses or the typical image leak associated with passive 3D displays. I’m not sold on the in-ear headphones however much they claim to simulate surround sound, but then I’m the kind of person who wears a full pair of cans while going for a walk in the park, so I may be biassed.
It’s a fiddly device: you have to slowly wedge your head into it, pulling down the rubber flap over your glasses if you wear any. If you do the strap up tight enough, it almost won’t come off again. If you’re going to use the supplied headphones, you’ll need to feel around for those too. This isn’t something you can just pull off and put back on again quickly. Compared to the Oculus Rift which has more flexible material straps, I found the Sony HMZ-T3W to be a complete pain to put on, every single time. If you don’t wear glasses this probably isn’t as bad. The strap tightening mechanism is quite stiff, and you need to tighten both sides to ensure the large central clip remains in the middle.
In prolonged use, it’s certainly comfortable; I sat through the entire Avatar movie without issue, and had several long gaming sessions.
My biggest gripe is with the rubber seals used to block out light – they pull out far too easily, and take a lot of fiddling to push back.
Though not strictly designed for virtual reality, the same problems that Oculus Rift users face are more apparent on the Sony headset – especially since there’s no head movement tracking. Any first person video game experience locks you to the movement of the character. When I hooked up to the Xbox 360 and played some Call Of Duty in 3D, I found myself instinctively trying to look around using my head – that didn’t work, obviously – and it’s very disorientating. You’ll need to acclimatise yourself to just not moving your head while wearing the headset. Once I accepted this isn’t designed for virtual reality, gaming was immersive but simply not comparable to the Oculus.
Battery life was about 3 hours after a full charge, enough for two short movies in a pinch but lacking for long haul flights. For regular use you can charge whilst using the device, assuming you have a power socket nearby. A slightly longer battery life would have been ideal for travelling situations that I feel this is designed for, but 3 hours is reasonable.
The resolution from the HMZ-T3W is incredible considering the size and weight – I couldn’t help thinking, “I’ll have these screens in the Oculus Rift, please!” It’s comfortable to wear for prolonged periods with no eyestrain, and with the included travel bag, it’s ideal for trips. The headphones aren’t up to much, but you can plug in your own.
I seriously enjoyed watching 3D movies on the Sony HMZ-T3W headset – it really is like having your own personal IMAX at your fingertips. But, I just can’t see a use for a personal cinema headset at home unless you’re single and stupidly rich – and even then, you’d be better off getting a projector and inviting some friends round instead! Perhaps it makes more sense in the tiny one-room apartments so prevalent across Japan.
Should You Buy The Sony HMZ-T3W?
The picture is fantastic so they’re a luxury gadget – ideal for frequent travellers – but for use in a home environment, you’re better off spending the same amount of money on a projector and surround system for a real cinema experience. Plus, there’s really no getting around the fact you do look silly wearing them.
How do I win the Sony HMZ-T3W?
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