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Pimax Vision 5K Super Review: VR at 180Hz

But at what cost?

Pimax Vision 5K Super
(Image: © Tom's Hardware)

Our Verdict

The Pimax Vision 5K Super has several great features and is a nice VR headset overall. But its 180Hz refresh rate is basically a gimmick because you have to sacrifice too much field of view to use it.

For

  • Great refresh rate
  • Good image quality
  • Mechanical head strap

Against

  • FoV suffers with high refresh enabled
  • Expensive

Tom's Hardware Verdict

The Pimax Vision 5K Super has several great features and is a nice VR headset overall. But its 180Hz refresh rate is basically a gimmick because you have to sacrifice too much field of view to use it.

Pros

  • + Great refresh rate
  • + Good image quality
  • + Mechanical head strap

Cons

  • - FoV suffers with high refresh enabled
  • - Expensive

With dual displays running at 1440p resolution at up to a 180Hz refresh rate, the Pimax Vision 5K Super is the fastest VR headset on the market, enabling the highest frame rates and lowest latency possible today in VR games. 

Research has shown that increasing the refresh rate and delivering higher frame rates to VR headsets improves comfort and helps reduce motion sickness, which makes the Vision 5K Super a very interesting piece of VR tech.

But does that make it the best VR headset on the market? That depends on what you value most. We've spent the last few weeks giving it a try, and there’s a lot to like about the Vision 5K Super.

The problem is that while it boasts many fantastic specifications, it can’t use all its top features at once. Pimax headsets are all about wide field of view (FOV) VR, but that goes out the window when you enable the top refresh rates. That doesn’t make it a bad headset. It’s just not what most people would expect, and the premium price makes it hard to justify.  

Pimax Vision 5K Super Specs  

Resolution2560 x 1440 per eye
Display Technology Customized low persistence liquid (CLPL)
Lens Technology Fresnel
Refresh Rates90, 120, 144, 160 and 180 Hz
Field of View 150-200 degrees
Interpupillary Distance 2.2-3 inches (55-75mm)
Sensors9-axis accelerometer
Tracking TechnologySteamVR
CablesUSB 2.0 (power), USB 3.0 (data), 14.8-foot (4.5m) DisplayPort 1.2 (video)
I/ODual 3.5mm headphone jack, 2x USB Type-C, microphone, speakers
Dimensions11 x4.3 x  280.1 x 5.4 inches (108.2 x 135.9mm 
MSRP$749

Meet the Pimax Vision 5K Super  

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The Vision 5K Super features a dark blue outer shell with soft-touch coating on the plastic. Like other Pimax headsets, it places both screens at an angle that wraps slightly around your face.

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The front of the visor includes a chrome chevron that lights up with a green glow when the headset is on. The power and volume buttons are on the upper-right side of the visor, along with an LED status light. When the headset is off but plugged in, the light is red. When it’s powered on, it’s green. Purple indicates that the HMD is booting up, flashing firmware or there’s an error with the driver software.

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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Pimax’s 5K Super handily includes a mechanical interpupillary distance (IPD, the space between the eyes) adjustment that ranges from 2.2 to 3 inches (55- 68mm). The dial is located on the lower-right corner, below the hinge for the head strap. 

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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The headset also features a USB Type-C accessory port on the bottom of the visor. Like the Pimax VIsion 8K Plus, there’s a USB Type-C port on top but you can’t get to it while the headset’s foam cushion is installed. And also like the Vision 8K Plus, the Vision 5K Super includes the Pimax Comfort Kit extended front cushion for improved comfort compared to the original Pimax 5K Plus design. 

Mechanical Strap and Speakers 

The 5K Super includes Pimax’s mechanical head strap, called the Standard Mechanical Audio Strap (SMAS for short). The first thing we noticed about the SMAS is its striking resemblance to the strap on the HTC Vive Pro. It’s pretty close to a carbon copy.

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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The SMAS is a rigid head strap, curving above the ears and attaching to the headset at a steep angle. It features an adjustment dial on the rear and built-in speakers that pump audio through a pair of slots above your ears, somewhat like the Oculus Quest does.The SMAS has two audio cables that plug in on either side of the visor just below the strap hinge. Pimax also offers an optional deluxe version of the head strap that includes attached headphones. 

The rear side of the head strap features a doubled-up cushion just like the one found on the Vive Pro. It has a triangular section that cups the back of your head with a rounded bottom to accommodate your neck. The triangular cushion rests against a larger rear cushion. You’ll find foam padding on the side straps, but Pimax headsets are so wide that the side cushions will never touch your head.

The mechanical head strap is a significant improvement over the fabric strap that comes with the pricier Pimax Vision 8K Plus, but it’s not without fault. Unfortunately, Pimax restricted the hinge motion, making it hard to pull the rear down to the ideal position. Most VR headsets fit better when you pull the rear straps as low as possible to rest near the base of your skull. The strap on the Vision 5K Super doesn’t rotate far enough, so it feels like it’s sitting higher than it should be. 

Factory-Assembled 

We’ve looked at three Pimax headsets in the past, and each one of them required that we install the data cable, which meant removing the face interface and face cushion. We were pleasantly surprised to see that Pimax has started pre-installing the cable for our 5K Super at the factory. This welcome step eliminates a big pain point for new Pimax owners.

The new tether cable is also a nice touch. The Pimax Vision 8K Plus and 5K Super both required external power from a wall plug. The Vision 5K Super draws all its power through USB. The new cable includes a DisplayPort 1.2 interface for video, a USB 3.0 plug for data transmission and a USB 2.0 plug to draw additional power to run the displays, sensors, and other electronics.

Display Settings: Refresh Rate, Resolution and FOV 

The Pimax Vision 5K Super is touted as being the first VR headset to support 180 Hz displays. Coupled with the ultrawide form factor with dual 1440p panels, and this device begins to sound too good to be true. Well, it turns out that the specs kind of are. 

For the last four years, Pimax has been leaning on its 200-degree FoV as its primary advantage in the VR market. The Pimax Vision 5K Super supports the 200-degree ultrawide view, but not with the top refresh rate. While it is true that the Pimax Vision 5K Super supports 180 Hz, the render resolution and the FOV depends heavily on the refresh rate you run the screens.

The Vision 5K Super supports 90 Hz, 120 Hz, 144 Hz, 160 Hz and an experimental 180 Hz refresh mode. In order to reduce the render load at higher refresh rates, Pimax forces the headset into a narrower FOV at the higher end. You can have an ultra-fast display, or an ultrawide FOV. You can’t yet have both at the same time. 

As you ramp up the speed of the display, the 5K Super’s FOV decreases as follows:

Refresh RateFOV
180 Hz150 degrees
160 Hz170 degrees
120 Hz200 degrees
90 Hz200 degrees

As you can see, at the highest refresh rate, you lose a full 50 degrees of field of view. 

The 5K Super’s FOV is selectable, but the displays must be set at 90 Hz to use the Maximum setting. Currently, there’s a bug in the firmware that prevents us from enabling the Large FOV setting, which would give us the maximum potential resolution. Pimax is actively developing a fix that should be available in a future firmware update.

The next largest setting is Normal FoV, which is available in 90 Hz, 120 Hz, 144 Hz and 160 Hz modes. 

You must drop to the Small FOV setting to enable 180 Hz. That revelation made us begin to question the point of the Vision 5K Super. 

150 degrees at 180 Hz is still wider than most VR headsets, but the restricted FOV is accomplished by artificially reducing the render zone in software. That means you’re not only reducing how wide your view is, but you’re also sacrificing part of your displays’ resolution to accomplish this. The vertical resolution remains constant, while the horizontal resolution decreases with higher refresh rates. This even occurs within the same FOV setting in Pimax’s PiTool software.

For example, on the Normal FoV option, SteamVR assigns a different resolution for each refresh rate. Curiously, according to SteamVR, the horizontal resolution of Normal FOV at 160 Hz is narrower than the Small FOV setting at 90 Hz. At 90 Hz, you get 3,080 horizontal pixels. At 120 Hz, you get 3,108 pixels. At 144 Hz, it drops to 2,752 pixels, and at 160 Hz you get only 2,168 horizontal pixels. 

We noticed the same curiosity with the Small FOV settings as well. At 90 Hz, Small FoV renders at 2,228 pixels horizontal; whereas, 180 Hz is 1,804 pixels horizontal. Stranger still, it’s even narrower at 160 Hz, with just 1,712 horizontal pixels rendered. That’s less than we get with Potato FOV mode at 90 Hz, which gives you 1,776 horizontal pixels. 

Pimax is still perfecting the 180Hz mode, so the resolution values could change in the future.

Image Clarity 

The entire lineup of Pimax ultrawide headsets features the same lenses. The Pimax lenses are much larger than those in any other brand’s headset. In our past experiences with Pimax headsets, the shape of the lenses caused a slight distortion in the outer extremities of the widest FOV. That phenomenon goes away when you limit the FOV with software. The aforementioned firmware bug prevented us from testing the widest FoV on our 5K Super, so we’re unsure if the distortion problem persists in the Large FOV setting. However, the distortion is not present in Normal FOV.

The displays in the headset are sharp and clear, but the image appears slightly dim, and colors looked somewhat washed out. You can adjust the color levels and the brightness of each display, but we think displays should be better calibrated from the factory. We had the same issue with the Pimax Vision 8K Plus, so it isn’t isolated to one example. That said, the colors did appear more vivid in our 8K Plus headset.

The image on the 5K Super screens looks clear, but we noticed slight color distortion at the edges of the display. At the outer edges on either side and near the bottom edge of the display, there appears to be a blue shimmering light that isn’t part of the rendered image. It’s as if we’re looking at the actual edge of the display behind the lens.

Pimax Experience Beta 

Pimax is currently building a piece of software that helps you control your headset’s settings and launch content. The Pimax Experience tool is still in beta, and is not yet advertised on the Pimax website, but you can find links to the beta on the official Pimax community forums.  It’s not feature-complete yet.

Currently, the Pimax Experience is a virtual environment that gives you access to most of the headset’s options, including resolution, color and brightness adjustments, plus refresh rate. The Pimax Experience software also acts as a dashboard from which to launch VR content.

Pimax Experience looks to be a welcome change to Pimax’s current software approach. Pimax didn’t previously have a 3D environment like SteamVR Home or Oculus Home to use as a starting point for your VR experience. The beta is already showing much promise, but as it’s still a work in progress, we won’t focus too much on this software. PiTool is still required to control the headset, so we used that tool for most of our setting changes.

PiTool Software 

The PiTool software is Pimax’s driver package for its VR headsets. PiTool gives you control of the headsets settings, such as refresh rate, resolution, brightness and even the tracking method (SteamVR or gyro-based). You’ll need PiTool to install firmware and driver updates, too. 

For a detailed look at all the PiTool settings, see our Pimax Vision 8K Plus review

CPUIntel i5-9400 or above
GPUGeForce GTX 1080 Ti or above
RAM8GB or more
Operating SystemWindows 10
OutputUSB 2.0, USB 3.0, DisplayPort 1.2

How We Tested 

For our tests, we used our standard VR test rig, which consists of an Intel Core i7-8700K CPU paired with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 graphics card. The system is equipped with 16GB of G.Skill Ripjaws DDR4-3667 RAM and a Seagate 1TB SSD installed in an Asus Prime Z370-A motherboard.

The lineup of games in this review has changed compared to past VR headset reviews. We dropped Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope from our test suite because it hasn’t received any recent updates and it has become unstable. The game’s been replaced with Shadow Legend VR.

We also dropped our beloved Space Pirate Trainer. That game, while still a lot of fun, doesn’t push the limits of our system and, therefore, doesn’t give a great comparison between headsets. Cloudhead Games’ Pistol Whip has taken its place.

The Pimax Vision 5K Super has more resolution and refresh rate options than any other VR headset that we’ve tested. There are too many combinations to compare each directly, so we had to scope down our testing parameters. We chose to focus our tests on the Normal FOV option, except for our 180Hz tests, which were performed in Small FOV mode because Normal is not supported.

We performed each test with 100% render resolution, as well as with SteamVR’s recommended resolution for comparison.

Beat Saber 

Beat Saber is one of the least demanding VR titles around, but it’s also one of the few titles that truly benefits from the higher refresh rates that the Pimax Vision 5K Super offers.

The difference in the experience was much more apparent in the headset than on paper. In a game like Beat Saber, which requires fast reaction time and laser focus to get a top score, the frame rate makes a significant difference. When the headset is running at 180 Hz, I felt like the boxes were coming at me in slow motion because my brain had extra time to process my next move. I consistently hit a higher score when the display was running on a faster refresh rate.

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Pimax Vision 5K Super

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With 100% render resolution, Beat Saber runs great at all resolutions; although, you do get slightly better frame time performance when you allow SteamVR to scale the resolution back a little bit. At 90 Hz, SteamVR bumped the resolution by 12%, which resulted in a slight reduction in frame timing, but at no point did the latency top 8ms. 

Pistol Whip 

Pistol Whip is another game that doesn’t require a ton of GPU performance, but it does benefit from faster refresh rates. You also get a major advantage in this game while playing with an ultrawide VR headset.

When playing on the HTC Vive, Valve Index or Oculus Quest 2, your head needs to be on a swivel because enemies come at you from all directions. With a Pimax headset, your peripheral vision is so wide that you barely have to turn your head to the side to catch the hidden baddies.

Just like Beat Saber, Pistol Whip runs fine on all refresh rates with 100% render target enabled. 

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144 Hz had the worst median frametime at 5.7ms, and it suffered the highest missed frames at just shy of 3%. 

When we allowed SteamVR to control the resolution, our frame time numbers improved by a significant margin and the missed frames dried up. The median frame time dropped from 5.6ms to 3.6ms at 144 Hz; however, that required a drop to 80% resolution.

Half-life: Alyx 

Half-Life: Alyx is a very well optimized game but requires a fair bit more graphics performance than Beat Saber and Pistol Whip. Still, our test system observed strong performance in the lower refresh rate configurations. When we scaled the refresh rate up to 144 Hz or higher, we noticed a substantial increase in missed frames.

The frame time results appeared fine in all tests, but when we looked at the percentage of missed frames, it became clear that Half-Life: Alyx relied heavily on synthetic reprojected frames to make up the deficit. 

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At 100% render scale and 120 Hz, our system failed to deliver 3.6% of frames. Bumping the refresh rate to 144 Hz resulted in a precipitous drop, with only 45% of frames rendering on time. The dramatic drop in resolution allowed the performance to stabilize somewhat at 160 Hz and 180 Hz, but the GPU still failed to deliver more than 25% of all frames with those settings.

SteamVR’s automatic render scale gave us improved results, but we still dropped 10-25% of all frames with the three highest refresh rates enabled. To get the full advantage of this headset we would need a faster GPU to power the experience. And in case you hadn't noticed, gaming graphics cards are pretty hard to find these days.

Shadow Legend VR 

You might expect Shadow Legend VR to have massive performance demands, but our benchmark results tell a different story. Unlike with Half-Life: Alyx, our test system had no trouble driving the resolutions and frame rates that we threw at it.   

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The GPU frame times were all within their respective range. At 90 Hz and 112% render scale, the latency peaked at 10.2ms, which is well below the 14ms threshold for smooth gameplay. 

The average frame rate at the 90 Hz and 120 Hz modes was right on the money. At 144 Hz, it came up slightly short with an average of 141 fps. At 180 Hz, the frame rate also came in a bit low at 175.16 fps average. Curiously, the frame rate fell equally short when SteamVR handled the resolution settings.

Shadow Legend VR doesn’t seem to like it when you override the resolution at higher refresh rates. 12 0Hz, 144 Hz, 160 Hz and 180 Hz modes rendered 6% of frames behind schedule. The performance didn’t improve for 160 Hz and 180 Hz when SteamVR handled the resolution. 

Conclusion

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The Pimax Vision 5K Super is an interesting VR headset with many improvements over previous Pimax models. However, I can’t shake the idea that there doesn’t seem to be a reason to need the Vision 5K Super. Perhaps a better GPU would bring out more performance, but the FOV reduction still defeats the primary point.

The 5K Super has a lower resolution than Pimax’s 8K offerings, and the benefit of the higher refresh rate comes at a cost that’s too significant to ignore. It costs a lot of money to get into a Pimax headset, and as much as I like the Vision 5K Super, it’s not a good fit for most. 120Hz and Normal FOV is a happy medium, but you don’t need a 5K Super to achieve that.

180 Hz, meanwhile, sounds great in theory, but it doesn’t offer a big enough advantage to justify not using the full width of the HMD’s displays. And not using the full potential of the displays feels like a waste. I would much rather have a Pimax Vision 8K Plus with the higher resolution, 110 Hz displays.

Pimax continues to improve its headsets and its software, but it also seems to keep biting off a bit more than it can chew at once. 180 Hz is still experimental, so it’s possible that firmware updates improve it later, but we wouldn’t buy the Pimax Vision 5K Super for its top refresh rate alone. 

Kevin Carbotte is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews of graphics cards and virtual reality hardware.