High-brightness, home-entertainment-oriented projectors are all the rage these days. Compared with a home theater projector that emphasizes black level over brightness for a better movie experience in a darkened room, a home entertainment projector emphasizes light output for a less traditional viewing environment with more ambient light. If you're planning to purchase this type of projector for use in a more casual viewing space, there's another piece of the puzzle to consider: what type of screen should you get?
One popular screen accompaniment is the ambient light rejecting (ALR) screen, designed to improve a screen's black level and contrast and minimize the washed-out look that you get when the room lights are turned up. Here's a basic overview about how ALR screens work. Screen Innovations really ushered in this category with its Black Diamond material, which carries a pretty hefty price tag. Most of the major screen companies now offer ALR material, so you have more price points from which to choose. Visual Apex--the popular retail site that sells projectors, screens, and related accessories, but also offers its own brand of lower-priced screens--recently introduced its first ALR model, the Fixed Frame Pro Grey 5D screen. This 16:9 fixed-frame screen is available in sizes from 92 to 135 inches, with prices ranging from $539 to $809. The company sent me a sample of the 100-inch VAPEXPROGREY5D9100FF (whew, that's a mouthful), which carries a retail price of just $566.
The BrightVision Grey 5D material has a 1.5 gain and a listed viewing angle of 80 degrees. The highly flexible, elastic grey screen material is surrounded by a four-inch-wide aluminum frame that is hand wrapped in black velvet, which is good for absorbing light spill if your projector is prone to such problems. The total size of the 100-inch-diagonal model is 95 inches wide by 57 inches tall by two inches deep.
The screen comes unassembled in a manageably sized box, and it took me a couple of hours to put together by myself. Assembling the aluminum frame is easy but a bit time consuming, if only because you have to secure the various pieces together with a total of 52 screws (thankfully, Visual Apex includes several Allen wrenches in the box, in case you've got any potential helpers milling around). The next step is to unroll the elastic screen material and insert tension rods into the pockets around its edges. Then, you insert those tension rods into channels in the back of the frame and use the provided plastic, snap-in wedges to secure the material in place. Be warned, the screen material needs to be pulled taut to get a smooth viewing surface, so this step takes some serious elbow grease. There were times I didn't think I'd be able to stretch the material into place all the way around the screen; about halfway through the process, I decided to stand the frame up and let gravity help me out, which proved effective.
The final step is to secure the four mounting brackets (two for the top frame and two for the bottom frame) to your wall, then place the frame within them. Once it is placed in the brackets, the screen can be moved left or right to position it optimally on your wall. The 100-inch frame is not particularly heavy, but it is big, so lifting it and hanging it on the wall is probably a two-person job.
I mated the Pro Grey 5D screen with two different projectors during my review process: I mainly used Sony's $8,000 VPL-VW350ES 4K home theater projector (rated at 1,500 lumens), but I also tried out Epson's new Home Cinema 2045 home entertainment projector (rated at 2,200 lumens, review coming soon). I began my evaluation by measuring the Grey 5D material against my reference screen, another Visual Apex product--the 1.1-gain, matte white VAPEX9100SE electric drop-down screen--using the Sony's calibrated Reference picture mode. The Grey 5D material measured about 260 Kelvin higher (or cooler) than the reference screen and did shift the RGB color balance a bit more toward blue; this difference was not excessive, though, and you should be able to compensate for it during calibration. Measurements showed that the Grey 5D screen lost about 5 ft-L of light output with a full white test pattern, compared with the reference white screen.
Next it was time for some real-world viewing. The goal of an ALR screen is to disperse the light coming from the projector as evenly as possible around the screen surface while rejecting light coming from other sources, such as windows or room lamps, in order to preserve black level and image saturation--both of which can be greatly diminished when ambient light hits a matte white screen. Obviously, the overall amount of room light you can introduce depends primarily on your projector's brightness capability. The two projectors I used could serve up 30 foot-lamberts or more on a 100-inch screen in their brighter picture modes. That was bright enough for me to turn on my floorstanding room lamp, with some daylight leakage from the windows, and still enjoy solid image saturation; it isn't really bright enough to open all the window blinds, though. For that, you'd probably want a projector like one of Epson's new G Series models, with brightness ratings from 4,800 to 6,000 lumens.
Visual Apex sent along a sample of its Cinema Matte White 1.1-gain material for comparison, which I hung over half the Grey 5D screen and then ran through some film and TV demos. Despite its lower gain, the Cinema Matte White screen looked a little brighter overall, but the Grey 5D material made the image look more saturated. The black level was a few shades darker, so skintones, colors, and darker scene elements all had improved richness and saturation.
The ESPN ticker that runs along the bottom of the screen made a great comparison tool. Both the black background and white text looked flat and washed out on the matte white material. As the words scrolled over to the Grey 5D side, the black level immediately look darker, and the white text popped more. I was able to watch darker scenes from shows like Supernatural and Bones on TBS during the day and still make out black details that would usually be completely washed out on my reference screen. I got similar results when I popped in a few Blu-ray discs like Casino Royale and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
ALR screens are especially effective in rejecting light that comes from the side or above, at a different angle from the light that's coming directly at the screen from the projector. My floorstanding room lamp usually sits almost directly behind my projector at the back of the room. With the lamp in this position, I saw the improvements noted above with the ALR screen. When I moved the lamp to the side and front of my room, closer to the screen, the improvement in black level and contrast became even more noticeable compared with the matte white material.
ALR screens do present a few challenges, and the Grey 5D is no exception. The ALR screen surface can have an overly shimmering or sparkling quality that some people just don't like, especially video purists. The Grey 5D surface definitely has more of a sheen to it than a matte white material that changes the quality of the image, but I didn't find it to be excessive or overly objectionable.
Another challenge is in the area of brightness uniformity. When you go with a higher-gain material, there is a potential for hot-spotting, in which the center of the screen is clearly brighter than the edges. In this case, both my eyes and my X-rite I1Pro 2 meter detected this issue with the Grey 5D material. I wouldn't say there's a significant hot spot in the center of the screen, but I could see that the edges were slightly less bright; I suspect this would be more evident if you moved up to one of the larger screens in the line, like the 135-incher. As I directed my light meter around the screen with an all-white test pattern, I got drop-offs in brightness around 5 ft-L. This uniformity issue becomes a bit more noticeable when you sit off to the sides as opposed to sitting dead-center. When I sat more than 45 degrees off-axis, I could clearly see that the side of the screen closest to me was brighter than the side farthest from me.
• The Grey 5D screen material helps to reject ambient light to improve image contrast in a non-light-controlled room. It's especially effective if you have overhead lighting or lamps/windows to the sides of the screen.
• This fixed-frame screen is fairly easy to assemble, and it's not too heavy.
• The build quality is good for a lower-priced screen, and the four-inch black velvet frame can absorb light spill from your projector.
• As with any higher-gain screen, brightness uniformity is a concern. The center of the screen is a little brighter than the edges, and the issue is more pronounced at wider viewing angles.
• The owner's manual is somewhat vague and poorly written. For instance, the tension rods come with small end caps on them. It would be helpful if the manual instructed you to take those off before trying to slide the rods through the channels, since the caps make the rods a little too fat.
Comparison and Competition
All of the major screen manufacturers now carry some type of ambient light rejecting material. As I mentioned above, Screen Innovations' Black Diamond really led the way in this category. The Black Diamond 1.4 material has a 1.4 gain compared with the Grey 5D's 1.5 gain. Cost will depend on which Screen Innovations fixed frame model you choose, but SI's pricing is much higher than Visual Apex's across the board. Other higher-priced options include Da-lite's Parallax material and dnp's Supernova material.
Two primary competitors, price-wise, are the Elite Screens ezFrame CineGrey 5D 100-inch 16:9 screen for $799 and the Draper CinePerm 100-inch 16:9 screen with ReAct MS1000V material for $652.
As more people embrace high-brightness home entertainment projectors, so too will they embrace ambient light rejecting screens. This type of screen certainly isn't for everyone and every application. If you're more of a home theater purist who primarily watches content in a darker room, it makes sense to stick with a more traditional white (or perhaps grey) screen. But, if you really crave that 100-inch-plus big-screen experience and don't have a light-controlled room--or you just don't like watching TV in a dark room, even at night--then the combination of a high-brightness projector and ALR screen is ideal. The emergence of good-performing, value-oriented options like the Visual Apex Pro Grey 5D screen opens up the big-screen viewing experience to an even larger audience.