By any objective measure, this is a golden era for movie lovers. The theatrical experience is no longer restricted to commercial cinema and dedicated home theaters. In just the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of UST projection that can put a vivid 4K image on the living room wall without disrupting the decor. We have seen the price of 85-inch TVs drop precipitously, and we have seen laser light sources become much more affordable and commonplace for all sorts of projectors.
Just a few years ago, 85” TVs crossing the $10,000 threshold seemed like a big deal, and now you can get a top-tier 4K 85-inch TV for well under $5000. And the introduction of 100-inch class TVs, which while still expensive, at least cost less than a decent new car. These giant flat panels put out a true home theater-sized image while offering unprecedented levels of contrast and brightness, as compared to traditional projection solutions. Plus they require no special accommodation to function properly, even in a brightly lit living room.
Concurrently, 4K DLP laser UST projectors—when paired with specialized lenticular screens that offer highly effective ambient light rejection—have emerged as a viable display solution for residential installations. These projectors sit extremely close to the screen, so they can rest upon furniture like a credenza, and with that proximity, it's impossible for anybody to walk in front of the projector and cast a shadow. Unfortunately, you do lose the ability to create shadow puppets with your hands).
This placement puts the projector near the source components, negating the need for long cable runs. As long as you dim the lights a little bit, these UST projectors look very much like a 100-inch, or even 120-inch TV. And with the lights out, they can deliver a home theater-like viewing experience.
You may wonder, can these newfangled ultra-short-throw projectors really compete with a TV? Especially when you consider that you can get the 2021 85" Samsung flagship QN90A 4K TV on clearance for under $3000? A decent UST projector, especially a tri-laser model, will cost at least as much if not more, so where is the value?
There is a very simple way to understand the economics of a 100-inch or 120-inch UST: A (roughly) 100-inch TV will typically cost you $10,000 or more (although TCL has an $8000 option) and 120-inch TVs are pretty much unicorns. When they do appear, they tend to cost as much as a car that can go 200+ miles per hour—at the minimum. So, getting 100 inches from a UST for five or six grand suddenly sounds a bit more reasonable than the same from a TV. In context, 120 inches from a UST comes across as a serious bargain.
Why is size so important? It actually isn't for everybody. If you mostly watch broadcast TV, at least until the time when Nextgen 4K comes to your broadcast market, blowing the image up that large introduces significant softness and you can see all the compression artifacts plain as day.
But, a huge screen is crucial to appreciating cinema. Movie directors do not create films to be seen on TVs, even if these days you can catch a premier at home and no longer have to go to a theater. Movie directors frame scenes in a manner that is appropriate to the big screen, and replicating the totality of that visual experience requires it as such. And if you think about it, movie theaters are projection, and most movie theaters don't even have perfect black levels or anything near the HDR highlights a modern TV offers. The core visual experience of commercial movie theaters hinges on the immersive experience resulting from viewing larger-than-life moving images on a big screen.
Having said all that, 85" TVs are big enough to deliver theatrical scale and scope, you just need to be seated relatively close to the screen, so that the picture fills your field of view. The benefit you gain watching a TV is most pronounced with HDR content, which is mastered to the brightness levels that are achievable by TVs, not projectors. A top-tier 85-inch TV will dazzle your eyes and provide a different sort of visual thrill.
But getting back to the size, larger screens let you sit further back while still enjoying a theatrical presentation. and sitting further back means that you can fit more people, so you can enjoy movies with family and friends. This is part of what makes it a cinematic experience.
Although UST projectors are able to do a passable job when there is high ambient light, this is the circumstance where TVs have the most distinct advantage. But even then, not all TVs are created equal, and for a bright room, you'd want a TV that can achieve high full-screen brightness and has a highly effective antireflective coating on the screen.
One of the best things about ultra-short-throw projector screens is that they are essentially immune to reflections, whereas some TVs basically turn into giant mirrors, within which you can see the whole room reflected, and perhaps even yourself! You can best appreciate this quality in the evening, when you might easily see indoor lighting reflecting off of a TV screen, even in a somewhat darkened room. Meanwhile, the UST screen shows no reflections whatsoever.
This is where things get tricky. SDR (standard dynamic range) content works within the output capabilities of a typical UST projector. But with HDR, the projector doesn't get nearly bright enough when it comes to the highlights, so instead, it relies on a process called tone mapping. This diminishes the amount of visual pop in the image.
But, if you're dealing with a tri-laser light source UST, those units can perform a trick that remains unobtainable by televisions. They can render the rec.2020 color gamut, while TVs are still struggling to get past covering 100% of the less broad DCI/P3 color space (used in commercial cinema). For example, neon lights might not be as bright on a tri-laser UST as on an HDR TV, but depending on how the content is mastered, they might possess more intense color on the projector, due to its wider gamut.
If there's one takeaway, it's that we are approaching an era where either a TV or a powerful projector can work in tandem with a high-performance 3D immersive sound soundbar system to give viewers a theatrical experience at home. And while the result won't be as profound as what you can achieve in a dedicated home theater, it'll come surprisingly close, and will actually be superior to what was doable in a dedicated space just a few short years ago.
Crucially, the competition in this category—of putting a big picture into a family room or living room—is fierce. And fierce competition tends to lead to either innovation or lower prices, or in an ideal world, both.
Oh, and unlike technologies that come and go and never catch on, bigger screens have a proven track record and a timeless universal appeal. Perhaps most importantly, the competition is not just between the display manufacturers, there is also competition between the content creators. And this is important because so much content that is created for the likes of Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and others is made in 4K UHD and in a style that benefits from a big-screen presentation.
Personally, I have opted for a projector over a TV for well over 2 decades, but have also had the best-of-the-best TVs come through my home as a function of being a TV reviewer. And the feeling I get is that there's never been a time where the focus was more strongly on providing a cinematic experience to viewers at home. Huge organizations are dedicating massive resources to creating content plus the display devices needed to show it.
It's especially worth keeping an eye on the UST category, you can expect to see a lot of new releases in 2022 and 2023. Products that keep raising the bar when it comes to what is achievable through projection in an ambient lit, residential environment such as living rooms and family rooms.
If you are intrigued by UST projection, we have several suggestions that will deliver a good viewing experience. These are all projectors I have reviewed for Projector Central, so the recommendations are based on personal experience including calibration and measurement as well as subjective evaluation.
We like this UST projector because it has a highly accurate color right out of the box, and crucially its native color temperature is very close to 6500K. This is unique among USD projectors and allows it to output its peak lumens (i.e. max brightness) in its Movie and FilmMaker modes.
Most projectors are only at their brightest using a much cooler color temp. That makes the BenQ a rock-solid choice for home theater enthusiasts seeking a UST that will respect the director's intent. The one thing we don't love about this projector is the smart streaming features, which are an add-on and lack Netflix support, but you can always add your own device like an Apple TV or Roku instead.
This is a projector that offers the expanded color gamut of an RGB tri-laser light source. It is also made by Hisense, one of the original champions of the UST format, and it is a mature design.
This is the first 4K laser UST from Hisense that's sold on its own, without a bundled screen. What sets it apart is its overall high image quality, including a gratifying level of saturation with ultra-rich colors. It also has relatively low latency and is great for video games. Is there a weakness? Its black levels are only average, but that only matters when the lights are out, not when using it as a giant TV in a room with some ambient light.
Hisense equipped this projector with sophisticated calibration controls that are missing on some other USTs. As a consequence, if you have the skill, or hire a professional, the picture quality accuracy you can achieve with this projector is very high.
Here's a well-rounded and affordable model from LG. It does many things right, and it benefits from using LG's smart platform as its foundation. This projector is bright, the colors are accurate, it's easy to use, intuitive, and offers the option of going deep with a calibration. It also comes equipped with a wide variety of picture modes that are ready to use right out the box and for a variety of applications.
One of its main charms is how well it handles TV and cable, It has high-quality image processing and a standard picture mode that is tuned by LG to be TV-like.