HDTVs may get a lot of the glory in our industry; but, when it comes to home theater, nothing beats a front-projection system to truly re-create that cinematic experience. Front projection also represents the best value in large-screen home entertainment. A 100-inch-plus TV could cost you six figures, but these days you can get a good 1080p big-screen projection system for under two grand.
For some people, though, the thought of assembling a front-projection system is daunting. It certainly involves more forethought than a TV purchase. If you're new to this hobby called home theater and are thinking about putting together a big-screen theater, we've created this list of five questions to consider at the start. Regardless of whether you intend to go the DIY route or hire a local custom installer, it's beneficial to have a general understanding of the current front-projection landscape so that you can make educated decisions each step of the way.
1. In what type of room will your projection system be used?
The single most important consideration when shopping in the front-projection marketplace is room environment, as it will affect your choice of both projector and screen. Will you use this system in a dedicated, fully light-controlled home theater room? Is it a family room with some light control? Or is it a bright living room with lots of windows? These days, you can enjoy a front-projection system in any of these viewing environments, as long as you choose the right components.
When selecting a projector for a dedicated theater room that's designed to re-create the theatrical experience, the projector's ability to reproduce a truly deep black level is more important than its light output. Over the past few years, projector brightness has improved across the board. In the old days, projectors had to sacrifice a lot of light output to produce a good black level, but that's not true anymore. Even projectors that are consistently heralded for offering the best black-level performance--like JVC's D-ILA lineup--offer ample light output to produce a vibrant image in a light-controlled theater. Generally speaking, today's home-theater-oriented projectors have a rated light output between 1,500 and 2,200 lumens. Some examples of good home theater projectors that we've reviewed recently include the JVC DLA-X970R, Sony VPL-VW675ES, Epson Pro Cinema 6040UB, and Optoma UHD65.
If you're planning to use the projector in a more casual environment with some room lights and/or windows--or if you simply prefer to watch movies and TV shows with some room lights on--then you'll probably want more lumens, which generally comes at the expense of a deep black level. These projectors are often categorized as home entertainment projectors instead of home theater projectors, and they often have a smaller, more portable form factor and even integrated speakers so that you don't have to bring in a separate speaker system (although, truth be told, the quality of these projector speakers leaves a lot to be desired--so you should still consider adding an external speaker solution, even if it's just a good tabletop option). Home entertainment projectors often carry lower price tags than their home theater counterparts, at least those with light output ratings in the 2,500- to 3,500-lumen range. Some examples from this category are the Optoma HD27 and HD28DSE that we've reviewed, plus the Epson Home Cinema 2100 and BenQ MH530FHD.
For a really bright viewing environment (or a very large-screen application), Epson carries a line of ultra-high-brightness home entertainment projectors that range from 4,800 to 6,000 lumens. These projectors are part of Epson's Pro line and are sold only through authorized dealers.
Beyond the choice of projector, your room environment will also dictate the type of screen material you want to use. Front-projection screens are categorized primarily by color and gain. Screen gain is a unit of measurement that describes the reflectivity of the screen surface; the higher the number, the more light that's being reflected back at you. A gain of 1.0 is the standard, meaning that the screen is reflecting the same amount of light that it receives. A screen with a 1.5 gain reflects 1.5 times more light back at you, while a screen with a .8 gain reflects less light back at you.
A traditional home theater room usually calls for a traditional screen material--something white in color with a gain from 1.0 to 1.2. If your projector's black-level performance is somewhat lacking, you can help it out a bit by using a gray screen material with a gain around .85 or .9 gain, such as Screen Innovations' Pure Gray, Stewart's GrayHawk, or Da-Lite's High Contrast Da-Mat.
As a growing number of projectors move out of the dedicated theater and into brighter viewing environments, one screen material has become very popular: the ambient light rejecting (ALR) screen. As the name suggests, an ALR screen is specifically designed to reject ambient light from nearby windows and lamps to help improve image contrast, and it's usually silver or black in color. You can read more about how the technology works here. Screen Innovations' Black Diamond (shown right) is probably the most well known ALR material, but every major manufacturer now offers some type of ALR screen.
One final note about your room environment and then we'll move on to other considerations. If your room is quite small or otherwise unsuited to place a projector across the room from your screen, check out the growing number of ultra-short-throw projector options, such as BenQ's HT2150ST or Epson's new LS100 laser projector. You can even buy a packaged system that adds a screen and speakers for a very TV-like big-screen setup--like Hisense's new Laser TV.
2. What size, shape, and type of screen do you want?
Selecting the proper screen material is the first of several screen-related decisions you need to make when assembling your front-projection system. The next step is to decide how big of a screen you want and what form factor it will have.
When it comes to screen size, bigger may be better, but it may not always be practical. Screen size is directly related to projection distance. If you don't have a lot of flexibility in where you can place your projector (due to the room's size or design), it's probably best to determine the ideal location for the projector and then see how big a screen that distance will accommodate, based on the projector's throw ratio. Many projector manufacturers--including Epson and Optoma--offer a tool on their website to help you calculate screen size versus projector distance based on specific models in their lineup.
With a general screen size in mind, you're then better able to select a screen type. Do you want a fixed-frame screen that will hang on the wall or suspend from the ceiling; and, if so, how thick of a frame do you want around it? These days, "zero bezel" screens like dnp's Supernova Blade (shown right), Screen Innovations' Zero Edge, Draper's Edgeless Clarion, or Elite Screens' Aeon Series are all the rage--they do look cool, but they usually come with a higher price tag. Pull-up screens are often the cheapest option, but they mostly make sense when mated with a portable home entertainment projector in more casual setting. Motorized drop-down screens are sleek and make for a visually clean room, which can be a big plus in a non-dedicated theater room.
One final thing to consider when screen shopping is what shape, or aspect ratio, you want. Are you primarily going to watch movies or HDTV through your system? With a standard 16:9 rectangular screen, HDTV content will fill the screen, but you'll see horizontal black bars with 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 movies. If you choose a movie-friendly screen shape, then HDTV content will have black bars on the side. If you've got a bigger budget to work with, your custom installer can incorporate a cool masking system that automatically tailors the shape of the screen to suit the content being displayed, and the use of a projector's lens memory and anamorphic picture mode (with an add-on lens) can also be used to remove black bars if you really can't stand them.
3. What sources do you plan to connect and how?
How many sources do you plan to watch through your front-projection system? A Blu-ray player? A cable/satellite set-top box? How about a streaming media player or gaming console? Most of today's projectors are limited to two HDMI inputs and maybe a PC input and basic composite video input; component video and S-video are long gone. If you want to incorporate more than two HDMI sources, you're going to need some type of video switching device, like an AV receiver or dedicated video switcher.
Even though some projectors include Ethernet ports to allow for IP control, the majority lack any type of streaming video support, as you'll now find on most HDTVs. LG sells a few projectors that include its WebOS platform. Some projectors, especially in the home entertainment category, do offer MHL support so that you can connect an MHL-compatible tablet or smart phone and stream content that way--but that still takes up one of your HDMI ports.
Likewise, the USB ports on most projectors do not support media playback but are mostly for service or the powering of a wireless HDMI system--which allows you to wirelessly transmit the video signal so that you don't have to run HDMI cables across your room.
4. Do you want a 3D-capable projector?
3D may be dead in the TV realm, but it is alive and well in the front-projection category--so you need to decide whether or not you want to enjoy the occasional 3D Blu-ray movie. Most mid-priced and high-end projectors still support 3D playback, and many entry-level models do, too. However, the 3D glasses aren't usually included in the package anymore, so you'll have to invest a little extra money to buy them.
5. How important is 4K compatibility?
4K is the next big thing in video, and front projection is certainly the best way to appreciate the additional resolution, thanks to the larger screen sizes it allows. However, the number of native 4K projectors in the consumer space is limited--they pretty much all come from Sony. Manufacturers like JVC and Epson sell projectors that accept a 4K signal and support features like High Dynamic Range and a wider color gamut, but they are still 1080p projectors that use a special pixel-shifting technology to simulate a 4K image. Likewise, new 4K-friendly DLP projectors from BenQ and Optoma have a 2,716 by 1,528 resolution and use mirror-shifting to show more pixels on the screen. If your screen size is around 100 inches or smaller, I personally don't believe you'll see a significant resolution difference between a native 4K projector and the 4K-friendly variations.
Choosing any 4K-friendly projector is going to add to your bottom line--and choosing a native 4K projector is going to add even more. Sure, Sony's newest entry-level VPL-VW285ES native 4K projector is now just $5,000, but that's still pricey when you consider the fact that you can find some really great 1080p projectors for under $2,500.
Of course, if you buy a 4K-friendly projector, you're also going to need 4K video sources to take full advantage of the format. Whether you're building a system from scratch or upgrading older components, you'll want to check out the new crop of Ultra HD Blu-ray players, such as Oppo's UDP-203 or Sony's UBP-X800. You can also enjoy streamed UHD content through 4K streaming media players from Roku, Amazon, Apple, NVIDIA, and others. Or, if you've got the funds, consider a Kaleidescape 4K video server like the Strato. We highly recommend you go the disc or download route; streaming is wonderfully convenient for casual watching; but, after all the thought and effort you've put into assembling your new 4K projection system, don't you want to enjoy the highest quality sources at your disposal?
Have you recently built a front-projection system? If so, what components did you choose, and what obstacles did you encounter? Let us know in the Comments section below?
• Room Correction Revisited at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Why Do the Really Big-Screen TVs Cost So Much More? at HomeTheaterReview.com.