When it comes to home theater, size matters. While an 85" TV is still regarded as large, the days of 85" screens in dedicated home theaters are a relic of a bygone era when DVD reigned supreme and Blu-ray was the new high-definition thing. It is at the 100" screen size (give or take a few inches) that things get really interesting, especially with the unprecedentedly low prices of big-screen TVs. The question is what role projectors will play in the future of home theater when you can get a flat panel display of the same size, and at a similar cost, to an entry-level native 4K projection system?
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The first thing to understand is the difference between creating a cinematic experience and achieving "reference" picture quality. And this speaks specifically to picture quality aficionados who lean toward OLED for its incredible native contrast ratio. Totally understandable. But also, not something a movie director expects you to have. Simply put, movies are shot in a way that demands the viewer to experience them on a big screen. The size of the screen matters more to the creator than achieving perfect black levels because for most of the history of cinema—and even to this day in most cases—achieving perfect blacks in a movie theater has not been possible.
It is taken for granted that you watch movies in the dark. Why? Because projectors are intrinsically dim compared to flat panel displays, and giant white screens only work with projectors with the lights off. Does it set the mood? Sure. But it was also a situation of projection-based commercial cinema projection systems having no choice because projecting on a white screen does not work when the lights are on.
Enjoying a home theater experience in the living room environment is largely a matter of using a large enough display to have a cinematic presentation and complementing it with a surround sound system—perhaps a soundbar, but hopefully an AVR-based speaker and subwoofer system—that can do some justice to the soundtrack. Of course, it's not "dedicated home theater" but, it meets enough of the parameters that define a cinematic viewing experience to be "home theater." Until very recently, achieving this level of visual immersion could only be done with projectors, and was a very costly endeavor in terms of equipment and installation costs.
2021 saw TV makers push bigger screens, with the two major Chinese TV makers, Hisense and TCL, applying pricing pressure to the category. The result? Even a flagship 4K Samsung like the 85" QN90A ($3299.99 on sale) mini-LED FALD Neo QLED is available at what would have been an unthinkably low price only a few years ago, and this is still a lower price than any native 4K home theater projector. For example, you can pick up an 85" Hisense H65 for $1499.99, which is roughly the cost of an entry-level home theater projector.
But the real "big deal" is the emergence of 98" TVs that cost less than a new car, which is a very recent development The TCL 98" XL Collection QLED 98R754 ($9999.99) is a prime example! The only catch? It's still a huge premium over the 85" TCL QLED that—as of the publication of this article—sells for $2499.99.
When it comes to sheer bang for the buck, it's HUGELY worth noting how close the prices of the TCL 85" and the Samsung 85" actually are, because that Samsung is practically a work of art, that's how nice it is (I reviewed it for AVS Forum last spring).
While Samsung's 98" QN90A costs over 4X what the 85" runs at $14999.99, what it offers performance-wise would be practically impossible to duplicate with a projection-based system, thanks to how HDR is mastered for home viewing, where the baseline is 1000-nit peak brightness and some content is mastered to 4000 nits or even 10,000 nits (very rare).
At the high end of the price spectrum, but capable of fulfilling the dreams of the most persnickety videophiles, is LG's forthcoming 97-inch G2 OLED. However, this enormous 4K TV probably will likely cost as much as a nice luxury car, although the price is not yet known. For now, LED-lit LCDs seem to have the advantage in price at these screen sizes.
These big TVs are able to leverage their much higher peak brightness (versus projectors) to render HDR in a manner that is at best elusive in projection-based systems, and in some instances simply not replicable. TVs that exceed 1,000 nits peak brightness are able to display standard HDR (HDR10) content without resorting to tone mapping, whereas projectors by necessity rely on tone-mapped HDR quite heavily.
Moreover, a high-performance HDR TV will do this even with the lights on, or during the daytime. Most projectors can't handle this application at all. Except...
The recent growth of the UST projector category is driven by a new crop of 4K DLP USTs that uses a laser light source, ranging from a single blue laser/phosphor to RGB triple-laser models. The design of these projectors makes them a lot more "lifestyle friendly" than front projection, and if you want a 100" or 120" screen in your living room, it's a viable alternative to a giant TV.
UST is not quite a magic bullet, it is more susceptible to ambient light than a TV. But thanks to the way UST projectors work, whereby the projector is projecting from directly below the screen, the ambient light rejection characteristics of the screen itself can be optimized for maximum effectiveness at suppressing reflections from the sides and above, while concentrating on reflecting the light from below toward the viewer.
This approach to ambient light-rejecting screens works very well in living room-type settings where you often have a white ceiling and white walls and windows, all of which are anathema to traditional front projection setups. However, a UST will still not have a picture with visual "pop."
So long as there is significant ambient light in the space, current generation USTs are not bright enough to overcome that. But draw the shades, or if you mostly watch in the evening, maybe dim the lights a little bit, and the picture is compelling! And currently, the cost of doing a 100-inch screen with a UST projector is significantly lower than choosing a TV of that size. Plus, there is no option for a TV at 120 in, but it's pretty much a matter of picking that screen size with a UST projector—the price difference between 100" and 120" is minor. The one catch, choosing a 120" for a UST versus a 100" screen (of the same type) does come at a loss of some brightness.
The only strong caveat that I have when discussing UST projectors, is that you should not even remotely trust the marketing images that you see where a UST system is in some amazing mansion with floor-to-ceiling windows and it happens to be the brightest, sunniest day ever. That's a fantasy.
But there is an aspect of UST performance that is not hyperbole: Models that feature an RGB triple laser light source are able to fully reproduce the rec 2020 color gamut, sometimes even going beyond it. This capability directly translates into full coverage of the DCI P3 gamut used in mastering the vast majority of UHD HDR content.
Another tremendous feature of UST projection, in this case, attributable to the screen, is a complete imperviousness to screen reflections. TVs have nothing on the UST ALR lenticular screens—the type most commonly used with UST projectors. TVs have come a long way in mitigating the effective reflections, but they can’t hold a candle to a completely non-reflective screen surface. Also, UST projection offers ultra-wide viewing angles that go beyond what even WOLED TVs offer, with no color shift or other perceived loss of image quality even viewed from way off to the side.
If your priority is watching TV by day, then a flat-screen television is the way to go, even if it means settling for an 85-inch model. If your priority is to come as close as possible to the impact of the big screens found in dedicated home theaters, but in your living room, then a UST is the best tool for the job. I have a UST and guests typically mistake it for a giant TV and do not notice the projector sitting underneath on a credenza.
So what’s a good UST projector? Among the RGB triple-laser models, the Hisense L9G (which I reviewed for ProjectorCentral) stands out for being finely tuned and able to create a bright, accurate image. Plus it is a complete system, it ships with a screen, which is high quality and provides for adjustment after you hang it, and extremely useful and thoughtful extra that you don’t see often on screens from other projector makers. At a 120" screen size, the Hisense L9G system costs $4999.99.
At a lower price point, but with a high level of performance that truly recommends it, you’ll find the BenQ V7050i ($3499). It is another projector that I reviewed for ProjectorCentral. It creates a stunning picture with accurate color and high contrast that are a cut above the competition. It may not have the color gamut coverage of an RGB triple laser, instead of relying on a blue laser plus phosphor plus color wheel for light, but the overall picture quality of this UST is spectacular.
This BenQ is designed to achieve near maximum brightness when it is tuned for accurate cinematic color (6500K color temperature) as opposed to mini projectors were the brightest mode is much cooler or has a color cast. It is therefore highly recommended for movie lovers because the combination of accurate color, high brightness, and impressive contrast (for a DLP projector) combine to create a superior viewing experience.
If there is any category of display that’s going to give the big screen TVs a run for their money, it is UST projection. It might not be quite ready for prime time, but at the same time, the category has seen significant growth and activity for the past couple of years. It’s reasonable to expect USD projection to follow a similar trajectory to TVs, in the sense that they will get brighter, the screens will get larger, and the prices... likely lower.
With new, more affordable options for putting a big screen in a living room or family room, where does that leave dedicated home theaters built around front projection? Sitting pretty, I'd say. The only caveat is if you build a dedicated theater (DIY or contracted), it makes a ton of sense to aim for a screen size that TVs cannot yet touch. The justification for doing a 100" screen in a dedicated space has just reached its expiration date!
The encroachment of the big TVs may very well come at the "cost" of smaller home theater projects being abandoned, but it also clarifies the true strength of projection, which is how it accommodates screen sizes that are unachievable through other means. One wonders what a 150" TV would cost, much less how you'd get it into a house or apartment. Projection still has the advantage that the screen can be assembled in the viewing space (an advantage that also applies to the USTs).
Of course, a dedicated home theater space will take certain aspects of the viewing experience to whole another level. The sound isolation, the total darkness, the highly calibrated sound system with optimally placed speakers, and the huge screen—all this is part of what makes dedicated home theater special, and people are still willing to spend big bucks to achieve it. But with the pricing and availability of 98" TVs in 2022, it's now a harder decision between an entry-level native 4K home theater projector plus screen, versus putting a truly epic TV in your living room.
There's a strong argument to be made for the latter, especially if you like being joined by friends and family on a regular basis because it is a matter of fact that home theater enthusiasts tend to overestimate the interest of others.
At some point, there is a practical limit to how large you can make a flat panel television unless you can roll it up or divide it into smaller pieces. Of course, that's exactly what's next for TVs, LG has shown the potential for rollable screen OLED, while Samsung and others have shown how micro-led panels—which have so far mostly been used for commercial displays like the billboards you see in Times Square and scoreboards in sports arenas. These are made up of tiles, and the latest generation of micro-LEDs can be used to create video walls for home entertainment purposes.
But perhaps the most relevant and interesting trend is simply the drop in price for larger TVs. There is no longer a huge gap between 75 and 85 in models. Now the main gap is between 85 in and 98 in., and I'm left wondering how long it will be before 98" TVs also shed the premium, after all 120" TVs are a thing (and have been for years, Vizio used to have one). One of the great things about a 120" TV is that 8K has some justification at that size.
IMO, TVs near the 100" screen size have to get that size down to about $5000—for a high-performance model, not entry-level. If that happens, suddenly living rooms across America can have a screen big enough to deliver a truly cinematic viewing experience, one that had previously been the near-exclusive domain of dedicated home theaters. And then who knows, maybe someday a 120" TV will sell at a price that isn't in the "if you have to ask" range.
So, with all this technology in play, a huge shift to 4K broadcasting coming (NextGen TV going live in many major US cities this spring and summer). Plus the trickle of 8K content—mostly on YouTube—will continue to grow. The near future is highly promising for fans of "big picture" viewing experiences. 2022 should prove to be a very interesting year for projectors and for TVs alike.