Here is my bottom-line advice on home theatre projector screens: depending on your setup you’re probably better off not having one. Save your money! When I wrote myÂ review of theÂ Sony Bravia SXRD 1080P VPL-HW10,Â I knew my opinion on projector screens would draw someÂ criticism. I only covered it briefly in that post, but I’ve decided to talk about it in more detail today. Â Read on and get ready to have some intense debate…Let me start by talking about the purpose of what one commenter calls a “serious projection screen.” Researching several sources online and screen manufacturers websites here is a basic description: a front projection screen’s purpose is to diffusely reflect the light projected on it. Of course, that explanation puts the means over the ends. A more practical definition is to provide the best possible viewing experience for the audience. By the way, this is one of the core values behind my blog. I try to cover things from a practical perspective.
There are some legitimate specific uses for screens and certain brands and material types tout these applications. Â Examples are improving contrast ratio or brightness, reducing the effects of ambient light, providing an even viewing surface or maybe a curved surface, reducing moirÃ©, altering (or improving) the viewing angles, or hiding speakers behind the screen. In cases where you have a specific application need, such as hiding speakers behind a screen, it becomes a necessity. In that case you either have to buy an expensive screen or you have to re-plan your installation and move your speakers.
However, my opinion remains that most of the time with a more professional projection screens you are giving up one thing to get another. Â If you have an actual theatre room in your house and a very large budget to outfit it, you still have to make allowances for speakers,Â projectorÂ placement, and the viewing surface (or screen). It really comes down to the size and shape of your room. Â When my wife and I were looking for a new house the ‘screening room’ was a major consideration. Many of the houses we looked at had these tiny, narrow-minded, built-in tv nooks. We specifically looked for a place that had these features:
- A large smooth wall that could become the screen.
- Enough room for a large couch to be a comfortableÂ distance away from the screen.
- Decent placement for speakers.
- The ability to black out the room from ambient light so that daytime viewing would be possible.
Other bonus features that our room has (some after home improvements):
- Thick SHAG carpet with bean bags for comfortable extra seating on the floor.
- Additional space behind the main couch for more seating for parties.
- The kitchen is also behind the couch so no need to pause during snack breaks.
- Speaker cables go under the carpet and floors. Â Center speaker wires are inside the wall. We installed those.
- Sound containment – with the home theatre downstairs and the bedrooms upstairs, we never worry about volume or late night movie watching bothering the kids or someone else sleeping. Â I can watch a movie or play a game at a reasonably loud volume even if my wife or daughter is asleep.
Features that our room does NOT have:
- Speakers are visible – not behind the screen. Â Center speaker is high above the screen and left right are low – below the screen.
- Surround speakers are probably too far back.
- There’s no good place for the extra 2 speakers when we move to 7.1 sound.
- Sound containment could be better.
The bottom line comes down to the viewing experience. Does the lack of a ‘real screen’ detract in any way from the viewing experience? In my setup – absolutely not. Â For me to add a screen would not improve the quality at all. In fact, it would probably only result in me having a smaller picture. Had I had a much larger budget for my home theatre, I would have spent it all on a more expensive projector and/or better soundÂ equipment – and still not spent a dime more on the screen.
There are many reasons to have a real screen, and different screens have specific features that are needed in some installs. Â But before you go spending thousands on a screen, look over these features and decide how important they are to YOUR situation:
Screen Gain is a measurement of the light reflectivity of as compared to a white board (or a white wall like mine). In other words, does the image appear brighter than it would on a pure white wall?Â ProjectorCentral.com has this to say:
It is easy, and wrong, to jump to the conclusion that a high gain screen must be preferable to a low gain screen. After all, higher reflectivity means a brighter image and a brighter image seems like a good thing, right? The problem is that there are some downsides to higher gain in a home theater environment.
If the brightness of the image is improved, that extra brightness has to come from somewhere. Typically this gain comes from a reduction in viewing angles. Ever look into a projector lens that’s turned on? Â It’s freaking bright! Â When the light hits the screen is it reflected but also diffused and reflects out in different directions. If the screen material controls the reflection angles and focuses more of the light back towards the viewer you get a gain. The downside is that other viewing angles get less of the light. This might be ok, as some viewing angles are not being used by an actual viewer.
There are two other significant possible downsides to a higher gain. Â One is color shifting, which happens when different frequencies of light reflect in different ways. In this case, different viewers who are all sitting at different angles from the center of the screen will each see a slightly different representation of color. Â And second is that any screen with a high gain will have some degree of hotspotting – which is when the center of the screen appears brighter than the outer edges.
Increased Contrast Screens
The idea is that by using a grey screen you can increase the contrast ratio – or the apparent difference between the white level and the black level. The suggested use is when you have a viewing room with more ambient light. The truth is that grey screens reduce the low point and create a darker black but it happens at the expense of also reducing the white point. Â Obviously the whitest white will be the grey-ness color of the screen.
Before actually seeing it in practice you would expect that you’d be able to see the greyness of the screen. But in reality you’re eye adjusts to the darkness and you don’t see it. I used to have a grey screen and it was good. Again, read what ProjectorCentral.com has to say about it. Some companies claim to have screen technologies that reduce the blacks withoutÂ sacrificingÂ the whites, and Sony used to have a screen called ChromaVue that starts black but reflects RGB light. It’s claim was that it provided a much brighter image when you have a lot of ambient light by NOT reflecting the ambient light. Clearly since they don’t sell the product any more either it didn’t work or it didn’t sell.
I’d say the main reason to use a technology like this is when you’re viewing room has a lot of ambient light. If you can control your environment and keep it dark the higher contrast ratios on modern projectors can keep the blacks dark and the white’s light.
Proper speaker placement would probably be behind your screen. That means that your screen material needs to allow the sound to travel through it but still reflect light. If this is absolutely necessary in your install then prepare yourself to shell out a pretty penny for the screen.
Proper screens have a black border that masks around the edges of the image. This helps with the appearance of contrast and it reduces light spill around the image which can be distracting. Again the problem is thatÂ you are limited to the set aspect ratio of that screen. Different movies have different aspect ratios – which is anÂ estheticÂ choice of the director. However if your mask is fixed at 16:9 it loses it’s purpose when you all the sudden put in a movie that has a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Higher end screen systemsÂ have a motorized masking systems that pull a black mask over the screen to change the aspect ratio. It’s a nice solution if you have the budget. But for a movie like The Dark Knight, which alternates between 16:9 and 2.35, it still loses it’s purpose.
Hidden or Roll Up Screens
If you don’t have space to mount aÂ permanentÂ screen you can install a roll up screen, or an automated roll up screen. As bigscreenforums.com explains, there is a major problem with non-tensionedÂ roll up screens which is that they can develop waves very quickly, like within a year. Imagine paying $1000 or more for a screen and then having it look like this.Â TensionedÂ roll up screens are very expensive. If you’ve got the money to blow on that it would probably be better spent building a screening room on to your house.
Typical ‘Real’ Screen Drawbacks
If one of the above advantages is calling your name, you also have consider some of the downsides:
Inaccurate Color Representation – someÂ screens, especially those with a high gain, can cause color shift, making projected images appear to push blue, green, or red. This push of one color frequency creates an unnatural balance to your projected image.
Reduction in Viewing Angles – Beware of the viewing sweet spot. Higher gain screens will reduce the viewing angle and those sitting on the edges will have a darker image.
MoirÃ© – best shown in this image, moirÃ© happens when you overlay two dot patterns at different angels. This can happen on projection screens, especially ones that are perforated for audio transparency, when the dot pattern of the projected image is cross sectioned with a pattern on the screen.
Visible Perforations – Some screens use perforations to allow audio to pass through them.
Fixed Aspect Ratio – Unless you have a motorized masking system, you’re looking at one aspect ratio. Other aspect ratios will have to fit into this box. Of course with using a wall or a full-wall screen you lose the black mask around the edges.
Size Limitations – Prebuilt screens come in set sizes and are not as large as the wall they areÂ mountedÂ on.
Price – Screens can be very expensive, ranging from $500 to tens of thousands. Larger and more features equals more money.
My real-screen opposition
Over the course of time and by watching thousands of hours of projected movies on several different types of screens,Â I came to the conclusion that real screens are too expensive and over rated. The fact is that the viewing experience is what is important. You have to believe me when I say that I am very picky. I’m a TV/Film editor and have a trained eye. I see the details. I was editing HD back before you could even capture inside of Final Cut, and I know quality when I see it. I also dare anyone to sit in my home theater, watch a good BluRay movie (like Dark Knight) and walk away complaining about there not being a screen. It simply isn’t an issue.
Alternatives to having a real screen
Of course my wall is the alternative that I’ve settled on. I experimented with other solutions before coming to that conclusion. Here are a couple of options, including my own:
Build your own screen – bigscreenforums.com is a good starting point for resources to build your own screen. Â See #6. Start there and then read the AVS Forums on it. Â I’ve done this and it works fairly well. I purchased 13 feet of material from Dazian and made a 2.35:1 screen, and mounted it loosely to a wall. Â It’s thick material and has a black backing. It provided a very good viewing area.
Paint a wall with a special screen paint – Paint on Screen is a special paint that has a silver metallic base, it comes in different gains and different shades of white/grey. It runs about $180 a gallon – which should cover a projection screen wall with 2 coats. Â With this solution do I worry about hotspots. ButÂ I’d like to try this someday and see if it’s any better than my screen.
Paint a wall with very white paint – This is what I did. Â We used the whitest white Dunn Edwards we could find. At about $25 a gallon – it’s several thousand dollars less than a real screen ofÂ comparableÂ size. I have never tested the Paint on Screen, but I did do tests comparing the Dazian screen material, the wall painted white, and the wall painted light grey. I found that the white wall looked the best to me. But this was a practical test and not very scientific. I didn’t take measurements. I used my eye. I watched clips from the best movie I had at the time, and looked for color representation, brightness, and contrast.
The only caveats I’ll toss out is that to use a painted wall as a screen the surface needs to be a smooth, it should be free of defects. Â Defects will show through in the picture. Â Also be careful to choose the right paint. Â It should be a neutral white, not off-white or creme colored, and be flat not glossy.
Let’s get those comments going. Â What do you guys think? Â Anyone been to my house and seen my system please chime in.