The first time I heard the term, I pictured a million dollar house somewhere in Malibu, with fifty thousand dollars worth of equipment, and a butler.
But while it’s true that there are some pretty insane setups out there, the reality is, Home Theater can encompass anything from a pie in the sky luxury room, to a typical living room with a nice TV and a sound bar. Really, we’re taking about decent picture quality, decent sound, and a decent place to sit and enjoy it. With this guide, I’ll be covering the gamut of home theater, for anyone who wants to get more out of their movie, tv and gaming experience.
Let’s start with picture. The right TV (or projector) will make or break your experience, and it’s also what you’ll design the rest of your setup around.
(Just looking for what to buy? Recommendations at the end)
Looking for info on Sound & Speaker recommendations? Check out Part 2.
Searching for info on setting up a space, or miscellanous tips on completing your setup? Check out Part 3.
TV or Projector?
First, you need to pick one or the other. Many of you may think of projectors as “old tech,” the kind of thing your high school teacher would drag out to show you that slide shown on Napoleon’s art collection. But consumer projectors are alive and well today, and for those with the right environment, a projector can offer you a much more “cinematic” experience, at a far lower cost than a big TV.
If you’re considering a projector, it’s important to be realistic about the downsides. First and most importantly, is that projectors require some degree of light control. If your viewing area is in a room with a lot of light, you’ll either need to invest in blackout shades and a screen that brightens the image, or go with a TV. Outside light sources will devastate the picture quality of a projector (I.E. you’ll get the picture quality of a washed out CRT monitor, if you remember those). And the more expensive the projector, the more important light control becomes. The difference between a $4000 projector and an $800 projector is negligible if light pollution is hitting the screen.
The other big downside is that projectors need to warm up each time they’re turned on, so there’s a delay of about a minute from when you hit the power button to when you get a usable image. For most, this isn’t a big deal, but if you’re constantly turning your tv on and off to watch the news or the big game, it can be an annoyance.
There’s also two more minor downsides. The first is that projectors get hot, and therefore produce some fan noise. If you can mount the projector on the ceiling, this is fairly insignificant, but if the only place it can go is on a table right beside you, louder projector models can be distracting. Finally, projectors require maintenance. The light bulb or “lamp” inside the projector has a lifespan, and after a few thousand hours, you’ll need to buy a new one. Depending on the quality of the projector, these replacement lamps can be hundreds of dollars, so you’ll need to plan for that cost a few years down the line (that said, I bought my projector in 2014, and still haven’t had to replace the lamp yet…)
So, after all that griping, why do I use a projector in my home theater? The big pro is size. The size of the image you get from a projector isn’t fixed. Depending on how zoomed in or out the lens is, a projector can give you an image anywhere from around 80 to 150 inches diagonally. Imagine Frodo’s closeup (Or Captain Kirk’s) on a TWELVE AND A HALF FOOT DIAGONAL SCREEN! Reasonably priced TV’s top out around 70 inches. For me, the 120 inch image I have is simply jaw dropping, especially for epic action and sci-fi flicks. An important detail for nerds like me is that many current projectors also still provide support for 3D movies. While many have derided 3D as a gimmick, for movies that were shot in 3D or expertly converted, the effect can be really fantastic, and most current TVs have completely removed 3D support, whereas projector manufacturers have generally continued to support the format. Peculiarly, so have many of the studios, who are still selling 3D blurays long after TV manufacturers abandoned them…
Selecting a Screen Size
Still struggling to decide between a projector and a TV? Start with sizing out your display. While many of us dream of a gargantuan screen, the truth is that every setup has a minimum and maximum picture size, beyond which you’ll either be left squinting, or experience a blurry picture that you’ll crane your neck to see. If your screen is far away, you might be nudged toward a projector. Only got a cramped room? A TV’s more likely to be your best bet.
An important caveat: picture size is a combination of basic resolution math and personal preference. You’ll find a lot of guides give you differing ranges. Your taste will vary, so just try not to stray dramatically out of the range.
To get a rough range of image size, first measure the distance from where your head will be on your sofa or chair, to where the screen will be. Then divide that number by 2.5. That’s your smallest diagonal screen size. How big can you go? That depends on what resolution projector or tv you’ll be using.
A brief aside here. TV or projector resolution is subject to a swath of myths. We’ll get further into this when discussing what to look for in image quality, but when sizing out your display, it’s important to consider that the larger your display size, the more relevant resolution is. If you’re sitting ten feet back from a 65″ tv, you won’t see a sharpness distinction between 4k and 1080P HD, in spite of what the guy at Best Buy wants you to think. But at seven feet away? Big difference. In fact, if you’re someone who’s amassed a large collection DVDs (if you haven’t upgraded to HD copies, the Gremlin is official dissapointed), you might want to consider that a larger screen size is going to accentuate the flaws in your existing media. As a basic rule, divide your viewing distance by 1.5 for HD, or 1 for 4k for a basic maximum.
So you’ve got a rough idea of your options for image size. Still unsure whether to go larger or smaller? The best advice I’ve heard is to consider where you naturally sit when you go to a movie theater. If you prefer to sit in the back, consider going on the smaller side. If you like to sit center, or on the closer side, go big. Keep in mind that while a screen size may seem overwhelming when you switch, after a few weeks of viewing, you’ll likely adjust to the change just fine.
Now, for most people, budget is going to play a large factor in whether to go TV or projector, which technology you choose, and what size TV you buy. An 80″ OLED TV will provide superior picture quality to most projectors, but it’s also going to cost over $4000. A high quality 1080P projector at a conservative 100″ screen size can be had for $1000 to $1500.
Selecting for Quality Picture
As established, size does matter, but not at the expense of picture quality. A great image is going to be defined by three things: Resolution, Contrast and Color fidelity & Range. Weighing these factors is very different in Projectors and TV, so I’ll break them out separately below.
While projectors are the king of image size, the tech has lagged behind in the 4K image revolution. The price of an extremely high quality 1080P projector has dropped significantly in the last few years, but to get a “true” 4K projector with proper contrast and color performance will be cost prohibitive for many at $5000 and up. Contrary to popular belief, the single biggest factor in picture quality, at least in film and TV viewing, isn’t resolution, it’s contrast, or the maximum range between the brightest and darkest parts of the image. This is in part because HD already has a huge swath of pixels its throwing at your eyeballs, so there’s only so much improvement your eyes can realistically discern. High contrast images provide “pop,” and can actually increase apparent sharpness. Low contrast, conversely, will make the picture appear dull. This is why when you go TV shopping at Frys or Best Buy, all of the TV’s have their contrast settings jacked up like crazy, producing a ghastly effect that nevertheless grabs your attention. Unfortunately, contrast ratios are victim to somewhat deceptive advertising, so you’re best off checking professional reviews on individual models for an honest look at contrast performance.
Resolution is more straightforward. There’s three types of mainstream projector resolutions right now. The first is 1080P. While HD has been around for a while, at many typical viewing distances, HD still looks fantastic. I’m a resolution nut, but if I’m honest, I rarely have cause to complain when watching HD blurays on my 120″ screen from ten feet back. However, if you’re eager to have the latest and greatest, you’ll want to consider 4k. Due to the added complexity of creating a tiny 4K imaging chip on a projector, companies have used a series of “tricks” to create “faux 4K” projectors. These models work by displaying part of an image at 1080P, then almost instantaneously shifting the image up slightly and rendering it again. The effect is a sharp increase in the perceived resolution in the image. Reports suggest that this technique offers a solid improvement, that, while below the sharpness of true 4K, is still a nice upgrade over standard HD projectors. True 4K projectors are few and far between, and almost exclusively manufactured by Sony. Most industry folks expect more options for native 4K projection to appear on the market in the next couple of years.
Finally, we get to color fidelity and range. With the advent of 4K have come two related technologies that offer a big bump in image quality. The first is HDR, or High Dynamic Range. HDR dramatically increases the contrast in source video that supports it, allowing for much brighter whites and darker blacks. All 4K projectors struggle to compete with TV level HDR, because by their nature, a projected image is thrown by a bulb that’s always shining, limiting the depth of the blacks in the image. Nevertheless, you’ll see some improvement moving to a projector that’s certified for HDR. WCG, or Wide Color Gamut, allows for a wider breadth of color to be displayed, and is a subtle but important image enhancement to look out for when purchasing a 4k Projector.
Another spec that’s critical for all projectors is lamp brightness, usually measured in lumens. As mentioned, all projectors can be zoomed in or out to support varying screen sizes. It’s important to note that the larger the picture size the projector is displaying, the dimmer that image will become, as it only has a finite amount of light available to throw, and a larger image size “dilutes” that brightness. When shopping for a projector, most reviews will give you the recommended screen sizes that projector is bright enough to support.
Finally, no projector aficionado would broach the subject without mentioning projector screens. While many people tout the fact that a projector doesn’t technically NEED a screen (you could just shine it on a wall), you’re wasting the potential of your equipment if you do. Seriously, don’t dissapoint the Gremlin.
There’s lots of options for a projection surface. Some people swear by painting a wall with specialized projector paint. I opted to avoid this, because if you don’t paint very carefully you’ll create an uneven texture visible in the final image. You may also end up having to explain to your significant other why that fourth wall in your living room is now a different color. Bottom line… Ladies and discerning Gentlemen prefer frames around their projector screens.
The main options for projection are either fixed or motorized screens. A fixed screen is just what it sounds like, a massive frame with a white or grey reflective surface mounted in it. Motorized screens involve a large horizontal bar, which at the touch of a button unfurls to reveal a projector screen. These are a great option for anyone trying to adapt a multi-use space, as you can mount a flat panel tv for casual viewing, and then have the screen simply roll down for that Star Wars Marathon (Or Star Trek, if you swing that way).
When picking a screen, you’ll need to know what diagonal size you’re looking for, as well as the gain of the screen material. Gain is just a fancy term for how much light the screen reflects back. A “high gain” screen will significantly brighten the image from your projector, and is well suited for a space where you have less than total light control. The rule of thumb for image quality, however, is to avoid pushing the gain higher than necessary, as high gain material can also introduce a slight shimmering effect into the image. For a perfectly blacked out room, you want a gain of 1 (or neutral).
For those with grander ambitions, it’s also worth noting that projector screens are available in acoustically transparent material. I’ll get into this further in part 2, but the perfect theoretical placement of home theater speakers are directly behind a large screen, so for those considering building a theater, you’ll want a screen that won’t obstruct the sound waves coming through it from your speakers. I’ll get further into this concept in the follow up parts to this guide.
On TV Picture Quality
Tv’s are a somewhat simpler story for image quality. If you’re searching for a top notch TV in 2018, you’ve got two choices, OLED, or LED. I won’t get into the intricate science behind each. Both systems involve a massive grid of tiny pixels that change color to produce an image. The difference is, OLED pixels can be directly controlled by the tv’s circuitry, allowing every single point on the screen to power fully on or off. LED screens are lit up by a backlight resting behind the pixels, which offers a bit less control over how bright or dark parts of the image will be. The result is that OLED has the best contrast ratios of any display technology, besting LED TVs and pretty much every projector out there. The top manufacturers of LED TV’s, like Samsung, are upping their game with more refined variants of traditional LED (Samsung’s playing a marketing game with “QLED” which looks oddly similar to “OLED” if you squint). Many of these high-end LED designs do produce great contrast and vibrant wide gamut color, but any true home theater enthusiast worth they’re salt will point you toward OLED, because at the end of the day, for film and TV viewing, contrast really is king.
So you’ve decided whether to go TV or projector. What do you buy?
I won’t pretend to be a comprehensive review site, but I’ll offer up what I’d buy for a few scenarios.
My current Projector is the Sony HW-40ES. It’s successor, the Sony HW45ES, is a top of the line option for superb 1080P HD image quality, that will match or rival the quality of your local movie theater. Sony’s been in the game a long time, and their line of projectors are especially known for spectacular color accuracy and exceptional contrast performance.
If you’re looking for a 4k Projector, I’d shoot for the Sony VW285ES. This is the lowest cost native 4k projector, and while it’s technically “entry level” for the category, reviews note it’s phenomenal contrast and sharpness that allow it to compete well with projectors that are four times the cost. Buy this with some decent speakers, and you’ll have no need to go to a movie theater anymore.
Want a compromise of sorts? The JVC DLA-X590R is a pixel shifting 4K machine that’s a masterpiece of projection technology. JVC has lead the consumer projector field for many years as the leader in contrast, and as most professional reviewers will state, contrast is pretty much what matters in image quality. If I had the cash to upgrade today, this is the projector I’d buy.
As for a screen… Projector screens are a bit of a scam. It’s easy to pay thousands of dollars for the kind of screen you’d picture in that Malibu palace I mentioned. But the truth is, a basic fixed screen will offer 90% of the image quality of those much pricer screens at a 10th of the cost. My personal screen at home is the Silver Ticket STR-169120. It’s not to hard to assemble, the projection surface is awesome, and it looks great on a wall. The only word of warning is, be EXTREMELY CAREFUL not to scuff the frame pieces, as they’re covered in a thin velvet material that will easily scratch on assembly if you’re not watching out for it. Comes in a variety of sizes.
For those looking for a motorized option, I’d go for the Elite Screens Spectrum. Elite is another reasonably priced screen maker, and they also offer options for acoustically transparent screens as well.
As for TVs?
For a bang for your buck option, Samsung’s QLED line, like this 55″ model, are a very solid choice. While they’re not my favorite company for many reasons, as a manufacturer of displays, Samsung’s raw image quality is consistently great, with very good contrast and color that pops.
For the best of the best in TV, I’d buy LG OLED in a heartbeat. Their 2018 55″ model is a good option for smaller spaces. OLED is a technology truly made for the current era of HDR content, and will truly take your favorite movies and shows into the stratosphere of imaging perfection.
As for the rest of the home theater equation, check for part 2 of this guide, where I’ll be going in-depth on sound quality, which is the true unsung hero of any home theater.
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As an aside, I only endorse products that I’ve personally used and loved, or thoroughly researched and genuinely recommend.
Next up in the guide? Home Theater Sound Quality, in Part 2.