Projector Screen Review:
Stewart FilmScreen Firehawk G3 Motorized, Tensioned Projector HC Grey Screen
02/5/2007 - Art Feierman
First, a word about Stewart Filmscreen. When I got involved in the projector side of the A V business about 15 years ago, I quickly became aware of Stewart. For all that time, they have seemed to be considered the reference standard out there in projector screens. I'm not saying that someone doesn't build a better screen, and there are many types, but their reputation always implied a top quality product, both in build quality and performance, and highly regarded. I mention this because it is relevant, and because Stewart's projector screens are a bit pricey, compared to some of the other big names like Da-lite or Draper, as well as many smaller projector screen companies including some very affordable domestic (Carada, Vutec, etc.) and overseas players (Elite...)
The image to the right provided by Stewart Filmscreen (I wish my theater looked like that!) Perhaps best known of the Stewart screens is their Studiotek 130, a 1.3 gain white surface, which is considered the standard in its class. The Firehawk, that I'm reviewing here is also highly thought off, and, I believe, is Stewart's best selling projector screen.
It's been about two years since I mounted a Stewart Firehawk in my great room / theater. It's a large screen - a full 128" diagonal, which I should note upfront, is a custom size. However, when buying a Stewart projection screen, getting a custom size is easy and quite common. Better still, it really doesn't add to the cost. They simply charge for the next larger official size (which I believe is 133" diagonal). I had intended to review the projector screen in the months after getting it, but, as it turns out, Stewart upgraded the screen surface of the Firehawk to the G2. I found myself in the awkward situation where, if I reviewed it, I was reviewing a screen (surface) that was no longer in production.
So I didn't.
Recently, Stewart made some significant improvements again to the surface, in the form of the Firehawk G3, of particular note, a smoother surface with finer texture. Like with most gray surface screens, if you got fairly close to the surface you could make out that texture, and you could occasionally spot it when viewing. (I sit fairly close).
The new Firehawk G3 projector screen surface, therefore is finer, and, as Stewart Filmscreen actively markets, more ideal for the first generation of 1080p fixed pixel projectors (LCD, DLP, LCOS, etc.)
I'm pleased to report that with my imminent upgrade to a 1080p projector (no I haven't made final selection yet - 3 more are inbound for review), moving to the Firehawk G3 surface was just too tempting. So, bingo, as of a few weeks ago, the surface of my screen was replaced.
I was immediately aware of a difference - larger than I expected, as soon as I started watching the Firehawk G3.
And it is better! I'll get into more later, but I'll start by saying that if you look at the "specs" (like viewing angles, and gain) between the old and new, there is little differnce, but the viewing experience in my room has improved visibly! And while this is an overworked term in the industry (including by me), I must say, simply, the Firehawk G3 provides a more "film-like" quality when I'm watching. It is most noticeable on HDTV and my hi def DVDs.
I used to really like my old Firehawk and despite the hefty price tag of the Firehawk (and Stewart screens in general), I was always very pleased. The new Firehawk G3, however, I just love, it's not that I really noticed artifacts with the old screen, its more like now that I watch the new G3 I notice that there don't seem to be any screen artifacts anymore.
I'm sure that's a murky statement to understand, it's just that I didn't realize before that certain aspects of the old Firehawk were a part of the image I watched, and the new Firehawk G3 is more transparent. (Ok still murky, but the best I have come up with so far. I'm still fishing for a good analogy, and if I find one, I'll save it for the summary! -art)
Firehawk G3 Projector Screen - Basic Information:
The Firehawk, in reality, is the name of the screen surface. The G3 is simply the newest material. Firehawk screens are available in fixed frame (Luxus, Luxus Deluxe), Motorized, Motorized Tensioned, and other configurations, including floor risers (yep, opens upward from its base instead of down like traditional motorized screens. In fact, other than a lack of manual pull-down screens, it would seem Stewart has a full lineup of screen configurations rivaling any other brands. (Technically, they have 10 different motorized configurations, from standard motorized, wall mounted and tensioned, to those housed inside of ceilings, with trapdoors, etc.
The surface is a light grey, high contrast surface. Stewart also offers their Micro-Perf X2 Firehawk surface for those who want to place speakers behind the screen itself.
Stewart Firehawk G3 Projector Screen Specs:
Viewing Angle: +/- 28 degrees (to half gain) (note: Some places on Stewart's website it says 30 degrees. I'm checking on that now.)
The nature of the way the Firehawk reflects light is that it is best when the viewer is inline for a bounce off the screen. Some screen surfaces reflect light back toward the source, others like the Firehawk reflect it like a mirror would. Therefore, you want your projector mounted high. The Firehawk would not work as well if your projector was on a table near the bottom of the screens surface, and it wouldn't be as bright.
The Firehawk G3 projector screen surface, because of the roll off angle, also works best with projectors mounted further back. They recommend at least 1.6 times screen width. So, if you have a 100" screen, you are going to want the projector at least 11.3 feet back, or preferably, a bit further. That means the Firehawk G3 projector screen isn't necessarily a good match with some home theater projectors that have pretty short throw lenses, (typically some DLP's and Sony's LCOS (SXRD) VW50 projector).
For that reason, Stewart also created a 2nd new Firehawk, for the Sony VW50 "Pearl" projector, which would also work well for any projector you have, that is mounted closer than 1.5x screen width.
That version of the Firehawk is called the Firehawk SST
Viewing Angle +/-33 degrees (to half gain)
I mentioned that Stewart will build the size screen you want. They will also provide custom lengths for the drop at the top of the screen surface (the amount of black between the housing and the surface). I, for example have a 17" drop, which is ideal for my room, but certainly not a standard length drop, anywhere.
To make sure there is no confusion, returns, etc., Stewart requires a sign off on all screens. Dealers contact Stewart, provide info as to screen type, size, drop, surface, etc, and Stewart sends back engineering drawings. Sometimes the dealer will sign off, but if you are buying a screen, I recommend you get the drawings from your dealer, double check everything (this is for your benefit, not theirs), sign it, and get it back to the dealer, who will submit it with the order. You will get what you ordered, so get it right! It's a good system. When I owned a dealership we required buyers to sign off and we ended up with virtually no issues or returns for that reason. When there was a problem, it was still typically a buyer who didn't really bother to check the drawings carefully to see if it was exactly what they thought they were getting.
I'm not going to get into the how one makes a high contrast, or grey surface, or the multi-layers, backings, different types of motor technology, etc. If you crave that info, visit Stewart's website for explanations on most of that.
In terms of pricing, my current Firehawk configuration - 128" diagonal (custom size), 17" drop (custom drop), motorized and tensioned, retailed for close to $6000 if I recall correctly.
To give you a better idea, for a standard motorized Luxus Firehawk G3 110" diagonal 16:9 screen, MSRP is $4597, but a quick search online finds discounts of 10% or more.
If motorized isn't your thing - their traditional fixed wall Luxus Deluxe series, is about $2400 MSRP before discounting for a 110" diagonal with with the wide black deluxe frame. Like most screens, reasonable discounts can be had from most dealers.
Stewart also offers the Firehawk G3 surface on their masking Cinemascope screens popular in high end home theaters. Combined with a projector with anamorphic lens, and the Cinemascope screen can show traditional movies in their full 2.35:1 without any letter boxing, or with the mask return to a more standard 16:9 aspect ratio for HDTV. Those screens are routinely seen at major industry trade shows in the theaters of high end projectors like Runco and Vidikron. One version the Cinecurve goes a step further to provide a more ideal slightly curved surface.
Firehawk G3 Projector Screen: Gain and Roll Off
Stewart rates the Firehawk G3 as having a gain of 1.25 slightly lower than their claim for the older Firehawk surface (1.3).
I have always wondered about the gain of the Firehawk, and have never come up with a method of successfully measuring it. Certainly, it is a gray surface, and many would say, not even a particularly light gray surface.
With a high contrast gray surface, the first thing you learn is that it has a limited viewing angle. I have taken several images below. Note please, the camera tends to exaggerate (relative to the eye), the unevenness of illumination. This is true whenever I have photographed a screen surface, as you may have seen in other reviews. That said, the roll off is there, just to my eye, seems a fraction of what you are seeing in these images.
Now before everyone "freaks out" about the roll-off in the many gray images below, realize that what ou are seeing is exaggerated compared to "real life". For that purpose, here are a couple of images, first, showing what the Firehawk G3 looks on normal movies...
Both images above are clickable (for larger versions), and both were photographed with the Firehawk G3, and the JVC RS1 1080p projector.
To illustrate, I have taken several images from different angles. For some, I have taped (carefully) a sheet of bright white (copy) paper to the screen surface. As you can see below, in some images the screen around the paper is actually slightly brighter than the paper (positive gain), but on other images it is darker:
Below: in the sweet spot (brightest area of the screen, you can see that the white paper is darker than the screen surface around it.
Image below (paper is center bottom, this image shows more of the screen): Here the image was taken from a different angle, the brightest area of the screen is now in the center, and you can just make out the paper (small) being a touch brighter than the screen surface around it.
A close up again, the bright area is above, so the white paper is visibly brighter ( gain less than 1, at that angle).
This depends of the viewing angle. If the projector is pointing down 20 degree to the center of the screen, and you are looking UP, to the center of the screen, at a 20 degree angle, you have the full bounce, and the screen image is at its brightest. If you are at a different angle, the screen won't be as bright.
Roll off to the sides:
OK, Three more images - the first (above), the white paper is at the bottom center again, and is barely visible, and not quite as bright as the center of the screen. The image was shot about 17 feet from the screen.
In this 2nd image (below), the camera is even with the right side of the screen, paper in the center of the screen. Because of the off angle, the screen is rolling off in brightness, and again, the paper is visibly brighter. The camera is 17 feet back from the 128" Firehawk.
In this third image (below), also back 17 feet, the camera is now 4 feet to the right of the right side of the screen, where the screen is reflecting even less light back, so the paper now looks much brighter still, by comparison:
In this last image, the paper is at the bottom of the screen, the distance is 11 feet back. You can see that the screen is darker than the paper, but you can also see, that as you look up to the middle of the screen, that the screen is visibly brighter as you get into the dead center of the brightest reflective zone.
So, in truth, the Firehawk does not provide an evenly illuminated image to your eye, nor does any other HC gray surface. Just remember, that the level of unevenness to the eye, is significantly less than captured. These last two images are probably the best indicator of the screen's actual roll off, but it still exaggerates what the eye sees.
The first one is taken from eye level, 18 feet back from the screen. The second one, from my front row seat (very close by most standards), is shot from 11 feet back. Remember 11 feet is very close for a 128" diagonal screen.
Due to the closeness, the corners and edges of the screen are further off the perfect angle, than they are in the 18 foot position, and you can see that in the darker look in the corners. In other words sitting a bit further back reduces the rolloff in the corners, and gives you a more evenly illuminated image. Overall, however, I have no complaints regarding roll off, in my normal seat (11 feet back).
A note on the off angle image: In the same way the screen surface appears dark, the Firehawk does the same thing to ambient light from the side. Light coming in from a source at that same angle from the other side of the screen would be very bright. But that ambient light coming from the left of the screen, looks rather dim if you are sitting back from the center (or left) of the screen area. Thus one of the strengths of HC gray screens, the ability to "reject" side ambient light.
Firehawk G3 Projector Screen: Color Accuracy
Using my wall mounted (even with the top of the screen) BenQ PE-8720, I measured the color temperature, directly off the projector. I then remeasured, with the sensor capturing light reflected off the screen surface, instead. Taking an average of 3 readings of each, I found the Firehawk's reflected image to be approximately 90 degrees Kelvin, cooler (leaning toward blue) than the direct light. That is, I imagine, about as close to dead on, as you will find in a screen surface. Other screens that I have measured have been "off" as little as about 180K (degrees Kelvin), and even that is barely, if at all perceptable to the viewer.
A color shift of less than 100K is damn close. Also I looked at the green component and it was almost perfect - virtually identical whether direct or reflected, with the slight shifting in measurements basically within the accuracy range of my Optic One light sensor.
The bottom line, the Firehawk very accurately reflects back the same colors projected on to it. I also did not notice any visible shift in color by moving to the edge of the screen area (right side), although no good way to measure, I would say that color is consistant, within the prime viewing angle - rated at 28 degrees, and beyond that.
Firehawk G3 Projector Screen: Tensioning
When my screen came back with the new surface in place, it was immediately mounted. Upon lowering the screen there definitely was some unevenness on the lower left side, an area maybe 100 sq inches showed some pulling. I left the screen down and within 48 hours it was perfectly flat. My screen is down much more than up, but when I was out of town for a week it was up. When lowering it again, it came down perfectly flat. Bottom line - their tensioning works very, very well, and remember 128" is not exactly a small screen.
Installing the Firehawk G3 Projector Screen
Below: A photo of the closed Firehawk G3 mounted above windows/motorized shades.
The original Firehawk was mounted in my room by the same folks that ran my wiring. As I recall, the biggest challenge was the fact that the screen housing is over 12 feet above the floor. Because I hae a painting on the wall that is covered by the screen when it was down, the screen had to be mounted out from the wall so it would miss hitting the painting. I do not know if Stewart has special brackets to allow that. My team, however, solved the problem by anchoring two small 2x4 pieces of wood to the wall (left and right), and mounting the Firehawk's bracket to that. I am checking on whether they have extension brackets for wall mounting.
The best way to understand the installation process is to view their manual, which is pretty good. Here's a link: http://www.stewartfilmscreen.com/documents/modela_manual.pdf
That manual is for the same, traditional wall/ceiling mount Luxus Model A, that I own.
Stewart Firehawk G3 Projector Screen: Remotes, Power, etc.
Power is run through the wall to my screen. I ordered the screen originally with the RF remote control option. The Firehawk's remote control, shown here, is a single button device. Press once, the screen starts to come down, press again (before it's all the way down), and it will stop the screen. A third press, and it goes back up...
Again, consult the manual (link above) for more info.
Stewart Firehawk G3 - Overall performance
I find that the new Firehawk G3 surface really combines will with my Darkchip 3 DLP projector, to produce extremely black blacks, and excellent depth to the images being viewed. The downside, as mentioned, to an HC gray screen lies in its lack of perfectly even illumination. In my setup, the projector is plenty far back (19+ feet), a good 2.5 feet further than the minimum recommendation. At the same time, I sit fairly close so I pick up a little more roll off than if I sat further back.
That said, I find the rolloff to the sides undetectable with normal watching, but, can, if I'm looking for it, detect on something fairly evenly illuminated like a blue sky, that the sky might be a touch darker in the corners. It has never been enough to be obvious.
Because of the close seating and it's effect, I had considered the Firehawk SST this time around with its slightly lower gain, in exchange for a bit more viewing angle (and more evenness). Well, I finally decided to stick with the G3, and after a month of watching it, am happy with my decision. I do need the rejection of side lighting more than a slight improvement in evenness of illumination.
I can't think of a better overall screen for your home theater (or business application for that matter), if you have side ambient light to deal with, as long as you have sufficient lumens to project a suitably bright image on whatever screen size you are buying.
If, on the other hand, you have an ideal room, no ambient light, dark walls, etc., you are probably better served by Stewart's Studiotek 130, which offers essentially perfect side to side evenness of illumination, and, as mentioned a gain of 1.3. The image here shows a split screen that Stewart normally displays at tradeshows, with the left side being the Firehawk G3 material. The right side is a matte white surface. You can see how well the Firehawk does around ambient light - the right side is significantly washed out, and the Firehawk looks great.
OK, a quick look at warranty, and I'll summarize, including thoughts on why spending a premium price for a screen like this, can make sense, even if you are buying a relatively low cost projector.