Choosing the Right Screen Surface Material For Your Home Theater Projector System

Perhaps even more challenging than choosing the right projector for your home theater or entertainment system, is trying to come up with the best screen types. Different home theater projectors will work better with different screen surfaces.

Of course, your budget, type of room, and other factors will help you determine whether to have a fixed, pull-down or motorized screen, but when it comes to the video performance of your home theater projector, which projector screen surface should you choose

Without getting into exotic high gain screens or rear screens, you basically have the following choices:

  • Standard matte white finish – with a gain of 1. (no additional gain – in other words about as bright as a wall painted pure white)
  • High contrast Gray surface (typically a slight loss of gain, but some have positive gain, (.7 – 1.1), these screens enhance contrast, and improves black levels
  • High contrast White surface (gain from 1.1 – 1.5 typically)
  • High gain screens without high contrast (typically 1.3 – 2.0)

There are other types but we’ll concentrate on these four.

The issues that come into play, include:

The technology and contrast performance of your projector, your viewing angle, and home theater room ambient light.

Typically, LCD powered home theater projectors, have lower contrast, and therefore High Contrast Gray screens are usually a good place to start. The low contrast means these projectors are weaker at achieving blacks. Blacks come out dark gray. As a result, a high contrast gray surface will keep the brighter areas of the image about the same as with a matte white, but dark areas will appear darker. As a result High contrast gray screens work very will with projectors like the Panasonic AE700u, the Sanyo Z2, and Z3, Epson Home 10+ and Mitsubishi HC-3, as well as more expensive units like the Sanyo PLV70 and their 4100 lumen WF10.

Today’s DLP home theater projectors (single chip) have significantly improved contrast over LCD under normal operation. Yet, they still can benefit from a high contrast surface. In most cases a High Contrast white surface will serve you best, and give you a slightly brighter image than the gray ones. The higher the contrast ratio of the projector, the better the blacks and the less need for the gray surface.

One thing to note, however: If you have a theater which you can fully darken – or so close it barely matters, your screen size comes into play. For example, with the BenQ 7700 projector (2500:1 contrast), I normally recommend HC white, but if you are using a small screen – say 92″ diagonal or less, you will have more than enough brightness, and therefore the blacks will be more gray, so with a small screen, I would normally recommend going with the HC gray.

LCOS projectors (not that common, but include JVC’s D-ILA models), are in the middle, with contrast better than LCD, but not yet able to match DLP. As a result, HC Gray, in most cases will be advantageous, but ask for a recommendation from your sales consultant.

Higher gain screens will provide you with more brightness, and additionally, will be better at rejecting ambient light hitting the screen from the side. As a result, they are ideal for dealing with a room that has more than a little ambient light. There is a trade-off, however: The image will be dimmer if you are viewing the screen from off center. So if you have seating well to the left or right of the screen, the hi-gain screen’s gain will be lower, and if you are far enough off center, it will be dimmer than a screen with no gain. This is why screens with gains higher than 1.5 are normally not viable for most home theater setups, since the viewing angle is limited. In fact, with gains higher than that, you might even notice a difference in brightness between the left side and the right side of the screen, if you are seated off center.

Most of today’s lowest cost motorized screens (and pull-downs) are only available in matte white finish, without high contrast or high gain. They keep the cost of your system down, and do a good job, but most times, you will be better served with more expensive screens with high contrast. Still, you don’t want to spend so much extra on the screen, that you have to buy a less expensive (lower performance) projector.

So, the bottom line – screen selection can be more confusing than actually selecting the projector. You will want to ask your sales consultant or custom installer as to which projector and projector screen will work best in your room, with your selected home theater projector, seating arrangements and ambient light issues

Each type of screen surface/screen gain from a given manufacturer, typically has a different name. For example, some of the best known “names” in projector screen models would include High Contrast Gray screens such as Stewart’s “legendary” Grayhawk, their even more popular HC White: Firehawk (my reference screen – in my home theater – is a 128” motorized Firehawk), and their high gain screens: Studiotek. Other brands? Da-Lite, for example has HC Da-Mat, HC Matte, and HC Cinema Vision.

Look for a new section coming to our site in June, going in-depth into screen selection. This entire section will touch on all the major considerations. Stewart Filmscreen, the best known brand of premium screens has agreed to build this section on our website, to help educate you further, make your projector screen selection more understandable, and guide you to the right choice of screen materials, screen size and other options, with the goal of making your projector based home theater or home entertainment system perform at its best for your maximum enjoyment.

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