Posted on May 2, 2007
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)
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: Gain: 1.25 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 Gain: 1.1 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.
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.
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