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How Do I Choose the Right Screen for My Projector?

By Art Feierman
In this article, Art walks through a commonly-asked question, "How do I choose the right screen for my projector?"

About this Article

I first wrote this in response to a question about screens from someone who recently purchased a Sony VPL-HW40ES projector.  That’s a projector that musters up about 1700 lumens, and well over 1000 lumens even calibrated.
The same general advice about screens would apply to a great many of today’s projectors.  The more expensive HW55ES for example is only slightly less bright, and while better suited for a dedicated theater, the same advice for screens applies.  It would also apply to most Epson projectors as they tend to have 1500 to 2400 lumens to work with, the Panasonics fit too.   JVC projectors aren’t quite as bright, but this would still be helpful, just realize that those JVCs are typically under 1000 lumens calibrated, so the same rules, slightly smaller screen.  While some popular Epsons and Panasonics only calibrate in the 500 - 700 lumen range for their best picture, they have very good “brighter modes which are still in the 1500 lumen range.  Thus, when using those better modes, the screen advice again becomes virtually identical to the HW40ES this article was written for.
When it comes to many of the DLP projectors - Viewsonic projectors, Optomas, BenQs, Viviteks, Acers, etc.  the brightness tends to vary greatly from model to model.  Again, if those projectors can muster up a good picture with 1200 to 2400 lumens, this advice applies.  If the projectors are lower brightness such as the Sharp XV-Z30000, and definitely some of the Optomas and BenQs… then the problem is that some of those really aren’t geared for rooms with any significant ambient light present.  Keep them in cave light environments, or use them only at night when those rooms can be almost fully darkened.

Choosing a screen for your room

The trick is to match the screen to three things:
1.  The room
2.  What you watch - and when
3.  The projector
We’ll consider the HW40ES - 1700 lumens, which, at least by Sony’s “intent” is their projector geared for less of a home theater (dark walls and other surfaces, very good lighting control), than for a living room, media room, bonus room, family room…basically  less ideal rooms.  (Their more expensive HW55ES is better matched for a true home theater/cave.)   These other rooms typically are without the ability to block out all outside light during the daytime    The darker the surfaces in your room, the better.
In a previous home of mine (photos on the right), I took near white walls and ceilings and darkened the ceilings (same off white shade) by several shades.  They still appeared to be “off-white” because they were still the brightest surfaces in the room. I also took the walls from an "off-white" to a rust color.  Oh what a huge difference it made.  For that room I used a Stewart Firehawk, which is pretty good at rejecting side ambient light.
I’ve had projectors set up in such rooms.  One can get those rooms dark enough tor casual viewing - sports, most HDTV in general, but too bright to really be ideal for viewing movies.
You’ll have to decide if movie viewing will be reserved for when you can keep the room pretty dark.  That would affect your screen decision.
If you have one of the latter types of rooms, and you are planning to watch a mix of general HDTV and movies, then you’ll want a screen that can “help out” with dealing with ambient light.  That’s typically what are known as High Contrast gray screens.  (Gains from 0.5 to 1.3).  They can reject a fair amount of side ambient light, providing a much better picture.  Still, movie viewing will be best at night, when you have full lighting control even with the right screen, if your room has a fair amount of ambient light (I’m not talking bright, I’m talking modest amounts - ie light leaking in around dark window shades…

Dedicated theater or cave-like rooms

If your room is more theater like, with full lighting control, then you don’t need to worry so much about side ambient light (unless, say you want lighting sconces on the sides that you have on low while watching movies (like some movie theaters).    In that case, you go with a standard gain white screens from gains of 1 to 1.4 for widest viewing areas.

Helpful videos

I created videos that you may find helpful, check them out on our Projector Reviews TV tab on our website.  The good news is that the HW40ES is one of the brighter high quality projectors around.


Your budget also comes into play.  The higher tech screens - my old Firehawk was very good, but not “state of the art”  - can almost work wonders.  I just installed a Screen Innovations Slate in a very bright living room, so I could test projectors in a near “awful” room.   That’s a pricey screen - motorized, it’s around double the Sony HW40’s price.  ($4000+ for 100” diagonal - motorized).  I think about half that for fixed wall.  The Firehawk G3 (or G4) isn’t much less.  Screen Innovations Black Diamond series, say their 1.4 gain, is even more money, but the best around for handling ambient light, at least in my experience.
If you don’t need a great light rejecting/absorbing screen, then fixed wall screens start at under $400 (brands like Elite Screens) and even the premium brands are around $2000, but many big names i.e. Da-Lite, fall in the $500 to $1000 range.  Those brands typically have motorized screens from $500 to $2000 depending on brand and size.
If your room is theater/cave like, then just decide your budget, and score an Elite if it’s low, or maybe a Carada (I use their Brilliant White 1.4 gain in my testing room). Otherwise look to screens like the Da-lite Cinemavision, and Da-Mat.

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