Projector Reviews

Guide to the 2011 Home Theater Projector Comparison Report-4

Second guessing your projector purchase decision

I rarely hear from anyone who says – “I bought this projector, and it’s great, but, you know, I probably should have bought that less expensive one, I could have been happy with that one too.”

What I do hear a lot of is the opposite: “I was looking at Projector A – a lower cost/lower performance, and Projector D – more money, but a step up in performance. I bought Projector A, and months later, I’m still thinking I made a mistake – I should have gotten the one I really wanted.”

Know yourself! – Where do you see yourself, in this quest, a year from now, three years, five years? Still on your first projector, or…

Understanding your room environment

First and foremost: Ambient light is the enemy of all home theater projector systems. A 50″ LCDTV can withstand a fair amount sunlight pouring into your room, but a home theater projector and screen, cannot.

Movies are intended to be watched in dark rooms – a “cave” as it were. Dark scenes start washing out, with even the dimmest lights on. You’d be amazed at what a huge difference a 20 watt light bulb on, in the back of your room can do to a gorgeous image.

Sports and general TV and HDTV viewing is normally done with some lights on. We don’t generally like to have their room pitch black for a sitcom, or The Tonight Show, or your favorite sporting event. That’s OK, most projectors have what we describe as “best” and “brightest” modes (and several in between). In the brighter modes, you sacrifice some picture quality, but, that’s ok, what’s left normally still looks great. (And do you really care how perfect skin tones are when watching football – I think not!). Keep in mind that some projectors can muster as much as three times the brightness in their brightest modes, but most projectors increase brightness 50% to 100%, and some only increase as little as 10 or 20%.

That is why some projectors are best for those only interested in movie viewing, and others much better for a wide mix of content and lighting levels.

Windows

As you plan your room for your projector and screen, a good first question is: Do you have any windows? If so, decide what you are going to do about that if you plan to use your projector during the daytime. Ideally, you’ll want some form of blackout shades. If your shades turn out to motorized, like mine, some have side channels to prevent light from leaking in around the edges of the windows, others do not.

Even without the channels a good setup with blackout shades, drapes, etc., will limit the light coming in to very watchable, if not great levels for movie viewing.

Walls, Ceiling, and Floors

A perfect home theater has flat black walls, ceilings and floors. That said, even those that have that option, probably won’t go all black. That’s OK, the trick is to get the whole room as dark as possible in terms of reflective surfaces. 50 years ago, movie theaters were so dark, that in the moments nothing was on the screen, you’d be lucky to see your hands in front of your face. Today, due to fire laws, movie theaters just aren’t as dark. Here in California, there are sconces on the walls, emergency lighting signs and emergency lighting on the steps, etc. I can certainly get my own theater, which doesn’t have black anything, darker than anything at the local cinemaplex.

You can certainly have a good viewing experience if you have off white walls and ceilings (and whatever for a floor), but, the more you can darken all those surfaces, the more the experience improves. Consider:

Lighter surfaces reflect more light back onto the screen, even if you have zero lighting in the room. That will degrade your black levels, making the image less dynamic.

I finally made the move in my room. For the last three years, my larger theater (a “great room” with high ceilings) had off white ceiling and walls, and a medium gold carpet. Picture viewing was wonderful, but not anywhere as good as it could be. Finally, a few months ago, everything was ready, and the room was repainted a dark rust color. My wife wasn’t going to tolerate black anything, as we use the room for general use, and entertaining. The dark rust is dark enough that only a tiny percentage of the light that used to reflect back, now does. It’s so small, that there is no detectable color shift from the rust color.

At the same time, I had the off-white ceiling darkened about 5 shades. I’d say it now reflects no more than 20% of the light it used to, probably less.

Oh what a difference. everything that looked great, became spectacular.

Projector Screens

Two primary issues here to consider – size and type (screen surface)

Figure out where you will be sitting, how large a screen you would like and make sure that the projector can be placed in your room, to fill that screen from where it needs to be placed.

In addition if you have side lighting, or some ambient from those windows, consider what screen surface to choose.

High contrast gray screens will reject a large amount of side light. I have always had a HC gray screen, and believe me, it really helps compensate for some of those room “problems”.

We have a number of articles about choosing screens, and the differences between different screen surfaces. In addition, you’ll find screen recommendations in each full projector review. Some additional info will also be found in on the Screen Recommendations page in this report, but not specific recommendations for individual projectors.