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Understanding your room environment

Posted on November 6, 2013 by Art Feierman

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, typically cannot. That is the inherent weakness of front projection.

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 and hitting your screen from the back of your room, can do to a gorgeous image.

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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.


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.


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.

So, take a look at that room. Do what you can to darken the surfaces.

Use of rich dark colored walls has become popular, at least out here in California. That's a help. Faux walls too, such as I came up with for my old room, in the image above. Hardly a fully dark surfaced room, the improvement in picture quality was quite obvious.

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.

How far back to sit

That's up to you. You already know where you like to sit in a movie theater. In your home, most likely you'll want the projected image to take up about as much of your view as it does in the theater. Due to reasons I won't get into, you'll probably end up with the screen in your room, taking up a little less of the view than when you are in the theater.

Keep this in mind - a big part of getting immersed into a movie, and the ability to "suspend disbelief" that we get in movie theaters is due to the huge amount of your view that the image takes up. A good chunk of the rest is due to everything else around being dark and therefore "not on your radar". You are looking to be immersed in the movie. The right screen size and seating (and other room conditions) are all part of that immersion.

Sound baby, sound!

While the image on the screen is the key, don't skimp too much on the audio. Typically a $499 "Home Theater in a Box" may provide decent sound, and play loud enough, but, boy is it great to have some really good sound. (I'm an old audiophile, and my system is ridiculous, but boy does it make for amazing sound.) Room size and speaker placement come into play in your selection. You don't have to spend a ton of money - a nice $300 - $500 AV receiver can handle your source switching for the projector (cable/satellite box, Blu-ray/DVD player, computer, even a game machine like the PS3). Then pick out a good set of 5.1 (or 7.1) set of speakers/subwoofer. If you are planning a major room changeover, you may well want to have your speakers "in-wall" instead of free standing.

Portable Audio?  Many of the less expensive projectors, including BenQ, Viewsonic, Epson and others, have some decent (not awesome) speakers in their lower cost projectors.  That's most helpful for "portable use", such as carting the projector outside at night to show Cars 2, on your garage door, or perhaps X-Men First Class, on an inflatable screen in your back yard.  Some even have an audio output, making it easy to add a small powered sub-woofer so that your sound has some real punch.

Only as good as the weakest link - Go Blu-Ray (or download HD)

I get so many emails about, "do I really need to get a Blu-ray player" Personally, I always recommend it. The difference betweens standard DVD and Blu-Ray of the same movie is often startling. It's not just the higher resolution and therefore significantly sharper image, but also the production qualities. Almost all Blu-Ray discs have been remastered to deliver a superior picture in terms of color fidelity, dynamics, and everything else. The best source material on standard DVD - such as Lord of the Rings, barely comes close to the most average Blu-ray disc. With players to be found for under $60, go for it. Or, as most people do, buy a Sony PS3 and have a great Blu-Ray player, and a top of the line game machine. The final word - get a Blu-ray player.   Sure, suffer your old DVD's but most projectors will do fine on DVD, and it will never look as good as Blu-ray, so we focus on hi-res!

Enough. It is not my goal to intimidate you. You will do what you can to get the best viewing experience. If you can't do everything - that's fine - even I can't, and this is how I make my living. Still, even a pretty basic setup, with compromises, is, basically jaw-dropping!

Photos Found In This Projector Report

The vast majority of images in this 2013 report, can be clicked on, to open a much larger version in a new window, for closer inspection.

Please! As point out several times in this report, and once in every review:

Take these images "with a grain of salt". While many images give you a good relative idea of projector performance, especially those about black levels and shadow detail, they should not be used to determine which projector, for example, has the best color or film-like qualities. There is so much loss in getting the picture off the screen through my old Olympus E510 (dSLR), and now my Canon 60D, through resizing and format converting (we start with RAW format - roughly 9 megabytes per image, and end up with about 100K (for the large images) jpgs when done). Color depth, dynamic range, and more gets compromised. Then there is other software related aspects, your browser, and, rather significantly, your monitor, which on its best day, isn't remotely capable of faithfully reproducing the full original, even if we could get it to you.

The images are there to support my commentary, to educate you, to give you very useful comparisons (such as black level performance where the images are good guides), and finally, to entertain you. Hey, it's fun looking at many of these images, from major movies, etc.

OK, that's more than enough info to get you started. Have a blast!

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