Projector Reviews

Screens – Maximize the Viewing Experience With the Right Screen Material

Laser TV with Screen

“The projector is only half of the equation.” 
– Too many installation professionals to count

We’ve all read the quote above, or any number of variations of it, multiple times in our careers, but it’s a good idea to manage expectations early in the sales process. You want t to make sure your clients (or yourself) knows to reserve dollars in their budget for a screen that will make the most of their new projector. Perhaps even more challenging than choosing the right projector is trying to select the best screen material that will meet, if not exceed, expectations.

As projector technology has advanced, so has the material performance of projection screens. The simple truth is that any projector can be made to look astonishingly better by taking the time to research and then selecting the right screen formulation to improve overall performance. A well-matched projector and screen can improve visible brightness and contrast. Good screen material can make the colors pop. Some projector screens can reduce the effect of uncontrolled ambient light sources, like windows, and make the image look far better than the projector alone is capable of.

Today’s projection screens are far more feature-rich and performance-enhanced than screens produced as recently as a decade ago. Screen manufacturers are creating both technology-specific and application-specific screen solutions to enhance the performance of almost any projection system.

Screen manufacturers have lowered the entry cost for consumers and professionals while maintaining the high standards their reputations are built on. After investing in the right projector, don’t compromise on a subpar screen. This would be selling yourself short, like buying an HDTV and connecting sources through the composite (RCA) inputs instead of using the HDMI port.

Before we talk about screen fabric, let’s define the two most important terms that screen fabric directly impacts:

  • Gain: Screen gain is the measure of Light reflectivity. A gain of 1.0 is the industry standard; 1.2 is 20% higher reflectivity.
  • Viewing Angle: Projector screen viewing angle is about where you can sit in a room, relative to the projector screen and still view a bright, evenly lit image. Higher gain screens are brighter, and you will get the best result sitting straight back from the center of the screen, or not too far off from that point. If you have a 2.5 gain screen and you sit 35 degrees off center, it will be dim. If you sit in the same 35 degree off center spot with a 1.3 gain screen, you’ll have a much better viewing experience.

Choosing the Right Screen Formulation

There was a time when shopping for a screen was a simple choice between white or gray material.  Today’s screen manufacturers can offer over a dozen different screen formulations just for their motorized front projection screens. As gain or light reflectivity increases, viewing angle decreases, so understanding the room where the projector will be utilized is very important in determining which screen material to use.

In addition, you need to consider whether you want to enhance contrast (projector’s black level) or gain (screen brightness). There are several types of screen materials designed to impact these aspects of the final image as well as other image properties, but for the sake of this article we’ll concentrate on most common areas of desired image enhancement.

High Gain: Sometimes, a projector’s light output is not enough to provide a vibrant picture on a larger screen. A high gain screen boosts the amount of light being reflected off the screen back into the room. A little bit of gain like 1.3 can improve image brightness without negatively impacting color accuracy and screen uniformity. There are screens available with gains exceeding 4.0 but they should be avoided because they usually have visible hot spots and limited viewing angles. Over the past few years, projectors’ brightness has increased dramatically, which has reduced the need to utilize a screen with a very high gain.

Grey/High Contrast: Today’s projectors are far brighter than models available 5 or 6 years ago but most still cannot produce deep blacks. Grey and High Contrast screens are designed to enhance contrast by improving on screen black level. A high contrast gray surface typically results in a slight loss of gain, although in some cases it can have a positive impact on gain (0.7 – 1.1). While whites will be less bright, the black level will be closer to black instead of dark grey.

Ambient Light Rejecting:  This is another type of grey/high contrast screen.  This material will only reflect light that strikes the screen at a specific angle back toward the viewer. ALR screens designed for front projectors reflect light hitting the screen straight on and reject light coming from above, below, or from the side. ALR screens designed for ultra-short throw projectors are even more effective since they only reflect light coming from below at a steep angle. ALR screens do an excellent job rejecting ambient light so a projection system can be utilized anytime, day and night.

Matte White: A standard matte white finish with a gain of 1 (i.e. no additional gain) is about as bright as a wall painted pure white. Matte white screens tend to be the least expensive solution, but they can deliver a great looking image in the right room with the right projector. They offer the widest viewing angle, excellent screen uniformity, and accurate color reproduction.

Most of today’s lowest cost motorized screens (and pull-downs) are only available in a matte white finish. These budget-friendly options help keep down your system’s total cost and do an excellent job. Still, in many situations a more expensive, and better formulated white matte screen, designed to improve contrast, will increase the quality of the viewer’s experience. These better formulations come at a price, but in many cases are well worth the investment when you consider the Improvement in contrast and gain that they can provide.

So, the bottom line – screen selection can be as critical as choosing a projector. You will want to determine which projector and projector screen will work best in the room and with the choice of home theater projector, seating arrangements, and ambient light issues. Still, you don’t want to allocate so much budget on a screen that you are forced to compromise on a lower performance projector.

The Right Projector Screen for the Environment

Ambient light, room size, and the projector’s specifications determine the type of projector screen that will work best for your application needs. You can choose from a front projection screen – wall-mounted or portable, manual or motorized, or fixed wall screens, or even (uncommon except in costly setups) a fancy rear projection screen.

 In a classroom, a motorized screen solution is a good choice when there is no unused wall space so mounting a motorized screen to lower down over the front whiteboard or chalkboard typically works best. Most home theater projectors are ceiling or wall-mounted, some are “table top”. How far back you mount and how wide a “cone” your audience seating extends from the side of the screen are factors in screen selection. For business applications presentations, portability, and fast set up are important considerations.

Surface projector screens or high contrast screens (gray and white) — which will work best in for a home theater set-up? The following issues will need to be considered: the technology and contrast performance of the projector, the viewing angle, and the ambient light levels.

Many home theater projectors have a low native contrast ratio so they would benefit from the use of a High Contrast Gray screen. Low contrast means the black produced by these projector’s appear to be more dark grey rather than black. As a result, a high contrast grey surface will keep the brighter areas of the image about the same as with a matte white, but dark areas will appear darker.

For a projector with good native contrast, like a LCoS unit, a high contrast white surface might deliver the best results since it will produce a slightly brighter image than the grey screens. The higher the contrast ratio of the projector, the better the blacks and the less need for a grey surface.

The Right Projector Screen for the Imager

I don’t want to spend too much time on this subject because, quite honestly, there’s enough information to provide a dedicated article on the subject, so I’ll keep it simple with just two examples that will make my point.

LCOS projectors (including JVC’s D-ILA and Sony SXRD models), are at the top, with contrast better than LCD and DLP. However, when it comes to brightness, LCoS projectors are often less bright than their technological counterparts. So, in a dark room, a matte white screen or a white screen with a moderate gain (no higher than 1.3) would improve the onscreen brightness and would be an excellent pairing.

Single-chip DLP projectors are generally some of the brightest projectors available today which makes them a better choice for placement in a room that does not have total control over ambient light. The downside to DLP is that, while very bright, contrast is generally not the best. For single chip DLP the choice of a grey screen, in most situations, will improve detail in the darker parts of the projectors image. You can even purchase a grey screen formulation from several manufacturers that does not reduce visible brightness and still improves contrast.

Summary

Choosing the right projection screen is the last step in the creation of the overall projection solution. Remember that screen formulations are critical in helping achieve the highest quality in the projected image. The correct screen selection can improve contrast, help an image look brighter and even make colors pop. These screens are available from multiple manufacturers with a wide range of projection surfaces and pricing. Each of these screens will, in one way or another, have an impact on the projected image. This makes the selection of the correct projection surface an essential part of creating the best viewing experience. There is an incredible amount of relevant information from all of the major screen companies on this subject. For a deeper dive on the subject of choosing the right projection screen and screen formulation be sure to check out Stewart Film Screens, Elite Screens, Screen Innovations, Da-Lite and others to learn more.