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Things to Consider When Purchasing a Laser TV

By Scott Wilkinson

I often hear that large flat panels will eventually replace projectors. The price per inch of flat panel TV has indeed dropped dramatically. For example, an 85” LCD TV can cost less today than a 65” TV did just 4 years ago. However, projection still offers the best price per inch, especially at sizes above 85”.

Why measure your TV in inches when you can measure it in feet? Nothing compares to watching live sports, viewing a blockbuster movie, or playing a video game on a 10ft diagonal screen. 

New advancements in projection technology might result in projectors taking market share away from large flat panels. Many projector manufacturers have introduced “Laser TVs” which are “Smart Ultra-Short Throw Laser Projectors” which we think is the appropriate name but is also a mouthful, so we will just be referring to them as Laser TVs. Regardless of the name, there are some compelling reasons to consider these new solutions whether it is in a living room, home theater, or even a conference/classroom room.

Epson LS500 Laser TV
Epson LS500 Laser TV

The most popular TV screen sizes have steadily grown over the last decade or so. Screens measuring 65 inches diagonally have become the most popular size in North America, and 75-inchers will soon replace them if recent pricing trends continue. Meanwhile, 50-inch sets—once considered huge—are now being relegated to bedrooms.

It seems unlikely, however, that this trend can continue indefinitely, at least with LCD and OLED flat panels. LCD TVs currently top out at 98 inches, while the largest OLED measures 88 inches, and making even larger glass panels is prohibitively expensive. Speaking of expensive, those monster TVs carry price tags well into five figures. There's also the new micro-LED technology that promises wall-sized displays of almost any size, but now we're talking prices in the six figures!

One alternative is a projector shining its light on a screen across the room. This option can certainly provide a much larger picture for far less than a giant TV, but it has several major drawbacks. For one, most affordable "long-throw" projectors simply don't produce enough light to look good anywhere but in a darkened room. Ambient light-rejecting (ALR) screens can help, but they can't do anything about people walking through the light beam and casting a shadow on the screen. In addition, most long-throw projectors have no speakers and no built-in streaming apps, and many use expensive incandescent lamps that grow dimmer over their lifespan and must be replaced every year or so. Finally, they are often difficult to set up, and hanging them from the ceiling has a low spousal-acceptance factor.

Fortunately, there is another option that offers much larger screen sizes, is easy set up, and has all the bells and whistles of flat-panel TVs.

Also, check out our picks for the best Laser TVs this year: Best Laser TVs - Our Picks

What is a Laser TV?

Hisense Laser TV
Hisense Laser TV

A Laser TV consists of an ultra-short-throw (UST) projector and wall-mounted screen. The projector is placed only inches from the wall and fires its light up onto the screen, which reflects the light into the viewing area. This design prevents anyone from walking in the light beam as they might with a conventional projector, causing viewers to yell, "Down in front!"

In most cases, the projector produces a lot of light, so the image is very bright. Granted, it's not nearly as bright as a flat-panel TV, but it's plenty bright enough to stand up to ambient light in the room, especially when combined with a special ambient light-rejecting (ALR) screen. This is especially important for big gatherings like a Super Bowl party or Oscar night.

Laser TVs have come a long way since they first appeared on the consumer market. One of the first was the Sony VPL-GTZ1, which carried a price tag of $50,000! Now, there are many that go for $2000-$4000. Still, Laser TVs are now within the reach of almost anyone shopping for a large TV, and they offer several advantages over their flat-panel cousins.

Screening Room

Laser TV with Screen
Laser TV with ambient light rejecting screen

Some Laser TVs come with their own screen, while others require that you buy a screen separately. Either way, the screen typically measures 100 to 120 inches diagonally, far larger than all reasonably priced flat-panel TVs. And the total cost for the projector and screen is typically much less than the largest TVs.

In addition the screens bundled with most Laser TVs are specially designed to reflect light from the projector below them toward the viewing area so they are great at combatting ambient light. Conventional screens reflect light in all directions, so a lot of the projector's light doesn't make it to the audience, resulting in a dimmer picture. Also, if you live in a small walk-up apartment, make sure the screen can be rolled up or otherwise compacted so you can get it up the stairs.

Of course, you don't have to start with a special UST screen. If money is tight, you can skip the screen altogether and just use a blank wall. But that's not a great idea for several reasons. First of all, the wall is probably not an ideal color of white, and any color cast in the paint will affect the color of the image projected onto it. Also, most walls are not perfectly flat; they have a texture, which can be quite noticeable in a video image. Finally, a wall reflects light from the projector in many different directions, and much of it never reaches the viewing area.

If you start by using a bare wall, you'll probably yearn for something better, and you'll want to invest in a screen. You could start with a smaller basic screen, then graduate to a larger, specially designed UST screen to improve the picture quality as your budget permits. This is one big advantage that Laser TVs have over flat panels—you can change the screen material and size for less than it would cost to buy a whole new TV.

Let There Be Light

Laser light sources can deliver years of near maintenance-free operation

To be considered a true Laser TV, the light source within the projector must last at least 20,000 hours and retain most of its brightness over that entire lifespan. After all, that's how long flat-panel TVs are specified to last. In most cases, the light source in a Laser TV is an array of lasers, which is why they are often called Laser TVs. However, a few companies have also tried LEDs, but they have not been very successful, mainly because they are not as bright as lasers.

Lasers offer several advantages. As I mentioned before, they retain most of their brightness over their entire lifespan, and you don't have to replace them every year or two as you do with lamps in conventional projectors. Also, they reach full brightness almost immediately after being powered on, unlike lamps that require several minutes to "warm up."

Smart Stuff

Hisense 100L10E-Apps

Another requirement of a Laser TV is the "smart" part—built-in streaming apps for services such as Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and others. In addition, the manufacturer should provide an extensive app store that lets you download other available apps. The unit should also provide the ability to display content that is "cast" from smartphones and other mobile devices via Wi-Fi.

One thing that most Laser TVs don't have yet is a built-in over-the-air (OTA) broadcast tuner. A few, such as the LG 100L5F, have an ATSC 1.0 digital OTA tuner, but we are currently in a transition period to the next generation of OTA broadcasting known as ATSC 3.0, so many manufacturers are waiting until that format becomes more widespread before they include OTA tuners in their Laser TVs.

Apps and OTA tuners are both important for the growing number of consumers who wish to "cut the cord" from their cable or satellite provider. Those providers and most broadcast networks recognize the trend toward cord cutting, so they offer their own apps. This highlights the importance of a large app library for those who want to cut the cord.

Hearing Test

Laser TVs like the Optoma CinemaX P2 offers big sound in a small package

Then there's onboard audio. Of course, all TVs provide built-in speakers—without them, the display is technically a monitor. But as you probably know, the speakers in the vast majority of TVs sound terrible, mostly because they must be very small to fit inside super-skinny cabinets.

Most Laser TVs have onboard audio. The good news here is that a UST projector cabinet can accommodate larger, deeper speakers, so they have the potential to sound much better than most TVs. In fact, the built-in sound system on a Laser TV typically resembles a soundbar—the speakers are mounted on the back panel of the projector, firing directly toward the viewers while the projector shoots its light up onto the screen. Some can even add a wireless subwoofer for deeper bass.

Cabinet Positions

Salamander Cabinet
An example of a projector cabinet by Salamander Designs

Unless they are mounted on a wall, most TVs are placed on a cabinet or stand, and they are an obvious part of the room's décor even when turned off. By contrast, a Laser TV can be mounted inside a cabinet, projecting its image through a clear panel when on and becoming completely invisible when off. Several companies offer specially designed cabinets that hide a UST projector; for example, Salamander Designs offers a variety of modular UST-projector cabinets in several styles for different projector brands, including Epson, Hisense, LG, Sony, and Vivitek.

When the projector is on, you see a big, beautiful image on the screen; when it's off, you see nothing but a piece of furniture that fits the room's design aesthetic. Talk about a high spousal-acceptance factor!

But what about the screen itself? What if you don't want to see the screen when the projector is off? Simple—install a retractable screen that descends from the ceiling or rises up from the cabinet when it's time to watch a movie or TV show. When the show's over, the screen retracts and disappears; you can even have artwork on the wall that is covered by the screen only when it's being used. This setup is more expensive than a fixed screen, but well worth it for the sake of domestic tranquility if you have the budget.

Take the Plunge

LG HU85LA laser projector-big wall
LG HU85LA Laser TV Projector

As you can see, Laser TVs offer some significant advantages over flat-panel TVs. Perhaps most importantly, they offer larger images for less money—in other words, you pay fewer dollars per inch of image size. Another big advantage is portability; a Laser TV is much easier to move from one home to another than a monster TV. And you get most of the other features of a flat-panel TV—long lifespan, zero maintenance, smart apps, built-in audio—as well as the ability to upgrade the screen size and performance without having to replace the entire TV.

Also, be sure to check out our picks for the best Laser TVs this year!

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