Projectors, Flat Screens and More

Get tips on choosing the perfect screen and visual equipment for your home theater.

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© 2011 CEDIA. Used with permission.

The most important element in a home theater is the screen and because it's also likely to be the most expensive component, choose wisely. Until recently, most home theaters would use a projector and screen. The main reason: screen size. Projectors can fill a wall, and the large screen size and quality of the projected image creates a very theater-like experience.

Flat panel TVs are now large enough for many home theaters and offer the sharpest, brightest and most dazzling images. They are simple to mount, allow for lower ceiling heights and produce little heat.

When choosing between LED/LCD/plasma TVs and projection TVs, there are a few things to consider. LED/LCD/plasmas offer exceptional picture quality with vivid colors, sharp resolution, and adequate brightness in all lighting conditions—all for a relatively low cost. However, screen sizes are limited (ultra-large screens can be very expensive), and some screens have a glossy surface that can reflect lights in the room.

Projection TVs, on the other hand, offer flexible positioning with a large, variable-size screen that provides a theater-like viewing experience. However, these systems often require a costly, complex installation with mounting on the ceiling, rear walls or a pedestal. They need to be centered in the room, which limits mounting location options. They require a projection screen, and the fan noise and heat can detract from the viewing experience.

If you want the largest screen size possible, and you have the right room configuration, projection systems are the best choice. If you have a smaller room and can work with a smaller screen size, flat panel TVs are a great choice.

Be sure screen size is matched to seating distances. There are simple guidelines that work for either a flat panel TV or a projection screen.

One of the benefits of a projector is that it will have a zoom lens that allows the screen size to be adjusted. Projectors can project a screen size as large as 300" diagonally so they are the primary choice for any large room.

Display Aspect Ratio and HDTV Standards

There are two primary aspect ratios for televisions: 4:3 and 16:9. The first number is the width, the second the height. Standard definition television (analog TV from the '50s through 2009) was 4:3. Analog TV has been replaced by the digital age standard of 16:9. All TV broadcasts over the air, by federal regulation, are now digital signals in the 16:9 aspect ratio.

HDTV is an industry standard for television, and most all video sources (Blu-ray discs, DVDs, Internet video and gaming devices) use the HDTV standard and the 16:9 format. Any TV you buy with rare exception will use the 16:9 format.

New TVs play 4:3 video centered with black boxes on each side. Most have settings that allow you to stretch and zoom 4:3 format video if desired. They work with all format ratios. When playing movies made using other ratios, the video is centered to optimize it for the 16:9 ratio without cropping any of the video.

Rear projection TVs (RPTV) combine a projector and screen in a single unit. The screen size is fixed and not much larger than many of newest super-sized LED/LCD/Plasma TVs. RPTVs have viewing angle limitations and screen reflection issues so you need to consider a RPTV carefully as a home theater display.

Plasma TVs produce stunning screen images and are in the same class as LED/LCD TVs. Caution is required since many plasma TVs have glossy screens. Even ambient light will reflect on a glossy screen, so be sure that a reflective screen doesn't spoil the show.

Projection TV Types

There are three types of projection televisions:

CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) Units. Long the projector of choice for a high-end home theater, these are no longer available for retail purchase. You may be able to find used equipment, but their complexity (three lenses to focus and align) and short bulb life (1,000 to 2,000 hours) make used equipment a risk.

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) Projectors. These projectors are used most often in business presentation settings connected to a computer, but recently have started to be marketed for home theater use. They are small, bright and reliable and use a single transparent LCD chip to produce the image. Light is passed through the LCD and projected through a lens. While they offer a great price and small size, LCD projectors project and enlarge the "pixels" from the LCD onto the screen and the pixels are visible at larger screen sizes. This creates a "grid" of pixels that often can create what is termed a "screen door" effect much like viewing the image through a window or door screen.

DLP (Digital Light Processing) Projectors. DLPs have emerged as the most popular projection system for home theater use. Their image quality, cost and size make them ideal for home use—and DLP projectors are being used in movie theaters, replacing film projectors. Although DLP units use a fixed number of pixels like LCD units, each pixel uses a tilting mirror that reflects light from the bulb through a spinning color wheel and projection lens. The combination of mirrors, color wheel and lens produce an excellent image that is free from the pixilated screen door effect. DLPs are used in RPTVs discussed earlier, and produce a pleasing, theater-quality image.

All three types use a powerful light bulb and a zoom lens to project an image onto a projection screen. Bulb life is usually short compared to flat-panel TVs, and replacement bulbs can be expensive. Projectors often do not come equipped with a digital TV tuner, but do have a variety of inputs for videos sources. Most projectors do not have any speakers built-in, but they do process the audio signal through to an audio amplifier or sound system if needed.

Projectors can be used for front projection—or in many cases for rear projection (mirroring the video). Using a rear projection screen, the projector is located behind the screen and out of sight. This requires a space behind the screen and is not practical for most home theater settings, but it is a great option if your room allows it.

In general, there are several things to look for in a projection TV:

  • DLP High resolution (HDTV 1080p standard)
  • Scalable to any resolution from any input
  • Brightest light (at least 1,000 lumens via ANSI, American National Standards Institute)
  • Highest contrast (2,000:1 or better)
  • Long bulb life (at least 2,000 – 3,000 hours before changing)
  • User-changeable bulb
  • Largest possible projection size
  • Remote sensor for remote control
  • As many video inputs as possible

Projection TV Mounting Systems. Most projectors are mounted on the ceiling or the back wall. A free-standing pedestal or stand can be used to locate it on the floor. Ceiling or wall mounts are the best solution, and the projector manufacturer may sell a customer mounting system to go with the unit.

Any heavy device located overhead is a safety concern. This is a job you may wish to hire a professional to do. The running of wires and connections is also involved, so it is a task that needs detailed planning.

Since each home theater will have a different mounting requirement, consult with a home theater system contractor or retailer for the right mount and installation assistance.

Projection Screen. In addition to a projector, you will need a projection screen. Some key features you should look for include:

  • Low gain rating
  • Wide viewing angle
  • Large enough to fill your viewing area
  • Washable with everyday cleaners
  • Meets the recommendations of the projector manufacturer

Screens are reflective or translucent and designed to create the brightest possible image viewable from a wide angle. Projection screens come in a variety of materials and you should see if the projection unit you purchase has a recommended material or screen type. Screens can be permanently installed or set up as drop-downs.

The ideal home theater screen is the permanent type. It can be pulled taut or adhered to a backing making it completely flat and free from ripples or waves. Many home theaters use drapes to cover the screen when not in use, creating a classic movie theater look. There are screen materials that are acoustically transparent which allow you to mount speakers directly behind a permanently mounted screen.

Drop-downs are motorized and are mounted in or on the ceiling. Since they are flexible and stored on a roller, they can wave or ripple from air drafts. Any motion can affect the focus distance and cause some blur or softness in the projected image. Be sure to choose a drop-down screen that uses a remote control/wall switch for operation.

Portable screens, while they do have their uses, aren't a good option for home theaters. Their size is limited, and they're flimsy and can easily fall.

Screen Materials. Screens are available in over a dozen materials. All are rated by their viewing angle, ability to reflect light and have minimal "gain." Gain is a measure of how evenly light is reflected from the center to the outer edges of the screen. The lower the gain, the better.

Common home theater projection screen materials are fiberglass and vinyl. Most have a neutral gray base with a white reflective coating. Screens are available in matte, gloss, high contrast and translucent (for rear projection configurations). Since there are so many material types, it is important to match your projector and the room to the screen. Ambient light, location and projector type all are factors. Refer to the projector manufacturer suggestions and seek advice from the screen retailer on matching the screen material to your home theater.

Flat Panel TV Types

Larger screens and lower prices define the state of flat panel TVs—and the image quality is stunning. If you can use a smaller screen size (the largest class currently being 70"), you will find a large selection of displays with great features.

Flat panel TVs come is three basic types:

  • LCD
  • LED
  • Plasma

Each type is a flat panel containing a vast array of pixels. Industry standard 1080p displays have 1920 x 1080 pixels; 2,073,600 individual pixels, each being refreshed at least 60 times a second.
LCD TVs pixels are illuminated by a fluorescent light. Colors are vivid and bright, and the screen is so sharp in detail and resolution it can also be used as a computer monitor which opens up a world of Web browsing and computer-type applications onscreen.
LED TVs are actually LCD TVs—but with an LED light source rather than the fluorescent light. There is confusion over this since it remains an LCD array of pixels, just with LED illumination, so set makers are now starting to refer to them as LCD LED TVs. LED illumination is cool, instant-on and the illumination from the center to the edges is better than fluorescent light.
Plasma TVs have a glossy glass screen which is not recommended for a home theater. Some have an anti-reflective coating, but be sure it is actually non-reflective in all lighting conditions — and that it can be cleaned without harming the coating. Plasma TVs come in very large screen sizes and produce vivid colors, the blackest blacks, and lack visible pixels due to the nature of the plasma gas cells that visually blur into one another to produce a photographic image.
In general, some of the things to look for in a flat-panel TV include:
  • Full HD (1080p)
  • Highest screen refresh rate (120-240)
  • Largest screen size possible for most home theaters
  • Highest brightness and contrast ratings
  • LED rather than just LCD
  • Plasma without glossy screen
  • Maximum number of input options (at least 3 HDMI connectors)
  • Variable audio output
  • Non-reflective screen
  • Industry standard mounting sockets
  • Easy-to-use onscreen controls and menus
  • Easy-to-use remote control

Internet-Connected TVs. Many flat panel TVs are now coming equipped with Internet connectivity. Built in Internet sources of content such as Netflix allow the TV to play what was once Internet-only PC content without a PC. The set connects to your Internet router via a cable or wirelessly and an onscreen guide allows you to select services and content.

If your flat panel TV comes with Internet connectivity, it's a great feature. However, new stand-alone Internet devices such as Roku and Apple TV are under a hundred dollars, so if Internet features increase the price of the TV more than that, it may be good to choose the model without it and use an add-on Internet device.

3D and Beyond. Recent developments in movies include 3D, and there are now 3D disc players and 3D TVs. The first generation of media and displays require wearing 3D glasses, but recently new technology creates 3D without the use of glasses. Look for the latest sets, as they will have the latest 3D technology. This is an option, but worth having as 3D movies are becoming more popular and available to home viewers.

Be sure your projector or display supports full HDTV. 1080p is the current standard and delivers the full quality of any video source.

Also look for the highest "refresh" rate possible. Most LCD TVs have a refresh rate of 60, which means that the image on the screen is redrawn 60 times per second. LCDs and projectors are now available at higher refresh rates – 120 being the current favorite. The more times per second the screen is refreshed, the better motion and action or even scrolling text appears.

Inputs. Flat panel TVs need to connect to a wide array of video sources (such as Blu-ray players) and the standard for connection to such devices are High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cables and connectors. HDMI connectors will carry both video and audio.

Flat Panel TV Mounting Hardware. Home theaters most often mount a flat panel TV on or in the wall. In either instance, you will need the correct mounting bracket designed for the size and weight of your TV.

Brackets come in fixed mount and tilt/swivel versions. A tilt/swivel version will allow a fixed position and also the ability to move the screen if needed. The ability to mount it higher up and tilt in down to the viewing area is easily done with the tilt/swivel variety mount.

Flat panel TVs come with mounting sockets on the back to accept connection to a bracket. Be sure that any bracket you have matches those mounting locations by adhering to the VESA industry standard.

You will see a variety of acronyms for certification of mounting brackets, and they are essentially the same standard with different names. They are:

  • Flat Display Mounting Interface (FDMI)
  • VESA Mounting Interface Standard (MIS)
  • VESA mount

The standards are defined by the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA), and are widely used by set and bracket manufacturers. Be sure that you purchase a bracket designed for the both the screen size—and the weight—of your flat panel display. The bracket must be anchored to studs, and the brackets have variable mounting holes to allow flexibility when mounting on walls.

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