Choosing a home theater projector can be a daunting task. There are plenty of factors to consider and new terms to learn. Getting it right is worth the effort. Projectors offer giant screen size, brilliant colors and high resolution in a small, low-profile package. Per inch of screen size they are generally much less expensive than large flat screen TVs. Read this article to brush up your home theater projector knowledge before you make a purchase.
The aspect ratio of a projector tells you the length to width proportion of the display area. For example, a standard television has a 4:3 aspect ratio. Every four units of width correspond to three units of height. A wide screen TV has a 16:9 aspect ratio, much wider relative to its height.
Home theater projectors can display videos of at any aspect ratio. However, they all have a “Native Aspect Ratio,” which means that at a certain aspect ratio the image will completely fill a compatible screen. At every other aspect ratio, you will see black bars.
Unfortunately, for those of us who can’t stand black bars, video media exists in many different aspect ratios. Classic films and TV series are typically 4:3. Blu-Ray contents is generally 16:9 or even wider. If you are a classic film buff, you should probably purchase a projector with a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you prefer contemporary movies you may prefer 16:9. When choosing the aspect ratio for your new projector, keep these two things in mind. First, resolution is more important to picture quality than aspect ratio. Theoretically, a 16:9 video could look better on a high resolution native 4:3 projector. Secondly, 16:9 is the most popular format for home theater projectors right now. Higher end models tend to have a native 16:9 aspect ratio.
Discriminating videophiles sometimes choose projectors with anamorphic lenses. Without an anamorphic lens, projectors displaying images outside their native resolution clip off lines of pixels and display black bars. This action reduces the lumen output and the resolution of the image. Thus, without an anamorphic lens a projector is only optimized at its native resolution. These specialized lenses perform a neat trick to avoid reducing the display quality. They distort and reconfigure images to match the aspect ratio of the given file. Thus, they can project at full resolution and lumen output at various aspect ratios. Ta da!
Resolution refers to the number of pixels a projector can display. You’ll typically see the resolution given as two numbers. For example, a 1280×720 projector has 1280 pixels in every horizontal row and 780 pixels in every vertical column. Generally, higher resolution is better. High res projectors display more detailed images, but only if your image has plenty of detail in it. However, high res images are less likely to appear pixilated. So, if what you’re watching was not filmed or remastered in HD, it may still look better on a high resolution projector.
The good news is that high resolution projectors have come down in price substantially. 1280×720 projectors can handle DVD, Blu-Ray and and HDTV video. The highest resolution available today is 1920×1080. With one of these projectors, you will never see pixels and you’ll have the sharpest, most detailed image currently possible.
The amount of light a projector gives out is measured in Lumens. However, the actual brightness of your projected image depends on both the projector and the screen. When choosing a projector, consider the amount of ambient light in your room. If you have blocked out most or all of the ambient light, a projector with a high lumen rating may be uncomfortably bright.
Given that brightness depends on multiple factors, the information below is a simply a general guideline.
Low ambient light: 1000-1500 lumens
Medium ambient light: 1500-2500 lumens
Bright ambient light: more than 2500 lumens
Contrast in projectors is a measurement of the difference between the darkest and lightest parts of an image. In home theaters, contrast is important. High contrast means more detail in dark images. When the intrepid hero ventures into a dim cave entrance, the viewer will see depth and detail in the shadows. Contrast ratios appear in projector specifications as an x:1 ratio. For example, you may see a projector with a 1200:1 contrast ratio. When choosing among projectors, remember that higher contrast will give a better viewing experience. When all else is equal, go for the highest contrast within your budget.
DLP vs LCD
There are two dominant types of projector technology on the market today. The most popular choice is DLP, which stands for Digital Light Processing. DLP projectors are smaller and more portable. At the lower end of the price range, DLPs have less pixilation than LCDs. DLP projectors beat LCD projectors for contrast at all price ranges. For these reasons, most home theater enthusiasts prefer DLP. One concern with DLP projectors is the rainbow effect. DLPs have spinning color wheels that alternately project red, yellow and blue. Theoretically, the wheel spins so fast that viewers do not perceive the individual colors. However, a small percentage of sensitive viewers see rainbow flashes, especially during high contrast scenes with rapid movement. For example, a chase scene involving a black car on a bright day.
The advantages of LCD start with color saturation. Colors appear richer on these projectors. The image is slightly sharper on an LCD than a DLP. However, the average viewer would only notice the difference when viewing the two types of projectors side by side. LCD projectors are more energy efficient than DLPs, which is good for the environment and your electrical bill.
Now that you’re armed with a good understanding of projectors, you’re ready to start looking for a the perfect model for your home theater. Good luck!