Buying the best home theater projector for your needs can be a daunting task due to the large number of factors to consider. Contrast, resolution, aspect ratio and brightness are all important specifications, which can vary greatly between models. The price range of projectors is similarly large, ranging from less than $1,000 to $80,000. The most popular brands of projectors include JVC, Epson and Sony. This buying guide will show you how to narrow down your choices by focusing on the factors that are most important to you.
Contrast is the difference in brightness between the darkest and brightest parts of an image. Contrast is probably the single most important specification for a home projector, although lumen output is usually more important for business projectors. High contrast makes shadows more clearly defined, providing the images with greater depth. A high-contrast projector can make two-dimensional images appear almost three-dimensional.
A projector’s contrast ratio is generally a measure of the difference in brightness between pure black and pure white, although two distinct methods exist for making this measurement. On/Off contrast, also known as dynamic contrast, is the ratio of brightness between the darkest and brightest levels that the projector is capable of producing. ANSI, or native, contrast is determined by comparing the relative brightness of white and black squares displayed in a checkerboard pattern. On/Off contrast is a much larger number than ANSI contrast and is usually the contrast listed on product specification sheets unless otherwise noted. However, ANSI contrast generally provides a more accurate indication of the contrast the projector can produce under real-world conditions.
Light from any source other than the image reduces contrast, because it makes dark colors appear lighter. That’s why commercial theaters have features such as dark, non-reflective walls and ceilings. However, home theaters are rarely in a room dedicated for that purpose, and it’s usually impractical to darken the walls and ceiling of a multipurpose room. Nevertheless, any steps you can take to reduce the room’s ambient lighting will improve contrast.
Resolution is the number of pixels in the image, usually expressed as the number of pixels in each row and column. For example, a resolution of 1280×720 means the projector can display an image with 1,280 pixels in each row and 720 pixels in each column. Multiplying these two numbers together provides the total number of pixels the projector can display, which would be 921,600 pixels for this example.
A projector’s resolution is often provided as a single number for the vertical resolution, where the horizontal resolution is assumed based on standard values. The letter “i” may also be appended to the vertical resolution to indicate interlaced scanning, in which alternate lines are displayed at one time. A “p” after the vertical resolution stands for progressive scanning, meaning the projector displays the entire image at the same time.
A resolution of 1280×720 has historically been the most common resolution for home theater projectors, although higher resolutions are now available. This resolution does a great job of displaying video with 1,080 lines, such as High-Definition Television (HDTV) broadcasts and Blu-Ray discs. The image quality of these projectors is even better when they’re able to display images in their native resolution.
A resolution of 1280×800 is often used for applications that require both video and computer displays. It natively displays 720p video, but it also displays common computer resolutions such as WXGA (1280×800) and XGA (1024×768) without scaling the image. If you use a projector to display 720 video with an XGA video signal, you’ll see a short black bar of 24 pixels at the top and bottom of the image, due to the vertical difference between these two formats.
A projector with a resolution of 1920×1080 can natively display 1080 HDTV and 1080 Blue-Ray signals in their native format without scaling. This type of projector provides the best possible image from most sources of HD video. 1080p projectors are now available for less than $1,000 on the low end, with the “sweet spot” between price and performance lying between $2,000 and $3,000.
4096×2160, also known as 4K and Ultra HD, is currently the highest resolution commercially available. It has almost ten times the total number of pixels as the standard 1280×720 resolution, although 4K content is still relatively rare. 4K projectors are becoming more widely available, primarily at the higher price points.
Projector Aspect Ratio
Aspect ratio is the relative size of an image’s width and height. It’s commonly expressed as x:y, where x is the number of units in the image’s width and y is the number of units in the image’s length. For example, a 4:3 aspect ratio means the image is four units wide and three units high. Aspect ratio can also be expressed as a single number by dividing the image’s width by its height. Thus, a ratio of 16:9 is equivalent to about 1.78.
Television broadcasts generally had a 4:3 aspect ratio, until the proliferation of HDTV broadcasts in the 1990s. The standard aspect ratio for HDTV is 16:9, which is almost twice as wide as it is tall. Blu-Ray videos have an aspect ratio of at least 16.9, but ratios of 2.35 and 2.4 are also popular. Other aspect ratios currently in use include 1.85, 2.00 and 2.5.
This variation in aspect ratios creates problems when a projector displays video content in its non-native aspect ratio. Bear in mind that you won’t be able to properly display all of the available material in its native format, no matter what projector you get.
A projector with as aspect ratio is most useful for viewing classic films and TV shows. All films made before 1953 were made in this format as were most TV shows until the late 1990s. Projectors with this aspect ratio can use vertical masking to block off the top and bottom of the screen when viewing material with a higher ratio. However, high-quality projectors with a 4:3 aspect ratio are difficult to find since 16:9 is a far more popular aspect ratio. Furthermore, 4:3 projectors usually have low resolutions, requiring scaling to display material at higher resolutions.
16:9 is by far the most popular aspect ratio for a projector since it allows you to watch the HDTV, widescreen DVD and the majority of Blu-Ray content in its native format. Many 16:9 projectors are currently available, including those specifically designed for a home theater. Older projectors may require a masking system to improve the appearance of the black bars caused by viewing material in its non-native format. However, the black levels of newer models are greatly improved, which may eliminate the need for masking.
Larger Aspect Ratios
The primary reason to consider projectors with a native aspect ratio larger than 16:9 is if you primarily intend to watch the latest theater releases. The most common ratio for these films is 2.35, which typically uses a 4:3 anamorphic lens to view 16:9 material. A less expensive solution is to buy a projector with a zoom lens of at least 4:3, which you can use to stretch a 16:9 image out to 2.35. Some high-end projectors with a powered zoom lens and memory system perform this task automatically.
The apparent brightness of an image on a projector screen depends on two factors—luminous flux and luminance. Luminous flux is a measure of the light generated by the projector, which is measured in lumens (lm). Projector specification sheets typically include its ANSI rating for luminous flux. Luminance is a measure of the light that’s reflecting off the screen towards the viewer, which is typically measured in foot-Lamberts (fL) in the United States. It’s generally a better measurement of brightness than luminous flux for creating a home theater system. However, projector manufacturers can’t provide a luminance rating since this measurement depends on the screen’s size and gain.
More brightness isn’t necessarily better when it comes to projectors. The projector should produce enough light to provide images with good contrast, but not so much that it’s tiring to watch. A luminance in the range of 12 to 22 fL is ideal, assuming the viewing room has no ambient light at all. A room with ambient light will require more light from the projector to compensate for the ambient light. A low level of ambient light may increase a home theater’s luminance requirement to between 20 and 40 fL.
Calculators are available online that estimate the luminance of a home cinema projector setup by taking various factors into account, especially the projector’s luminous flux, screen size and gain rating. They may also consider additional factors such as average lamp usage and video formats.
Cost is an essential factor to consider when buying a projector due to the enormous differences in price. This technology is advancing rapidly, so the features and capabilities of projectors aren’t well standardized yet. This buying guide considers the price points of under $1,000, $1,000 to $10,000 and over $10,000.
Many projectors are available in this price range, with $700 being the low end. These models usually have a resolution of 1280×720, although some 1920×1080 projectors have also dropped below $1,000. However, 720 projectors will have more features and will probably have higher contrast than the 1080 projectors in this price range. However, the home projector industry has generally shifted to 1080p resolution.
$1,000 to $10,000
This price range contains many of the most popular projectors currently on the market, with the $1500-$2500 bracket having the most competition. These midrange projectors are primarily 1080p models that use technologies such as Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and Digital Light Processing (DLP). All other factors being equal, LCD projectors have a greater flexibility of applications, while DLP models provide greater contrast.
Projectors in this price range offer far superior performance than projectors at the lower price points. 4K resolution is the norm for these models as is a minimum dynamic contrast of 200,000:1 and brightness ratings in the range of 1,500 to 2,000 lumens. Projectors that sell for $10,000 or more also have advanced resolution and motion response technology as standard capabilities. Additional features of top-end projectors include a motorized zoom lens and real-time laser light control.
Many projector manufacturers have proprietary implementations of liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS), a display technology that uses a liquid crystal layer on top of a silicon backplane. JVC’s version of LCoS is Digital Direct Drive Image Light Amplifier (D-ILA/), which is used in many of its models. The JVC D-ILA 590 has 4K resolution, brightness of 1,800 ANSI lumens, 400,000:1 dynamic contrast and 40,000:1 native contrast. It also offers High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode, which greatly increases the projector’s brightness range. Other JVC projectors in this product line include the D-ILA 790 and 990, which generally offer greater brightness and contrast.
Epson projectors include the PowerLite Home Cinema series. Models in this series include the 760, which currently sells for about $750. It has 720p resolution, 3,300 lumens of brightness and a maximum contrast ratio of 15,000:1. The 1060 sells for about $900 and has 1080p resolution, 3,100 lumens and up to 15,000:1 contrast. The PowerLite Home Cinema 2100 is about $1,000, 2,500 lumens and a maximum contrast of 35,000:1.
Sony’s version of LCoS technology is Silicon X-tal Reflective Display (SXRD), which is found in its SXRD Home Cinema Projector series. The VPL-HW45ES in this series has 1080p resolution and sells for about $2,800. It combines SXRD with Advanced Reality Creation (ARC), Sony’s resolution processing technology. This model also has Motionflow, which increases the panel’s response rate. This feature reduces the blurring that normally occurs when an image has rapid motion.
The VPL-HW65ES from the SXRD Home Cinema Projector series of Sony projectors has 4K resolution and sells for about $4,500. It also has the other features common to this product line, including SXRD, ARC and Motionflow. This model has a brightness of 1,800 lumens and a dynamic contrast range of 120,000:1.
We hope this buying guide has helped you better understand what to look for when choosing a home theatre projector. If you have any further questions, we are more than happy to help. Contact us at the store or leave a comment below!