Stewart Filmscreen Cabaret Drop-down screen

A few days ago I wrote an article espousing the virtues of front projection. I am an unabashed fan and hopelessly biased towards PJs. But to get the best performance out of a projector, you’re going to need a screen.

And this is the point where I lose the audience.

Still with me? Screens may seem boring, and there’s a lot to learn, but if you’re spending any amount of money on a projector you owe it to yourself to get a screen that lets you get the most from your new purchase.

Size (That’s What She Said)
The first thing to determine is how large a screen you can fit in your room. A custom installer (if you go that route) can fine tune it, but getting a rough idea is always a good, um, idea.

I’d recommend starting with a 100-inch diagonal 16×9 screen. This is a pretty average size for a screen, it’s large enough to give a “damn that’s a big TV” feeling while still being “small” enough to let you use any projector to create a bright image. This will mean a screen that’s roughly 87-inches wide, and 49-inches tall. You’ll need some space on the top and bottom (and maybe sides if you have a narrow room) depending on the frame, but we’ll get to that later.

If you want a wider-than-widescreen, 2.35 or 2.40:1, I’d still recommend starting with 49-inches tall, as you want to make sure that what you’re going to be watching most (16×9 material) is still large. This will depend on your room, of course.

For me, I have a 120-inch (ok 117.5) wide 2:35:1 screen, which means TV watching is about 102-inches.

The major determining factor in how tall of a screen you can fit (and by extension, how wide) is how far from the floor you want the bottom of the image. Too low, and it’s going to look weird. Too high and you’ll waste space. You want enough room below the screen to fit a center channel, but not so much as the center of the image is way above your seated eye line. Again here a 49 or 50-inch tall screen should fit nicely in a room with an 8-foot ceiling.

(We are living in a) Material (World)

Screen Research ClearPix
Screen material is your next choice. These days, with most projectors, screen material is often just personal preference than any necessity based on the technology. In the early days of digital projection, the black levels were so poor that screen companies developed “grey” screens that made it seem like the black levels were better. This isn’t strictly necessary anymore. Most projectors have black levels that are at least decent enough that they’re not distracting. As I mentioned in the PJ article, some offer better black levels than then vaunted KURO plasmas.

Vutec SilverStarPositive gain screens are the opposite. They focus the light so more light bounces towards the seating area, and less is scattered towards the walls, ceiling, and floor. While this may seem like a good thing (and in some cases, it is), keep in mind the black level is going to go up with a high-gain screen. Also, very high gain screens can have a hot spot, where the center of the image is noticeably brighter than the edges. People sitting off to the side will also enjoy a dimmer image, with more light being focused on the main seats.

Screen Research ClearPix2 woven screen materialIn a large install, its desirable to place speakers behind the screen. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, but it allows voices and sound effects to come directly from the screen (like a movie theater). This is possible because of perf, or perforated, screens. Millions of tiny holes that let the sound pass through reasonably unmolested. Pretty much all perf screens these days have holes that are small enough that they won’t interact with the pixels from a projector. You will lose a little overall light output though. A version of the perf screen is a woven screen (like those from Screen Research, Screen Excellence, and SI).

Slide Up, Slide Down, Slide Stationary
Vutec Lectric I 169 Motorized Projection ScreenThe ultimate in cool is an electric drop-down screen. Hidden in a ceiling or in a nondescript hosing, the screen remains rolled up and out of sight until you need it. Certainly more pricy than fixed screens, electric screens allow you to use the room for other things than watching movies.

What’s quite common now is a low cost LCD/plasma for daytime viewing, with the screen coming down at night for movies and serious TV viewing. Granted this adds $700-$1,000 to the total cost of the system (plus an HDMI D/A), but if you’re contemplating a drop-down screen, this money won’t likely break the bank.

An alternate version of the drop-down screen is the drop, well, up screen, where the housing lives on or in the floor, and the screen rises up.

(Another Brick in the) Walls
The color of whatever walls you can see when you’re watching the screen affects what you perceive on the screen. In other words, if you have a bright red wall, the image on screen will appear to have less red in it. This is true for TVs too, by the way. Ideally the wall around the screen will be a neutral color, like gray, but any mild color is better than something bright.

On a Budget
Can’t swing spending much money on a screen? There are options. Some DIYers will tell you to just paint a wall, or use some goo to create a reflective surface. If you want to go this route, I doubt I could talk you out of it. I won’t, however, recommend it. The main reason is that the screen surface is visible, it is part of the image. If you’re using a screen, then in most cases you won’t notice it. If you’re using a wall, every little imperfection, paint stroke, and most importantly texture is going to be visible when watching a movie. It can look… well, lumpy.

There are so many low-cost options available, I don’t understand the desire to paint a wall. Here’s a sampling of what I found on Amazon.

Vutec Lectric I 16:9 Motorized Projection Screen – $576.02 (38% off)

Elite Screens EzFrame Fixed Frame Projection Screen – $429.39 (46% off)

Elite Screens ER120WH1 120″ Diagonal Sable Frame Series Screen – $320.09 (32% off)

Draper Accuscreens 92″ Diagonal Electric Wall/Ceiling Screen – $260.10 (36% off)

Vutec Silver Star 110″ Diagonal Fixed Frame Projection Screen – $1,905.32 (13% off)

Setup. Begin enjoyment… now!
All screens are going to have an effect on the color temperature of the projector. If you’re buying the two at the same time, then this isn’t a big deal. When you calibrate the projector it will be part of a “system” with the screen. But if you change screens, you’ll need to re-calibrate. It may just be a subtle shift, but if you’re looking for the most accurate image possible (aren’t we all?) then this is something to keep in mind.

Now that I’ve scared you off with over a 1,200 words of screen info, let me close with this, there is nothing better than a projector for watching movies and TV at home. Nothing. If you can make it work, you’ll never regret it. You’ll also never go back to a lowly, boring “TV.”

More Resources

Stewart Filmscreen (world renowned, made entirely in the US, highly recommended)
Da-Lite (great screens and resources for choosing screens and sizes)
Elite (great value and options)
Vutec (Silverstar high-gain screen)
Screen Research (Acoustically transparent woven screen)
Screen Excellence (Acoustically transparent woven screen)
SI Screens (Black Diamond screen claims to be watchable with ambient light)
Draper (Not Don. In business since 1902)


—Geoff Morrison


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