HDTV Projectors are Awesome
If you love movies. And I mean really love movies, a tiny little TV just won’t suffice. By “tiny” I mean anything below 65-inches. To get that true cinematic experience with Blu-ray and even TV, you need a projector.
Of course, there are a few considerations to take into account…
In the past ten years, projectors have gotten smaller, brighter, better, and better and better and better. These days, many projectors offer far superior picture quality than any LCD or Plasma. What’s even more amazing is that they’re often no more expensive than a big flat panel. Intrigued? I’d hope so.
There are three technologies projectors can use to create an image: LCD, DLP, and LCOS.
LCD projectors are very similar to their flat panel brethren. In this case, three small LCD panels (one for each color) manipulate the light to create the image on screen. The biggest benefit of LCD projectors is cost. They’re often among the cheapest projectors available. Unlike LCD projectors of yore, there isn’t really any “screen door effect” with LCD projectors anymore, at least not that you’d notice from where you’re sitting. Black level and contrast ratio are the main drawbacks. Auto-irises will help with this somewhat, but in this regard they’re going to be the lowest performing of our bunch. That’s not to say they can’t look great. I’ve seen LCD projectors that look better than many DLP projectors which cost a lot more.
DLP, or Digital Light Processing, is really the progenitor of high-end but affordable projection. A DLP projector uses either one or three DMD (Digital Micromirror Device) chips that are thousands of tiny pivotable mirrors. If a pixel needs to be lit on screen, the mirror pivots to reflect the light from the lamp towards the screen. If the pixel needs to be dark, it pivots away. There’s an incredible range of pricing with DLP projectors. Tiny, single-chip DLP projectors can cost under $1,000. On the other end of the spectrum, big 3-chip DLP projectors can cost $30,000 and upwards to Bentley/Rolls/cottage range. Across the wide range of prices, DLP projectors offer consistently excellent motion resolution (one of the best technologies for this). Some models are highly accurate, some are exceedingly bright, there are many, many possibilities. Contrast ratio and black level performance can be a little better than LCD, but not as good as LCOS.
LCOS, or Liquid Crystal on Silicon, can be thought of as a hybrid of the other two technologies. It uses a liquid crystal layer (like LCD) but this is positioned over a mirrored layer. Light enters the chip and reflects off the mirror, but is manipulated by the LC to determine if the light makes it to the screen or not. Two companies make LCOS projectors (with other companies modifying their chassis): Sony and JVC. Sony’s version of the technology is SXRD, or Silicon X-tal Reflective Display. JVC’s is D-ILA, or Direct-Drive Image Light Amplifier. Not sure which abbreviation is worse. Though similar, they function and perform slightly differently. JVC’s projectors consistently offer the best contrast ratio of any display technology. Current models are even highly accurate. Sony models offer performance that’s close enough that really either option is good.
Buying a PJ
I have yet to see an LCOS projector that wasn’t excellent. Both Sony and JVC offer models at a wide range of prices, and I’d highly recommend starting with one of them first.
There are some great deals to be had on Amazon for slightly older models, like:
2009/2010’s HD550 ($3,896.19) and HD350 ($3,299.99).
For the newest models, it’s best to find a dealer near you and talk with them.
As far as LCD projectors go, Epson, Panasonic, and Mitsubishi make excellent projectors. They’re often extremely quiet, which is a really big deal if you have a small room. The Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 ($1,152.59, 53% off) is a good example. I reviewed the big brother and came away greatly impressed.
There are many single-chip DLP projectors out there, and most are very good. They’re just not going to offer the contrast ratio of the LCOS projectors (often for similar money). If you’re looking at a single-chip DLP and an LCD at the same price, that’s going to be a hard call and I highly recommend checking them out in person before you buy.
If you want a really big screen, 3-chip DLP is really the only option. I have a 10-foot wide 2.35:1 screen (102-inch 16×9 diagonal) and most projectors create a plenty pleasing 15 foot-Lamberts. If you want to go much bigger than this, high-end 3-chip projectors are affectionately referred to as “flame throwers.” One recent 3-chip projector I reviewed I got an incredible 30 foot-Lamberts on my screen. Most old 36″ tube TVs couldn’t do that.
Remember, for every 10% greater screen diagonal, your brightness is going to drop by roughly 20%.
With any projector you’re going to need a screen. Some advocate just painting a wall, but I can’t abide by this method. There is no way to make the wall smooth enough so as not to have bumps and ridges you can see in the image. If you’re really strapped for cash, ok, but after spending good money on a projector, you owe it to yourself to get a screen so it can perform its best.
There are a lot of variables with screens (which I’ll dive into further detail in an upcoming article). The short version is: size, material, aspect, and gain.
Determining the size you want is the first step. Go big. As big as you can. For me, I determined how high from the floor I wanted the bottom of the image to be (so I could still fit a center channel speaker and not have to look too far down. Then I figured how close to the ceiling I could go, and worked out the size from there. Ideally you’ll have the center of the screen roughly at eye level when your seated, but that’s hard to do without having your seating on risers.
I always rail against mounting TVs too high, as looking up to watch TV is a sure way to get a stiff neck every night. But with a huge screen this is a little less of an issue as your eyes are wandering all around the screen (as it fill so much of your peripheral vision). There are all sorts of ratios that you can go by too if you want. Ideally, you’ll talk with a custom installer and they’ll give you pointers.
Screen material is another concern. If you want to mount speakers behind the screen, you’ll need a perf or a weave screen. Most modern perf screens have holes that are small enough that you won’t get an interaction with the pixels in the projector.
Gain is a tricky subject. I use a 1.0-gain screen, but I don’t recommend that for most people. I use it because I use the screen to measure projectors. Positive gain screens (numbers higher than 1) will get you a little more light. They do this by basically “focusing” the light like a lens. The higher the gain screen, the more light and more focus. Worst case, you can end up with a “hot spot” where the center of the screen is brighter than edges. All positive gain screens will also drop off the light as you move off axis. So if you have a really wide room, the people sitting off to the sides won’t have as bright an image. Unless you’re really trying to force a low output projector to fill a huge screen, you really don’t need much gain. All projectors can easily fill a 100-inch 16×9 screen.
Negative gain screens (numbers less than 1), came about in the early days of digital projection when black levels were terrible. These days, that’s not the case. It’s personal preference, but I don’t think modern projectors need a negative gain screen. Just remember that negative gain screens don’t just magically create better blacks, they do it by lowering the light output of the entire reflected image. So you lose total brightness too, thereby shrinking the overall size that’s possible with any given projector.
This may be blasphemous to some, but I’d go so far as to say get a positive gain and larger screen than a better black level and smaller. The black level on nearly all modern projectors ranges between “good enough” and “fantastic.” So go big!
For aspect ratio, check out my article here.
There’s even more to screen selection, but I’ll write about that in the screen article next week.
You will, necessarily, have to live in a cave. No matter how bright the image is, or how neeto the screen is, it can’t compete with ambient light. Turn on a lamp, the image will be washed out. Watch the game on Sunday, close the drapes. Many people get a cheap LCD to watch during the day and use the projector at night. Others, like me, are insane enough to just use the projector for everything. As long as you can control the light in the room, you’ll be fine.
Most projectors use lamps, which age, dim, and need to replacing. These cost several hundred usually, but last thousands of hours. Depending on use, you may need to replace one every year, or every few years.
Some new projectors are using LEDs, which last a lifetime and have some really impressive color accuracy. So far these are pretty expensive, though, and aren’t as bright as some of their competitors.
You’ll need somewhere to put the projector, obviously, but every projector can be mounted to the ceiling, or put on a shelf.
Did I say it already? Go BIG!
I’ve used a projector as my sole display for nearly ten years. In that time the picture quality has increased dramatically while the prices have fallen. It’s so addictive to watch TV characters that are larger than life, and movies that are bigger and better than what you get at the local cinema. I hardly ever go to the movies anymore. Why would I? My setup at home is better, doesn’t cost me $16, and if the phone rings I won’t get arrested for beating the crap out of myself. I don’t think I could ever go back to some tiny 60-inch TV.
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