How to choose a home theater projector

Plus tips on screen selection and projector setup


Steve Kindig

Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."

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Projectors provide the ultimate home theater experience. Nothing else comes as close to truly re-creating the viewing experience of a movie theater. We often talk about how a bigger screen is the most impactful upgrade for TVs, and projectors make it possible to enjoy images that are much larger than even the biggest TVs offer.

Imagine the bewitching beauty of Avatar's planet Pandora spread out before you. Or a close-up shot of Jeff Beck's fingers coaxing delicate harmonics out of his Stratocaster. Picture a 240-pound linebacker barreling straight at you. Or a video game villain swinging a sword big enough to splinter your coffee table. Projectors deliver all that and more — images bursting with cinematic detail and color across a larger-than-life screen measured in feet, not inches.

Movie night with a projector

Projectors deliver a true home theater experience. Enjoy movies, TV shows, sports, and video games on a screen measuring up to 10 feet or more. All projectors perform best in a darkened room, but some are bright enough for use with some ambient light.

Projector basics

A projector is really a two-piece system: the projector and the screen. Today's digital projectors are a snap to set up and use, and many models are compact and lightweight enough to be considered portable. You can place a movie projector on a coffee table or out of view on a bookcase or shelf in the back of your room. Or you can ceiling-mount your projector (we have mounts for most of the models we carry).

Projector screens come in a variety of sizes, and can be free-standing, wall-mounted, or retractable (manual or motorized). Skipping a screen and projecting images directly onto a wall surface can look OK, but a screen delivers a smoother, more consistent image, and helps any projector perform at its best.

Epson 5030UB HD projector

A home theater projector is a practical, cost-effective way to enjoy cinema-like picture size and quality at home.

Since the image is projected onto a separate screen, everything inside a projector is dedicated to creating the sharpest, most realistic picture possible. This is especially true for the home theater projectors we carry, which deliver image quality that's far superior to that of typical business-oriented projectors.

You'll find a high-resolution imaging chip (DLP®, LCD, or LCoS), an ultra-high-intensity lamp, superb video processing and scaling circuitry, top-grade lenses with versatile zoom capabilities, and multiple video inputs. What you won't find is any type of built-in TV tuner. Popular video sources include Blu-ray players, satellite receivers or cable boxes, video game consoles, and media streamers like Apple TV®.

Projector vs TV

Projectors not only deliver the largest — and some of the highest-quality — images available for home theater, they're also frequently a better value than mega-sized flat-panel TVs if you figure the cost per inch of screen. And because you're projecting an image onto a wall or separate screen, there's no glass involved, so you'll see absolutely no reflection or glare from the screen.

Is a projector for you?

There are a couple of key things to be aware of if you're considering a projector. First, your room lighting: for the best projector performance in a home theater, you should be able to substantially reduce or eliminate light in the room, whether it's daylight or room lights. Rooms with few windows are good candidates, especially if your viewing is heavy on movies. If you plan to use a projector in a room that gets a lot of sunlight, you may decide to limit your viewing to after dark, or consider installing blackout shades on the windows.

Many LCD projectors, like the Epson models we sell, can produce very bright images that can be enjoyed even in rooms with some ambient light. Because of the lighting issue, projector owners generally use other TVs for some or most of their everyday viewing, and reserve the projector for "event" viewing or gaming.

Second, your viewing habits and the life of your projector's lamp: LCD and DLP projectors typically have a lamp life of 2000-5000 hours. The hour rating actually represents the lamp's "half-life" — the point where its brightness has diminished by half. A lamp will still work past its half-life, but it will continue to gradually lose brightness. When you replace the lamp (it's easily user-replaceable), picture quality returns to like-new brightness. But you won't be able to simply run to the hardware store for a lamp. These projectors use special high-pressure lamps that cost between $200 and $500. Projector owners who primarily watch movies and special events run their projectors an average of about 8 hours a week. For a projector with a 2000-hour lamp, that translates to 4-5 years of use. But if you use a projector as your main TV, logging say 4 hours per day, you'll be looking at lamp replacement in under a year and a half.

HD movie projector back panel

Projectors have the same video inputs you find on most TVs, including multiple HDMI inputs for high-definition video sources like a Blu-ray player.

How to choose the best projector for your room and viewing habits

These days, the projectors from major manufacturers all look impressive. But of course, each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and no single model will be the best choice for all rooms and signal sources. You can get a general idea about how a projector will perform by comparing these three key specifications.

Resolution: The number of pixels on the imaging chip measured from side to side and top to bottom. Nearly all high-definition projectors made for home theater use are Full HD 1080p — 1920 x 1080 pixels. We now carry a couple 4K Ultra HD projectors with 4096 x 2160-pixel resolution — over four times the detail of HD. The higher the resolution the smaller each pixel will appear, producing images that look more seamless, with less noticeable "pixel structure."

Full HD vs. 4K resolution

The picture quality advantage of 4K is easy to see on the large screen sizes that are popular for projector systems. A projector's built-in scaler will upconvert or downconvert all incoming signals to precisely match its "native resolution."

Picture contrast: Contrast is one of, some say the, most important factor of picture quality. The contrast ratio spec measures the difference between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks a projector can show. A higher contrast ratio makes it possible to display deeper blacks and more subtle color detail. Good contrast is critical for home theater projectors. In fact, many models include multiple lamp settings that let you reduce brightness and boost contrast ratio for optimum viewing in a darkened room.

Light output (brightness): Home theater projectors typically have brightness ratings of 700-2500 lumens. All projectors have plenty of brightness for watching movies in a dimly-lit or darkened room. A higher brightness rating will come in handy for viewing when there's more ambient room light. It's also helpful if you're projecting onto a wall (it's less reflective than a screen), or if you're displaying an extra-large image (110" or larger).

3D: If you've seen a well-made 3D movie in a theater you know that 3D viewing works really well with projected images, and that's true for home theater projectors, too. Epson's 3D models have received raves from reviewers and home cinema fans for their sharp, clear 3D images. Epson's projectors have plenty of light power, which is helpful for 3D because the 3D glasses dim the picture noticeably. You don't need a special screen for 3D, although a more reflective surface — indicated by a higher "screen gain" spec — will also help ensure that 3D images look bright and crisp.

Epson wireless HDMI transmitter

A few of Epson's projectors include wireless HDMI technology so you can avoid long cable runs. The transmitter module (pictured) has inputs for several HD video sources. It sends the signal to the wireless receiver built into the projector. Picture quality is flawless.

Wireless HDMI: Some movie fans thinking about upgrading from a TV to a projector may hesitate because of installation issues — mainly, how to connect their components to the projector without running cables across the floor. Epson has the answer with their projectors with wireless HDMI. The wireless receiver is built into the projector chassis, while the small transmitter module is placed near your video sources. Just connect an HDMI cable between your component and the transmitter and you're done. The transmitter sends a  flawless 1080p high-definition picture wirelessly, with a range of up to 32 feet between the transmitter and the projector (both must be in the same room).

Lens shift: Another feature that makes installing a projector easier is lens shift. It allows you to move the projected image up or down, left or right, while keeping the projector stationary. This opens up more placement options because you can position the projector off-center in relation to your screen and still get a perfectly true image.

Projector placement tips

If you plan to use your projector mainly for "event viewing" — movies at night, along with the occasional sports broadcast — the simplest option is to place the projector on a table or other flat surface, and keep it stowed away in a closet or cupboard when you're not using it. Remember: most projectors have no sound capability, so to watch a Blu-ray movie, you'll need to connect your player's video output to the projector, and run the audio to your A/V receiver. And speaking of sound, if the projector will be located near you, look for a model with a quiet cooling fan.

If you have more of a dedicated home theater in mind (or if you want to keep your projector out of the reach of small children), you can ceiling-mount it. This makes for a neat, uncluttered look, but it does call for some DIY skills. We carry ceiling mounts for most of our projectors, so that part is straightforward. But, the projector also needs AC power, plus a video connection from any source you want to feed to it. It's not a problem for new construction, or if you're remodeling, but trickier in a finished room (especially if there's not an attic overhead). Check out our guide to in-wall wiring for installation tips, or consider a projector with wireless HDMI.

HD movie projector placement

A projector's image doesn't follow the lens precisely, like a flashlight. The image is offset a bit to allow placement on a table or ceiling mounting. This means that the image is raised somewhat for table placement (see above), and similarly lowered for ceiling mounting. For ceiling mounting, you'll also turn the projector upside-down.

A quick look at installation considerations
As you compare projector features and performance, it's also a good idea to keep a few installation issues in mind. First, you'll want to have at least a rough idea of how large an image you want to project, because that will affect the distance between the projector and your screen. With any projector, the further you position it from your screen, the bigger the image will be. But different projectors have different "throw ratios." The throw ratio is the relationship between a projector's distance from the screen and the width of the image.

A projector with a "short-throw" lens projects a larger image for a given distance from the screen, so it's a smart choice for smaller rooms where the projector is placed relatively close to the screen. Long-throw projectors are best for ceiling-mount situations where the projector will be placed further back in the room, behind the viewing position.

If your projector will be ceiling-mounted, it's important to make sure the lens is parallel to the screen. That helps ensure that your image will be true, with straight edges on all sides. If a projector isn't correctly aligned in relation to the screen, the image will look like a trapezoid instead of a rectangle — the top of the image will be wider than the bottom, or the left side will be taller than the right side, for example.

Fortunately, there are two ways to fix picture shape: lens shift and keystone correction. Lens shift lets you tweak the position of the lens inside the projector, so you can compensate for your projector being slightly off-axis. Keystone correction, on the other hand, adjusts the image's shape using internal processing that can slightly degrade the quality of the image. Nearly all projectors offer keystone correction, but only some offer lens shift.

Finally, consider the fact that the high-output lamps in projectors generate a lot of heat. Wherever you end up placing your projector, be sure to leave plenty of space around it to ensure proper ventilation.

Choosing your screen size and type

Because it contains none of the electronics, a projection screen can be literally paper-thin. Whether your screen is free-standing, mounted to the wall, or retractable from the ceiling, it will save considerable floor space compared to a large, free-standing TV.

Projection screens

Left to right: A manual pull-down screen can be a good low-cost option for a home theater; a motorized retractable screen is hidden when not in use; a fixed-frame screen can provide the best image quality if you have sufficient wall space to mount it.

When it comes to screen size, many people feel that bigger is automatically better. But that's not always the case. Projecting too large an image may produce a picture with less than optimum brightness, or noticeable pixel structure.

The size of the image also determines how far you should sit from the screen for optimum viewing. For an HD-capable projector, the general rule of thumb for viewing distance is 1-1/2 times the screen diagonal — so if your screen's diagonal measurement is 96" (8 feet), you would want to sit about 12 feet from the screen. If you have a 4K Ultra HD projector you can sit as close as 1 times the screen diagonal. That's much closer than most people are used to, but you really need to sit closer than in the past to be able to see the added picture detail and texture. Of course, viewing distance is highly subjective. After all, in a movie theater, folks naturally spread out from the front row to the back, and everywhere in between.

Aside from screen size, and deciding between a manual pull-down, motorized retractable, or fixed-frame design, the other major consideration is screen "gain." Gain measures the amount of light reflected by the screen back at viewers — higher gain means more reflected light and a brighter image. Different screen coatings applied to the base vinyl screen material are how different gain values are achieved. Higher brightness is helpful with very large screens, or in rooms with significant ambient light, but as the screen gain increases, the optimum viewing angle decreases — it becomes more important that viewers sit more directly in front of the screen rather than off to the sides.

Shop for a projection screen

Last updated November 24, 2015
  • Greg

    Posted on 11/11/2015 2:42:03 PM

    Great summary with useful detail, thanks.