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Go big and go home: How to install a video projector

How to install a video projectorYou’ve finally stepped up and decided to take that next step into the home theater Big Boy club; you’ve made the decision to abandon that weak-sauce, girly-man flat panel display and go with a strong-like-bull front projector! First things first…bring it in. We gotta hug this thing out. Congratulations! 

So, now that you’ve made this momentous decision you’re probably all, “What the hell? How do I turn this madness into a reality?!”

…even though modern projectors are really quiet, they still have some fan noise which is another reason to get them back behind the seating position.

I got you, bro. Since I’ve installed dozens of projectors, I’m gonna hold your hand and walk you through the velvet ropes and lead you down the plushy carpeting all the way to the nice seats in front of the big screen of home theater Nirvana.  

Here’s everything you need to know about installing your new front projector!

Screen Size

Whole articles have been written on selecting the screen to use with your projector so I’m not going to go into that here. Suffice it to say, I’m going to assume that you’ve made the decision on the screen material, gain, aspect ratio, mounting type (fixed or roll-down) and all the other stuff. (For what it’s worth, I have a Draper Access MultiView Series V M1300 motorized screen in dual aspect ratio in my theater. It is 92-inches when 16×9 and 115-inches in 2.35:1. For more on aspect ratios, read this post.

The only thing we’re interested in here is the screen size. And by size I mean the width, because it is the screen’s width that is going to determine the throw distance and installation location of the projector. For the sake of math simplicity, let’s just assume that you are going to use a screen that has a 100-inch width (which would be 115-inches diagonal and 56-inches high for a 16×9 screen).

Throw Distance

Throw distance refers to the distance from a projector’s lens to the screen – every projector has one. Fortunately, most modern projectors have a pretty install-friendly throw distance, enabling them to work in nearly any room with a large array of screen sizes. If, however, you have an oddly-shaped room – say on with a peaked ceiling, or one that is very narrow – then throw distance will be a much bigger deal. Some higher end projectors manufacturers – take Runco, for example, offer different lens options that allow you to put the projector almost anywhere in a room.

 Projector ScreenFor the purpose of our hypothetical install, let’s use a JVC projector. All JVC projectors have a throw distance range of 1.4 to 2.8. This means that the front of the lens can be positioned anywhere between 1.4 to 2.8 times the screen width. So, with our 100-inch screen, we could place the projector anywhere from 140-inches (1.4 * 100) to 280-inches (2.8 * 100) from the front of the screen. Remember, that measurement involves the distance from the lens to the screen, so if your room was only 12 feet long (144-inches), you would have to go to a smaller screen to accommodate this projector.

Projector Location

Let’s say you have a perfect room and you could place the projector anywhere in that 140 – 280 inch location. What’s best? Well, I like to keep the projector away from the viewing position. There’s just something about that thing hovering over my head like a Star Destroyer that I’m not in love with. Also, even though modern projectors are really quiet, they still have some fan noise which is another reason to get them back behind the seating position. If you find the gentle whir of a projector fan comforting, then by all means, place it as near your head as possible. Using the shorter distance will provide the highest brightness, so if you are going with a really large screen, have a low-light-output projector or will be watching a lot of 3D, this might be important. Using the longer distance gives higher contrast, and also uses the center – or sweet-spot – of the lens for the sharpest image.

The vast majority of projectors that I’ve installed have been ceiling mounted, however you could also set the projector on a shelf, in a cabinet, or built into a custom soffit.

Cabling

If you have a front projector, that will likely mean that you have a home theater system and some kind of surround sound receiver or pre-amp/processor. Really, you only need a single HDMi cable going to the projector as all of the video switching and conversion will be done in your receiver. I’ve had good luck with Redmere HDMI cables which can handle 1080p video up to 60 feet. If you are going beyond 60-feet – or just want to future-proof your install – consider running couple of Cat6 cables. You can send HDMI up to 100-meters using a technology called HDBaseT. I’ve used it a bunch in the real world and the stuff works great. Also, pull a extra couple of Cat cables for IP connection and for controlling the projector or, you know, just for the good, clean fun that is pulling wire.

Sound

This shouldn’t even need to be said, but if you were thinking of using the internal speakers in your projector then stand up right now and double-punch yourself right in the jeans! I mean it. Punch-punch right to the jeans! Most projectors are now (thankfully) omitting speakers and the ones that still include them put them in – I believe – as an idiot-detector. I can only picture the engineers laughing to themselves hysterically each time they install one of the horrible 1-inch drivers. “I bet someone uses these! Ha-ha-ha-HA!” Don’t use them. Ever. If you don’t have a separate speaker system already then you aren’t ready for a front projector yet. Save up. Buy the audio system and then get the projector. Don’t worry; these tips will still be right here waiting to help you.

Ceiling Mount

The vast majority of projectors that I’ve installed have been ceiling mounted, however you could also set the projector on a shelf (done it) or in a cabinet (done it) or built into a custom soffit (done it). Shelf mounting means that the projector is sitting on its feet whereas ceiling mounting means that the projector is upside down. This is an important distinction because it gets into leans shifting and vertical offset, something I’ll talk about next. If you are mounting it, there are a variety of universal ceiling mounts available that feature independently adjustable “spider arms” to fit the mounting pattern of a huge array of projectors. I usually stick with mounts from larger companies like OmniMount, Peerless or Chief because they are constructed of sturdy metal and offer a variety of adjustments that let you really lock the projector down so it’s straight, level and won’t shift or drift over time. Chief has a handy “mount finder” on its site that can help you find the right mount for your specific projector.

Home theater projector setup

Horizontal Centering

Unless there is some act of God preventing you from being able to, center the lens horizontally on the screen. This will just ensure better things down the road and give you maximum flexibility in your vertical offset adjustment (below). Now,  some projectors do allow you to horizontally shift the lens, and if you abso-frickin-lutely can’t center the projector on the screen from some reason – or just totally F-up reading the tape measure when it comes to installing the mount – use horizontal lens shift, but do NOT tilt the projector left or right trying to fix this. (Also, refer to punching self in jeans above.)

Vertical Offset

I’m not gonna sugarcoat vertical offset; understanding it is a bit like that billiards scene in Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. Every frickin’ time I watch that scene I’m like, “Oh, yeah! I totally get it! That’s simple! I’m gonna go and crush someone at billiards!” But the second it’s over, I’m all, “How the hell did that diamond system work again?!?” (If you get that ref, drop me a comment below. We’re already destined for friendship.) Vertical offset is as important as throw distance when it comes to installing your projector, and refers to the amount above or below the screen that the projector lens can be installed.  It will be especially important if you have a high ceiling as you will likely need to use a down pole to lower the projector to the appropriate height. It is also definitely projector dependent, so before you go slapping your mount up on the ceiling, make sure you understand the offset range of your projector. For instance, JVC models offer 80% offset but above and below the screen whereas some models offer different and lesser amounts for up and down.

Most projectors are now (thankfully) omitting speakers and the ones that still include them put them in – I believe – as an idiot-detector.

Here’s how we can make practical use of offset with our JVC projector. Start by multiplying the vertical height of the screen – 56-inches – by 80% which results in 44.8. Then take one-half of the screen height – 56 * .5 – and you get 28. Now subtract 28 from 44.8 and you get 16.8. This is the amount that the center of the lens can be above or below the screen.

Here’s a more practical use of that math: In a room with a 10-foot (or 120-inches since it’s easier to deal in the same unit of measure) ceiling, you want to place the center of the screen at 60-inches for a nice comfortable viewing height. This means that the top of our screen will be at 88 inches (60 to the center, plus one-half of the 56-inch screen height). Since the projector’s lens can be 16.8 inches above the top of the screen – 88 + 16.8 = 104.8 – we would have to drop the projector roughly 16 inches from the ceiling to be correctly installed.

I also realize that understanding this just went all poof! (like Keyser Soze) the second you finished reading it. That’s OK. I had to go back and read it like 15 times myself.

Keystone (aka “The Tool of the Devil”)

Once the projector is installed, you want the front of it to be parallel to the screen and the top to be level. This will produce a straight, square and level image on the screen. If it isn’t straight, square and level, go back and fiddle with the mount until it is straight, square and level. Now, you might read in the installation manual that if you can’t get the projector at the right position vertically you can just tilt it up or down to fill the screen and then fix the geometry errors with some sorcery called keystone adjustment. It’s all, “La, la, la! We’ll skip down to Candy Land where geometry problems don’t matter and can be whisked away by the digital fairy! Hee-hee!” Don’t do it! This is the coward’s way out and a one-way ticket to ruining the highest of defs that you have paid for.

What happens when you tilt the projector up or down is you turn your nice beautiful, perfectly square and high-resolution rectangle into a hideous monster of a trapezoid. Images will be narrower (if you tilt the projector down) or wider (if you tilt the projector up) at the top. Keystone correction digitally “crushes” the sides of the image and restores a Frankenstein of a rectangle, but it does so at the expense of image quality. JVC even cautions, “Using the keystone feature will substantially decrease the image quality. JVC does not recommend its use for home theater applications.” So there. Just understand that if I ever come to your house and see that your projector has been tilted down and you are using keystone, I’m going to want to grab a stick and beat it down from your ceiling like a high-tech piñata. Then the stick and I are comin’ for your jeans…

Zoom/focus

At this point you are damn close to being done. Depending on your projector it will have either a motorized or manual zoom and focus lens adjustment. (I actually prefer the manual because it offers finer adjustment, but the motorized is nice because it allows you to get right up on the screen and really take a good close look at the focus.) Projectors usually have an internal test pattern that will look like some variation of this:

Projector pattern

Use the zoom and shift controls to get the test pattern image to perfectly square up on the screen. When done, check it against a variety of real-world material, both HD and non-HD. You might need to tweak the size a bit to get it to balance for each source.

For focus, I like to use the printing in the projector’s menu. Specifically, I get up to the screen and make the edges of the white text look as razor sharp as possible.

Picture Adjustments

At this point you’re ready to watch movies. But, actually you’re not. Why you’re still all giddy from the afterglow of a successful install, let’s take a moment to dial in some settings for a truly optimal picture, shall we? While the best picture will be obtained by hiring a professional ISF or THX-certified calibrator, the next best thing is to get a test disc like Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics or Spears & Munsil High-Definition Benchmark. These will walk you through setting the two most important picture adjustments on your new projector – contrast (peak white) and brightness (black level). Once you have these settings dialed in – using the same lighting conditions as when you will watch movies, of course – you’re ready to pop in a movie and enjoy!

Now, who’s hosting movie night first?

Some images courtesy of Shutterstock, via Artazum and Pixel 4 Images.

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