When a bedsheet won’t do: The ultimate guide to projector screens

How to Choose a Projector Screen

Updated 10/11/2015: This post was updated to remove inappropriate language.

Some things are just meant to go together. Haggis and neeps. Starsky and Hutch. Chuck Norris and beards. Vodka and a glass. The same is also true for video projectors and screens. In fact, front projectors are often referred to as “two piece projection systems” among the A/V cool kids; you know, the ones that used to wear nerd glasses and push around carts in high-school but now drive Italian sports cars and date super models.

But how do you go about selecting a projection screen? Can’t you just blast the image onto a white wall? How about getting a big, ole white sheet – a clean one, cause, you know… — and stretching that on your wall? Should you go with something white, grey or black? What exactly do you need to know about choosing a projection screen for your awesome new home theater system?

Basically it comes down to the four S’s: Style, Size, Shape, and Screen Material. And by “basically” I mean, here are over 5,000 words explaining nearly everything you would want to know about projection screens. So take the red pill and follow me down the rabbit hole as I walk you through selecting a screen that will deliver every juicy pixel of high-def goodness from your new projector.

Style

For a dedicated theater, a fixed screen is a great way to go

For all of the different models and glossy, oh-so-sexy product shots that you might see on websites, there are basically only two different styles of screens: fixed and retractable. A fixed screen stays on the wall all the time in a solid frame that has the screen material attached to it. It stretches to the frame, usually attaching by snaps, though sometimes it uses a hook-and-loop system. (It could also be a giant piece of glass material, but more on that later.) A retractable screen raises and lowers into a case on a roller. There are some manual screens – like what your science teacher used to pull down right before showing you some edutainment like, “DNA and You! What you need to know about the mysterious chain of life!”—but typically home theater projectors are motorized. There are certainly quality differences among both categories, but when it comes down to selecting a screen for your theater, this is the first decision that you’ll need to make.

Fixed

Because I am totally non-partial and don’t want to bias you, I won’t say which one… Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I’m gonna tell you which one I like better. When all else is equal, I always prefer a fixed screen for a number of reasons. One, they’re cheaper. Since I work hard* for my money, I like to save it wherever possible. You can purchase a relatively inexpensive fixed screen from companies like Elite Screens, Carada, Sima and Monoprice for a few hundred bucks. Second, since a fixed screen doesn’t have to roll up-and-down, it can maintain a really tight, tensioned surface for a perfectly smooth image. (If I wasn’t being clear, that is a good thing.) Third, from an installation and system integration standpoint, a fixed screen is easier. You don’t have to get power to it or figure out how to make it roll up-and-down with your remote control, it is just there, always ready and waiting to service your every movie watching need. For a dedicated theater, a fixed screen is a great way to go and is always my first recommendation. I mean, you are going into the room to watch movies, why does the screen need to be hidden? It’s not like a secret that there is going to be a screen in there.

Fixed-Projector-Zero-Edge

You might think fixed-is-fixed-is-fixed, but you’d be wrong. Depending on the manufacturer you choose, you’ll likely notice multiple models of fixed screens. And beyond the different build quality, the biggest differences between lower-end and flagship models will be the frame or border around the screen image. When you look for a fixed frame, I highly recommend getting one that has a thick – 3 to 4 inch – frame around it that is covered in a black, velour-like material. This border serves two really important purposes. First, because it frames the screen in a dead-as-a-shark’s-eye black, it focuses your eyes onto the bright image and improves the perceived contrast of the image. Second, you might need to zoom the image out beyond the screen for some reason, and this black material will “kill” this image overspray, again making the picture look better. Some manufacturers, like Screen Innovations Zero Edge, are touting screens with no borders and how they can look like a giant flat panel and not like a projection screen, but frankly, I’m against it. Just like the black drapes in a commercial theater help the image to look better, the black frame around the screen is there to help you, so I say let it. Also, from an install standpoint, there is zero room for error with Zero Edge.

(* Yes, I consider sitting on my couch, drinking a cappuccino and listening to Rhapsody on my awesome audio system as I type this hard work. Your definition may vary.)

Retractable

For all the love I have for fixed screens, I personally own a motorized screen. Yup. There are times in this world where you might want something for all the right reasons, but still have to go with something else. So why would you go with a retractable screen if it costs more, is more complicated to integrate and might also not produce as flat a screen surface? Primarily if you are installing a screen into a multi-use space like a living or family room where having a 120-inch screen-of-awesome hanging down all the time might get you served divorce papers. In my system I have a 60-inch Plasma TV that we watch during the day and the screen lowers down in front of it when we want to watch movies at night. So, motorized screens definitely serve a purpose in the non-dedicated room and can be great problem solvers. And yes, my system is awesome, thanks for asking.

…motorized screens definitely serve a purpose in the non-dedicated room and can be great problem solvers.

When choosing a retractable screen, you’ll have some different case and mounting options; do you want it to be mounted to the wall, to the ceiling, recessed into a soffit or attic? Also, are you going to sack up and go with a motorized screen or chintz out and go manual? You’ll have to make those decisions based on your room, needs, budget and how loud you want me to groan when I come over and see you manually pulling down your screen. (Are you getting the sense that I’m totally against a manual pull down? Cause, that.)

The big buzzword you want to pay attention to in your retractable screen buying journey is something that says “tab tensioned” or “tensioning.” This is a system that keeps the screen area perfectly flat when it is unfurled and ready to use. Manufacturers employ tensioning using different methods, but the result is that a tensioned screen remains tight and flat over its entire viewing surface. Without the tensioning, you get curling and wrinkling in the screen that – and I believe this is the technical term – really sucks.

Retractable-screen

There are a variety of ways to raise and lower your screen, and you’ll want to make sure you select the option that best suits your needs and system. Here are the choices you’re likely to encounter:

• Manual – You getting up out of your chair and lowering the screen down. Probably using some kind of hook-and-stick method. This will save you money, but result in years – possibly even a lifetime – of ridicule. Unless you are a high-school science teacher that only shows a film once-a-year, save up and get a motorized screen.

• Wall Switch – This is pretty useless in my opinion, because who wants to get up and press a switch to raise and lower their screen? This is usually a popular option in boardrooms and things, I think primarily so some big wig can yell out, “Dammit, Johnson! Get up and lower the screen so we can start this frickin’ Power Point! And get me another latte!”

• Radio Frequency Remote – This is cool because you don’t have to point it and it usually has great range, but RF is impossible to integrate with a universal remote control system, so unless you like having a separate remote for your screen, I’d take a pass on this one.

• Low-Voltage Trigger – This is a handy little devil that can drop the screen when a projector with an equally handy trigger output turns on and then raise it when the projector turns off. Easy-breasy! From an integration standpoint this is incredibly reliable and cheap, but does require a cable from projector to screen and a projector (or some other device, like an automation system) with a trigger output

• RS-232 – If you are going to be doing something complicated – like masking, which I’ll take about later – then you will need more than just “screen up” and “screen down” commands, and RS-232 will give you a lot more commands and reliability. If you have an advanced control system by the likes of Crestron, AMX or Control4, then RS-232 might be the solution for you.

• Infra-red – Good o’le, reliable infra-red! So cheap and easy, readily available and massively supported! This is the easiest way to integrate a motorized screen with nearly any third party – Harmony, URC, RTI, etc. – control system.

Painted

So, a painted wall isn’t really a style, but I guess it is and it is a question that gets asked enough, as in, “Why can’t I just shine the image onto my wall? My wall is white. The screen is white. So why should I spend all that money on a screen? You tryin’ to rip me off here?!?”

Yes, you could fire your projector onto a wall. And, yes, you would see an image. But, it wouldn’t be a great image. A wall has texture and imperfections to it, and that texture is going to be visible when you are shining an image on it. Now, I guess you could sand, paint, sand, paint over-and-over until you either went blind or eventually got to a perfectly smooth area to project an image, but then what color of white are you going to go with? Alpine White? Winter White? Snow White? Wiggity White? Also, the surface of a dedicated screen is formulated to reflect light back to you, the paying viewer, whereas paint isn’t designed to do this and will scatter light helter skelter all over the place. This actually washes out the image and kills contrast. Will your painted wall have hot spotting? Will it have off-angle viewing issues? Will it affect the color temp accuracy of the projected image? Who can say? It’s paint.

wall-painting

To be fair, there is another option out there from a company called Screen Goo which manufactures a specially formulated material that you paint onto your wall that is supposed to deliver terrific, equal-to-a-screen results. I’ve never personally used it – or even seen it in action – and I think it is one of those things that if you are really a hardcore DIY-er, and you are really good and careful at painting and making your wall surface smooth, and you love the satisfaction of popping a beer at the end of the day and saying, “You see that. Yeah. I did it,” then maybe you could get a good result. However, the Goo isn’t cheap – kits are around $260 – and you still have all of your time and labor, and the uncertainty of how it will turn out. With a fixed screen being so inexpensive and guaranteed of delivering a known result, I just don’t think Goo is worth the gamble. However if you’ve used Screen Goo and love it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Size

Whether you’re watching sports, or your favorite blockbuster, there’s nothing like a really massive screen. But, before you shout, “I want a screen SO big, that it will be an affront before the very face of God!” there are a variety of factors that will influence what size screen you should purchase. Things like the size of your wall, your viewing distance, and your projector.

In my experience, the most popular screen sizes are between 100 – 120-inches diagonal as they give a real cinematic experience, fit into most rooms and seating distances, and won’t overwhelm most projectors. But, let’s explore these sizing factors a little further, shall we? (That was rhetorical. We are going to do it whether you like it or not. Settle in.)

Wall Size

Usually wall height is the issue, but you might have a width issue if you are planning on installing a screen between two windows or if you are putting it in a room over the garage that has an A-Frame construction where the side walls angle up and in to the ceiling. If you have some physical wall size restriction, this will likely determine the maximum size of your screen.

A bigger problem will likely be site lines, as in, can everyone in the room see the entire screen.

For most rooms with an 8 to 9 foot ceiling and 10 to 12 feet of width, this likely won’t be an issue. A bigger problem will likely be site lines. As in: Can everyone in the room see the entire screen. With a large screen, being able to see the bottom is often an issue, especially when you are going to have multiple rows of seating. Let’s do a little math, shall we? Let’s take a 120-inch 16 x 9 aspect screen. This measures roughly 59 high by 105 wide. If we add 3.5 inches all around for our nice frame, we are at 66 x 112. An eight foot wall is 96-inches. So if we jam our screen right to the very ceiling, the bottom of the screen image will be at (96 – 3.5– 59) 33.5 inches up from the floor. (We don’t measure the full 7-inches of screen frame because the bottom portion of the frame isn’t necessary for calculating.) Make a line at 33.5-inches on your wall and then sit in the second row of your theater with someone in front of you. Can you see it? If not, you need to go to a smaller screen. Or build a taller riser for your second row. Or just tell the people in the back row to suck it, and to buy their own damn theater if they don’t like it.

Viewing Distance

Even if your wall could handle the Great Pyramid of projection screens, your eyes probably still aren’t up to the task. Usually the limiting factor will be your seating distance from the screen. In the past, we used to worry about things like seeing scanning lines or pixels, but with 1080p and 2-plus-million glorious pixels of information – not to mention the likely imminent arrival of 4K with over 8-million pixels! – you likely would never see a pixel even at viewing distances that even a front-row junkie would consider insanely close.

More problematic is if the image exceeds what is known as your eye’s subtended viewing angle. (For the math challenged, a subtended angle is the angle made by a line or object.) What this means is that you don’t want to be so close to the image – or have an image so large – that it exceeds what your eyes can take in and you are forced to actively move your eyes (or head) across a large area tennis match style. This is fatiguing and can lead to headaches, which is generally something you want to avoid when designing something meant for entertainment.

how to choose a projector screen viewing distance

However, like all things in technology, there isn’t one “right” answer on how close is too close, and there are two schools of thought on the maximum viewing angle. SMPTE (pronounced “simp-tee” and standing for Society Motion Picture and Television Engineers) feels that the max should be 30-degrees. The folks over at THX (pronounced “tee-aitch-ex” which is part of the name of George Lucas’ first film and rumored to stand for “Tomlinson Holman Xperiment”) feel that your eyes should be tough and take a beat-in La Raza Nation style, enduring a full 36-degrees. Either way, calculating this is tricky with cosines and other weird Greek-looking symbols and fraction thingies, so I just use this handy calculator.

According to the maths, if you have a 120-inch diagonal 16×9 screen you should sit no closer than 16.3 (SMPTE) or 13.4 (THX) feet from the screen. So, if your room isn’t this long, then maybe you should go with a smaller screen. Or buy some Tylenol.

Projector

Home Theater ProjectThe last piece of the screen sizing puzzle is the projector. That poor thing can only put out so much light, and the bigger the screen, the dimmer it will be. I like to use a MagLite flashlight as an analogy. You know how you can dial down a MagLite’s beam until you get a focused cone of that will sear the hair off of someone’s face? Or you can make the beam into a big, wide circle that throws out a soft, gentle globe of light? Same with a projector; there is one light engine and smaller is brighter and bigger is dimmer. Now, “dim” is relative, as some projectors are frickin’ light cannons that blast out lumens like they are going out of style. Do not believe what you have heard; lumens are definitely not going out of style.

When it comes to understanding projector light output, you are going to read terms like lumens – the amount of light coming out of the projector – and footlamberts (ft-L) – the measure of light that comes off the screen. As a point of reference, those crazy boys at SMPTE came up with another standard, this time called SMPTE 196M, titled “Indoor Theatre and Review Room Projection – Screen Luminance and Viewing Conditions.” This specifies that a commercial theater projector should produce 16 ft-L from the screen. It’s important to note that this is measured “open-gate,” or without film in the projector, and usually drops to around 12 ft-L when the film is being shown.

Shape

While there are multiple aspect ratios – 4×3, 1.77:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1, 2.40:1 – there are basically only two aspects – or screen shapes – that you need to worry about if we’re talking about a home projection screen: 16×9 or 2.40:1. (While 2.35:1 is also popular, it seems that the industry is moving to 2.40:1, and in reality, they are very close in size/shape.)

Deciding which aspect is right for you will depend primarily on what you watch the most. If you principally watch TV, sports or play video games, then you will want to go with a 16×9 screen. That way the full screen area will be entirely filled with an image the majority of time. However, if movies – principally movies on Blu-ray – are your thing, then a widescreen, cinemascope 2.40:1 aspect screen will allow you to enjoy the biggest image possible. (For more on understanding the benefits of anamorphic projection, read my post “Why you should embrace black bars.

Masking eliminates the white area – or the “dreaded black bars” – around an image and replaces it with sweet, video enhancing, eye-focusing black.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be a one-or-the-other choice. With the magic of technology you can enjoy both aspects, ensuring that you have a giant, cinematic screen when you watch Star Wars VII, and also enjoy the Super Bowl and Survivor without a bunch of white space. The solution is called masking and it is offered as an option by all the top screen manufacturers.

Masking eliminates the white area – or the “dreaded black bars” – around an image and replaces it with sweet, video enhancing, eye-focusing black. The benefit is just like the black frame around the screen; it draws the eye to the active image and improves perceived contrast.

There are primarily two ways to mask a screen. Vertical masking turns a 16×9 screen into a 2.40:1 viewing area, and horizontal masking turns a 2.40:1 screen into 16×9. Again, the right way to go for you will depend on what you want more. My personal screen is a Draper Access/MultiView Series V that is 115-inches when fully opened in 2.35:1 aspect, and masks down to 92-inches at 16×9. Personally I like blockbuster movies like Lord of the Rings and Iron Man to be bigger and more impressive than Teen Mom or Hell’s Kitchen, but if you’re a gamer or a sports nut, you might want those images to be bigger.

Some screens, like Stewart Filmscreen’s Director’s Choice and Screen Research’s X-Mask use both horizontal and vertical masking to achieve any aspect ratio imaginable, so you will have a perfect image whether it is old-school 4×3 TV, 1.66:1 on some Disney animated titles, 16×9 of HDTV, 1.85:1 of Academy Flat, or any of the many scope aspects all the way up to the full-on hardcore, pipe-hittin’ 2.93:1 Ben Hur. However these 4-way masking systems are muy-muy expensive, and that sting you feel will be in your wallet if you decide to get one.

Director's Choice screen

#ProTip: Want to have a masking system on the cheaps plan? Get a 2.40:1 screen and then mask it down with drapery that you manually open/close yourself. This could save you some serious duckets and still deliver an awesome experience, and provide for a very cinematic reveal as the drape opens to show the screen when you’re ready for the movie to start.

No Trouble with the Curve

With more home theaters embracing 2.40:1 aspect projection – either through an external anamorphic lens like the Panamorph DC-1 I use or the zoom-out method – a new type of screen is available from many manufacturers – Stewart Filmscreen, Screen Innovations, Screen Research, DNP, Elite Screens, Draper – that has a slight (usually around 40 degrees) curve. A curved screen offers three principal improvements over a traditional flat screen in that it helps to eliminate pincushion distortion (kind of like a small smile/frown in the top and bottom edges of the image), better wraps the image around your periphery for a more engaging experience, and more evenly reflects lighting back to viewers from edge-to-edge with no hot-spotting for a more perfect picture. When you get into curve screen territory, you are into some serious home theater action so, respect. However, a curved screen must be fixed, not retractable, and generally has a larger frame around the screen and costs more. Also, adding masking to a curved screen can be crazy expensive. But if your wallet is up to the challenge, a curved screen with masking can deliver the most cinematic experience possible.

Screen Material

So far we’ve talked a ton about choosing a screen, but we haven’t actually talked anything about the actual screen at all! This has all been training, young grasshopper. I feel you are now ready to snatch this pebble from my hand, and we’ve finally arrived at what is without question the most important decision you will make when selecting your screen: the material.

When choosing the proper material for your projector, the two principal things you’ll want to keep in mind are color and gain. Additionally you might also need to consider acoustic transparency and rear projection options and maybe something special for your 3D needs. Let’s discuss…

Color

When you think “projection screen” you probably think of a white screen, and that’s true for the vast majority of screens. However, screens also come in shades of grey/silver and even black. Yes. Black. For a projection screen. Why would you ever select a screen color other than white? Because your room is too bright.

If your room has a ton of light, like say a living room without window treatments then you should seriously consider Screen Innovations’ Black Diamond.

If you have a perfectly dark room – or significant control over the amount of ambient lighting – then go with a white screen. It will offer the most options from every manufacturer and will produce the most uniform, reference looking image and deliver the most from your projector. Every projector reviewer I know uses a white screen, so if your room allows it, white-is-right.

However, if you like to watch with the lights on or you want to put a projector in a room that can’t be made dark then white might not be right. A white screen is easily washed out with even a little light in the room, causing blacks to disappear. Fortunately, screen materials like Stewart Filmscreen’s Firehawk or Draper’s XS850E have a silver color to them and are designed to reject ambient lighting and deliver a great image while the lights are still on.

If your room has a ton of light – say a living room with no window treatments – then you should seriously consider Screen Innovations’ Black Diamond. This screen is totally black in color, but produces amazing images even in a fully lit room. (There can be no lights 90-degrees to the screen.) Additionally, since the Black Diamond is black, with the lights out you can’t see the screen so you don’t need to invest in a masking system. Bonus.

Gain

All screens have a “gain” and since bigger is always better, you want to get the screen with the highest gain possible, right? Like a gain of 10 or something would be at least ten times – possibly even exponentially better – than a 1.0 gain screen, right?! Wrong.

Gain refers to the amount of light the screen reflects compared to a reference, uniform reflecting surface called a Lambertian surface. Whereas the perfect Lambertian surface scatters light evenly in all directions – not a good thing for projection as this will actually wash out the image – a screen is designed to focus light back towards the viewer.

In a light-controlled room – ie: dark – a lower gain will produce a better picture

The problem with adding gain is that it can create hotspotting, where the center of the image is noticeably brighter than the sides. It also cuts down on your off-angle viewing, where the image will be much dimmer off to the sides. This may not a problem if everyone – or at least you – are sitting directly in front of the screen, but could be an issue if you have a wide room with people sitting all over the place.

In a light-controlled room – ie: dark – a lower gain will produce a better picture, and the screens that are generally considered to be “reference standard” – like the ones that they master the movies on in Hollywood and that highfalutin equipment reviewers use – have a gain of somewhere between 1.0 and 1.3. If you have a narrow room, or are trying to drive a large screen with a low-lumen projector, then you can increase gain as needed. To quote video reviewer extraordinaire, Geoff Morrison, “I don’t recommend ultra-high-gain screens, at least not for most people. Most projectors these days are plenty bright, and I prefer a smooth, uniform image over a few extra footlamberts.” If you think you know more than Geoff, then proceed accordingly.

You might stumble across screens with a gain of less than one, like .8. These are called “negative gain” screens, actually reflecting less light than the projector outputs. In the early days of digital projection, when projectors couldn’t really produce a really deep, inky-dark black, these grey, negative gain screen helped to make a darker image and bumped up contrast ratio. However, modern projectors can produce a quality black level and I think the “benefits” of the negative gain screen are outweighed by the lower light output.

Acoustically Transparent

Know where the speakers are in a commercial theater? Take a drink if you said behind the screen. (Take two drinks if you didn’t.) If you ever get up close to a commercial movie screen you’ll likely notice many little tiny holes in the screen called perforations, or perfs. These perfs allow the sound to pass through the screen to your precious little movie-listening ears. If you want to recreate this experience at home, then you’ll need what is called an acoustically transparent screen. The potential drawback with perf screens at home is that since you are sitting closer to the screen, you are more likely to notice all of the little holes. Also, because there are a bunch of little holes that let light shine through, you lose a bit of light output from your projector. Finally, with some perf screens, you can get a moire pattern with the pixel structure of your DLP or LCD projector, not a good thing. Another option is a woven screen. This is a fabric similar to a speaker grille cloth that doesn’t have any holes or introduce moire while still letting sound pass through. However, you might notice texture in a woven screen depending on how close you sit. No material is 100% perfectly transparent to sound, so you might need to either bump the volume or use some equalization to account for the screen’s effect on the sound.

Rear Projection

Virtually any projector can be used in a rear projection application, where the projector is behind the screen. With the projector housed in a completely darkened room, you can enjoy a terrific image no matter what the lighting condition is in the room. You also don’t have to worry about any projector fan noise, have to endure that one jack-ass that always thinks he’s being cute by making shadow puppets on the screen – “Look! The Godfather has rabbit ears! Aren’t I hysterical?!” – or even have to see the projector. There are a lot of installation issues when going with a rear-pro install, but when done right, it can be crazy awesome. One of the best materials I know for a rear-pro application is Stewart Filmscreen’s StarGlas. You’re definitely into custom install territory here, so talk to your installer about different options.

3D

Stewartfilm-3D1

If you just have a regular projector that does 3D – as in you have only one projector, not two – you won’t need to have a special screen to enjoy 3D. However, if you are lucky enough to have a dual-projection system for 3D – a separate projector for both left eye and right eye like Runco’s d-73D – then you will need a special material that retains the polarization needed to achieve the 3D effect. In this case, you’ll need a polarization preservation screen like a Mocomtech, Stewart Silver 5D or Elite Screens AirBright 3D2. These also generally have very high gain to deliver a crazy bright image to counteract the much lower light output of a 3D presentation.

To deliver the best compromise between 2D and 3D viewing, some companies have created screen materials they are calling 5D – 2D + 3D = 5D, get it? – to offer the best of both worlds. Elite Screens offers the AirBright 5D and Stewart has the Silver 5D, and if you watching a lot of 2D and 3D material on your dual-projection system, these might be the perfect solution.

Phew. That’s it. That’s all I got. If there is still a question you have on projection screens, feel free to ask it in the comments. Otherwise, it’s time to stop reading and start watching!

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