If you want to go big in your home theater, you’re probably arguing with yourself over whether to pick up the largest television in your budget or a projector and screen. On the one hand, projectors have gotten a lot brighter and more affordable over the last few years and they’re no longer limited to HD resolution. But on the other hand, TVs are now bigger, clearer, and brighter than ever thanks to 4K resolution (and now 8K resolution) with HDR.
Indeed, both options have their pros and cons, and there are specific scenarios where one would be a better pick over the other. To help you decide which will work best in your own home theater, we’ve put together this guide comparing projectors and TVs — detailing how the two differ in terms of price, picture quality, installation, sound quality, and convenience.
TVs were once woefully behind projectors in terms of size, but the gap is much closer these days; you can get an 85-inch TV for less than $3,000. Affordable projection screens tend to start around 100-120 inches, though, and you can get a decent projector with solid brightness, good color reproduction, and even 4K resolution for a lot less than a high-end 4K UHD TV, starting as low as $899. So, while TVs are on the move, projectors are still, by a very wide margin, the most cost-effective way to get a mondo-sized screen.
Brightness is a big consideration with projectors, largely because perceived contrast will come down to how dark the room is or isn’t. The more ambient light there is in a room, the more brightness you’ll need in order to ensure the picture doesn’t wash out. High brightness drives up projector costs in a hurry, though. Most projectors in the $2,000 range, for instance, produce somewhere between 1,500-3,000 lumens. Because projectors bounce light off a screen, their actual brightness winds up being much lower once it hits your eyes.
Most $1,000 LED TVs are easily capable of producing much higher brightness, but keep in mind, TVs measure their brightness in nits, not lumens. Projector/screen combinations simply have to work harder to get anywhere near as bright as even a budget LED TV, and the trouble with projector bulbs is that they dim over time — ultimately burning out — and are costly to replace. Laser projectors (or Laser TVs as they’re being called) eliminate the bulb-replacement problem, but they’re still not quite as bright as TVs.
On the flip side, if you can get your viewing room really dark, a projector’s reflected light can be quite comfortable to watch. There’s a reason movie theater screens are easy on the eyes. In the end, if you want a bright and vibrant picture in any light, with little to no upkeep costs involved, you’ll want to go with a TV.
Contrast is determined by a combination of black levels and brightness. While a projector’s brightness capabilities can be guessed at by looking at its lumen rating, black levels are determined mostly by how dark you can get your projection room. Certainly, a bunch of ambient light can wash a television out, too, but they can battle with ambient light and heighten perceived contrast, whereas most projectors don’t stand a chance.
Premium 4K TVs, with their wide color gamut and high dynamic range (there’s that contrast thing again!), are expensive. But high-performance 4K HDR projectors? Astronomical. You’re better off paying for a good 4K HDR TV and supplementing with a sound system — or an Ultra HD Blu-ray player — than you are buying a high-end 4K HDR projector. While there are some decent 4K HDR projectors available for about $1,500-$2,000, they can’t touch the performance of a comparably priced TV.
Moreover, if you’re completely obsessed with getting the highest resolution possible, only TVs can offer you 8K resolution — 8K projectors for the home are still essentially non-existent.
When it comes to resolution per dollar, TVs win in a landslide.
You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to get decent color from a projector. Depending on the projector type (DLP, 3-chip LCD, or LCOS) you can obtain great color at a nice price. On the other hand, TVs require more effort and better processing to produce the best color, thereby driving up the price. The best 4K TVs can produce a wider color gamut than most consumer projectors can at this point, but projectors are very close. This is especially true of TVs armed with high dynamic range, or HDR (though projectors with HDR are becoming more common, too).
If we look exclusively at price-to-performance, TVs come out on top. If price isn’t an issue, and you can invest a large sum into a light-controlled projector room, you can get a much larger image with outstanding image quality. So for this one, we’ll call it a draw.
The short answer is that TVs are easier to install. Large TVs may be heavy and a little fragile, but they’re simple to place in a home theater setup and easy to use. Plus, they act as a great unifier for your devices and equipment, since everything plugs directly into the TV itself and, in most cases, is even controlled via the TV’s remote. Unless you’re mounting the TV to a wall, installation is relatively painless. And even if you do opt for the wall-mounted setup, you’ll be able to complete the project on your own. Should you need an installer, their job will be quick and cheap.
Projectors can be complicated, requiring more planning and effort to install. The first issue is your screen. Will you be painting a wall, setting up a free-standing screen, or opting for a motorized screen that will need to be attached to your ceiling or wall? Regardless of the method, you’ll need to be sure you have the necessary space — those screens are big. Then, you’ll need to make sure the projector is correctly positioned, which is a bigger challenge than you might think. In fact, we’re going to suggest you hire a professional installer, or at least do a serious study of our projector installation guide.
Also, you’re going to need to route HDMI cable(s) to your projector or go with wireless transmitters, which adds to cost. And unless you only plan on connecting one or two sources, you’ll want an A/V receiver or at least an HDMI switcher so that you only have to run one HDMI cable up to your projector, but still connect several sources like a game console, streaming device, Blu-ray player, and cable/satellite box. But there’s more to the story here. Short-throw, laser-based projectors are becoming more common in 2020, allowing you to set up on a table, or even on the floor, as is the case with LG’s CineBeam HU80KA 4K UHD projector, which can be easily set on the floor in front of your screen (and looks amazing). The latest laser projectors can sit even closer — often less than 10 inches from the wall — and come equipped with their own built-in soundbars, further narrowing the installation-difficulty gap.
Still, as a rule, as long as you’ve got a TV console — and you aren’t mounting your set — TVs are the winner here.
TVs are the better choice here, and for one simple reason: TVs actually have speakers, and sometimes decent ones at that. Some projectors include speakers, sure, but with the exception of the new laser-based models we mentioned above, they’re usually tiny and tinny and are often positioned behind or above viewers’ heads.
On the other hand, we couldn’t forgive ourselves if we didn’t talk seriously about the speaker setup in your home theater — this article is all about finding the best home theater experience for your home, after all. External speakers, subwoofers, and soundbars all exist for a reason. Many TVs will give you OK sound right out of the box, but their primary role is video. If you really want to get the most out of your home theater, whether you’re using a TV or projector, a solid sound system will make a huge difference. If you’re looking for the best possible sound options, give our recommendations for the best soundbars a look, and read our guide to creating a great surround sound setup.
Still, comparing just TVs and projectors, external speakers are almost always a requirement for projectors, while a high-quality TV can handle basic audio needs on its own.
If it’s not readily apparent, TVs are the more convenient option. They’re simpler to use, require less planning and effort to set up, you won’t be disrupted by ambient light or objects casting shadows on the screen, and you can rest easy knowing a TV will never go out of focus or require a bulb replacement. Plus, it’s not all that difficult to find an affordable smart TV that features built-in streaming capabilities, voice control, and oodles of applications — though more and more projectors are popping up with added smarts.
There is a growing market for smaller, more easily installed projectors, and even portable projectors, but they still require fiddling with the installation. Sure, newer projectors often sport features like adjustable lenses and zoom, and “short throw” projectors only need to be a few inches away from the screen, but even so, the fact is that TVs are simply easier to install and use. Although if you want to watch in 3D, you’ll have to sacrifice convenience as the immersive viewing standard has rapidly become obsolete in the television world.
If you tally up the points, TVs win by a landslide. No question.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a TV is the best choice for you, though.
Throughout the categories, we detailed an ideal projector setup: Blacked-out room, wall-sized screen, carefully arranged furniture, and a rocking sound system attached. It’s an involved setup — and a pricey one — but nothing else delivers the cinematic experience (3D and all) of a projector-driven home theater. And if that’s what you’re after, some diligence, a little planning, and some patience will deliver a knockout performance that will keep your friends knocking down your door for years to come.
Set on keeping it simple? Take a look at our collection of the best TVs on the market right now to meet the television of your dreams. Operating on a strict budget? We’ve also rounded up all the best TVs under $1,000 and the best TVs under $500.
- The best home theater projectors for 2020
- The best TVs for 2020
- The best HDMI cables for 2020
- The 2020 4K TV buying guide: Everything you need to know before you go shopping
- QLED vs. OLED TV: What’s the difference, and why does it matter?