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How to choose a home theatre projector

Plus tips on projector setup

Even though TVs keep getting bigger, projectors come closer to truly re-creating the viewing experience of a movie theater. Whether you prefer movies, sports, gaming, or a mix of entertainment, a larger screen is the most impactful upgrade you can make. The biggest TV we currently sell is 86", while many projector systems have screens that are 120" or larger.

I got my first projector about 10 years ago — a Sony HD model that I use with an 84" screen. Recently, as 4K TV screen sizes have grown and their prices have shrunk, people have asked me if I'll keep using a projector or switch to a TV.

I plan to stick with a projector because I find the natural look of projected images easier on the eyes — there's no glare from looking through a sheet of glass. But it's a matter of taste, and projectors don't make sense for everyone and every room.

Movie night with a projector

Projected images will always look best in a dimly lit or darkened room, but not everyone wants a dedicated home theater. There are other options.

If you're considering a projector, this article will cover the basics and what to look for. I'll mainly be discussing home theater projectors, but we do carry some business projectors in our commercial display section, as well as a few pocket projectors for personal use and travel.

Projector vs TV

Unlike a TV, a projector is really a two-piece system: the projector and the screen. Projector screens come in a variety of sizes, with surfaces that are optimized for different projectors and room lighting. 

Home theater projectors typically have fewer inputs than TVs, and most lack any type of built-in tuner or internet capability. Most projectors have two HDMI inputs for connecting Blu-ray players, satellite receivers or cable boxes, video game consoles, and media streamers like Apple TV® and Roku.

Actually, most projector owners, myself included, still own at least one TV, too. The projector experience is great for movies, or any other viewing where you're really immersed in what's happening on the screen. But if you just want to catch a few minutes of news before bedtime, firing up a projector rig can be a little inconvenient.

Is a projector a good fit for you and your room?

There are a couple of important things to be aware of if you're considering a projector. Your room lighting and viewing habits play a key role in your projector's performance.

Ambient light

For the best projector performance in a home theater, try to 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.

My projector system is in a windowless basement. With the lights off, it's darker than any movie theater I've been in. If you plan to use a projector in a room that gets a lot of sunlight, you can always limit your viewing to nighttime. Or consider installing blackout shades on the windows.

Many LCD projectors, like the Epson models we sell, can produce very bright images that look good even in rooms with some ambient light. Special ambient light rejecting (ALR) screens use multiple layers and optical coatings to negate the effects of ambient room light. 

158HW45ES sony projector

Higher-brightness projectors and ambient light rejecting screens can work together to create beautifully crisp pictures even with room lights on.

Your viewing habits

The second factor to consider is the life of your projector's light source. Most projectors rely on a lamp (bulb) with a typical life of 2,000-5,000 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 bulbs that cost between $200 and $500.

Projector owners who mostly watch movies and special events run their projectors an average of about 8 hours a week. For a projector with a 2,000-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.

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

A projector's picture is created by a high-resolution LCD, DLP, or LCoS imaging chip (Sony calls their LCoS technology SXRD). The light source is an ultra-high-intensity lamp, or super-bright LEDs or lasers in more expensive models. Spending more on a projector will generally get you higher resolution, better video processing and scaling circuitry, and higher-quality lenses.

These days, the projectors from major manufacturers all look impressive. But each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and no single model will be the best choice for every application. You can get a general idea about how a projector will perform by comparing three key specifications: resolution, light output, and contrast.

Resolution

The term "resolution" refers to 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 also carry some 4K Ultra HD projectors with 4096 x 2160-pixel resolution — over four times the detail of Full HD.

As the resolution gets higher, the size of each pixel gets smaller. This results in images that look more seamless, with less noticeable "pixel structure." A projector's built-in scaler will upconvert or downconvert all incoming signals to precisely match its native resolution.

4k enhancement comparison

Compared to HD resolution, 4K makes the main objects in any scene look sharper. It also reveals more background detail, so images look more realistic and dimensional.

A few manufacturers make pixel-shifting 1080p projectors that work with 4K video sources. The picture can approach the quality of a native 4K projector, and definitely looks sharper than 1080p.

Light output (brightness)

Home theater projectors typically have brightness ratings of 700-2,500 lumens. All projectors have plenty of brightness for watching movies in a dimly-lit or darkened room. Higher light output will help keep the picture looking crisp in a room with more ambient light. Higher brightness also helps if you're displaying an extra-large image (110" or bigger).

Contrast

Contrast is arguably the most important factor of picture quality. The contrast ratio spec measures the difference between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks a projector can show. A higher contrast ratio can produce a picture with deeper blacks and more subtle color detail.

Good contrast is critical for home theater projectors. Many models have settings that let you reduce brightness and boost contrast for the best viewing in a darkened room. Some 4K projectors include HDR (High Dynamic Range) capability. They can produce greater picture contrast extremes when decoding HDR-enhanced video sources like Ultra HD Blu-ray and 4K content from streaming services like Netflix® and Amazon Prime Video.

A few more features to consider

In addition to the important specs outlined above, the following features can add impact and convenience to your projector setup. 

3D

3D effects can be very convincing with projected images. Bright projectors improve 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 help 3D images look bright and crisp.
Epson wireless HDMI transmitter

Wireless HDMI technology lets you avoid long cable runs. You plug your video sources into the transmitter module, which sends the signal to the wireless receiver built into the projector.

Wireless HDMI

Some movie fans who want to upgrade 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.

Lens shift

Projectors with lens shift allow 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.

Ultra short throw (UST)

Ultra Short Throw (UST) projectors can help you enjoy the big-screen projector experience in rooms where it might not otherwise be possible. The design of a UST projector simplifies installation because you can place it directly under the screen, on a low table or credenza.

short throw projector

Ultra Short Throw projectors can be placed directly under the screen. There are no hassles with ceiling mounting or long cable runs between your components and the projector.

A UST projector can actually sit on top of your A/V equipment cabinet, right next to your video sources. We even carry custom cabinets designed specifically for UST projectors. With this kind of setup, you don't have to worry about long cable runs between your components and your projector. Plus, it's just about impossible for anyone to walk in front of the projector and create a shadow on the screen!

A UST's lens design and steep projection angle will magnify even minor surface imperfections, so a high-quality fixed-frame screen with white or gray fabric should work well in most rooms. There are also specially designed screens for optimal image quality with a UST projector.

Best projectors for outdoor use

Outdoor movie nights are becoming a popular pastime. To get a good, crisp image on an outdoor screen, you'll want a projector with at least HD resolution and high light output. We recommend a minimum of 2,000 lumens to cut through outdoor light pollution. LCD-based projectors have the highest light output, so they work well outdoors. You can find both long and short throw varieties for flexible placement options. 

Projector placement tips

Most folks use their projectors mainly for "event viewing" — movies at night, and the occasional sports broadcast. If that's your plan, the simplest option is to set up the projector on a table or other flat surface. You can 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 an 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 installation is 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 can be raised for table placement, and similarly lowered for ceiling mounting. Note that for ceiling mounting, you typically flip the projector upside-down.

As the illustration above shows, a projector's image doesn't follow the lens precisely. The image is offset a bit to allow placement on a table or ceiling mounting.

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, try to have at least a rough idea of how large an image you want to project. 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. That's a smart choice for smaller rooms where the projector will be 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.

ceiling mounted projector

Mounting a projector on the ceiling gets it up and out of the way. This typical long-throw setup places the projector at or 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 the projector and screen aren't correctly aligned, 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 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.

Don't forget the screen!

To get the best picture quality from any projector, you should get a screen that is a good match for your projector and room. Check out our projector screen buying guide for more information on choosing the right screen.

Personalized advice from our team of experts

Have questions about which projector would best fit your room and viewing preferences? Our expert Advisors know the gear inside and out. Call, email, or chat with us today

Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.

Last updated 7/17/2020