Tech 101: A Crash Course in Home Theater Projection Screens

Tech 101: A Crash Course in Home Theater Projection Screens

Jason Yang
Mar 19, 2012

The Apartment Therapy team has talked plenty about projection screen setups in homes, and how, if we had the space and money, we'd all love the big screen movie experience. If you're ready to dive into the home theater experience, there are so many screen options that it can be mind boggling. We're here to help break down your options, from both a technical and aesthetic point of view.

Layout & Positioning
The first thing to think about when setting up a home theater is where in the room your screen will sit. Not just when it's open, but when it's closed as well. You'll need to ensure the couch faces the screen from a good distance and position. Your projector will need a pretty straight shot as well, although with fancier models you can use horizontal and vertical lens shifting to help with some amount of offset.

Pull Down Screens
If you're lucky enough to have your projection screen running parallel to your ceiling joists you can use a recessed ceiling mounted screen that tucks right up into your ceiling for a flush clean look. Otherwise you might have to mount it to your ceiling or wall with the casing exposed, but it's not the end of the world (or is it, AT readers?).

Pull Up Screens
For those without a good ceiling configuration or just want to get funky, there are pull up screens as well. However you hide it near the floor (in the floor, under furniture, in a built-in cabinet) you can simply pull these screens upwards to open the screen. There are some pretty clever mechanisms at play and you can get quite creative in how you integrate a pull up screen.

Free Standing Screens
If you can't or don't want to install a permanent setup, you can always use a free standing screen and put it in place on Movie Night. Put your projector on a rolling cart or shelf and you've got a quick and easy Instant Movie Theater. Free standing screens are generally pretty inexpensive but can be a pain to put together and store. Their quality is usually affected by their portability as well.

Fixed Screen
For those with room for a dedicated home theater / movie screening room, you can affix a permanent screen to your wall without dealing with that whole up / down mess. Mounting your screen usually provides for the highest quality setup with a completely flat and smooth screen that doesn't have to deal with moving parts that break and bend and fold and roll. You can build a frame around your screen to surround the picture for a polished theater look although with movies coming in different aspect ratios you'd be stuck with a portion of your picture not framed exactly on the image. Masking is a technique where you can block off the edges / sides of the picture that aren't displayed on the screen - think the curtains that move when you're at the theater - but it can be difficult and expensive to implement at home, although anything is possible.

No Screen At All
Bear in mind that you don't have to spend a lot of money on a real projection screen when any flat white surface will do. They even make special paint that will maximize the picture quality, but you don't really have to unless you're a picture quality fanatic at which point you're probably buying a screen. Consider a frame on the wall as well to surround the space here the picture will project onto the wall, but keep in mind that the frame will be, well, framing nothing when the projector is off.
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Screen Size & Aspect Ratio
Is bigger always better? For home theaters and projection screens it really depends. Aside from how big your wall space is, you'll need to consider the distance you'll be sitting from the screen and how far your projector will be mounted. There are many distance calculators to determine exactly how far you should be seated from your screen based on the size. There are standards such as THX that state an optimistic distance, but really this may just be preference.

The bigger issue is your projector itself. Every projector outputs a different size picture based on the distance the projector is to the screen. This is called the throw distance. While some projectors have zoom lenses (and digital zoom, but please don't use that as it just makes your picture quality worse) they can only adjust the picture size a certain amount once your projector is in place. You can use a projector throw calculator to find your specific projector model and determine your screen size options at different distances.

Consider also that you're regular TV is probably 40" or larger, so does it make any sense to go through the trouble of setting up a projector screen that's not much larger? We prefer 100" or more, giving you 4 times the screen size of a 50" TV.

Aspect ratio used to be much more of a big deal but as everyone moves to 16x9 content, you might as well just do the same. If you're watching movies they'll likely have been cropped for your TV screen, but sometimes the director chooses to keep the original aspect ratio of the movie so it wouldn't exactly match your screen anyway.

Screen Quality
While most any screen or wall will do, aficionados can talk for ages about degrees of quality. The color of the screen for example affects the picture quality. A white screen is typically used in rooms where you can control the ambient light. This allows for the brightest picture on screen when the room is dark, but may appear washed out when there's too much light in the room. Gray screens can help with black and contrast levels, but may dull the overall brightness of the picture. A screen's gain and viewing angle can be a factor as well. As gain levels increase, your viewing angle decreases so make sure that the screen you choose is appropriate for every seat in the house.

Speaking of quality, you might see "tab tensioned" as an option when you're searching for that perfect projector screen (perfect meaning different things to different people, especially when budget is involved). Consider your old elementary school projection screen when the teacher would pull out a film when he/she wasn't feeling like talking to us kiddies. Do you remember how floppy and flimsy the screen was? It would ruffle in the wind of anyone passing by and curl up on the edges. Tab tensioned screens have a built in mechanism that keeps your screen smooth for that perfect flat surface.

Motorized Screens, Remote Controls, and Power Considerations
If you've got the big bucks, why not splurge for a motorized screen. At the touch of a button you can set your screen to open or close. This is particularly helpful if it's mounted in a high spot that members of your family can't reach. Screens with IR remote controls also allows you to incorporate your screen into an automated home theater control system, whether it's a fancy Control 4 setup or a simple universal remote). Wired versions include a small switch or can be wired into a wall switch for ease of access. Unless your system is hard wired, consider that many local building codes will require your screen's plug to be readily accessible, sometimes without tools even, so you may have to get clever in how you hide all the wires and mess.

In Summary
So how do you tell which screen to get? Our recommendation first and foremost is to determine which type of screen fits your space. If it doesn't fit or is an awkward fit, you'll be an unhappy camper. Picture quality is a matter of opinion, so check out local stores to see how much you care. Because if in your eye and mind the picture quality looks the same to you, then why spend the time, money and effort in a higher quality screen. Plan ahead for how you'll integrate your screen into your home's layout as well as how you'll operate it. You'll be happier in the end enjoying your movies at home laying comfortably on your own couch.


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(Images: Breadmaker/Shutterstock, discpicture/Shutterstock, Acerbis, sims161s, 208 West 96th)

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