Movie theater prices hit a record high in 2017, jumping to a whopping $8.84 per ticket (a massive increase from the $2.23 it cost our parents to watch Saturday Night Fever back in 1977!). As a result, more and more Americans are opting to set up their own ‘theaters’ right in their own homes, giving themselves that classic movie theater experience, without the hefty price tag to go along with it.
Setting up a home theater is actually easier than it sounds, but there are a number of factors to take into account to ensure you’re getting the best possible experience, including seating layouts, sound considerations and, perhaps most importantly of all, the type of screen. Although the cheapest option is, undoubtedly, a painted wall coupled with a low-cost projector, this simply isn’t going to give you the results you’re looking for as wall texture, paint texture, imperfections, and reflections can all affect overall quality. It really is important to select a dedicated screen for your home theater. However, with so many options it can be difficult to know where to begin! Here’s some guidance to get you on your way:
Type of Screen
There’s two main categories of screen to choose from (and a whole host of sub-categories, but we’ll get to them later!): projectors, and big screen TVs. Projectors are typically more cost effective, but really it all comes down to personal choice, as both options can work very well in a home movie theater setup.
If you’re in the market for a projector screen, then there’s two general types to choose from: fixed frame projectors and roll-away projectors. Fixed frame options are perfect for dedicated home theater rooms. They tend to be a little more affordable and are well known for staying stretched tightly which not only produces higher quality images but also helps to extend the life of your screen. Roll-away projectors, however, are good for multi-use rooms, where the screen may need to be stored discreetly or protected from damage, for instance, if you also have kids who make use of the room on a regular basis. Tension is a long-standing issue with roll-aways, so be sure to look for ‘tab tensioned’ screens which fare a bit better.
If you’re working on a tight budget, then a big screen TV can sometimes make you break out in a cold sweat; it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get a TV as big as you’d be able to pick up a projector for. However, if you’re happy to go with a more modestly-sized screen then you will find that there are a number of advantages to TVs over projectors: brightness, color accuracy, and contrast to name a few.
If you do decide on a projector and screen pairing for your home theater, then there’s something extra to take into consideration: color. Projector screens are typically available in either white or gray, so what’s best? Technically speaking, white is better in terms of quality, and it’s probably the most obvious choice for purpose-built home theaters where light can be adequately and accurately controlled at all times. Non-purpose built theaters with windows and doors which are subjected to varying degrees of light throughout the day may be better with high contrast gray, which absorbs and neutralize ambient light.
For many people, one of the most important factors when choosing a home theater screen is size… and rightly so. This is one area where size really does matter. Generally, 100 – 120 inches diagonal is the most popular choice, but it’s vital that you check for any restrictions before making a purchase. Especially consider window placement and sloping attic frames and remember that the most important thing in these circumstances is to select a screen that properly fits the space that you have available to you.
If you don’t have any physical sizing restrictions imposed by the room in question, how do you choose? One factor to think about is whether or not you have multiple rows of seating in your home theater, or just a single row. This is because a large screen that reaches all the way from the ceiling and down towards the floors could significantly affect visibility for those sitting in rows towards the rear of the room, essentially cutting off the view of the base of the screen, providing a sub-optimal experience.
Also be sure to consider viewing distances and viewing angle, and remember that even if you have all the space in the world available to you, you don’t need to use it all. In fact, it’s probably better for your viewers if you don’t. A good rule of thumb is to create a viewing angle that is somewhere around 30 degrees. Some say it should be a little less, while others say it should be a little bit more. The George Lucas-created THX movie theater company swears by a 36-degree angle for perfect viewing every time!
HDTV, with its impressive 1080p resolution, is pretty much the standard today for home theater screens. However, there’s a new kid on the block that you may want to think about: Ultra High Definition (also known as UHD or 4K). With a 2160p resolution, it’s sharper and offers greater clarity, but is it really all it’s cracked up to be? Yes! The difference between HDTV and 4K is roughly equal to the difference between standard definition (SD) at 480p and HD, so there really is a massive difference between the two.
If you’re wondering whether or not you need 4K, then think about the size of the screen you want. As a general rule the larger the screen, the more pixels you’re going to need. Many experts now recommend 4K for any theater screen greater than 50 inches. The good news about 4K is that, although it’s still quite new, it has been around for a few years now and so the ‘early adoption’ price tag has gone. The bad news, on the other hand, is that availability of 4K content is still few and far between. Saying that Netflix and Amazon do have some 4K content (particularly original content), and 4K Blu-Ray is also available.
There are really three main aspect ratios that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with: 4:3, 16:9, and 21:9. However, most of us can completely disregard the old, square-shaped 4:3 which largely became obsolete in the world of home theater with the introduction of widescreen (unless you really happen to enjoy those thick black lines on the top and bottom of your image, that is!). So we’re left with 16:9 and 21:9.
16:9 basically replaced 4:3 as the industry standard, and it’s probably the most obvious choice and certainly one you’d pick for watching HDTV in bed at night. However, for home theaters, it’s really a toss-up between this standard 16:9 and 21:9, which is associated with the old ‘Cinemascope’ films like Lady and the Tramp and Billy Liar. Although Cinemascope is now considered to be a thing of the past, and a little outdated, the aspect ratio has remained quite relevant in the movie world, giving movies a more ‘epic’ and more ‘film-like’ appearance, and many Hollywood blockbusters are still shot like this today.
Curved or flat… that is the question. In all honestly, sticking to a more traditional flat screen will always be the better option for most people. This is especially true if you have a small home theater space with quite a cozy seating arrangement, as those sitting at the edges of the screen may experience distortion.
However, curved screens aren’t quite as much of a gimmick as they’re made out to be; in fact, they have been used in commercial cinema for decades. Yes, they can be a bit of a hassle to mount to the wall properly, but their advantage is that they’re great for increasing brightness as they focus light directly onto the viewer. If you’ve thought about it and you still can’t decide between a curved screen or a flat screen, then there’s always Samsung’s rather bizarre and somewhat futuristic flexible screem!
We’ve discussed everything from screen shape to size, and everything in between, but there’s more to think about when selecting a home theater screen. Here are a few additional things to think about:
- Frame: Many people will prefer a black frame for their home theater screen and, believe it or not, it’s not all about aesthetics. A black screen not only looks sleek and sophisticated but also helps to increase contrast, making the colors on your screen appear sharper and more vibrant. It also helps to minimize distractions around the picture — from reflections or other external light sources — making your home theater that much more immersive for an authentic experience.
- Room Design: Depending on the layout of the room you’ve selected to house your home theater, you may find that there are some issues with wiring up your projector or TV screen. With a projector, you will need to be able to mount the projector to the ceiling and run video cables to it, whereas with a TV you will need to be able to run video cables to the screen without causing any obstructive visual clutter which can prove to be a bit of an eyesore in your theater.
- Future-Proofing: Although there may be more initial work needed to set up a projector and screen pairing, once installed it is in place forever (unless you decide to redesign/relocate your room, or if you choose to upgrade to a bigger screen, of course). Even if you decide to upgrade your projector from HD to 4K, and eventually to 8K or higher, you won’t need to change the screen unless you want to. A TV is different, and the entire unit will need to be replaced if you decide to upgrade. This could be a hassle if you have had any kind of treatment around the screen (new paint, for example), or if the new TV takes its inputs from the opposite side to the old one, meaning you would need to buy extenders for all of your nicely routed and fixed cables.
- Maintenance: The great thing about TV screens is that they are essentially zero maintenance, which makes sense if you lead a very busy, very hectic life and simply want to get home, kick your shoes off, and relax with a movie. Projectors, on the other hand, can need a little bit more nurturing to keep them happy. Depending on the type of projector you choose, you will need to replace the bulb every 750 to 6000 hours, with an average HD projector bulb lifespan being around 2000 hours; that’s about 1000 movies. And remember that projector bulbs don’t suddenly die; instead, they’ll gradually grow dimmer, so your theater experience may suffer.
Creating Your Perfect Home Theater
There’s no doubt that the sort of screen that you select for your home theater will have a massive impact on the viewing quality and the overall experience, so taking the time to choose the right screen is very important. However, as we can see from the comparisons and considerations above, there really is no right or wrong, and what works for one home theater may not work for another. Always be sure to consider your own circumstances, taking into account the size of your space, your seating layout, and any obstacles which may restrict or limit what type of screen you can accommodate, and where it can fit.
But don’t let all these considerations put you off. With just a little bit of planning and attention, you can easily narrow down your options and ensure you give yourself — along with your friends and family — the very best home theater experience. Why go out on a Saturday night, when you could stay in?
About the author
Katie Porter is an aspiring writer, movie lover, and part of the team at Seatup. In her free time, she enjoys exploring her home state Colorado and plays in women’s amateur rugby league.