How to Choose Home Theater Projectors

Consider buying home theater projectors to finish off the perfect home-theater experience. Getting that big picture can be pricey-both Sony and Samsung offer 70" LCD sets at a price north of $30,000. Home theater projectors will get you the same image size for a fraction of the price. Though replacement lamps can add to lifetime ownership costs, many consumers are finding these projectors a good choice for big-screen viewing at small-screen prices.

What Is a Home Theater Projector?
A home theater projector is not a TV. It doesn't have a tuner, so it won't do much other than light up the room when you get it out of the box. Epson MovieMate projectors have a built-in standard-definition DVD player, but no home theater projector has a built-in ATSC digital tuner.

To watch television, you'll need a signal source. If you have cable or satellite TV, you can plug it directly into the projector and start watching. Getting your signal over the air is a bit more challenging. You'll need a digital converter box or a DVD recorder with a built-in ATSC tuner to provide the signal. If you go the DVD recorder route, choose carefully, as some models still don't offer ATSC tuners.

The Pros and Cons of Home Theater Projectors
Giant, room-filling images that put you in the middle of the action are the biggest draw of home theater projectors. If you want an image that's 100" diagonal, projectors are the way to go. Even with the added cost of a mounting bracket, a screen and a TV source, digital projectors are a bargain compared with large-screen plasma and LCD TVs.

On the down side, the image quality isn't as crisp or bright as those found on flat-panel sets unless you're willing to spend a lot of money. You'll also need a dark room to get the best image quality, which means drawing the curtains if you want to watch something during the day.

Comparing Performance
When you're shopping, the first thing you need to do is make sure that you're looking at home theater projectors and not business projectors. It's easy to spot the difference: home theater projectors will list their resolution as 1080p, 720p or 1280 x 720. Business projectors have lower resolutions and will be listed as WXGA or SVGA. These formats aren't as suitable for HDTV viewing.

With a narrow gap in prices between 1080p and 720p models, it's worth spending the extra money to get a 1080p resolution. This will give you a noticeable boost in picture quality when you're watching Blu-ray movies.

The next consideration is lumens, which measures the brightness of the image. Lumens affects performance in two ways: first, a projector with a brighter image works better in a room with more light, since the picture won't get as washed out. Second, higher lumens allow you to have a larger image without sacrificing image quality. Most projectors offer between 1,000 and 1,600 lumens of brightness.

The final key consideration in projectors is their contrast ratio, which is the difference between the brightest white and the deepest black colors in an image. A higher contrast ratio gives you a sharper image with more detail. In general, contrast ratios for home theater projectors are lower than those for flat-screen TVs, ranging from as little as 300:1 to around 12,000:1. The Sony BRAVIA SXRD series has an industry-leading contrast ratio of 35,000:1, but it also carries an industry-leading price tag.

Projector Setup
Installation for a home theater projector can be tricky, as it needs to be placed so that the lens is pointing straight at the display surface. Some projectors have horizontal and vertical lens adjustments that allow you to compensate for a slightly off-center installation. A digital keystone function, which converts the image in the projector to provide a proper display, is another option, but it's best to use this feature sparingly.

Using a specially designed projector screen can improve the contrast ratio and sharpness of the image, depending on the gain rating of the screen. The higher the gain, the better the image and, generally, the higher the cost for the screen.

You don't need a screen; a wall painted white provides a good surface for display. Screens with a gain of 1 are the equivalent of a white wall, so you're better off buying some paint. A pure white semigloss paint from the hardware store will do; don't use high gloss, as it's too reflective and will scatter the light.

You have two choices for installing the projector: an island pedestal in the center of the room or a ceiling mount. Island mounts reduce wire clutter and make it easier to reach buttons, but they're also more likely to be jostled, forcing you to realign the projector. A ceiling mount makes it easier for people to move around without blocking the image and there's less chance of the projector getting bumped, but you'll have to find a way to attach and conceal all the wires.

You'll need a big room to get the biggest screen sizes. For some projectors, you'll need 14 feet of distance between the projector and the display surface for an image that's 100" diagonal.

Features to Look for
Don't be too swayed by the maximum image size listed on home theater projectors. This measures capability, but the images on most projectors get too soft at sizes larger than 110". The sweet spot for projection is an image ranging from 85" to 100" diagonal.

Make sure the projector has HDMI and composite video inputs for high-definition signals. Most only offer a single HDMI input that should be reserved for a Blu-ray player. Cable and satellite can be connected with component video jacks.

Some models include an iris feature that automatically darkens the image as it moves from dimly lit scenes to bright scenes. Performance varies, so check online reviews to find out which models do the best job.

Home theater projectors use a lamp to generate light. The replacement cost of these lamps can be expensive, with prices of $250 or more. Lamps last for about 2,000 hours, so you'll want to consider the cost of lamps over five years of your average viewing to determine the lifetime ownership cost.

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