Anatomy of a Projection Screen
Everything you need to know about screens, including masking, automation, size, and pricing.
Credit: Stacey Poythress
September 23, 2010 by Julie Jacobson

If you’re looking to create a media experience that rivals the one you get at your local Cineplex, a projection screen is the way to go.

Paired with a video projector, they can display images in a format larger than any TV screen can. Plus, with extra features like masking, motorization and perforation, the screen will be able to adapt to any design or viewing preferences you might have.

Here’s a look at key features to consider when you’re shopping for projection screens.

Motorization, Masking
Fixed screens work well in dedicated theater rooms where it’s fine to keep a big portion of your wall covered at all times.

For multipurpose rooms, consider a retractable screen that disappears when it’s not in use, perhaps revealing a flat screen TV. Screens can retract from the ceiling, floor, wall or furniture.

In addition to raising and lowering a screen, motors often are used to adjust the width of the screen depending on the aspect ratio of the image. Masking the screen from side to side allows viewers to enjoy the full height and the full resolution of the video, without seeing those annoying black bars.

Three important considerations when selecting a motor for your screen are maintenance/longevity, loudness of the mechanism and ease of integration.

Motorized screens (up/down) and masking (left/right) can be controlled in a number of ways: infrared remote control; low-voltage wall switch; low-voltage trigger from a projector, receiver or other electronic device; or direct control via a home automation system.

Motorized screens are fairly easy to automate because they are usually in one of two states: completely up or completely down.

Side-to-side masking solutions can be more complicated to automate. A specialist can program your system to automatically mask your screen according to the content being played. The mask will stretch out for ultra-widescreen movies, glide inwards for boxier shows, and possibly close all the way when the theater empties.

Screen Material
For the best performance, select a screen material and color optimized for your specific projector and room conditions.

A matte white screen is typically the best choice for dark environments. In rooms where ambient light is a factor, a gray screen can be used to preserve contrast.

For the most realistic surround-sound experience, place the center speaker(s) behind the screen. This configuration requires an acoustically transparent screen that allows sound to penetrate the fabric via tiny perforations. Ideally, the speaker(s) should be placed about 12 inches behind the screen.

The “brightness” of a particular projector must be evaluated in the context of the screen size: The larger the projected image, the dimmer it will look given the brightness of a given projector, so plan accordingly.

An important characteristic of a screen is its gain, which measures how light reflects off the surface. In simple terms, a higher gain equates to a brighter image; however, a high-gain screen (above 1.3 or so) may limit the viewing angle and create sometimes an inconsistent quality across the entire screen. 

Brighter rooms may require a dramatic increase in brightness or contrast for an image to be enjoyable. It may be better to increase the “horsepower” (ANSI lumen output) of the projector rather than the black level and gain of the screen.

Screen Size
Consider these two things when specifying the size of the screen: the resolution of the image and its distance from the viewing area. The higher the resolution, the closer you can sit; the closer you sit, the smaller the screen should be.

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Julie Jacobson - Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.

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