Front Projection Basics: Your Ticket to Home Theater Nirvana

Two-piece projection systems put the WOW! in home theater.


Flat-panel displays get much of the attention today, but they can’t compete with front-projection systems when your goal is to own a truly captivating home theater. Consider the phrase “home theater.” As obvious as it may seem, home theater is all about creating a theater … in your home. How many times have you gone to the movie theater to find everyone huddled around a 50-inch LCD? (If your answer was “greater than zero,” you should find a new cinema.)

“If you walk into a room with a 110-inch screen and a gigantic football game playing on it, people say ‘WOW!’ You don’t say ‘WOW!’ about a flat panel,” says Gabriel Montemurro, senior system design engineer at Gramophone, a Maryland-based home theater and home automation shop. “There’s nothing like a two-piece projector and screen system to give you that cinema feeling–that WOW factor.”

Bigger is Better

The biggest thing a front-projection system has going for it is size. When looking for a canvas on which to showcase your favorite films, television shows, sporting events, and home movies, sheer screen size can go a long way toward turning an average Friday night into an event. Whereas flat-panel displays are typically measured in inches, front projection screens are measured more easily in feet. For example, a 124-inch (diagonal) screen, featuring a 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio, measures a whopping 9 feet wide. That’s big.

Although front-projection systems offer much larger screen sizes, you don’t necessarily pay more for the privilege. “Inch for inch, a front projector and screen is much more cost-effective,” says James Chan, vice president of marketing in Mitsubishi’s Professional Visual Systems Division. “Who wouldn’t want a huge 120-inch image for roughly the same amount of money as a 65-inch flat-panel display?”

How It Works

When you break it down, a front-projection system is really quite simple. As the name implies, the screen displays an image that’s being projected from the front. This stands in opposition to rear-projection televisions (RPTVs), those TVs where a projection mechanism is housed inside the cabinet and projected onto the screen (using a mirror) from the rear.

With a front-projection system, both the projector and screen are critical components to the picture quality. All of the devices you’d want to connect to a traditional TV can also be connected to a projection system; doing so, however, does require a bit of planning to ensure that all of the video sources are properly switched and that a speaker system is handling the audio portion of the signal. The basic wiring of the system will differ little from what you already have.

Projector Choices

Like flat-panel displays, video projectors are available from a multitude of manufacturers and employ a variety of different display technologies. With flat panels, you typically have to choose between plasma and LCD, the latter of which includes the popular sub-category of LED TVs. Not surprisingly, you also have choices when shopping for a front projector. These days, virtually every home theater projector offers native 1080p (high-definition) support, with HDMI and component video being the most prevalent connection options. Where projectors tend to differ is by the technologies they use to create the images.

DLP (Digital Light Processing) and LCD represent the two most common types of front projectors, with the LCD (which sometimes goes by the term 3LCD) variant known as LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) standing as another popular option. LCoS is primarily used by Sony and JVC, who each have developed proprietary implementations of this technology, which they call SXRD and D-ILA, respectively.

Screen Options

Apart from the projector, the other key ingredient in a front-projection system is the screen. The screen material can have a significant impact on the brightness, color saturation and viewing angle of a projection system. Additionally, there are many options for physically mounting the screen, like having it roll up into the ceiling when it’s not in use.

“People often think that a projection system is more obtrusive, when in fact it can be less obtrusive than a large flat-screen TV,” says Mike Holmes, vice president of JVC USA’s Consumer Display Division. “With high-quality drop-down screens available, a projection system virtually disappears when not in use because you don’t have that giant, black rectangle dominating the room.”

While it’s certainly a popular option to construct a dedicated screening room around a front-projection system, it’s by no means your only option. The combination of high-output projectors, retractable screens, and proper lighting control allows you to integrate a front-projection system into virtually any space in your home.

“Video entertainment has expanded beyond traditional movies, thus creating a demand for a room more flexible than a dedicated theater,” says Digital Projection International marketing and communications manager Michael Bridwell. “The room must now be optimized for Friday movie night, Saturday morning video games and Saturday afternoon football. With brighter dual lamp technology projectors like the Titan and dVision, you can achieve optimal performance for a variety of applications.”

By using the design know-how of a seasoned custom electronics professional, you can have that home theater you’ve always dreamed about, without having to sacrifice your family room. The equipment will stay out of sight, revealing itself only when you’re ready watch something on that big, immersive 120-inch screen.

More about front projection theaters:
Picking the Right Screen Masking
Home Theater Projectors Ready to Expose Themselves
Great Basement Home Theaters
Home Theater Planning with THX
Understanding Home Theater Screen Selection
Making the Case for Front Projection

This article was originally published on May 2, 2014 and updated on September 9, 2015


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