Home theater projectors, like cars, boats and college educations, range from entry-level (or cheap) to outrageous. You can find projectors from $500 to several hundred thousands of dollars. If you want a big cinema screen experience in your home (or backyard) but don’t want to risk your kids’ college funds on the project, there are several good budget projectors for you. I’ll help you pick the best home theater projector for a DIY budget.
The things you’ll want for a budget projector are pretty much the same things you’d want from a high-end projector: contrast, brightness, color accuracy, flexibility and such. When looking for a product in the $1,000 range, it’s actually easier to describe what you won’t (or probably won’t) get, and then you need to decide how you’re going to compensate.
The first thing to know is that for a real big picture experience, you need a projector built for home theater, and that means full 1080p resolution and a high-power lamp. The small, often called pico, projectors that use low-light output LED lamps are for business or other lightweight purposes and not for home cinema. Some of those pico projectors may claim they can fill a 100-inch screen, but the image won’t nearly compare to a full-fledged projector. If you can fit it into the palm of your hand, it’s not a home theater product.
The second first thing most people look for in a home theater projector is brightness. Of course you want a bright projector. What good is a half-lit flashlight in the dark. Well, it’s actually the darkness that matters more than the brightness. Here’s what I mean—-maybe you can’t afford a projector that blasts out 3,000 lumens across a hundred yards in a bright room. If you can keep your room very dark (as in ALL dark), mount the projector at the close end of its recommended throw distance, and use a screen that maximizes the light and tosses out extraneous ambient light, then you can get away with a projector that’s less bright. The light issue is more about how you use it then how much you have (um, well, that didn’t come out quite right, but you know what I mean), within reason of course (see comments on pico projectors above).
Color accuracy is another biggie, but there’s not as much you can do to fix a projector with poor colors. Your best bet is to find one that offers the deepest color adjustment tools in its menu. Often a projector that initially makes everything cartoon-colored, can be adjusted by getting into the color menu. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can use one of the many TV setup discs to help guide you. THX also makes a great app to walk you through your projector’s adjustments. If you really want to ensure you’re getting the best picture, hire an ISF calibrator to work on your system. If you go that route, I suggest you talk to the calibrator before you buy your projector, so he or she can offer you the benefit of their experience in picking one out.
Contrast is one of, maybe the most important aspect of any display, projectors included. Contrast is the difference between the brightest and the darkest image the projector is capable of showing. Usually the contrast specification listed by projector companies is highly inflated, but it’s a good starting point anyway. If you have a good contrast ratio, you’ll get good blacks and good whites. Low-priced projectors usually have fair contrast performance, but you can help it with a contrast enhancing gray screen. You can read more about dealing with light matters here.
Convenience features are where you often lose out with bargain projectors. You’ll rarely have IP control, so adding your projector to a control system will require IR codes and/or an IR repeater. Cheap projectors also have lower-quality lenses (if you’re a camera enthusiast, you know how important a good lens is), shorter lens zoom, and no post-installation lens adjustments. You might be tempted to use the keystone adjustment to fix image placement issues—don’t. Without decent on-projector physical adjustments, you can often make due with a good mount that offers roll, yaw and pitch adjustments. You can read about great projector mounts here.
Hopefully those guidelines above will help you find the best home theater projector for your movie room, but you probably want me to make specific model recommendations. Ok, here are three budget-friendly projectors I like:
You can read my full review of the Epson 2030 here, but if you want the snapshot, this projector delivers extremely bright images and strong colors. The contrast can be a bit weaker than some DLP projectors in the same price range, but being a 3-chip LCD projector, you won’t get any color wheel artifacts. For under $1,000 it’s hard to beat. 2,000 lumens brightness. 15,000:1 contrast ratio. $799 (Available on Amazon)
This Optoma HD161X is just a little over $1,000, but you get a lot for the extra investment. This single chip DLP projector’s Color Management System (CMS) allows for lots of adjustment, an UltraDetail feature makes the pictures super sharp, and Dynamic Black produces a 40,000:1 contrast ratio. It also has PureMotion frame-interpolation technology to cut out blurring or image judder and deliver smooth projection during all of those sports, action and other high-octane on-screen moments. $1,200. (Available on Amazon)
The BenQ HC1200, is another single-chip DLP projector, and it’s designed to the sRGB (standard Red, Green, Blue) industry color standard. Other features include 1.5x zoom capabilities and an embedded test pattern for a more concise calibration process. It even has RJ-45 (LAN) and RS-232 options, two HDMI, USB, and dual D-sub computer connections, as well as mini-jack audio in/out, RCA audio-in, S-Video, and composite video inputs. BenQ lists it as having a 10,000:1 contrast ratio and 2,800 lumens of brightness. It launched with an MSRP of $1,300 but you can find it for about $1,000 at a number of places, including Amazon.