There are few home technology projects that can bring as much pleasure as a home theater. Like anything worthwhile, planning for the installation of a home theater requires making a lot of important decisions. One of the first and most crucial is picking the display type.
While some audio enthusiasts may argue the point, it’s the picture that is really the star of a home theater or media room, so choosing the display that fits your room, your budget, your design vision, and your installation skills is paramount. Both flat-panel TVs and front projection systems (consisting of a projector and screen) can produce stunning results. So which option is best for your project?
Best for Your Room
The room you plan to turn into a home theater is a big determining factor as to whether to install a big-screen TV or a projection system. If your home theater will also function as your living room, has windows, and will be used for entertaining with the lights on, then a flat-panel TV will often work better than a projection setup. TVs are considerably brighter than most projectors, and can produce much better contrast in a room with some light in it. And, a projector hanging from the ceiling may not fit the look you want in a living room, especially when you’re not using it. Motorized lift systems that pull the projector into a cavity hidden in the ceiling can solve this problem, but at considerable expense.
The images displayed on a screen by a video projector will often appear dull and washed out when you open the curtains or turn on a few lamps. There are special ambient light-rejecting screens that mitigate this issue, but they tend to be more expensive than standard matte white screens, and the best ones are only available to professional audio/video installers. On the other hand, a light-rejecting screen (also called angular-rejection screens) when matched with a bright projector, will allow you to enjoy a significantly larger picture than you’d get with a television. In fact, some light-rejecting screens, like the Black Diamond line from Screen Innovations, closely resemble flat-panel TVs. Other companies, including Vutec, Elite Screens, Seymour Screen Excellence, and Stewart Filmscreen also make light-rejecting screens.
If you plan to install your system in a room where you can control all or most of the lighting, such as in a basement or a room with blackout curtains, then a video projector paired with a standard matte white screen will make a stunning splash on the wall and produce a more cinema-like experience than a flat-panel TV.
Best for Your Budget
You’ve no doubt noticed that TVs have been growing steadily bigger over the years. The availability of flat-screens that are 80 inches and larger means that a TV can reasonably serve as a home theater’s main image maker.
Video projectors also have been evolving, and price is one of the main changes they’ve experienced in the last decade. Excellent projectors can be found in the $2,000 to $3,000 range.
So which technology—a flat-panel TV or a video projector and screen—is the best value?
Let’s assume that 85 inches is the smallest picture you would consider for your theater room, although bigger is almost always better. Today’s largest TVs range in price from $5,499 for Sony’s 85-inch X950, to $10,000 for LG’s 105-inch, 21:9 aspect ratio 105UC9. However, the biggest TV you can buy is Vizio’s 120-inch Reference Series RS120B3, which costs $129,999. Yes, you read that correctly.
For this same investment, you could outfit your theater with a 120-inch screen from budget brands like Silver Ticket, Monoprice, or Elite Screens’ Sable line, along with a video projector like the $2,300 Epson 5030UB, $2,500 Sony VPL-HW40ES, or $4,000 JVC DLA-X550R, and still have money left over for the A/V components (media server, Blu-ray Disc player, A/V receiver, etc.). While it’s true that some projectors cost in excess of $100,000, for the average home theater owner, projection systems beat flat-panel TVs in a dollars-per-inch contest. Even if you went with one of the major screen brands like Stewart Filmscreen or Vutec, you would still come out better financially, and with a bigger image than what a large flat-screen TV could produce.
Winner: Video Projector
Best for Installation
A TV, even a large one, is almost always going to be easier to install than a projector and screen. The TV requires a wall mount, plus electricity and cabling for the video sources (usually just a single HDMI cable from the A/V receiver). For a tidy wiring installation, an AC outlet should be installed on the wall directly behind the TV. If you plan to keep the components up front with the TV, then the video cable can be easily threaded through the wall and into the TV, or hidden by a conduit. If you plan to install your components farther way, like at the back of the room, you’ll need to devise a way to hide the long stretch of HDMI cable (if you’re building the room from scratch, this is easily done prior to installing the drywall). Using cable conduit around the baseboard is another easy way to hide cable.
The installation of a projection system will require a little more planning. Screens that are designed to affix to the wall permanently are able to be assembled and mounted fairly easily, but positioning, aiming, and mounting a video projector can be tricky for a first-timer. Budget projectors don’t usually include the vertical and horizontal lens shift features, which make aiming easier. A projector also requires an AC outlet in the ceiling, plus video source cables, and maybe a network cable. All of this cable routing takes more know-how than connecting cables to a television. If you’re willing to put in the time to learn how, and do the work, the result is worth it.
Another benefit of the projection option is that you can easily upgrade either part of the system (the projector or the screen) as you need. If you decide to get a bigger screen, you may not even need to move the projector, depending on its zoom capabilities. Do you want to someday upgrade to a 4K projector? No problem, because the screen can stay.
What’s the Best Overall?
It’s impossible to give a final verdict without knowing the user’s room, budget, and installation skills. Both technologies can provide excellent image quality. Both have options that can fit most room situations, and both can be installed by a savvy do-it-yourselfer or a professional home systems integrator. A home theater is an affordable luxury that can be shared with friends and family all year long, so go with the plan that will give you the most enjoyment over the long haul. EH
Grant Clauser has home theater training from THX, ISF and the Home Acoustics Alliance. He’s an editor with The Wirecutter.