Getting the optimal performance from a projector requires matching it to what you want to watch, the room environment, and the screen. Each projector technology has its drawbacks, but by using the right screen with it, you can minimize those flaws and make your viewing experience more enjoyable.
The first screen feature to be aware of is gain. Screens with a gain above 1.0 will amplify light while those with a gain below 1.0 will be dimmer. A screen with a larger gain can handle larger projected images than a screen with a lower gain; however, its viewing angle will be narrower. Many projectors are now powerful enough not to need extra gain but some do benefit from the extra pop it can provide. Going with a neutral gain of 1.0 will often provide the widest viewing angle of any screen.
There are also custom screen materials designed for different lighting conditions. A completely neutral screen material will reflect back all light equally. For a pitch black home theater room with no other light sources, this might be ideal. However, as soon as you turn on a light, the image will become washed out. Specialty screens, like the Screen Innovations Black Diamond, are designed to reflect back light only from certain angles. This type of screen allows you to keep the room lights on and still enjoy a bright, crisp picture, making it ideal for a family room or living room environment where you will not be watching in dark conditions all the time. You can even watch sports or other TV programs during the day and have a great image with the room lights on.
Screens that come in darker materials than white also help improve the black levels of the projector. With a LCoS or LCD projector this may not be necessary, but it can benefit a DLP projector. A screen that helps improve the black level of a projector helps improve the contrast ratio, too.
Also be aware of how your screen is going to interact with the color from your projector. Images projected onto neutral screens will look identical to how they are coming off the projector lens. Screens that reduce reflections or improve black levels often add a color tint to the image. Having a projector that is THX-certified with screen adjustments can help, or you can hire an ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) or THX-certified calibrator to correct color rendering issues.
There is more to consider than just the screen material. How the screen is installed will have a huge impact on the room environment. Some screens are fixed (great for a dedicated home theater), while others are designed to drop down from the ceiling (ideal for a multi-purpose room). If the structure of your home allows it, a motorized drop-down screen can be installed above the ceiling, completely hidden from view. When the projector turns on, it can trigger the screen to descend to its viewing location. Once the projector turns off, the reverse can happen: The screen returns to its hiding spot. Motorized varieties of projection screens are usually more expensive than their fixed counterparts, but they let you turn any space into a home theater without altering the room’s original design. EH
Chris Heinonen founded, runs, and writes for Reference Home Theater, an A/V review website. He is also an ISF-certified calibrator who covers audio and video topics for the Wirecutter and computer displays for AnandTech.