9 Things to Consider When Shopping for a Projection Screen

If you’re planning to install a projector in your home theater, keep in mind that you’re going to need a projection screen as well. Don’t even think about projecting onto a wall, even if it’s painted white; the surface of most walls is quite uneven, and the reflected-color characteristics are completely unknown. (There is one way to successfully use a wall as the screen: painting a section of it with a screen paint such as Screen Goo, which is thick enough to cover any variations in texture, and it provides relatively accurate color. On the other hand, you can’t take it along if you move.)

Choosing the right projection screen for you involves several considerations; here are some of the most important:

1. Aspect Ratio

– The aspect ratio of a screen or image is the ratio of its width to its height. Almost all home-theater projectors and television content have a native aspect ratio of 16:9, aka 1.78:1, while most movies are wider with a native aspect ratio of 1.85:1 or 2.39:1.

– If you watch both movies and TV shows, the aspect ratio of the image and screen won’t always match; when they don’t, you will see black bars above and below or to the sides of the image.

– Many projector owners get a 2.39:1 screen so that widescreen movies fill the screen without black letterbox bars. In this case, there will be “windowbox” bars on either side of a 16:9 image.

– A 16:9 projector can fill a 2.39:1 screen in one of two ways: adjust the lens zoom, shift, and focus or use a separate anamorphic lens. For more on this, see “10 Things to Consider When Shopping for a Projector.”


2. Size

– The optimum screen size depends on your seating distance. One important criterion is visual acuity—how close to the screen can you sit without being able to see the individual pixels? If you sit farther than that from the screen, you won’t necessarily be able to see all the detail in the image.

– There are various formulas to calculate the optimum seating distance and screen size based on visual acuity; for the purpose of this list, I will use the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) recommendation of a seating distance 3 times the screen height for HD and 1.5 times the screen height for UHD/4K, regardless of the screen’s aspect ratio. In other words, for HD images:

(seating distance) = 3 x (screen height)

or

(screen height) = (seating distance)/3

– The size of most display screens is specified by their diagonal measurement. For 16:9 screens, the height is about half the diagonal measurement; for 2.39:1 screens, the height is about 0.4 times the diagonal measurement. (The difference between the width and diagonal of a 2.39:1 screen is very small, so you can say the height is about 0.4 times the width as well. Of course, that’s not precisely true, but it’s close enough.)

– For example, if your seating distance is 10 feet (120 inches), the screen height for HD should be 40 inches, which translates to a diagonal measurement of 80 inches for 16:9 or 100 inches for 2.39:1. For UHD/4K, the screen height should be 80 inches, which translates to a diagonal measurement of 160 inches for 16:9 or 200 inches for 2.39:1.

– Another criterion is how much of your field of view you want to be filled with the image. At the sizes and distances mentioned above, a 4K/UHD image could require you to turn your head to see it all, which argues for a somewhat smaller screen than visual acuity alone would dictate.


3. Masking

– To increase apparent contrast in images of different aspect ratios, you can use black masking material to cover the letterbox or windowbox bars.

– The masking material must be moved into and out of place as needed for different aspect ratios.

– Many projector users believe that maintaining a constant image height (CIH) while moving side masks in and out for different aspect ratios is the best approach; this requires only two masking panels on the sides.

– Some projector users advocate for constant image area (CIA), which normally requires four masking panels. For 2.39:1 movies, the side masks retract while the top and bottom masks close in; for 16:9 TV shows, the side masks close in while the top and bottom masks retract. This provides the largest possible image in any aspect ratio.

– The native aspect ratio of the screen in a CIA setup is typically around 2.0:1, which roughly splits the difference between 16:9 (1.78:1) and 2.39:1.

– The best way to move masking material is with a motorized system, especially one that can be programmed to automatically form different aspect ratios, but this type of system can be very expensive.

– Many projector owners build their own masking systems as a DIY project; these can be motorized or manual.


4. Material

– Screen materials are categorized using several parameters, including gain, viewing angle, color accuracy, baseline color (white or gray), and ambient light rejection.

– Gain is an indication of how much of the projector’s light is reflected back into the viewing area. Gain values typically range from 0.8 to 3.0 or even higher. A gain of 1.0 is called “unity gain.”

– Viewing angle is more technically called “half-gain angle”; it is the angle from an imaginary line perpendicular with the screen surface at which the reflected light is half as bright as it is when measured on that line (which is said to be “on axis”). Viewers at that angle or greater will see a much dimmer picture than on-axis viewers.

– In general, the higher the gain, the brighter the image when viewed on axis, but the narrower the viewing angle.

– A high-gain screen is helpful if the projector’s light output is low.

– A high-gain screen is prone to “hot spotting,” in which one area of the image is brighter than other areas.

– For a home theater with total control of ambient light and dark, neutral-colored walls, floor, and ceiling, a white screen with a gain of around 1.0 to 1.3 is ideal.

– For projectors with low native contrast, a gray screen can help increase the perceived contrast.

– Some companies make screen materials designed specifically for ultra short-throw (UST) projectors.


5. Ambient Light Rejection

– Ambient light-rejecting (ALR) materials reflect light from the projector back into the viewing area while reflecting light from other directions away from the viewing area; as a result, they have a narrower viewing angle than non-ALR screens.

– For a room in which ambient light can’t be completely controlled and/or the walls, floor, and ceiling are white or a light color, an ALR screen can provide a much better-looking image than a non-ALR screen.

– An ALR screen is also great for sports parties with a large group of people in a well-lit room watching a big game, though people who are off axis will see a dimmer picture with lower contrast because of the narrow half-gain angle.


6. Acoustic Transparency

– Commercial cinemas place the front speakers behind the screen, which is perforated with tiny holes to let the sound pass through it; this is called an acoustically transparent (AT) screen.

– Placing the front left, center, and right (LCR) speakers behind the screen allows sounds to appear as if they are coming from the objects making them, enhancing the suspension of disbelief.

– This is especially important with 2.39:1 screens; placing the left and right speakers outside the screen can “disconnect” the sounds from the visuals.

– There are two types of AT screens available for home theaters: perforated and woven, in which the fibers of the material are loose enough to create “holes” for the sound to pass through.

– Up to 10% of an AT screen’s area is occupied by these holes, which means the screen reflects a bit less light than a solid screen; a brighter projector works best in this case.

– With a perforated material, the speakers should be placed around 12″ back from the material, and they usually require some EQ to boost the mid and high frequencies that are attenuated behind such a screen.

– With a woven material, the speakers can be placed much closer to the material, and no EQ is generally required.

– An AT screen is semi-transparent, so everything behind the screen—including the speakers—should be flat black with no shiny parts, such as logos or drivers, which can be seen through the screen.

– Woven AT screens can include a separate, black-backing fabric to minimize light from getting through.

– In some cases, the pattern of holes in an AT screen might interact with the pixel structure of a projector, causing moire effects.


7. Fixed or Retractable?

– In a fixed screen, the material is attached to a rigid frame that can be mounted on a wall or freestanding legs.

– In a retractable screen, the material is attached to a motorized roller that retracts the screen into a housing mounted on the ceiling or wall. This is generally more expensive than a fixed screen.

– Some home theater owners have a flat-panel TV behind a retractable screen, allowing them to watch the TV for more casual viewing and drop the screen for more serious movie watching with a projector.

– Motorized masking systems are more difficult to implement in retractable screens; in most cases, only the sides can be masked with black material that retracts independently from the screen itself.

– Some ambient light-rejecting materials cannot be used in a retractable mechanism because the material includes metal that does not roll up smoothly.


8. Flat or Curved?

– Large commercial cinemas have curved 2.39:1 screens; this corrects possible optical distortion and reflects more light back to the audience from the sides, improving uniformity.

– Most home theaters are much smaller than commercial cinemas, so a curved screen is less important.

– One possible exception is a 2.39:1 screen and a projector equipped with an anamorphic lens; in this case, a curved screen can correct a type of optical distortion called pincushioning.

– There is no need for a curved 16:9 screen in a home theater.

– Curved screens are generally more expensive due to the increased cost of a curved frame.

– Curved screens can only be installed in a fixed frame; they cannot be made retractable.


9. Budget & Recommendations

– The price of any screen depends on the material, size, type of frame (retractable or fixed), and whether the frame includes motorized masking.

– For this list, I’ll recommend several screens in different price ranges, all 16:9 and around 100″ diagonal in a basic fixed frame. You’ll pay more for a larger size, 2.39:1, motorized masking, and a retractable housing.

Basic White Screens

– After extensive research, The Wirecutter picked the Silver Ticket STR-169100 16:9, 100″ diagonal screen with white material (1.1 gain) as its favorite budget-oriented screen. This model sells for less than $200 on Amazon, including a fixed frame.

– Another good option from Amazon in the $200 range for a 16:9, 100″ screen is the Elite Screens Sable Frame B2 fixed frame with CineWhite material (1.1 gain). This screen is also mentioned favorably in the Wirecutter article.

– The Screen Innovations Gamma material (1.1 gain) in a 1 Series fixed frame lists for $600. This material can also be mounted in a retractable housing.

– Stewart Filmscreen is one of the oldest and most respected screen manufacturers in the business. Stewart’s Neve material (1.1 gain) in a Cima fixed frame is the company’s least-expensive option; a 100″ 16:9 screen carries a list price of $1435. This material can be perforated for acoustic transparency and mounted in a retractable housing.

– Many people consider the Stewart StudioTek 130 material (1.3 gain) to be the gold standard for home theater, though some would argue that distinction should go to the StudioTek 100 (1.0 gain); a 100″ 16:9 screen with either material in a Luxus Deluxe Snap fixed frame carries a list price of $2415. These materials can be perforated for acoustic transparency and mounted in a retractable housing. The StudioTek 130 is the premium pick in The Wirecutter article.

Ambient Light-Rejecting Screens

– Seymour-Screen Excellence offers the Ambient-Visionaire ALR material (black 1.2 gain, silver 1.3 or 2.1 gain); a 100″ 16:9 screen in a Series 2 fixed frame lists for $2753. It cannot be mounted in a retractable housing or perforated for acoustic transparency.

– Screen Innovations’ Black Diamond (0.8 or 1.4 gain) is a popular choice for an ALR screen. A 100″ 16:9 screen in a 7 Series fixed frame lists for $2835. It cannot be mounted in a retractable housing or perforated for acoustic transparency.

– Stewart recently unveiled its Phantom ALR material, which can be perforated and mounted in a retractable housing. A 100″ 16:9 screen in a Luxus Deluxe Snap fixed frame carries a list price of $3562.

Acoustically Transparent Screens

– As noted above, most Stewart screens can be perforated for acoustic transparency.

– The SeymourAV Center Stage XD woven acoustically transparent material is highly regarded, and the newer Center Stage UF material (1.0 gain) lets you sit even closer without seeing the fabric structure, though it does attenuate the high frequencies a bit more. A 103″ 16:9 Center Stage UF screen in a Precision fixed frame sells for $748 in the online SeymourAV store, and the material can be mounted in a retractable housing.

– Many AVS Forum members laud the Seymour-Screen Excellence Enlightor 4K woven acoustically transparent material (0.98 gain). A 100″ 16:9 screen in a Series 3 fixed frame lists for $3097, and the material can be mounted in a retractable housing.

I’m sure that AVS Forum members have many opinions about all of this, so I invite you to share them in the comments. What are your most important considerations when shopping for a screen? What models do you recommend at different price points?