Do you like going to movies? Well, you should stop doing that, and set up a home projection system in your living room.
We’re not kidding. It’s an excellent idea. Going to the movies has become a giant, migraine-causing effort. The tickets are expensive, the seats are uncomfortable, you pay a staggering amount for terrible popcorn and artificial butter, the theater is filled with morons live-tweeting the latest Captain America movie, and while it might be fun to watch trailers, you have to sit through a dozen inane ads in order to get to them. For some reason we can’t fathom, these often include commercials for the cinema chain whose theatre you are currently sitting in, as if you had suffered unfortunate brain damage in the space between getting your popcorn and sitting down in your seat. No, going to the movies sucks, and you’re much better off staying home with Netflix.
Now you could do this with a decent TV, quite happily. But if you want to get a TV over seventy inches, you pay through the nose. Home projection is quite simply the most effective way to get a giant-sized image in your home, which will allow you to watch movies, TV series and sports in comfort, without a single live-tweeter in sight.
We won’t lie to you. Home projection is a tricky science. It’s not as simple as buying a TV and plugging it in. But you’ve gotta believe us when we say that the results are more than worth it. In this From Scratch guide, we’re going to take you through everything you need to know about setting up the ultimate home projection system.
What Equipment Do I Need?
We’re sorry if some of the following sounds obvious, but we need to break down exactly what you need to get this amazing home cinema of yours working.
Firstly, you need a projector. It’s tempting to think of this as a cheap purchase; perhaps you might have seen those terrible Powerpoint projectors in corporate conference rooms. The reality is that any projector that is going to be capable of throwing up a good quality movie is going to be one that costs a little bit. These are fairly sophisticated bits of machinery, which do a very difficult job, and it doesn’t make sense to skimp on them. They come in a bunch of different flavours: LCD, LEP, DP, 720p, 1080p. If this seems bewildering, then don’t worry. We’re going to do a full breakdown of projector types below, and you’ll have absolutely no problem picking the right one.
Secondly, you need a projector screen. No, you can’t just use your wall. Well, you could, but you won’t get very good results. It’s entirely possible to simply paint a section of your wall white – like, really white, wider than the whitest white boy eating a white bread and mayonnaise sandwich while listening to a Nickelback album – and get a passable picture. There are even certain types of paint that will help you do this. Our take is that no matter how white wall is, you will get a residual texture when you projector the image. Depending on your wall, this may not be noticeable, but why take the risk? The problem is you won’t actually know if it’s a problem until you’ve gone to the effort of painting the damn thing. Just buy a screen. Yes, they too cost a bit, but it’s absolutely worth it. Like projectors, they come in a number of different flavours, from freestanding to wall mounted to retractable to motorised two inflatable (yes, inflatable). We’ll go into all of the things you need to know down below.
And no, you can’t hang up a sheet. That’s an even worse idea. Get out.
OK, come back. Thirdly, you need something to actually play visuals. What, you thought some of these fancy projectors actually had Blu-ray slots in them? Ha! We wish. For most of us, this is as simple as plugging in our existing Blu-ray player or console, which is something you’ve probably got already. For obvious reasons, when can spend too much time talking about this part of the setup, but if you need a Blu-ray player, then we’ve got a full round-up right here.
Fourthly, and again, this isn’t something we’re going to deal with here, you need audio. Soundbar, surround sound, floorstanding speakers… whatever floats your boat, you need to make sure you can hear things. We’ve got plenty of guides on this site to getting the absolute best audio setup, and all of them will work with a projector and projection screen, as opposed to a TV.
What Do I Need To Know To Buy A Projector?
There are a few factors to consider when you’re looking at buying a projector. This is a field positively groaning with jargon and numbers, and in the interests of keeping things simple, we’re going to break the big ones down. These are things you need to take into account, and what they mean.
Projectors live and die by the amount of light they put out. You want one that puts out as much as possible.
Light is measured in lumens, and modern projectors tend to put out between 1000 and 3000 lumens, with 3000 being crazy bright. Now, as we said, it makes sense to go for the brightest one you can afford, but only up to a point. The problem is that as you increase the size of your picture, the light dims. It has a larger area to spread itself across, and so the bigger you make your screen, the less bright and defined the picture will be.
So now you need to start thinking about your room. If it’s naturally dark, like a basement, then you don’t need a massive lumen count. If there’s going to be a little light leakage, then you should go for the highest lumen count you can. You also need to know how wide and how high your screen can be. Yes, we know that the automatic option is just to take up the entire wall with a massive screen, but that’s not always a good idea. If you decide to put your feet up during the movie, they’re going to block your view of the bottom of the screen. In many cases, it is actually better to go for a slightly smaller screen that will end up being brighter and unobstructed.
Slightly less important, but still worth talking about, is contrast ratio. This is a measure of how to find the colours are, and is particularly noticeable in the dark colours on screen, like blacks. Essentially, the higher the contrast ratio on a particular projector, the deeper and more velvety the blacks will be, and the overall image quality will be much higher. Contrast ratio numbers are measured like this: 10,000:1, 20,000:1, 40,000:1. The higher the number, the better.
This refers to the distance between the projector and the screen. For most normal rooms, you won’t have to worry about this, as most modern projectors are pretty relaxed about where you place them, and fully adjustable. If that’s the case, then skip the next paragraph. But if you have a strangely-shaped room, then you need to know what it is.
Throw distance is measured as a number, usually between 1.0 and 3.0, and is usually given as a range (so you’d get a projector with a throw distance of between 1.2 and 2.4, for argument’s sake). Take the width of your screen, and multiply it by the two values of the throw distance - so a 120-inch screen and a projector with that 1.2-2.4 throw distance would mean that you can position the projector between 144 inches and 288 inches away from the screen. Again: you shouldn’t have to stress about this unless your room is unusually thin, or has a weirdly-shaped ceiling. Good to know, though.
Couple more things to worry about. We’ll try to be brief.
There are three types of projectors you’ll find on the market. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) projectors are the best in terms of brightness and contrast. Light Emitting Diode (LED) projectors are grateful colours, and are a lot more efficient with their energy. Finally, Digital Light Processing (DLP) projectors are the big dogs, most similar to full-scale cinema projectors, and ideal for the biggest setups. Oh, and if you only have a small room to work with, think about getting a projector that has a short-throw lens. 3D movies can be handled by getting a projector with a high lumen count, and there are plenty of screens set up to handle it, too.
You’ll also come across something called aspect ratio. This is, quite literally, the shape and size of the image. We’re going to simplify this here, because diving deep into aspect ratio can bring on a maths migraine. Go for 16:9. It’s the most common size in most visual media, and will give you the least headaches. If you want a much more detailed look at aspect ratio, check this out.
You will also inevitably come across something fun called Keystoning. If you point a projector straight at a screen, it will project a perfectly rectangular image. But if you tilt the projector up, down, or side to side, the image will take on a distinctly trapezoidal shape. As you will almost certainly have to do this to get the right viewing angle, this is a problem. It’s called keystoning, and thankfully, keystone correction is something built into almost all modern projectors. This is because manufacturers realised that it was bad business to have customers spend their time messing around with geometry. Do not, and we really can’t stress this enough, do not get a projector without keystone correction. You may see some slight visual artefacts when you tilt the projector, but it’s a lot better than having an image that is way out of whack.
What it boils down to is this. Figure out how big your screen is going to be (or how much space you have). Then, if your viewing area isn’t massive, your lumen count and contrast ration don’t need to be either. If it’s big, get a projector with big numbers. Decide which type or projector you want by working out what’s important to you: brightness and contrast, energy efficiency and colour, or monster output. Then dive in. We’ve got a good roundup of the year’s best projectors right here.
What About The Screen?
The screen is a little easier than the projector. The first decision you need to make is what type of screen you want, or need. Are you going to go for a simple pull-down model with a string tied to it? Have you got a bit of cash for a motorized version that slides down at the click of a button? Is it mounted on the wall, or on a tripod for easy disassembly? If you’re operating outdoors, should you get a giant inflatable screen like the Giant Gemmy? These are questions that only you will be able to answer, but at least figuring out which screen you need/can afford is relatively straightforward. Essentially, get one in the right size that will cause you the least amount of hassle.
Fortunately, there’s only one bit of jargon you need to know here.
This is a measurement of how much light a screen reflects at what manufacturers term the “Zero Degrees Viewing Axis” (essentially, the optimal viewing point under lab conditions). What that means for you is that you need a screen where the gain reflects your needs. If you’re doing your projecting in a normal living room with a couple of seats, go for a gain above 1.0, which will allow for less-than-perfect light conditions while you’re watching. If you’ve got a bigger room, with a wide viewing angle, a gain under 1.0 may be what you need.
And screens, like projectors, have an aspect ratio. 16:9 is your friend - and if it isn’t, you’re doing more calculations than we’re comfortable with for the time being.
How Do I Set All This Up?
Here comes the tricky part. It’s time to make some calculations! You’ll need to know the exact size of your projected image, the contrast ratios, the aspect ratios, the basics of Pythagorean triangles, the distortion radius, the lumen count and assisted didactic lumen count of your projector, the molecular bond coefficient of the screen, the…
Yeah, we’re messing with you. And we made some of those up. Sorry, couldn’t help it.
In reality, you do need to do a little work. Picking the right place your projector and doing it properly setup is essential, and while there are some calculations involved, the clever folks at Epson have put together an online calculator that will do them all for you. It’s easy to use, and will allow you to work out exactly where you need to put things.
However, we recommend plugging numbers into it before you actually go out and buy. The last thing you want is to end up with a screen that is too big (or too small) for your viewing area. Home projection rewards those who mess with it, but it does require a tiny bit of work, and this is a part of that.
It’s worth talking about where your projector is going to be mounted. You’ve got a few options here. The traditional way is to mount the thing on the ceiling, but this is unsurprisingly quite complex and requires a bit of DIY knowledge. You almost certainly need to buy a separate ceiling mounting bracket, and it can often be quite difficult to know the exact position the projector needs to be in before you start drilling (although Epson’s calculator above can help with that). Another option is to mount the projector at floor level, but this can often put it in an inconvenient place. A third way is to position the projector on a shelf above or behind your watching position. Ultimately, so much of this depends on the size of your room and the size of your projection screen that it’s a little bit difficult to recommend a particular setup.
There are a few general principles you can adhere to. The first is to never, ever, ever break out the drill and screws until you’re absolutely sure that the projector is in the right place. Obviously this is a little tricky if you’re planning to mount it from the ceiling, but any other mounting scenario, make sure you do a test watch before you actually commit to a position. Remember, there may be multiple settings and sizes you want to try out before you figure out what works best for you. Despite all the science that goes into it, deploying an actual projection system in the field often means trial and error. It’s part and parcel of the process, and if you embrace it, it can actually be quite good fun.
You’ll also want to be aware of the wires. Wireless projection isn’t a thing yet, so you’ll need to make a plan for squirrelling away the connections between your Blu-ray player/console and the projector itself. The simplest method here is a set of cable mounting brackets. In any case, you shouldn’t need more than a single HDMI cable connection.
Oh yeah: Spirit level. Get that damn projector straight. Ditto with your screen. What it all comes down to is this: installing a home projection system is tricky and time-consuming, but once you pull the curtains, dim the lights, grab the popcorn and a can of beer and sit back for a movie night with some friends, it’ll all be worth it.
A Few Good Options
We’ve got a full roundup of both projectors and projector screens on this site, but here are two of our favorite picks for beginners. Both of these make great starting point if you’re just getting into the field
Optoma HD141X 1080p 3D
There are plenty of cheaper options, but for sheer value for money, you can’t beat this Optoma. It’s a well-designed projector with full 1080p capability, 3000 lumens, and a very solid contrast ratio of 23,000:1. For a permanent home theatre setup, it’s an excellent starting point.
Epson Duet 80-Inch Screen
If you’re just starting out, we’d recommend a tripod screen as opposed to a wall mounted option, and the Epson Duet 80-Inch is a great pick. Setup is dead easy, and you can even expand the screen if you want to mess around with different aspect ratios. It’s not much of a looker, but it really gets the job done, and for a reasonable price, too.