Projectors & Display Sources
Get the Best Image on Your Home Theater Projector
Prices on big screen TVs and HD projectors have dropped so low that we are becoming a nation illuminated by the bright lights of big screens. And while HDTVs are getting larger and cheaper, projector owners remain the kings of the big screen dream kingdom.
Today it is possible to have an affordable home theater system with quality that actually surpasses that of your local movie house. Ok, maybe not the new 3D IMAX Theater at the movieplex; but a good front projection HD home theater system will give those small theaters in the back a run for their money. So how can you be sure your home theater has the necessary gear to charge admission? Here is a quick look at the sources that make the best picture, and the projector features that will maximize your viewing experience.
Satellite and Cable
Now that NTSC is just about entirely obsolete in the US, most folks who invest in a home theater projector will make the wise decision to invest in a cable or satellite service.
The majority of cable companies offer HD programming, but to get the best channel options with 720p or 1080p HD, you'll have to subscribe to enhanced services. Even the basic HD (480i or 480p) broadcasts are an improvement over what we had before the digital switch, and should only continue to improve.
Direct TV, Dish Network, and various cable providers all provide some great services. There are plenty of opinions on which is the best (just step into an AV forum and ask the question and you'll get loads of feedback). The customer service, signal quality and lineup options differ by area for any of these services, but for the most part, all are competitive. Problems like a lost signal in bad weather are balanced out by the additional programming options like NFL Sunday Ticket (on a sunny day). We won't get too involved in the quality debate, but you should feel confident that any of these options provide an acceptable big screen image. However, if you want the best in programming and quality, you may want to subscribe to an enhanced HD package.
Quick Tip: External factors like the length of cable from the box to outlet and the strength of the signal reaching your home can contribute to quality problems. Well-shielded cables are recommended, particularly for long cable runs.
- Image Quality (Standard HD Cable or Satellite): Very Good
- Image Quality (Enhanced HD Cable or Satellite): Very Good to Excellent with more HD programming
Home video has come a long way since the 4-head VCR. When we first posted this article, we mentioned one of the golden rules of video "garbage in, garbage out" to illustrate the point that playing a VHS tape on a 10 foot screen will look significantly less impressive than it did on your "big-screen" 20-inch Sony Trinitron. Today, we don't have quite the same quality gap from source to display, but there are still a few quality differences between sources.
VHS and LaserDisc Players
Just for fun, let's relive the day when 4-head VCR was the best thing ever. It's 1988. Your parents just don't understand. You want to go to Paradise City. Your hair is business in the front, party in the back. Ok, let's not go back. But we'll just mention this for the folks who are holding on to their VCR so they can still access that extensive VHS collection. There are still some great films that have not been released on DVD or Blu-ray just yet. And there are some limited edition LaserDisc collections that one should never let go of. Never.
- Image Quality (4-head or S-VHS): Visible (barely).
- Image Quality (LaserDisc): Cool (always).
DVD Players (Standard HD, Blu-ray)
Several years ago, Blu-ray won HD format wars, defeating HD-DVD in a no-love-lost battle for the high-definition soul. So, essentially, for the best quality DVD players it's a matter of which Blu-ray player has the feature set you want. You can still use an upconverting DVD player to simulate the true HD experience offered by Blu-ray, which will keep from having to update your entire DVD catalog to Blu-ray, but it won't provide quite the same quality. Your better investment might be in a backwards-compatible Blu-ray player that will also play standard DVDs.
- Image Quality (upconverting DVD player): Good to Very Good
- Image Quality (Blu-ray DVD player playing standard DVD) Very Good
- Image Quality (Blu-ray DVD player playing Blu-ray): Excellent
Quick Tip: In some cases, sticking to the same brand Blu-ray player as your projector can offer up a few cool features.
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Streaming Video (Roku, Netflix, Apple TV)
The video source in the greatest state of flux has to be streaming video. Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus are offering HD streaming video, though not always to the degree customers find acceptable. Buffering issues related to bandwidth and general 'bugginess' are the biggest issues to slow streaming enthusiasm, but as the compression algorithms improve, the ease and convenience of streaming will likely become one of the most popular ways to receive HD content.
Options for streaming Netflix include Apple TV, TiVo, Roku, Xbox 360, PS3, and a few other devices. The Sony Playstation3 has 1080p output, and if you enjoy video games, it's a good option for streaming (provided you aren't concerned they will be hacked again) and gaming. The Xbox 360 also does both, but doesn't offer 1080p output for streaming. There are also Blu-ray DVD players that offer Netflix streaming, which is another way to kill two sources with one device.
- Image Quality (streaming video on any device): Acceptable to improving
Video Game Consoles
If you enjoy playing video games, you haven't really lived until you have played your favorite games with a 120-inch screen. But to get the best image, gamers will need to invest in the high-definition cable options. Many gaming systems come standard with a lower end cable, or no cable at all. For the best-looking images from your game console you'll have to purchase an HDMI or component video cable, if you don't already have one at home. Your console may also default to a lower resolution output out-of-the box. Follow the instructions for your system to upgrade output for maximum image quality on your HD projector.
If you plan to use your projector for gaming more than any other function, you'll want to consult our "Gaming Buyer's Guide" for tips on choosing the best projector.
Quick Tip: Select video projectors with picture-in-picture allow you to view more than one video source from your projector - a great feature for team gaming. Be sure to check that the projector can run two live feeds for picture-in-picture. In some cases the projector may only be able to do computer and video simultaneously.
Cables and Screens
Your cable and screen selection will also affect your final image. Our guide to cables and connections will walk you through some cable basics, but the short version is this: HDMI or component video will give you the best image. The brand of cable can also affect picture quality, as cheaply made cables are less able to protect the signal from interference. Consult a Projector Expert for more about which cables will work best for you.
Quick Tip: Shorter cable runs usually mean less interference and better picture quality. However, when longer runs are necessary, cable quality becomes more important and distribution amplifiers may be required.
We are often asked the question, "Do I really need a screen?" The answer to that question depends on you. You'll need to ask yourself what kind of image you are trying to achieve and if you've got any interest in the "wow" factor in your space.
The right projector screen can make a huge difference in your final image. Screens like the Black Diamond will help improve the appearance of black in an image, and are a great choice in rooms with a lot of ambient light. In controlled environments, a matte white screen might also be a good choice. You can consult our Screen Guide or call a Projector Expert for more information about which screen is right for you.
If you're looking for impact, an installed screen does have an immediate "wow" factor. Sure, if you walk into a room with a 60 inch flatscreen says, you might think to yourself "That's a big TV." But let's say you walk past the living room and enter a dedicated home theater room with a 10-foot screen installed on the wall, and you think "Now THAT's a BIG screen." Nothing says you're serious about your home entertainment quite like that. Of course, you can always tape off a space on the wall and add some gray paint, but in terms of impact, there is really no comparison. At least not until you turn on the HD projector.
Finding the Right HD Projector
So you've got an idea about which sources, cables, and screens will help create a great image. But the road to the ideal image doesn't stop there. Getting the right video projector is the final element for perfect projection.
For many years, the videophile's appetite had been far more ravenous than projector manufacturers could keep up with. Special lenses, converter boxes and other add-ons sold for good money just to satisfy the desire for a great HD image. Today, the majority of home theater projectors do a more than adequate job producing a great HD image. But there are a few specs to look for if you want the best of what's available today. So, here's a quick take on the specs that we think will offer up the best image from an HD projector.
Specs for the Best in 1080p HD Projectors
- HD 1920x1080 (native 1080p HD resolution)
- 1500 - 4000 lumens brightness
- 5000:1 contrast or higher
- 240hz or higher refresh rate
- 3-D capability*
* 3D projectors are far from being mainstream just yet, but this is an area of technology manufacturers seem committed to growing. Even if you are not an early adopter, the 3D option does not add too much to the cost of a new projector itself (though there is an additional cost for the glasses).
For a lower cost option you can still opt for a 720p native home theater projector.
Specs for the best in 720p HD projectors:
- Wide XGA (native 1280x800 resolution)
- 2000 - 5000 lumens brightness
- 2000:1 contrast or higher
- 120hz or higher refresh rate
- 3D capability
So now you're armed with all the information you need to create a superior enormous image in your home theater. All you need is the right movie and you'll be ready for a perfect day of home entertainment! What will you be watching?
Have more questions? Call a Projector Expert today for the best advice and the best price on projectors for work and home.
Please note: Images portrayed in the photography of this home theater are the property of their respective copyright holders.