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How to Choose the Right Screen Material

Make your home theater really shine. Learn the basics of choosing the right projection screen surface.

Choosing the right home theater screen is important. There are many factors that go into selecting a screen, but this article focuses on determining the best projection screen viewing surface for your home theater. The viewing surface is what the audience will spend most of their attention on, so choosing a surface that provides brilliant colors and contrast is vital to making the best home theater experience. There are three major areas to consider when thinking about a projection screen viewing surface: the screen material itself, the environment, and the projector.

A Preface: Your Budget

Let’s face it. Not everyone is made of money. There is much debate about how much to spend on a projection screen, but many agree that a good estimate is about 25% of the cost of the projector. It doesn’t make sense to spend the money to buy a good quality projector only to skimp on the projector screen. No amount of high lumens or high contrast can make up for a poor quality viewing surface.

The Screen Material

What makes projection screen viewing surfaces so special? Can’t I just hang a bed sheet on the wall and enjoy my movie? The choice is up to you, but this article sets out to show how you can have a professional looking viewing surface that is within your budget.

Movie theater chains and home theater professionals all typically choose to project on a specially-designed vinyl materials for the best theater experience. Projection screen vinyl is widely used due to its extraordinary durability and flexibility. A high quality projection screen vinyl can be stretched and held tight without tearing in order to provide a perfectly flat viewing surface. This ensures that there are no puckers or wrinkles interfering with the projected image. Projection screen vinyl materials are manufactured with many different qualities some of which can result in higher picture contrast or brighter color reproduction.

There are other alternatives to projection screen vinyl materials that are designed for specialized theater situations. Various types of rear-projection diffusion materials exist to allow the projector to be placed behind the viewing surface and diffuse the light so that it does not pass straight through, instead is bent to produce the projected image. Newer technology has allowed for the production of micro-fiber materials that do not stretch as well as projection screen vinyl, but allow for sound waves to pass through the micro-fiber surface with minimal loss of quality. These are commonly referred to as “acoustically transparent” materials, since they do not noticeably obstruct home theater speakers hidden behind the projection surface.

High contrast materials are typically grey or silver tinted materials designed to enhance picture contrast by emphasizing black levels in the projected image. Due to their off-white color, these high contrast materials typically do not reflect to the viewers the same amount of light that originally came from the projector. This results in a “negative gain” score (less than 1.0), but the trade-off is increased picture contrast. Projection screen surfaces with higher gain values (1.0 and above) result in a brighter viewing image.

The Environment

No two home theater setups are the same so it is important to consider what the environment is like where the viewing surface will be placed. In areas where lighting is easily controlled, many agree that the best picture comes from a white projection surface. White projection surfaces tend to preserve the true color of the projected image, resulting in a more vibrant, life-like image. Higher gain values have the advantage of increasing the amount of light reflected back to the viewers or alternatively allowing you to turn down the output of the projector to extend the life of expensive projector bulbs.

Areas illuminated by ambient lighting (for example light from windows or light fixtures) can easily result in image washout, where the projected image appears dull due to undesired light reflecting off the projection surface. In order to remedy this issue use a high contrast projection screen material. This raises the black levels in the projected image to make up for the clarity lost due to image washout. Another alternative to combat ambient lighting washout is to increase the projected image brightness by either using a higher lumen projector or higher gain screen.

The Projector

Choosing the right projector can make a huge difference in the quality of your home theater experience. Modern home theater projectors are typically designed for dark rooms and tend to favor high contrast ratios rather than high lumens. Rooms with controlled lighting are best paired with a dedicated home theater projector and a white projection screen material. Ambient-lit rooms are best paired with high-lumen, high-contrast projectors and high contrast screens to compensate for the extra light in the room.

The Wrap-Up

Take time to do your own research and shop around for a good deal – it will be worth your while when you are finally able to relax and enjoy a movie on the projection screen you chose that is just right for your home theater.