For a lot of us, the term “projector” might evoke memories of classroom overhead projectors, slide projectors, and primitive digital projectors with the poorest of image qualities. But technology has advanced and LCD projectors are now a key component in most home media theaters.
The primary benefit of an LCD projector is the ability to deliver tack-sharp, high-detail images with better color saturation than projectors of another type (e.g. DLP projectors). LCD projectors are also more energy efficient so they require less wattage at any given brightness.
That being said, there are some nuanced considerations to make before diving in and spending a whole lot of money on features and aspects that you may not even need.
Area Space & Lighting
The first things you need to consider are the amount of space you have available in the projection area and what the lighting conditions will be during projection. These will factor heavily into what kind of projector specifications you need.
Maybe your primary use for the projector will be as a TV replacement on weekends only. As such, you’ll be watching a lot of stuff during the daytime with a lot of ambient sunlight. This differs greatly from using the projector as a basement movie theater where it’ll be predominantly dark.
Similarly, the amount of space available in your living room may only be half of what’s available in your basement. The more space you have, the bigger the projection surface will have to be to make use of that space — and you’ll need a projector that can fill up the entire surface with a crisp, colorful image.
Lastly, where are you going to put the projector? Will it be resting on a dedicated stand? Or will you mount it onto a fixture such as a wall or the ceiling? Do you need it to be portable or is it okay if it’s permanently affixed?
Once you’ve thought of these things, then you can move on to the real nitty gritty details.
Where do you plan on projecting the image? Because while it might not seem like a big deal whether you choose a wall or a screen, it does matter and can bring down the quality if you aren’t mindful of the importance here.
For example, most people default to white as the projection surface color of choice because it’s about as close as you can get to an “empty canvas”, right? Not quite. The surface color will always have an impact on the projected image, and white isn’t always the best way to go.
A white surface is good for natural color tones that aren’t too bright. It reflects colors most accurately, but the colors can be easily blown out and lose contrast if the projector bulb is too bright. Plus, it’s more difficult to project darker colors onto a white surface because the white brightens it up.
On the flipside, a black surface is best when you really want to capture the darker colors of a bright image. And because black absorbs more light than white, black surfaces are great when you’re in a setting with a lot of ambient light (such as the daytime).
But if versatility is your main priority, then go for a gray surface. Gray is good because it balances the highlights and shadows of an image, resulting in a picture that maintains a good contrast. How dark of a gray? You’ll have to experiment, but in general, the brighter your projector bulb, the darker the gray.
Lastly, matte or glossy? Glossy is better at reflecting light — and thus produces a cleaner image — but tends to create a lot of glare. On the other hand, matte reduces glare at the cost of image dullness and loss of color saturation. For a home theater, we think the pros of matte outweigh the cons.
As for the projector itself, there are a handful of specifications that demand the majority of your attention.
Aspect Ratio: Projectors mainly come in 4:3 (standard) and 16:9 (widescreen) aspect ratios, which is the ratio between the width and the height of the projected image. The rule of thumb is that the aspect ratio of the projector should match the most common video source you’ll be using (so if you’re projecting from your 16:9 laptop, get a 16:9 projector).
Resolution: The resolution is how many pixels can be projected. The most common is 1280×720, also known as 720p, which is a 16:9 aspect ratio. That’s good enough for most DVDs and won’t cost you too much. A 1080p, or 1920×1080, projector is obviously better (assuming you have a video source that’s also 1080p) but much more expensive.
Unless you’re a hardcore videophile who scrutinizes every imperfection in image quality, you should be fine with a 720p projector for home use. It can still project a 1080p video source, but the quality will be diminished to match the projector’s 720p resolution.
Note: The bigger you intend the projection size to be, the more noticeable the loss in image quality will be. Conversely, if your projection size is going to be small, you won’t notice the loss in image quality as much.
Throw Ratio: Throw is the distance between the projector and the projection surface. Throw ratio is the relationship between that distance and the projected image’s width. For example, if a projector has a 2:1 throw ratio, then for every 2-feet increase in distance, the projected image will widen by 1-foot.
Depending on how far away your projector will be — especially if it’s going to be permanently mounted in a fixed spot — you should make sure the throw ratio is enough to fill the surface you’ll be projecting onto.
Contrast Ratio: While resolution is important, it’s arguably more important to have good color contrast for good image quality. Not enough contrast and the image will appear flat and lifeless. In short, a higher contrast ratio means whiter whites and blacker blacks.
More contrast is always better, but the trade-off is usually cost. The good news is that the darker the projection area is (e.g. basement with no lights), the less contrast ratio matters. However, the brighter the area is (e.g. ambient sunlight), the more important contrast ratio becomes.
The ratio itself describes the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black, so a 1,000:1 contrast ratio means that the brightest white is 1,000-times brighter than the darkest black. The thing is, contrast ratio doesn’t increase linearly, so 1,000:1 isn’t necessarily twice as “good” as 500:1.
At a bare minimum we recommend a contrast ratio of 500:1, but know that many modern projectors have a contrast ratio in excess of 10,000:1 and are still affordable. It’s up to you whether the marginal increase in quality is worth the price.
Brightness: Brighter isn’t always better. Just as with computer monitors, bright light can cause your eyes to strain, and if held over long periods of time, you can develop eye fatigue which manifests as headaches, blurry vision, and itchy eyeballs.
But too dark isn’t good either. You need a certain amount of brightness in order for the contrast ratio to kick in — not enough light and there won’t be any contrast no matter what.
Brightness is measured in ANSI Lumens. Try to stay above a minimum of 1,250 lumens for darker settings while something brighter than 2,000 lumens will look better in brighter settings. Some advanced projectors may even allow you to adjust brightness, but don’t count on it.
Lamp Life: Less commonly known as bulb life, lamp life is how long the projector’s lamp is expected to last before needing replacement — and in most cases, this means the point at which the lamp is half as bright as when it was new.
Traditionally, LCD projectors used incandescent lamps with an average rating between 1,000 and 5,000 hours. Modern LCD projectors, however, are equipped with LED bulbs with lamp life ratings up to and in excess of 20,000 hours.
LED lamps are more energy efficient than incandescent lamps and require no warm-up or cool-down time, so they are always the preferred choice. Plus, even at 4 hours per day, an LED lamp rated at 20,000 hours would last 13.6 years, and not having to replace the lamp is a huge convenience factor.
Video Input Ports
Finally, it’s time to talk about video sources. Most modern projectors have a variety of input ports that you can use to connect pretty much anything. How are you going to set up your projector and which connection types do you have available?
VGA and DVI are fine if all you need is video projection, while DisplayPort and HDMI can transmit both video and audio. DisplayPort is typically only available on computers while HDMI is commonly available on both computers and televisions. VGA and DVI are relatively outdated and should only be used as last resorts.
Between the above video connection types, we recommend HDMI every time. They’re easy, they’re convenient, and they’re cheap — which warrants mention that you should never spend more than $10 on an HDMI cable.
Some brands, like Epson, have even started putting out projectors with Wireless HDMI. This kind of projector comes with a transmitter that you connect to the HDMI port of the video source, which then transmits wirelessly to a receiver that’s built into the projector itself. Recommended for those who hate cable clutter.
Some projectors also allow you to insert a USB thumb drive full of images and will play a slideshow of all the images found on the drive. Commonly compatible file formats include BMP, PNG, JPG, and GIF.
How’s Your Home Media Theater Setup?
All of this might seem like information overload, but don’t worry too much about it. Just get a projector that’s at least 720p, has a contrast ratio over 500:1, uses an LED lamp, and has HDMI capabilities. That will work out fine for 95% of home theaters.
The other considerations are there if you want to wring out every last drop of quality from your projector, so don’t sweat it.
Show us your home theater setups! Did you run into any issues while setting it up? What would you do differently next time? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Image Credits: Ceiling Mounted Projector by Zoltan Pataki via Shutterstock, Home Theater Setup by Zoltan Pataki via Shutterstock, Throw Ratio Diagram by JohnOAS via Wikipedia, Project Bulb Closeup by fotoslaz via Shutterstock, HDMI Cable Closeup by Swapan Photography via Shutterstock