Stretch Your Screen -- and Your Pennies

Everyone who's hip to home theater knows the state-of-the-art in video is a constant-height projection system. And everyone who's hip to home theater also knows they can't afford one.

Or can they?

Even to a neophyte, even at just a glance, even after just downing a whole bottle of Boone's Farm, a constant-height video system looks awesome. Constant-height systems use a 2.35:1 Cinemascope-style screen along with an anamorphic lens that either stretches a projector's 1.78:1 (16:9) image horizontally or compresses it vertically to fit the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The benefits, as we've discussed previously, include better resolution, a potentially brighter picture, and a more involving, more cinematic feel.

While the cost of a constant-height-capable projector has dropped 15-fold - from about $30,000 three years ago to around $2,000 street price today - the outboard gear still costs dearly. Prices for most of the anamorphic lenses and the motorized "sleds" that move them in and out of a projector's light path run about $6,000. For the guys who experience not a whit of worry when they write a $25,000 check for a Runco projector, another $6K is no big deal. But for the rest of us, it's hard to reconcile spending chump change on a projector while paying more than double that for an extra lens to go with it. Seriously - a lens doesn't do anything! It's just a chunk of glass! And the projector has one built in already!

We figured there had to be something cheaper out there. And there is.

Panamorph's UV200 Universal Anamorphic Lens only costs $1,995.

DOING IT LEGIT

Four companies dominate the market for anamorphic lenses: Panamorph, Prismasonic, Schneider Optics, and Isco (which is owned by Schneider).

So - in the case of Panamorph, for instance - is there any way to drop down below the $6,000 retail price of a horizontal stretch lens and a motorized sled? "Sure," replies Panamorph general manager, Dave Carty. "Our least expensive lens is the UV200. It's an all-glass vertical compression lens that retails for $1,995."

Like other vertical compression lenses, the UV200 is most often mounted permanently - i.e., it's always in the light path. This configuration saves you $995 on a motorized sled. To use this lens, you need a projector that has image processing for a vertical compression lens.

In a constant image height setup, the downside of vertical compression systems is that about a third of the chip/panel surface is "thrown away" when you drop down to a 16:9 picture (because of the horizontal image squeeze processing that the projector or external video scaler must perform to present 16:9 images with the same vertical height on a 2:35:1 aspect ratio screen). Obviously, 4:3 images suffer even worse than 16:9 ones

You can remedy this problem by installing a $995 sled to move the lens out of the way when you're watching 16:9 or 4:3. Or if you're skilled with tools, you can devise your own manual sled using a few parts from Home Depot.

Even though the UV200 costs only $2K, you're still spending as much for the lens as you might for the projector, and you're losing some performance in the process. (Plus you'll need a 2.35:1 screen of some sort, but we'll discuss that shortly.)

U.K.-based Prismasonic's H-700M looks like a better choice for cheapskate Cinemascope. It's a horizontal stretching lens with a "pass mode" that lets the light from the projector pass through unaltered when you're watching 16:9 or 4:3 material. Though you have to twist a knob on the lens to activate the pass mode, the whole package runs only about $2,000 - and you suffer no loss in resolution. Motorized versions that switch in and out of pass mode by remote control start at about $3,800.

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