The Custom Installer: Front and Center

My first experience with front projection was nine years ago in a swanky A/V boutique in San Francisco - the kind of place where "I'm just looking" really means, "I can't afford anything in here." This store carried brands I'd never heard of at stratospheric prices I'd never thought possible. Like most people new to home theater, I didn't understand what "high end" or "top of the line" really meant.

Walking through an archway, I left the sales floor and entered a theater. Before me, flanked by heavy curtains, was a giant movie screen, and hanging from the ceiling in the back was a white box from a company called Vidikron.

When the salesman lowered the lights and fired up the system, I was transfixed. I'd never imagined that you could have such a thing in your house. You could use it to watch VHS tapes, laserdiscs (remember, this was nine years ago), and regular TV. You could even play videogames on it!

I was sold. But then he hit me with the price: a cool $12,000.

Flash forward: Front projectors are no longer only playthings for the rich. New technologies like DLP (Digital Light Processing) and LCD have led to projectors that cost as little as $1,500. And now you can get one capable of high-definition for around $3,000.

But before you ditch your current TV for a projector, there are a few things you need to consider. A front-projection system doesn't bear much resemblance to a traditional video display, and installing one in the same room where you've been watching a rear-projection or direct-view TV could lead to disappointing results.

First, front projectors don't work well in rooms with lots of ambient light. You used to need a room that was coffin dark, but while that's no longer true, it still stands that the darker your room, the better the picture will be. That's because projectors can't "project" black (an absence of light), but instead leave a gap in the image where black would be. To see how this will look in your room, make it as dark as you can and then look at the walls - that's your black. If the room isn't dark enough, you'll need to consider window treatments.

Heavy drapery is one way to go, since it will probably block most or all of the light. But you can also buy specially designed blinds, called blackout shades, from companies like Hunter Douglas, Levolor, and Bali for about $100 to $300 a window. More advanced - and expensive - systems from companies like Vimco can be automated to open and close the blinds at the press of a button.

Second, while you could just project the image onto a white wall, you'll get a far better picture by using a screen. And I'm not talking about some $100 job like they used in elementary school but one designed for a home theater. A fixed screen is less expensive than a motorized, retractable one and can provide a terrific image. A motorized screen is great, though, because it can disappear when you're not using it, and many are designed so the screen won't get wrinkled when it rolls up. Some screens use fabrics meant to optimize picture contrast when used with DLP and LCD projectors, like Stewart Filmscreen's GrayHawk and FireHawk. In general, an 82-inch 16:9 fixed screen will cost around $1,400, a 100-inch screen about $1,800, and a 123-inch screen about $2,300.

Options for motorized screens abound. You can use a wall- or ceiling-mounted housing, or have one that disappears entirely into the ceiling with the screen dropping down from a trap door. You trigger the screen via your remote or a wall switch, or have it descend automatically whenever you turn on the projector. Most motorized screens range from $2,700 to more than $5,000.

Third, it can be a big problem to retrofit a frontprojection system in a house. At my business, we typically run a bundle of wiring that supports composite-, component-, and S-video signals, along with Category-5 cabling to handle the control signals. Many new projectors have a DVI (Digital Visual Interface) input, which lets you send high-definition signals to the projector digitally with a single cable. And if you plan to surf the Web on your screen, be sure to check what kind of computer connector the projector supports. Many use a traditional VGA-type connector, while others use a DVI input. If your home theater gear is located a good distance from the projector, the cables alone could cost several hundred dollars.

Like any high-performance component, a front projector should have a dedicated power circuit. Connecting it to a circuit used by other devices - especially lights and fans - can introduce noise into the picture and create power fluctuations that shorten bulb life. Bulbs usually last around 1,500 to 2,000 hours and cost $300 to $600 each. If you plan to use the projector for most of your TV viewing, expect to change the bulb about once a year. Projectors have lamp timers that display the hours of operation, but I highly recommend keeping a spare bulb on hand, since it'll inevitably go out in the middle of some big event when you have a house full of guests.

Projectors have become much more flexible in their placement, but you still need to observe some parameters. The first is throw distance - the length between the projector and the screen. This varies depending on the projector and its lens, but generally it will be from 150 to 250% of the screen width. For example, a 100-inch (diagonal) 16:9 screen is 87 inches wide, so it needs the projector's lens to be between about 11 feet and 18 feet from the screen. (Companies such as Runco, Marantz, and Vidikron offer lens options that can aid in placing their models - for instance, using a "long throw" lens lets you place the projector much farther from the screen than it would normally be installed.)

The lens should be centered horizontally on the screen and will be positioned somewhere near the top for a ceiling mount or the bottom for a tabletop. Many models use digital keystone correction to compensate for the projector's being angled up or down. But this can cause a loss of resolution at the edges and may introduce video artifacts like jagged edges on objects, so use it only if proper placement is impossible. (Another option is to use a standalone component that can compensate for the projector's position, like the Silicon Optix Image AnyPlace processor reviewed on page 60.)

You also need to take your seating position into account. Many installers use the guidelines of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), which recommend a distance that will allow you to view the screen at a 30° angle. But in the end it comes down to the projector's resolution and your personal preference. If you like to sit at the front of a movie theater, you'll probably want a really big screen, but if you usually sit toward the back, a smaller screen will be fine. And remember: the lower the resolution, the more likely you'll be able to see the pixels - which means you'll need to sit farther back. Most people end up sitting at a distance equal to 200 to 250% of the screen width.

Primarily because of the cabling issues involved, do-it-yourselfers might find that installing a front-projection system is beyond their capabilities. Even if you want to do the work yourself, I suggest you meet with a professional installer before getting too far into your planning. Arrange for him to visit your house so he can help you determine the optimal screen size and mounting location, how to run wiring to the projector, and if ambient light will be a problem in your room. Expect to pay $60 to $100 an hour for this consultation.

While plasma and large rear-projection TVs are certainly impressive, nothing compares with the cinematic experience of a front projector and a giant screen. Since excellent projectors are now within reach of nearly every home theater enthusiast, they deserve a serious look.

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