Now Showing on Two Screens

For most A/V enthusiasts, owning a dedicated media room is the ultimate dream. A place sealed away from the many distractions of the rest of the house. A room designed from the ground up for the sole purpose of delivering a totally immersive viewing, listening, or gaming experience. A sanctuary where performance reigns supreme, unfettered by the decorating choices that hold sway beyond its hallowed doors.

In reality, most of us don't have a spare room laying around waiting for a full-blown media makeover, and a lot of people - myself included - wind up using their living or family room as the main place for watching movies. In many new homes, these areas are open to other rooms and have lots of windows. While this kind of floorplan might be great for entertaining, enjoying the views, and getting lots of natural light, it's terrible for serious movie watching. Fortunately, technology comes to the rescue, offering some terrific alternatives that can appease both camps. For instance, high-performance in- or on-wall speakers paired with a subwoofer can deliver surround sound that rivals the sonics of many larger tower speakers.

But a humongous TV, no matter how discreetly it's mounted on the wall, has a way of becoming the focal point of the room. That's why it's usually the biggest casualty whenever you try to set up a home theater in the living room. While most guys would giggle like wee schoolgirls at the thought of having a TV dominate the room, their significant others generally prefer a diminutive set that sits demurely in the corner.

For this dilemma, I have the perfect solution: Use two displays.

For daytime viewing, when the room is filled with sunlight, and guests are likely to be there to marvel at your partner's design acumen - in other words, when there's not going to be a lot of dedicated viewing going on - a wall-mounted flat-panel TV is perfect. These sets are ultra-bright, handle glare like champs, have a wide screen that's tailor-made for HDTV viewing, and have the highest Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF)-rating of any piece of gear ever.

But at night, when the lights are down, the guests are settling in after that third bottle of Cabernet, and it's time to get down to business, display No. 2 kicks in: a front projector firing onto a large screen! Perfect for watching the latest blockbuster or a major sporting event, a projector mated with a drop-down cinema-sized screen delivers entertainment like nothing else.

It only takes a moderately creative install to keep the front-projection system virtually out of sight and out of mind when not in use. Conceal the screen housing behind a valance trimmed out in molding to match your room, and most people won't even know it's there. (See the illustrations below.) Or for the ultimate discreet look, if your trussing and construction allow, install the screen in a "trap door" enclosure in the attic. When called into service, the ceiling-mounted projector comes to life and the motorized screen slides down automatically in front of the front-panel set. Of course, you'll want to install your speakers so that the screen doesn't cover them - unless you want to go with an acoustically transparent screen, which will add a bit to the cost.

Granted, installing dual video displays isn't a new concept; many wealthy clients have been enjoying systems like these for years. What makes this idea especially viable now is the recent dramatic drop in prices for video displays. Everyone knows that flat-panel prices have fallen faster than gravity, but you might be surprised to know that projector pricing hasn't remained stagnant either. There are several projectors available with 1080p resolution and top-notch video processing for less than $5,000, and entry-level 720p models can be had for less than $2,000. Couple that with a budget-priced motorized screen for under $1,500, and you can see how easy it is to assemble a terrific dual-display system for well under $10,000.

Flat-panel sets bigger than 52 inches can exceed $8,000. So the idea of spending that same 8 grand to have both a 42- or 50-inch set for daytime viewing and a 100-inch screen for nighttime use is incredibly appealing. Also, for true cinema aficionados, a front-projection system with an anamorphic lens is the only way to enjoy super-widescreen 2.35:1 aspect-ratio movies with full resolution and - finally! - no black bars.

The latest technology has made it even easier to go with dual displays. First, any universal remote control worth its rechargeable batteries should be able to operate both a flat-panel TV and a front projector via an interface simple enough for anyone in the house to use. For instance, you can program the remote (or have it programmed for you) so that a button labeled Night Movie will turn the flat-panel off, dim the lights, power up the projector, and drop the screen.

Second, one of the biggest hurdles of running two displays used to be making sure that every source component was connected to both. This often meant using signal-degrading splitters or other compromises. But many new receivers feature dual HDMI and component-video outputs, which ensure that both displays receive the highest-quality signals, and which make a potentially complex system connection a breeze. Just because it might not be practical to have a dedicated media room doesn't mean you can't have a terrific home theater. With a little creative thinking, you can satisfy your desire for a killer experience without overwhelming the look of your room - maybe the ultimate case of having your cake and eating it, too!