Ultra-Short-Throw Projectors: What You Need to Know

Ultra-short-throw (UST) projectors that can produce 100-plus-inch images when placed only a foot or so from a wall are gaining popularity. In addition to being way easier to install than traditional ceiling-mount projectors, they are suitable for daytime viewing and have become reasonably affordable.

My first UST experience was a $20,000 Sony model shown at CES several years ago. Since then, UST performance has increased steadily and prices have dropped precipitously. Today you can get a 4K/HDR ultra-short-throw projector with a laser-light engine capable of exceeding 2,500 lumens for less than $2,500!

While a number of big brands sell UST projectors today — Samsung, LG, Sony, Epson, BenQ, Optoma, and Hisense among them — the category includes many smaller UST brands you might not be familiar with, including AWOL Vision, Formovie, Leica, Vava, ViewSonic, Wemax, and Xgimi.

My custom installation firm has yet to sell or install a UST projector — which might speak to their popularity in the “real world” — but I have had the opportunity to see many of them in action and I actually live with one in my own home.

If the idea of a UST projector sounds appealing, here are a few things to keep in mind.

UST Projector vs. TV
Unlike traditional video projectors, which do nothing but project an image, most UST projectors are full-fledged TV systems with a built-in sound system and streaming support. (Home theater enthusiasts will definitely want to add a separate surround system.) And unlike traditional “front projectors” that typically perform best in a light-controlled setting, which often translates into a dedicated movie room, most UST projectors are touted as a “TV replacement” intended for use in a family room or other multi-use space. In fact, most UST advertising shows the projector sitting out in a brightly lit room, just like a regular TV.

However, I’d say this is an unrealistic expectation based on the demos I’ve ever seen and the personal experience I have with the UST projector in my living room. While UST projectors can produce a vibrant image when paired with the right screen, they don’t deliver the pop and brightness you get with a direct-view TV, nor do they deliver comparable black levels or fully compete with ambient light.

Because a direct-view TV will typically look better than a UST projector in most lighting conditions, there is a compelling argument to be made in favor of direct-view TVs in the 100-inch range, especially as prices of today’s biggest TVs continue to drop.)

But, if your goal is to get the largest screen possible — say, up to 150-inches — in a room that doesn’t have light control, a UST is a worthy consideration as long as you are willing to accept a picture that is less than perfect.

Location, Location, Location
UST projectors are designed to sit on the floor or on top of a cabinet very close to the wall/screen and use special optics and lenses to project the image nearly straight up onto the screen. To produce a 100-inch image, the projector will typically sit about a foot away from the wall, while a 150-inch image might require a distance (or “throw”) of 17 inches.

However, there are usually no physical lens adjustments, which means getting the projected image to line up with the bottom of the screen becomes a matter of cabinet height. For example, whether the image is 100 or 150 inches, the bottom of the picture will be in roughly the same location. So, if you plan on using an existing piece of furniture to support the projector, the height of that table or cabinet will largely determine where the bottom of the projected image falls on the wall/screen.

If you’re starting from scratch, it’s worth considering application-specific cabinetry from companies like Salamander Designs, which sells attractive furniture-grade cabinets designed for specific UST projectors that conceal your electronics and the projector. Aegis AV offers its Andromeda solution that conceals everything, including a motorized projection screen up to 120 inches (diagonal) in a customizable cabinet. AWOL Vision’s Vanish Laser TV is a complete UST bundle that is about as turnkey as you can get. It includes projector, motorized screen and cabinet but the 100-inch version runs just under $15,000.

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of the Screen
Every bit as important as the projector is the screen you use it with. To maximize picture quality, UST projectors are typically paired with a special type of ambient light rejecting (ALR) screen featuring a lenticular surface that reflects the projector’s light toward the viewer, while absorbing ambient light in the room.

Two options are Stewart Filmscreen’s BlackHawk UST and Screen Innovations Short Throw material. Both screens appear white when looking from the bottom up (as the projector “sees” it), black when looking from the top down, where it absorbs ambient light, and kind of silvery when looking from the side.

ALR screens usually have negative gain, which means they reflect back less light than what is shined on them. Because of this, black-level performance is greatly improved, resulting in deeper blacks and more cinematic images with daytime or nighttime viewing. ALR screens also help prevent hotspotting, in which one area of the screen appears visibly brighter.

The drawback to ALR screens is that they diminish overall image brightness by a significant amount — around 1,000 lumens — which reduces the impact of high dynamic range (HDR) content. Price can also be an issue with some ALR screens costing twice as much as the projector, which pushes the overall budget for a UST setup closer to the cost of big-screen direct-view TVs in the 80- to 100-inch range.

“Can I just use the screen I already have?”

Sure. But it won’t look as good — especially during the day, and it might introduce visible artifacts. When I mated my UST projector with the motorized Draper screen I use for serious home theater viewing, there were thin, light-colored “roll lines” about every foot from the top of the screen to the bottom — something I never experienced with my front projector. The horizontal lines created just enough of a surface irregularity that the UST’s upfiring lens highlighted them. Apparently, this is a thing that can happen when a traditional rollup screen is used with a UST projector.

Bottom line: Pairing a UST projector with a quality ALR screen can deliver a near instant-theater experience that will likely satisfy many viewers. However, unless you want an image that is significantly larger than 100 inches, you might be better off with a traditional big-screen TV.

3ddavey13's picture

I'm aware that 3D is no longer a popular topic at S&V, but I couldn't help noticing the lack of support by UST projectors. Is this a marketing decision, or is this technology unable to display 3D? Also are the 4K models true 4K displays or pixel-shifters?

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