Secrets Q & A

Projector for a dark home theater room: how bright for deepest blacks?

Question
My home theater room is very dark. Should I opt for a projector that is not very bright so that I can have deeper blacks?

- Kyle, E
Medford, Ore

Answer:
This is a great question and it shows that you are considering your environment along with the projector's specs before making a decision. The quick answer is yes, if you want deeper blacks, you don't want an overly bright projector.

Having a dedicated theater room is a wonderful thing. You can control the light and sound without any aesthetic considerations. Ultimately, you're going to watch in total darkness right? If you can close the door, the room doesn't necessarily have to make a fashion statement.

Assuming that you have total light control and are willing to watch in complete darkness, we'll move on. Now you need to consider what you want your maximum light output to be given the projector's throw distance and the screen size. Looking at the lumen rating of a projector is a start but like contrast ratios, you never know just how the manufacturer arrived at that number.

The SMPTE standard for a movie theater is 16 footLamberts with no film in the projector. Obviously, the viewer will never actually see 16 fL when a movie is showing. I usually shoot for that number when measuring a 100 percent white window pattern. However, I have gone as high as 20 fL depending on the projector I'm working with at the time.

That brings us to what projectors you might consider. You didn't mention budget so I'll cover two price categories. For under $3000, an LCD model would give you the greatest dynamic range. I favor the Epsons mainly because I've reviewed several of them and they've always impressed me with their performance. In its last two model generations, Epson has really upped the light output to where you can get as high as 30 fL in Cinema mode. You can still get great blacks out a projector like that if you turn down the contrast, increase the throw distance, and/or use a neutral density filter. The best solution would be a manual iris but despite my appeals to manufacturers, very few projectors have this feature.

In the over $3000 category we have LCoS models from Sony and JVC. They are the highest native contrast projectors you can buy, bar none. While there are tons of super-expensive DLP models out there, not even the five- and six-figure ones can match the contrast of a properly-engineered LCoS display.

The latest generation Sony and JVC projectors don't put out a ton of light. I recently calibrated a brand-new JVC for a client. I was mounted 15 feet from a 100-inch screen and I had to turn the bulb to high and open the iris all the way to get 13 fL. It looked fantastic when I was done. The blacks were almost in plasma territory.

To wrap up, the answer is yes. Projectors with less light output like LCD and LCoS will provide deeper blacks. And if your room can be light-tight, you'll achieve maximum contrast. And one more thing, paint your walls and ceiling flat black if you can. Any other color or finish will reflect light back onto the screen and it will affect the image. With any projection environment, it's the darker the better!

Chris Eberle, Senior Editor