After comparing eight projectors, I found many more similarities than differences, and the differences were by and large quite subtle. As I mentioned earlier, most viewers will be perfectly satisfied with the image from any of these very capable units. A few did rise to the top, though, so if fine distinctions in image quality or getting the best price are important to you, here are my picks for picture quality and value.
BEST VALUE: Panasonic AE900U
I had quibbles with some of its image traits, but at the end of the day the Panasonic AE900U's awesome control over the picture, its versatile lens-shift controls, and, most of all, its deeply discounted price make it my budget pick of the pack. Another excellent choice for value-conscious shoppers is the incredibly inexpensive, good-performing Optoma HD72.
BEST PICTURE: Samsung SP-H710AEAE
At the other end of the price scale is the Samsung SP-H710AE, and it really does just about everything right. Where many of the projectors could summon good contrast, deep blacks, or sharp details, none of them came close in terms of accurate color and image uniformity. If you can appreciate the fine points of its performance, don't mind its slightly bulkier form factor, and have the extra budget to spend, this is a great choice. If you'd rather spend a little less, my runner-up for best picture quality, the InFocus IN76, will please all but the toughest critics.
There's no point fielding a great quarterback without a wide receiver. Likewise, if you're buying a front projector, you'll need a big, wide screen for it to throw its image to. Here are a few tips to follow:
SELECT A SCREEN TYPE. A fixed screen stays on the wall like a picture; a retractable screen disappears when you don't need it. Retractables can be manual or electric. If you opt for an electric, you can choose to operate it with a remote or a wall switch or by turning your projector on and off. Also, think beforehand about speaker placement. For the most cinematic presentation, the speakers should go directly behind the screen, but you'll need a special screen that allows sound to pass through uncolored.
PICK A SIZE. Bigger is better ... to a point. The bigger the screen, the dimmer the image and the larger the pixels that make up the image will appear. Also, sitting too close to a huge screen can be fatiguing. A great tool for selecting the right screen size for your viewing distance is at myhometheater.homestead.com/viewingdistancecalculator.html.
CHOOSE COLOR. White is no longer your only choice for screen color. In fact, most manufacturers offer gray screens that allow for improved contrast and black levels with today's ultra-bright projectors. Some even offer black screens for use well-lit rooms.
SELECT GAIN. Every screen on the market has a "gain" rating, from less than 1 to 6. The higher the gain, the brighter the image will appear when viewed head-on. The tradeoff is a narrower viewing "sweet spot" (people sitting to either side see a dimmer image) - as well as "hotspotting," in which colors shift depending on your position. The appropriate gain for a dedicated home theater where you'll be viewing in total or near darkness is likely to fall between 1 and 1.5.
CONSIDER FABRIC AND FRAME. Beyond the reflective characteristics and quality of the screen material, a higher-end screen will have a nicer frame. Lower-priced screens snap to the front of a simple aluminum frame, while premium screens have a thick, beveled frame covered in a light-absorbing black fabric that improves perceived contrast.
BUY A TRUSTWORTHY BRAND. The top three screen makers are Stewart (stewartfilmscreen.com), Draper (draperinc.com), and Da-Lite (da-lite.com). Up-and-comers include Screen Research (screenresearch.com), Vutec (vutec.com), and Elite Screens (elitescreens.com). A decent 92-inch fixed screen probably starts at around $500 and can run to $2,000 for a premium model. Good motorized screens range from approximately $750 to $3,500.
- John Sciacca
Copyright © 2013 Bonnier Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.