Widescreen Explained:
What’s with the Black Bars?

If you’re a movie lover, you’ve probably noticed that when you play your favorite Blu-ray or streaming movie, you will usually have black bars at the top and bottom. “Why doesn’t the movie fill the screen the way HDTV shows do?” We know that this can be confusing, so we’re going to explain why you have the black bars, as well as some things to try that may even fix the issue, depending on your individual system and situation.

What is Aspect Ratio?

The aspect ratio of a video is the proportional relationship of its width to its height. This is usually expressed as a ratio — for example 1:1 would be a square.

If you were born anytime before 2010, you probably grew up with a more “square” TV. Strangely enough, even these TVs weren’t actually square, they just weren’t as wide as screens are today. A traditional TV has a 4:3 aspect ratio, while your typical flat panel 4K HDTV today is a wider 16:9 aspect ratio.

Why are Movies Shot in Widescreen?

While you may not have realized it before, widescreen is actually how we see the world. Don’t believe us? Give it a try. Take your hands and place one at the very highest and one at the very lowest point that is still within your field of view without moving your head or eyes. Now do the same thing on the sides. Your peripheral vision allows you to see much more to the sides than you can see vertically — essentially you see in widescreen!

While widescreen TVs are relatively new, films have been shot this way for 70+ years. The goal of a good movie is to immerse you and to elicit emotion. Widescreen movies are better at this by nature because they allow the picture to fill nearly your entire field of vision. This is why films have been shot this way — to draw you in and make you feel like you’re part of the action. Most widescreen movies are shot in what is called 2:35:1 (21:9) aspect ratio. 21:9 is a wider aspect ratio than 16:9. This is why you still see black bars when you watch a widescreen movie on the widescreen TV. They’re simply different versions of widescreen, and there are more than two!

Diagram explaining widescreen aspect ratio

How Can I Fix It?

If you are watching a movie on an HDTV there are a few things you can do, but they are more like hacks than fixes and it’s debatable whether they truly improve the experience.

If your primary goal is simply to fill the screen, you can simply use the “ZOOM” or “Aspect Ratio” function on your TVs remote. This changes your pictures aspect ratio, toggling through a few different options. Choose the one that looks best to you and you’re done. The downside of this is that there really isn’t a good way to do this without cutting off some part of the picture.

Just as we’re audio purists here at Audio Advice, we’re also video purists. The goal when we engage in music or film is to experience the art as it was intended by the artist. If a director shot the movie in 2:35:1, they really want you to be watching it that way, and you may even be missing things if you don’t.

What if I Have a Home Theater Room with a Projector?

The good news is that the home theater industry has recently come up with a new technology, called lens memory,  that allows you to have the best of both worlds! While this tech used to be found only on the most expensive home theater projectors, today you can get it in some very reasonably priced models.  

Lens memory allows you to purchase a widescreen system that adjusts to perfectly match the content! You lose nothing when watching your HDTV shows and sports, and you still get the full impact of a widescreen film when you enjoy a blockbuster movie.

Is Lens Memory Right for Me?

This question really comes down to what you watch. If you’re a big movie fan, we strongly recommend this feature. If, on the other hand, you spend 90%+ of your time watching sports and TV shows, it may not be worth it to you.

The other situation where we might say no is when you have a limited amount of width available for your screen size.  In that case we would probably say go with the biggest 16:9 screen that would fit.  However, for most home theater rooms, you will get far more enjoyment if you go wide!

We have to say that all of our customers who have put in a widescreen system just love the way it works!