How to Choose the Best Front Projection Home Theater Screen

Congratulations, you’ve decided to go big with a huge projection screen! You’re taking a big step towards a true movie theater experience. There are still a few more choices you’ll need to make. Hopefully our guide will enable you to find the best type of screen for your home theater. 

We do have a word of advice we have gained from our decades of home theater experience. While technology moves very quickly in some areas of home theater, it moves much slower in others. Speakers and projection screens are two that tend to stay constant. Projection technology will progress, but most people (unless they just go bigger) tend to keep their screens for decades. 

Pick Your Aspect Ratio

The first step in picking a projector screen is deciding if you want an HDTV 16:9 (1.78 aspect ratio), or the full widescreen experience with a 2.40 aspect ratio screen. If you like movies and can afford a projector that can display full widescreen, we highly recommend you go this way. You will experience the movie the way the director intended with no black bars at the top and bottom. 

If you mostly watch sports and network TV, you are probably better off with a 16:9 screen but, there is one exception. If you have limited width for your screen, you might be happier with a 16:9 screen. For instance, if you use our tips for screen size/viewing angle and determine from your seating distance the width of your space only allows for a 38-degree field of vision viewing area, go with a 16:9 screen. For more information on the pros and cons of widescreen see our article on widescreen explained.

When a 42 Degree will not fit in your room

Home Theater Screen Materials

The next step in picking out your screen is to decide if you want it to be acoustically transparent. All commercial cinemas have the main front speakers behind an acoustically transparent screen. This makes it seem like the sound is coming right out of the screen, which is a great effect. 

In the home environment, in-wall or fairly thin speakers can be used behind an acoustically transparent screen. Or, if you have enough depth in your room, you can build out a false wall and hide your big speakers behind an acoustically transparent screen. 

Within the acoustic transparent screen family, there are two types of screen material that allow for the sound to pass through. The first is a woven type material that looks somewhat similar to speaker grill cloth. With this type of screen, you can place the speakers pretty close to the screen, making it a great choice for in-wall speakers. 

The second type of material has tiny holes in the screen. This results in a flatter screen surface, which video purists would argue gives you better color saturation and detail. However, with the perforated (perf) screen, you need to have your speakers a little further away from the screen as opposed to right on top of it. Eight to twelve inches will typically be enough. 

The perf type screen also has some high-frequency roll-off, so if you go this route, you’ll need a surround sound processor or receiver that has room correction (which almost all of the current ones have). With either type (and especially with the perf type), we recommend putting some dark acoustic panels all over the back wall, and if you do in-wall speakers, paint them flat black if you can. 

The effect of an acoustically transparent screen is just fantastic. It does require more planning and a good acoustically transparent screen can cost almost twice as much as the same sized non-transparent screen, but we feel if you have the budget and can set things up this way, it makes your home theater feel much more like a commercial cinema!

Screen Gain

When you are looking at front projection screens, you’ll also see differences in the type of projection screen material. You’ll find white, grey, and even almost black screen surfaces. You will also see a specification called gain, which is usually expressed as a number from around .8 to 2. Each of these types has an environment they are best suited for. 

The most common type of screen will have a white surface. Within white screens, you’ll see gain specifications from around 1 to 1.4. The matte white types will typically be 1.0. Most white screens provide what we feel is the most accurate picture reproduction. They also have a very wide viewing angle where you will not get any dropoff of light if you are not perfectly centered on the screen. 

 A very common, and recommended gain is 1.3. Unless you have a very bright projector (above 2500 lumens) and your screen is less than 10 feet wide, we would recommend you go with a gain of around 1.3. For the most accurate video experience, a screen with a gain of 1.0 is considered close to perfection.  However, we feel the reduction in brightness is not worth that minimal trade off unless you are coupling a high-output projector with a smaller screen.

The gray or almost black types of screens are great for rooms where you do not have full control of the light coming into the rooms. While we do not feel these high contrast screens are quite as color accurate as a white screen, if you have a lot of light, they will look better in that type of room compared to a white screen. These types of screens are typically used in a family or media room where you cannot make things completely dark, allowing you to have a home theater experience in a multi-use space. 

Type of Screen Mount

The last choice you will have in a type of screen is whether you will have it permanently mounted or to drop down from an enclosure. For the typical home theater space, a fixed frame, wall-mounted screen will be your best and least expensive choice. You’ll find most wall-mounted screens are available with a black border which we think makes the picture pop.  There are also now screens with almost no edge (which also looks pretty cool). 

For multi-use rooms, you just can’t beat an electric motorized screen. This allows you to turn a normal looking family room into a home theater with the push of a button on your remote control. Motorized screens can be recessed into the ceiling for the ultimate in stealth. 

There are also options where the screen is housed in an architecturally pleasing housing that can be mounted to the ceiling or wall. Bear in mind that when you are planning, all of these will need electrical power. We are even seeing some motorized screens housed in a very small enclosure with a battery-powered, rechargeable motor. These are currently limited in size, but what a cool idea!

stewart film screen lifestyle image

Masking Home Theater Screens

If you go with a 2.40 widescreen, the ultimate is to add masking panels that come down to cover the outside area not used when you are watching 16:9 content. These are called masking screens. Motorized black panels come down to perfectly crop your 16:9 image. You can have these panels on both fixed mount and electric motorized screens but bear in mind that they usually almost double the cost. If cost is no object and you like the cool factor of things moving, they can certainly add some wow factor to your home theater!

Room Considerations

If you decide to go with a front projection system, there is one other factor to bear in mind. A front projection screen, just like a commercial cinema, reflects light back off the screen. This is totally different from a flat-panel TV. 

It is a good idea to paint the walls in your room a dark color (we like dark gray) and make sure the type of paint is not reflective. Be sure to use a flat or matte paint finish. Satin, eggshell, or semigloss will reflect a lot of light, so we do not recommend them. Also remember, the ceiling is a point of reflection, so it’s a good idea to paint it a dark color with flat or matte paint. 

Audio Advice Tip: Building a nice set of cabinets around your 140” movie screen is a great way to give your theater a custom look. You need to remember that light reflects back off the movie screen and onto nearby surfaces. This means if your screen is recessed, light will bounce off the recess which can be very distracting. 

We highly recommend you use a matte finish for whatever surrounds your screen and try to avoid any materials like granite that reflect the light back. It is actually best to use something to absorb the reflections like a black felt type material.

Summary

  • A front projection screen home theater is much closer to the movies than a TV
  • A front projection system capable of 2.40 widescreen is the best home theater video experience
  • Acoustically transparent screens allow you to locate your speakers behind the screen providing a movie theater experience
  • The type of screen material you should use depends on the light conditions in your room
  • Front projection screens can be wall-mounted, ceiling-mounted, or recessed into the ceiling
  • Masking home theater screens mask off the area where no image is displayed
  • Remember screens reflect light so you do not want reflective surfaces around the screen

We hope this has helped you better understand your options for home theater screens. If you have any questions feel free to reach out to us.

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  1. Stewart Filmscreen Cima 2.35:1 Perforated Fixed Frame Wallscreen Stewart Filmscreen Cima 2.35:1 Perforated Fixed Frame Wallscreen
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Home Theater Buying Guide

If you are in the market for a new home theater system or improving part (or all) of the one you already own, you’ve probably figured out that the options can be more confusing than advanced algebra! Explore our guide to understand the available options and how they might work or not work in your particular situation. If you need help customizing a solution for your space, reach out - we're happy to help!

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