Widescreen Explained: What’s with the Black Bars?

This article is part of Audio Advice's Home Theater Design Series that covers virtually everything about designing a home theater.

If you have ever watched a blockbuster movie on a regular television, you probably noticed black bars above and below the movie. You may have wondered why the movie did not fill up your TV screen.

In this article, we explain why most movies are created this way and review the modern technologies that allow you to enjoy movies in their widescreen format. Then, we will help you decide if a widescreen home theater is the best option for your home theater room.

How Widescreen Came To Be

By the mid-1950s, more than half of the homes in the US had a television set and the movie industry worried people would stay home instead of visiting their theaters. They needed to come up with a plan to get people back in the theaters and it was at that time widescreen movies and theaters took off.

It was really a brilliant move by the motion pictures industry as humans actually see things in widescreen. Just try this simple field of view test. Put one hand in front of you parallel to the floor above your eyes and your other hand the same way but below your eyes. Now, start spreading them out, raising the top hand and lowering the bottom hand until you can no longer see them. Then, keep them in the same spread position and put your hands to the left and right of your head. You’ll clearly see your hands and find you can spread them a lot further apart before they disappear!

The experience you get when watching a movie in widescreen where it fills most of your field of vision is quite immersive. For this reason, almost 85% of blockbuster movies today are filmed in widescreen with many TV series and concerts starting to be produced in widescreen.

For many people, seeing the latest movie on their 50” TV with black bars at the top and bottom is nothing like experiencing the same movie in a commercial theater in all of its widescreen glory. This is why movie theaters will always have their place as a great escape for a wonderful entertainment experience where you can become totally immersed in the latest movie.

If you are lucky enough to be considering a front projection home theater, widescreen may be a great choice, and if you do it right, you may never visit a theater again!

What are Aspect Ratios?

To fully understand what widescreen is, you need to know a little bit about aspect ratios. This is simply a ratio of the width of the screen divided by the height of the screen. You’ve likely seen all kinds of fractions and expressions to describe the various ratios of the content we watch.

Up until the turn of the century, standard television was in a 4:3 ratio as it was normally called, or 1.333 if you do the math. When HDTV was invented, a much wider format was introduced called 16:9, where the math comes to 1.78.

However, widescreen movies are shot in a ratio of 21.6:9. With this ratio being fairly hard to remember and state, the industry decided to go with the fraction here and call the ratio 2.40.

The trick in looking at these is to look at the fraction — and the bigger the number, the wider the screen will be in relation to the height.

We are even seeing a new format emerge from Europe showing up on many TV series. This one is 2.0. It is wider than normal HDTV, but not as wide as widescreen movies.

With 85% of movies and more content going this way, serious home theater enthusiasts are moving more and more towards the widescreen experience in their theaters.

Diagram explaining widescreen aspect ratio

How To Get Widescreen In Your Home Theater

This is the great news part! Previously, you needed a special curved screen, a lens in front of your projector, and a motorized sled for the lens to get into a widescreen home theater. You could not even get started for less than $25K. 

With the advent of motorized lens memory on projectors, the game changed! These days many home theater projectors have motors to move the lens as opposed to the manual focus they used to have. You control everything from the remote instead of standing by your projector and moving the lens. The projectors with motors all have a way to program in different memory positions, which allows us to adjust the zoom to get a widescreen experience for movies. Projectors with this option start as low as around $2,000, which opens this concept up to lots of home theaters. 

The way this works is pretty neat. First, you obviously need a front projection screen that is in the aspect ratio of 2.40. If you are picking out the best size for your screen, check out our free home theater design tool where you can design the screen size to best fit your space and desired level of immersion. The tool will show you the ideal sizes for your room size and the location of your seats. Also, be sure to check out our article on how to choose the best home theater screen size

To get the best experience for both 16:9 news and sports, and still enjoy the full 2.40 widescreen for movies, you first set up your projector to perfectly fill your screen from top to bottom with a 16:9 image. You then save that lens position as your 16:9 in your projector. Yes, you do not lose any size on 16:9 when you go with widescreen in almost all cases (more on this later). Then, when you project a 2.40 movie on your screen, you will observe that it does not fill the screen anywhere. You will then use your projector remote to zoom out the picture until you completely fill your 2.40 screen with your 2.40 movie. Next, save that position as your 2.40 position in the projector. You can now choose which position you want depending on the type of content you are watching.

Diagram explaining widescreen aspect ratio

Pro Tip: You will need to calculate the position in the room to install your front projector where it is able to fill the screen for both memories. This is called “throw distance”. When you purchase your front projector from Audio Advice, we will do this calculation for you or provide our guide to make this process easier if you want to do it yourself.

Once you have these positions set up, you can simply recall them with the remote for your projector or program them into a control system for quicker access.

How To Make Widescreen Even Better

If you are the type of person who wants the very best from your home theater, there is an option that can take things to the next level.

It is an add-on lens from a company called Panamorph. How this process works is fairly misunderstood and we are going to unravel it for you now.

Almost all front projectors have a light engine that is 16:9 in ratio. When you put a 16:9 image through this kind of light engine, all of the pixels are used. But when you display a 2.40 image using a 16:9 light engine, the pixels that are above and below the image are not used. These pixels are about 33-38% of the total pixel count depending on the type of projector you have.

To fill your new 2.40 screen using lens memory and zooming out, you are still not using those extra pixels, which reduces both clarity and light output. Now we do have to say, most people do not even notice the difference and about 90% of our home theaters do not have a Panamorph, but if you are a video geek like we are, you will notice this.

Panamorph worked with all of the major projector companies to add functions that allow it to work perfectly with them. When you use a Panamorph lens, you will get the pixels back you lose by not using the entire light engine when you zoom a 2.40 movie using lens memory. This can be a big deal if your screen is on the large side since it results in 33-38% more brightness and clarity.

The way it works is a three-step process, but you never see the steps — it is instant. First, the projector memory is set to an image that fills the screen from left to right but you still are not using all the pixels as this is just like the zoom setting above. The projector then gets set to a mode that stretches the image. This uses all of the pixels in the projector’s 16:9 light engine. When this image goes through a Panamorph lens, the lens then compresses it back to its original shape and you have used all of the pixels in your projector for a 2.40 widescreen movie.

If you watch our video on this subject at 10:20 you can see a full animation of what happens.

Now the only catch to using a Panamorph is similar to zoom. You lose some pixels when you watch 16:9 content. It is less than the other way around as you only lose 25% compared to 33-38% and again, most people never notice it.

Is Widescreen the Right Choice For Me?

If you plan to mostly enjoy movies in your home theater, we highly recommend a widescreen system. The screen itself is not much more expensive than a 16:9 model and you will probably be using the same projector for 16:9 as a widescreen system as so many these days have the features needed.

There are a couple of use cases where we recommend a 16:9 front projection system. The first would be if you really enjoyed sports and wanted the image to be as large as possible. This means the screen is going to be pretty tall and a widescreen version of that tall of a screen is going to be huge. You may not have the budget to get a projector that will be able to provide enough light output for 2.40 content and result in a darker image that does not pop. Our experts can work with you to help you determine if this is the case.

Diagram explaining widescreen aspect ratio

The other is when you are limited in the total width of your screen. Let’s say you have 10’ total of wall space you can devote to a screen. That means, 10’ wide is as wide as you would ever be able to get a 2.40 movie to be. A 10’ wide, 2.40 screen translates into a screen that is 50” tall. A 50” tall screen gives you a 102” 16:9 diagonal image. You could do the same width screen in a 16:9 ratio and have a much more immersive 138” diagonal for 16:9 content in the same amount of wall space width. So in this case where you are more width constrained versus height constrained, we will generally advise you to do a large 16:9 screen where you can get the largest 16:9 image and 2.4 image possible in your situation.

At Audio Advice, over 50% of the home theaters we install are in widescreen format. Our home theater designers can work with you to go over the pros and cons for each type to get you the best outcome for your dream home theater room and budget.


We hope this article has given you some insight into the great technology available now to bring the immersive experience of a commercial cinema into your home. As with anything, there are always trade-offs, but we have to say, we love well done widescreen home theaters!

Ready to get started? Check out our free interactive 3D home theater design tool and explore our recent home theater showcase videos that will inspire your vision for your theater. 

At Audio Advice, we've been designing and installing high-performance home theaters & smart home systems for our customers in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina, and surrounding areas for decades. In fact, we've delivered more custom theaters than anyone in the Southeast! We are now offering Home Theater Design no matter where you live in the United States! If you are interested in a custom home theater or upgrading your current system, give us a call at 888.899.8776, chat with us, or stop by our Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina showrooms. We can't wait to help you build your ultimate home theater!

  1. Panamorph DCR-J1 JVC Direct Attach Lens System - angled view installed Panamorph Direct Attach Lens System

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