Widescreen Explained: What’s with the Black Bars?

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

If you’re a movie lover, you’ve probably noticed that when you play a widescreen blockbuster movie on your blu-ray player or streaming device, you will usually have black bars at the top and bottom of your screen.   Many people ask “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.

In addition to our world-class home theater design tool, we've given you everything you need to begin your home theater journey in Home Theater Central.

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 2000, 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 in the home is relatively new, films have been produced this way for 70+ years. The goal of a great movie is to immerse you in the film so well, you feel like you are there with the performers. 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 2.40 (21.5:9) aspect ratio. 21.5:9 is a wider aspect ratio than 16:9. As a matter of fact, almost 85% of new movies produced in the US are in the 2.40 aspect ratio. This is why you still see black bars when you watch a widescreen movie on a 16:9 TV.   They say a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the drawings below to fully understand the widescreen format. 

Diagram explaining widescreen aspect ratio

How Can I Fix It?

If you are watching a widescreen movie on a 16:9 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 use the “ZOOM” or “Aspect Ratio” function on your TVs remote. This changes your picture's 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 2.40, they really want you to be watching it that way, and you may even be missing things if you don’t.

How to Get the Widescreen Experience

There are really no 2.40 televisions on the market today so to experience widescreen in its full glory, you need a front projection system. With a front projection screen, you’ll also be able to have a huge picture, which plays an important role in that immersive experience too!

Many home theater projectors have a technology called lens memory which 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

Lens memory lets you memorize two different zoom settings on your projector.  One is for normal HDTV, then another is more zoomed out for widescreen.  Since there is nothing in the blank part of the picture where the black bars are, you simply zoom out your projector so it fills a widescreen.  When setting up your projector, you will need to make sure you have enough range of throw distance for both the 16:9 and 2.40 aspect ratio.   Throw distance is how far back your projector is from the screen and with lens memory, it usually has to be further back.   When you set up a projector with lens memory and a 2.40 screen in your living room or dedicated home theater the experience can be just amazing!

Optional Panamorph Lens

Another choice is a more expensive option, but there is a reason behind it.  When you zoom your projector out, you are not using the pixels in the panel of your projector where the black bars at the top and the bottom are.  The more you zoom out a projector, the less brightness it has.  In some cases, you may have a massive screen size-wise and are on the edge of being able to have it bright enough.  Many new projectors are designed to work with an aftermarket lens from a company called Panamorph.   When you use a lens with your projector, you take advantage of all your pixels, making the widescreen image about 35% brighter than the same image zoomed out.  We have to say, if you are a true video purist, this is something to consider, but for most systems, the lens memory works great.  

Either way you do widescreen, when you combine the widescreen viewing experience with a Dolby Atmos surround sound speaker system, you will be taking your home theater to the ultimate level.  The high-quality experience you deliver to both your eyes and ears will make you never want to leave the room!  Home entertainment at your house will be the envy of all your friends and neighbors.

Is Widescreen 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 their home theater systems.

Summary

  • You see black bars on your TV with most movies because your TV does not have the same aspect ratio as a movie screen. In other words, it's not wide enough compared to its height.
  • Most movies are produced in 2.40 widescreen
  • You can experience 2.40 widescreen in your home theater with the right front projector and screen system for far less than you might think

Hopefully, this has helped you understand the pros and cons of a widescreen home theater system.  If you have any questions at all about how you can implement widescreen in your home theater, feel free to reach out to the home theater experts at Audio Advice via email, phone or chat.  Or if you live in the Raleigh or Charlotte area feel free to drop by one of our stores.

 

 

 

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