Despite the improvements in screen quality for televisions over the past decade, when it comes to private cinemas, the projector still rules the roost. A high quality projection system can make the difference in creating that truly cinematic experience in your own home by showing you a sharper, more colourful image that pops right off the screen. As such, picking the right projector is an important part of getting a private cinema installation right.
When selecting a projector, it’s easy to get caught up on cost. Projectors are fairly expensive bits of equipment and, mostly, you get what you pay for with projection systems. While it can be tempting to save a bit of money by choosing a cheaper model, the corresponding reduction in quality can result in a sub-par viewing experience – hardly ideal considering the overall expense of putting a home cinema into your property.
Typically, the largest differentiator between projectors is resolution. As with TV screens, if a higher number of pixels can be displayed then the image will be sharper as a result. While HD (commonly referred to as 1080p) projection has long been the standard for home cinemas, this is being superseded by 4K, which has finally established itself as a viable mainstream option for private cinemas.
One note that needs to be made on 4K is that, confusingly, not everything labelled 4K is actually native 4K. This is important, as many projectors use pixel-shifting via DLP technology to create a ‘pseudo-4K’ image that upscales the resolution to 3840x2160, which reduces the sharpness. A native 4K projector, however, will offer an aspect ratio of 4096 x 2160, which will result in a slightly clearer image.
However, native 4K projectors are relatively new to the market and, as such, tend to come at a premium on price. Even for many film enthusiasts, the difference between that and a ‘psuedo-4K’ projector is not enough to justify the jump in price at present.
Some home cinema owners worry hugely about projector brightness, although this is only part of the package when it comes to projection systems. The key element here is that screen size will impact hugely on image brightness as, if you spread projected light over a large area, then brightness decreases proportionately.
Contrast ratio is seen as a critical part of the projection puzzle. However, while a higher contrast ratio means the projector is theoretically better in terms of delivering a higher level of projected brightness, in our experience advertised ratios are often completely wrong compared to the actual performance of the projection system.
Often (but not always) a more expensive projection system will offer greater performance in terms of contrast ratio – making the increased investment more worthwhile – although selecting an appropriate screen is vital to maximise the effect of a high contrast image. While often forgotten, the projection screen is a crucial element that can make or break a cinematic experience. A tight, tensioned screen is vital for a smooth image. Meanwhile, a black screen surround will improve the perceived contrast ratio, while motorised masking (with panels that can shift inwards or outwards according to the video source) means you can watch films in different aspect ratios while still retaining that crisp contrast.
With both projector brightness and contrast ratio, dealing with ambient light is vital if you are to fully benefit from an increased contrast ratio – as any extraneous light landing on the projection screen will negate this improved picture quality.
Projector placement will have a significant impact on what you need from your unit. Ideally, projectors should be situated square on with a screen. Depending on the confines of the room, this isn’t always achievable. Most modern projectors have lens shift, a feature, which allows projectors to be placed slightly off-centre and then have its image shifted across the horizontal and vertical axis to match up with the projector screen. However, different models offer varying amounts of lens shift, making placement a key issue during the design phase of a private cinema room.
If the projector is present in the room itself, instead of being situated in a plant room at the rear of the cinema, then picking a projector with quiet operation will ensure you’re not distracted by operating sounds during quieter moments of the film. Most projectors will require cooling in order to prolong effective operating life, which is why many private cinemas feature a projection port, which separates the projector and any ventilation systems from the main room and keeps audible operating noise to a minimum.
Finally, aspect ratio is something to be aware of when it comes to picking a projection system. Films over the decades have been shot in a number of formats (more on specific aspect ratios for films and TV can be found here) and many modern filmmakers (such as Tarantino) have started embracing older formats. This means that – depending on what you intend to watch in your home cinema – having a projector that can handle even the wider aspect ratios will make a huge difference. The Barco Balder, for example, offers a native 2.37:1 version. This means aspect ratio switches are almost seamless and all pixels can be used on the screen when playing a film.
Different private cinemas will benefit from various projection features, which means that it’s hard to pick a single model as a one-size-fits-all recommendation. A private cinema installer will typically discuss your needs and discover the spatial limitations of the room before making a recommendation based on budget, requirements and user needs. This takes a lot of the uncertainty out of selecting a home cinema projector and means that you’ll get the best possible equipment for your specific home cinema environment.