Almost anything can double as a television these days. Most of the screens commonly found in the house – from tablets and laptops to mobile phones and even VR headsets – can now be used to view content hailing from a number of sources.
That said, for those serious about their watching experience there are really only two options: flat-screen displays and projection systems. Both come with their own advantages and, depending on the type of content predominantly being viewed and the layout of the room they reside in, either one of them might be the right fit for a given space.
In terms of pure image size, a projector will always win hands down. While televisions have steadily grown over the years and can now top 100”, they will still fall short of being able to reproduce the image size that can be achieved with a high-end projection system. Additionally, while the cost of a television escalates rapidly for larger models, a projection solution follows a straighter line in terms of size versus cost. As such, for spaces where screen size is an important factor (dedicated entertainment spaces for watching films or sporting events, for example) then it makes sense to pick a projector.
Not all films are created using the same aspect ratio, which means that a television might be forced to employ ‘letter boxing’ (introducing black lines at the top and bottom of the image) in order to show the full width of the image at the widescreen 2.35:1 ratio, or otherwise crop the image at the sides.
A masking system can give a projection system more flexibility in this regard, as it allows any unused areas to disappear into the darkness when playing. While a TV could potentially deliver almost true blacks that replicate this effect, very few sets are able to do this, particularly in rooms that have some level of ambient light. The masking option also means that the 2.35:1 format will display larger than 16:9 on a projector screen, whereas content in 16:9 aspect ratio will cover more area on a television.
For smaller spaces and multi-purpose rooms, a television might be the preferred option due to size constraints. Whether to elect for a curved or flat screen in this instance depends entirely on the preferences of the homeowner. Advocates of the curve cite the (slightly) wider viewing angle and an increased sense of depth, but these displays tend to stretch light reflections across more of the display and can look peculiar if mounted on a wall.
When deciding whether or not to go for a 4K-capable display, the size of the unit is critical. With a smaller TV, 4K (also known as Ultra-HD, although this is technically a slightly different resolution) isn’t particularly necessary as a viewer won’t be able make out the extra detail in any case. Larger screens, however, will benefit significantly from the increased resolution, particularly from closer viewing distances. When reaching projector sizes, the change becomes much more apparent, making opting for a 4K projection system the obvious choice for a high quality viewing experience.
One argument often made in favour of televisions is that they come with audio functionality, whereas a projector does not. In reality, this is hardly an advantage, as this built-in audio is usually fairly poor quality when compared to a stereo system, or even a soundbar. Regardless of whether a TV or projector is chosen, those seeking quality audio performance will usually want to install a full surround sound (or perhaps 3D audio) system.
This is an area where a projection system can shine as, if an acoustically transparent screen is specified, then speakers can be positioned behind the screen for optimal sound balance. This is not possible with televisions, so front speakers or soundbars will need to be placed either above or below the display, which could slightly disrupt the audio balance in the room, not to mention be unsightly for those not fond of a speaker’s aesthetic offerings.
Turning off the lights
While ambient lighting is a problem for both televisions and projectors, it is a more pressing concern for the latter, as sub-optimum lighting conditions will result in colours being washed out. Televisions, meanwhile, are more liable to reflect glare from direct ambient light, diminishing the picture quality.
Whichever option you choose, it is a good idea to invest in window and door treatment to block out as much ambient light as possible. Blackout blinds will prevent any unwanted light from seeping through, ensuring you can get the best performance out of your TV or projection system.
One important thing to note: in dark conditions, a projected image will be easier on the eyes than a television, as the light is reflected off the screen rather than emitted directly towards the viewer.
Stitching it together
While installing a television is a comparatively simple task on paper – simply affix it to a wall or place it in the appropriate location and wire it up to the relevant sources – it is still best to consider all technical aspects carefully, which will often require professional assistance, especially with larger format TVs and specialist brackets such as those that articulate. This is particularly important for a centrally wired property, where a screen will be linked up to a number of centralised video sources through a HD distribution system via twisted pair cabling running back to the property’s head end.
A projector, meanwhile, can be set up in a couple of ways. The first decision to make is whether to elect for front or rear projection. Both can result in an impressive viewing experience; it is more a case of selecting the system that will best fit the space and how it will be used.
Having a projector mounted behind the screen results in a high-contrast, high-brightness image which can look incredible, but will require an extended space behind the screen to accommodate it (or a complex mirror system which can save at least some of this space). This approach means you can keep the unit neatly out of sight and ensures that no shadows are cast when people cross the room, which is useful for gaming and other social viewing activities such as watching sports.
A front projection system requires less space behind the display and, when paired with an acoustically transparent screen, means that speakers can be placed behind the screen for more consistent surround-sound (or 3D) audio. Naturally, there is still the question of how the projector will be situated in the viewing area, and how much ventilation will be required if it is to be hidden from view.
Depending on what content you are accessing, there are a couple of ways to set up a projection system. One is to feed a number of sources (TV, satellite, Apple TV, gaming platform, Kaleidescape server etc.) through an AVR and send the video element to the projector via HDMI, or use the same method as you would with a television (i.e. HD distribution).
Another approach, which is becoming more popular with very high-end cinemas, is called ‘day-and-date’ playback, which uses the built-in hard drive of a DCI-compliant projector alongside a server which stores the latest films to be released. This requires signing up to a service such as Prima Cinema, which allows you to watch a film on the day it is released into commercial cinemas for a substantial fee.
There is also the screen to consider. An image can theoretically be projected directly onto a wall but, the majority of the time, a dedicated screen is preferable to ensure a stable, consistent image. If it is being used in a home cinema, then a static tensioned screen is the easiest option. Not everyone will want a blank screen taking up wall space, however, in which case an automated retractable screen could be implemented. This can be recessed into the joinery so that it is completely invisible when not in use, and set up to deploy automatically via a 12v trigger from the AVR when the projector is switched on.
“Projection screens offer varying levels of gain, which can have a significant effect on image brightness, but with a trade-off for the available viewing angles that can be achieved. There are many other elements to consider, including whether a screen supports HD or 4K or if it is acoustically transparent or not (and if it is, whether it employs micro-perforation or woven fabric). With all of these, it is best to discuss the project beforehand with professional installers in order to determine the correct specification for what you want to achieve.”
Ryan Ovens, projects director, Andrew Lucas London
Both a television screen and projector unit can be hidden away for aesthetic purposes. This can be achieved via a number of means, from being placed behind a sliding or dividing panel to being hidden in a cabinet or in the ceiling and raised or lowered using a motorised lift system. A projector can additionally be hidden away in a bulkhead so that it is all but invisible to a room’s occupants.
When electing for a retractable or wall-mounted set-up, it is important to ensure that each element can easily be accessed for when maintenance needs to be performed. This is especially important for projectors that need to have lamps and filters changed on an infrequent basis.
For rooms where space is at a premium, or there are structural limitations that might prevent a standard projection system from being implemented, there are a couple of further space-saving options that could be considered. Many manufacturers are now offering short-throw projectors for residential environments, which allow the projection unit to be placed much closer to the screen and still attain a decent screen size. However, the majority of the short-throw options on the market will fail to attain 4K resolution (the Sony VPL-GTZ1 is a notable exception).
Inspecting the minutiae
With both televisions and projectors, calibration can make or break the viewing experience. The majority of homeowners will never experience their television’s full potential due to not setting up their devices to perform at their best.
To calibrate a screen or projector properly, a vast array of factors need to be taken into account, including contrast, motion processing, colour and brightness. This can be a tricky process, and one that will generally need to be handled by a THX-certified professional installer. This guarantees that all calibration will be completed using the correct tools and that the resultant picture quality will meet recognised industry standards.
Both televisions and projectors can be susceptible to overheating, depending on how they are installed. If a TV if it is installed in an alcove without adequate room around it, then this can cause issues, whereas a projection system will always need to be properly ventilated, especially if it is to be placed in a bulkhead or closet.
This is easier said than done, however, as it’s not as simple as cutting a hole in the projection enclosure. While lower end models can cool themselves if given enough space around them, this air will still need extracting or cooling somehow.
All projectors will need to take in cool air as well as expel hot air, so an enclosure should be designed to maximise the flow of air through it, including a means of directing hot air from the exhaust (such as a fan) so that it doesn’t continue to circulate around the unit. Higher end models can be linked directly to extraction or AC systems – some are even water-cooled – which makes it much easier to ensure a consistent operating temperature for the unit.
Another aspect to get right is the size of the enclosure. While it might be tempting to make it as small as possible (thus limiting the amount of room space it takes up) it must be big enough to allow for cooling to take place. Leaving too little margin around the edge of the projector will make it much harder for the unit to cool down in operation, making it more likely to overheat and cease operation. It is also worth bearing in mind that any projector will need to cool sufficiently after it has been put into standby before turning off the mains power and thereby switching off the fans.
If there is a suitable space adjacent to the viewing area, i.e. a closet or server room, then it might be a good idea to place the projector in this room and have it project through from there. As well as simplifying the amount of aesthetic treatment required, this can make it easier to regulate the temperature of the projection system and guarantee optimum performance for the full lifetime of the device, although in a dedicated cinema room with a fixed screen, a glass projection port may be required to stop noise and heat transference from where the projector is located.
Pick the right type for you
One last complication is that there are a number of different types of television and projector from which to choose. TVs will generally come in three variants: LCD, LED-LCD and OLED, which come with their own strengths and weaknesses. LCD, for example, tends to offer poor off-angle viewing, so seating must be positioned with care to accommodate this. This same problem also affects LED-LCD screens, although their slimmer form and greater power efficiency somewhat make up for this. OLED, meanwhile, offers much wider viewing angles and supreme contrast, although these screens tend to be more expensive and require a low level of ambient light in order to perform to their full potential.
With projection, on the other hand, there are so many contributing factors that deciding between them can seems overwhelming: budget limitations, how it will be used, whether it is DCI-compliant, if it should be a lamp-based or laser system, even what content sources and what type of screen it will be paired with. For premium results, it is worth consulting with a home technology installer, who will be experienced in specifying and calibrating this type of system.
So which should I go for?
There is no clear answer as to whether a television or projector is a superior option – it will inevitably come down to the available space and what the device is primarily going to be used for. In many properties, a hybrid approach is also used, whereby a television sits on the wall for casual viewing purposes and a projection screen is hidden in the ceiling to drop down for watching films and sporting events. This ‘best of both worlds’ approach can be somewhat laborious to achieve, but for a homeowner looking for a flexible entertainment solution, it may well be worth the effort.