Reassessing the classic home theater faceoff

Projector or TV: Is It Even a Contest?


February 18, 2015 Editorial & Opinion By
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Cost per inch of screen: it’s the kind of fuzzy value calculation that warms many home theater shoppers up to the idea of buying a projector in the first place. But is it really that simple? We asked several experts in the field to explain how they approach the choice between a projector and TV.

MEET THE EXPERTS

The home theater experts we consulted were kind enough to share their knowledge and predict what they think will be the next big technology. If you’re interested in building a home theater and need help, contact these company owners.

Kerry Bright, Bright Home Theater, New York, NY
Dennis Erskine, The Erskine Group, Dallas, GA and Vancouver, WA
Theo Kalomirakis, TK Theaters, New York, NY
Tom Manna, Digital Home Systems, Rye Brook, NY
Mark Prancuk, Sight & Sound Showroom, Norwalk, CT

The Case for the TV

The major advantages TVs have always held over projectors stem from their ease of use and installation. Anyone can set up a TV. They also turn on much more quickly than projectors and don’t require a dark room to use. Popular LED HDTVs are cheaper to power because they consume less energy, and while projector costs have declined in recent years, LED HDTVs are still the more affordable option for those working with lower budgets.

Beyond those base advantages, new technologies (including Quantum Dot advances released at CES) are improving many of the image quality shortcomings that have plagued LED TVs in the past. Small screen sizes are also quickly becoming a thing of the past, though they are still far from winning a measuring contest with projectors. A 60-inch LED HDTV is available for less than $1,000, and some manufacturers offer options up to 105 inches.

What about 4K? 2014 was the year 4K hit the market, but 2015 will be the year people start purchasing gear equipped to support it. Right now, it’s still a chicken-and-egg situation. Smart TVs capable of handling the higher-resolution format are certainly more affordable than their projector counterparts. Select sets also have the minor advantage of accessing Netflix in 4k for a small lineup of shows. A lack of content still plagues the 4k movement overall, however, making the jump to either a compatible projector or TV is unnecessary at the moment.

Curved screens are the other hot ticket in the TV market right now. The gradual bend supposedly offers a more cinematic experience and a better view for those not seated on the middle couch cushion. While the level of immersion is debatable, curved TV screens do help avoid reflection. Keeping pace with the bleeding edge of innovation doesn’t come cheap either. Samsung sells a 105-inch 4K Ultra HD 120Hz 3D Smart LED TV for a mere $120,000.

The Case for the Projector

The weaknesses of TVs play to the strengths of projectors. Image size has always been their calling card. Improvements in contrast ratios are now helping entry-level models compete with the image quality of HDTVs too. “Projectors have been getting brighter and the screen manufacturers are now offering products that create extremely good blacks, even when there is ambient light,” said Mark Prancuk of Sight and Sound Showroom.

The images they produce are also easier on the eyes. That’s because reflecting light off a white or gray screen is less fatiguing than the direct projections of light produced by LED and OLED TVs.

REFERENCE MATERIALS

When you want to see what your home theater can really do, you need a good film to test it out. We asked the experts what films they use to show off their systems.

Kerry Bright
Oblivion

Dennis Erskine
Lord of the Rings

Theo Kalomirakis
Quantum of Solace

Tom Manna
Field of Dreams and Tron: Legacy

Mark Prancuk
Pacific Rim and Despicable Me 2 3D

The complexities of installing a projector, though, are still their single biggest drawback. “You have to have a projector up high in the back of the room and you have to run a video source to it, which means you have to run wires from a cable box, Apple TV or DVD player to the projector,” Kerry said. Room dimensions, screen size, seating and projection angle all influence selecting a projector and screen and their placement. For an optimal viewing experience (and for a video that’s not partly on the ceiling), those specifications must be precisely considered.

While you can project on a blank wall (and get OK results), a screen made for projection and optimized for the room is a must for maximizing image quality. A good screen will refract both shadows and highlights with no loss of detail. “You really want to pair the screen material based on the size of the screen, the throw distance of the projector, how powerful the projector is and how much ambient light you are going to have in the room or want in the room,” Tom Manna from Digital Home Systems said. Manna explained that white screens are best for light-controlled situations and offer “the most punch,” while gray screens work with more ambient light. Still, there are more issues that come up with the choice. “If you have a gray screen, then you are wiping out white,” Kerry Bright of Bright Home Theater said. “I would highly recommend to people that they would just control the light in the room, or use the projector at nighttime, and [use] a TV for the daytime.”

Though the power and capabilities of entry-level projectors have steadily grown, Theo Kalomirakis of TK Theaters explains that buyers shouldn’t expect to match their local movie theater with just a few grand. “Right now, the technology is so incredible that you get an Epson $6,000 projector, and it can look just as good as this plasma projector with one caveat: you cannot blow it up. Everything looks good if it’s small. What separates the boys from the men is when you start expanding it, and a projector doesn’t have the horsepower to fill that picture with bright images. It’s just like a car. A Yugo can’t race with a Ferrari. It’s going to be left in the dust. If you spend $50,000 or $60,000 for the projector, you do it not because you’re going to get a brighter picture — you do it because you want to have a huge screen.”

Despite a balanced list of pros and cons on both sides of the debate, no amount of rhetoric can change the experts’ minds. For them, a projector is still the only way to watch films if you’ve got the proper space. Perhaps Bright summed up the unspoken trump card they all happened to share: “There’s only one advantage of a television to a projector, and that is that you can watch it during the day and there can be light in the room. Otherwise, projectors are killer, you know?”