I’ve had two different home theaters; one with with a screen that cost about $50 and one with a screen that cost, well, much more than that. Here is a high-level overview of four options for a fixed, wall-mounted projector screen for any budget. Just add a front projector and you’re ready for a real home theater experience.
Option 1: A Black Frame on a Painted Wall
You could just point your projector at a blank wall, but having a border makes a huge difference and doesn’t cost all that much. This is what I did with my first home theater. The frame is simply 4 pieces of 3-inch wide baseboard molding, covered in black velvetine, held-together with 4 right-angle brackets, and hung on the wall. Please note that the black velvetine essential; see the second picture below for proof. There is a board in the middle of the screen in the second picture; there is velvetine draped over the very top and below it is painted flat black. Notice all of the reflected light from the flat black paint?
To make the faux-screen look complete, I painted the wall with a slightly gray eggshell paint. The paint was nothing special, just a white base with a small amount of black pigment added to produce a light-gray paint color. (The Gray helps blacks look blacker on the screen, which was more of a problem a few years ago than it is with the newest projectors.)
Pros: Cheap ($50 total), relatively easy to assembly, and no one ever realized it wasn’t a real screen. You can build it to any custom dimension.
Cons: It was hard to get/keep the frame perfectly square. Imperfections in the wall finish can show-up in bright scenes. The screen screen gain (brightness) is very low; I’m not sure, but it was probably about 0.70 (vs. 1.0 to 1.5 for most commercial fabric screens), which makes the image noticeably more dim than a “real” screen would. The color accuracy may be less than ideal.
Option 2: A Black Frame on a Screen Goo Painted Wall
This is essentially the same as option 1, but with a different screen (wall) paint. The paint is called Screen Goo and it’s available from Goo Systems. The main advantage is that it has a higher gain and better color accuracy than standard wall paint. Figure on spending about $200 for the base coat + top coat for a home theater screen (1000 mL of each.)
Pros: Improved gain and color accuracy vs. standard wall paint.
Cons: According to Projector Central, the gains for Screen Goo aren’t has high as they are claimed to be. The Cinema White provided a 1.0 gain (not 1.8) and the digital gray provided a 0.75 gain (not 1.4). The imperfections in the wall and the problems with with squareness of the frame still apply as in Option 1.
Option 3: Take screen material from a low-cost screen and put it in your own frame
You can purchase a great screen fabric and install it in your own frame. Surprisingly, it’s actually cheaper to purchase a manual pull-down retractable screen (you know, the type that goes over a chalkboard) and cut the material from it than it is to buy the fabric alone. People have been doing this with 4:3 (1.33:1 aspect ratio) Da-Lite screens ordered from AVSforum for years. Next, you just cut the screen to size and staple the fabric to the 3″ fabric frame mentioned in Options 1 and 2. Total Cost is about $550.
Pros: Same image quality as a “real” screen.
Cons: Same problems as mentioned above with the frame, plus the fabric can have ripples due to the frame not being completely sturdy. Requires quite a bit of work. Requires destroying a new retractable screen to make your new fixed screen, which is a big step to take.
Option 4: Purchase a Complete Screen: Material and Fixed Frame
There are many different screen materials, many different screen manufacturers, and many different price ranges. You can pick a lower-cost manufacturer and get outstanding results (Da-Lite, Carada) or spend more and perhaps get slightly better performance (Stewart.) I think the lower-priced manufacturers offer the best bang-for-the-buck. Just pick a wide, black, fabric-covered frame and either a white screen (for best color accuracy and contrast ratio) or a gray screen (for better black levels.) Price: $700-$2000.
Pros: Perfectly, smooth and flat image. Great color reproduction and contrast (compared to other options; varies somewhat by manufacturer.) Very easy to assemble the frame, snap-on the material, and hang the included brackets on the wall.
Cons: There are so many manufacturers and screen materials from which to choose. Price is slightly more expensive than do-it-yourself options. You generally have to order the screen and wait a few days for it to be delivered (no instant gratification.)
- You’ll want the frame to be the same aspect ratio as your projector, which will most likely be 16:9 (1.78:1; width = 1.78 * height)
Another con for options 3 and 4: as the owner of an expensive “real” screen, I am constantly worried that something will happen to the screen. With toddlers around, this worry increases. One throw of a sharp toy and the screen is basically ruined.
What’s the problem with a standard pull down screen? Is there some benefit to the frame, other than decorative?
The pull-down screens referenced here are not the correct aspect ratio; there will be large portions of unused and non-illuminated screen space. A fixed screen with a large, black boarder frames the image and improves perceived contrast. Most people seem to think fixed screens mounted on the wall look better than “window shade” style retractable screens. Also, hanging screens are subject to swinging around.
Interesting post with plenty of screen options.
With regard to option 3 I would have to say that the material used in manual pull down screens is different from frame screens.
The material in manual pull down screens has very little elasticity (if any), whereas the fabric for frame screens can be stretched. This makes for a big difference in getting a perfectly flat, wrinkle-free screen.
This difference in fabrics explains (partly) the price difference. Some of the difference in price can also be explained by economies of scale, since manual screens are mass-produced. Cut to size material costs more time per order…
It’s always helpful to request fabric samples from the manufacturer to see which materials you like most. You can then choose the right gain, reflection type and fabric structure.
I was fine with just a white-ish wall with the original wall texture. You don’t even need a screen if you have a good enough projector, like my mitsubishi XD460U. Just don’t spray that photo blocker stuff for car license plates on the wall, cause it reflects back unevenly and gives you bright sparkely “patches”. !That was dumb!. Might work really good if its done correctly. Now I gotta redo the whole wall.
I am speechless……..and feel like a fool! First thing, i got a 50′ plasma for about $1K and thought “Hah! Those people pay more for an LCD, what fools!” Then Jumped to a 65” DLP RPTV and said “Hah! Those fools pay more for a tiny flat panel” The whole time not realizing a screen/projector could be had for about the same price with a much larger screen.
Now seeing i don’t even need to buy the screen to get started………i just don’t know what to say *facepalm* This is definitely the way to go! Know the funny part? I have actually visited avsforum quite a bit and thought myself to be a savvy HT person.
If cost isn’t a concern, and your time is limited, a pre-fabricated screen is the way to go. But if cost is more important, there are much cheaper alternatives that deliver very good bang for the buck. Just like pretty much every other aspect of home theater, there is a trade-off. . .
white PVC pool liner makes awesome DIY fixed frame screen material.