What makes home theater projectors so sexy, so compelling and so different from a regular old TV set with its LCD or plasma screen? We're going to break it down for you, and let you know why it just might be worth it to consider putting together a dedicated home theater room—a temple devoted to the holy projector that makes watching a regular TV show feel just like a trip to a movie theater. The best news is, a ticket to your own home theater is getting to be surprisingly affordable.
1. You get a really big picture. You get the most bang for your buck with a projector. To get the largest practical LCD display with a 65-inch screen, it'll cost you at least $7,000. On the other hand, a projector can blast out a 120-inch pic for a mere $3K. Sure, you'll need to buy a screen, but you could probably just get away with painting some $200 Screen Goo on your wall (we've used it, and it works great but is crazy-expensive compared with regular old paint), or cheaper yet, paint your wall a light gray and you'd still probably be satisfied with the picture quality.
2. It feels just like a movie theater. There's just something about a projected image in a darkened room that elicits mystery, focuses your attention, and makes it feel like you've dedicated yourself to the content on the screen. There's nothing incidental about watching a movie in a darkened room on a projector. And even with a middle-of-the-road projector and average sound system, the end result when you watch a Blu-ray or HD DVD movie looks better than the old-timey analog projector at your local multiplex after that piece of film has gone through it a thousand times. Which leads to our next point...
3. Go for Blu-ray or HD DVD for your home theater. Might we recommend a dual-format player, such as the Samsung or LG models we've told you about here on the Giz? The resolution on these HD discs is truly 1080p, and if you're going to invest in that kind of resolution, you might as well have a playback source that can crank it out.
4. Don't forget the audio. You might already have a Dolby 5.1 system, but if you don't, now's the time to indulge. You can get a home theater in a box (HTIB) system for very little money, but don't spend less than $500 unless you're nearly deaf. Lots of the receivers now have HDMI inputs and switchers, letting you control all your components from there.
5. Prices are getting astonishingly low, even for 1080p projectors. Our favorite so far is the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080, and coming in a close second is the Panasonic 1080p projector, both of which cost $3000. And, the next-gen version of both these models will roll out soon, costing even less than that, and have blacker blacks and better color. Beware of cheap projectors, though, such as the Torpedo that costs $179. We haven't tried that one yet (stay tuned for that), but the $500 BoxTV projector we did review was one of the worst, noisiest and clunkiest contraptions we've ever tested.
6. There is a downside to having a projector. It works best in a dedicated room with no windows. Sure, you could just watch movies at night, or install blackout curtains on your windows, but the best idea is to use a windowless basement room, install your speaker and projector cables before you put in the drywall, mount your projector to the ceiling and you're good to go.
7. If you like to use a TV as background noise, maybe a projector isn't for you. We know a guy whose home theater is an homage to the multi-use room, that is, he placed an LCD display on the wall for daytime CNN watching and casual use, and has a projector mounted on the ceiling with a screen that lowers itself automagically when he wants to settle in for some serious movie watching.
8. Perhaps make plans for your theater now, but delay them for a bit. While the writers' strike isn't going to go on forever, it might last a while, meaning there will be fewer TV shows to watch. But then, there's always Blu-ray and HD DVD and, ahem, BitTorrent.
9. Get a set of theater chairs for the full effect. Three or four years ago, it was hard to find even a single reclining theater chair with cup holders that cost less than $1500. Now you can get a set of three in an arced arrangement for around that same price. They're basically three recliners lashed together, and they'll let you watch a movie in blissful comfort.
10. 1080p is not always necessary. But when you're dealing with a projector, the screen size can get so gigantic that this choice could be crucial. For instance, the difference between 1080p and 720p becomes apparent at 16 feet when you're talking about a 123-inch screen. In fact, the THX recommended maximum viewing distance for that 123-incher is 13.7 feet. If your screen is going to be smaller than that, say, 60 inches viewed from 10 feet away, you may not be able to tell the difference between 1080p and 720p. See this handy chart by Carlton Bale to determine the specifics for your viewing distance and screen size.