DIY: Build Your Own Home Theater

So, it’s time to upgrade the home audio/visual set-up. The 55″ plasma that you couldn’t live without four years ago looks a little shabby compared to the bright, shiny new generation of toys at Best Buy. Maybe it’s time to make the transition to 4K and Ultra HD. Then again, those big curved screens look kinda cool. It’s like having a baby IMAX screen sitting in your den. And what about 3D? Don’t you want to watch Gravity or Inside Out with the action jumping off the screen and landing in your lap? So, that means it’s time to drop a few grand for all the bells and whistles that’ll be old news about the time you get the credit card balance paid off, right?

No!  Don’t do it.  Think outside the box. Literally. Quit being a slave to the world of solid state electronics and consider a projector, a true home theater, not just a new television. You may very well find that you can afford a much bigger screen and a much more “theatrical” experience than you think. I spent a year researching the best home theater set-up for my personal Man Cave, and this article will provide you with a nice shortcut because I’ve done the research for you. Say goodbye to crying babies who should be at home with a sitter and the elderly couple sitting behind you discussing every plot twist. Instead, step into a perfect theater environment in your very own home.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money

Each time I show my new and improved Man Cave to a friend, there is that awkward moment of silence when each of them assumes that I am somehow wealthier than I ever let on, that I’m some kind of trust fund baby who can’t resist showing off the best audio/visual equipment money can buy. “Well, I’ve got three kids, so I don’t have much money for this kind of stuff,” one of my buddies said in an apologetic tone as he gazed in awe at my home theater.  None of them understood that my projector and screen cost less than the big screen sitting in the entertainment center in his own living room.

Just so we can compare apples to apples, I’ve agreed to reveal the financial details of my set-up so you can see how attainable this technology is.  My projector is the BenQ HT1085ST with 1080p HD picture and 3D capability.  It retails for $ 1299.00.  After playing Amazon.com like a stock market for several months, I bought mine for $ 897.00. (It is that same price as I post this article.) My screen was custom made by a small company in Tennessee for $ 265.00 including shipping.  So, my total investment in this little experiment was $ 1162.00.  The end result is a 110″ screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio and a picture that is mind-blowingly bright and vivid.  Throw in four pairs of 3D glasses for under $ 100.00, and I can reproduce any film in my house in true cinema quality.

Let Your Space Be Your Guide

We’ve all had the experience of arriving at the theater late for a popular new film and getting stuck in the front rows of the auditorium, sitting so close that every movement is a blur, and you have to pan your head from side-to-side to take in the entire screen. It’s like watching a neck-breaking, headache-inducing tennis match. Bear this in mind, when you pick the size of the image that you hope to reproduce in your Man Cave.  My BenQ will project an image from 38.2″ up to 299.3″, but my room won’t accommodate anything larger than 110″.

So, how do you know what size screen your room will allow?  First, measure the distance from your favorite chair to the wall where you will mount the screen.  The actual dimensions of your entire room are irrelevant. You’re not going to be standing against the rear wall with the back of your skull resting on the sheetrock staring at the screen in front of you.  Determine where your eyes WILL ACTUALLY BE and measure the distance from where you sit to the approximate location of your screen-to-be. Unless you intend to use the actual surface of the wall as your screen, be sure to account for the fact that most screens will hang two to four inches from the wall depending on the type of frame it’s mounted on. My Man Cave looked like I was filming an episode of CSI with string stretched from each chair in the room to the wall where my screen was being mounted like I was calculating the trajectory of a hail of gunfire.

The folks over at www.projectorcentral.com have an extremely helpful calculator that will provide you with the recommended viewing distance and throw distance (more on that in a minute) for each and every projector they sell. The ideal viewing distance is expressed as a range (ie. 12.5 ft. to 20 ft.).  If you tend to suffer from “sitting too close to the screen” syndrome, then make sure your room allows you to sit toward the farther end of the recommended viewing distance.  My viewing distance falls right in the midpoint of the range for the BenQ projector I purchased, and I’ve never had any optical issues at all. And sitting only 15 feet from the screen makes 3D images much sharper and brighter than the 3D in theaters because the image has to travel dozens, if not hundreds of feet, to reach your glasses and process them. But home 3D will only have its jaw-dropping effect if you are sitting the proper distance from your screen.

What’s a Throw Distance?

Not only should you be concerned with the distance of your eyes from the screen, but you also need to determine where a given brand of projector must be located to produce the image size you want. The “throw distance” is the distance from the projector lens to the screen that is needed to produce the image you want. The bigger the image; (usually) the bigger the throw distance.  If your projector needs to be 20 feet from the screen to produce the 120″ image you crave, and your room is 18 feet by 14 feet, then you simply have to find another projector (or another room). You don’t have 20 feet of throw available to you.

Throw distance was the single biggest nemesis I faced when I converted to a projector. I was initially convinced I would mount the projector on the ceiling of my Man Cave.  But, every projector I found that had good reviews and fell in my price range also had a throw distance that was completely unworkable. You can’t mount it under an HVAC duct or inside a cabinet.  Everywhere I could place a ceiling-mounted projector, I ran into a different obstacle that made it physically impossible for me to mount the projector in the correct spot. So, my efforts ground to a halt.  Until I discovered the world of short throw projectors.  I mentioned earlier that my projector is the BenQ HT1085ST. Well, the ST stands for “short throw”. My projector sits a mere six feet from my screen and generates a crystal clear 110″ image.

In fact, my particular projector model (and many other affordable models) offers “keystone correction”. This means that the projector doesn’t need to be in direct line of sight to the screen. It can sit on a coffee table to the left or right of the screen, and the trapezoid created by the skewed angle can be corrected digitally. In my case, my BenQ sits on an ottoman approximately six feet from the screen. How do I know its perfectly placed in the room? Because I never notice it’s there.

Ambient Light and How to Deal with It

The biggest knock on projectors has always been the unavoidable fact that ambient light causes the image to fade. Technology has improved vastly, but excessive ambient light is still a factor to be reckoned with. Ideally, you choose an interior room in your home that has no windows. Realistically, you are unlikely to have a room with the right dimensions that is conveniently windowless.

The first line of defense against ambient light is simply choosing a projector that tolerates higher amounts of it. The www.projectorcentral.com calculators will also provide you with ambient light ratings depending on the throw distance and image size involved. (My BenQ is rated for 40% ambient light before the picture quality begins to degrade.) The second line of defense is locating your screen on the wall that best addresses the ambient light issue. Windows and other sources of light that are BEHIND the projector do not matter nearly as much. It’s the windows and other light sources that are IN FRONT of the projector that cause the problems by diffusing the light generated by the projector’s lens. Consequently, if you can position your screen so the primary sources of natural light are to the rear of the projector, you’ve won half the battle.

Unfortunately, I had to deal with the worst case scenario.  In order to have a room with the necessary dimensions, my Man Cave is filled with windows. It’s a literal ambient light nightmare. So, how did I deal with it and preserve my pristine picture quality? I researched lightweight material that blocks light.  I even spoke with a seamstress about making blackout curtains. As I did these things, I could hear the cash registers ringing in my brain as the theoretical cost grew and grew and my little project careened financially out of control.

Then one day I was standing in the contemporary worship space at my church, and it occurred to me how nice and dark the room was yet both walls have rows of windows. What brilliant engineering feat accounted for this perfect elimination of ambient light? Foam core. A simple sheet of foam core about 1/4″ thick inserted into the window rendered the room so dark I couldn’t have found my way out if someone had turned off the lights.  So, for less than twenty dollars, I had four pieces of foam core cut and slipped them under the blinds in each window in front of my projector.  They are nearly invisible, and it was goodbye ambient light. Foam core inserts also have the advantage of not being permanent construction.  If my wife wants to see into the backyard on a bright, summer day, I simply slip the foam core out of the windows, and she can enjoy the view.  When it’s movie time, I can slip the foam core sheets back in place in less than a minute. Everyone is happy.

A Quick Word About Screens

After 1700 words, I’m at risk of overstaying my welcome. But, I’m not doing my job if I don’t briefly mention the other important piece of the equation: the screen. Not all screens are created equal. Screens are made of different materials and have different finishes. It is possible to have a screen that reflects the projected light TOO WELL, leading to an image that literally bounces off the screen, causing the viewer to squint at its brightness.

The reflectiveness of the screen material and the brightness it produces is called its “screen gain”.  A standard white screen has a low gain rating of 1.0 to 1.3.  Some gray screens have gains as low as .8.  While screen gain can be a matter of personal preference, most projectors have a recommended screen gain that will bring out the best your projector has to offer.  Check the specifications for the projectors you’re considering to make sure your screen selection is a good match.

Another screen issue to consider is whether the screen is fixed in place or if the “canvas” is adjustable.  If the screen has any wrinkles or creases in it, they will displace the light in those areas and distort the resulting picture.  My personal preference is a lightweight aluminum frame with screen material that can be stretched over the frame and tightened as needed.  This gives you the ability to personally stretch or slacken the canvas in various areas to eliminate all ripples, creases or wrinkles.

The edges of my screen are perforated with “grommets” like a shower curtain, and the screen material is secured to the aluminum frame with a form of adjustible plastic tie. By tightening the ties at an equal rate, the canvas stretches taut and eliminates any wrinkles, assuring a uniform picture. If the screen is already secured or glued in place, this type of adjustment can’t be made and wrinkles or creases are nearly impossible to eliminate.  A quality screen doesn’t usually come wrinkled or creased, but if the screen can’t be manually tightened, you have to be very careful not to accidently bend or crease the screen because the resulting image distortion likely can’t be fixed.

[Update (11/6/17):  Since I first posted this article, I had an incident with my fixed frame screen that I wanted to address, so you might be able to repair your screen if this happens to you.  During some recent home renovations, my painter propped my screen against the wall, but in doing so, he trapped one of my wife’s exercise balls between the screen and the wall.  After sitting that way for two days (unnoticed by me), my screen was left with an apple-sized dent/dimple in it.  I assumed the worst.  I even tried to convince myself that it was a blessing in disguise, an excuse to get a newer, better screen.

Long story short:  A friend of mind searched YouTube for ways to mend a dented screen and discovered that gradually heating the screen with a hair dryer slackens the “ridges” created by the dent, and the screen can simply be smoothed out like a pair of wrinkled pants.  Obviously, this won’t be the case for all screens and all materials, but if your screen gets a dent or dimple in it, grab a hair dryer and see if you can’t remedy the situation without taking a hit in the wallet. Just be sure to heat the screen gradually, so your cure doesn’t cause more damage.]

There’s So Much More

I haven’t even broached the subjects of projector color calibration, wireless transmission of content, region-free DVD/Blu-Ray players and other elements that contribute to a quality home theater. I could write an entire column on tricks for eliminating cords.  Some people are racist. Some are sexist. I’m a “cordist”, and I freely admit it. I can’t stand the snake’s nest of a mess they make. But, I’ll leave these topics for another day (maybe). If you’re interested in knowing more, feel free to contact me through the comments on this site or on Twitter. I enjoy introducing people to the world of projectors. It’s an affordable alternative to massive, expensive televisions that most people don’t consider.

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