A Key Decision:
What is the best screen format?

Evan Powell, April 25, 2007

NOTICE: THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN REWRITTEN AND UPDATED.

SEE CURRENT ARTICLE HERE

These days conventional wisdom says that a new home theater should have a 16:9 projector and a 16:9 screen. For most people, that is absolutely right. Almost all of the latest plasma and LCD flatscreen TVs are in the 16:9 format, and most video projectors intended for home theater are as well. But just because 16:9 has become the de facto standard, it doesn't mean it is right for you. You've got two good alternatives worth considering-going with a very large screen 4:3, or a super widescreen 2.35:1. Which of these formats is best for you? It all depends on the trade-offs you want to make, and how you want to manage your home theater experience. The purpose of this article is to describe your options and help you decide which way to go.

If you are new to the concept, when we talk about 16:9 or 4:3 or 2.35:1 formats, we're talking about the rectangular shape of the video image, or what is called its aspect ratio. The standard TV that's been around since the mid-50s has an aspect ratio of 4:3. That means the picture is 4 units wide for every three units of height. Meanwhile, the new HDTV standard is 16:9, which is 16 units of width for every 9 units of height. So HDTV's 16:9 is a rectangle that is, relatively speaking, horizontally wider than older TVs, which by comparison look almost square.

Here's the problem: any given TV or projector comes in its own native format--typically either 4:3 or 16:9. On the other hand, movies and video come in many different aspect ratio formats. TV programs and videos intended for regular TV are done in 4:3 format, often denoted "1.33" since 4 divided by 3 = 1.33. On the other hand, programs made for HDTV are in 16:9 format, which is 1.78 (16 divided by 9 = 1.78). However, these are not the only two formats that video material comes in. Movies, music videos, and other content on DVD comes in a variety of formats including 1.33, 1.78, 1.85, 2.00, 2.35, 2.4, 2.5, and so on. So not matter what screen type you get, whether 4:3 or 16:9 or 2.35, it will NOT fit all the video material you will want to watch in its native frame. Since there is no perfect solution, what is the right way to set up your system?

The simple answer is this. Most people are opting for a 16:9 screen since it is a good compromise that fits a lot of movie formats without too much letterboxing or pillar boxing, not to mention it fits all HDTV programming perfectly. But you might want to go with 4:3 or 2.35:1. Each of these formats has some advantages, and each has limitations for which you must compromise. One is not inherently better than the others-they are just different. So let's take a look at the advantages of each.

Option 1: The 16:9 screen

If HDTV programming is your primary viewing material your decision is simple. A 16:9 projector on a 16:9 screen is clearly the best combination for optimizing HDTV viewing. The new HDTV programming is all in 16:9, so the image fits the 16:9 screen perfectly, and all is well.

Displaying 2.35 Movies on a 16:9 Screen

Keep in mind that when it comes to DVD movies there is a formatting issue to consider. Many movies are wider than 16:9. For example, Seabiscuit, The Lord of the Rings, Dances with Wolves, Tombstone, The Fifth Element, U-571, American Beauty, and Star Wars/Phantom Menace (to name a few) are all 2.35:1, not 1.78:1. When you display these movies on a 16:9 screen you will have black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, each bar amounting to about 12% of the picture height. The bars are not as large as they would be on a 4:3 screen, but they are there nevertheless.

How visible the bars are depends on the black level the projector is capable of, and what type of screen material you are using. Standard white screens will usually make the bars a bit more visible. High contrast gray screens will make them darker. The good news is that with these screen materials and the higher contrast projectors that are available these days, the presence of black bars is much less of a visible distraction than it used to be.

Nevertheless, if you are a perfectionist and money is no object, you may want to consider electric masking to close the frame horizontally when "wider than 16:9" movies are displayed. This is simply an option you order with your screen that features black fabric panels that can be opened or closed along the top and bottom edge of the screen to change the exposed area of the screen's surface. They are used to create a solid black frame around the image no matter what aspect ratio the film is. You will find that the overall quality of the video presentation is improved by placing a black frame around it.

Electonic masking is the ideal solution, and if cost were no issue we'd always recommend it. But with the new high contrast screens and high contrast projectors, black bars are very black and thus not all that noticeable. Most consumers won't want to pay the significant additional cost for electric masking just to eliminate them.

Displaying 4:3 material on a 16:9 Screen

All 16:9 format projectors will display a 4:3 image. However, one limitation of a 16:9 projector (or any 16:9 flat panel TV) is that, one way or another, 4:3 material tends to be compromised in the way it is displayed. This may or may not be an issue for you, but you need to be clear on your options since there is a LOT of 4:3 video/film material in the world. Standard television of course is 4:3. But so are almost all classic movies made prior to 1953. (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Mutiny on the Bounty, Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Fantasia, etc.). A lot of special interest material such as Ken Burns' superb documentaries on the Civil War and the life of Mark Twain are in 4:3. And all of the historic television series being released on DVD, from I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show to Northern Exposure and Friends are all in their original 4:3 format. So how will you display all of this material in your home theater?

With a 16:9 projector, one option is to display 4:3 material in its correct aspect ratio using the middle two-thirds of the screen. When you do this you will have black columns on each side of the image that fill the space between the image and the sides of your screen. This is known as pillarboxing.

Another option, not so appealing, is to use the "expand" feature on the projector which stretches the 4:3 image horizontally so it fills the 16:9 frame. In this mode people will appear fatter. Cars look like low-riders on oval shaped tires. Yes, it fills the 16:9 screen, but the romantic essence of Casablanca, a 4:3 film, is somewhat compromised when you make Bogart and Bergman look like they've spent the war years gorging on French cheese and pate. To anyone serious about seeing a classic film the way the director created it, this tasteless distortion of the 4:3 image (a "featured option" on many 16:9 video display devices) will be unacceptable.

A third option widely available on 16:9 projectors and TVs, is to "zoom" the 4:3 image instead of stretching it. This basically cuts off the top and bottom of the image and displays the middle section of the image in full frame 16:9. So with facial close-ups for example, you lose the top of the head and chin of the subject, retaining just the eyes, nose, and mouth. In general you are often aware that vital portions of the image are lost. Your owner's manual will call it "zoom", but it should be called the "4:3 butchering option." It should not be used if you have any desire to see something like Citizen Kane in the way it was originally intended to be seen.

Many 16:9 projectors and TVs have yet another alternative for 4:3 material that fills the 16:9 frame with the least amount of distortion. They will retain the original aspect ratio of the center portion of a 4:3 picture while stretching the side portions out to fit the 16:9 frame. This is probably the least offensive way to get the framed filled. It is certainly a workable solution for regular cable or broadcast television since the edges of the image don't usually contain vital subject matter. Therefore distorting the outside edges is a reasonable compromise. However, for the viewing of artistic classic films, centering the image in the 16:9 frame with pillars on each side is the only way to view the material as it was created by the director.

The bottom line is this. A 16:9 format screen is perfect for broadcast HDTV. It leaves you with small top and bottom black bars on movies that are wider than 16:9, and it requires you to make some compromises with 4:3 material. For most home theater enthusiasts, the visual impact of 16:9 widescreen outweighs issues related to 4:3 display. Nevertheless, if you are concerned about having the most dramatic 4:3 display and you don't want to compromise it in any of the ways noted above, you might choose to go with a 4:3 format screen instead.

Option 2: The 4:3 screen

At first the idea of choosing a 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen sounds a bit old-fashion. After all, the contemporary world is 16:9, right? Why would anyone go this route? Well, the primary reason is to maximize the size of the screen for the viewing of classic 4:3 films. I have a 150" diagonal 4:3 Stewart Studiotek 130 specifically for this purpose. The impact of the large scale image is quite dramatic compared to seeing it centered in smaller format in the middle of a 16:9 screen.

Prior to 1953, most commercial movies theater screens were 4:3. In fact, television adopted the 4:3 aspect ratio in order to match the standard film format at the time. Hollywood switched to producing mostly widescreen format films beginning in 1953 as a competitive response to the introduction of television. So for those who want to experience old classic films in the way they were actually viewed in a commercial movie theater, a large 4:3 screen is the ideal solution. (Remember the movie The Sting from 1973? That was filmed in 4:3 because the director wanted it to look like an old classic film.)

The key advantage to a 4:3 screen is that it often allows you to project the largest possible image no matter what type of material you are viewing. The reason is that most viewing rooms in the average home will place practical limits on screen width before the ceiling limits the screen height. The dimensions of the room might limit you to, say, an 8-foot wide screen. But for any 8-foot wide screen, you will usually have the option to make that screen 3.4 feet tall (for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), 4.5 feet tall (for a 16:9 aspect ratio), or 6 feet tall (4:3 aspect ratio). The 4:3 format gives you more square footage of total screen area for any given screen width. This is important if you want to watch material like classic films in large format. It is not important if your only 4:3 subject matter is standard broadcast television.

Projectors for 4:3 screens

If you want to set up your theater for large scale 4:3 display, you will need either a native 4:3 projector or a 16:9 projector with a powered zoom lens of at least 1.3x zoom range. I currently use the Canon SX60 with the 4:3 screen. This is a 4:3, 1400x1050 resolution projector with plenty of light to fill the big 10-foot wide screen. With this set up, subject matter that is either 16:9 or 2.35:1 is also displayed in 10-foot wide scale, and there are black bars above and below the image. On this projector, 16:9 material is displayed in a 1400x787 pixel matrix-higher physical resolution than a 720p projector, but not as high as a 1080p projector will deliver.

If you want to go to the ultimate 1080p resolution, then you can select any one of several of the new 1080p models available that have powered zoom lenses of at least 1.3 zoom range. Using one of these projectors, you can zoom the lens to a relatively wide angle setting such that a native 4:3 image fills the 4:3 screen. When switching to 16:9 or 2.35 subject matter, you zoom the lens forward until the image fills the screen from side to side.

The advantages of using a 1080p projector in this manner are (a) you get the highest possible resolution for all types of viewing material, and (b) all of the latest 1080p projectors have better contrast and black level than the SXGA models in the same price range.

Option 3: The 2.35 'Constant Image Height' Screen

Most contemporary films are done in formats wider than 16:9, and quite a few of them are made in 2.35:1. Accordingly, some home theater enthusiasts are opting for a 2.35 format screen. In this type of set up, all 2.35 films are shown in full-frame super widescreen with no black bars. Meanwhile 16:9 and 4:3 subject matter is displayed in pillarboxed fashion in the center of the 2.35 screen.

On a 16:9 screen, the image width and height can both vary based on the aspect ratio of the material being displayed. On a 4:3 screen, all material is displayed at a constant width, and only the image height varies based on aspect ratio. Conversely, when using a 2.35 screen, it is the image height which remains a constant, and the image width varies with the aspect ratio. Hence you will sometimes see the 2.35 concept designated CIH or CH, referring to the constant image height.

Subject matter of different aspect ratios can be managed on a 2.35 screen either by using a projector with a powered zoom lens as described above, or by using an auxiliary anamorphic lens. We have discussed the advantages, limitations, and practical considerations of the 2.35 CIH option in a separate article. For further exploration of the 2.35 option, click here.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are several ways to set up a home theater. Most people choose 16:9 due to its versatility, but the 4:3 and 2.35 options appeal to many folks for a lot of reasons. There is no right way to do it--there is just the right way for you, based on your own viewing preferences. However, giving serious thought in advance as to how you want to display 2.35 movies, 16:9 HDTV programming, and old movies and other 4:3 material, will pay off handsomely in the enjoyment of your theater in the long run.

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