Painting the Perfect Screen for $100
January 26, 2011,
The Search for the Perfect Paint
We started our search with the flat latex base white from both Behr and Valspar. To test them we painted sample boards and mounted them each in front of the Studiotek 100, and illuminated them with a projector. Between the two, the Behr imparted a more obvious color imbalance, biased toward blue. The Valspar was closer to replicating the color values of the Studiotek. It wasn't quite perfect, being a very tiny shade warmer than the screen. But it wasn't bad at all, and noticeably more neutral than the Behr. We decided to drop Behr from the running, and continue experimenting with various Valspar finishes.
Flat, glossy, or what?
As far as finishes go, conventional wisdom holds that flat latex is the best option for a home theater screen. This was not our experience. It is certainly true that any high gloss finish creates a bad glare that makes the picture unwatchable. But a flat or matte finish is almost as bad. It produces a dull image that does not have the contrast or color saturation of a professional projection screen. While the Valspar's Base 1 with no added pigment was reasonably solid in color balance, the Matte finish that we started with rendered an image that was unacceptably dull compared to the Studiotek 100.
Valspar comes in a variety of finishes that increase in sheen, including Matte, Eggshell, Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Glossy. Since the Matte was too dull, we moved on to Eggshell--better, but still a bit dull. Next we tried the Satin. This one looked quite acceptable--not perfect, but a very nice picture. Stepping up to the Semi-Gloss, we suddenly overshot the runway; the Semi-Gloss was way too shiny, creating a host of annoying hotspots and artifacts that made it useless.
So we thought...what would happen if we blended Satin with Semi-gloss? We blended Satin two-to-one with Semi-Gloss, and painted another test board. Nope, still too glossy. Satin was the best choice in the Valspar line.
Was the Valspar Base 1 Satin as good as it gets with paint? Its color balance was almost identical to the Studiotek, but ever so slightly warmer. Highlights were actually brighter on the paint than on the screen. Unfortunately, black levels were also a bit elevated. The picture was extremely similar, but it didn't quite have the snap that the Studiotek produced. Close, but no cigar.
The Search Continues...
Time to road test another brand. We went to the local Sherwin-Williams store. Based on our experience with the Valspar, we started with their version of Satin, which they call the Duration Satin Extra White. As with the Valspar, we used the base stock paint with no pigment added. After two coats on another sample board, we set it up against the Valspar, and put them both in front of the Studiotek 100.
Wow! Now we were cooking with gas. The Sherwin-Williams Duration Satin Extra White was an absolute dead ringer for the Studiotek 100 in terms of color balance, and oh so close in contrast and saturation. There was some subtle variance in its ability to hold black levels compared to the screen, but for the money, who would quibble? It was hard to believe that an inexpensive paint could produce such stunning results. There seemed to be no more room for improvement, so we thought we had our winner.
But we weren't done yet.
The Problem of Screen Resolution
One key advantage to the professional high resolution screens is that they have a perfectly smooth surface which enables them to reflect images with the optimum amount of detail. With 1080p projection, this is an important consideration. The problem with most painted surfaces is that you end up with brush strokes or mottling from the roller. The surface is not as smooth as a professional screen, and this will take a bit of edge off the sharpness of the image.
The only way to replicate the smoothness of a high quality screen is with a paint sprayer in the hands of someone who knows how to use it effectively. Most people don't have paint sprayers or the skill to use them. You can rent them for $60 a day, but you need to spend some time (and paint) practicing to get the results just right. Since our objective was to find the simplest and cheapest solution, we wanted to get the best results without going the paint sprayer route.
Back to Sherwin-Williams we went. Their staff had two suggestions. First, use a roller with the smallest, tightest nap you can find, since it will produce less mottling of the surface. Second, instead of the Duration, try the ProClassic Smooth Enamel Satin Finish. This product has a different surface tension that will cause it to settle into a smoother surface than the Duration. It is made for trimwork and doors, not walls.
We bought some of that, brought it back, and put two coats on another test board. Yep, it worked as advertised. The finish was indeed a bit smoother, with fewer obvious surface flaws than any of the previous paints.
Setting up the test board with the ProClassic Smooth Enamel Satin against the Studiotek 100, we discovered that we had not only arrived at our objective, but surpassed it. Color balance was dead on, just as with the Duration. But this paint actually delivered a slightly brighter image with deeper blacks. With a checkerboard test pattern, the black and white squares that fell on the test board were visibly higher in contrast than those that fell on the screen. A spot meter confirmed what we could already see--white highlights were brighter by about 10%, and blacks were blacker by about 10%.
This paint had a gain of about 1.1, with higher contrast than the Studiotek 100. But even more intriguing, the slightly smoother finish of the Enamel was doing its job. There was very little difference in 1080p image resolution. Practically speaking, most people looking at the two would say there was no difference at all.
Not the only perfect paint
Once we were satisfied with the particular Sherwin-Williams paint, we stopped evaluating other products. When we hold the test board with this paint up against the Studiotek, it virtually vanishes. So our objective of creating an outstanding reflective surface was met.
Having said this, we don't want to make any pronouncements about this one paint from Sherwin-Williams being the magic bullet above all others. It just happens to be the one we found that gave us outstanding image quality with perfect color balance. This one was relatively easy to find, so we assume there are plenty of paint options from other vendors that will produce similar results.
How does it compare to the Studiotek 130?
In addition to our Studiotek 100, we have a Studiotek 130 on hand. This is the screen material Stewart recommends for high performance home theater. Its modest gain gives the picture a noticeably improved luster and brightness that the Studiotek 100 does not have. Just for grins, we put our test board up against the Studiotek 130 to compare images.
The Studiotek 130 certainly produced the better image. Anyone putting in a high performance projection system would want the 130 over our paint solution. But for the money, the paint was holding its own remarkably well. Its highlights were not as brilliant, and the paint could not quite match the beautiful luster of the 130. But color balance was perfect. Overall, most viewers would be thoroughly impressed with what the paint could do. In terms of overall image quality in the average home theater environment, the paint fell a bit short of the Studiotek 130, but surpassed the 100.
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