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Which is best: 16:9 or 2.4?

When installing a new home theater, the first and most important decision you can make is whether to go with a 16:9 screen, or the wider format 2.4 Cinemascope alternative...

If you're about to set up your first home theater system, odds are you're reading a lot of projector reviews to sort out which projector you want. It is natural for people to give a LOT of thought to the projector, and not much to the screen.

This is a mistake. Your screen's aspect ratio and size, and the viewing distance you choose, are far more important to the ultimate enjoyment of your theater than which projector you choose. And in fact, once you select a particular screen size and aspect ratio, it can often limit your selection of projectors that best go with it.

So I am writing a couple articles to focus attention on the screen as a critical aspect of home theater planning. The first one draws specific attention to the question of aspect ratio--do you want a conventional 16:9 screen? Or do you want a wider format 2.4 Cinemascope screen? What are the trade-offs, and the advantages of each?

If you are about to install a home theater, read Choosing the Right Aspect Ratio, just posted today.

Evan Powell
Editor

Reader Comments(14 comments)

Posted Nov 24, 2010 9:40:00 AM

By Dan Miller

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Keep the square footage of the viewing area the same for all formats? NO NO NO. We perceive size relative to height. The taller the picture is, the bigger it is. The research has been done. Many times. There is a reason that SMPTE talks about picture heights. The comment that someone makes about bars down the side making a smaller picture is not accurate either. Maybe mathematically, but not perceptively. I have had a large 16:9 TV in my living room for my main viewing area for 13 years. I watch 4:3 (as little as possible, but it can't be avoided sometimes...) formatted correctly. No one, and I mean NO ONE has ever even asked about the black bars down the sides. On the other hand, if letterboxed bars (whether it is 'scope on a 16:9 screen or any widescreen format shown on a 4:3 screen) show up, then it even bugs me, and I have been in this industry for almost 40 years and am an avid film buff. You can explain to guests until you are blue in the face why they are there and they nod and might even ask questions, but at the end of the day they ask, "can you make them go away?" The reason is the loss of height. It makes the picture smaller. Masking helps a little, but it is a band-aid. To the people who believe in maximizing the square footage (which inevitably means a 4:3 screen makes the biggest picture, perceptively) what you end up with is your biggest picture for your worst source, and your smallest picture for your best source. Seems backwards, don't you think? The problem for most people is space. Most normally designed rooms that people might use for a theater are proportioned properly for a scope screen that is tall enough for an impactful experience. Most of the research shows that screen size notwithstanding, most people won't sit much closer than 10' away from a screen, and the comfortable average is around 15'. Let's assume your room has the width to support a scope screen with a height of 60", which is a very immersive size for the home. That means you have a 12 foot wide picture. If you were maximizing for height, you would have a nine foot tall image for 4:3, which in most cases is going to be upconverted 480i material. So not only are you on the border of too close (at 13.5 feet, a person with 20/20 vision will see pixel structure), but you will be seeing every scaling artifact, and a huge soft picture to boot. Constant area will give you a 4:3 picture that is 80.5" tall. A little better, but still your biggest picture comes from your lowest quality source. It just doesn't make sense. Constant height is the best compromise, assuming your room (and your wallet) can support it. From a psychovisual standpoint, masking the width is the least detrimental of the possibilities.

Posted Nov 16, 2010 12:26:13 PM

By Donizelli

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Choosing a screen's aspect ratio between 1.78:1 and 2.39:1 is like choosing between RED and GREEN colors, and nothing else.

For the present, probably the most useful AR screen would be a 1:1 screen, i.e. width=height. Next to that would be a 1.33:1 screen. We have a pro screening room, and we use a 2.05:1 AR screen with quad masks. You can do the same w/o any masks. The image goes all the way to screen's edge vertically when showing 1.33:1 content, almost all the way when showing 1.78 or 1.85:1, and goess all the way to left/right buit of course not all the way top/bottom for scope presentations.

A 2.35:1 or 2.4:1 screen is a particularly bad idea, since movies shot in the 1950s and 1960s were usually of a wider AR than this, going all the way up to 2.7:1 and even 2.8:1.

Anyhow, you will need to have a motorized zoom lens and/or the ability to move your seating position closer/farther from the screen, or else have the screen move closer or further away from your seated position. Main thing to keep in mind, you want to have the projected area (in sf) kept about the same for all aspect ratios. Say, at around 80 or 100 or 150 sf no matter what AR you are projecting. In other words, if it is a skinnier image, the vertical height has to be larger (as with 1.33:1).

Posted Nov 16, 2010 4:31:11 AM

By Tobias Carlén

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I have a very simple solution that works for me: No black borders. The projector has been our familys main screen for everything since 1999 and is placed in the living room and used for hours every day, so by using a fixed 16:9 screen with no black borders, we both have something that looks a lot nicer when the projector is not in use and eliminate any black bar problems. I think more people should consider this solution, since in my experience, ratios vary a lot: Not all sources are exactly 2.35:1, 16:9 or 4:3, there are actually a lot of inbetween ratios; (pehaps due to imprecision in media conversion?), which can cause small black bars above or to the sides of the film even if the format is supposedly the right one!

So, my tip would be: install as large a screen as you can fit, in all white, and project every media as large as you can.

Posted Nov 13, 2010 1:49:38 PM

By Guy

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Why can't we call it 16:8?

Seriously.

Posted Nov 13, 2010 8:50:25 AM

By jayz

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There is no perfect screen. It all depends on what you are going to be watching. Since there are many aspect ratios in the movies, there is no way that you will not have black bars unless you mask them, to me a 16X9 is the best choice out there. All HD Tv is 16X9 alot of movies are close to that aspect ratio, and of course if you go to a 2.4 but than you have added expense of a external lens. Do not ever use a 4X3 that would just be stupid. Unless you have a dedicated room for just 2.4 movies a 16X9 is the best compromise. Jay

Posted Nov 10, 2010 8:55:16 AM

By Darryl G. Jones

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First, let me do a very brief profile on myself: I have over 40 years experience as a Cinema Projectionist and belong to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).

I'd like to briefly discuss the 16 X 9 aspect ratio. For starters, it was originally intended as an image sensor capture ratio for HDTV Cameras for electronic cinema. It was designed to effectively deal with THREE capture ratios: 1.78 to 1, 1.33 to 1, and 2.39 to 1. While the 1.78 to 1 used 100% of the sensor area, It allowed 1.33 to use 75% of the sensor area, and 2.39 to 1 to use 76% of the sensor area. The engineer involved delivered a pretty flexible capture system. Obviously, 16 X 9 display are now very common and the percentages remain the same for each of the three aspect ratios. Unfortunately, the folks troubled by "letterboxing" and "pillar boxing" very likely do not understand the original intent of the 16 X 9 shape.

The varying aspect ratios used in movie theatres are faced with the same problem of what shape screen to install. More often than not either a 1.85 to 1 or 2.39 to 1 screen is selected. To avoid "white bars" either letterboxed or pillar boxed, theatres install traveling black drapes called "masks" to cover up unused portions of the screen.

The scope or 2.39 to 1 aspect ratio has been with us since 1953 and is an established standard. Currently, it used for most commercial films especially for high profile pictures. Even foreign films and art house films use this ratio more than they did in the past. Hope that helps.

Posted Nov 9, 2010 10:26:37 PM

By Austin Dan

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I put together an interesting setup that gives me the best of both worlds. Using a steel L bracket from Home Depot, I mounted two electric screens, Elitescreens CineTension2 100" 16x9 and 125" 2.4, with the 16x9 slightly below and in front of the 2.4. I adjusted the drop on both screens so the tops of each are at the same height when lowered. I used a Panasonic PT-AE4000U which has the lens memory feature and two 12-volt screen triggers, so the correct screen is lowered automatically depending on the format of the movie. Elitescreens already sells a dual-format screen (Osprey line), but I already owned a 16x9 screen and the dual screens didn't have the sizes I wanted. A little costly having to buy two screens, but I use my projector frequently and enjoy using the correct screen format for the movie. Much cheaper than a Stewart Filmscreens masking screen.

Posted Nov 6, 2010 12:48:28 PM

By Jade

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This is a great article that explains in detail the options for what I believe is the most important decision when creating a personal home theater: choice of screen aspect ratio.

My first home theater was a 1.85:1 screen and noticed that 2.4:1 material felt too small, while 1.85:1 material felt too big. This is when I realized that the natural human peripheral vision is wider than a 1.85:1 provides. In other words, screen area is NOT a good predictor in which format will provide the most immersive home theater experience.

For my second home theater, I made a 2.4:1 screen with the same effective height (screen height / viewing distance) as my 1.85:1 screen and noticed none of the eye fatigue associated with the previous setup. In fact, all 3 major formats (2.4:1, 1.85:1, 1.33:1) seemed just the right maximum size without causing eye strain.

It's because of this experience that I highly recommend (if your space allows for it) a 2.4:1 screen. I chose a Panasonic AE-3000 with the push button zoom control which works brilliantly for this setup. I also recommend purchasing your projector first and try watching some different format programming to see how it "feels". Finally, I have chosen to bring my screen right up to the edges of my wall with ceiling speakers for sound to maximizes the available width of the room.

Posted Nov 4, 2010 2:48:12 PM

By Eumigfan

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I have a 2.35 CIH set up which uses DIY motorized masking to accomodate any aspect ratio from 4:3 up to 2.8:1. The effcct of watching CinemaScope films in full wide screen is awesome, but I do not dismiss 4:3 material so readily as the previous poster. In fact I have found that the vast majority of truly great and entertaining films are on the old 4:3 format, as they were made in Hollywoods golden age when there were really great stars who knew how to act, great stories, and great directors. Yes 4: 3 is like watching in the 30's 40's and 50's and thats exactly why it is so great.

Posted Nov 1, 2010 1:29:19 PM

By Ajay

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4:3 is a thing of the past.......If that's what you like then you need to catch up on times. Nothing like watching a wide screen movie (2.4) Watching a 4:3 movie is like living in the 50's again.

Posted Oct 29, 2010 3:33:03 PM

By Simon

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I couldn't decide--went with the all-primer wall (other 5 surfaces are dark) and a high-contrast projector. I find apart from the aspect ratio, there's the issue of source. I'm zooming down the broadcast, zooming up the blu-ray movies and it would look odd in a frame.

Posted Oct 29, 2010 9:55:27 AM

By Kerry Stansbury

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I disagree with this article, everything you watch has a different aspect ratio. Until the day comes that all media sources have the same aspect ratio it would be foolish to limit yourself to just on ratio. If you choose a 2.4 Cinemascope screen, most of what you watch will have to have big black bars down the sides and you will have a very small picture or you can stretch the picture and it will look like crap. I would recommend 4:3 for now until the day they standardize all media (which may never happen) at least this way you can get the full benefit of the width of the area you have for your screen. You can always stop the screen before it comes down all the way if you want to for your widescreen media. You could compromise with a 16:9, but I would never buy a 2.4 Cinemascope.

Posted Oct 27, 2010 10:52:35 AM

By PatB

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There are three common aspect ratios: 16:9 - 2.40 and 4:3. The 4:3 ratio was of course ubiquitous until the early 50s but it re-emerged with IMax. For a really big image, apparently you need a narrower screen not a wider one.

For really wide there was also in the fifties, Cinerama at about 2.70 from three projectors. Triple projector systems are coming back with images from inexpensive digital projectors being seamlessly welded together for flight simulator and game viewing. These custom screens can have 3 or 4 to 1 aspect ratios.

With off the shelf components there is no reason why you couldn't build a 360 degree Home Theater. Only the screen fabrication would be a problem - and of course finding appropriate content. The Google Earth camera truck already takes 360 degree pictures. Maybe these could be viewed as movies. In a circular Home Theater you would have an infinite aspect ratio.

Posted Oct 26, 2010 1:41:33 PM

By Glenn

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I went with 16:9, but is was an easy choice because a good friend was upgrading his screen and gave me his 3 year old Da-lite screen for the cost of a new frame ($80). I must say though that I would chose 16:9 because I watch a lot of HD broadcast sports on it. Also, at 110" it is about the widest screen I can handle and still fit my tower speakers on the side. If I went with a 2.4 cinemascope I would just lose height, and not gain any width. Otherwise, I would need to change out my speakers.

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