What is screen gain?

Evan Powell, May 24, 2004

Every screen product on the market has a "gain" factor. Some screens are "low gain" and some are "high gain." Most white home theater screens are low gain, and carry ratings in the range of 1.0 to 1.3 gain. Some of today's gray screens are rated as low as 0.8 gain. On the other hand, one vendor is marketing screens with gain ratings that they claim are as high as 6.0. However, unless you have gone shopping for a screen before you are not likely to know what any of these numbers mean.

Gain is a measurement of the reflectivity of any screen or projection surface. The gain number represents a ratio of the light that is reflected from the screen as compared to the light reflected from a standard white (magnesium oxide) board. Therefore, a screen with a gain of 1.0 will reflect the same amount of light as that from a white board. A screen rated at 1.5 gain will reflect 50% more light as that from a white board, whereas a gray screen with an 0.8 rating will reflect 80% of the light from a white board.

Gain is measured from the vantage point where the screen is at its brightest, which is directly in front and perpendicular to the screen. Technically the measurement of gain at this point is known as Peak Gain at Zero Degrees Viewing Axis. If you move to the side and view the screen at an angle the brightness of the projected image drops. The angle at which the gain reading drops to 50% of the peak value is known as the Half Gain Viewing Angle. A person viewing the screen from this angle will see an image half as bright as the person seated at the center position.

Low gain screens have wider Half Gain Viewing Angles than do high gain screens. That is because the low gain screen diffuses light more evenly over a wider angle of view. A high gain screen is constructed to reflect more of the projector's light energy back toward the centerline of the projection path, and less light energy to the oblique angles of view. Thus brightness falls off more rapidly as you move away from the zero degree viewing axis, and the Half Gain Viewing Angle is relatively narrow.

Is high gain good?

It is easy, and wrong, to jump to the conclusion that a high gain screen must be preferable to a low gain screen. After all, higher reflectivity means a brighter image and a brighter image seems like a good thing, right? The problem is that there are some downsides to higher gain in a home theater environment.

First, as just noted there is a trade-off between gain and viewing angle. A 1.0 gain screen diffuses light evenly in all directions. Thus seating can be placed in a wide viewing angle relative to the screen and all seats will afford a similar viewing experience regardless of the angle of view. With a high gain screen the brightness of the image increases to those seated in the center, and diminishes for those seated at the outside. Furthermore once you move off center axis the relative brightness of various portions of the image can shift quite dramatically. Thus a high gain screen can put limitations on the number of optimum viewing seats you can have in your theater.

Second, a high gain screen does not typically reflect red, green, and blue equally. So it can generate color shifts in the image that are noticeable as you move around the screen viewing it from different angles. Once again, the image looks different to each viewer depending on where they are seated.

Third, any screen with a gain higher than 1.0 has some degree of hotspotting. That is, when viewing the screen from a center position, the middle portion of the image will appear brighter than the edges. On screens under 1.3 gain or so this is not very noticeable, but as gain increases beyond 1.3 it can become a real distraction.

High gain screens have a definite place in the world. In conference rooms and classrooms where you want some lights on and most of the seats can be positioned within the screen's narrow cone of reflectance, high gain screens can be quite effective in boosting image brightness. However, the videophile looking for the optimum image quality in a home theater environment will usually want to opt for a low gain screen.

Commentary

Do projector screens really differ?
Should I choose White or Gray?
What is screen gain?

Reviews (vendors in descending order of retail price)

Relative Brightness of Projection Screens
Vutec Corporation
Stewart Filmscreen
Draper, Inc.
Da-lite Screen Company
Carada, Inc.
Goo Systems, Inc.

Summary