Should I use classic white or high contrast gray?

Evan Powell, May 24, 2004

There are two kinds of screen materials widely used for home theater. One is the traditional white that has been in use for decades, and the other is a light to medium gray. The concept of the gray screen was first introduced by Stewart Filmscreen with their Grayhawk product in 2001, and gray screens have become immensely popular ever since.

Gray screens are often called high contrast screens because their purpose is to boost contrast on digital projectors in viewing rooms that are not entirely dark. The gray screen absorbs ambient light that strikes it better than a white screen does. In so doing the black level on the screen is maintained. This works because, assuming the projector has ample lumen output as most digital projectors do, whites remain satisfyingly white while blacks are maintained at a deeper black. The net effect is to increase the contrast range of the image on the screen.

When the gray screens first appeared in 2001 digital projectors of all types were very much contrast challenged. Thus anything that could help boost contrast performance was a welcome addition to the home theater system. However, during the last three years contrast performance of digital projectors has increased at a rapid pace. Today's highest contrast projectors claim contrast ratios of up 3000:1 and higher. Though these specs are theoretical in nature and never achieved in real life, the fact is that contrast has improved considerably across the board on all digital projectors in the last three years.

Are gray screens still relevant?

We hear claims that today's high contrast DLP projectors have rendered gray screens obsolete. This is not so. It is true that high contrast projectors when used in a totally light controlled environment should be used with white screens. However, a totally light controlled environment entails much more than just being able to turn the lights off. You must consider the latent contrast value of your viewing room as well.

Do you plan to have a dark theater room, with dark walls, ceilings, furniture, carpets? Do you plan to view with no ambient light in the room, just as in a commercial movie theater? If the answer to these questions is yes, then by all means your best solution is a white screen with a high contrast projector. The true videophile will go to great lengths to establish these viewing conditions-this is classic high-end home theater at its best.

However, most home theater enthusiasts don't have the luxury of a dedicated, fully darkened viewing room. Projection systems are frequently set up in living rooms, multi-purpose entertainment rooms, and family rooms that have light colored walls, ceilings, drapes, etc. Thus, even when the lights are fully off, the light being reflected from the screen will bounce off of the reflective elements in the room and back onto the screen. In this situation, a gray screen will be more effective at killing this incident light and thus maintaining deeper black levels on the 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