EDITOR'S NOTE: The review below pertains to the 2009 version of Screen Innovations' Black Diamond screen material, which is no longer available for purchase. The Black Diamond screen currently available is a different product and this review does not reflect on its performance.
In February, we looked at Screen Innovations' Black Diamond II 0.8-gain ambient light screen shortly before it was released. Now, we're back in the lab with their 1.4-gain version of the same screen. This ambient light rejection (or "black") screen solves the brightness problem of the last model. It also expands the viewing angle, which frees up some of the restrictions and makes the screen easier to use. At $2699, it is priced like a high-end boutique product, but it delivers performance in line with its cost.
Ambient Light Rejection. The Black Diamond II incorporates technology that "rejects" ambient light. Any light which hits the screen from an oblique angle, such as that coming from above or off to one side, is not reflected back to the audience. During testing, very little ambient room light was reflected by the screen, though a light source to one side of the screen will cause more reflection than an overhead source. You will still want to avoid having a light source directly behind the projector, as the screen cannot differentiate between the projector's light and the room light and will reflect all of it towards your audience.
Higher contrast. In a home theater, several factors can contribute to loss of on-screen contrast, but the biggest one is ambient light. When ambient light hits a conventional screen, it washes out black levels and reduces contrast by significant amounts. By not reflecting a lot of the ambient light, the Black Diamond II should improve contrast. But can that difference be seen on the screen?
Our testing was performed in a setting representative of a DIY home theater; light control was good, but not perfect. Our basis for comparison was the Stewart Grayhawk RS, a highly-regarded top-tier home theater projector screen. Three different tests were performed - with all room lights off, with an overhead light turned on, and with a light at screen level, several feet away at a 45 degree angle. With the lights off, the Black Diamond II showed 40% higher contrast than the Grayhawk. However, when the lights came on, the Black Diamond II really started to show its stuff. Contrast dropped as expected on the Grayhawk, while the Black Diamond II held relatively steady. The result is that the Black Diamond II showed 70% higher contrast with either an overhead or oblique illumination source.
HD surface. As mentioned in the review of the 0.8-gain version, the Black Diamond II is an HD screen, which essentially means it has a very smooth surface that allows for the reflection of minute detail found in a high definition video image. Screens with a more noticeable surface texture can make an image appear less sharp and detailed. With the Black Diamond II you won't have to sacrifice picture detail to get ambient light performance.
Installation. The Black Diamond II uses an unconventional mounting system - the screen material is mounted to the frame by means of large, black rubber bands. They are looped through holes punched in the edges of the screen material and back to studs on the screen. The screen material has very little elasticity compared to more traditional fabric or vinyl screens, but elasticity is necessary to ensure a smooth and uniform screen surface, so the elasticity must be provided by the frame attachment as opposed to the fabric itself. While this all makes logical sense, assembly is difficult, especially when wearing the supplied rubber gloves (to keep from marring the screen's fragile surface).
While the Black Diamond II can certainly be assembled by one person, it becomes easier by several orders of magnitude if you have someone to help you. The small rubber bands don't stay on unless there is pressure holding them, and to have pressure holding them you need to attach one, move all the way around the screen, and attach the one on the opposite side. For the first few bands, we found that by the time we moved around the screen, the first rubber band had disconnected itself. Even having a friend just hold their finger down on the rubber band would be invaluable. Actually, this is about all they'll be able to do, since only one set of assembly tools is included.
One positive note: on this version of the Black Diamond II, the screen came with a protective plastic film over the actual screen surface, to reduce the likelihood of damaging the screen during installation. Just remember to peel back a corner of this film while assembling the screen, or you'll have a tough time removing it once the screen is actually mounted.
Our sample also included a set of stands, which are very sturdy and should retail for around $400 (though this is a rough estimate). While our sample did not include instructions, consumer versions will. The stands are intuitive to set up, with one caveat: several small pieces must be inserted into the frame itself prior to assembly. If you forget to do this, you'll have to take the whole thing apart and start over again.
Price. Many people's hang-up regarding this screen is its price. With a 100" 16:9 screen retailing for more than $2500, it is not surprising that the price tag gives some consumers pause. However, the Black Diamond II is a unique product, and the experience of watching HD film or sports with the room lights on is one of a kind. It is a boutique product, and priced accordingly, but we do not feel that the price is unreasonable given the performance it delivers.
Differences between the 1.4-gain and 0.8-gain models
Gain. The most obvious difference between the 0.8-gain screen and the 1.4-gain screen is, of course, gain. Gain is a measurement of the light reflected from a screen at a zero degree viewing angle. If you took a theoretical 100-lumen flashlight and pointed it at a perfect 1.0 gain screen from directly in front, the light reflected back at you would measure 100 lumens, while a 0.8 gain screen would reflect 80 lumens, and a 1.3 gain screen would measure 130 lumens. The screen is not creating more light, obviously, but reflecting the existing light back to a more focused area, giving the appearance of higher brightness.
The 0.8-gain version of the Black Diamond II actually measured closer to 0.7 gain, which made the picture appear somewhat dim. For best results, you had to use a fairly bright projector. The 1.4-gain version measured 1.35 gain in our lab, which makes it appear roughly twice as bright as the earlier version.
Viewing angle. The 0.8 gain version had a 22 degree angle of half-gain, but the half-gain angle on the 1.4 version is much wider. In fact, we measured a half-gain angle of almost 50 degrees - more than double that of the 0.8-gain screen. This gives you a fairly sizable viewing window of 100 degrees - and what's more, it seems that screen brightness drops off somewhat slowly outside of that cone, so seating people even farther out - say, 60 degrees off-center - still yields a watchable picture.
Ambient Light Rejection. Lastly, it seemed that the 1.4-gain version of the Black Diamond II had less of a "plasma" appearance when the lights were on, while the 0.8-gain version had it in spades. It also seemed that its ambient light rejection was less aggressive than that of the 0.8-gain version, though making a definitive statement without both screens present is difficult. Nevertheless, this is not a disadvantage of the 1.4-gain screen, merely a small difference.
Screen Innovations' Black Diamond II 1.4-gain model removes several of the concerns we had with their earlier 0.8-gain version. The effective viewing angle has gone from 44 degrees to an impressive 100 degrees, if not more. The 1.4-gain version amplifies the projector's lumen output, producing a striking, high-contrast picture. While it does not retain as much of that "plasma" appearance as does the 0.8-gain version, it is still an extremely capable ambient light screen. While it's a little pricey, the performance is worth every penny for those who do not have the ability or desire to eliminate ambient light from their viewing room.
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