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Review: Ambient Light Rejection Screens (ALR Screens)

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Ambient Light Rejection Screens

Evan Powell, March 3, 2016
ProjectorCentral.com

Think about this ... would you like to have a huge 135" flat panel TV in your entertainment room? If such a thing existed most of us couldn't afford it, and if we could we couldn't get it through our front doors. But here is some good news ... you can get that same giant TV effect with a projector and one of today's Ambient Light Rejecting (ALR) screens. They are designed to give you a big screen picture with sparkling high contrast and solid color saturation in a well-lit room. The "Projector + ALR Screen" combo is ideal for parties, gaming, or TV and movie viewing during daylight hours, or in the evening when you just don't want to turn the room lights off.

So which of the many ALR screens is right for you? Included in this survey are eleven popular ALR screens from eight manufacturers, listed in the contents box to the left. All of these screens give you that "huge flat panel TV" look in a room with ambient light. But they differ in many ways including contrast, optimal viewing angles, image artifacts, mounting options, and assembly/installation issues. We will explore these differences in this article.

How We Tested the Screens

Since these screens are designed for use in ambient light, we evaluated their performance two ways. First we used window light illumination from the side, then we added low-wattage ceiling mounted floods placed above the screens and directed downward. The tests were done in a room with large, north-facing picture windows along one wall. All measurements were taken at mid-day when diffused light from the north sky was at its brightest. The brightest concentration of incoming light from the windows was striking the screens at a 50 degree angle from center. In addition, the test room has white walls, carpet, and ceiling, so there was plenty of soft indirect reflected ambient light in the environment. In short, this room might be typical of a well-lit residential multipurpose room that you'd want to use for TV viewing or gaming during daylight hours.

After taking luminance, contrast, and half gain measurements under the window light conditions, we added four 20-watt ceiling mounted floods to see how additional light from above the screens would further impact contrast, black levels, and saturation. This light from above was directed onto the screens at a 30 degree angle. This was intended as a torture test to see how the screens respond to light from above. (Hopefully nobody would intentionally direct floods onto a projection screen in a real installation.)

Throughout these tests we used an Epson Home Cinema 1440, a native 1080p projector designed for ambient light use. We set it to Bright Cinema mode so it was putting out 2800 ANSI lumens. The throw distance was 10 feet, and the image width was 80", so the throw distance ratio was 1.5x the screen width. This is the minimum throw distance required to get the best performance from an ALR screen.

Note on the Screen Selection

We've got eleven screens in this review, but there are many more ALR screens on the market than just these. In order to make the review manageable we limited this group to products with low to modestly positive gain ratings in the range of 0.8 to 1.4. This of course does not cover all of the ALR screens in this gain range. And there are obviously a number of ALR screens with gains of 1.5 and up.

If you find this review has been helpful to you, I would be happy to hear your suggestions on additional screens to include in further group reviews of this kind. Please take a moment to drop me your thoughts in the comments box below.

Thanks kindly for your interest,

Evan Powell
Editor


Relative Contrast in Ambient Light

We powered up the Epson 1440 projector and used an ANSI checkerboard test pattern and a Minolta LS100 spot meter to determine effective contrast at center screen as viewed when standing directly in front of the screen, technically known as the zero degree viewing axis. With this particular projector in this ambient light environment at mid-day, contrast measured 10:1 on a neutral white test board. We then measured each screen under these same conditions to see how they compared in relative contrast. There is nothing absolute about these contrast numbers -- they simply indicate the comparative contrast performance of each screen under this particular set of conditions. Not surprisingly, each of the ALR screens in this review measured much higher in contrast than the neutral white test board. The effective contrast readings were as follows:


Contrast Test 1

Side Illumination -- Window Light Only

(ambient light from north facing windows
on one side of room; primary concentration of light
striking screens at 50 degrees from center)

SCREEN
Effective Contrast**
Seymour Matinee Black
36:1
SI Black Diamond 1.4
30:1
SI Zero Edge Slate
29:1
Elite DarkStar
27:1
Elite EPV PolarStar
27:1
Stewart Firehawk G4
25:1
Draper TecVision MS1000X
23:1
Elite EPV DarkStar 9
20:1
Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
18:1
Da-Lite Parallax 0.8
17:1
DNP Supernova
16:1
Neutral White Board
10:1
** For comparative purposes only. These ratios show how the screens responded to this particular ambient light condition with this particular projector. They are not related in any way to screen specifications.


Contrast Test 2

Side Window Light and Ceiling Floods

(Ambient light includes both side window light
and four 20W ceiling floods above the screens)

SCREEN
Effective Contrast**
Elite DarkStar
22:1
SI Black Diamond 1.4
21:1
Seymour Matinee Black
19:1
Elite EPV PolarStar
17:1
Elite EPV DarkStar 9
17:1
Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
16:1
SI Zero Edge Slate
16:1
Stewart Firehawk G4
12:1
Da-Lite Parallax 0.8
12:1
DNP Supernova
12:1
Draper TecVision MS1000X
11:1
Neutral White Board
7:1
** For comparative purposes only. These ratios show how the screens responded to this particular ambient light condition with this particular projector. They are not related in any way to screen specifications.


Viewing Angles and Half Gain Angles

Contrast as viewed from the center position is only one of several factors that contribute to image quality and screen functionality. A second vital factor to consider is the viewing angle -- what does the picture look like when viewed from a position other than dead center zero degree viewing axis? These eleven screens behave quite differently in this regard. Some quickly get dim the moment you move away from a center viewing position and others remain remarkably bright even when viewed from an extreme side angle.

The statistical measurement used to quantify this phenomenon is the half gain angle. This is the angle at which the center of the picture appears to be half as bright as it does when viewed along the zero degree viewing axis. A screen with a small, narrow half gain angle will look bright at dead center, then quickly become dim as you move to the side. Conversely a screen with a large, wide half gain angle will continue to look reasonably bright as you move away from center.

On ambient light rejection screens in particular, not only does the screen begin to dim when you move to the side away from center, but the brightness uniformity degrades as well. When you view from the position of the half gain angle, the center of the screen is half as bright, but the far side of the screen is much dimmer than the near side. This is about as bad as you'd want it to get, so viewing at an angle greater than the half gain angle is considered to be unacceptable from an image quality perspective.

On spec sheets and in promotional literature, vendors often use the technical term viewing angle instead of half gain angle. The viewing angle is double the half gain angle. Why? If a screen has a 30 degree half gain angle it will look half as bright as it does when viewed from the center position if you move either 30 degrees to the left or 30 degrees to the right. So the total "viewing angle" is considered to be 60 degrees.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about wide or narrow viewing angles, but it means that you need to choose a screen that will meet the needs of your anticipated audience -- If you have a small viewing room with two or three seats placed in front of the screen near the zero degree viewing axis, a screen with a narrow viewing angle will be just fine. On the other hand, if you expect people to be viewing from very wide angles, you will need a screen that will give them a bright and relatively uniform picture when seen from the sides--that is, a screen with a very large, wide viewing angle.

In our ambient light mid-day set up, we put our spot meter on the center of each screen when viewed at zero degree axis, and then moved to the side toward the direction of the incoming ambient light to find the angle at which the meter was reading half the amount of light it was at dead center. To avoid confusion, we give you both the half gain angle and viewing angle for each of the screens in this review:

Screen
Half Angle**
Viewing Angle**
Da-lite Parallax
85
170
DNP Supernova
85
170
Elite EVP DarkStar 9
85
170
Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
70
140
Draper MS1000X
32
64
Stewart Firehawk G4
32
64
Elite DarkStar
30
60
Elite EPV PolarStar
30
60
SI Black Diamond 1.4
30
60
SI Zero Edge Slate
23
46
Seymour Matinee Black
16
32
** For comparative purposes only. These ratios show how the screens responded to this particular ambient light condition with this particular projector. They may or may not match official screen specifications.

Vertical Half Gain Angles

Not only do screens begin to lose brightness and uniformity when you move sideways from the center viewing axis, they typically lose brightness and uniformity if you move up or down and look at them from either above or below the center neutral position. This phenomenon is measured by the concept of the vertical half gain angle, which is the angle above or below the center neutral viewing axis at which the picture looks half as bright as it does at the center position.

A screen with a narrow vertical half gain angle will require precise placement of the projector at an angle exactly complementary to the vertical viewing angle of the audience. Slight deviations from this angle may introduce vignetting, uniformity, and brightness issues. A screen with a wider vertical half gain angle will allow more latitude in the vertical positioning of the projector relative to the audience.

The screens in this review measured the following vertical half gain angles under the ambient light conditions used for the Contrast Test 1:

Screen
Vertical Half Angle**
Stewart Firehawk G4
40
Draper MS1000X
35
SI Zero Edge Slate 1.2
26
Seymour Matinee Black
23
Elite DarkStar
20
SI Black Diamond 1.4
20
Da-lite Parallax
18
Elite EPV PolarStar
18
Elite EPV DarkStar 9
18
DNP Supernova
17
Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
15
** For comparative purposes only. These ratios show how the screens responded to this particular ambient light condition with this particular projector. They are not official screen specifications.



Relative Black Levels

Given the particular projector and ambient light conditions, the eleven screens in this review produced noticeably different effective black levels. Deeper blacks give the image more snap and sparkle, and you tend to get better color saturation along with it.

However, the perception of black varies greatly depending on the angle of view. Screens with narrow viewing angles may have a clear advantage at the zero degree viewing axis, but lose it rapidly as you move to the side.

An ALR screen's ability to hold deep blacks also varies based on the direction of the ambient light. For example, in these tests the Stewart Firehawk G4 did quite well in holding blacks when ambient light was coming from the side but lost its solid blacks when ambient light above the screen was introduced.


Black Level Test 1
Side Illumination -- Window Light Only

(ambient light from north facing windows
on one side of room; primary concentration of light
striking screens at 50 degrees from center)

SCREEN
Measured Black (fL)
(zero degree axis)
Seymour Matinee Black
3.1
Draper TecVision MS1000X
3.6
SI Black Diamond 1.4
3.7
Stewart Firehawk G4
4.1
SI Zero Edge Slate
4.3
Elite DarkStar
4.6
Elite EPV PolarStar
4.6
Elite EPV DarkStar 9
4.7
DNP Supernova
5.2
Da-Lite Parallax 0.8
5.7
Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
6.4


Black Level Test 2
Side Window Light and Ceiling Floods

(Ambient light includes both side window light
and ceiling floods above the screens)

SCREEN
Measured Black (fL)
(zero degree axis)
SI Black Diamond 1.4
5.4
Elite EPV DarkStar 9
5.6
Seymour Matinee Black
5.8
Elite DarkStar
5.9
DNP Supernova
6.3
Da-Lite Parallax 0.8
6.7
Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
7.7
Draper TecVision MS1000X
7.8
Elite EPV PolarStar
7.9
SI Zero Edge Slate
7.9
Stewart Firehawk G4
8.1



Peak Gain and Relative Luminance

The eleven screens in this review vary in their rated gain specs from 0.8 to 1.4. In general, the higher the gain rating, the brighter a screen image will be for any given projector when viewed from the center, zero degree viewing axis. Since a higher gain screen is focusing more light directly back toward the center viewing position (thus making the picture appear brighter from that position), it is often true that the higher gain screen will have a more narrow viewing angle. So higher gain is not always desirable. If you need a brighter picture, your best solution might be to go with a low gain screen and a brighter projector.

For this test we measured the actual luminance at the center of a 100 IRE white pattern for each screen in order to have an exact measure of their relative brightness when viewed from the center position. The results from brightest to least bright are as follows:

Screen
Rated Gain
Measured Relative
Luminance (fL)
Elite DarkStar
1.4
146
SI Zero Edge Slate
1.2
146
SI Black Diamond 1.4
1.4
142
Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
1.2
140
Seymour Matinee Black
1.4
135
Elite EPV PolarStar
1.3
125
Stewart Firehawk G4
1.1
110
Draper MS1000X
1.0
98
Elite EPV DarkStar 9
0.9
98
DNP Supernova
0.8
95
Da-Lite Parallax 0.8
0.8
92

For the most part, the vendors' rated peak gain specifications had a general correspondence to the screens' relative brightness. The two exceptions were the SI Zero Edge Slate and Microlite Black Crystal 1.2. Both of these screens have a gain rating of 1.2, but in these ambient light conditions they appeared as bright from the center viewing position as competing products with 1.4 gain ratings.


Image Texture/Grain Artifacts

Most ALR screens introduce some degree of visible texture into the image that does not come from the projector. Typically it looks like the fine grain in a photograph taken on high ISO film, or the noise in a digital photograph taken at a high ISO setting. It has a visible effect not unlike the screendoor effect on low resolution projectors. Quite often this grainy texture is not noticeable in scenes where the camera is not panning, but it becomes visible in a scene where the camera pans across a sky, or white clouds, or the surface of a polished red Ferrari -- essentially, any element in the picture with no texture in itself that would mask the artifact. Since this texture artifact is stationary the camera panning makes it visible by making it appear as if the image is moving behind an almost invisible veil.

The ALR screens in this review vary in their tendency to impart these grainy texture artifacts. They can be grouped as follows:

1. No texture. The Da-Lite Parallax 0.8 and the DNP Supernova show no visible texture at all. As a result, these two screens have the greatest clarity, producing pictures that are as clean as if they were being displayed on conventional high resolution home theater screens.

2. Almost no texture. The Elite EPV DarkStar 9 and EPV PolarStar stand in a class by themselves. Unlike the Da-lite and DNP, they do manifest some subtle grain on occasion, but it is noticeably less so than any of the remaining products in the review.

3. Modest visible texture. Most of the ALR screens fall into this category. These include the following:

  • Elite DarkStar
  • Microlite Black Crystal 1.2
  • Screen Innovations Slate 1.2
  • Screen Innovations Black Diamond 1.4
  • Seymour Matinee Black
  • Stewart Firehawk G4.

On all of these screens you will typically see some texture and graininess in panning scenes. On occasion there will also be slightly visible texture in stationary subject matter that has no texture in itself, such as a bright blue empty sky. Within this subset of screens there is no practical reason to rank them as better or worse than one another since they are all similar in terms of texture artifacts.

4. Moderate visible texture. The Draper TecVision MS1000X has some attractive advantages, but low visible texture is not one of them. Within this group of eleven products, it stands out as having more noticeable graininess than the others.




Color Biases

The eleven screens in this review vary to some degree in their latent color biases. Some are close to neutral while others tend to skew toward a cooler picture, producing crisper "whiter" whites. However, the color temperature and direction of the ambient light tends to have more of an effect on the ultimate result than any particular screen's bias. North-facing windows will introduce more blue ambient light than will incandescent lamps. The interior color of walls, carpets, furniture can also bias the color of the ambient light. So no matter what the inherent color bias of the screen itself may be, if one wants as close to neutral color balance in the image as possible, the environmental factors would need to be calibrated out on the projector by a professional installer (assuming the environmental factors are constant).

At the end of the day, none of these eleven screens are so biased that one would choose one over another based on color bias instead of the more consequential performance variables of contrast, black levels, viewing angles and visible/texture artifacts. On each of these performance factors ALR screens differ substantially. Since color attributes in any given installation can be largely corrected with projector calibration, the latent color bias of any particular screen is the least important factor to consider in selecting an ALR screen.

Da-Lite Parallax 0.8

The Da-lite Parallax 0.8 stood out as outstanding in this group in two particulars -- clarity of the image, and extremely wide viewing angle. Unlike most other ALR screens, the Parallax 0.8 shows absolutely no visible texture or shimmer. As far as image clarity is concerned, nothing beats it. It is tied with the DNP Supernova and surpasses all others.

Similarly, the viewing angle of 170 degrees is extremely wide. It is tied with the DNP Supernova and the EPV DarkStar9 on this attribute, but surpasses all others. The Parallax 0.8 is an excellent choice for any application in which you need to have the image highly visible across a wide viewing space.

At 0.8 gain, the Parallax is among the least bright of the eleven, but only when viewed from the center position. If you need a bright picture when viewed from the center you will need to use a brighter projector than you'd need with some of the higher gain competition. However, as you move away from the center viewing position, the Parallax will be brighter and more uniform than most of its competitors due to its extreme half gain angle. If you want the best of both worlds, a very bright picture at the center as well as from all angles, use the Parallax with a high lumen projector.

The most notable limitation of the Parallax 0.8 is that, in our side illumination test, it came in lower in contrast and color saturation compared to most of its competitors when viewed from the center. In any given ambient light situation with any given projector, black levels are not as deep and color saturation is not as rich as it would be on most other ALR screens in this review. This is another attribute that the Parallax 0.8 shares in common with the DNP Supernova. These two screens show almost identical properties in ambient light rejection, both from the side and from the top. They look extremely similar in black levels and saturation.

So the Parallax offers a trade-off -- it gives you the benefits of zero texture artifacts, a very clean picture, and an extremely wide viewing angle, in exchange for lower contrast and saturation at center axis. Having said that, it is important to keep in mind that in relatively low ambient light environments, you may be able to offset the contrast and saturation limitations on the Parallax by using a very high contrast projector, thereby ending up with the best overall solution for your particular needs. The Epson Home Cinema 1440 that we used as a source projector for these tests is bright but not as high in contrast as conventional home theater projectors. It works fine with ALR screens that have a better ability to amplify contrast in ambient light, but on the Parallax the picture looks comparatively flat. Choosing a higher contrast projector with this screen will help neutralize the problem as long as ambient light is minimized.

The Da-Lite Parallax comes in a fixed frame option only -- not motorized retractable or zero edge styles are available. The frame and screen are relatively easy to assemble, and the end product is light weight and easy to handle for mounting.

DNP Supernova 08-85

The DNP Supernova 08-85 is the only screen in this group of eleven that matches the Da-Lite Parallax in image clarity and extremely wide viewing angle. Unlike most other ALR screens, the Supernova shows absolutely no visible texture or shimmer. As far as image clarity is concerned, it is tied with the Da-Lite Parallax and surpasses all others.

Similarly, the viewing angle of 170 degrees is extremely wide. The Da-lite Parallax and EPB DarkStar 9 also have equally super-wide viewing angles, but these three screens beat all the others in this regard. The Supernova is an excellent choice for any application in which you need to have the image highly visible across a wide viewing space.

At 0.8 gain, the Supernova is among the least bright of the eleven, but only when viewed from the center position. If you need a bright picture when viewed from the center you may need to use a brighter projector with the Supernova than you'd need with the higher gain competition. However, when viewed from wide angle positions the Supernova will be brighter and more uniform than most of its competitors due to its extreme half gain angle. If you want the best of both worlds, an image that is both bright at the center as well as from all viewing angles, use the Supernova with a high lumen projector.

The most notable limitation of the Supernova is that it is low in contrast and color saturation compared to the other screens in this review -- it measured 16:1 contrast in the side illumination test, which was the lowest reading among the eleven, and just below the Da-Lite Parallax at 17:1. In any given ambient light situation with any given projector, black levels will not be as deep and color saturation is not as rich on either of these screens as they are on other ALR screens in this review. These two screens show almost identical properties in ambient light rejection, both from the side and from the top.

Like the Parallax, the DNP Supernova offers a trade-off that some buyers will find attractive and others will not -- it gives you the benefits of a clean picture with zero texture artifacts and an extremely wide viewing angle, in exchange for lower contrast and saturation. The good news is that in relatively low ambient light environments, you may be able to offset the contrast and saturation limitations on these screens by using a high contrast projector, thereby ending up with the best overall solution for your particular needs.

For this review, DNP submitted their Supernova One frame and ISF Certified 08-85 screen material. The Supernova One is a completely rigid product (the only one in this review). The screen material is permanently laminated to an aluminum backing plate and given a hard-surface coating to prevent damage. Since you don't need to assemble it, installation consists of simply unpacking it, putting up the wall plates and hanging the screen.

Since it comes fully assembled, it may be difficult to install if you need to get it up flights of stairs or maneuver through tight corridors and doorways. The aluminum backing plate adds significant weight (a 100" diagonal Supernova One weighs in at 40 pounds, about double the weigh of an assembled Parallax), but it also eliminates the chance that the screen will ever distort or ripple.

If this pre-assembled rigid structure sounds like it's not for you, DNP provides other mounting options in the Supernova series including a traditional fixed-frame (Supernova Core) that you assemble at home, a motorized retractable version (Supernova Flex), as well as a modular rigid-panel system (Supernova Infinity) that gives you the performance of a completely rigid screen in a form factor that's easier to maneuver through your home.

Draper TecVision MS1000X

Draper has been in business for over 100 years. The company introduced its first screen product in 1957, so they are one of the oldest and most established screen makers in the world. Draper has a huge array of mounting/installation options to accommodate their many screen fabrics, many of which are ISF certified.

For this review Draper submitted their TecVision MS1000X Grey screen along with their Clarion frame with a 2" velvet border, which is only one of several options for this material. The MS1000X is a 1.0 gain gray screen with a moderate viewing angle.

The MS1000X falls sort of middle of the road compared to the other ALR materials in this group. At 1.0 gain it is not the brightest of the group at center viewing position. And we measured its effective viewing angle in our ambient light environment at 64 degrees. That is about double what you get from the screen with the narrowest angle, but it does not have the advantage of maintaining brightness across a extremely wide viewing angle as the Da-Lite Parallax and DNP Supernova screens do.

Contrast on the MS1000X is average in this group of eleven. It measured 23:1 compared to the low of 16:1 and the high of 36:1. The picture shows good color saturation and accuracy (it is ISF-certified for color accuracy). It also showed very good black level in the test with ambient light coming from the side, edging out the SI Black Diamond for its position as one of the top three screens in the review for this black level test. On the other hand it did not do as well as the Black Diamond with ambient light coming from above, and in fact was the lowest contrast screen when dealing with light from above.

The most problematic aspect of the MS1000X's performance was a very noticeable texture in the image, looking like ever-present fine grain. It is visible even when the camera is not panning, but becomes particularly obvious when it pans over non-textured subjects. Of the screens in this review the MS1000X stands alone as having the most noticeable texture artifacts.

One of the benefits of the MS1000X is that its price is likely to be much lower than the most expensive ALR screens in this review. Since prices vary by screen size, mounting options and shipping/installation costs, it is impossible to provide meaningful price comparisons. We would avoid the MS1000X if we had ambient light coming from above the screen, but with side illumination only it produces a very acceptable image. In low ambient light, matching it with a high contrast projector can give it an extra boost. Under these conditions if we were looking for the most cost-effective ALR options, we'd make sure to get a quote on this one.

Elite DarkStar

Elite Screens has three products in this review -- the 1.4 gain DarkStar, the 1.3 gain EPV PolarStar, and the 0.9 gain EPV DarkStar9, the latter two being marketed by their Elite Prime Vision division.

The Elite DarkStar is a formidable competitor. It scored first place honors in the contrast test with both side light and ceiling floods, measuring 22:1 while all other products came in with lower readings. It edged out the SI Black Diamond at 21:1, making it the strongest ALR screen for combating light from above.

In the first contrast test with side illumination only, it did not do quite as well, but it measured a very respectable 27:1 against a maximum of 36:1 and a minimum of 16:1. So overall, it is one of the stronger ALR screens as far as defeating ambient light from multiple directions is concerned.

The DarkStar tied for first place with the Screen Innovations Zero Edge Slate as the brightest screens in the review, although several competing screens were very close. Nevertheless, being one of the brightest of the screens in this group means you may not need to spend extra money for a higher lumen projector to meet your overall image brightness requirements -- assuming it is viewed from very near the zero degree viewing axis.

The DarkStar has a moderate viewing angle of 60 degrees which gives you a bit more latitude in seating than, say, the Seymour. But it does not have the extreme latitude of the DarkStar 9, and once you move away from center axis the picture begins to fade and lose uniformity. So the ideal deployment of this screen is for installations in which most viewing takes place not too far from the center position.

The DarkStar's 20 degree vertical half angle is fairly restrictive although not quite as tight as some. It equals the Black Diamond on this attribute, and care should be taken to position the projector carefully relative to the screen angle and position the audience for optimum results.

In terms of image texture artifacts, the DarkStar show minor to modest texture, typically most visible when the camera is panning. In this regard it is equally competitive with most of the ALR screens including the SI Black Diamond and the Stewart Firehawk.

Bottom line, when ambient light strikes from above, the DarkStar repels it better than any of them and retains a comparatively solid black level. It is the brightest of the eleven when viewed from center position. If you don't need the extremely wide viewing angle of its sister product the DarkStar 9, it should be on your short list to price out. Our guess is that once you price it out in the size and frame configuration you desire, you'll find it is exceptionally competitive.

Elite Prime Vision DarkStar 9

The EPV DarkStar 9 is one of three screens in this review that offer a maximally wide viewing angle, the others being the Da-Lite Parallax and the DNP Supernova. For all practical purposes you can view any of these screens from any angle without serious degradation of the image.

So what are the differences between them? First, the DarkStar 9 offers a contrast advantage against the Da-lite and DNP. In the first contrast test with side light only, the DarkStar 9 registered 20:1 compared to 17:1 for the Da-lite and 16:1 for the DNP. That difference in contrast is certainly visible. But beyond that, the DarkStar 9's advantage in contrast grew when the ceiling floods were turned on -- in that test the DarkStar9 didn't lose much contrast at all, reading 17:1 by holding an excellent black level (second only to the SI Black Diamond in this test). Meanwhile the Da-lite and DNP both fell to 12:1. So if you want the highest contrast of the super-wide viewing angle screens, the DarkStar9 should be on your short list.

The second difference is that the DarkStar9 manifests an extremely low level of texture artifacts. It is not perfectly free of artifacts as the Da-lite and DNP are, but it shows noticeably less texture than any of the other screens in this review. As far as trade-offs go, our guess is that most viewers would accept the occasional minor texture in order to gain the contrast advantage of the DarkStar 9.

In terms of vertical half angles, the DarkStar9, the Da-lite and DNP all measured a rather restrictive 18 degrees -- not the worst in this review, but not far from it. So, no difference between the three in this regard. Similarly, these three screens are the least bright among the nine when viewed at center position, which is the typical price you pay for maximum wide angle performance.

In short, the Elite EPV DarkStar 9 is definitely competitive in its niche, with the key advantage being the best contrast performance in high ambient light of all the ALR screens that offer maximally wide viewing angles.

Elite Prime Vision PolarStar

The EPV PolarStar has one commanding feature that no other ALR screen in this review has -- it has a Silver-Gray surface that polarizes light, a feature you need if you want to set up a passive 3D video system. The advantages of passive 3D include simple, lightweight glasses that don't need batteries, and usually cleaner pictures with no crosstalk artifacts. You lose resolution compared to active 3D, but with the new 4K revolution, it's a non-issue. For those who want to go passive 3D, the EPV PolarStar is an excellent choice.

The other key advantage of the PolarStar is that, like the EPV DarkStar9, it shows very subtle texture, quite minor compared to the rest of the ALR screens in this group that show texture/graininess/noise artifacts.

Beyond these two unique performance elements, the PolarStar is a reasonably solid performer that does not stand out in any particular way. In the Side Illumination contrast test it registered a very respectable 27:1, just behind the Black Diamond at 30:1, and far higher than the low of 16:1 in this test. With the ceiling floods added to the ambient light mix, the PolarStar measured 17:1 contrast which is middle of the pack in a range that ran from a low of 11:1 to a high of 22:1. So in the competitive mix it did quite well with ambient light from the side, but did not maintain its edge when overhead light was introduced. Similarly, black levels were reasonably good with ambient side light, but they fell off when the overhead lights were turned on.

The PolarStar's viewing angle in our ambient light environment was 60 degrees, again about middle of the pack. So it does not have the extreme viewing angles of its sister product the EPV DarkStar 9, but like the Stewart Firehawk it offers more latitude than several others with very narrow viewing angles.

In terms of relative luminance, it measured 125 fL against a maximum of 146 and a minimum of 92 in the group, consistent with its gain rating of 1.3

Probably the weakest parameter was a measured vertical half gain angle of 18 degrees which was close to the low of 15. So take care in the vertical positioning of the projector and screen relative to the position of the audience.

In our view, the EPV PolarStar is an excellent choice if you need a polarized ALR screen to support a passive 3D system. But passive 3D support is its sole competitive advantage. If you are not going to use this feature, the PolarStar is still a very good all around ALR screen with a cleaner, more artifact free picture than most of the other screens in this group. But it can be outperformed in contrast by some competitors and in viewing angles by others, each of which have their own set of limitations. So the trade-offs need to be carefully evaluated to determine which products would be the best fit for any given viewing environment.

Microlite Black Crystal 1.2

The new Microlite Black Crystal 1.2 has an extremely unique combination of advantages -- it is one of the brightest screens in the group and it has an extremely wide viewing angle of 140 degrees. That is hugely unexpected. There are only three screens that exceed the Microlite's viewing angle -- the Da-lite Parallax, the DNP Supernova, and the Elite EVP DarkStar 9. But the Microlite Black Crystal 1.2 is brighter than all of them by at least 40%. So for any given installation, if you need the Epson 1440's 2800 lumens to get the level of brightness you want on these competing screens, you could opt for a higher contrast 2000 lumen home theater projector and the Microlite Black Crystal to achieve the same image brightness.

This might actually make a real difference in many cases because the Black Crystal is a rather low contrast screen. In our first contrast with side illumination, it produced a contrast reading of 18:1, or almost the lowest in the group which ranged from 16:1 to 36:1. It also registered the worst black level in this test. Once the overhead ceiling floods were turned on, the Black Crystal's performance improved to about middle of the pack, giving us a 16:1 reading compared to the worst at 11:1 and the best at 22:1.

However, since contrast and black level are not the Black Crystal's strongest attributes, you may be able to take advantage of its latent brightness by matching it with a lower lumen, higher contrast projector home theater projector to offset the limitations in contrast and black level. There are practical limitations to this of course. You would not want to pursue this if ambient light conditions are high as the light will overcome the projector's contrast advantage. But with relatively low levels of ambient light, a high contrast projector matched with the Microlite Black Crystal will give you a bright picture with very pleasing contrast and an extremely wide viewing angle -- something no other screen in this review can deliver with quite the same effect.

In terms of texture artifacts, the Microlite falls into the average category, typical of most ALR screens. Texture is relatively minor with no camera panning, and it becomes more visible during camera panning sequences. But it is, on the whole, similar to the SI Black Diamond and Stewart Firehawk, so there is nothing unique to complain about here.

One note of caution is that the Black Crystal, while having one of the widest horizontal viewing angles in the group, also has the narrowest vertical half angle. So installation needs to be precise. Ideally, the projector will be placed behind the audience and projecting just above their heads so that the angle of incidence and angle of reflection are minimized.

The Microlite Black Crystal 1.2 is likely to be one of the less pricey ALR screen options once you get it configured as you want it. So if you need its combination of extreme viewing angle and brightness and you can match it with a high contrast projector, you may end up with the most cost effective solution for your particular needs.

Screen Innovations Black Diamond 1.4

The SI Black Diamond screens have been hugely successful in the ALR space, and despite a flood of new competitors they remain strong. The 1.4 gain version included in this review performed exceptionally well on contrast, black levels and color saturation. In the first contrast test with ambient light from the side windows it scored 30:1, besting all other screens in the review except the Seymour at 36:1. When the ceiling floods were added it gave us a contrast of 21:1, almost a tie with the first place Elite DarkStar at 22:1. Meanwhile, the Seymour hung in there with a very solid 19:1. Moreover, The Black Diamond gave us the deepest black level in the Windows + Ceiling Floods test, and a very solid third place in black levels when ambient light was from the side only. Overall, for the defeat of ambient light no matter where it comes from, the Black Diamond 1.4 is at the top of the pack, duking it out with the Seymour Matinee Black.

In other respects the Black Diamond 1.4 shows very good but not uniquely exceptional performance. It has a respectable viewing angle of 60 degrees which is middle of the pack -- not nearly the super wide angle performance of a few of the lower gain models, but much more accommodating than the Seymour at a very restrictive 32 degrees. This screen will work as long as you don't have too much viewing going on from exaggerated angles.

It is quite bright overall, giving a luminance reading of 142 compared to the brightest reading of the eleven which was 146. (Keep in mind these luminance readings are relevant only for comparative purposes, and relate only to the projector and ambient light environment in our test room.)

With respect to visible texture artifacts, the Black Diamond 1.4 is in the "typical" category with many of its ALR competitors. It shows a modest graininess that tends not to be visible until the camera starts to pan over subject matter that has no texture. So it does not have the natural clarity of the Da-lite Parallax or the DNP Supernova, but it is higher in contrast and deeper in black levels compared to either of them, so you get more image depth and snap with the Black Diamond in exchange for some occasional texture artifacts.

The Black Diamond's weakest aspect in our testing was its relatively slim vertical half angle, which measured 20 degrees. Five screens in the group measured worse than this in the 15 to 18 degree range, but the Black Diamond clearly does not have the vertical latitude of the Stewart Firehawk at 40 degrees or the Draper MS1000X at 35. On the other hand, for many users this is the easiest limitation to work around. If you are one of them, this may be a limitation of little consequence.

In the end, the Screen Innovations Black Diamond 1.4 puts in a solid performance and holds its own despite the array of new competitors lined up against it. On the essential function of being able to defeat ambient light and maintain contrast it is among the best with the Seymour Matinee Black being its chief rival. The Black Diamond is not known for being the cheapest of the ALR screen options out there. But if the array of performance attributes that the SI Black Diamond can deliver meets your requirements, you'd be seriously remiss in not pricing out the configuration you are looking for.

Screen Innovations Zero Edge Slate 1.2

In our ambient light conditions the SI Zero Edge Slate 1.2 ties with the Elite DarkStar as the two brightest screens of the eleven in this group. This is unexpected due to its gain rating of 1.2. With a luminance reading of 146 fL it is also slightly brighter than the 1.4 gain Black Diamond, which measured 142.

In the first contrast test with side illuminating window light only, the Slate turned in a solid contrast reading of 29:1, almost tied with the Black Diamond at 30:1. So both of these Screen Innovations products ended up in the top 3 in their ability to defeat ambient light from the side. However, once the ceiling floods were turned on, the Black Diamond was able to hold its contrast more effectively than the Slate. In this second test the Black Diamond registered 21:1, almost tied for first place, while the Slate delivered 16:1, a reading that was middle of the pack in a total range between 11:1 and 22:1.

The reason for the Slate's drop in contrast when overhead ambient light was introduced was its inability to hold black as effectively as the Black Diamond. The Slate measured a black luminance of 7.9 fL (the second worst of the eleven) compared to the Black Diamond's first place reading of 5.4.

The Zero Edge Slate also gave us the second narrowest viewing angle of the eleven, at 46 degrees. Only the Seymour's extremely tight 32 degree viewing angle was more restricted. This means that as you move away from the center viewing position the Slate will lose its luminance and uniformity fairly rapidly in comparison to most of its competitors. However, when viewed at center position it tied for first as the brightest image.

The Slate's vertical half angle of 26 degrees was better than most, allowing a bit more latitude in the vertical placement of the projector vis a vis the audience.

In terms of texture and graininess, the Slate matched the Black Diamond and several others in the "modest texture" category.

Our test sample of the Zero Edge Slate came fully assembled with a back LED-lighting system. Its extremely thin edge frame and back lighting is certainly a great visual effect that will appeal to many buyers and it may be a good reason to opt for the Zero Edge Slate over competing products. However, since most vendors offer a variety of fixed and retractable mounting options and LED back-lighting systems can be acquired independently, we are limiting this review to issues pertaining to each screen's actual image performance characteristics rather than the mounting and presentation options.

In this evaluation the Zero Edge Slate performed at its best when viewed at or close to the zero degree viewing axis in situations where directional ambient light comes from the side rather than above. If this describes your anticipated viewing situation, we'd make sure to get a quote on the Slate, configured as you'd want it. However, the Slate is not quite as versatile as the SI Black Diamond which in our testing defeats ambient light from above more successfully. The Black Diamond also has a marginally wider viewing angle than the Slate, and will likely be the more accommodating solution for many random ambient light situations.

Seymour Matinee Black

The Seymour Matinee Black wins top honors for delivering the highest contrast measured in the Side Illumination tests -- a sparkling 36:1, handily beating the second place SI Black Diamond which measured 30:1. It achieved this by maintaining the deepest black levels in the group. And with excellent contrast and solid blacks comes excellent color saturation -- overall, the Seymour delivers an outstanding image produced by a very successful rejection of ambient light coming from the side.

And more good news ... the Matinee Black did not degrade much when the ceiling floods above the screen were turned on -- contrast dropped from 36:1 to 19:1, but under these terrible ambient light conditions it still ranked in the top three, being edged out just slightly by the Elite DarkStar at 22:1 and the Black Diamond at 21:1.

Moreover, it is among the brightest screens in the group, measuring 135 fL against a maximum of 146. So odds are reduced that you'd need to spend extra bucks for a brighter projector.

The Matinee Black shows modest texture artifacts, quite similar to the SI Black Diamond and the Stewart Firehawk. Though it does not have the pristine clarity of the Da-Lite Parallax or the DNP Supernova, it easily surpasses these competitors in contrast, black level and saturation. This helps the Matinee Black make up for the modest texture artifacts and produce the impression of a very clean, engaging image.

In terms of vertical half gain, it measured 23 degrees in our ambient light set up, which was about middle of the pack between a high of 40 and a low of 15. Thus it gives you a bit more room to negotiate the installation than some of its competitors.

The Matinee Black's only major weakness is a very narrow 32 degree viewing angle, which is by far the narrowest of the eleven in this group. Once you begin to move off axis, brightness uniformity degrades in a hurry. At a position just 16 degrees to the right or left, the picture's brightness has been cut in half, and the far side of the screen is half the brightness of the near side. So this is an excellent ALR screen as long as you can maintain a viewing position close to center axis.

The Seymour Matinee Black is available at very competitive prices, and it is light weight and easy to install. The bottom line is that if you can place the seats at or near the zero degree axis and your ambient light is coming from the side, it will outperform the other screens in this review. Even with ambient light from the ceiling it does an admirable job. But with a tiny 32 degree viewing angle it rapidly becomes a poor choice if your objective is to provide a good viewing experience from anywhere other than close to the zero degree viewing axis.

Stewart FireHawk G4

The Stewart Filmscreen FireHawk series has been in the Stewart product line for a long time and the G4 is its fourth edition. The G4 has lower peak gain, a wider half-gain angle, and less sparkle and texture than the earlier G3. It is rated at 1.1 gain, and in the luminance test it registered 110 fL, which is middle of the pack in this group -- that is exactly where it should be since the competitors range in gain from 0.8 to 1.4.

In our first contrast test with side illumination only, the Firehawk measured 25:1, which is much better than some and not as good as the best, with the range being a low of 16:1 to a high of 36:1. In this lighting situation black level was very good, one of the top four, and showing black levels almost identical to the SI Black Diamond and Zero Edge Slate.

The Firehawk did not do as well once ambient light from the ceiling floods was turned on. Contrast fell to 12:1, on par with the Da-lite Parallax and DNP Supernova, and just edging out the Draper MS1000X at 11:1, the lowest reading in the group. Relatively speaking, the Firehawk is better at defeating side light that light from above.

It registered a viewing angle of 64 degrees, close to its rating of 70. Again, this is middle of the pack -- it provides a much wider viewing angle than some of the competing screens which measure as low as 32 degrees, but there are four in the group that have extremely wide half gain angles and may be more suitable for applications where good visibility from the sides is required.

The Firehawk G4 came in first place in the vertical half gain category, measuring 40 degrees. The Draper MS1000X was almost as good at 35 degrees, but the other nine screens in this review were much more restricted, with vertical half gains between 15 and 26 degrees. Using the Firehawk, one has much more latitude in the vertical placement of the projector without worrying about a compromise of brightness or uniformity.

As far as visible texture and graininess are concerned, the Firehawk was on par with the Black Diamond and other screens in the "modest texture" group. Texture is largely invisible when the camera is not panning, but can become noticeable once it pans across subject matter with no texture of its own to mask the artifact.

The FireHawk G4 comes with simple assembly instructions, but putting it together is so simple that you probably won't need them. The screen material attaches to the frame with snaps which are already fixed in place on the frame and screen material, so you just match them up and click them into place. Of all the screens in this review that don't come preassembled, this one is the easiest to put together.

Stewart first introduced the Firehawk long before "ambient light rejection" screens were a thing. Historically it has been used to deepen black levels and improve contrast on digital projectors that never had the contrast and depth of CRTs, and it continues to serve that purpose very well. This screen belongs in a home theater setting with low levels of ambient light. It will certainly improve image contrast in a modestly-lit room where there may be a low-wattage side lamp, and where there are lighter colored walls, drapes, and furnishings that will produce low levels of reflected ambient light. This type of room is common for many who want to have a home theater experience that is mostly dark, but don't want to go to the extremes of blacking out the room as if it were a commercial movie theater.

However, the test environment we used for this evaluation had much brighter ambient light conditions than a darkened "lights off" multipurpose living room would have. In this high level of light some of the competing ALR screens in this review showed higher overall contrast and better results. In the end, the right ALR screen for you depends entirely on the ambient light conditions you are dealing with, and what viewing angles you need to accommodate.


(06/25/19 - 09:42 AM PST)
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