EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been expanded and updated to include eleven current models of ALR screens. Please click here for the new review.) 3/03/16

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In recent years, projectors have made their way out of the darkened home theater environment and into the living room and family room. But one of the downsides of this move is that, in living rooms and dens across the world, it is often difficult to control ambient light. Errant light, whether from windows, lightbulbs, or white walls, can be the death knell for contrast and an engaging, three-dimensional image.

As such, all players in the projector game have been busy working on ways to combat ambient light. Projector manufacturers have made brighter projectors, while screen manufacturers have been busy creating screens that enhance contrast and reject ambient light. This shootout features three such products from Elite Screens, Screen Innovations, and newcomer Microlite. Through different applications of ambient light rejection (ALR) technology, each manufacturer has created a compelling product that can give you a sparkling, high contrast picture in any room of your home.

What is Ambient Light Rejection?

To understand how an ALR screen is different from a regular screen, we need a quick physics lesson. Most surfaces reflect incoming light in all directions more or less equally. That's why you can look at a painting, for example, then take three steps to one side and see the same painting. These surfaces are called diffuse reflectors. The surfaces that we typically think of as "reflective," like mirrors, are called specular reflectors - they reflect light at an angle precisely opposite the one at which that light arrived.

All projector screens are diffuse reflectors to some degree. Some, like the Stewart Studiotek 100, are nearly perfect diffuse reflectors. Other screens are partially diffuse and partially specular - they reflect light more in one direction than in others, usually to make the image brighter for people sitting in a certain area. These screens include most high-gain models as well as the silver screens used for passive polarized 3D systems. Many ALR screens also operate in this way. For a quick refresher course, our 2004 article on screen gain is still valid today.

By selectively reflecting light, you can position the projector and screen in such a way that the projector's light is bounced towards the audience's eyes, while the other light in the room is bounced in some other direction. This means that modern ALR screens have a "sweet spot" angle where the image will be at its brightest and a corresponding ideal seating area for the audience. Light coming from other angles is partially bounced away, reducing its deleterious effects on the projected image.

This isn't magic - just physics. ALR screens only work if the ambient light and the projector's light are coming from different directions. If you have your projector in the back of a room with a bright lamp sitting right beside the lens, an ALR screen won't do much for you. But if you're fighting against the reflections from white walls, the incoming light from overhead lamps, or the sun coming through a window off to one side, you're in luck.

Some ALR screens are also optical, meaning they have a lens-like element in the screen itself to help direct light back where it is needed. Optical screens tend to be semi- or completely rigid, making them less flexible than traditional screens. However, some newer optical screens can still be rolled up (albeit in larger rolls than their non-optical cousins), allowing them to be shipped in standard screen packaging.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been expanded and updated to include eleven current models of ALR screens. Please click here for the new review.) 3/03/16

Elite EPV eFinity PolarStar

Elite Screens has been around for a long time, but the PolarStar is a relatively new product. Part of the Elite Prime Vision (EPV) brand, the PolarStar is only available through Elite's EPV network of custom installers and Pro AV dealers.

EPV sent us the PolarStar in their eFinity frame. This is a fixed-frame slim bezel design in which the screen fabric actually wraps around the front face of the frame and attaches at the rear via spring clips. The bezel pieces then attach to the outside of the frame, covering the edges and giving the viewing surface a roughly 1/4" border. EPV sent us an 84" diagonal screen, which is the smallest available. The eFinity PolarStar is offered in sizes from 84" to 200" diagonal in 16:9 and 125" to 158" diagonal in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. And in breaking news, the PolarStar material has just gained ISF Certification.

Assembly

The eFinity PolarStar is sold by the EPV network of authorized dealers, any of whom can provide installation services along with the sale. However, in the event you do find yourself assembling the screen, you should be aware that the assembly process is a bit more involved than is typical. Assembly took me a total of 94 minutes.

The screen comes with a piece of foam meant to line your floor. This protects the surface of the screen from getting dirty or scratched during assembly. It also uses a very simple wall mounting system styled after a French cleat. Two plates are secured to wall studs, and a groove in the frame receives the plates. This groove runs the full length of the frame, thereby allowing you to slide the screen back and forth to adjust placement relatively independently of your wall's studs. If your house is anything like mine, this is important -- studs aren't always where you'd expect them to be. And while the screen includes drywall anchors, we would not recommend using them; with the flexibility of the sliding bracket system, it's foolish not to use wall studs if at all possible.

The screen's hardware kit includes a few spare parts, which are handy in the event something breaks during assembly.

This product uses split horizontal frame members, which is an advantage in packing and shipping since the box does not need to be the full length of the horizontals (which, on a 200" diagonal screen, could be over 174" long). To resist bowing, the screen includes a vertical bar that is inserted between the horizontals in the middle of the frame.

The installation kit doesn't include any tools, so you'll need to provide your own Phillips screwdriver. The frame is aluminum, and aluminum is relatively soft, so power tools are not recommended. It is also a good idea to wear nitrile gloves while you work with the screen material to keep it from getting dirty or smudged by the oils in your skin. You should also be careful - the edges of the frame extrusions are sharp.

Because the eFinity frame has such a small bezel, projector placement is even more important than usual. On a wide-bezel velvet flocked frame, you can always over-zoom the projector by a little bit to hide misaligned edges. When you're working with an un-flocked bezel that's only a quarter of an inch wide, that's not really an option.

Key Features

Polarized. According to EPV, the silvery-gray PolarStar screen material maintains 92 percent of polarization. As such, it is the only screen in this shootout that can be used with passive polarized 3D projection systems. Passive 3D systems use inexpensive glasses, but require either two projectors with passive filters or a single projector with a switching filter. Unlike most polarized screens we've seen in the past, the PolarStar still looks good when viewing 2D content.

Zero Edge frame. While the traditional velvet frame can give a room that movie theater feel, the thin bezel of the eFinity frame maximizes viewing area relative to screen size. In small rooms, this gives you more picture and less wasted space. It also makes the screen look more like a television, which might be more appropriate for a living room or other bright area.

LED light kit. The eFinity PolarStar also includes an RGB LED light kit. Attached to the frame with adhesive tape and then reinforced with spring clips, the LED lights can be set to almost any color or cycled between them. The LED kit is intended to accent the room when the projector isn't in use. You should not use the LEDs while actually watching a movie, as the added light in the room will potentially reduce contrast and affect your perception of color.

Limitations

Sparkle. While subtle, we did notice a sparkly character to the PolarStar material, especially in very bright scenes or areas of solid color. It's not as bad as most other high-gain screens, but it is occasionally noticeable. Since everyone has their own pet peeves, only you will know if sparkle is one of those things that you absolutely cannot accept. We did not find it very distracting at all.

Ripples. After assembly, our screen had some minor ripples in two of the corners. The screen uses spring clips to attach fabric to frame which can be difficult when working with them for the first time. The minor misalignment resulted from mistakes that a professional installer with more experience with this product would avoid. If you do run into this problem, you can adjust the spring clips post-assembly in order to fix it. If you're stumped and don't even know where to begin, EPV's customer service department is trained to walk you through it.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been expanded and updated to include eleven current models of ALR screens. Please click here for the new review.) 3/03/16

Microlite F2.0

Back in 2011, Microlite filed a patent for a new optical screen technology. This caused a stir in the A/V world, but no products were made available at that time. Today, the company is in full swing. Though they are a young company, Microlite has established a real presence in the market and appears to have every intention of sticking around. The company now has a headquarters in California as well as US-based customer support and sales - all very good signs.

The Microlite F2.0 is an optical ALR screen ("optical" meaning it contains lenses) with a gain of 1.8. Microlite also offers another material, the F3.0, which has higher gain and ISF certification, though we did not get a chance to test it. Microlite screens are available for direct sale via the company's website until their distribution network expands, at which point they will be sold through authorized resellers. Though not exactly cheap, the company's products perform exceptionally well - and cost less than ALR screens from several big-name competitors.

Assembly

The Microlite F2.0 is packaged well and comes with everything you need to put it together. Inside the box are two allen wrenches, two pairs of cloth gloves, and two custom tools that help attach the screen material to the frame. All of the frame bracket screws are already seated in their holes. All of the screen material attachment points are already in the correct channels within the frame. All sharp corners on the frame itself are either rounded over or covered with black velvet. The kit includes at least one spare for each hardware piece. Plastic sheeting and foam are included to shield the screen material from the floor. In short, the whole package is about as professional as it gets.

Assembly took less than 45 minutes. The frame bolts together using corner brackets, and the screen attaches to the frame with thick rubber bands. These bands essentially float the material in the frame and prevent ripples. The instructions suggest you have two people assemble the screen, but I did it myself by taking my time and being careful.

Key Features

Optical Screen. Simply put, an optical screen contains lens elements that help to direct light where it needs to go. The specific makeup of the F2.0's layers gives it a larger viewing cone than the other screens in the shootout as well as better ambient light rejection capabilities. This most often manifests as higher contrast in bright rooms.

Despite being an optical screen, the Microlite F2.0 material can still be rolled up and shipped in a standard screen box. That helps to keep shipping costs down.

Wide-angle viewing. The construction of the Microlite screen gives it an impressively wide half-gain angle of 113 degrees. The half-gain angle is the angle at which an image on screen appears half as bright as it does when viewed from the center position. This is quite the accomplishment for an ALR screen, as they typically rely on a combination of high gain and reduced diffusion to direct light where it's wanted.

Limitations

Semi-rigid material. Because of the nature of the Microlite F2.0's composition, it is not as flexible as most screen materials. As such, it can be kinked or bent if you aren't careful - and once it's damaged, there's no going back. Microlite warns of this possibility in the manual and states that any damage caused by improper installation will void the warranty. In other words, it pays to be careful with this stuff.

Oil slick. The very first ALR screens all had a shimmery appearance that made the screen surface appear oily or pearlescent. The Microlite F2.0 shows a slight trace of this effect, though it's nowhere near as bad as those early screens were. However, if you are familiar with the oil slick effect and know that it bothers you, it's definitely something to be aware of.

Fixed Frame Only (for now). Currently, you can only order the Microlite screen in a fixed frame. For an additional 15%, you can also get a curved version. Microlite plans to make their screens available in motorized, zero-edge, and infinite (small rigid panels that lock together to make custom sizes). But for now, if you want a Microlite screen, you'll have to make do with fixed frame.

No LED kit. The other two screens in this shootout either come with an LED kit or can be ordered with LEDs as an option. However, the other two screens use thin-bezel frames, and both cost quite a bit more than the Microlite. If the LED option is a must-have for you, you can pick up your own strip of RGB LEDs from any number of Internet vendors (here's an example on Amazon) for about $25 and attach them to the screen yourself.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been expanded and updated to include eleven current models of ALR screens. Please click here for the new review.) 3/03/16

Screen Innovations Zero Edge FLEX Slate 1.2
Screen Innovations was one of the first companies to create an ALR screen. Their Black Diamond series, which is still around today, remains their top of the line screen material for ambient light rejection. However, it is also quite expensive. As such, SI created the Slate materials as a more budget-friendly alternative to the Black Diamond that retains much of the latter's ALR technology. The SI Slate starts at $2,100 MSRP for an 80" diagonal screen.

Assembly

Our Screen Innovations Slate 1.2 screen came with the Zero Edge FLEX frame. While we would love to discuss the assembly process in order to compare apples to apples, Screen Innovations shipped us the screen fully assembled. Consumers can order the Slate pre-assembled, but you can also choose to have it shipped in a standard screen box if the assembled frame would be too large to maneuver into your viewing area. That wasn't a problem for us since we requested a small screen, but anyone aiming for 100" diagonal or above should definitely check their corner clearances and ceiling heights before deciding on a shipping method. There is no extra charge for having the screen sent pre-assembled.

The box did include the assembly instructions, which gave us a pretty good idea of what the process would have been like. Zero Edge FLEX is similar to the Elite eFinity in that it has a small bezel and wraps the screen material around the front of the frame. However, that's about where the similarities end. The Zero Edge FLEX screen uses snap posts in the frame to attach the fabric, similar to the system used by Stewart Filmscreen. The big advantage to this system is that a screen can be set up and taken down with relative ease, as there are no small parts to lose. The downside is that it can be a little rough on your thumbs if you aren't used to it.

Key Features

Natural image. The Slate 1.2 looked the least like an ALR screen during use. There was no visible sparkle, no oil slick effect, and no hot spotting whatsoever. In other words, it had a super-clean, theater-like image. If you're interested in a great picture and only need the screen's ALR capabilities some of the time, the Slate 1.2 is a great option.

Zero Edge frame. As with the eFinity, the Zero Edge FLEX maximizes viewing area for a given screen size. It also gives the screen a very TV-like appearance once it's up on the wall, especially if you have the LED light kit fired up.

Super-large screen sizes. Thought it is of less importance to the residential market, SI offers the Slate material in sizes up to 390" diagonal. That's over 30 feet. At these extreme sizes, the screen material will have seams, but SI reports that those seams are invisible to anyone standing over 20 feet away - a perfectly reasonable viewing distance for a screen that large.

LED light kit. Like the eFinity, the Zero Edge FLEX can mount an optional LED light kit. Ours came preinstalled, but whereas the eFinity mounts those lights using small spring clips, the Zero Edge FLEX uses adhesive to attach them directly to the frame. It also includes a dedicated mounting bracket on the back of the screen on which you can attach the power source and IR receiver for the light kit. It also includes a more comprehensive remote that allows you to set custom colors and patterns, if you wish. The LED kit, which costs $525, comes with the lights, the connection hardware, and the mounting bracket. If you order your screen pre-assembled and also order the LED kit, it will already be installed when you receive the screen.

Limitations

Limited distribution. Products in limited distribution are only sold through selected vendors. That's great if you live near one of those selected vendors and less great if you don't. On the upside, one of Screen Innovations' "selected vendors" is the Magnolia home theater division of Best Buy, so it's possible you'll be able to pick up one of these screens locally.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been expanded and updated to include eleven current models of ALR screens. Please click here for the new review.) 3/03/16

The Tests

ALR screens aren't meant to be used in ideal home theater spaces. They're meant to bring projectors into rooms where ambient light, white paint, or other circumstances would otherwise make projectors unfeasible. So to test these screens we installed them in a room with a large window and white walls to see how they perform in environments for which they are built. In theory, the projector used for these tests should not matter; all tests were conducted with the same projector and in the same environment. To give you a general idea, we used an entry-level DLP home entertainment projector rated at just over 3,000 lumens and 15,000:1 contrast, and all tests were conducted after the projector had been given an opportunity to warm up for 30 minutes. Our reference white surface, used for comparison purposes, was tested and confirmed to have a gain of 1.0 exactly.

Peak Gain and Half Gain

The three screens in this shootout differ in their peak gain attributes. Higher peak gain means a brighter image when viewed from the center position, but it can also mean hotspots, shimmer in the image, or uneven screen illumination, so higher gain is not always better. Sometimes a brighter projector and a lower gain screen yield a more balanced, natural image than high gain and lower lumens.

In this test, the Microlite F2.0 had the highest peak gain at 1.74, essentially matching its peak gain rating of 1.8. Similarly, the Screen Innovations Slate measured a peak gain of 1.18 in conformance with its spec of 1.2. However, the Elite PolarStar measured a peak gain of 1.55 which is notably higher than its rating of 1.3.

As expected, the SI Slate showed the fewest gain-related artifacts; it had no shimmer worth mentioning and no noticeable hotspots. The Microlite F2.0 did have a slight "oil slick" appearance at times, but there were no hot spots unless you made it a point to stand outside of the ideal vertical viewing area. At this point you might notice a "hot band" -- a horizontal stripe across the screen that's brighter than the rest of the image. Sitting in the proper seating location, you can't see any hot spots despite the high gain. On the PolarStar, there's no oil slick, but there is sparkle at times, which some users may find distracting.

The half-gain angle is the viewing angle at which the reflected image is half as bright as when viewed from the center along a perpendicular axis to the screen surface. A wide half-gain angle is helpful if you want to place seating at wide angles to the screen, as it means people seated in these positions will still see a reasonably bright image.

The Microlite F2.0 screen had the widest half-gain angle by far, measuring 56.5 degrees in either direction. In comparison, the Elite PolarStar (25 degrees) and Screen Innovations Slate (21 degrees) offer narrower viewing cones and therefore appear significantly less bright to people sitting off to the sides. Half-gain angle only measures one side of the viewing area, so the brightest viewing area can be determined by doubling those measurements. Closer to the center is better.

Contrast / Ambient Light Rejection

The easiest way to decide which screen is rejecting the most ambient light is to put them all in the same situation and then measure contrast. We conducted three tests: one with lights off and windows completely blocked, one with an overhead light on, and one with the side window shade open. In all three tests, we compared the screens against a reference white screen in order to judge their ability to reject ambient light. We used the same projector for all tests, and we measured from the ideal viewing angle for each screen.

Dark Room Test. First, a point of clarification: our "dark room" in this test has white walls and a white ceiling, meaning it's not very dark at all. In a properly blacked-out home theater, there should be very little performance difference between an ALR screen and a traditional white screen.

We measured black and white levels on each screen as well as our reference white surface using an ANSI checkerboard pattern. The best performing screen was the Microlite F2.0, measuring 217:1 contrast. The Elite PolarStar and SI Slate 1.2 measured 148:1 and 129:1, respectively, which is not a perceptible difference if you aren't using a meter. The reference white surface measured 86:1. In other words, we saw clear benefits using any of the ALR screens even in a room where the only light pollution comes from reflection.

Overhead Light Test. During the next test, we turned on the room's overhead light. This room is normally used as a library and has a pair of 100W equivalent CFL bulbs in a fixture on the ceiling, giving us enough light to read by without straining our eyes.

Contrast took a hit on every screen, with the Microlite F2.0 dropping to 146:1. This still beat out the PolarStar at 110:1 and the Slate at 92:1, but all three screens did far, far better than the reference white surface at 39:1.

Side Window Test. The east-facing window in our test room has a blackout shade that was closed up until this point. For the final test, we turned off the overhead light and opened the shade, letting in some mid-morning sunlight. This had a dramatic effect on contrast. Under these conditions, the PolarStar performed best, measuring 73:1. The Microlite F2.0 measured 61:1, while the Slate measured 50:1. Our poor, abused white screen, unaccustomed to this much ambient light, measured a paltry 20:1.

Our testing revealed some interesting findings. Given how the Microlite F2.0 performed in the first two tests, we fully expected it to triumph in the third test as well - but it didn't. Instead the PolarStar pulled out a win. This tells us that the Microlite F2.0 material is a great choice when ambient light is vertically offset from the projector, but less effective at combatting side lighting. In a room with strong side lighting, the Elite PolarStar is an excellent option.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been expanded and updated to include eleven current models of ALR screens. Please click here for the new review.) 3/03/16

Summary and Conclusion

While all three screens in today's shootout are billed as ambient light rejecting, they are different enough that each has its own distinct advantages and applications.

The Elite EPV eFinity PolarStar 1.3 is the only screen to retain polarization, which is a huge bonus for 3D buffs. The screen retains contrast well, especially in severe ambient light. And since it is sold through EPV's network of custom installers and pro AV businesses, your purchase of the screen includes a local point of contact to help you with any issues you might encounter. On the downside, the PolarStar was the only screen to show sparkle. It is relatively difficult to assemble and likewise difficult to obtain. Assembly can be a bit tricky, but between the network of Pro A/V dealers who can install it for you and the support of EPV's customer service division, it's nothing you can't handle. The PolarStar has an MSRP of $2448 for a 100" model and roughly $2100 for the 84" size we used in this review.

The Microlite F2.0 is a DIY dream, offering excellent bang for the buck. It has the best ambient light rejection technology (especially when that light comes from above), is the only optical screen in the shootout, has the widest viewing area, and is sold directly via the company's website, making it easy to get. It's also the most fragile screen material, has a slight "oil slick" appearance at times, and only comes as a fixed frame screen, though other options are coming soon. You can pick up an 88" diagonal F2.0 for $1350 or a 100" model for $1500 direct from Microlite.

The Screen Innovations Zero Edge FLEX Slate 1.2 will be the screen of choice for home theater buffs who need mild ambient light rejection. It has the most natural image of any screen in the shootout with the fewest visible artifacts and the smoothest possible picture. You can order the screen pre-assembled at no additional cost. It is price-competitive with the PolarStar (the Slate 1.2 starts at $2100 for an 80" diagonal screen), but is similarly sold only through custom installers and authorized dealers.

Comments (6) Post a Comment
Brandon Posted Aug 15, 2015 11:18 AM PST
Do the Microlite F 2.0 have to be shelf mounted, near eye level, for max gain, like the HP screens? Or can it be ceiling mounted to get close to its max gain of 1.8?
Peter Posted Sep 17, 2015 4:32 PM PST
I use a screen innovations black diamond 1.4 in my darkened home theatre room. It is far better than any white screen I have ever used. Blacks are far better, contrast is far better and the biggest thing, no light bleed onto the walls of the room, so it is a real dark room and feels like a cinema! To say all ALRs are not for a darkened room I feel is incorrect. Slate wasn't around at the time I purchased my Black Diamond, but I have seen it in the same situation...still better than a white screen. Maybe not all ALRs are suited to a darkened room but them some are...
Nigel Talley Posted Sep 17, 2015 6:03 PM PST
It is the world's best
Nabil Posted Sep 19, 2015 6:05 AM PST
many suppliers claim amazing performances but at the end only experience prooves if that`s true or not. what do you think about Prodisplay`s sunscreen front projection?
Hector Posted Oct 7, 2015 5:47 AM PST
I would love to see how well the DNP and Stewart measure up. I need an ALR now, but it's hard to find a good unbiased analysis like this one. So far, I am leaning towards the Microlite but I prefer the edge free designs. The big frame is a dated design IMHO and doesn't go well with multi-purpose rooms.
Dave Posted Oct 7, 2015 3:40 PM PST
I see you're adding more models, but what about some other low-cost alternatives like Silver Ticket readily available on Amazon where many reviews of users are pretty solid. I personally own their white screen and love it, but would be interested in seeing measured performance of Silver Ticket ALR screens against the similarly value-priced Elite ALR screens.

Also are you unable to reveal pricing information because of manufacturer agreements? Would be good to factor in performance against value.

Thanks, great work!

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