Building Your Own Home Theater
Evan Powell

Choosing the Right Size Screen

If you read the previous article on screen aspect ratios, you know that your choice of aspect ratio is a vital decision in setting up your home theater. However, you can't make a final decision on aspect ratio without also determining your screen's optimal size, and your desired viewing distance from it.

If you have not set up a home theater before, it is easy to make one of two mistakes--either you go with a screen that is too small, or a screen that is too large. If you choose a screen that is too small, it's not a critical mistake. Assuming your room could accommodate it, you will just find yourself wishing the picture was bigger from time to time.

However, going with a screen that is too large can be a serious headache, literally. Over a long period of viewing time, a screen that is too large for the viewing distance will produce eyestrain, fatigue, headaches, and a desire to take breaks or stop watching the picture. The last thing you want is to get weary of your own home theater because you overdid the screen size.

Now here is one of the most important points to be made in this article:

The optimum screen size and viewing distance
for your theater depends on the aspect ratio you choose.

Let's focus on this for a moment. Say you choose to go with an 8-foot wide 2.4 Cinemascope screen. You will find that you can sit closer to it without getting eyestrain than you can if you go with a 16:9 screen of the same width. Why? The 16:9 screen has more surface area, more vertical height--35% more to be exact. So the eyes need to work harder to absorb everything on that larger screen.

To compensate for this, most people will instinctively want to sit back another couple of feet in viewing distance. For example, if you are comfortable sitting ten feet from an 8-foot wide 2.4 screen, you will probably have a similar comfort level (as far as eyestrain is concerned) sitting twelve feet from an 8-foot wide 16:9 screen.

Therefore, the potential viewing distance you have available is an important key to the puzzle. That means the ideal screen size depends not only on the width of the room, but the depth of the room. In many rooms it is easy to install a screen that fills the full width of the wall, or at least 90% of it, only to find that the room is not deep enough to position the seating comfortably for long term viewing.

With this as a preamble, let's go to Part 2 and focus on just how big your screen should actually be.