While home theater and home video projectors get brighter every year, ambient light is still the main reason many people cite for why they cannot put a projector in their home. Ambient light washes out a projector's black levels, obscuring shadow detail and compressing dynamic range -- both of which are vital for good video.
The new Draper XS850E fabric is an ambient light rejection screen material for front projectors that helps to preserve a projector's image fidelity in ambient light. By only selectively reflecting the projector's light back towards the audience, the XS850E reduces the negative effects of ambient light on projector black levels. Light from sources above or to the sides of the screen are rejected (absorbed) rather than reflected, making ambient light rejection screens like the XS850E the best way to improve black levels in ambient light conditions. A 100" Onyx screen with Veltex coating and XS850E fabric has a suggested retail price of $2,717.
Draper sent us the XS850E in an Onyx frame, which is a fixed-frame aluminum screen for wall-mount use. The Onyx frame has a 4" wide black aluminum border around the image area that can be optionally enhanced with Draper's Veltex velvet material. Our test sample included the Veltex material, which absorbed any stray light falling outside of the screen's imaging area.
The Draper XS850E is built for ambient light, but we initially set it up in a darkened theater environment. This allowed us to compare it against our usual screen, a Stewart Studiotek 100. We have included images below which are illustrative of the type of differences you can expect, though they are imperfect reproductions that do not fully capture the contrast and detail present in the actual projected image.
In the dark, the XS850E's 0.85-gain surface reflects less light than the Studiotek 100's 1.0-gain, making it appear less bright than the white screen. The XS850E fabric also has a narrower viewing angle than the Studiotek 100, but this is both normal and expected; the ST100 is a lambertian reflector, so it has no half-gain angle and appears equally bright from all angles. Compared to the Studiotek 100, the XS850E has slightly deeper blacks in addition to the dimmer highlights and overall darker picture. Color is shifted towards blue slightly, and there is no significant difference in clarity of detail.
Turn the lights on, and everything changes. Suddenly, the Studiotek 100's black level shoots up due to ambient light. The deepest shadow detail is lost, as well. Color shifts towards yellow, the predominant color of indoor lighting. Meanwhile, the projected image on the XS850E fabric changes as well, but not nearly as much. Black levels rise slightly, though shadow detail is maintained much better than on the white screen. And in response to the largely yellow ambient light, white balance shifts away from blue and back towards a more neutral tone.
Without the lights on, there would be little reason to choose the XS850E over the Studiotek 100. With the lights on, there would be little reason to choose the ST100 over the XS850E. It all comes down to application.
Rejects ambient light. The main draw of a screen like the XS850E is its ability to cancel out the effects of ambient light. Judged on this criterion, it is a resounding success. Lights above or to either side of the screen had little to no effect on dynamic range or black level. Light coming from the same direction as the projected image tended to cause a little bit of black washout, but the poorly-directed ambient light did not reflect as completely as the highly focused light coming from the projector. So, even in this worst-case scenario, the XS850E fabric performed better than a white screen.
Higher contrast, deeper black. The XS850E's relatively low 0.85 peak gain gives projected images a deep, inky black level, while the screen's ambient light rejection boosts dynamic range by preserving low-end shadow detail. This contrast boost is not limited to times when there is a lot of ambient light -- the contrast boost was evident even with the lights out.
Wide viewing angle. Screens work by reflecting light back towards the audience, but the mechanics of that reflection can vary. A screen's reflective properties are quantified as gain.
Assuming a projector mounted perpendicular to the horizontal center of the screen, every screen will appear brightest to a viewer seated along that same axis -- centered, and at a right angle to the screen surface. The diagram below illustrates this concept. By measuring a screen's brightness at this position, you obtain what is called peak gain at zero degrees viewing axis or simply peak gain. Peak gain for the XS850E fabric is listed as 0.85, and our in-house testing returned a value of 0.82. Compared to a pure white 1.0-gain screen, the same image on the XS850E will appear 82% as bright when viewed from the ideal position.
A viewer seated along the blue line will see the image at maximum brightness.
Every screen will appear dimmer to a viewer at a wide angle than it does to a viewer sitting dead center. The angle at which the screen appears half as bright as it does in the ideal position is called the half gain viewing angle. We measured a half-gain angle of 78 degrees horizontally and 18 degrees vertically, which matches up fairly well with the specified 85 and 25 degrees H/V listed in the product's specifications. This is excellent performance for a light rejecting screen. In the past, many ambient light rejecting screens suffered from narrow viewing angles, making it difficult to seat any significant number of people comfortably in the ideal viewing area. The XS850E fabric allows viewers to sit in a 156-degree cone while still receiving at least half brightness.
Easy assembly vs. other ALR screens. Ambient light screens aren't like normal flexible screens. While modern ambient light rejection screens are flexible enough to be rolled up and shipped in smaller boxes, they typically have more complicated installation procedures due to their inflexibility compared to conventional screens. Compared to these inflexible screens, the XS850E/Onyx combination is much easier to assemble and mount.
The XS850E screen uses a mounting system wherein semi-flexible plastic rods are inserted into pockets along each edge of the screen. Those rods are used by plastic brackets which stretch the screen to the frame itself, requiring no tools. This is possible because the XS850E material is mounted to a more flexible backing material which will stretch to fit the screen to the frame. The Onyx frame itself does require an allen wrench for assembly, but one is included in the package.
The last ALR screen we reviewed, the Black Diamond II by Screen Innovations, used a rubber band system to attach the screen via holes in the screen material itself. Previous screens have come with a rigid backing, which simplifies installation but makes shipping and handling much more expensive. In comparison to these screens, Draper's Onyx attachment system is much simpler and requires no special tools. And, since the backing material is not used as an imaging surface, you do not need to worry about fingerprints on the material -- a constant concern on other ambient light screens.
Low gain. In ambient light, image brightness is always a concern, especially when you want to use your projector as a TV replacement. As such, the XS850E's low 0.85 peak gain makes it more difficult to obtain a sufficiently bright image. If your projector has a brighter image mode (often called Standard, Living Room, or Normal), you might consider using it to boost light output and image brightness. On projectors without this option, the screen's low gain can limit screen size.
Then again, having a large, bright picture on the wall in ambient light while maintaining contrast and black level is impossible without the use of a screen like the Draper XS850E. There are some other ambient light screens that do have higher gain ratings, so those might be an option if your projector is not capable of producing enough light.
Price. At large screen sizes of 80" diagonal and above, the Draper Onyx with XS850E makes good financial sense. It provides a TV-like experience at an image size where equivalent televisions typically cost more than the projector/screen combination. It also allows you to upgrade the "guts" of your display periodically by replacing the projector rather than the whole system. With a 100" diagonal screen priced at $2,717, the total cost including projector can be less than $6,000. Draper can manufacture seamless XS850E fabric to a maximum vertical size of 62.5", allowing for a 16:9 image of about 125" diagonal.
On the other hand, a 62" version of the Onyx with XS850E still costs $2,125. At this size, the screen is already at a price disadvantage to similarly sized televisions, and that is without including the cost of the projector. At these sizes, the price advantage of the Onyx/XS850E disappears. In this case, bigger is better.
Projector placement. The XS850E fabric has a wide half-gain angle in the horizontal axis, but a narrower one in the vertical. This is by design, as it vastly reduces the amount of ambient light reflected from overhead sources. But if you have your projector in a ceiling mount at an extreme angle, such as from a super short throw projector, the ideal angle of reflection from the screen -- the "sweet spot" -- will not be straight back towards you. That can make it difficult to get the brightest possible picture out of the XS850E. The ideal projector mount for the XS850E is either a ceiling mount towards the rear of the room or a rear shelf mount.
Rear ambient light. The XS850E is normally very effective at rejecting ambient light, especially from overhead or side-lit sources. But there is one circumstance when the XS850E (and any ambient light rejection screen) offers no real benefit, and that is when the ambient light is coming from the same direction as the projector. In other words, if you have a rear shelf mounted projector with a window directly behind it, the screen has no way of differentiating between wanted and unwanted light. This is not a flaw with the XS850E, but a limitation of all light rejecting screens which there is no easy way of correcting.
Draper's XS850E fabric is a high-performance ambient light rejecting screen material. It does not fall prey to some common problems of ambient light rejecting screens such as narrow viewing angle and difficult assembly. It does have a relatively low 0.85 peak gain, so a bright projector is needed to realize the screen's full potential.
The Onyx with XS850E still carries a price premium over many conventional projector screens, but it does things that those screens cannot do. It represents a good value at larger sizes, especially 80" diagonal and above. Smaller screen sizes are less appealing due to the increasing affordability of large-screen televisions. The screen succeeds as a solution to daylight projection in rooms where ambient light cannot be fully controlled, and the experience itself is compelling. Paired with a bright projector, the Onyx with XS850E is a great way to bring the 100" TV experience to your living room without breaking the bank.
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