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4:3 vs. 16:9 -- What is the best solution?

Evan Powell, November 21, 2001
ProjectorCentral.com

People are rightly confused about formats these days. 4:3 is the standard, but 16:9 is the future--so what is the best solution for a home theater today? If you get a native 4:3 projector, will it display 16:9? What format of screen is best? If you are about to set up your home theater and are totally confused about 4:3 and 16:9 format options, read on.

By the way, if you are new to the whole concept, when we talk about 4:3 and 16:9 formats we're talking here about the rectangular shape of the video image, or what is called its aspect ratio. Your standard TV has an aspect ratio of "4:3". That means the picture is 4 units wide for every three units of height. The new HDTV standard is 16:9, which is 16 units of width for every 9 units of height. So HDTV's 16:9 is a rectangle that is, relatively speaking, horizontally wider than regular TV.

Here's the problem: video comes in many different aspect ratio formats. Material made for regular TV is 4:3, often denoted 1.33 since 4 divided by 3 = 1.33. Shows broadcast in HDTV are 16:9, which is 1.78. Movies, music videos, and other content on DVD comes in a variety of formats including 1.33, 1.78, 1.85, 2.00, 2.35, 2.4, 2.5, and so on. Since there is no universal standard for the rectangular shape of a video picture, confusion abounds. Ideally, what native format should your projector be, and what format should the screen be that goes with it?

The simple answer is this. As far as projector/screen formats go, there are three ways to set up your home theater. You can get a native 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen. You can get a native 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen. Or you can get a native 4:3 projector with a 16:9 screen. (In theory you could also get a 16:9 projector and a 4:3 screen, but for reasons that should be obvious after you read this, it would be rather bone-headed to do so.)

All three of these projector/screen combinations have some advantages, and all three have limitations for which you must compromise. There is no perfect solution-there is only the best solution for you. And you will know what that is after reviewing this comparison of your options.

Option #1: Native 4:3 Projector with a 16:9 Screen

Currently there are hundreds of 4:3 projectors on the market and only a few 16:9's. So 4:3 projectors currently offer much greater variety in terms of price and performance. Since many native 4:3 projectors will display both 4:3 and 16:9 signals, a lot of people are buying them for home theater.

Most 4:3 projectors are made to address the commercial market, but some are made for both commercial use as well as home theater. Some home theater manufacturers like Runco, Vidikron, DWIN, Marantz, Sim2/Seleco, and Sharp have developed models of 4:3 projectors that they have targeted exclusively to the home theater market.

Since 16:9 format is all the rage these days with HDTV and all, many people have chosen a 4:3 projector, but combined it with a 16:9 format screen. This is one legitimate way to go at the moment. However, it involves compromises that you need to be clear on. Let's consider how this combination displays a 16:9 image first.

When a 4:3 projector displays a 16:9 signal, it will project it by using 75% of its 4:3 displays (either LCD panels, DLP chips, or LCOS chips). So a native 4:3 XGA resolution machine which is 1024 x 768 pixels would use only 575 lines of the total 768 to create the image. The active pixel matrix of 1024 x 575 creates a 16:9 aspect ratio image, and the remaining 193 lines are inactive.

This produces black bars at the top and bottom of the projected image due to the unused lines in the panels or chips. So if you have a 4:3 projector with a 16:9 screen, you set up the projector so that the black bars will fall off the top and bottom of the screen. Voila, the projected image fits your screen format.

Easy enough so far. And if everything you ever wanted to watch was 16:9, you'd be done. Trouble is, there is an enormous amount of 4:3 video material in the world. So how do you get a 4:3 image to fit onto your 16:9 screen?

You have several options. One way is to get a projector that has a power zoom lens with an adequate zoom factor. With this arrangement you can set up the projector so that you use the zoom feature to adjust the picture size.

So for example, the Sanyo XP21N has a powered 1.3x zoom lens, which means you can adjust picture size by up to 30% from one end of the zoom range to the other. Therefore, if you set the zoom to maximum wide angle for displaying 16:9, you can zoom it to the opposite end of its throw range and reduce the picture size by 30%. Since a 4:3 image is 33% narrower than a 16:9, this will put almost all of the 4:3 image in the middle of the screen with just a tiny fraction of the image falling onto the top and bottom screen mask. In order to accomplish this, you must set up the projector at exactly the right distance from the screen to fit both formats, but it is certainly something you can do.

Any native 4:3 projector that has a powered zoom lens with a zoom factor of 1.3x or greater can be set up in this manner. (Actually, you could even use a projector with a manual zoom lens if you table-mount your projector, or if you want to put up with step ladder access to reach your ceiling mounted projector every time you change aspect ratios.) If the projector has a zoom factor of less than 1.3x, you won't be able to get all of the 4:3 image squeezed into the same picture height as your 16:9 image.

The good news is that setting up the projector like this lets you use 100% of the display device for 4:3 images (all 768 lines of an XGA machine). However, be aware that setting up like this doubles the brightness of the image on the screen for your 4:3 material. Why? In 16:9, your screen area is 33% greater than the 4:3 area. So light per square foot is increased by 1/3 when you reduce the image size from 16:9 to 4:3 while maintaining the same picture height. Furthermore, in 4:3, you are using all of the light output of the projector rather than the 75% you use in 16:9 (the remaining 25% is that which is blocked by the black bars). The net result is that your projector is throwing about twice the amount of light per square foot onto the screen. This may or may not be an issue for you, but it is something to be aware of.

A second option for displaying a 4:3 image on a 16:9 screen is to use the electronic formatting option available on many projectors, and/or on your sources. You can leave the lens set where it is for 16:9, and you can simply select the option that positions a scaled down 4:3 image in the middle of the screen with bars on the side. When you do this, illumination per square foot remains unchanged. However you are now using half the number of pixels to produce your 4:3 image than you would if you had used the zoom feature. Basically, in this mode you are using half the resolution and half the brightness that the projector is capable of delivering in full 4:3 operation.

There is a downside to electronically reformatting from your sources, and it's a biggie: you often get gray side-bars, or pillars as some people call them. Gray bars are an unfortunate solution to a technical problem--they are delivered as part of the signal to prevent uneven burn-in on CRT-based 16:9 TVs. Though gray side bars help preserve CRTs they have NO benefit whatsoever for digital projectors since they are not subject to burn-in problems.

I say this is an unfortunate solution because the easiest way to destroy the impact of a video image is to surround it with gray bars. No art museum in the world would ever present an Ansel Adams exhibit with his photographs mounted in gray frames. There is a good reason for this-neutral gray is what you are trying to get away from-crisp black and white contrast is the objective. And it's the same for video.

Do you want to do ONE thing to vastly improve the dramatic impact of your home theater? Then forget about the projector, forget about the screen material, forget about your sources. Instead, take steps to ensure that the video images you watch are always displayed in a SOLID BLACK FRAME. Unless you do this, your picture will always look anemic compared to what it would otherwise.

How do you do this? With electric masking on the screen, that's how. Electric masks are black panels that open and close at your command, either horizontally from the top and bottom, vertically along the sides, or both, based upon the actual size of the image you are viewing. In the context of the present discussion, if you have a 16:9 screen with a 4:3 image in the middle of it, masking can be deployed to cut off the gray side-bars and give you a black frame around your active image.

On a 16:9 screen, the ideal solution is four-way masking. The reason is that you want to mask a 4:3 image in the center of the screen with side masks. You retract all masks for 16:9 material that fits the full frame. And you want to close the top and bottom masks to create a frame on movies that are wider than 16:9. Four-way masking is the most expensive set-up of course. But you need it IF you have a 16:9 format screen and a desire to put a solid black frame around all material that you watch. Conversely, a 4:3 format screen needs only two-way (top/bottom) masking to accomplish the same thing. For many folks, this may be a good reason to consider a 4:3 format screen as we will discuss below.

Anamorphic lenses

We need to cover one more issue related to 4:3 projectors with 16:9 screens before moving on. If you have this combination, you have the option to enhance the viewing of your anamorphic DVD sources by adding an ISCO anamorphic lens to the configuration. This is an aftermarket device that you mount in front of the projector lens itself. The function of the ISCO lens is to optically stretch a 4:3 image horizontally into 16:9 format. It is used only when 16:9 anamorphic DVD material (that is, a 16:9 image horizontally compressed into 4:3) is the signal source.

With an ISCO anamorphic lens, assuming you have a ceiling-mounted projector, a step ladder now becomes a vital component in your arsenal of home theater gear. To incorporate the use of this lens, you set up the projector as discussed above; 4:3 material is displayed full format with the zoom lens at the minimum throw angle, and HDTV material is displayed with the zoom set to maximum wide angle. When watching either 4:3 source material or HDTV, the ISCO lens is moved aside and not used.

Now when you want to watch anamorphically squeezed 16:9 from your DVD player, you zoom the projector lens to its 4:3 position, climb your step ladder and slide the ISCO lens into place. Then you feed your anamorphically squeezed signal into the projector. Without the ISCO lens, the image would be displayed in 4:3 format, and it would be compressed horizontally--people would appear very tall and skinny. However, with the ISCO lens in place, the image is expanded horizontally so that a natural 16:9 aspect ratio is restored. The height of the image is left unchanged.

The two advantages of using an ISCO lens are (1) it lets you use the full resolution of the native 4:3 display for anamorphic 16:9 material--(768 lines instead of 575 in XGA), and (2) it makes your anamorphic widescreen material display wider than your 4:3 material, just like HDTV. Many dedicated videophiles like it for these reasons.

However, there are a few downsides that come to mind: (1) the ISCO lens must be positioned with absolute precision in front of your projector's lens to avoid any distortion or vignetting on the corners, (2) it works only with anamorphically squeezed 16:9 material, (3) the routine of climbing the ladder and moving the lens every time you switch between anamorphic 16:9 material on the one hand and standard 4:3 or HDTV on the other could be considered a serious nuisance, and (4) the lens itself retails for about $2,000, which some folks might think is a lot for a 33% boost in display resolution for DVDs. So whether it's worth the money and the trouble is a personal decision for each home theater enthusiast.

Option #2: Native 4:3 Projector with a 4:3 screen

At first the idea of intentionally setting up a 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen sounds a bit old-fashion. After all, 16:9 is the future, right? Why would anyone go this route? Actually there may be good reasons for you to consider this option, depending on the type of material you like to watch and how you want to view it.

If you have a 4:3 screen and a 4:3 projector, you simply set it up for full 4:3 display. When you feed the projector a 16:9 signal, it is displayed using 75% of the native 4:3 display, with black bars at the top and bottom.

There are several advantages to doing this. First, it is simple--no muss no fuss. Second, you can use two-way electric masking to open and close the screen to match the aspect ratio of any kind of material being viewed. Two-way masking enables you to fit a solid frame around anything--not just 4:3 and 16:9, which is important because many DVDs come in aspect ratios wider than 16:9. So no matter what you are viewing, you can open and close the masking to fit the material.

You can put top/bottom electric masking on a 16:9 screen also of course. But many people don't bother since the top and bottom bars on widescreen material are not as large as they are on 4:3 screens, so they are thought not to be worth worrying about. That is an unfortunate compromise, since any visible intermediate stripe between the active image and the screen frame degrades the image presentation.

By the way, you also have an anamorphic lens option for this set-up as well. If you want to use the full 100% resolution of the 4:3 display for anamorphic 16:9, you can use a Panamorph lens. This is another aftermarket lens that is mounted in front of your projector (get out your step ladder again). The difference between the Panamorph and the ISCO is that the Panamorph compresses the image vertically instead of stretching it horizontally. So if you start with the same 4:3 anamorphically squeezed image (tall, skinny people) being displayed full frame on your 4:3 screen, the Panamorph compresses it vertically to 16:9, with the width of the image being left unchanged, which is what you want on a 4:3 screen. The same downside trade-offs mentioned above for the ISCO lens apply to the Panamorph as well, although it is not quite as expensive.

Why get a 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen?

It all depends on what you like to watch, and how you like to watch it. The central issue is psychological and emotional, and has to do with your own personal sense of aesthetics-do you believe that "4:3 should be smaller than 16:9?" Do you like the feeling of watching 4:3 television, then having the image open up wider to view a widescreen movie? A lot of people would quite understandably say "Yes, of course, isn't that what home theater is all about?"

Maybe, maybe not. Time to think out of the box here for a moment. Personally, I prefer a big 4:3 screen. Here's why. I want to watch widescreen movies in their widescreen glory, no doubt about it. So I have a 4:3 screen that is wide enough to give me the 16:9 display I want, which in my theater is 8 feet wide. I put electric masking on it and set the masking normally to its 16:9 position so it looks like a widescreen theater. If I put on a super-widescreen film I can close the masking a little to maintain my solid black frame around the image. And I can do this no matter what the aspect ratio of the movie happens to be.

Now let's say I change my viewing material. I want to watch the terrific 4:3 format IMAX DVD "The Blue Planet." Frankly, there is nothing more irritating to me than having to shrink down a 4:3 format IMAX film just so it fits in the middle of a 16:9 screen. Even worse is viewing an IMAX film so that it fills a 16:9 screen, and letting 1/3 of the image fall off the top and bottom of the screen. But see, I don't have those problems. Instead, I've got a great big 4:3 screen hidden behind the masks. I press a button, open the masks and get the grand 4:3 IMAX presentation in its full drama.

For me, music videos are the same way-almost all of them are 4:3, and as far as I am concerned, the bigger, the better. Big music demands big video. On a 120" 4:3 diagonal screen I feel like I'm in the front row at the Eagles "Hell Freezes Over" concert. Conversely, when this 4:3 image is squeezed into the middle of a 16:9 screen, the Eagles look like they are on television.

Football is also fun to watch on the jumbo 4:3 screen. And classic films like Fantasia, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, are all 4:3 films that look spectacular in large format.

Consider this for a moment. Most people will install the widest screen they can fit into the space available, regardless of its format. So screen width is almost always the limiting factor. In my theater I can install a 16:9 screen that is 8 feet wide, or a 4:3 screen that is 8 feet wide. If I install a 16:9 screen it will be 8 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. If I install a 4:3 screen, it will be 8 feet wide and 6 feet high.

Now between these two options, how big is my 4:3 image? On the 4:3 screen it is 8 x 6 = 48 square feet. On the 16:9 screen, it is 6 x 4.5 = 27 square feet. Almost half the size! That's the difference between being at the Eagles concert and seeing it on television.

Meanwhile-and here is a key point-my 16:9 image size is the same either way- 8 x 4.5 = 36 square feet. So the only variable is how I want to display 4:3. Do you want to maximize the use of your wall space? The 4:3 screen gives you more viewing area since it uses more vertical space on the wall.

I would never give up the excitement of seeing IMAX films, or Fantasia, or music videos, or football in the largest format I can manage. Especially if it was for something as nonsensical (to me) as making sure that all of my 4:3 material was displayed in a "smaller" format than a widescreen movie. So the bottom line is this: I personally don't believe that a 4:3 image should be smaller than a 16:9-I'm a Big Picture guy and I want them both as big as I can fit on the wall.

Now. You you may feel like I'm full of hooey. And if you do, then go with your gut. We are talking about YOUR entertainment here. Think about what you want to see and how you want to see it. Then set it up the way you want it. There is no "right" solution. There is only the right solution for you.

Option #3. 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen

If HDTV is your thing and not much else matters, your decision is simple. A 16:9 projector on a 16:9 screen is clearly the best combination for optimizing HDTV viewing. The 16:9 image fits the 16:9 screen perfectly, and all is well. The major advantage is that you get the highest resolution possible for HDTV sources. And for 16:9 projectors that have at least 1280 x 720 displays such as the Toshiba MT7, the Sanyo PLV-60, the Sonly PVL-VW11HT, and the Sharp Z9000, HDTV 720p can be displayed in native format with no scaling whatsoever, producing a truly superb high-def image.

Now when it comes to DVD movies there is a formatting problem to consider. Many are wider than 16:9. For example, Dances with Wolves, Tombstone, U-571, American Beauty, and Star Wars/Phantom Menace (to name a few) are all 2.35:1. So when you display these movies on a 16:9 screen you will have black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, each bar amounting to about 12% of the picture height. The bars are not as large as they are on a 4:3 screen, but they are quite visible nevertheless. So you may wish to consider electric masking to close to the frame horizontally when movies of this aspect ratio are displayed. You will find that the overall quality of the presentation is significantly improved. (I am amazed at the number of people that spend many thousands of dollars on equipment to get the best picture possible, and yet don't make the relatively small investment to frame the picture adequately.)

As you might have guessed, the major limitation of the 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen is the display of 4:3 material. Your best option is to display 4:3 material in smaller format in the center of the 16:9 screen with side bars. No zoom lens adjustments are required for this as the projector will do it automatically. You can fix the side-bar problem with electric masks that drop down on either side of the image. If you don't watch much 4:3 material, or don't care about optimum viewing quality in this format, you may simply choose to live with the side bars and forget about side masking.

The other options for displaying 4:3 material with this combination are far worse. One is to electronically truncate the top and bottom of the 4:3 image, and display the center portion of the image in the 16:9 frame. Basically, the projector cuts off 1/3 of the image-1/6 at the bottom and 1/6 at the top, on the theory that there's usually not much important information going on there.

You only need to watch 4:3 material in this truncated mode for a few minutes to discover how vital the missing 1/3 of the image is. You can't concentrate on the content since you are constantly distracted by little irritations-someone's chin is missing in a close up, for example.

Another truly painful solution for 4:3 is to electronically stretch the 4:3 picture horizontally so that it fills the 16:9 frame. By doing this, you see the full image and the side-bars are gone. But all circles are now ovals and people look fatter by 33%. I will say this. The romantic essence of Casablanca, a 4:3 film, is somewhat compromised when you make Bogart and Bergman look like they've spent the war years gorging themselves with French cheese and pate. To anyone serious about seeing a video or film the way the creator intended it, this tasteless butchering of the 4:3 image (a "feature" of just about all 16:9 video display devices) will be unacceptable.

Conclusion

There is a strong movement afoot trying to get consumers to bow down to the 16:9 gods. The only problem is the world is not 16:9. It is a bunch of formats and 4:3 is still huge among them. And your home theater must deal with all formats one way or another. Each of the three basic solutions has definite advantages and obvious limitations. No single solution is "better" than another-they are each merely better for certain types of display.

My objective here has been to smash the prevailing myth that a 16:9 projector and 16:9 screen must be the best solution simply because the format is new. It is certainly not true for me. It may or may not be true for you. Only you can determine that.

As you design your home theater, think carefully about how much 4:3 material you like to watch and how you would prefer to see it. Is it important that your "widescreen" material be physically wider than your 4:3? If so, you should set it up that way. Is maximum resolution in HDTV your ultimate primary goal? Then a 16:9 projector and 16:9 screen is a great way to go.

If on the other hand you find that there is a lot of 4:3 video, TV, and film that you want to see in large format, then the 16:9 projector/screen combo will present you with limitations you may not enjoy. A 4:3 projector combined with a 4:3 screen and electric masking can produce dramatic results when installed and used to its best advantage.

You are the director in your own home theater. Think about each type of video/film you want to watch-standard TV, HDTV, music videos, current widescreen feature films, classic 4:3 films, etc. Visualize how you want to see them on your wall. After giving each format some thought, you can decide how each is to be displayed. Follow your instincts and preferences, consider all of your options with an open mind, and you will design the optimum solution.

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(03/24/19 - 02:41 PM PST)
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