With the variety offered by today's wide array of home theater projectors, there are many ways to set up a home theater. Most people who are into DVDs and HDTV go for a native 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen. And this is a great way to go if you don't mind watching 4:3 material in the center of your 16:9 screen with black pillars on each side. Certainly, for regular television viewing, if you do this on your projector, this option is usually quite acceptable.

However, the recent review of the Optoma H79 brought to mind an alternative that has been mentioned on this site before, but is worth focusing on again. Regular readers of this site know that I have a strong interest in classic films. And most classic films produced prior to the early 1950's were done in 4:3 aspect ratio. This was the standard format in commercial movie theaters prior to the rise of television. (In fact, the 4:3 television was designed to replicate the commercial movie theater format). So in setting up my home theater, I want to view the great historic films in their original aspect ratio and large format presentation, to reproduce as closely as possible the original theater experience. That means I do NOT want a small 4:3 image centered in the middle of a 16:9 screen with black bars on the sides.

Therefore, the ideal solution for my viewing preferences is to install a home theater system that will give me either 16:9 or large screen 4:3 at the flip of a switch. Two components are required to do this. One is a 4:3 screen, and the other is a projector with a power zoom lens that has at least a 1.33x zoom range, such as the Optoma H79.

The Concept

The idea here is quite simple: let's say I want a 110" diagonal 16:9 image for widescreen material. That screen would be 96" wide and 54" high. With that screen format, my 4:3 material would be displayed in the center, in 90" diagonal, with pillars on the sides. However, instead of going for the 96x54 screen, I can install a screen

that is 96" wide by 72" in height. That enables me to view my 16:9 material in 110" diagonal format, but also lets me display 4:3 films in very large format 120" diagonal.

Increasing the size of the 4:3 image from 90" to 120" diagonal may not sound like a big change. However, a 90" diagonal 4:3 image is 27 square feet, whereas a 120" diagonal 4:3 image is 48 square feet-almost double the surface area. That is a big difference.

To accomplish this, I need a projector with a 1.33x or greater zoom lens. That zoom range lets me either fill the screen horizontally with 16:9 material, or fill the screen both vertically and horizontally with 4:3 material, without having to move the projector. So I end up with the best of both worlds for my preferred type of viewing.

Practical installation issues

Several issues must be kept in mind when planning this type of set up. First, it will limit your throw distance options. If the projector has a 1.33x zoom range, there is only one throw distance at which the projector will be able to fill both the 16:9 screen with a 16:9 image, and the 4:3 screen with a 4:3 image. Take our example of the Optoma H79, which has a 1.35x zoom range-let's say we want a screen width of 96", which delivers a 110" diagonal 16:9 image and a 120" 4:3 image. To accommodate both operating modes at that size, the H79 needs to be placed at exactly 17.1 feet from the screen. And there is really not much leeway for error. Set it a couple of inches too close, and the images will not fill the screen. Set it a couple inches too far back, and the images will overflow the screen area onto the frame or masks. Of the two errors, the latter is usually the easier to live with, but you will be better off taking care to place the projector and screen with as much precision as possible, so that both 16:9 and 4:3 materials fit the frame perfectly. This can be tricky, especially if you are ceiling mounting the projector.

Another factor to think about is the relative illumination of the screen when in 16:9 and 4:3 mode. For example, when the Optoma H79's lens is move from maximum long throw to maximum wide angle, the amount of light per unit of surface area striking the screen drops by 38%. That means that your 4:3 image at 120" would be noticeably dimmer than it would if viewed without the expansion. However, on the H79 you can compensate for this light loss by switching to Brite mode, which increases lumen output by about 27%. What you end up with is a 4:3 image on a 120" screen that is only slightly less bright than the 16:9 image at 110". Projectors vary in the percentage light increase to be gained by switching from standard to high lamp mode. On some projectors the differential is as little as 10%, and 15% to 20% is a more typical average. The H79 is unusual in that it delivers a more significant boost in brightness when switching to Brite mode. This happens to be handy for this type of installation.

The "black bar" issue needs to be considered as well. When you are viewing 16:9 material on a 120" diagonal 4:3 screen, you will have black bars above and below the image, just as you do when viewing widescreen movies on a standard television. This is less of an issue with large scale presentation, as the 16:9 image is plenty large enough that you perceive it as a BIG image, even when black bars are present. Meanwhile, on a 32" television, a widescreen image with black bars just looks way too small.

Nevertheless, for those who want to go for the ultimate solution, you can fit your screen with an electric masking system. This consists of black retractable masks that fit along the top and bottom of the screen. They are motorized, so they can be opened or closed to fit the aspect ratio of the material you are viewing. The most sophisticated masking systems will let you preprogram mask settings for multiple aspect ratios...say, 1.33, 1.78, 1.85, and 2.35. Thus, most of the material you view will have a solid black frame around it. This is the ultimate home theater solution, as video always looks its absolute best when framed in solid black.

However, electric masking is not cheap. A motorized masking system with programmable controls for multiple aspect ratios can add several thousand dollars to the total cost of the system. Furthermore, incorporating electric masking adds to the complexity of the installation. For example, let's assume you want to ceiling mount the projector and use vertical lens shift to drop the projected image to the position you want it on the wall. Starting in 4:3 mode where the image fills the 4:3 screen, the center of the image is in the center of the screen. However, since you have used the lens shift feature to move the lens away from its optically neutral position, as you zoom the image from 4:3 to 16:9, the center of the projected image will drop. That means the black bar above the image will be larger than the black bar below the image. So you will need an electric masking system that can be programmed to accommodate that shift-the top and bottom masks cannot be opened and closed equally. Control systems are available that enable you to program the top and bottom masks independently, so the problem can be solved with the right hardware. But you now move into a level of installation complexity that many DIY fans may find daunting.

Custom installers always an option

If you were to go with something like the set up we've described-an Optoma H79 and a 120" diagonal 4:3 screen with programmable electric masks-you are into an investment in your video system that will exceed $10,000. If you are laying out this sort of cash for the video component of your home theater, it is reasonable to budget about that amount for the audio system as well.

Though you can install it all on your own with enough time, effort, and trial and error, many people in this budget range prefer to use professional home theater installers to ensure that everything is done right. They install the hardware, open and repair the drywall to run cables, install in-wall speakers, calibrate the video and audio systems, apply acoustical treatments, ensure the right selection of cables and interconnects, and program the control systems. And after they've done all that, they teach you how to use it all.

Some home theater installers require that you buy all of your components through them. They provide turnkey systems using a select group of product lines that they represent and are familiar with. However, with the rise of inexpensive equipment sourcing on the Internet, many installers are now saying to their customers, "buy whatever you want on the Internet, and we'll come out and do the installation and training for you." They simply charge installation fees rather than require you to select products from the limited lines they happen to represent. This can be a practical way to get a truly high performance home theater system installed by experts, but using cost-effective products you really want.

The bottom line is that there are several ways to set up a home theater. Your viewing preferences should determine the best solution for projector and screen formats, and just because 16:9 is a newer format does not mean that it is the best solution for everyone. If you put a premium on high quality 4:3 viewing, then make sure you take that into account as you plan your system. For me, if I want to see Casablanca the way it was meant to be seen, there is nothing better than having the option to switch my 4:3 presentation from 90" to 120" at the press of a few buttons.

Meanwhile, if the system you want looks like more of a project to install that you'd like to tackle, call around to a few custom installers in your area to see what kind of assistance they can provide. You may be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to get a high performance home theater installed when you draw upon the expertise of folks that do it for a living.