The classic home theater is dark, just like a commercial movie theater. But there are many folks who either don't have the ability to create a dark viewing room, or simply don't want to. Many would prefer to watch movies with the lights on so they can interact with family or friends at the same time. The ideal solution could be a large plasma TV, but plasmas at 70" diagonal or larger are way too expensive for most people. So, if you want some ambient light in the room, what can you do? A front projector combined with Planar's newly introduced Xscreen may be just the solution.
The Xscreen functions just like a regular projection screen, with the exception that it substantially boosts contrast, color saturation, and black levels in ambient light. It has the ability to defeat cross lighting from ambient sources, and reflect a brilliant picture that looks quite a lot like a plasma TV. With all of the lights fully on in our lab, the difference between the image on our Stewart Grayhawk RS and the Planar Xscreen was like night and day-dull and washed out on the Grayhawk, but crisp, bright, and beautifully high in contrast on the Xscreen. It was quite literally like watching a television.
The Xscreen is a rigid glass screen that comes in a protective frame. As you can see in the pic above, it looks like a plasma TV. And in fact, there is an option to add on-board speakers and a video processor for an extra fee (the pic shows the connector panel, but our review sample did not include these extras). Fortunately, the Xcreen weighs a lot less than a plasma TV. It is intended to be mounted on a wall, and comes in four sizes as follows:
60" (active screen area 55.5"), 69 lbs., $1,399
70" (active screen area 68"), 71 lbs., $1,699
80" (active screen area 77.5"), 96 lbs., $1,999
100" (active screen area 97"), 132 lbs., $2,799
So, let's say your ultimate dream video system is that new Panasonic 103", 1080p plasma TV, but you don't have $70,000 laying around to spend on it. You can get a 100" Planar Xscreen for $2,800 and one of the new 1080p projectors for $5,000, and end up with just as dramatic a picture on the wall for under $8,000. It's easier to install too. The 100" edition of the Xscreen weighs a mere 132 lbs., compared to 485 lbs for the big Panasonic plasma.
What is the downside?
Life is full of trade-offs, and there is an important one to be aware of here. The Xscreen has a relatively limited sweet spot compared to a conventional projection screen. If you are sitting in the sweet spot-which is directly in front of the screen-it looks spectacular. But as you move out of the sweet spot, the picture degrades in a hurry. The reason the picture looks so good at the center viewing position is that the screen is focusing most of the light directly back in the direction of the projector. Moving out of that narrow cone of reflected light causes the image to dim considerably. So the Xscreen is a solution that will not work well if you have seating placed at various angles to the screen around the room.
On any screen you get the brightest image when you look at it from a position directly in front of it, along the perpendicular axis to the center of the screen. Technically speaking, the brightness level at this viewing position is referred to as "Peak Gain at Zero Degrees Viewing Axis." As you move to the side and away from the center viewing position, the brightness of the image on any screen will drop, but on different screens the brightness will drop off more or less rapidly. A screen's half-gain angle is the viewing angle at which reflected light is reduced by 50% from the maximum that you get at the center, zero degree viewing position.
Now, with that bit of technical background, we measured the Xscreen's half-gain angle at 22 degrees. By comparison, the Stewart Grayhawk's half gain angle is 64 degrees. So as you might expect, a screen like the Grayhawk is much better at diffusing the light more evenly. This allows everyone in the audience to see pretty much the same picture no matter where they are in the room--and it looks good as long as the room is dark. Conversely, if you are viewing the Xscreen at an angle of, say, 30 degrees from the center position, it will look relatively dim. And for all practical purposes the image becomes unviewable at an angle of 50 degrees.
There is a related phenomenon to be aware of also. If you are not sitting very close to the center viewing position, you may notice some unevenness in illumination. If you are sitting to the left of center, the left side of the screen may appear brighter than the right side. This is another effect of the narrow half-gain angle. The effect will vary based on screen size, viewing distance, and the throw distance of the projector. However, it is manageable if you ensure that the seating positions are situated as close to center viewing axis as possible.
We noticed one other issue with the Xscreen that could be a bit of a nuisance. There is a reflective surface between the frame and the active screen area itself. This is about one inch wide and forms a perimeter around the image just inside the frame. Normally it appears black and cannot be seen. But if you happen to be sitting at just the right angle relative to the screen and the projector, you will see the projector's lens reflected as an extremely bright spot on the edge of the screen. This can be eliminated by shifting in your seat either a bit to the right or left, so that you are out of that precise viewing angle. But it would have been better if the frame were constructed to cover that highly reflective perimeter so that the problem could not occur.
The Planar Xscreen is certainly a much more cost-effective solution to ambient light problems than is a 70", 80", or 100" plasma TV. But it will only work well in a room where the seating is pretty much directly in front of the screen. The projector should be on a rear shelf behind and just above the heads of the audience in order to minimize the angle of projection. However, the good news is that if you have a room that can accommodate these installation restrictions, you will end up with a spectacular, high contrast jaw-dropping image that looks just like a huge plasma TV for a fraction of the price.
The bottom line is this ... if your room layout is right and you want to leave the lights on, by all means take a close look at a Planar Xscreen. It will deliver a brilliant, high contrast image in ambient light unlike anything a conventional screen could ever match.
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One thing I saw from this review is it is a retro-reflective screen. That's a shame and disappointment not only to me but I am sure many others that already have their system setup and wired with the projector ceiling mounted. If it would have been ceiling mount friends (on the projector end) I may have taken the plunge on one.