The Most Important Decision to Make
For Your Home Theater
A Big Wrinkle: 2.35 Widescreen Rigs
Most people setting up home theaters are using 16:9 screens. The width of a 16:9 image and the width of a wider format 2.35 movie is the same, so your ideal viewing distance does not change much when switching from one type of material to another.
Not so if you have a 2.35 format screen with constant image height that you manage either with an anamorphic lens or by zooming the projector's on board lens back and forth. For example, let's say I set up my home theater with my 16:9 image being 7.5 feet wide. I put my seats at about 11 feet from the screen to give me my ideal viewing distance of 1.5x the screen width. So far, so good. However, when I roll the anamorphic lens into place, the image size spreads to 10 feet wide. I am now sitting at a distance of 1.1x the screen width. This distance, for me, is a disaster. If I try to watch an entire movie this close, my eyes begin to ache after a while--too much side-to-side eye movement is required to take it all in, and I feel fatigued at the end of the ordeal. It is like sitting first row, side court at a tennis match.
One solution would be to move my seats back to a distance of 15 feet. That restores my viewing distance comfort zone of 1.5x the screen width for 2.35 material. But now, when I remove the anamorphic lens to watch, say, an NFL game in 16:9 HD, the image shrinks back to 7.5 feet wide, and I am sitting at distance of 2.0x the image width. That's farther back than I would choose for this image size.
Therefore, if you are thinking about installing a 2.35 system, you are talking about variable image widths for different types of viewing matter. That in turn has an impact on the ideal seating distance from the screen. There is a trade-off involved: You can optimize for 2.35 movies and be too far from 16:9 and 4:3 material, or you can optimize for 16:9 and risk being uncomfortably close to 2.35 movies. Or you can sit somewhere in between and compromise. Nobody can tell you what is right for you in terms of managing this trade-off. But to ensure your long run enjoyment of your theater it is vital to think through this issue carefully.
The bottom line is this: Do not treat the issue of screen size lightly. It seems inconsequential, but it is the most important decision you will make about the design of your theater. You can end up very dissatisfied with your home theater if the screen you choose is either too small or too big for your room. Above all, do not go for the biggest screen you can fit in the room unless you know for a fact it will work for you. The most costly mistake you can make is to invest in a 12-foot wide screen and install it in a room that is only 15 feet deep, only to discover that it drives you nuts to watch it for any length of time because you just can't get far enough away from it.
Our advice: We have two strong recommendations to make. First, take advantage of your local commercial movie theaters to experiment methodically with viewing distances. Take your time, see a number of movies, and study how you react to different viewing distances. Make sure to take along a spouse or anyone else who you expect to spend a lot of time in your home theater. Do this before you pay hard cash for a screen that may or may not actually work for you. If you pay close attention to your preferred seating distance in a commercial theater, you will have excellent practical experience to guide you on how to set up your ideal home theater.
Our second recommendation: don't see Bottle Shock.