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The Most Important Decision to Make
For Your Home Theater

Evan Powell, August 28, 2008
Contents

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.


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Comments (7) Post a Comment
Paul Posted Nov 9, 2008 8:44 AM PST
Thanks for the great advise. I bought a cheap projector from ebay last year for under $500 including screen and mount. It was not great but got me into the idea it was possible to have home cinema. I have spent a lot of time searching for a good projector to replace the cheap one from ebay (which had a fan noise like a helicopter taking off when you started it so don't by one even if its cheap!!) but never put any thought into the physical setup and configuration. These are great tips and I will certainly benefit from your experience in this area.
Steve Hartman Posted Oct 18, 2009 8:29 PM PST
I could sure use some advice. I live in a small town of 800 people. We have ZERO indoor entertainment for the whole family - no theater, no bowling, no gaming businesses, no nothing.

However, we do have a community center with a stage that's about 22 feet wide 8 feet high. It is an octagon building and it's about 60 feet from the front of the stage to the opposite wall.

There probably wouldn't be more than 100 people at any given show.

What can you tell me about possible screen size, type projector and lense needed. And, off the cuff, does anyone know if grants would be available and/or total cost of such a project for projector, screen, and of course it would have to be a powered up-and-down on the screen.
Doniz Posted Dec 26, 2009 2:07 PM PST
There has been talk of 1.78:1 AR screen sizes and 2.35AR screen aspect ratio/sizes, but I had found that the ideal screen aspect ratio is app. 2:1, specifically 2.05:1.

BTW, the ASC (American Assoc. of Cinematographers) had lobbied for a 2:1 AR HDTV standard for over a decade. At the end, they lost, the the greed factor ensured a stupid 1.78:1 AR.

You need at least vertical or horizontal masking and a good zooming range (say, 2:1) zoom lens, but when you have a 2:1 AR screen, you are very easy to show 1.78 HD and scope content equally well.

Also, keep in mind that "scope" or "CinemaScope" AR can be anywhere from 2.2:1 to 2.65:1, the most frequent scope aspect ratios being 2.2:1, 2.35:1, 2.4:1, 2.55:1, and 2.65:1. So, a 2.35:1 AR screen will not help you with many of the CinemaScope movies that were made in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is simply amazing to me that "The Robe" (1953) was shot in a wider screen aspect ratio than anything they are filming and releasing today.

More than one screen mfrs have standard screen sizes in the 2.0:1 or 2.05:1 AR, by the way, Check it out!

Finally... Evan, was "Bottle Shock" a widescreen or scope flick? :~))
Gene Posted Mar 27, 2010 7:50 AM PST
Hi there,

I am about to build our basement and I am stuck at which layout I should do to ensure a good home theatre. Ideally I want a 7.5 foot screen and want to put in a 7.1 system. One way I would have a max distance of 14 feet from wall to wall. How would this effect my back speakers and my viewing of the screen. the other way (my original) gives me less storage space and I could only go for a max size screen of 7.5, but the distance from screen to back wall would be 16 feet with a wall behind us of 8 feet (ie parrell to the couch placement) I hope I explained myself. Hopefully someone can help me. Email is insomniapromo@rogers.com

Thanks
Doniz Posted May 12, 2010 4:05 PM PST
What is your question exactly, Gene? In my view, a larger room is always better for acoustics than a smaller one. I personally swear by a room 22 ft wide x 32 ft long x 14 ft high. That can really blow you away with the sound!
Mukesh Kumar Posted Aug 23, 2010 3:44 AM PST
This would be quite helpful in determining the correct screen size for most comfortable viewing.
amar Posted Jul 29, 2013 6:14 PM PST
folks trying to build a projector screen for under $100, but I can't find a blackout cloth that's bigger than 54" , while I need a 66" cause I'm trying to build a 120" diag. screen (111"x66").

Can you please suggest a cheap way to do a screen material that looks good.

Thank you.

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