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Stewart Filmscreen

Evan Powell, June 2, 2004

Stewart Filmscreen has been long established as a leader in the engineering and production of high quality video and film projection screens. For many years the company has held a strong market position in the high-end home theater business on the strength of its Studiotek 130 white screen, rated at 1.3 gain. With the release of the Grayhawk (0.95 gain) in 2001 the company pioneered the concept of using gray screens to enhance black levels and contrast performance. The Grayhawk was followed a year later by the Firehawk (1.35 gain), which was both darker gray than the Grayhawk, and carried a higher gain factor.

Studiotek 130

In theory the perfect screen is one that is entirely neutral and invisible-one that gets out of the way of the projector. The ideal screen reflects back exactly what the projector gives it, without adding textures, sheens, color shifts, or reductions in contrast, brightness, or resolution.

By reputation the Studiotek 130 is the closest thing to a perfect screen on the market. Part of the objective of this review has been to determine the degree to which this reputation is justified, and whether there are any products that match or exceed the performance of the Studiotek 130.

The Studiotek 130 was the brightest of the white screens in the review, reflecting 130% of the light energy returned by the standard white board. In terms of brightness competing screens fell short of the Studiotek by anywhere from 5% to 50%. In addition however, most competing screens also fell short to varying degrees in resolution, contrast, and color accuracy. We did not find any competing screen that matched or exceeded the Studiotek 130's performance.

If there is any imperfection in the Studiotek 130 it is the mild hotspot resulting from the positive gain. All screens manifesting a real gain of greater than 1.0 have a detectable hotspot. That is because the way they achieve increased gain is by channeling some greater portion of the incident light back toward the center of the viewing angle than would occur if it were evenly diffused. The result is that as you walk around the screen the brightest portion of the image will shift with you as you move. On low gain screens this phenomenon is not terribly exaggerated, and the benefit is that the image is brighter through most of the viewing angle than it otherwise would be. However on high gain screens the variation in light intensity from one side of the screen to the other can be quite noticeable and distracting.

Overall, we found that the Studiotek 130 continues to set a performance standard in the industry. However, it is also the most expensive of the white screens in the review. For those investing in high resolution, high performance projectors for a totally light controlled environment, the difference in price between screen options should not be an issue and the Studiotek 130 is recommended. For those on lower budgets some realistic trade-offs must come into play. These will be discussed in the reviews of each of the competing products. Furthermore, for those who have ambient light issues the gray screen options will make better sense.

Grayhawk

The Grayhawk consists of a lighter gray fabric than the Firehawk, and it has a lower gain rating of 0.95. We use the Grayhawk in our lab, but it is a pre-production model that does not have precisely the same performance characteristics as the production product. Therefore it has been excluded from this review. If there is interest from our readers we will secure a production sample of the Grayhawk and update this review at a later date.

Firehawk

The Firehawk is quite a peculiar animal. Gray screens in general vary in their grayness, from a very light gray to medium charcoal gray. The Firehawk is among the darkest of the gray screens on the market. The odd thing is that it is also the brightest of the gray screens, with the singular exception of the very high gain Vutec SilverStar.

The Firehawk measured a brightness of 115% compared to the standard white board. Other than the SilverStar which measured in the stratosphere, the other four gray screens in the review measured below 100%. The Firehawk has the same neutral color and high resolution as the Studiotek.

The hotspot on the Firehawk is more pronounced than it is on any of the other gray screens, again with the exception of the SilverStar. For the brightest and most even illumination the Firehawk needs to be installed properly in relation to the projector and seating. Ceiling mounting of the projector is mandatory for best results, so that the projected light bounces off the screen at an angle that causes the sweet spot to hit the seating area. Furthermore, the projector should be mounted as far from the screen as possible to narrow the cone of projected light. Since the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, a narrow cone of light will cause more light to be reflected back toward the audience rather than scattered to the sides.

While the set up just described is in theory the best for all front projection installations, screens will vary greatly in the range of their performance based on whether these rules are followed. With respect to the Firehawk, one simply cannot set up a short-throw projector on a coffee table and get the same results that the screen will deliver with a longer throw ceiling mounted projector. Gray screens with lower gain will tend not to manifest as much variance in image quality based upon how they are installed.

This has important consequences for how the screens are reviewed. The Firehawk is capable of outperforming each of the gray screen competitors in this review, but only when it is evaluated under conditions of best installation. If one sets up side by side viewings between the Firehawk and competing screens with a coffee-table mounted projector, the Firehawk will not show as well as it could and the differences between it and its competitors become less obvious.

From a practical perspective, this means that if you do not intend to go for a ceiling mounted installation you may want to consider less costly alternatives since the Firehawk's potential will go unused. In particular the Da-lite High Contrast CinemaVision is an attractive option that sells for quite a bit less.

In general however, we found that the Firehawk's relatively dark gray fabric was particularly effective at absorbing ambient uncontrolled light and maintaining deeper black levels than other screens in the review. At the same time the screen's proprietary optical coating gives it a special brilliance that surpasses the competition. So despite the screen's medium gray color, whites are beautifully white and color saturation is exceptional. Thus the Firehawk is unique in the world of gray screens in that it has the potential to render bright whites and deep blacks across a dynamic range that competing gray screens have difficulty matching.

Commentary

Do projector screens really differ?
Should I choose White or Gray?
What is screen gain?

Reviews (vendors in descending order of retail price)

Relative Brightness of Projection Screens
Vutec Corporation
Stewart Filmscreen
Draper, Inc.
Da-lite Screen Company
Carada, Inc.
Goo Systems, Inc.

Summary