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So, You Think You're So Bright?

I’m often amazed, and sometimes confused, by the way certain words have entirely different meanings depending on the subject matter. For example, compare the statement, “she’s much brighter than her brother,” to “flat-panel TVs are much brighter than projectors.” In the first case, “brighter” most likely means more intelligent, while in the second case it means…what exactly? Does it mean that the light output from most flat-panel TVs is higher than the light output from most projectors? Or that most flat-panel TVs are easier to watch in a well lit showroom than a projected image?

It’s not clear—because the term “brighter” doesn’t have a fixed meaning when comparing these two types of displays. It’s a subjective term based on a perceptual value that varies based on several factors—including the adaptation level of the viewer’s eyes, the field of view occupied by the displayed image, and the ambient lighting conditions around both types of display. All of these factors (and a few less important ones) may help to explain why you’ll never hear someone say, “Wow, watching that blockbuster movie on your new TV was so much better than watching it in the theater!”—unless they are referring to the comfort level of the seating. (One of my main complaints about most movie theaters.) [Editor's note: ...Or referring to the quality of the sound system...but that's a discussion for another day!—R.S.]

If you were actually able to measure and compare the light output from both types of displays using a luminance meter (an objective measurement), then flat-panel TVs would typically show much higher maximum luminance values on screen. So changing the statement to “flat-panel TVs have higher light output than projectors” may be more accurate. But it still doesn’t give them an advantage over projectors. For starters, our eyes automatically adapt the average luminance of the scene occupying our field of view, which is why shining a flashlight in someones eyes at night has a different effect than shining that light in their eyes on a sunny day. As a result of adaptation, images projected on screen in a darkened theater can appear similar in “brightness” to those displayed on a flat panel TV in a room with much higher ambient light levels.

The field of view (FOV) occupied by each display type also plays a part. In a darkened projection home theater or commercial movie theater, the screen usually occupies a much larger field of view (assuming you get the good seats!) than the FOV occupied by a flat-panel TV viewed from the couch in your family/entertainment room. Of course, it’s possible to turn down all the lights in your TV room in order to match the ambient lighting levels of a theater, and you can also move closer to your TV until it fills the same FOV as a large movie theater screen. But if you’ve ever done so, especially with a large flat-panel TV, you’ll notice how quickly your eyes tire from excessive TV glare and contrast...unless you turn the TV to its dimmer movie mode or increase ambient light levels. That’s soft proof that flat-panel TVs and home theater projectors are designed for different viewing environments—but with the same goal in mind: to match the content creator or director’s intent as closely as possible within the display’s capabilities.

Illuminating Differences:The two displays compared in these photos include a 4K UHD 43-inch HDR flat-panel TV (left) and a larger image projected by a 4K UHD home theater projector (right). Both displays measured 200 nits (cd/m2) max luminance in center screen. The top photo shows how each display appears to the eye and camera in a moderately-lit room—and the smaller 43-inch HDR TV wins the image quality contest by virtue of its apparent brightness. In the bottom photo, the room lights are at low home theater levels. In these conditions, both displays reveal similar brightness. The flat-panel's advantage is neutralized, and the projector wins hands down for the larger-size image.

The movie industry has long understood the importance of the factors just discussed since it makes money selling movies to both theater goers and TV owners. That’s one of the reasons why SMPTE (one of the standard associations helping to regulate the movie industry) has set specifications for projectors and the viewing environments found in commercial theaters. For example, for a general commercial theater (regardless of screen size), SMPTE recommends a projector be able to fill the screen with a peak luminance of 48 cd/m2 (equivalent to 14 ft lamberts, or 48 nits), and a minimum black of 0.03 cd/m2. In this case, a min black of 0.03 on screen requires a very dark room with minimal amounts of ambient light spilling on the screen. In a high-end “reference” or color-grading projection environment, SMPTE requires the same max luminance of 48 cd/m2along with a darker 0.01 cd/m2 min black on screen (only possible in a super-dark environment). Interesting to note that those specified theater luminance levels equate to a measured ANSI contrast ratio (not full off/full on) between 1,600:1 (general theater) and 4,800:1 (reference theater).

SMPTE has not yet specified screen and ambient luminance levels for commercial theaters using tiled flat panel TVs or microLED displays, possibly because neither technology is commercially viable due to extremely high initial cost and ongoing operational costs. However, for SDR (standard dynamic range) TV displays, the SMPTE and other related entities recommend a max luminance of 100 cd/m2 and an ideal ambient light level that is 5% of the TV’s max luminance (about 5 cd/m2). Those levels were based on older CRT screen technologies, so if you have a newer SDR TV it's probably capable of achieving 160 to 200 cd/m2 max luminance. If so, your ideal ambient light levels for viewing a movie on a new flat-screen TV will probably be between 8 and 10 cd/m2—which is 200 to 300 times brighter than the ambient light levels recommended for a commercial or home theater! Keep in mind that with flat-panel TVs, ambient light levels do not affect the min luminance levels as greatly as on a projected screen image, but higher ambient levels can cause reflections that reduce contrast and overall image quality.

The bottom line is that brightness is a subjective term that shouldn’t be used to compare different display types, or even similar display types. Of course, I don’t expect retail A/V salespeople to shift over to saying “flat panels have higher luminance levels than projectors” any time soon—it would take too much time to also explain to potential customers that even measured luminance and contrast ratios for a given flat panel display can’t really be used to compare it to a home theater projector without first taking into account the different viewing conditions recommended for each type of display.

Now that the competition between HDR flat panels and HDR home theater projectors is heating up, it’s going to get even trickier. The main reason? Standards organizations such as SMPTE have not locked down their specifications for HDR projectors for use in commercial theaters. Currently, the in-fighting between HDR-display and projector companies trying to standardize on their specific technologies and advantages is fierce. This may explain why there are still fewer than 100 HDR-capable theaters in the U.S. despite the proven image quality advantages of HDR. Until those standards are in place, few theater owners will be willing to invest in new projection equipment or the support systems needed to handle HDR movie content—including massive storage systems, increased bandwidth within the theater and for downloading movies from suppliers, and more stringent copyright security protocols. This means that, for the first time, you can purchase an affordable HDR home theater projector today that delivers a higher quality image in your own home than they can get in most commercial theaters. And the popcorn costs less too!

Comments (7) Post a Comment
Jim Posted May 20, 2019 9:00 AM PST
Well, I'm switching from a projector with 103" screen to a large (82") LED TV. The LED TV just looks better. I compared it to a $10,000 HDR 4K projector - in a dedicated theater room with very low ambient lighting. In dark scenes, the projector screen appeared dimly gray. So in my opinion, flat panels, which are approaching projector screen size, win. That said, my LED TV has not yet arrived, so I guess I will see.
Mike McNamara Posted May 20, 2019 6:53 PM PST
"in a dedicated theater room with very low ambient lighting".

Jim: What exactly does "with very low ambient lighting" mean? It only takes a small amount of light falling on a projector screen for it to appear dimly gray in dark scenes, and it's possible the ambient light levels in that "dedicated theater room" were higher than SMPTE recommendations listed in my article. Other unanswered questions: Who set up this comparison, what projector was used, what were the display modes, and was the older 103 inch screen you mentioned the screen used with the $10K 4K HDR projector? If so, why such a small screen for such a powerful projector?
Sammy Posted May 20, 2019 7:54 PM PST
You are right. My 65 inch OLED is incredibly better than any projector ever made, home or cinema. However, I sit so far away that I can hardly see the detail in my living room. To see all the 4K detali, say in BBC's Earth, I have to sit less than 2 meters away, so close that I can feel the heat the 500W OLED generates. My 120 inch screen may be "twice" the size, but has 3.5x the square footage of my 65 inch TV. In fact, the 65 inch TV is exactly 29% of the screen area. Even if I bought a gigantic 82 inch TV, it would be just 47% of my screen's real estate. I would have a better picture for watching the news. But the punch of movies would be gone. Hence, to me, there is no substitute for a projector, that is until LG perfects its flexible panels that I can just paste on my wall.
Bevan Posted May 21, 2019 2:57 PM PST
Ever since I got my first projector in 2010, I've promoted them (over TVs) to my friends/family and many of them have joined me in the home theater world. None of them regret it. Actually, everyone I talk to about it would love a home theater, but their holdup is the cost of getting it. Now, don't get me wrong, TVs have their place and are very useful. TVs are better for the regular daily routine, like when my kids watch shows during the day or when my wife and I watch Netflix for an hour at night. But when I watch movies, we fire up the home theater to get that better, more immersive experience. TVs are like your daily commute car and projectors are like your sports car you take out on the weekends. Even though the picture quality is similar between my projector and TV, the larger image (130" vs 65"), proper surround sound and a dedicated space with room darkening and movie decor make the home theater experience far beyond what any TV can do.

You can compare TVs and projectors if you like, but I believe they're intended for different purposes. The TV does its job well in the family room and the projector does its job well in the home theater. They are made for different environments.
Kevin Posted May 21, 2019 6:38 PM PST
I'm a videophile/audiophile that has had a dedicated HT area for 20yrs... projection based for the past 15yrs. I've had top-of-line Panasonic or Epson PJs for years and moved to JVC 3yrs ago. After purchasing my first OLED TV 18 months ago - I now own 4 of them.. the last unit I bought is a 77" unit that cost me just a bit more than my JVC PJ cost a few years ago.

While I prefer the size of my 120" 1.78 ratio and my 135" 2.4 ratio screens - I could not get past the quality of the black-levels/shadow-detail/contrast/colors of the OLED technology with 4K/HDR content. 85% of what I watch is HDR/DV content between movies/Netflix/Prime and my 4K e-shift JVC looked great, but OLED is just in a different league.

So while I love projectors and will keep my old Panasonic if I have a need, I'm selling my JVC projector and using the 77" OLED in my HT until Projectors can close-the-gap to OLED technology at a $4K-5K range.
Bevan Posted May 22, 2019 7:37 AM PST
I'll admit that TV picture quality is better than projectors at a similar price, but don't underestimate the value of an image 4 times larger. Encompassing your field of view makes a big difference, plus there's more space for optimum seating. If I had to choose, I would prefer a larger image with slightly lower picture quality. It just makes for a better experience.

TVs have certainly gotten bigger over the years, so they're trying to close that gap, but they still have a long way to go. It appears technically possible to have a 130" 4K TV screen, but the price, weight and bulk of such a beast is the roadblock. Imagine the cost of such a thing. Imagine the shipping costs alone! Now a flexible roll up TV screen of that size could work if the picture quality is still there. Of course, this isn't a problem for projectors.

Projectors have certainly gotten better picture quality over the years, so they're closing that gap with TVs. I recently viewed my friend's Epson 5050 and the picture quality is amazing under the right conditions. So at similar prices, projectors are getting very close to the picture quality of TVs, but there's the inherent problem of ambient lighting and burned out bulbs. Laser light sources can fix the bulb problem, but TVs will always perform better with ambient lighting. Which brings me back to my original point......TVs and projectors are made for different environments. We need both of them.
Pavel Posted Jul 18, 2020 1:07 PM PST
As my current home cinema room was a result of long years upgrade, I can share my perspective: I started with "huge" for the time 55 inch high end plasma TV and kind of a sound bar 5+1. They were complimenting each other nice, After that I made my room completely dark (black acoustic foam ceiling, near black walls and dark grey furniture. It was great movie experience! Then ... I have upgraded the sound to the best affordable (and enough for the room) audio with huge 5 high end speakers. I still remember the result with the first movie I watched after that - the feeling was as I was watching a movie through a small window on the wall. The sound was too big for such small picture. Second projector later (I don't plan any more upgrades), I could not think return back (unless I can afford same size TV with the same quality of the picture. And finally, even if I change the projector for huge TV, I wouldn't need more brightness as it is pointless. Even with the projector, I have to cover the bright part of a high contrast scene so my eyes adapt to see more details in the dark parts.

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