The Amazing, Incredible, Invisible Projector
It’s astounding how much you can learn if you ask the right question. On the other hand, you can also learn a lot if you ask a stupid question of the right person.
That may explain why I often wander through big-box electronic stores asking relatively stupid questions about new products for which I already have the answers. For example, in the early days of digital cameras I often asked the saleperson, “Where do you put the film in this thing?” or “Do you have a digital camera that takes black and white photos?” You’d be surprised at the initial answers I got for those two questions—including “I don’t work here.” But as you might expect, those answers improved over time as the salespeople—and the companies they worked for—learned about the advantages that digital cameras offered over film cameras and trained their salepeople to sell more of them.
My purpose in asking questions like these isn’t to challenge or reward the saleperson based on their answers, but to get a better sense of the marketing messages and training those salepeople received on the products in question. After all, when a product is so new that I’m asking about it, you can be confident that the salesperson has had little, if any, hands-on experience using it...and therefore must rely on their training (messaging) or what they’ve heard from others. These early answers can also reveal a bit about what’s trending and the products a company is trying to sell or avoid selling at the moment—and truth be told, I always get an idea for a story or two in the process.
Recently, I’ve been asking a lot of questions about the differences between large flatpanel 4K UHD HDR TVs and 4K or "4K-enhanced" (1080p pixel-shifting) UHD HDR projectors, both of which are vying for the same dollars in the home theater, education, church, and commercial display markets. When I’m approached in the display area of the store (which magically takes about 2.3 seconds once I pass by the first display) my first question is, “I’m building a home theater in my finished basement, and trying to decide whether to buy an 80-inch, 4K HDR TV or a 4K projector. What do you recommend?”
That’s actually a dumb and loaded question at the same time, even if it sounds reasonable. For starters, most big box electronics stores dedicate several walls, aisles, and teams of salepeople to selling flatpanel displays, while business and home theater projectors get a rack with a few posters around it. That’s because the sales ratio of flatpanel displays compared to projectors in most big box stores is probably 100:1, and thats not going to change very soon since it’s a lot easier to promote the incredible HDR colors and contrast on a large flatscreen showing movies right in front of you than it is to compare projectors sitting in boxes. In addition, the potential sale of an expensive 80-inch HDR TV (about $3,000 on average) is bound to get most salespeople fired up to sell it versus a home theater projector costing...how much? Let me check for you.
That’s why, when asked this question, most big box salespeople will heavily recommend a flatpanel TV over a projector. The responses I’ve actually received can be summarized by the following:
- I recommend a flatpanel HDR TV because HDR doesn’t work as well on projectors since they aren’t bright enough.
- A flatpanel HDR TV is your best choice, since the color gamut and contrast is superior to a home theater projector.
- A good 80-inch HDR TV is much more affordable than a 4K HDR projector—which costs over $5,000 (without sound and screen.)
- A new 4K HDR TV will last you much longer without maintainance. You have to change bulbs on a projector after a few thousand hours of viewing and may need to regularly clean filters.
- Large screen TVs are easier to install. Projectors have to be mounted on the ceiling to reduce shadows when people stand up, and you have to add an expensive screen to get best results.
- Most projectors don’t have WiFi or Smart TV features built in so you have to get expensive HDR-certified HDMI cables to connect your 4K Blu-ray player, media center, and cable box to the projector.
- Projector fans are too noisy in a small home theater room, but necessary to prevent projectors from getting too hot to touch. Flatpanel displays don’t have overheating issues so they don’t need fans.
In my experience, the first five answers above are dead wrong, while the other two are partly true and less compelling. However, it’s easy to understand where these answers came from given the fact that few salespeople have ever seen the SDR or HDR output from the latest 4K or 4Ke projectors on a 120-inch screen. In most big box stores, it’s nearly impossible to set up a valid side-by-side comparison between a large flatpanel 4K UHD TV and a 4K projector so customers can decide for themselves, so the flatpanel manufacturers have the advantage when it comes to controlling the narrative. (Yes, political-speak is slowly creeping into my vocabulary.)
Up till now, no salesperson has ever said “go with projection, dude!” Instead, about 5 percent of the time I either get “I don’t work here” (again), or I get asked a qualifier from an experienced salesperson, including things like: “How much are you willing to spend?” “How large a screen can you fit on the wall in your home theater?” “Does your home theater space have windows?” And my favorite to date—“How big a TV can you fit down the stairs into your basement?”
In many ways, digital home theater projectors face the same challenges as digital cameras did early on. They may have advantages over flatpanel TV’s in many areas, but from the first introduction of HDR TVs in 2014 until the 2017 arrival of affordable 4K HDR projectors, flatpanel HDR TVs were the only HDR display choice in town. During that time flatpanel manufacturers got to define several HDR specifications that are biased towards flatpanel technology. For example, the UHD Alliance’s 4K Ultra HD Premium certification requires a certified display to produce certain max and min luminance levels and super-high contrast ratios based on those max and min levels: 1000 nits max and 0.05 nits min for LCD displays, or 540 nits max, 0.0005 nits min for OLED displays. Those levels result in 20,000:1 and 1.1 million:1 contrast ratios. However, no where on the UHD Alliance website does it specify that those luminance levels and contrast ratios are not applicable to HDR projection!
You’d never know that was the case given how often I hear those specs quoted from “experts” in the projection industry or from salespeople telling me how no affordable projector can achieve the 1000 nits max luminance and high contrast ratios needed for true HDR. In fact, a 2,200 lumens projector selling for around $1,800 can easily achieve over 1000 nits luminance as long as you position the projector and set the lens to create a 40-inch screen image. I’ve even tested a calibrated 2200 lumens model that achieved 540 nits max luminance on a similar screen area with over 100% coverage of the DCI-P3 space (and an amazing color accuracy under 2 Delta E) in HDR mode using its lower-lumens cinema mode. Those are reference monitor-level specs achieved at 1/10th the price of a Sony 30-inch reference monitor. (FYI: all other things equal, nits ratings for a projector will vary depending on the projector-to-screen distance and resulting image size. Lumens ratings do not vary based on distance, and that’s why they make more sense when comparing the max luminance of projectors.)
Commercial installers already know that 4K and 4K-enhanced HDR projectors can be a better choice than large 4K UHD flatpanel TVs in a wide variety of display scenarios. However, on the consumer side that fact is just beginning to sink in, and we have some catching up to do in terms of educating potential buyers to the features and advantages of projection. These advantages go beyond the larger image sizes than can be achieved by current 4K or 8K flatpanels, and may also include wider color gamuts, more accurate colors, easier portability, projection mapping technologies, and long-life laser engines on upcoming home theater models. In my next few blogs I’ll tackle those seven wrong answers listed above, and hopefully come up with a few more dumb questions to ask next time I go shopping. Maybe something like: “Should I wait for affordable 8K projection models to arrive, or get an 8K HDR TV now for my new home theater?”
Michael J. McNamara is the former Executive Technology Editor of Popular Photography magazine and a renowned expert on digital capture, storage, and display technologies. He is also an award-winning photographer and videographer, and the owner of In-Depth Focus Labs in Hopewell Junction, NY. In The Projectionist, he shares his field experiences, insights into current products, and tips and tricks for improving projected image quality for SDR and HDR content.