3 essentials for a home cinema

If you’re starting with a home cinema or home theater, it’s difficult to know exactly where to begin.

I’ll give you a fresh perspective. And that’s seen from an image-quality point of view. I am not looking at specific brands or models, but a general idea of the things you need to think of.

There’s an overview here and you’ll get a detailed explanation after the graphic:

graphic of the 3 essentials for home theater: ambient light, seating distance / size and systems

The 3 essentials are:

– Ambient light
– Seating distance / screen size
– The system

1. Ambient light

First, let’s look at what ambient light really is. I define it as all the light that’s not coming from your projector.

The main source of ambient light would be sunlight. Especially when you want to use your projector during the day, the sun will have a massive effect. But lamps in a dark room can seriously influence the quality of the image on your screen.

If you want to have the best possible image quality, you need to reduce the amount of ambient light as much as possible.

In the evening, that means turning of the lights, or dimiming them as much as possible. Some trial and error will quickly tell you what the best settings are. Because pitch black is great for projection, but can be a pain when you want to get a drink and forgot about the toys your kid has left on the floor.

A useful tip: If you can program your light levels, make sure you have a “cinema” setting, that’ll automatically dim the light levels to what you like most.

To reduce ambient light from the sun, blackout blinds are your best option. Make sure the material you get has 0% opacity, otherwise light would still come through. If blinds are not your thing, heavy curtains are a good choice too. Alternatively, you could install roller shutters (I have done that at home), which not only black out your room, but add an element of burglary protection as well as thermal insulation.

Reflected ambient light

Ambient light can also be reflected, which means that even when the sun is not shining directly onto your screen, it can still have an effect. White walls can be a part of a great design, but at the same time, they’re perfect for sunlight that’ll bounce onto your screen (to some extent of course).

To reduce this effect, you can make your walls darker and give them less smooth. If it’s a bit too much to colour your whole room black, focus on the walls closest to the screen. A focal wall (which we have seen in this home theater), can work really well. Both when the screen is in use and when the projection screen is rolled in.

Now that you know the effect of ambient light, let’s look at the right size of your projection screen and the seating distance.

2. Projection screen size and seating distance

Bigger is better. It’s that simple when it comes to home theater. Because the bigger the screen, the more life-like and immersive your movies will be.

One of most difficult question then becomes: How can I determine the right projection screen size and at what distance should I be from the screen?

For HD projection, THX has nicely defined a handy calculation, which says that you should divide the diagonal of your screen by 0.84 to get the right seating distance.

Let’s look at a few common projection screen sizes and the ideal seating distance for each of them:

Projection screen diagonalIdeal seating distance
77" / 196 cm92" / 233 cm
92" / 234 cm110" / 279 cm
106" / 269 cm126" / 320 cm
120" / 305 cm143" / 363 cm

Now, let’s flip things around and look at viewing distance to determine screen size. This is really helpful when you already know where you want to sit, but are unsure of which projector screen size to go for.

Seating distanceIdeal projection screen size (diagonal)
6 ft / 183 cm60" / 154218 cm
7 ft / 213 cm70" / 179 cm
8 ft / 244 cm81" / 205 cm
9 ft / 274 cm91" / 230 cm
10 ft / 305 cm101" / 256 cm
11 ft / 335 cm111" / 281 cm
12 ft / 366 cm 121" / 307 cm
13 ft / 396 cm131" / 332 cm

The seating distance might come as a surprise for you, since you’re able to sit quite close to the screen. That’s because THX is really all about immersive home theater.

That’s why you should really use these numbers as a guideline.  From the Beamax projection screen sales figures, the most popular sizes are (in descending order): 92″, 106″, 77″, 120″. That’s a lot smaller than the THX guidelines would suggest as the most popular sizes, since most people would be about 3 meters (10 ft) away from the screen. This distance would give you a projector screen diagonal of 140″.

So here’s what I would do:

1. Use the THX numbers as a guideline

2. Make your projector project an image the size THX indicates and project that onto the wall

3. Sit where you think you’ll place your seats

4. Watch a movie and find out whether it’s a comfortable size for you.

5. When yes, buy your projection screen, when not, either sit further away or shrink the projection to a comfortable size.

When you really don’t know, I recommend a 106″ diagonal 16:9 screen.

Something to keep in mind when choosing your screen size

The bigger the projection screen, the more it demands from your projector. This means that for big screens, you need quality projectors. Both in terms of the resolution (because each pixel will be enlarged more on a bigger screen) and in terms of brightness (the light is spread over a bigger surface).

Keep that in mind, because you don’t want to lose the effect of a crisp image in favour of something bigger.

This also brings me to the third step: the home theater system’s components.

Look at the whole system, not just one component

As a projection screen expert, it’d be to say it’s all about the screen. That’s not the case though, because it’s about the whole system.

All parts need to come together to create a quality picture on your screen. And once you have the room taken care of, it’s time to look at all the parts.
Again, I am not going to recommend certain brands or models, as there are so many options. Plus..technolgy changes rapidly, so what’s great now, is outdated in some time.

The necessary elements for a projection screen set up are:
1. The source
The source is the material you are going to play. Most often, this will be a DVD. But it can also be digital material from a set top box for example. Make sure the material is of good quality and have realistic expectations of what you get on your screen.
If you have low quality material (in a low resolution), then it will not look great on a screen. That’s because the original material is blown up to the size of your projection screen. If there are only a few pixels that can be enlarged, the result of course will be a lot less detailed than when you have the same image built up from a lot more pixels.

2. Connections / cables
It’s so easy to just take that yellow/white/red cable from the box and use that to connect your player. If you do that, you have just eliminated any chance seeing HD projection on your screen.
That’s because different cables allow for different qualities of images. Without going into too much detail, the cables to go for are either HDMI or component.

Make sure your player’s output matches your projector’s input, or you won’t be able to connect the 2 of them.

3. Players
A DVD player is a common player for movies, but a games console is more and more often used to play games and movies with. Not every player is built the same way, so keep that in mind when you want a system that performs well.

These days, your player should really be able to play high definition material and have an HDMI output.

A PS3 is a very popular player for both games and BlueRay DVDs, so a good option if you enjoy movies and games. If you don’t play games, a dedicated player would be a better option.

4. Projector
The projector is the device that ensures the image is projected onto the screen.

There are many different brands and models on the market, so there’s plenty to chose from. Just make sure it’s HD and has HDMI inputs. This will ensure you can project a high definition image.

5. Projection screen

Projection screens come in different shapes and types.

If you have a dedicated room, a fixed frame screen is your best choice. That’s because it has a perfectly flat image, one of the most important elements of a projection screen. To get the same effect from a retractable screen, you need to go for a tensioned projection screen.

When it comes to fabrics, matt white is your best bet. There are many different other fabrics available, but don’t go for anything else, unless you have done your projection screen fabric research.

System approach

The best approach to your system would be start with something good and upgrade from there. Some things aren’t really expensive to begin with, such as cables and source material.

Make sure it all fits together. Start with decent material and upgrade from there.

Bringing it all together

OK, we have had a lot of theory here. I want to leave a final thought here. Let’s assume you have a budget. How do you spend it?

Well, here’s how I would use my budget:
– Start with decent curtains / black out blinds. Control over ambient light and an OK projector beats loads of ambient light and a 20,000 euro/usd projector.
– Spend the rest of the budget equally on audio and video. Allocate money from the video and the audio budget for a decent amplifier, which is the heart of your system.
– Of the video budget, go for a good projector and a good screen. That means an HD projector and a wrinkle free screen.
– Spend the rest on cables and players and some DVD’s

Alright, there you have it. A concise approach to get a great home cinema.

If you have any questions or comments, do let me know!



THX guidelines for seating distance and screen size

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  1. Bryon Zielonka says:

    So I’m getting ready to purchase a projector and here is what I’m working with and what i’m looking for.

    I want to watch baseball, football, movies and play ps3 games. I will be sitting about 11′ from the screen. It’s in my basement but at the same time I will have some ambient light from my bar area. So for sports I will most likely have some lighting on but with movies it will be dark. I’m not looking to break the bank on my first projection screen and I’m looking at $500 to 1,000 bucks for the unit itself. I will make a screen myself.

    So my question is what would be my best bang for the buck and what should I be looking for? I’m not going to go 3D with this first unit but I also want to watch baseball and not see a huge trail from a fastball. Gaming and movies I’m not as worried about as I will be using it primarily for sports.

    Any help would be appreciated as their just seems to be an overabundance of info out there on what I should buy.


  2. We have a basement we are planning to remodel. Right now we are in planning stages. Ceilings have been scraped and we’re ready for lighting layout and any wiring that needs installed. Our room is overall is 34′ long x 20′ wide with only 7’6″ ceiling. You mentioned bigger is better, what maximum screen size would you suggest? We plan to split the room into two parts, amateur home theater in rear portion shooting the picture on the 20′ wall, and sitting appox. 12-14′ back from screen.

    Also thinking about lighting, should we go with recessed can lights around perimeter of room except in front of screen or crown molding with LED light ropes around perimeter reflecting off ceiling?

    Any help or advice is appreciated!

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