As experts like About.com's Robert Silva point out, when it comes to an effective home theater built around a video projector, the screen can be as important as the projector itself. In fact, its performance can make or break the viewing experience (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation).
Any flat white or light gray wall can do in a pinch, but for best picture quality you'll want a surface specifically designed for viewing projected images. Fixed projection screens are fine for permanent home theaters, but for multi-purpose rooms like a family room, a retractable screen might be a better choice. Such screens can rise from the floor or a piece of furniture, or drop down from the ceiling. Some retractable screens are motorized, and many projectors include a trigger output meant to activate the screen's motor when switched on. Portable screens intended for mobile use often come only in smaller sizes, and are inconvenient to put up and take down with each use.
Screen surfaces are most typically matte white or light gray. Gray screens reflect less light than white screens but allow for darker black levels. Matte white provides the best picture quality in a darkened home theater, but a gray screen can produce more satisfying blacks in rooms with higher levels of ambient light and is the best choice for use in a well-lit space.
When selecting a screen, its gain is critical. This tells you how reflective a screen is relative to a standard -- a flat white board. A screen with a gain of 1 will reflect just as much light as that board; in other words, the image will be just as bright. A screen with a gain of 1.2 will reflect 20 percent more light, a screen with a gain of 1.5 will reflect 50 percent more light, and so forth. Some screens, including most gray screens, have a gain of less than 1 so the image will be less bright than one viewed on a standard white board. For example, a screen with a gain of 0.8 will reflect back only 80 percent as much light.
While many experts recommend screens with a gain of between 1.1 and 1.3 for home use, how much screen gain you actually need can depend on several factors, including the brightness of your projector, the darkness of the room and the size of the image you plan to project. It might seem counterintuitive, but most experts say that while high-gain screens are fine for boardrooms and other locations that typically have lots of ambient light, they can diminish picture quality in a darkened room or for home use.
As Evan Powell at ProjectorCentral.com says, high-gain screens tend to have narrower viewing angles, are susceptible to hot spots (areas of the screen will look brighter than others), and can produce color shifts that make the image look different to viewers in various areas of the room. He adds that while high-gain screens have their place and their purpose, "the videophile looking for the optimum image quality in a home theater environment will usually want to opt for a low-gain screen."
Projector screens can be do-it-yourself affairs that cost less than $100 or can run into the thousands of dollars. For example, Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130 G3 is a 1.3 gain matte white screen available in fixed and retractable form. Prices vary by size and type, but a 100-inch fixed screen can set you back more than $2,000, and we've seen motorized retractable screens of the same size selling for more than $3,500.
Such screens are very much at home in high-end home theaters, and didn't seem as much of an extravagance when projectors themselves regularly sold for $5,000 or more. Now, with some high-performing projectors available for less than $2,000 -- and some very good ones selling for $1,000 and less -- a pricey screen can seem like overkill. Fortunately, expert and user reviews point us in the direction of some less expensive choices.
If you're interested in (or willing to live with) a fixed screen, one option is to paint a flat wall to maximize its performance as a home-theater screen. ProjectorCentral.com has a great article on doing just that using standard paints available from your paint or hardware store. If your budget is a little bigger, we saw great reviews for Goo Systems' Screen Goo. This two-part system includes both a reflective coat and a finish coat, and is available in formulas suitable for rooms with low, moderate and high ambient light levels. You can buy the paints on their own (*Est. $115 for 500 ml, enough for a 90-inch 16:9 screen), or opt for a Screen Goo Kit (*Est. $260) that includes enough for a 130-inch screen (1,000 ml), plus non-reflective screen-border paint, paint tray, paint rollers and more.
Most experts say it takes a bit of work and time to create a screen using Screen Goo, but the results are worth it. Bill Livolsi at ProjectorCentral.com benchmarks it against a Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130 and says its performance "nearly perfectly mimics" that reference-quality screen. Jim Milton at Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity tests the maximum-contrast version of the paint, which is intended for use in high ambient light settings, and comes away impressed. He recommends opting for Screen Goo and putting the savings into your projector instead.
If you aren't a fan of painting a screen on your wall, the Elite Screens ezFrame fixed-frame screen gets some positive attention. In a review at ProjectorCentral.com, its performance is close to Screen Goo's, and both its price and build quality are complimented. It comes in a variety of sizes, and in both white and high-contrast gray. User reviews of the 120-inch ezFrame R120WH1 (*Est. $520) are largely positive if not extensive. The smaller R100WH1 (*Est. $410) does equally well.
For home theater buffs who want a retractable screen, many of those that get top ratings by professional reviewers are on the high side of costly. However, owners posting at Amazon.com give a series of inexpensive manual and motorized retractable screens from Favi Entertainment fairly high grades. The company's HD series of motorized screens ranges from the 82-inch HD-82 (*Est. $150) up to the 200-inch HD-200 (*Est. $900); we review the 120-inch HD-120 (*Est. $200). All the screens are matte white with a gain of 1.3. Screen operation is controlled via an integrated control pad, or with included IR and RF remotes -- the latter being a major plus for many custom installations. One downside is that the screens lack a 12-volt trigger input, so they can't be activated automatically by a projector with a 12-volt output. While not every user is perfectly satisfied, the majority at Amazon.com gives the Favi at least 4 or (mostly) 5 stars out of 5.