There is an entire industry dedicated to making sure the screen you choose for your custom home theater delivers the best quality viewing experience. Manufacturers and designers take a number of factors into consideration when recommending and building the appropriate screen for a given theater, including size of the space, type of projection system, ambient light issues, and aspect ratios. So, let’s talk logistics!
If you’re in a rush, why not click the section you’re interested in below to jump straight to the info you need:
- What kind of screen do I need?
- How big is your home theater space?
- What is an aspect ratio and why does it matter?
- Why the kind of projector you use makes a difference…
- Who are the top screen manufacturers?
So let’s get started — below is everything you need to know about picking a screen!
1. What kind of screen do I need?
This depends on your space. The primary types of home theater screens are retractable, fixed frame, and rigid glass or acrylic. (There are also portable rollable screens that come with stands, ideal for when you need a theater on the go, but for purposes of this article, we’re focusing on built-in home theater screens.)
- Retractable: A (usually) motorized rollable screen that descends from an enclosure.
- Fixed frame: An aluminum frame and flexible screen fabric, usually hung on a wall or otherwise suspended.
- Rigid glass or acrylic: Made with an inflexible substrate.
To take this a step further, you can decide how you want the screen mounted: above ceiling (recessed mount into the ceiling), below ceiling (mounted to the ceiling itself), wall mounted, floor mounted, or aperture mounted. The options for customization are practically limitless.
2. How big is your home theater space?
If you want a big screen, you’re going to need a room that can accommodate the technical requirements of its size. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) recommends a minimum viewing angle of 30º for an immersive viewing experience, a standard adopted by manufacturers, installers, and industry veterans. What does that mean for the custom home theater design process?
Let’s say the desired size of the home theater screen is 120 inches (measured diagonally). That means that the closest seating should be no less than 13 feet away to maintain that 30º viewing angle. The designer will calculate the most ideal screen size—smaller or larger—based on the room size and the space available for your custom home theater seating to preserve that ideal immersive viewing angle.
In a room that cannot accommodate a screen diagonal of 100 inches or more, the best bet is to go with a high-end TV rather than a designated film screen and projector setup.
For more, check out this blog on how to lay out a home theater.
3. What is an aspect ratio and why does it matter for a movie screen?
You’ve probably heard these numbers tossed about but maybe weren’t sure what they meant. An aspect ratio is the size of the projected image. The standard sizes are 16:9 (common in most modern TVs) and 4:3. HD (high def), UHD (ultra-high def), and 1080p projectors are most commonly 16:9; this ratio produces a more rectangular image. The 4:3 display produces a more square image; this is the original size of film when filmmakers were making movies on actual film and not via digital technology (with that said, some still prefer to shoot on film).
To add more numbers to the pile, hardcore movie buffs prefer 2.35:1, more commonly referred to as “letterbox”. The 2.35:1 aspect is very wide and very cinematic-looking, which means your screen will need to be able to handle the image size. This is definitely something to talk over with your designer before choosing the right screen material for your home theater. The more real estate an image takes up, the bigger (and heavier) the screen will be.
4. What type of projection system are you going to use?
Our blog post on projection systems goes into great detail about the different kinds of projectors available on the market today. This is a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum that can be simplified by deciding the question posed in the last section about what size room you have. This will determine the size of screen you can manage for the space.
Once you know that your theater can accommodate a bigger screen (i.e., over 100”), the next step is to decide what kind of projector you want: DLP, LCoS, 3LCD, laser, short throw, ultra-short throw, or rear or front projection. The projector will then determine the kind of screen you need.
Manufacturers offer a huge array of fabrics and configurations that align with the projector technology available on the market today. And the magic of a theater screen is in its reflective properties—when you project a movie onto a given surface, the projector is casting light onto the screen material. To get the best quality image, the screen should reflect as much of that light as possible back to your eyes. That’s why throwing an image on a sheet or white wall looks terrible. Engineered screen material will accurately reflect your projector’s light back, maintaining the clearest picture and brightest colors possible, while also rejecting the ambient light that can ruin an image.
For example, Seymour-Screen Excellence and Stewart Filmscreen have proprietary technology for their screen offerings for both rear and front projection systems. These manufacturers address the common theater screen issues, including ambient light spill from the theater space, acoustics, color correction, and contrast boosting.
5. Who are the top screen manufacturers?
The list below includes a wide range of price points, and sure, less expensive options exist—YouTube is filled with DIY folks who will teach you how to build your own screen with some wood, canvas, and a staple gun. But for true film buffs, cheaping out on the screen is a nonstarter. At the time of writing, the top custom home theater film screen manufacturers are as follows:
For residential home projection screens, Stewart Filmscreen is the gold standard. Stewart’s products are often found in the top spots on Best Of lists for home theater screens, but keep in mind that premium quality comes at a premium price.
Stewart Filmscreen has been in the film business for over seventy years, providing Hollywood with screens for the post-production editing suites, screening rooms, and Oscar stages. (They’ve even won two Academy Awards themselves for technical merit!) With over twenty-five different screen materials to choose from, Stewart is prepared to outfit the specific needs of the individual projection environment—because no two home theaters are alike.
And all Stewart screens are seamless, which means you won’t have to deal with tension irregularities that can happen with seamed and roller screens over time. Stewart Filmscreen offers a variety of screen types and mounting methods, and screens can be customized based on the preferred projection method (front or rear projection). Their handy screen finder can help you and your designer find the perfect screen for your custom home theater project.
From their website: “US-based Seymour AV and UK-based Screen Excellence—both industry leaders in acoustically transparent woven fabric projection screens—founded a joint venture that combines the best of each company’s technology platforms, namely Seymour AV’s patented electric retractable screens and Screen Excellence’s fixed-frame, in-ceiling and masking screens. Called Seymour-Screen Excellence (SSE), the brand exclusively serves high-end custom installers and specialty A/V retailers in the US and Canada.”
Marrying the vast experience of the cofounders, Seymour-Screen Excellence really goes that extra mile when it comes to integrating sound and imagery. One thing to note with SSE: Their product is available through North American custom installers and specialty A/V dealers; they do not have any authorized internet dealers.
“EPV Screens®, a division of Elite Screens, is dedicated to delivering superior and outstanding products for the custom install market. The product line features a wide range of electric and fixed-frame projection screens. From front projection and acoustically transparent to ambient light rejecting and polarized 3D materials, EPV Screens® provides a projection screen that fits just about any viewing experience.”
EPV has won a number of notable industry awards over the last few years, including the 2019 CEPro Quest for Quality Award for its warranty service; as part of the EH Magazine Gold Award Best Home Theater 2018 for its Peregrine A4K projection screen; and the CEPro Magazine 2018 BEST Award for its DarkStar UST (Ultra-Short Throw) eFinity screen.
Another highly regarded film screen provider is SI: Screen Innovations. SI has a huge range of motorized and fixed screen options for your custom home theater needs. Founded in 2003, SI has made waves in the home theater screen market by offering excellent customer service, competitive pricing, and an impressive array of screen types, formats, and fabrics to choose from. They even go that extra mile and help with connectivity—an important perk as modern home theaters are much more involved than turning off the lights and turning on the Blu-Ray player.
With so many moving parts in creating the ideal custom home theater, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with your choices. Understanding your options will help you make an informed decision so when it comes time for movie night, all you have left to do is pop the corn, put your feet up, and enjoy!
Recommended reading: You asked, we answered. A guide to luxury home theater design.