Basic Front Projection for Less
When people first become interested in Home Theater; they think of front projection as the ultimate, and as far as creating a real movie theater experience, it is.  But front projection is quickly dismissed as too esoteric and expensive.

The purpose of this page is to explode that myth.  If you have the right room and a bit of know-how or the willingness to learn, you can have a beautiful front projection home theater for less than the cost of a decent big screen TV (no kidding).


The secrets to an amazing, very affordable front projection home theater are:

1.  Start with a basic name brand (Epson, Sony, NEC, Sanyo, Panasonic, Sharp and others) projector with at least SVGA (800 x 600) resolution and 500 or more ANSI lumens of brightness.  DLP seems to have a better reputation for home theater use these days but at the low end LCD is easier to get and generally less expensive (we could go on and on).  Cost should be $1300 - $2500 depending on what you pick.  In general the specs to look for are lumens and contrast ratio, with both, the higher the better.  There are even true 16x9 projectors out there in this price range now, ie, the Panasonic PT-AE1000.  Read the Digital Projector forum at AVS Forum for the latest discussion.  Some projectors that I think are worthy of consideration are here, but there are certainly others. You can also start with a used CRT projector for the same money, the set up, mounting and maintenance can be much more daunting, but the picture is superlative. (Good link for how to buy a used CRT projector).

2.  A light controlled room is essential for good picture quality.   Most digital projectors are capable of producing a usable picture in a moderately lit room, but they all look best in darkness.  Basements or converted bonus rooms are great candidates.  There are tips for building your HT room in the main FAQ page.  

3.  A screen.  Can be as basic as a wall painted white.  Use flat ultra white.  You can experiment with some shades of grey also, to improve contrast.  You can paint a sheet of MDF board (less that $20) cut to a 16x9 aspect ratio.  You can get a second hand or less expensive pull down screen also.  Pull downs start at $200 for a basic 84" wide model.  Lots of leeway and room for experimentation here.  Most projectors work well with a screen in the 90 to 100 inch diagonal range.

4.  The source.  Most inexpensive projectors have sub par scalers and de-interlacers (necesary electronics that take the video input and format it for display at the projectors native resolution).  The best and by far the least expensive way to overcome this is with an HTPC, or Home Theater Personal Computer.  An HTPC with DVD player software (Theater Tek is my favorite, but WinDVD and PowerDVD are also good) and deinterlacing software like Dscaler (open source) can feed the projector a signal at its native resolution and completely bypass the internal scaler.  Works wonders. This is a cheap solution if you already have a PC and are willing to connect it to the projector (you can also play games on the big screen -- way cool!).  If not, use the highest quality video feed you can,  in order best to worst: component (three RCA plugs), s-video (round DIN plug), composite (yellow RCA).

5.  Calibrate the whole set up with Avia or Video Essentials set up DVD's.  You can also use the THX optimizer found on some DVD's like Phantom MenaceMoulin Rouge and others.

6.  Advanced:  Tweak it.  Add a color correcting filter, calibrate the RGB drive levels, change screen colors, build a mount and hush box; lots of things you can do (but don't have too).  Just don't forget to enjoy the movies!

Not a trivial project, but if you can put together a stereo system or upgrade a computer on your own, you should have the necessary skills to tackle it.

Find more info on front projection in this article: Video Basics 3 - Front Projection 

Front view of the screen in my home theater.  Total cost for screen, masking and drapes ~$125.

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