Visual Media

Cheap Home Theater

Better than the average small-time cineplex

Five years ago we moved our video habit from a tiny 13-inch monitor that was hardly bigger than most laptop screens to showing DVDs on something a little bigger — like a wall-sized movie screen. It’s been pure joy since.

What we had in mind was an assemble-it-yourself home theater.

I considered big TV screens and large flat panel displays, but in the end choose a projection system as the most reasonable way to go. Finding an inexpensive screen was not difficult; you can try eBay for a real bargain. I bought a new one that was 6 feet by 8 feet. Yep, it’s big. We hung our huge screen on a wall; it rolls right up and disappears when not needed.

To project the DVD image I bought the cheapest, smallest, computer projector I could find, the kind of portable conference projector you see advertised in airline magazines. You can get a good one now for around $800-900 (see below).

In addition to the small projector we also added surround sound to the room using five strategically placed Bose speakers, each no bigger than a softball, and one woofer hidden beneath a table. The result: With a good DVD offering 5.1 surround sound, the experience is as about as good as our rinky-dink local half-plex theater.

Is it perfect? No. Our cheap home theater quality does not match the experience of viewing a good print on a large screen in a good theater. Also, because of the large windows in our room, we use the theater mostly at night. With a projector of 2000 lumens you can watch during the day, but you don’t get the full theatrical experience unless the room is dark. The projector has a fan in it so it is not as silent as a TV or a flat panel, but in a large room with the surround sound cranked up you won’t notice the hum at all.

Our set-up includes our trusty old VCR that also plugs into the projector. The quality of a lot of tapes projected on this scale is, let me put it this way, less than one desires. But the total effect is still better than on a small screen. DVDs on the other hand are crisp enough. Another down side is that the expensive bulbs in the projectors are rated to have a lifespan of several hundred hours; however after 5 years of running a couple of movies a week we are still on the original bulb. It is, of course, possible to run a TV signal onto the screen, too, say, for sports events.

When I first researched this idea I discovered a couple of things. First, salesmen of the projectors report that a lot of other people had the same idea: this was the low-rent way of making a home theater, even though the manufacturer’s literature and the home theater publications have ignored this use because the cheap projectors aren’t optimized for TV. But the cheapest “home theater projectors” I could find started at $6,000, and these monsters needed expert “set up.” Forget it.

Secondly, all you need is the cheapest projector. Essentially the quality of even the low-end projectors exceeds the quality of video. It’s not necessary to get super-duper res, because while this will improve a computer display’s image, it won’t do much for a signal from a DVD or VCR.

Five years ago the cheapest projector was the Sony VPL-CS1. It still works fine for us. We have also used the Sanyo ProX-III, a little larger box, slightly more money, same result. I have not tried it, but Epson is now selling a portable projector, the PowerLite S1 for $800 street price. It is being sold as a home theater projector. The main distinguishing feature at the low end is lumens — the brightness. The difference of a few hundred lumens will not be noticeable; the level has to double before you can perceive the increase. If you show at night, a lumen level of 1000 is probably all you’ll need.

We combined our Sony with a Pioneer Dolby DVD player and receiver with the aforementioned Bose 5.1 surround sound speaker system. Our screen is a Da-Lite model; I picked a mid-range quality screen (not flat white, but not the highest reflectivity either). From about 12 feet away the projector will completely fill a 6-foot high by 8-foot wide screen. This size screen is large enough that wide-screen mode (which doesn’t fill the screen) is still plenty big.

All the electronic gear sits compactly hidden beneath a tiny end table, on the floor. (By design the projector angles upward slightly so it fills the screen from the floor perfectly.) Most visitors to the room don’t have any idea that it can transform into a serviceable home theater in the time it takes to roll down the screen.

Now that most films can be rented or bought on DVD, we only venture into a movie house a couple of times a year, primarily when we want to see something early, while everyone else does. The rest of the year, the home theater is more than adequate.

And if you do need to project a computer, you’ve got a fine unit at your service. Just unplug and carry.

-- KK 05/7/04

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