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How and why to buy a projector

Steve Dent
·Associate Editor
·18-min read

I badly miss movie theaters, but they’re still out of the question for many of us thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lots of folks are trying to recreate the experience at home, but to get anything close to a real cinema experience, a TV won’t do. Instead, you’ll want the immersive, large-screen, darkened-room experience of a projector.

Projectors have improved markedly in the last few years, particularly in the category known as ultra-short-throw. Those can be positioned very close to the wall and don’t need to be mounted on the ceiling, making installation easier for the average person. They also tend to be brighter and sharper.

Regardless of what type of projector you’re going for, it’s now possible to get a 4K HDR model that can project up to a 150-inch image for as little as $1,000. That’s around the same price as a decent 65-inch TV, and you’re getting a picture that’s two and half times larger. You’ll be happy as long as you temper your expectations and know what to expect, and that’s where this guide comes in.

The technology

I ran through projector tech in our last guide, so for a deeper dive, take a look there. Here are the basics, though: Projectors generally use two types of technology, LCD and DLP. They’re fundamentally different systems, with their own advantages and drawbacks.

The rise of ultra-short-throw projectors and brighter long-throw models, meanwhile, has been powered by falling prices in laser illumination technology. Lasers are a far better solution than lamps, because they’re brighter and last far longer — up to 30,000 hours instead of 6,000. That’s essentially a lifetime of use (about 10 years).

Most projector manufacturers now use DLPs, or digital light processing units, manufactured nearly exclusively by Texas Instruments (TI). The heart of the tech is an optical semiconductor called a digital micromirror device (DMD) that contains millions of aluminum mirrors. Those tilt either toward the light source (on) or away from it (off) at up to 5,000 times per second.

Most budget projectors like BenQ’s HT3550i use TI’s 0.47-inch DMD, while higher-end models, like the Samsung Premium LSP9T use the 0.66-inch chip. Both use mirrors that tilt by +12 and -12 degrees for white and black, but TI recently unveiled a new 0.47-inch 4K-capable DMD with +/-17 degrees of tilt, which should enhance both brightness and contrast.

DLP projector makers include Optoma, LG, BenQ and Panasonic. The benefits of the tech are portability, high contrast, less fringing and cheaper projectors, especially 4K and ultra-short-throw models. The biggest drawback is the rainbow effect, or bright red/blue/green artifacts that affect some viewers more than others.

LCD tech, meanwhile, uses a prism to split a light source into red, green and blue beams. Those then pass through LCD displays containing the image and converge via another prism before passing through the projector’s lens.

Epson is the primary user of LCD tech, along with Sony, Sanyo and others. LCD projectors tend to be sharper, more efficient and more color accurate, but have lower contrast ratios and can experience image degradation over time. In general, they’re also more expensive.

What to look for in a projector

Ultra-short-throw

Since our last guide, ultra-short-throw projectors have become the hot new category, offering several benefits. You can mount them close to the wall like a TV, with no need to run wires through the ceiling, but still get an immersive image as large as 120 inches — something that’s impossible with a TV unless you’re very rich. They use brighter lasers that never need to be replaced — and because laser light is collimated, focusing is eliminated.

They’re also physically less awkward to install than a ceiling-mounted projector, though that doesn’t mean installation is super easy. To get the perfect screen fit and alignment, you must place them an exact height and distance from your wall or screen. This can be quite a pain, as I’ve discovered.

You also need a perfectly flat wall or screen, because ultra-short-throw projectors beam up at an acute angle, so any imperfections will show as shadows. For that reason, you can’t use a roll-down screen because they have slight ripples.

For the best results, particularly with a lot of ambient light, you should use an ambient light-rejecting (ALR) screen. Those have small ridges that reflect light from below back to your eyes, but absorb any light (ie ambient light) that comes from above. For one of those, you’ll need to budget at least $450 and way up. Some projectors, including models from Epson and HiSense, come with ALR screens.

Elite Starling motorized screen
Elite Starling motorized screen

Brightness and contrast

Home theater projectors generally range in brightness between 2,000 to 4,000 lumens, but you'll need to take those figures with a grain of salt. Some models might actually hit 3,000 lumens or more, but cranking the lamp to that level will hurt the image quality and lifespan of your bulb. Also, some manufacturers tend to exaggerate maximum brightness.

As a point of reference, many 4K flat panel TVs nowadays can hit 1,000 nits of brightness, but the brightest consumer projectors only display between 100 and 150 nits from the screen. That’s not as big a deal as it might seem, because projector images are much larger and meant to be used in dark rooms, where your eyes will automatically adjust to the light and “brighten” the image.

Contrast is also substantially different on projectors. Unlike OLED TVs, projectors don’t allow for zero black levels because of ambient light, reflections and other reasons. You also can’t have local dimming zones found on LED TVs for true blacks. Some projectors do have a dynamic iris to improve the contrast scene-by-scene, but those can often produce a “pumping” effect, with the image dimming or brightening in mid-scene.

Mounting and fan noise

A big advantage of regular long throw projectors is that you can mount the projector and screen on the ceiling, using zero space in your room. If you plan to do that, don’t forget to budget for a mounting bracket and any necessary long cables, including extra power for Google's finicky Chromecast. Also, keep in mind that it's easier to mount a lightweight projector, and DLP models are usually lighter than those with LCD tech.

Some projectors are noisier than others, and usually the more you spend, the less noise you get. Many of the new 4K DLP projectors, when operating in 4K mode, are particularly noisy. There's one other (cool) thing: if your projector is easy to take down and put up, you can take it outside for magical night screenings under the stars.

HDR and resolution

As related to projectors, these things could each take up an entire article. In fact, they have — for a deeper dive, take a look at Projector Central’s excellent takes on HDR and resolution.

On the resolution front, only expensive projectors have native 4K resolution; indeed, most movie theaters still use 2K projectors for various reasons. However, there are many relatively inexpensive DLP projectors that use pixel-shifting to attain 4K resolution. That system emits each pixel four times while moving it to the correct position for a 4K image, all in less than 1/60th of a second. As such, it puts as many pixels on the screen in the same amount of time as a 4K native projector — and visually, it performs nearly as well.

On the other hand, Epson's LCD “4K enhanced” projectors also have 1080p native resolution, but the image is just shifted twice, not four times. So, those projectors are not 4K natively or otherwise, but do produce double the pixel count of a 1080p projector. If you really want a 4K native projector, you’ll have to pay: two of the cheapest ones are Sony's VPL-VW295ES ($5,000) and JVC's DLA-NX5 ($5,000).

HDR is a very different animal on projectors compared to TVs. As mentioned, projectors can’t produce anywhere close to the amount of light required (1,000 nits) to qualify as true HDR. Rather, they use a technique called tone-mapping to fit the entire HDR gamut into lower brightness range.

For that reason, among others, almost all projectors only support HDR10. None use Dolby Vision, and only a few models work with Samsung’s HDR10+ — and those are Samsung’s own Premiere 4K models. However, most support a wider 10-bit color gamut that allows for superior color reproduction.

Samsung LSP7T - The Premiere OFI
Samsung LSP7T - The Premiere OFI

Optics

If you're mounting a short- or long-throw projector between five and 25 feet, you might need to consider the zoom range and whether the projector has a lens shift option. A decent zoom range will make it easier to mount the projector where you want with the screen size that you want.

Lens shift, meanwhile, is used if the projector is mounted higher or lower relative to the screen than recommended by the manufacturer (or any horizontal distance off center). That creates a trapezoidal shaped image, but by dialing in some lens shift, you can optically square it up. Otherwise, you might have to use a "keystone correction," which digitally stretches or shrinks part of the image, resulting in noticeable distortion or pixel artifacts. Digital correction might not work in gaming modes either, for some projector models.

Gaming

Finally, if you’re interested in a projector for gaming, you’ll want to look up the refresh rate and input lag figures. Some new projectors from Viewsonic, Optoma and others offer up to 240 Hz 1080p refresh rates and input lag settings down to 4 or 5 milliseconds. However, some projectors designed more for home entertainment have very poor input lag and refresh rates at just 60 Hz.

Engadget picks

Unlike our last guide, I’m dividing projectors into ultra-short-throw and long-throw categories. As mentioned, ultra-short-throw models have rapidly established themselves in the market due to the extra performance and convenience, and most manufacturers sell at least a couple of models. Within the ultra-short-throw category, We’ll compare two price categories: under $7,000 and $3,500, with three projectors each. In the long-throw category, we’re again looking at projectors under $1,000, $2,000 and $6,000, with three products in each range.

Ultra-short-throw projectors under $3,500

Optoma CinemaX P2

Optoma CinemaX P2
Optoma CinemaX P2

I recently tested this projector and was incredibly impressed, as it improves on the CinemaX P1 model while costing less ($3,300 compared to $3,700). It delivers the same 3,000 lumen brightness while using more color-accurate technology, so you get an improved contrast ratio and 80 percent DCI-P3 coverage. It’s not quite as sharp as the pricier projectors, as it uses TI’s 0.47-inch rather than 0.66-inch DLP tech, though you’ll still get a near-4K image.

The CinemaX P2 may also better match your decor, as it comes in white rather than dark grey like the P1. The 40-watt NuForce Dolby Digital 2.0 soundbar is one of the best on any ultra-short-throw projector, as well. On the downside, it does offer apps but they’re not as good as you’ll find on, say, Google’s Chromecast.

Buy Optoma CinemaX P2 at B&H - $3,299

Hisense 100L5F

If you’re looking for a projector and ALR screen package, the Hisense 100L5F is a great option. With a single-laser light source and 0.47-inch DLP, it delivers 2,700 lumens of brightness, 4K resolution and HDR10 with 83 percent DCI-P3 gamut coverage. It also has a respectable 30-watt dual-speaker system with dbx-TV enhancement. Best of all, it comes with a 100-inch ALR screen, all for $3,000, making it one of the best, if not the best ultra-short-throw deals out there.

Buy Hisense 100L5F at Amazon - $3,400

Vava 4K

VAVA 4K projector
VAVA 4K projector

Vava’s 4K is one of the cheapest ultra-short-throw 4K projectors but it delivers a lot of bang for the buck as we found in our review. With a 0.47-inch DLP chip, it offers 4K resolution, 2,500 lumens of brightness, an impressive 90 percent DCI-P3 coverage and stellar sound quality. The drawbacks include poor app support (something that can be solved with a streaming stick or box) and a fan that’s slightly loud. Still, for $2,800 (and often much less on sale), it’s an impressive bargain.

Buy VAVA 4K projector at Amazon - $2,800

Ultra-short-throw projectors under $7,000

Samsung Premium LSP9T

Ultra-short-throw projectors are a hot enough entertainment category that Samsung decided to re-enter the market with two models as part of its Lifestyle TV series. The $6,500 LSP9T is the premium model and it certainly brings some premium specs. With separate red, green and blue lasers, it covers 106 percent of the full Rec.2020 color range (147 percent of DCI-P3) — something we’ve rarely, if ever seen on any TV or even pro monitor.

It delivers a very bright 2,800 lumens and a 1,500:1 ANSI contrast ratio. As it uses TI’s higher-resolution 0.66-inch DLP chip (with pixel shifting), you get as close as you can to true 4K without investing in a native 4K projector. Finally, the LSP9T is the first projector on the market rated for HDR10+ — Samsung’s answer to Dolby Vision. On top of all that, the LSP9T delivers 40 watts of audio using Samsung’s Acoustic Beam technology, while offering Samsung’s well-regarded Tizen-powered Smart TV platform.

Buy Premium LSP9T at Samsung - $6,500

Epson EpiqVision Ultra LS500

Epson EpiqVision Ultra LS500 projector
Epson EpiqVision Ultra LS500 projector

If you need the brightest possible image, Epson’s LCD-powered EpiqVision Ultra LS500 ($4,499) delivers. It’s rated at up to 4,000 lumens, making it one of the brightest ultra-short-throw projectors in any price range. It also supports HDR modes in HDR10 and HLG and is sold with both 100-inch and 120-inch ALR screens, making the price effectively lower. The main drawback is that it only offers double the pixels of 1080p, rather than four times like competing DLP tech. It also offers a relatively weak 10-watt built-in speaker system.

Buy EpiqVision Ultra LS500 at B&H - $5,000

LG CineBeam HU85LA 4K

If you really need to get close to your wall, the LG’s $4,800 CineBeam HU85LA can deliver a 120-inch image just 7.2 inches from the screen. It also offers excellent color reproduction and resolution, thanks to the triple-laser system that eliminates a color wheel, along with a larger 0.66-inch DLP chip. At 2,700 lumens, it’s not quite as bright as some models, and only offers HDR10 and not HLG. It also has rather weak 5-watt speakers, so you might want to get a separate sound system.

Buy CineBeam HU85LA 4K at Amazon - $4,800

Projectors under $1,000

Viewsonic PX701-4K

There are very few 4K projectors available under $1,000, and Viewsonic’s $900 PX701-4K is one of the most recent. For the money, it offers impressive performance. You get 4K HDR with 3,200 lumens of brightness via TI’s .47-inch DLP chip. More importantly for gamers, you can get a 1080p signal at up to 240Hz with a 5-millisecond input lag time. The drawbacks are a limited 1.1x optical zoom, so you’ll need to make sure it fits in your space.

Buy Viewsonic PX701-4K at Amazon - $910

BenQ HT2050A

BenQ HT2050A projector
BenQ HT2050A projector

For around $700, the BenQ HT2050A is still one of the best budget 1080p projectors. It delivers where it counts with the best contrast (ANSI 1,574:1) and color accuracy in its class, and is reasonably bright as well, with 2,200 lumens in "vivid" mode. On top of that, it comes with a 1.3x zoom and vertical lens shift option for maximum installation flexibility. The drawbacks include slightly excessive fan noise, rainbow effect and red-tinted 3D.

Buy BenQ HT2050A at B&H - $750

Optoma HD146X

If you’re looking to spend under $500, the Optoma HD146X is your best option. Using DLP tech, it delivers 1080p at up to 3,600 lumens with excellent brightness, color accuracy, contrast and black levels. You also get decent (16.4-millisecond) input lag for gaming. The drawbacks are a single HDMI port, 1.1x optical zoom and poor built-in audio.

Buy Optoma HD 146X at Best Buy - $550

Projectors under $2,000

BenQ HT3550i

BenQ’s $1,600 4K HT3550i is an update to last year’s HT3550, but with a huge addition: Android TV. With that, you get multi-platform wireless projection from Android and iOS devices via Chromecast or Airplay — a huge plus compared to rival projectors. As before, it offers reference-quality 4K color reproduction in both HDR and SDR that's a match for projectors costing triple the price. Contrast is excellent thanks to the dynamic iris, though brightness is limited to 2,000 lumens. It has a 1.3x zoom and vertical lens shift option, plus a surprisingly good built-in speaker. The fan noise is still present, but less than before.

If brightness is more important than picture quality, take a look at BenQ’s $1,600 TK850i instead. It also comes with Android TV, but delivers far more brightness (3,000 lumens) in exchange for less color-accurate picture quality.

Buy BenQ HT2550i at B&H - $1,700

Optoma UHD38

Optoma UHD38 projector
Optoma UHD38 projector

For extra brightness and speed for gaming, the answer is Optoma’s all-new, $1,400 4K-capable UHD38. It cranks the lumens up to 4,000 and like the Viewsonic PX701-4K, offers 240Hz gaming at 1080p with one of the lowest latency figures we’ve seen yet in a projector at 4.2 milliseconds. Otherwise, you can do 4K 60 Hz gaming with 16.7 milliseconds of lag, which is very quick for 4K. It’s optimized more for gaming than entertainment unlike BenQ’s HT3550i, but it can still handle HDR10 and HLG. It supports both zoom (albeit just 1.1x), but also vertical and horizontal lens shift.

Buy Optoma UHD38 at Best Buy - $1,400

Epson Home Cinema 4010 4K Pro

Epson’s $2,000 Home Cinema 4010 4K Pro is the Cadillac of under-$2K home projectors thanks to features like 2,400 lumen brightness, dynamic iris, and motorized zoom (2.1x), focus and lens shift. It delivers in picture quality too, covering 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color space in cinema mode with both HDR10 and HLG. It also offers near-4K quality using 1,920 x 1,080 LCD image chips with pixel shifting. The drawbacks are lack of support for 60Hz 4K due to the HDMI 1.4 ports.

If you need that, want to pay a bit less and don’t care about the motorized focus, Epson’s $1,700 Home Cinema 3080 4K Pro is the way to go. It offers similar features like HDR10 and HLG, but supports 4K 60p thanks to the HDMI 2.0b ports. There’s no motorization and the zoom drops to 1.6x, but it supports generous tilt, shift and zoom ranges.

Buy Home Cinema 4010 4K Pro at Amazon - $1,991

Projectors under $6,000

Optoma UHZ65LV

Optoma’s $6,000 UHZ65LV DLP projector arrived just recently, but it’s already turning heads. It’s a conventional long-throw projector, but uses a long-lasting laser light source to deliver a 5,000-lumen image, much brighter than any lamp-powered projector. It also delivers true 4K resolution up to 60p, thanks to the TI 0.66-inch DLP chip. The extra brightness and contrast make it ideal for HDR10 or HLG content. It also comes with desirable features for a long-throw projector, like a 1.6x zoom and vertical lens shift.

Buy Optoma UHZ65LV at B&H - $6,000

LG CineBeam HU810PW 4K

LG CineBeam HU810PW 4K projector
LG CineBeam HU810PW 4K projector

Speaking of long-throw laser projectors, LG’s $3,000 CineBeam HU810PW is another excellent pick at a much lower price point. There are some compromises, as the laser light pushes out a lower 2,700 lumens (that’s still a lot), and it has a smaller 0.47-inch DLP chip that delivers slightly lower perceived resolution. However, it has dual blue and green lasers which help it deliver accurate HDR colors with an excellent 97 percent DCI-P3 coverage. It also offers a 1.6x zoom with lens shift and an HDMI 2.1 port that allows for 4K at 60p with up to 12-bit color depth. It comes with LG’s webOS, so it supports Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services without the need for a dongle.

Buy CineBeam HU810PW 4K at B&H - $3,000

Sony VPL-VW295ES

If you’re looking for a true, native 4K projector, Sony’s $5,000 VPL-VW295ES is the least costly option out there. It’s by far the sharpest 4K projector in this roundup, thanks to Sony’s proprietary 4K SXRD native DCI 4K (4,096 x 2,160) panels. It also delivers extremely accurate colors, with 100 percent DCI-P3 coverage and HDR10/HLG support. You also get niceties like a 2.06 zoom lens with powered zoom, lens shift and focus. The main drawback is a relatively dim 1,500 lumen brightness, but it’s a top pick if picture quality is paramount above all.

Buy Sony VPL-VW295ES at Amazon - $4,500