The flat panel television market is incredibly mature at this point, but it exhibits a bit too much class inequality for my tastes. Instead of the middle range being the sweet spot, low-cost manufacturers like Vizio are ruling the day, and dollars per inch seems to pretty much be the only deciding factor in what people purchase. On the flip side, the high-end is spiraling a little out of control in my opinion, with some important features falling above the premium line and prices becoming impractical. But the one option that’s rarely considered by the mainstream — the one that unquestionably presents the greatest value per inch — is front projection. For most consumers, front projection (especially short-throw projection) seems like something that only the uber-rich buy into, and a few years ago, that case could certainly be made.
My whole life I’ve dreamed of having a projector, but given the size of my house, and the realities of the world, it’s just never been in the cards. I just didn’t have enough room in the house to allow for a proper throw distance with an image appreciably bigger than the rear-projection TVs I’ve enjoyed for years (RIP). At least not affordably so. And so I put my dreams of a projection home theater in the “When I win the lottery” pile and moved on.
Then BenQ hit the market with its new W1080ST projector, a $1,299 (no, that’s not a typo — one-thousand, two-hundred ninety-nine dollar) short-throw model that claimed to be able to throw 100 inches of screen real estate from six feet away, that the possibility of a real theater in my home became something skirting the edge of reality. So I reached out to BenQ for a review sample of the W1080ST, which in addition to its short-throw capabilities boasts 1080p 3D performance, 10,000:1 reported contrast ratio, and a high-end DLP Dark Chip 3 (DC3), which is typically reserved for more expensive projectors.
Screen Innovations, who you probably know from its Black Diamond screen material, also boasts a surprising amount of flexibility in its lineup, going from the ultra-high to the everyday, and was kind enough to send a review sample of its Lunar 4K .85 Grey screen material and EZ-snap screen, which is designed for installation by any person capable of putting together an IKEA bookshelf, but with professional caliber performance capabilities.
The result? Well, at least on paper, we’re looking at a system that’s well within the range of what most people would consider a reasonable price for a TV, but with the sort of screen real estate you could easily spend $10,000 or more on for a flat panel.
But before I could enjoy all of that extra screen size, of course, I had to put it together. The Screen Innovation’s Lunar .85 Grey EZ-Snap 80″ screen is a basic model, designed to be easily assembled by the end user and hung on a wall. Beautifully simple in design and instruction (the screen comes with a QR code that links to a very handy installation video), any two idiots could assemble and hang it in under thirty minutes. There was just one problem. I was short an idiot. So needless to say, my experience in assembling the screen won’t apply to those of you who can bribe a friend (or, even better yet, hire a custom installer), but I did learn a few valuable lessons that I would take with me if I had to do it again. Firstly, screen tension is important, and easy to get wrong. The four corners and two central snaps are the most crucial. Secondly, a level is essential. Even a tiny deviation in level will create annoying dead spaces, especially when you’re dealing with as short a throw as I am.
Forty-five minutes of frustration later, though, and I had the screen assembled, after which hanging it was positively trivial — easier than hanging your average picture.
With that done, it was time to crack open the BenQ W1080ST, and it situated. Since mounting a projector like a chandelier in the middle of the living room wasn’t really an option in my case, I chose instead to put it in a bookcase with plenty of room for ventilation, and where I can close off the front to prevent dust and feline mountaineering operations. If you go this route for a permanent installation, be sure to use an open-backed shelving or bookcase to ensure airflow, or install a few large and quiet computer fans at the rear to make sure the air moves. You can suck from the side for cool air, and place an exhaust fan at above and in the rear of the projector.
The hardest thing about the setup process for the projection novice like myself was getting the keystoning correct, adjusting the projector’s geometry so that it filled the screen while achieving a correct horizontal shape. If you decide to leap foot-first into projection, this is going to be something that’s going to take you a while to figure out, but don’t fret. Many calibration discs, like the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark and Calibration Disc 2nd Edition, are perfect for this task, and that particular disc has the bonus feature of being the only one I know of to carry 3D calibration patterns to boot.
The BenQ W1080ST has easy-to-use and intuitive menus, and a detailed manual on CD-ROM that makes everything as clear as humanly possible. One benefit that mounting the projector would have given me is more flexibility in placement — the wiggle-room to find that ideal distance from the screen so that the projector fills it without compromise. In my case that was about seven feet away, but if you’re really crazy, and fiddle with the settings right you can actually cut that about in half and still fill an 80-inch screen, making placing the BenQ projector on a coffee table or other middle room piece of furniture actually practical.
One of the big benefits of the Screen Innovations Lunar Grey screen is the ability to put the smackdown on ambient light, and greatly improve contrast levels in the process. Before I pulled the curtains, I had a street light blasting the screen from the 9 o’clock position, and it barely fazed the image thanks to the way the screen kicks the light back. Light coming head-on from the projector is beautifully reflected. Stay rays from off-axis are nipped right in the bud. Try that with your big LED TV.
With all of the projector calibration out of the way, I finally had a chance to sit down and actually watch a movie. I chose the recent remaster of Willow on Blu-ray as the first movie to put in, due to its great film look and huge variety in scenery and lighting situations, all of which add up to a great workout for a home theater. Contrast was truly wonderful, producing fantastic blacks well above the ability of most RPTVs, and on par, in fact, with nice flat panel displays. Being a DLP based projector, the BenQ W1080ST exhibits zero in the way of motion blur or temporal artifacting, really making for a much more cinematic experience.
One of the big features of the BenQ W1080ST is that it brings 3D home for the same price as a decent flat panel. But it’s a wholly different 3D experience than what you would get with an LED TV. DLP essentially eliminates any blurring or ghosting on the display end, leaving you with 3D as pure as pure can be. The DLP Link glasses, which sync to the image’s blanking frames, did exhibit a little bit of sync drift if I moved my head around too much, or got too far off-axis, but tended to catch up again when I got back in line with the screen.
That aside, 3D films like The Avengers, Hugo, Dredd, Top Gun, and Tron: Legacy all popped off the screen just as well as any flat panel, but with massive additional acreage bringing a huge amount of additional immersion to the films. Size is really important to establishing and maintaining the 3D illusion, and this is one place where a projector and screen setup really can’t be beat, especially with a screen this good.
I didn’t just get to try out the Screen Innovations Lunar Grey screen material, though. The company kindly provided a book of samples for caparison purposes of a wide variety of screen materials. When an installer is helping you pick a screen, it’s all about location, location, location. Some materials are designed for the blackest blacks, but only function well in a dark room, while others are intended for use outside, or even in sunlit rooms. And then there’s screen material like Black Diamond, which concentrates and redirects light in such a way that it serves as a veritable black hole for anything other than direct light. As such, it excels in virtually any environment — at a price, of course — but if you’re thinking you might be in the market for a projector and screen, I suggest you think carefully and not just ordering based on price. It really will make a world of difference. Even in my darkened room, the Black Diamond made a significant improvement in the already amazing contrasts.
Of course, we’ve talked quit a bit about viewing movies — especially 3D ones — and there’s a reason for that. I don’t know a lot of people with projectors who watch more than the occasional bit of live TV, like maybe the Super Bowl, the Olympics, or an especially cinematic TV show. But for the sake of exploration, I cranked up the news, some sitcoms, and a lot of other popular kinds of shows. To be honest, this is the one thing that I’d never recommend a projector for. The talking heads of the news are overbearing and overwhelming, like the Great and Powerful Oz has entered your living room — just without the brain or the heart — and I lacked the courage to continue. The same thing goes for sitcoms. These kinds of shows are optimized for the small screen, and don’t really work when glaring at you from on-high, which is why many people with projection screens go with a motorized model and often place a smaller flat panel behind it for pedestrian viewing material.
That aside, though — which really isn’t an issue for me, since I rarely watch sitcoms or the news — this whole experiment in projection has been an incredibly successful one for me. I know a lot of people never think that a front projection system is really a possibility in their homes, and I was among them. But the flexibility of the Screen Innovations Lunar Grey frame screenm combined with the flexible placement opportunities that the BenQ W1080ST projector allows for, really changes the game.
There’s a lot of value, I think — in spaces ranging from small New York apartments all the way up to a big family home — in having a screen that hangs on the wall, coupled with a projector you can put in the closet. Many people don’t want to have projectors and mounts and things intruding on their every day living space, and I can totally respect that. It’s good that companies like BenQ and Screen Innovations can let their powers combine to form a flexible, but still impressive, home theater video system for the common living space.
The best part? This same gear could easily go into an affordable for-realsies dedicated home theater space and provide a very satisfactory experience. High-end, ultra-custom, super-expensive home theater is an amazing experience, and worth every dime if you can afford it, but the average person needs to ease into these things, and Screen Innovations and BenQ have opened that door wide, with a roaring fire and a cup of hot cocoa for the entire family.
Product Page: [BenQ W1080ST]Upgrade to the BenQ W1080ST 1080p 3D Short Throw DLP projector at Amazon