The Big Screen Debate: Direct-View TV Vs. Projection

There are lots of cool aspects to my job as a custom installer, but my favorite is installing home theater systems. And when designing a surround system with a customer, one of the first discussions is whether they should go with a direct-view, flat-panel display or with a two-piece projection system. Sometimes this choice is obvious; either due to room size, budget, aesthetic demands, or some construction issue that dictates one over another. Other times it becomes a gray area.

Below are some reasons why one or the other might be right for you.


No Size Limits. With a projection system, you can project an image as large as your front wall — or viewing distance — supports. Also, unlike a traditional display, the price difference between a 100-, 110-, or 120-inch screen is often only a few hundred dollars.

Multiple Aspect Ratios. While 16:9 aspect ratio, direct-view displays are great for watching broadcast sports and sitcoms, many movies are filmed in a wider 2.35 or 2.40 aspect ratio. This means movies will have the “dreaded black bars” and appear significantly smaller. Projection systems can support multiple aspect ratios, either with screen masking that blocks off unused portions of the screen, lens memories that zoom and focus the image for different sizes, or anamorphic lenses. Stewart Filmscreen unveiled its new Gemini Dual-Roller ElectriScreen at CEDIA last September, a system that incorporates two separate screens — one 16:9 and one 2.35:1 — in one housing! [Editor’s Note: Elite Screen’s Osprey offers similar flexibility.]

You Can Do 3D. Whether you love it or hate it, 3D in direct-view displays has pretty much been abandoned by every major display manufacturer. However, many projector manufacturers have continued incorporating 3D into new models, including Sony’s new sub-$5,000 4K projector, the VPL-VW285ES. If you have a collection of 3D films you want to enjoy, then a projector will be your best — and possibly only — means of doing that.

You Can Conceal It. Even though it offers larger screen options, it can be easier to conceal a projection system than a traditional display. A motorized screen can completely disappear when not in use, rolling up into a housing that hides away in the attic or behind molding. And the projector can be completely concealed inside cabinetry or behind a soffit with just a porthole for the lens to fire through. Another hot trend is ultra-short throw projectors that can be housed out of sight in furniture at the front of the room, while producing 100-inch images!


Direct View Is Less Expensive. You can pick up a direct-view 80-inch UHDTV for less than $2,500 and a 70-incher for under $1,500. That is a lot of screen for not a lot of green. Comparably, a decent projector and screen will set you back a fair bit more. Also, a projector is generally more difficult (i.e., costly) to wire and install. When budget is tight, a flat panel is often the right choice.

Brightness Is Not an Issue. Projectors rely on dark rooms to produce the best image quality, and if you don’t have absolute light control in your room, or like to watch with lights on, then a direct-view display is likely the right choice. Sure, there are ambient light rejecting screens like Screen Innovations’ Black Diamond, but these are pricey and still don’t deliver the same picture quality as viewing in a dark room.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Is Not an Issue. Read any of Tom Norton’s projector reviews, and you’ll see that projectors can’t get anywhere near the 1,000 nits required to deliver the full HDR experience, with most topping out at around 150 nits. This makes HDR on a projection system a far trickier proposition. While projectors can pull off HDR — with the laser-based models looking pretty spectacular — direct-view TVs will likely always be superior in this regard.

Smart Features on Board. Even the best projector is pretty “dumb” by any modern TV standard. No apps, no streaming, no Alexa — heck, not even any speakers! A projector may be the prima donna of the system, but it relies on a whole supporting cast of gear to work. If the goal is simplicity in design, with few (or no) other components, then it’s flat-panel TV all the way.

Whichever display technology works for you, make sure you pair it with an equally impressive audio system for the full movie experience!

brenro's picture

I dismantled my dedicated theater room after I bought my first 4K TV.

Billy's picture

I presently use a 123 inch diagonal 16.9 screen with a 1080P Sony projector. It is spectacular, but my 4K TVs upstairs are by far brighter and crisper. If I could get a similar sized flat panel for under 5K in 4K, maybe I would go that route. Would have to be a thin "roll up" type one piece flat panel, as getting into my basement and around a corner would be paramount in the undertaking. Don't think I need 8K, even in that size. I do like 4K upstairs, but my 1080P material upverts good enough for these old eyes. Might be better on the big screen, but unsure about upgrading the theater just yet...have to stay married ya know.

Traveler's picture

Outside a full blown home theater I can't see projection at all.

cakebatter's picture

The current batch of Ultra Short Throw Projectors offer direct-view TV brightness, when projecting under 100", and typically sit inches from the screen/Wall. The size and sitting distance limitations for 4K LCDs leave much to be desired, despite the incredible picture quality. While we are only limited to a $20K Sony and $8K Dell for 4K USTs, the 1080p models like Epson's LS100 may sway many buyers who originally wanted a 60" 4k OLED.

MatthewWeflen's picture

My 52" 1080p TV offers better picture quality than my 1080 projector at 106". Better black levels, better processing. Not a drastic difference, but noticeable to a PQ snob like me.

But it's not always about the best possible PQ. It's some times about ambience and environment. Watching TV I am often distracted and browsing a second screen. In my projector room, I am focused on a movie in a darkened room, and it is much more transporting an experience.

So to me the "debate" hinges on what you want out of the viewing experience.