Go Home and Go Big

I got a new screen, and it’s awesome.

Due to a necessary reconfiguration of my studio/home theater layout, my long-serving fixed screen had to go (at 106 inches 16:9 diagonal, it was really too big for the room’s 22x16-foot plan anyway), making way for a retracting screen. And guess what? I discovered there were two big, lovely windows behind it—I’d almost forgotten about those. Now, when I’m not big-screening I’ll have a nice view of the flowering plum and century-old apple trees out that window when spring comes. If spring comes.

The folks at Seymour Screen Excellence were kind enough to configure a motorized, retractable, tab-tensioned screen to replace it, in the 16:9 92-inch, diagonal I’d settled on as optimal for my 11-foot viewing distance. This spec’d out as Seymour’s snappily named model RM80HD-4K. Even better, they loaded it with their latest development, Enlightor-4K: an acoustically transparent, ultra-fine weave they claim is tight enough for 4K with no danger of moiré or other artifacting, and sonically transparent enough for reference playback. Not being 4K-ready (though plenty 4K-willing), I can’t speak to the first, but I’m pretty much down with the second.

You know how cheap motorized screens are amazingly light-weight, easily mounted by one wimpy old guy with a step-stool? Not this one. The RM80HD-4K incorporates a motor that looks like it might be perfectly at home on the front bumper of a LandRover, and lives in a heavy metal cassette with a massive steel structural crossbar; the whole business weights something north of 75 lb.

Fortunately, a willing friend was available to provide the second set of muscles and additional gumption necessary. Equally fortuitous, Screen Excellence’s mounting system is ingeniously easy: You screw a full-width, solid steel channel, profiled like an upside-down capital “U,” to the ceiling. You then simply lift the screen, whose case has two corresponding, full-width lips just wider than the spacing of the channel’s “serifs.” Slide the housing over the rear one, then forward a bit to catch it fully, rotate the housing back up to flush, and slide it back a touch to catch the front lip. It then hangs there, perfectly secure (although try to convince the guy teetering on top of a ladder directly under 75 pounds of dead weight), while your buddy fetches the half-dozen locking screws you run in along the forward edge, screws that prevent it from ever slipping inadvertently backward off of the channel and plunging destructively downward at 32 feet-per-second-per-second.

An interesting side-glance for DIY-ers: My screen placement turned out to be about 4 inches away from the nearest cross-ceiling joist, and moving the screen back was not an option since I needed it forward enough to clear the wall-mounted LCD set below it. The ceiling, like all the surfaces of the room I purpose-built, is double-sheet-rocked, which helps, but wallboard anchors make me nervous—especially with 75 very expensive pounds loading straight down. Enter  (“The Toggler,”) a wonderfully clever anchor that combines the security of a zip-tie with that of a sturdy metal anchor. (Boy do I wish I’d thought this up!) I used seven of these across the screen’s width, and after a couple of months up there, and scores of extensions and retractions, the mounting bar is still hermetically tight to the ceiling, so I think they pass.

As to the actual screen? I already said it was awesome, and I wasn’t exaggerating. The Seymour Screen Excellence replaces an elderly (but still excellent) Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek surface, so it had some serious shoes to fill. While I don’t have both screens available for direct comparison, overall I think the SSE might even look a bit better, at least with my current projector, than did the Stewart. Images are bright and punchy, but contrast is still deep and rich, while image “texture” is I think even a bit more film-like than the Stewart’s was—SSE’s material is slightly lower in on-axis gain, which may have something to do with it. And while the SSE screen is an extremely fine-textured surface, it delivers singularly even illumination across its entire surface: hot-spotting, always a factor with a light-canon DLP source like mine, is really minimized.

The Seymour screen is fully backed, though with an open-wave black material that means light leaking in through the aforementioned windows’ shades is partially mitigated, and thanks to Seymour’s rather slick, minimally invasive tab-tensioning system, the RM80HD-4K proved perfectly flat and ripple-free from day one. (Surprisingly, it also was equally free from new-screen out-gassing odors, an unexpected bonus.)

And the SSE’s acoustic transparency? Extended, the screen completely covers my everyday front center speaker and largely masks the left/right pair, yet I honestly cannot state that I can perceive any difference between up and down—I’ve tried. I imagine that measurement, which I have not bothered with, might show a 1 or 2 dB rolloff above 8 kHz or so, and I’m pretty sure I could detect this if a direct A-B were possible, which it isn’t. (Though this might be mere hubris.) Either way, it just doesn’t matter, and truth be told I think a 2 dB-per-octave rolloff over the top octave or so is a boon for filmsound. And having the front speakers concealed for movies makes any home theater more cinematic in look and feel.

SSE offers a host of automation options for its retractable RM80HD series but I went with the simplest, a 12-volt trigger module that extends the screen when it sees 12v and retracts it when this goes to zero. And this would have been splendid if my stupid projector hadn’t turned out to produce a 12-volt pulse for only a second or two upon turn-on, returning back to near 0v: screen up—whoops!—screen down. Grrr. (Don't ask me how long it took me to figure out why this was happening—at first I wrongly blamed the screen electronics.) For about 10 minutes I thought about making up a latching-relay circuit to overcome this design flaw, going so far as to root around a bit in the parts midden under the bench. Then I kludged up a switch to a spare DC wall-wart power-supply, and will live with this manual arrangement until I upgrade projectors.

The new screen itself, though, is an unqualified success. I really can’t overstate how terrific it looks or how smoothly and quietly it works, and how easy this makes big-screening in a multi-purpose room. Anyone on the hunt for a blue-ribbon projection screen certainly needs to visit Seymour Screen Excellence’s web site for a look-see.

But my main point, to which I’m finally coming 'round, is far more universal: Bigger really is better. Way, way, way better.

I’d almost forgotten this overarching truth, because wheeling the LCD set that lived in front of my fixed screen out of the way, and then replacing the speakers every time I wanted to use the projector was such a pain. And trust me, you don’t need a $5,000 projector (or even, necessarily, a high-zoot screen, though screen surface is a critical part of the end result); my projector is a 6-year-old, very unfancy DLP unit. It ain’t the greatest, and yes, for the first 5 minutes of every picture I’m eye-picking at its flaws. But once the lion roars and the opening credits finish, I forget about them totally and unequivocally and sink into the movie, because size trumps everything else.

So, go big. Go big'n'good if you can, or big'n'excellent if you can manage that. But in any case, go big.

utopianemo's picture

I'm an electrician in an office building. DIY suits my sensibilities, particularly where budget is concerned. I've been long planning the switch from Plasma to Projector. So imagine my unbridled glee when one day my job entailed removing and "disposing of" a conference room recessed motorized projector. The screen format is all wrong, but my intention is to replace the fabric with something 16x9 and acoustically transparent.

It is beyond fortuitous that this steel beast would fit exactly between the floor-to-ceiling cabinetry that flanks my current setup. I never weighed the thing, but when I pulled it out of the ceiling and eventually placed it in my wife's amply sized minivan, 75-80 lbs was my guesstimate. I'd been waiting for this kind of opportunity for years in the business. How odd it was, I thought as I pulled into the garage, that in all that planning and scheming I never thought about where I would possibly put it until the time came for installation?

That was two years ago. The beast resides in the garage, exactly where I left it.

utopianemo's picture

I meant to say screen.

Arnold_Layne's picture

But you went small! My room is 13' wide, and my seats are about 11-12' from the 120" screen.

Daniel Kumin's picture
Well, seating distance is to some degree a matter of taste. My actual seating distance from the screen surface is just about 120 inches (my test-bench/studio occupies the rear third of the room). The oft-quoted SMPTE recommendation of 1.6 x the screen diagonal would be 12 ft., while an old THX metric calls for a 40° 'best-seat' viewing angle, which for my screen works out to about...ta da! -- 10 ft. Anyway, my eyes-on $0.02-worth is that 92 inches at 10 ft. is plenty big!