I never considered myself one of those Audio/Video guys. But after my friends and I finished the final touches to my high definition (HD) projector, and we sat down to watch The Bourne Identity on my 125-inch HD screen, I realized why some men flip over home theaters.
But what I didn't understand is why they would spend as much as $10,000 to do it. I built a knock-out home theater system for $1,650 less than the price of almost any new 40-inch HDTV. Here's how I did it:
The final product eats up a lot of wall space.
Before I bought anything, I spent two weeks researching sorting through the online myths, legends and generally inaccurate home theater guides that saturate the Internet.
Before buying a projector, there are some practical obstacles to consider. The first is how much natural light is in the projector's environment.
Even the brightest machine cannot overcome direct sunlight and most indirect sunlight. A basement or windowless room is ideal. You also need a large blank wall to project the images and a place to mount the projector so that guests and other objects don't become a part of the show.
I'm in the fortunate position -- well, fortunate in some ways anyway -- of living in a small apartment at the end of a dark alley in an old building with high ceilings and I can't afford any nice art for my large white walls, so too much natural light is definitely not a problem. It's like the architects of my building knew 100 years ago what I would be using it for.
A projector is not like a TV. It's an extremely high tech-piece of equipment with many more options and it's likely there's only one that fits your needs and budget, which is why research is so important.
I spent most of my research poring over the hundreds of digital projectors available on the market and determined these are the key attributes to weigh:
• Lumen: This is the measure of perceived light power. There's no such thing as too much. The brighter the image, the more detail can be seen and the more vibrant all the images appear. High lumen is particularly important if there is any ambient light in the room. If there are windows or if you plan to operate the projector with any lights on, you'll want something with at least 2,500 lumen.
• Native resolution: Just like TVs, projectors have a maximum resolution. They range from 640x480 (standard definition [SD] TV) to 1920x1080 (true 1080 HDTV) and everything in between. Higher resolution projectors can display lower resolution images and lower resolution projectors can receive higher resolution images, but must convert them and then display them on the projector's actual native resolution. I can't tell you what resolution is best. But if the projector is for home use, you'll want at least 1280x720 (720 HDTV) so that you can enjoy your massive screen in HD. The higher resolution 1080 projectors display a crisper image, but are a relatively new technology and are not as bright and more than double the cost of their 720 counterparts.
• Native aspect ratio: Similarly, projectors have a native aspect ratio, usually 4:3 (SDTVs and most computer monitors) or 16:9 (HDTVs). Again, each can receive non-native feeds, but must convert the image by either stretching it and distorting it or by placing black bars on the sides or top and bottom of the image. For home use, 16:9 is the preferred format since HDTV broadcasts are 16:9.
• Lamp life: just like rear-projection TVs, digital projectors have a bulb that will eventually either burn out or become so weak, the feed is difficult to watch. At $250 to $400 per bulb, you'll want a projector with a long estimated lamp life. Lamp life ranges from about 2,000 hours to 4,000.
• DLP versus LCD: While LCD projectors are still in production, DLP has nearly taken over the market and for good reason. DLP's pictures are brighter, more colorful and do not blur fast-moving images. They also require next to no maintenance. DLP projectors are slightly more expensive, but this is probably the one area where you'll pay the least for the greatest gain.
While there are other considerations such as contrast, fan noise and inputs, the five mentioned above are by far the most important.
Since my new toy was to completely replace my TV, I needed long lamp life and brightness so I could watch it during the day or with the lights on.
After all of my research, I settled on BenQ's SP830. At 3,500 lumen it's one of the brightest beamers on the market, it has DLP technology, up to 4,000 hours lamp life, both DVI and component inputs, a 16:9 aspect ratio and is capable of projecting 720p HDTV.
I bought it for just under $1,500 from Amazon.com about $1,000 less than its price at a local store. It is advertised as a business projector, but like many business models, does a splendid job of everything else.
While the projector is the single most important and most expensive portion of any home theater, you also need to factor in a screen, audio system, installation and cables.
I basically went the cheapest route possible but it still looks brilliant.
For the moment I am projecting the image on a bare white wall. Because the SP830 projects at a stunning 3,500 lumen, its light reflects off almost any surface. But a weaker projector will definitely require a screen not to mention most people don't have vast, white, empty wall space.
Many home theater projections range between 100 to 130 measured diagonally. While high-end 16:9 screens in that size can cost as much as $1,000, cheaper versions for less than $300 will dutifully work for any projector with at least 1,500 lumen.
If you're confident that the home theater is in a permanent location, there are a few manufacturers that make screen goo that can be painted onto a wall. Some swear that screen goos reflect the best pictures.
Regardless of how you reflect the image, always install the projector before you buy a screen. You don't want to end up with a screen that's too big or worse yet, too small.
Today's latest digital surround systems can add a new dimension to any home theater -- and a price tag that may double the whole project.
For my audio, I re-used a decent subwoofer/computer speaker package that was easy to install onto the wall on either side of the projected image. I think I paid $60 for the package a few years ago. Since it's only stereo, rather than surround, it was easy and cheap to install a single stereo audio cable from my cable box in the back of the room to the speakers in the front.
Eric DeGrass makes final adjustments to the projector
When I asked a friend who recently purchased an HDTV for advice on buying cables, he said, cables are the one area you don't want to go cheap on. That's what the salesman at Best Buy told him at least, and he paid $90 for a 6-foot Monster Cable.
However, many engineers will tell you that cables are the biggest scam in the whole home theater business generally perpetrated by salesmen at Circuit City, Best Buy and the rest of the big boxes. Yes, you need cables, but what you don't need to do is pay hundreds of dollars for them.
There is almost an endless flow of research available on the Internet that reveals that cheap yet reliable cable manufacturers perform at the same level as Monster the monster that has attacked consumers' wallets at big box stores for years.
Monoprice.com came highly regarded on many forums and for less than $80 including shipping, I ordered 50' worth of heavy gauge HDMI and component cables along with an assortment of connectors, converters and widgets.
The only thing to watch out for with any cable, regardless of its price, is length. The research comparing cheap cables to expensive cables revealed that picture quality may decrease if the cable is longer than 25 feet. If you must do it longer, there are video boosters you can install.
The final step is installation.
I used a standard universal ceiling mount and ran all the cables along the wall and ceiling through brackets. Even my rudimentary installation was too much for one person so I lured a few of my buddies and their power tools to my apartment with cheap beer. In all it cost me $75 including the mount and beer and it doesn't look half bad.
Running cables through the walls is definitely the classier approach, but also more expensive, time-consuming and permanent. It also makes it difficult to upgrade to a future technology that may require new cables.
When I began my hunt for an HDTV, I never thought it would result in the 125-inch goliath that now dominates my northern wall. But with a little more research, planning and energy, I made it happen for a few hundred less than what I would have paid for something a third the size.
Now I just need some sort of technology that makes my friends go home and watch their own tiny screens.