Eyeing up the options: LED vs Projection

In the arena of home theatre, projection is starting to contend with a formidable rival… dvLED. Newcomer dvLED delivers stunning visuals but projection keeps evolving with newfound capabilities. Stuart Pritchard dissects the pros and cons, setting the stage for a technological showdown.

It’s that age-old question: what’s better when it comes to a truly eye-popping home cinema screen, DirectView LED or projection? Well, okay, not that age-old, or even age-old at all really, as dvLED has only really been around for the residential market since 2019 when Samsung unveiled ‘The Wall’ its 146-in self-emitting MicroLED TV. But since that beautiful behemoth made its debut, the technology has been refined and many more manufacturers have embraced it and gone even bigger with it, creating home cinema displays that truly dazzle.

However, projector technology – always a vivid and reliable route to home theatre picture heaven – has equally evolved, offering bright, brilliant images that fill the wall with 4K thrills which never fail to delight the client. Which begs the question: as an integrator faced with a home cinema installation that requires you to specify all equipment, which optical option would you choose?

Well, the answer to that, obviously, comes down to a variety of vital factors, such as budget, space, client requirements and, in the case of dvLED, the ability to install. But before you get bogged down in all that, let’s look at the two technologies side-by-side, with the invaluable help of some industry experts.

Swing the LED

Face it, dvLED TVs are stunning; but they’re also expensive and often difficult to install. But what else do we know? Well, me, not much, so I asked people who do. Starting with two of Barco’s finest, Bart Devos, business development manager, Barco Residential and Sander Buys, product marketing manager cinema.

“The challenge for direct view LED in the realm of home cinema is that we need to consider multiple scenarios in terms of ambient light conditions,” says Buys. “We must also think of the scenarios where lights are on, or even where the LED display is used in media rooms and living rooms. Design choices in the electronics and LED controller system will need to be carefully selected to account for the best viewing experience in all these scenarios. Where a traditional direct view LED product is designed for high brightness, it will compromise the viewing comfort when the brightness is turned down to the levels suited for a dark theatre room.

“A lot of R&D from Barco goes into the way we are driving the LEDs. There are many different technologies in the industry like COB, flipchip, IMD, MIP, which use different techniques to place the LED pixels on the modules. But the real viewing experience is determined by the LED driving and processing. Our Barco LED walls can be dimmed down to very low brightness levels without introducing any annoying visible artifacts.”

So, careful consideration is required when it comes to screen situation and brightness of both the display and the room it sits in, but as Samsung’s The Wall went to prove, get those elements right and the result is simply stunning. Speaking of which, we also spoke to Kris Hogg, head of commercial partnerships, EDO, Samsung Electronics, about the latest developments on that score.

“We’ve developed quicker-to-install units with finer pixel pitches, which allow for faster deployment and an even more incredible viewing experience,” Hogg tells us. “We have also driven significant improvements in the media players since the original The Wall we introduced in 2019. Today's lineup is significantly better performing and takes what was a phenomenal experience back then and improves on it dramatically.

“Today we have a comprehensive range of indoor and outdoor LED products of which many are relevant to residential use. Within the Wall alone we have four products, which cover a wide variety of verticals and applications. Beyond that we offer a range of all-in-one products in both MicroLED and SMD, which are easier to install and offer fixed sizes and resolution.”

LED outside

Having established that light conditions can be an issue for dvLED when it comes to different usage, with many well-heeled clients now looking to enjoy their TV/cinema experience outdoors as well as in, an obvious question to is ask is whether this LED technology truly lends itself to alfresco applications or is it indoorsy only? Having heard Hogg refer to “outdoor LED products” above, we start with him.

“We have had a lot of The Wall installs done outside, all that was needed was consideration for protection from the elements. Alternatively, we’ve got full outdoor products and would recommend the most suitable technology based on the installation environment.”

So, pretty solid on the going-in-the-garden front for Samsung. But what of Digital Projection’s take on whether dvLED is good for the Great Outdoors?

“This is where LED really shines,” enthuses Mark Wadsworth, vice president of global marketing at Digital Projection. “Across the US, we are seeing an upsurge of garden cinemas, and when they have to compete with high ambient light, LED is the only realistic option. It is rare that the cinema would only be used in the evening, so LED has the ability to be viewed in daylight. We are also seeing really novel ways of deploying these screens too, such as on lifting systems that stores the screen below ground when not in use. There really are some phenomenal outdoor LED residential systems out in the wild at the moment.”

And that answers that. But whether installed inside or out, it appears dvLED screens can be rather trickier beasts to work with than other optical options, meaning that many custom installers may not be up to the task and upskilling will need to be the order of the day.

Hogg: “Most integrators have the ability but perhaps not the training. The products are easy to install but there are some specific needs during the installation. However, this is not a problem. Samsung Business Academy has hands-on training available if an integrator wants to upskill, if not then in the UK we can offer a blue glove install service.”

Barco, meanwhile, are taking no chances when it comes to achieving a seamless install, as Buys explains: “At Barco we have made the decision to only use our own most experienced installers for home theatre installations. We also have training in place in Barco University for integrators to get acquainted with the installation process. Still, Barco will always provide installation guidance. Only when we are 100% confident that the installation partners have acquired the necessary experience and skill to do an installation autonomously, we will allow them to do so.”

So, indoor or out, with precision installation dvLED is a strong contender for the home cinema crown. Which prompts the question: what’s holding it back?

Shine a light

Shifting focus (terrible pun intended) to projectors, this tried and trusted home cinema staple constantly evolves to hone the home cinema experience, and today’s top-end light-throwing options are 4K-capable and boast achingly brilliant levels of contrast and brightness. As a result, images are natural, vivid, sharp as a high-tech tack and smoother than a velvet otter, which is why many clients specify the desire for a projector-driven home cinema and, equally, why many specifiers recommend them to their clients.

As you’re probably aware, both Barco Residential and Digital Projection offer a range of acclaimed home cinema projectors, so while we had the ear of Buys and Devos at the former and Mark at the latter it seemed like an excellent opportunity to get an update on what hot spec is currently available in both camps.

“The latest addition to our acclaimed range of private cinema projectors is Nerthus (winner of four awards at CEDIA expo back in September), Buys at Barco informs us. “This lovely native 4K DCP (Digital Cinema Package) capable projection powerhouse features a simply phenomenal light engine with RGB laser capable of blasting out a whopping 32,000 ANSI lumens with 100% Rec2020 colour accuracy. It has full internal cooling so no further real estate is needed inside the technical space/projection booth for things like external chillers.

“Because it’s a DCI-certified machine it gives our most discerning clients the option to playback DCIs, which mean they can enjoy the latest Hollywood releases in the comfort of their own home, all whilst knowing they’re getting the ultimate video and audio quality. Of course, it also comes equipped with an HDMI interface for playback of consumer electronics sources.”

Wadsworth at Digital Projection also has projection perfection in the shape of the Satellite: “Our Satellite Modular Laser System has to be one of the most revolutionary developments to hit the residential market. By separating the projection head from the light source, you can now put high-brightness, whisper quiet projection head unobtrusively in a home cinema, regardless of the size and space available. Whereas in the past you may have needed a full tech room to accommodate the projector, this can now be integrated in the theatre while the noise and heat from the light source can be up to 100m away. Add to this the REC2020 colour space that RGB laser light sources provide, and the colour reproduction is also perfect, allowing you to view the movie the way the director envisaged.”

Adventure in inner space

But what if restricted room is an issue? Could ultra-short-throw projection now present a viable option in the more minute home cinema, or is that technology reserved solely for smaller applications?

Wadsworth at Digital Projection: “UST is definitely suitable for home cinema applications. Often there is limited space, so we see very innovate solutions in squeezing projectors into tight spaces using a variety us UST lenses. This is especially the case with our Satellite projectors where we have seen right-angle 0.38:1 deployed with the near-silent satellite heads. This has meant the projector can be very close to the screen, providing that big-screen, immersive environment, with a very short throw distance.”

Devos is in agreement: “It’s definitely an option which, thanks to our extensive list of lens options, we’re also capable of offering to our partners and end-users. Our partners know they can contact us with their project challenges and questions and we’ll be more than happy to assist them coming up with suggestions and solutions that meet both their requirements as well as those of the end-users.”

LED vs projection: the cinematic conclusion

That’s where things are up to on both advanced options, but are we any closer to an answer when choosing a superior system? Well, of course not!

“In our opinion there is no ‘best’ or ‘most suitable’,” says Barco’s Devos. “We suggest having an in-depth conversation with the end-user so that they understand desired use case for a given room. That way, they can then inform the end-users in a detailed manner of the pros and compromises of both technologies.

“Plus, with projection, there is also the advantage for the audio because speakers can be placed directly behind the acoustically transparent screen fabric for the most natural sounding audio reproduction.

“On the other hand, LED definitely has its place, especially for rooms where clients wish to enjoy content in high ambient light conditions or quite simply in case the safety requirements in terms of hazard zones cannot be met and as a result steer the project towards the selection of an LED wall over a projection-based system."

Wadsworth at Digital Projection is in agreement: “It depends. You need to take in environmental factors such as space and ambient light into account. If it is an outdoor cinema, then LED wins hands down.

“Projection still remains strong in the majority of indoor residential applications though. The ability to change aspect ratios, the flexibility to install a projector and screen without the advanced structural calculations that LED walls often require, and the fact that projectors produce very little heat mean that they are still to go-to solution. When you also look at projectors like our Satellite Modular Laser system, they become even more flexible as they can do where other projectors cannot – fitting into tight spaces with minimal fuss, noise and heat. There’s certainly a strong future ahead for projection.”

Samsung’s Hogg, meanwhile, breaks it down to a matter of market: “LED is relevant at the high-end of the market, so I’d say it’s actually claimed the crown there. Clients comparing a projector image next to The Wall always see the difference – it is significant. In terms of the mass-market, budget restrictions would commonly see a client specifying a projector and while this could be a marketspace for LED, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

In non-conclusion…

And there you have it – when it comes to home cinema superiority, both technologies come punching into the ring with their own pluses and potential downsides on display. A matter of considering market, depth of pocket and, of course, usage case, each installation – as always – still has to be accessed on an individual basis to settle on what to specify. So, when it comes to LED vs Projection, forget picking a ‘best’ and, as the French integrators might say, vive la difference!

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