LED display vs. projector

Many people say that you can only achieve a ‘true cinema experience’ by having a projector and screen but LED displays are quickly becoming a contender in the residential space. Amy Wallington takes two-piece projection and LED displays to a penalty shoot-out with the experts.

Home cinemas come in all shapes, sizes and styles; some are dedicated cinemas, some are multi-use rooms or media rooms. But one thing is certain, everyone wants the best bang for their buck. Choosing between two-piece projection or a fixed LED screen can often depend on the budget, the room size, and what it will be used for but there are other factors to consider too. So what do the experts of the industry think is the best solution for a home cinema?

“Strictly speaking, the magic of cinema is in a large screen and projection system,” says Atif Ghaffar, director at Zebra Home Cinema. “Movies appear more cinematic when projected on a large screen and in a suitably dark environment in tandem with a powerful audio system. Large TV displays can be visually stunning, however there is a significant technical compromise of not being able to place the most important centre speaker correctly as it has to be positioned either above or below the central position. With an acoustically transparent screen, this is not an issue.”

While this opinion is common, there are also some that prefer a high-end fixed LED display in private theatres. “The primary reason would be that the overall picture quality and viewing experience are by far much better than projection, especially since the introduction of much lower pixel pitches,” explains Michael Mclewee, UK and Ireland LED manager at LG Electronics. “With LED you even have different picture modes and colour settings that are easily adjustable much like a consumer LCD TV. 

“In addition, the life of LED is three times greater than a projector with a typical life of up to 100,000 hours compared to 20-30,000 hours for a projector, resulting in fewer service visits and lower maintenance costs.”

Depending on the room’s use, a fixed display can work out to be a much cheaper solution. A large 4K/8K TV is often a better solution than a projector system for the same cost. However, if the client is looking at a very high-end LED wall for a dedicated cinema room, prices often shoot up.  

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Image: Samsung's The Wall

Christopher Mullins, the product manager for Digital and Home Cinema, Simulation and Entertainment Projection at Sony Professional Solutions Europe, points out: “This is the elephant in the room. The cost of many LED walls are thousands of pounds per square metre, resulting in a price of more than six figures which takes it well beyond the aspirations of your average AV enthusiast.” 

Regardless of the price, the LED wall solutions have a number of other benefits which makes them a major player in very high-end residential cinemas. “Brightness is even across the screen, meaning the client enjoys true image uniformity,” adds Kris Hogg, European business manager, Luxury Living, Samsung. “An LED screen such as The Wall can run as low as 250nit but will peak, if needed, at 2,000nit. This means you can use it in daylight rooms, something you can’t do with other technology.”

Brightness is one of the biggest advantages of having an LED display. Projector and screen combinations usually need very dark rooms, better suited to a dedicated cinema room, whereas the LED display can be used in a multimedia room or somewhere with a lot of ambient light. “As the LED wall is light emitting and has high peak brightness, it can be used in similar ways to TVs and can be placed in well lit spaces and retain the image quality,” explains Mullins. “However, you do need to be careful with reflections in some cases.”

Not only are they better in a non-darkened room but LED displays also reproduce deeper blacks. “For me, the biggest difference is in the black levels of The Wall when compared to a projection system or indeed other LEDs,” continues Hogg. “All projectors shine a light through a lens and onto a screen, a black in a projector is only seen as black because of the contrast ratio of coloured pixels versus black ones, which in reality is just a white light shining onto the screen, which is also usually white.

“Movies appear more cinematic when projected on a large screen and in a suitably dark environment in tandem with a powerful audio system.”

“With The Wall, when we need a black pixel we turn the LEDs off, which means there is no light coming from it. To further enhance this black image, the screen is coated with something we call Black Seal Technology, which not only protects the screen from dust and knocks, but also delivers further enhancement of the blacks, as well as giving the screen an anti-glare coating.”

Projector and screen technology is developing fast and there are some solutions that can also be used in rooms with a lot of light, as Bart Devos, business development manager EMEA, Barco Residential explains: “Brightness is a very important consideration, especially if you are looking at direct sunlight hitting the image for example, in which case LED becomes a compelling choice. In the use case of a dedicated home theatre however, high-end projectors can have such high light output that this is not really a consideration when choosing between the two. Many people however are not aware of the level of performance high-end home theatre projectors can provide of course, and that these can go as high as 30,000 lumens.”

An LED wall is arguably more scalable than a two-piece projector system and it is easy to increase resolution. The display allows the integrator to add modules to it in order to build to the size that fits the client’s space. With that, the resolution also increases as you add more modules to the wall. Mullins clarifies: “The resolutions scales with the size. As the LED panels are a fixed resolution, the more you add the more resolution you get.”

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Image: Samsung's The Wall

Listen up
Perhaps the biggest downside to a fixed LED display is the audio. With a projector system, the screen can be perforated in order to have in-wall speakers behind the screen but with an LED display, this is more of a challenge. “The audio aspect of an AV experience is at least 50% of the experience – some would argue even more so – and with LED walls not being acoustically transparent it is difficult to have a true centre channel from the screen,” Mullins points out. “There are ways of creating a virtual centre with some clever audio design but this can be tricky.”

Even Hogg agrees that sound is the area that lets LED displays down. “Sound was the only area where The Wall offered some challenges in terms of immersive audio. In luxury entertainment rooms, you can be more flexible in speaker positioning, but in a dedicated cinema, speaker positioning is seriously important. All LED screens have low acoustic transparency and we knew that we needed to address the front channels on an immersive audio system to ensure that an integrator can deliver a high performance room, with no compromise.”

Some homeowners do not want to hide their speaker systems, especially in multimedia rooms where it will not only be used for films. Mclewee explains: “While it might be best to install the C/L/R speakers behind a projector screen to hide when using a conventional projector, having an LED screen with C/L/R speakers surrounding the display does offer some aesthetics to the look of the finished room. Some people want to see their expensive audio system too. Ultimately, the sound quality is not affected by either of the display types and is solely reliant on the quality of the speakers and amplification hardware.”

“A projector, screen and immersive audio go together like red, green and blue.”

Of course, audio is one of the biggest selling points for a projector and screen combination. As Mullins suggests: “A projector, screen and immersive audio go together like red, green and blue. The flexibility to have an acoustically transparent screen allows for the C/L/R audio speakers to be positioned in line with industry standards and to hear what the content creator intended.” 

Rune Nielsen, director of sales, EMEA for Stewart Filmscreen, adds: “Screen surfaces can be made acoustically transparent for localised dialogue portrayal, cinematic sound, and musical performance presentations of reference quality. Stewart Filmscreen’s MicroPerf THX2 Ultra process places incredibly small precision holes in the screen material, enabling near-reference quality audio. 

“For audiophiles, we are preparing to launch our new ‘knit’ weave screen material, Harmony G2, which will deliver even higher dBs than the leading weave competitor.”

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Image: Bespoke Home Cinemas

Setting the scene
Slated as the ‘most cinematic’ option, the projector and screen option still carries a lot of considerations. “Integrators need to consider the size of the room, orientation of the seating and image projection as well as how well the light can be controlled,” directs Ghaffar. The size of the image, seating position and distance of projector to the screen are all interlinked and these need to be specified accurately. Light control is essential so that the darkness of the room can enhance the perceived picture contrast and impact on the senses as well as brighter levels to set various moods and room functions.”

Nielsen points out flexibility benefits: “Homes can become multipurpose through the use of retractable screens as roller screens can ‘go away’, allowing the room to take on other purposes besides a place to watch TV.” 

This is something that often appeals to not only homeowners, but also interior designers who are trying to keep spaces minimal and modern. However, some customers want their projection screen to be fixed to the wall permanently. There are often more flexible options with projection screens as opposed to LED displays. Nielsen adds: “Projection screens provide a wide variety of flexibility and multiple uses. Stewart’s fixed frame screens mount on the wall or from the ceiling. Our retractable screens smoothly roll up into a mounted case on the wall or can be hidden in the ceiling. This level of flexibility means that high-value spaces can be used for non-viewing purposes.”

Ryan Gustafson, CEO of Screen Innovations highlights another reason why a projection screen is sometimes a better fit in a home environment. “It blends in better with the home. It’s difficult to integrate an LED display into the design of a home. Short of covering it with a piece of movable art, there are few solutions. A projection system, however, affords a myriad of installation options to effectively blend the technology with the room design. For example, both the projector and the screen can be attached to motorised assemblies to disappear above the ceiling when not in use. This technique enables a projection system to coexist in any room of a home, not just a dedicated theatre.”

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Image: Bespoke Home Cinemas

Weighing up lifespans
When investing in high-end equipment, generally customers are looking for something that will be long lasting. Having said that, people also want the latest technology in their homes to give them the best cinema experience. 

“Stewart has an installed base of retractable screens that have been updated multiple times as projector technologies continue to evolve,” Nielsen expresses. “A well-utilised, retractable screen material will last 15 years, sometimes longer, and then can be replaced with fresh screen material in a single day.

“Fixed screens also have a long, useful life and can be re-screened as technologies evolve. This approach to screen material updates is much more convenient and at a lower cost than the likely more frequent LED display replacements that are needed to keep up with technology advancements. With modern projector laser technology, lamp changes are a thing of the past. The pairing of screen material and projector will last at least the same timeframe of an LED display – generally longer – and at a fraction of the cost.”

It is important to consider the lamp life of projectors compared to how long an LED display would last. “For longevity, it also depends on how often the system is being used,” highlights Ghaffar. “Projector lamps diminish in brightness with time – usually after 700 hours – and need to eventually be replaced. Depending on the various applications, gaming for example, there are likely to be greater differences in performance between projectors compared to fixed LED displays.”

Gustafson points out: “Because a projection system can be easily upgraded and moved with you to a new home, its lifespan is very long. Lending to longevity are laser projectors. By pairing a screen with a laser projector, one can expect to enjoy 50,000 hours of use.”

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A two-piece projector system is a great option for a multipurpose room so that it can be rolled up into its case when not in use. Image: Stewart Filmscreen

Short is sweet?
Ultra-short-throw laser projectors are growing in popularity in the cinema industry as a real game changer for watching movies. Highlighting why ‘laser TV’ is especially useful in multipurpose rooms in a home, OneAV’s Chris Pinder says: “4K UST laser projectors are disrupting the market for TVs above 75-in in size, it’s a size where TV prices go through the roof and sometimes even the logistics of fitting the TV through doorways become an issue. From my experience, most people after seeing Laser TV say they would gladly choose it over a big flat panel TV.”

He continues: “Consumers want big, bright, immersive video system in their homes. For many clients such as renters or apartment owners, running long HDMI cables and power, not to mention installing brackets on the ceiling, is a non-starter. With laser TV, installers can negate the mounting of the projector on a ceiling or wall and achieve a significantly faster install time. Laser TV fits into any living room, not just saving space but also helping to minimise the impact of a projector. Sitting merely inches away from the screen it delivers a picture up to 120-in in size, turns on and off right away and maintains its brightness, even with years of daily use.”

With many different options for a high-end home cinema, the most popular choice seems to be a two-piece projector system with the opinion that it provides the most cinematic experience. To conclude, Devos says: “Projection is still by far the dominant choice for dedicated home theatres specifically, and remains so for professional cinema as well, as it makes for the most cinematic experience and offers great flexibility in terms of installation and architectural integration. In many cases, budget is an important consideration as well, as even a 3m-wide 4K direct view LED screen is still on the very high-end of the cost spectrum.

“There are other use cases and types of projects as well however, and direct view LED is certainly becoming more of a consideration as an option to create our digital canvases.”