There are several advantages to buying a protector over a TV. The biggest, naturally, is screen size. Most home-theater projectors can produce a picture that’s 100 inches or bigger. If you want a comparably sized television, it’d cost as much as a car. Maybe even more. The picture that projectors can produce is easier on the eyes, thanks to that the fact that reflecting light off white or gray backgrounds (the color of your projector screen) is less fatiguing than the light produced by LED and OLED TVs. Plus, projectors aren’t as big of a home-decor eyesore. There’s no need to have a big box hanging on the wall.
Of course, there are reasons why most people go the traditional route and settle for a TV. They’re a helluva lot cheaper, and you can easily watch it during the day; projectors, meanwhile, require a room with very little ambient light. To optimize picture quality, you should also consider buying a projection screen along with your projector, which will help refract both shadows and highlights. That’s an extra cost.
Then there’s the issue of installation: projectors require the whole room to be arranged around them. They need to be positioned in the back of the room, most likely against the wall, in such a way that accommodates seats and the screen size. You have to plan for your other devices — cable box, Xbox, Apple TV or DVD player — and you’ll have to know the intricacies of your room beforehand, much more so than you would with a TV.
In previous years, 1080p projectors were probably the best bet for most people who wanted a really big home theater screen. Even though the image quality wasn’t the greatest, they were affordable. 4K projectors, on the other hand, were sort of similar to OLED TVs, in that they were really expensive when the technology first come out, but over the last few years the prices have dropped and have become reasonable for consumers to buy.
Today, 4K projectors are still more expensive than most 4K TVs — and the best 4K projectors, which can produce a pristine picture in most lighting conditions, still come with a staggering price tag. But you can now buy one within touching distance of $1,000. Here’s everything you need to know before you make the plunge.
Is It True 4K?
An important clarification to make is that almost all “affordable” 4K projectors, which fall under $2,000, aren’t exactly producing the same picture quality as 4K TVs. Most of these projectors use a different kind of processing chip to create a lower resolution. “The chips that make the image aren’t actually 4K,” writes CNET‘s Geoffrey Morrison. “Or to be more specific, the chips don’t have 3,840×2,160 discrete pixels. Instead, they use lower-resolution imaging chips and some additional method — basically, a trick — to create 4K onscreen.”
This upscaling trick is called 4K Enhancement Technology (4Ke), and it diagonally shifts each pixel in an HD image to double the resolution. Most projectors that cost between $1,000 and $1,500 are going to take advantage of 4Ke technology. So does it matter? Yes and no. As Morrison goes on to explain in his article, the image successfully tricks your brain so that the picture looks more detailed than 1080p. It likely won’t look quite as pristine as the 4K picture you get a nice 4K TV by Samsung, LG or Sony. But in the right conditions with the proper setup, affordable 4K projectors can hold their own.
Terms to Know
Brightness: Generally, the brighter the picture, the better it’ll. Brightness, which is measured in lumens, is also what enables projectors to fight ambient light. The brighter a projector, the better it’ll work in rooms that aren’t completely black.
Contrast Ratio: This is the range of brightness between the whites and black images, and the general rule of thumb is: the high the contrast ratio, the more detail you’re going to see in the image. A higher contrast ratio means the projector is going to be able to produce more shades of a color, and thus you’re going to see a more true-to-life image.
Throw Ratio: This is metric for measuring the throw distance of the project it’s generally measured as D/W, which is the distance (D) the projector is going to throw to, divided by the image’s width (W). Most projectors have a 2.0 throw ratio, meaning if the projector is 12 feet away from the screen, it’ll project a 6-foot image.
Zoom Ratio This refers to how adjustable the image size it, because you don’t want the distance away from the screen to be the only factor of image size. 1.2 is a pretty standard zoom ratio, meaning you can adjust the image size by 20-percent by adjusting the zoom lens.
Lamp Life: The life of your projector’s light bulb is surprisingly important. In fact, according to Projector Central, it’s “the biggest cost of projector ownership” as replacement bulbs can cost several hundred dollars. Lamp life is measured in an “hour rating” or the hours it’s expected to last.
Best Affordable 4K Projectors
Best Budget 4K Projector: The BenQ TK800 is one of the company’s two entry-level 4K projectors. Unlike the BenQ HT2550, which is a dedicated home theater projector, the TK800 is brighter and more practical for the everyday user. Its compact design makes it a little smaller than similar 4K projectors, and it promises a long lamp life (up to 10,000 hours). The sacrifice is contrast. Black colors aren’t deep and stark as they sometimes should be. Same is the case with true whites. This 4K projector isn’t the best for really dark rooms.
Screen Size: up to 200 inches
Brightness: 3000 lumens
Contrast Ratio: 10,000:1
Throw Ratio: 1.47 – 1.76 (range)
Zoom Ratio: 1.2:1
Lamp Life: up to 10,000 hours
Best 4K Projector for Bright Rooms: This 4K projector has a lot going for it. It’s one of the quietest 4K projectors under $2,000 and its high brightness means that it can perform better in rooms with more ambient light. This brightness can have its drawbacks, however. Some details when playing HDR and 4K-upscaled content don’t quite measure up to other projectors on this list, namely the Epson below.
Screen Size: up to 120 inches
Brightness: 3,000 lumens
Contrast Ratio: 1,000,000:1
Throw Ratio: 1.39 – 2.22 (range)
Zoom Ratio: 1.6
Lamp Life: up to 4,000 hours
Epson Home Cinema 5040UB
Best Overall 4K Projector: The Epson 5040UB projector uses 4Ke technology to produce its 4K picture and it supports HDR10, so compatible content — shows, movies, games — will look more colorful, realistic and “pop” off the screen a little more. And with its wide variety of ports (2x HDMI, USB-A, computer 15-pin), you can easily connect most of your devices. Wirecutter selected this as its “budget pick” for home theater projectors.
Screen Size: up to 120 inches
Brightness: 2,500 lumens
Contrast Ratio: 1,000,000:1
Throw Ratio: 1.35 – 2.84 (range)
Zoom Ratio: 1.0 – 2.1 (range)
Lamp Life: up to 5,000 hours