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Home Theater Projector Buyer's Guide

What Is Brightness?

How much illumination your eyes perceive on the screen depends on two factors: (1) the light output of the projector, and (2) the reflective properties of the screen.

There are two common methods of measuring light in a home theater. One is the ANSI lumen rating of the projector. That measures the light energy being generated by the projector itself. The second is foot-Lamberts (fL), which takes the screen into account and measures the total light that is being reflected back toward the audience. Of the two, foot-Lamberts is the better method to use for setting up your home theater. However, since that number depends on your screen size and screen gain, there is no fL specification published by projector manufacturers.

So how much light do I need?

When it comes to home theater projectors, brighter is definitely not better. What you want is a projector that produces enough light to fill your screen with good contrast, but not so bright that it creates eye fatigue when viewed for any length of time.

It is safe to ignore the published ANSI lumen rating-it is irrelevant for a variety of reasons. Instead, use our Projection Calculator (also available from the left navigation bar) to determine the brightness characteristics of the model you are looking at. It lets you factor in your screen size and its gain rating if you know it. In a dark room, a luminance level on the screen in the range of 12 to 22 fL is in the ideal comfort range, and the calculator defaults to 16 fL to give you a starting point.

In theory, lumens and foot-Lamberts are related. One foot-Lambert of luminance is equal to one lumen per square foot. But there is no direct relationship between the ANSI lumen ratings from the manufacturer and the foot-Lambert measurements as reported in the Calculator. That is because the Calculator factors in reduced lumen outputs for video optimization and average lamp usage, in order to estimate a typical viewing experience.

If you don't want to set up a dark home theater and would rather have some low ambient light, you may prefer to get the screen luminance up into the range of 20 to 40 fL. A brighter picture will help compensate for the loss of contrast caused by ambient light. For each model you may be considering, the Calculator can be used to give you estimates of the screen size and screen gain needed to get that brighter picture.

Don't Get Misled by ANSI Lumen Specs

Whatever you do, don't make any assumptions about a projector's brightness based on its ANSI lumen rating. Some models have video optimization incorporated into their ratings and others do not. That means there are projectors out there which are officially rated at 700 ANSI lumens that are actually brighter than models rated at 1500 ANSI lumens. Spec sheets, as far as lumen ratings are concerned, are meaningless for home theater.

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Reader Comments(15 comments)

Posted Feb 28, 2011 4:17 PM PST

By bahha

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thank you, your guide is helpful . I'm going to buy a projector now, I want to use at school for teaching.

Posted Jul 19, 2011 6:59 AM PST

By Vichu

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Thank you. The article is very informative

Posted Jul 25, 2011 12:43 AM PST

By b.r.nath

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a nice handy guide for all the buyers

Posted Jul 26, 2011 11:19 PM PST

By rman

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wonderful guide.. Thanks!

Posted Sep 6, 2011 10:59 PM PST

By hussain

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THANKS FOR SHAIRING THE MOST BENEFICIL INFO ABOUT TODAYS CONFUSING PROJECTOR MARKET.YOU HAD MADE ME VERY COMFORTABE TO BUY A GOOD PROJECTOR WITH OUT FALLING IN THE TRAP OF ALL THIS CONFUSING REVIEWS AND MISLEAD MANUFACTURE ADVERTISING.TANKS A LOT.

Posted Feb 24, 2012 2:29 AM PST

By sophie

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Awesome list, thank you! I have been thinking lately that perhaps I should add Comment Luv to my sites. Just have not been sure yet what all the benefits are – does it make a difference in rank at all, or mostly in interaction on websites? I am bookmarking this page for convenience Thanks again for providing valuable content to your readers! [Link deleted by Projectorcentral]

Posted Apr 9, 2012 6:23 PM PST

By bill

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thank you very much for making and sharing this guide (and the rest of the site's content, too). i've found it easy to follow and very informative. many thanks.

Posted Apr 18, 2012 2:46 AM PST

By narco

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thanks for an informative and well written article.

Posted Nov 12, 2012 8:14 AM PST

By Ash

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Thanks for a great article. The beginners like me can acutally now go out and search for the one we need. I am looking for one below $1200 with screen and ceiling mount. This article really is helping me narrow down on the selections and also helped understanding the importance of going for better screen. One suggestion...Please include a couple more sections, one for 3D compatibility and another for performance with gaming consoles.

Posted Jan 15, 2014 9:09 PM PST

By home theater

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Great guide for everyone who is in planning to buy the home theater system. last year i am too confused in buying the best home theater system. After reading the products review and comparing home theater system in terms of technical specification, i find the best home theater system. [edited to remove link]

Posted Feb 4, 2014 3:02 AM PST

By Anil Samuel

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Amazing article. I appreciate the effort. And thanking you all behind this site. I am from Germany And I want to buy one good projector for a charity association

Posted Feb 7, 2014 12:35 AM PST

By steven prentice

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Fantastic breakdown for projectors thank you

Posted Feb 21, 2015 1:50 PM PST

By TheWiredFox

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This guide is helpful, however it does not include any information regarding inputs, specifically '3D PC' vs. 'HD 3D' inputs. I currently have a 2D setup with HTPC and Blu-Ray switched through my receiver with HDMI. Upgrading to a 3D projector is the plan, and getting into specifics with '3D PC' vs. 'HD 3D' should be included in this Buyer's Guide. Thanks.

Posted Jul 26, 2017 2:47 PM PST

By Steve Hiegel

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All the information needed to arm yourself with the information you need to buy a projector that fits your needs. Thank you for this resource.

Posted Mar 9, 2018 8:38 AM PST

By amedius

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Awesome article if only I would have read earlier. I purchased a Epson tw6100 four years back and placed in the last corner way back 20 feet. Since its having keystone correction, I could adjust the image of 140 inch diagonal to get it perfectly aligned. Bluerays look sharp and very bright. I was happy with it. But after reading this article, I wonder if I would have placed the projector right in the center and just 12 feet from the screen, I could have got a better image, maybe still brighter and more sharper. Thanks for the article. My next projector placement will be a lot different.

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