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Monday, April 8, 2024

How to Buy and Set Up a Projector for Your Home Movie Theater

We’ve all dreamt of having a real movie theater at home, and modern home theater projectors offer the next best thing. With massive screen sizes, tons of brightness, and reasonable prices, now is a great time to make your home theater dream a reality. 

That’s not to say that buying and setting up a projector properly is as easy as plugging in a TV and logging into your Netflix account. You need to know your screen space and mounting position, and you need to make sure you’ve got your cables wired properly and to the right places. If all of this seems too daunting, consider buying a larger-sized TV. They’re getting bigger, cheaper, and better looking by the day. Ain’t no shame in taking the easy way out! But if you want that true theater-like experience, here's how to buy and set up a projector.

Be sure to read our related buying guides, including How to Get the Most Out of Your Home Theater Audio, the Best Projectors, Best TVs, Best Streaming Devices, and Best Soundbars.

Table of ContentsProjectors vs. TVsWhat Is Throw Distance?Buying a ProjectorDo You Need a Projector Screen?Mounting Your ProjectorGet a Streaming StickChoose a Speaker SystemSetting Up Your ProjectorFinal SettingsProjectors vs. TVs

Technically, modern TVs offer far superior image quality than the vast majority of projectors on the consumer market. That includes brighter backlighting, the ability to deliver strong image quality even in bright spaces, and faster refresh rates for gaming and sports. (Read our Best TVs guide for our favorites.)

But if you want a truly cinematic experience, there's nothing like shooting some photons through the air. Projectors can project a larger image than the vast majority of TVs, allowing you to experience your favorite movies and shows as though you have a front-row seat at the local cineplex. You can get a 75- or even 85-inch TV, sure, but most standard projectors start at screen sizes above 100 inches, which means they're still the best way to go big at home. 

What Is “Throw Distance”?

The first thing you'll want to be aware of when looking into installing a projector is the throw distance, which is the distance between the projector’s lens and the wall or projector screen. Every projector on the market has a spec sheet that will tell you the distance you need to mount it from the screen to optimally achieve a certain screen size.

All projectors have slightly different throw lengths, based on the type of bulb, lens, and other factors used in their design. So when you're purchasing a projector, make sure the throw distance will fit inside your room—preferably with the projector not resting right overhead where you'll be sitting to avoid noise from its spinning fans.

If you have a small space to work with, consider grabbing a short-throw projector, like the Hisense 120L5G. These projectors are quite pricey but typically sit on TV stands right in front of your wall or projector screen and can project images from a super close distance (a few feet), rather than tens of feet away.

Buying a Projector

Lucky for you, our Best Projectors guide can help. We've tested all the projectors listed in it, and we recommend different kinds for various use cases, including a portable projector to take with you anywhere. The main thing to consider is how large your space is and what you want to use it for. If you plan on watching sports and gaming, consider buying a projector with a high refresh rate (over 120 frames per second is ideal). That just means you'll see more frames per second than traditional screens, allowing for smooth-looking action.  

Depending on what you’re watching and your budget, a 1080p ("Full HD") projector is still a great buy, since many shows and movies aren’t streaming in a super-high bitrate at 4K yet anyway. That said, many modern projectors offer 4K resolution, with the main benefit being the higher dynamic range of that content (better, brighter colors).

If you want to browse for projectors yourself, we recommend you stick to brands like Sony, LG, Optoma, BenQ, and Epson. Be sure to read up on any projector before you buy, and avoid generic electronics brands.

Buying a Screen

Ideally, your projector projects images onto a screen (usually made of polyvinyl chloride or some kind of fabric), very much like a movie theater. Strictly speaking, you don't need a screen—you can project onto any surface—but screens really do improve the viewing experience. These screens range in size and quality but are designed to provide the flattest, most cinematic image you can get. If you've been using white walls, a screen will make a noticeable difference. 

A good place to start is a 100- or 120-inch screen (measured diagonally), depending on the size of your room and your ability to mount the projector far enough away. Typically, screens come in three varieties: roll-down, wall-mounted, or freestanding. I recommend a wall-mounted screen for all instances where you don’t need to hide a screen between uses. They're typically lightweight and easy to assemble, and they hold tension better because they're secured on four sides.

Outdoor screens with legs are awesome for occasional movie nights, but it’s annoying to have the legs in the way when you're indoors. Roll-down screens like those you probably had in school are a decent option if you refuse to see your screen between viewing sessions, but be sure you get a high-quality one that won’t warp over time. We have indoor and outdoor recommendations in our Best Projectors guide.

Mounting Your Projector

There's a myriad of professional mounting systems for projectors, and most of them work very well, but you’ll want to make sure you consult your manual or manufacturers’ website to ensure you get a mount that is rated to the correct weight and has the right type of screws included for the threads on the bottom of your projector. You can find decent mounts on Amazon, Walmart, or any other online retailer that sells projectors, but I recommend starting at the manufacturer's website and seeing what they recommend.

They're not as universal as VESA mounts for TVs and computer monitors, but these are pretty much plug-and-play solutions—here's the one I use ($20) on my ceiling. It came with multiple types of screws and adjustable brackets for easily mounting different projectors. It’s fairly easy to determine which mounts are compatible with which projectors with a quick Google or YouTube search. Just make sure you also know the throw distance of your projector and the size of the screen you intend on filling (both will be included on the spec sheet), and make sure that you can mount the projector at that distance.

Get a Streaming Stick

Once you’ve decided on your projector, you’re going to want to decide how to get audio and video to and from it. Some projectors have smart-TV interfaces built in, which makes it easy to immediately stream your favorite shows and movies, but some require a streaming device. Our Best Streaming Sticks guide has several recommendations; all you need to do is plug them into your projector (and into a power outlet).

If you’ve got a disc player, game system, or computer you’d like to hook up, be sure that you consult the manual of the projector to make sure it has enough inputs before you buy, and to make sure you’re plugging everything in where it needs to go for optimum performance—projectors sometimes have specifically labeled HDMI ports for the audio return channel (ARC), for example.

Choose a Speaker System

If you’re going through the trouble of buying and mounting a projector system in your space, I highly recommend you also invest in a higher-end home theater soundbar or discrete receiver-and-speakers setup. We've got several recommendations in our Best Soundbars guide. In nearly all cases these days, your projector will “talk” to these speakers via HDMI or optical cables. All you'll really need are long cables, so be sure to know where your receiver or soundbar will be located and measure the distance.

Projectors often have internal audio, and they don't sound very good, so be sure to turn that off in the settings menu once you get everything plugged in.

Setting Up Your Projector

You’ll want to take a solid few hours to measure everything, mount everything, and route cables if this is your first time setting up a projector. I recommend you set up the main immovable pieces (your projector and screen) first, then route cables after. If you're buying cables after you get things set up, you can use a piece of string to measure the exact lengths you’ll need, rather than guestimating and coming up short or having an excess that you now need to hide.

I like these 30-foot cables from Cable Direct ($25) because the blue end makes it easy to see which cable is the one going to the projector in my mess of an A/V system. Monoprice also has some great long HDMI cable options too. You can buy some cable ties to help you route your cable seamlessly around your room. Other tools you’ll need include a power drill or impact driver, screwdriver, and hex keys. (Check out our guide on how to build a home toolkit for recommendations.)

Once you get everything mounted, connected, and powered, you’ll want to make sure your projector is properly calibrated to your screen size and location. There are four main ways you can project on a screen: from the front, from the rear, right side up, or upside down. 

In most cases, you'll be mounting it in the front but upside down (because the screws for the mount are on the bottom). Typically, this means that when you first turn on the projector, everything will be upside down. Look for the setting that sets it to “front, ceiling mount” or the equivalent, and the projector will flip everything the right way for you.

Next, there's usually a menu selection that will display a grid view so you can manually adjust the projector to perfectly fit your screen. Depending on how it is aimed at the screen (the straighter on, the better), you may have some amount of “keystone," where the top of the image looks smaller or larger than the bottom. Many modern projectors have automatic keystone alignment, but you may need to look for a setting to manually adjust it if it doesn't correct the issue itself.

You'll also want to make sure the zoom is set so your projector perfectly fills your screen. This is usually a manual lever near the actual projector's eye. Then make sure it's in focus (also usually a manual lever, but there are an increasing number of digitally focusing projectors on the market).

Don't be scared if everything I just wrote seems daunting. If you’re confused about how all of this works without seeing it (I am a visual learner too!) this video is a good explainer of how to set everything up. If you watch that and still don't think you're up for it, that's fine! Just stick to a TV.

Final Settings

Each projector has its own quirks and features in terms of optimizing it for your particular space and what you're watching. One thing to be aware of is that, like TVs, projectors have different viewing modes. I typically keep mine in Cinema mode (or an equivalent) for most shows and movies but switch to the Game or Sports mode when playing F1 or watching Formula 1. Just remember to change it back to Cinema mode when you're done, or you'll wonder why Netflix looks so weird.

Most projectors look pretty darn amazing right out of the box, as long as you set them up correctly. Remember, though: External light is the enemy of projectors. That's why movie theaters are so dark. If you're watching in a room with windows, consider blackout curtains. We've tested and like this brand, but there are many options available.

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