It’s not enough to have a large smart-TV, not if you want to truly create a theater vibe. The only way to get a proper cinema experience is through the flickering magic of a projector. The downside to this is that there are so many projectors on the market, it can be difficult to choose the right one. However, the upside is that because there are so many models, it’s possible to pick just the right projector for your unique situation and budget.
What to consider with projectors
Lux & Lumens
This is super important to understand because so many projector manufacturers toss these words around as if they were interchangeable, but they’re not. Both are Si-based units (“Si” stands for “International System of Units,” which is important because it standardizes things and makes sure that terms used by manufacturers are consistent), but the way that they relate to the light from your projector bulb is not the same. Basically, lumen refers to the amount of light emitted from a light source while lux refers to how bright something appears after it strikes a surface.
We want to know how bright the projector itself actually is, so we need to look at the lumens, not the lux. A projector that claims 10,000 lux might only have around 600 lumens of light output, which is low for a projector.
- NOTE: if you see “ANSI Lumens,” you know you’re in good hands because “ANSI” refers to American National Standards Institute, and their measurement for “lumen” is even more specific. If your projector is rated in lumens, you’re good, but if it’s ANSI lumens, you’re doing swell.
How many lumens do you need?
We recommend 2000-3000 lumens for any high-quality movie theater. Projectors that can meet this specification usually fall above $500. If you’re hoping to use your projector for video games, this becomes even more important, and we recommend pushing toward the upper end of the spectrum.
Want to learn more about the difference between lux and lumens? Here’s a technical guide that goes in-depth.
Make sure that your projector allows for at least limited keystone correction. This is the projector’s ability to correct an image along its vertical axis to make the result appear flat. This can allow you to place the projector on the ceiling and still end up with an evenly projected image — without the ability to correct, the top or bottom of the image will become distorted.
Manufacturers will try to take advantage of customers whenever they can, and projector manufacturers often boost the contrast claims of their projectors to insane levels. However, contrast has a sweet spot: too little and things will look muddy, but too much, and everything becomes distorted anyway. The best way to get good contrast is to limit all ambient light in your room (since contrast is just a measurement of the difference between the projected image's light and dark parts). Otherwise, a contrast ratio of around 3000:1 is perfectly sufficient. However, if your projector manufacturer measures contrast by ANSI standards, the numbers will be lower! If they use ANSI, look for anywhere between 300:1 and 700:1 for good to excellent contrast. This is one of the many examples of “bigger is not always better” in the world.
For just the right mix of power and affordability, you can't go wrong with the Optima HD146X. Not only is Optima a trusted brand, but its specifications also speak for themselves. Bright enough and sharp enough for all your basic needs, this projector will handle anything the average family home theater requires.
Once you have a projector in hand, you probably need something to project on. The simplest solution (and the best one for those with limited space) is the retractable or “pull-down” projector screen. A bit more expensive than its DIY counterparts, this variety nonetheless affords you a lot of flexibility when it comes to setting up your home theater.
Electric or manual?
There are two types of retractable projector screen, and both have their pros and cons.
Electric projector screens
Electric retractable screens will tend to wear out faster and, of course, require electricity to operate — this means another power outlet is needed for the system.
Manual retractable screens
Manual retractable screens require that you physically pull them into place and then give them another tug to release them back into their sleeve gently, but they’re likely to last longer, and they don’t require a plug. They also cost less than their electrified counterparts.
Hack: Automated projector screen
That said, one of our favorite hacks for an electric projector screen is making it automated. Some projector screens will come with a volt trigger that you connect to your projector. Then, whenever your projector turns on, the screen will automatically lower itself into place. Most electric projector screens also come with some sort of remote control. You could even put yours in a hidden location like the photo above!
You can consider other elements of the projector screen as well, such as the type of reflective material they use, but don’t get too carried away. It’s generally okay to go for a lower price-point on this unless you’re adamant about getting insanely perfect picture quality (in which case you’ll need to splurge for top-notch projector and media storage as well).
Alright, so you’re ready to take the plunge into the world of home cinema… but how do you send your media to the projector in the first place? These days, many projectors boast features like Wi-Fi, and even Bluetooth, on top of classic options like SD card readers and HDMI ports. The truth, though, is that you’re limiting yourself if you lock yourself into using just the projector’s internal hardware (and some of those advanced features are likely to raise the price by a lot.
Ways to stream video directly to your projector
Purchase a streaming playback device like the Amazon Firestick, Roku Player, Google Chromecast, or NVIDIA Shield. We personally love the power of the NVIDIA Shield (especially if you’re a gamer and want to use your home theater to play Cyberpunk 2077 in style). These devices allow you to cast media content from your phone or computer directly into your projector, eliminating the need for a clunky multi-step effort every time you want to watch a new episode of The Expanse.
DIY option: Kodi Media Center
You can totally have your own DIY viewing experience by building your Kodi Media Center with a Raspberry Pi. Kodi will work with most projectors, and you'll have something that's personalized just for you!
Getting one of these devices also allows you to take advantage of our next hack, which is all about expanding your home theater’s usefulness and capabilities. Note that we concentrate on the NVIDIA Shield because it offers a greater range of useful hardware and software hacks than others.
Why have a setup that can only do one thing? Go for a whole entertainment suite by making sure you can play music on your system without having to turn the projector on.
This is where the benefit of having a streaming device (like those we mentioned in the last step) is so vital. You can cast music directly to your home theater from apps on your phone, most of which will then display music backgrounds and information on your projector screen. Of course, you might not always want to use the projector itself and stream directly to your speaker. In that case, a media server like the NVIDIA Shield or Kodi is a great way to go. With the Shield on and running in the background, you can pass audio straight through it without even turning the projector on!
How to set it up
All you need for this is an external USB sound adapter. Connect this to your Nvidia Shield or media system, and then plug your speaker’s aux cable into it instead of your projector. Now your sound will arrive directly from the Shield! For an even better cordless experience, if you choose to use a Bluetooth-capable soundbar for your audio needs, you can plug a Bluetooth transmitter dongle directly into the sound adapter and have a wireless audio experience!
Audio quality is one of the most important things for a home theater, but choosing the right speaker can quickly become a daunting task. The best fit for every circumstance costs a ton of money, and even more inexpensive options can quickly become a hassle. If you have a fair amount of space and can dedicate a whole room to your home theater set-up, we recommend buying a wired sound-system, since that allows you to create a full surround sound experience for the lowest price (and we have a great hack for dealing with those messy cables later in this guide).
Small space hack
If you have a smaller living space, you probably want something that can be multipurpose and unobtrusive while also being easy to move when the need arises. In that case, go for a Bluetooth soundbar. Soundbars are an awesome way to get good audio quality for a minimum of space and only one cord (the power cable). You’ll certainly get a less dynamic and immersive experience. Still, the benefits of a hassle-free installation and mobility might be worth it, especially if you’re renting and don’t want to install a whole mess of cables throughout your home theater room.
We’ve hinted already at the power of streaming devices hooked up to your projector, but what if we took things a step farther? With your own media server running the right software, you can have all the power of Netflix at your command, but for media you already own!
We recommend Plex for its features and ease of use, but many great media server platforms are available. The NVIDIA Shield comes pre-installed with the amazing Plex software, however, so the cost of the whole thing can be kept as low as possible while providing the biggest reward.
For the true DIYer, we recommend personalizing your setup with a Kodi Media Center that you build yourself with a Raspberry Pi.
This is one of the easiest methods for keeping your sound from spilling over into the rest of your home or apartment. Often used for washing machines (which can get quite loud on hard surfaces) rubber sound isolators help dampen the connection between the thing producing sound and its surroundings. If you’re using a subwoofer, this is a handy hack, but even for an average soundbar, this can help keep the sound isolated to where you want it.
Sound dampening/reduce reflective sounds
In a large space, hard and reflective surfaces can be a boon. They bounce sound back, providing a cathedral-like acoustic resonance that charms the ears. In a small space, this same effect creates a dissonant nightmare. This becomes even more important if you live in an apartment where your sound can spill over into a neighbor’s environment. To avoid this, dampen the surfaces in your room. Throw rugs, plush seating, and bookshelves are all a great way to go. For a powerful hack, you could even put thick curtains on runners around the outermost edge of your home theater room. When it’s movie time, pull the curtains into place, and they’ll absorb some of that ambient noise.
Surround Sound placement
There’s really no substitute for an immersive sound environment. If you don’t mind the added time needed to install a 5.1 surround sound system (and are willing to do the extra work of figuring out things like cable placement), it’s certain to provide an audio experience so warm that you’re likely never to want to leave. The trick is making sure that all your speakers are angled toward the central spot in the room where you’ll be sitting (don’t just place them all forward). Also, make sure to keep your audio cables isolated and know that the longer your audio cables are, the thicker their protective coating should be to avoid getting unfortunate distortions in your awesome home theater setup. You can get pretty detailed with your home theater audio features, so make sure to do your research if you want to dive into an advanced audio configuration.
Even if you decide not to put curtains all the way around your home theater room, we cannot stress enough how important blackout curtains are if your home theater has windows. Projectors need low-light conditions to be effective, and the best way to control your light level is to block out any light coming in from outside. Besides, blackout curtains come with a host of other benefits like better sleep and reduced outside noise (especially nice for those who live in a city).
If you’re spending this much time to create the perfect home theater, you want it to look nice! Careful planning for cable placement is vital and cannot be overlooked, but there will undoubtedly be plenty of cables running across your visual space even then. Short of placing your cables behind your walls (an expensive and difficult project), what can be done?
Use cable hiding strips
The easiest way to hide the cables in your home theater is to use cable strips, which contain the cables and hide them from view. If the cable strip matches your paint job, then the work is done — but you can easily paint these the same color as your walls and ceiling for the perfect unobtrusive cable array.
Even a simple home theater set-up will require a fair number of electrical outlets. Finding a place to put all the power plugs can be difficult if you’re relying on wall outlets alone, and, more importantly, some of your delicate equipment can be damaged by power surges.
That’s why we recommend using surge-protecting power strips and proper extension cables for your power needs. This way, you can arrange everything based on what makes the most sense with your available space rather than trying to make your home theater fit the availability of your wall sockets.
You’ve no doubt seen those home theaters that go all-out with replica high-tech movie theater seats. While those are undeniably awesome, they’re impractical unless you have a large amount of money and the space to install them. That’s why we recommend going a different route and figuring out the needs of your space first. One of the things you want your home theater furniture to do is keep the space's sounds from reflecting.
One of the best ways to do this is by installing a couch in the space. Not only does this provide ample seating for your whole family pod, but it also covers the largest amount of space for the smallest amount of money. Add in some plush footrests (which can double as chairs or even low tables), and you’ve got everything you need to kick back and enjoy.
Inexpensive folding couch
That said, if space is at a minimum, finding a way to transform your normal room arrangement into a special movie time setting is totally possible with the right folding couch (which you can then slip out of the way later and which will always be useful for guests in the future!)
There’s something magical about the moment in a movie theater when the lighting dims, and the previews start to play. If you want to recreate some of that magic at home, all you need is a little “smart” technology. For the cheapest and easiest method, we recommend getting a set of “smart plugs”. You can then plug in your existing lights and direct the lights to turn on or off from an app on your phone. For a slightly more expensive option, you can buy dimmable smart lights, which you can control from your phone.
Set up Homebridge
For a further step, connect all your smart home devices to a central hub like Homebridge and control all your smart appliances from a single spot!
If you’re turning a whole room into a home theater, this step really cannot be overlooked.
Movie posters in frames are the easiest way to go. You can easily purchase movie posters online and frames for them don’t cost much either. Put a couple of these beauties, and you’ll feel like you’re actually at the cinema. Just be aware that you shouldn’t put up too many of these on the walls as they’ll create a more reflective sound environment.
Rolling popcorn maker
If you’re creating a home theater that needs to share space with a multi-purpose room, you can still find ways to add a special touch for when you want to turn the room into a magical cinema experience. One of the easiest is to purchase a rolling popcorn maker and wheel it out for the most special movie occasions. That way, you can create the ambiance without permanently altering your space.
Maybe you want a cheaper alternative to the rolling popcorn maker. It’s just not a movie without the concessions. We’ll make the concession that not everyone adores popcorn as much as us, but we think you’ll agree that few things are more a part of the iconic theater experience than the rich aroma of hot buttered popcorn suffusing the air.
If you want to create the ultimate home theater popcorn experience, we recommend purchasing a rolling popcorn maker that does everything you’ve come to expect from the movie theater. That said, our favorite way to make popcorn is also the healthiest: an air-popper. Not only do you get the deliciousness of the popcorn, but you also avoid cooking it in fats and thereby save yourself a huge number of calories.
If you haven’t noticed yet, we’re total foodies here. We love healthy food, but we love flavor, too! By using aerosolized butter spray, we can precisely control how much goes onto our popcorn.
Popcorn butter spray hack
A hack for those who want to count the calories in popcorn spray? Each one-second spray is just under ten calories for the average brand.
To get the perfect movie theater popcorn, you’ll need to get popcorn salt. This is a fine-ground flavored salt that, when gingerly applied to your popcorn, is certain to make your taste buds perk right up. Of course, you can go the extra mile and have an array of flavorings available! We recommend placing your favorite into various spice shakers and keeping them in a special organizer, which you bring out for movie nights. Our favorites are cheddar cheese and nutritional yeast (no, seriously, it’s amazing).