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Projectors vs. TVs: Which big-screen should rule your home theater?

Brendan Hesse

If you want to go big in your home theater, you’re probably arguing with yourself over whether to go with a really big TV, or a projector and screen. On one hand, projectors have gotten a lot brighter and more affordable over the past few years, but on the other hand, TVs are bigger than ever before, and now 4K Ultra HD resolution is a consideration. Indeed, both options have their pros and cons, and there are specific scenarios where one would be a better option over the other. To help you decide which will work best in your own home theater setup, we’ve put together this guide comparing projectors and TVs. We’ve detailed how the two differ in terms of price, picture quality, installation, sound quality, and convenience.

How much bang can you get for your buck? We’re all looking for a good value, but when we talk about going big in a home theater, how much you pay per inch of picture, and how quality that picture is, are inextricably linked. With that in mind, we’ve broken down key picture quality considerations in terms of their relative costs for both TVs and projector/screen combinations.

Size

TVs were once woefully behind projectors in terms of size, but the gap is much closer these days; you can get an 80-inch TV for less than $4,000. However, projector screens can easily get up to as large as 120 inches, and you can get a decent projector with solid brightness, good color reproduction, and 1080p resolution for less than a high-end 4K UHD TV. So, in the end, projectors are still the most cost-effective of the two here, but it’s getting close and will only continue to get closer.

Winner: Projectors

Brightness

Brightness is a both a big consideration with projectors, largely because perceived contrast will come down to how dark the room is or isn’t. The more ambient light there is in a room, the more brightness you’ll need to ensure the picture doesn’t wash out. And high brightness drives up projector costs in a quick hurry. Most projectors in the $2,000 range, for instance, produce somewhere between 1,500 – 3,000 lumens, whereas most $2,000 LED TVs are easily capable of producing much more luminance. Projector/screen combinations simply have to work harder to get anywhere near as bright as even a budget LED TV, and the trouble with projector bulbs is that they dim over time — ultimately burning out — and are costly to replace. This is never a concern with an LED TV.

Related: The Z4 Aurora projector is a full home entertainment system

On the flip side, if you can get your viewing room really dark, a projector’s lower light output can be quite comfortable to watch. There’s a reason movie theater screens are easy on the eyes.

In the end, if you want a bright and vibrant picture, with no upkeep costs involved, you’ll want to go with TV.

Winner: TVs

Contrast

Contrast is determined by a combination of black levels and brightness. And while a projector’s brightness capabilities can be guessed at by looking at its Lumen rating, black levels are determined entirely by how dark you can get your projector room. Certainly, a bunch of ambient light can wash a TV out too, but TVs can do battle with ambient light and heighten perceived contrast, whereas most projectors don’t stand a chance.

Winner: TVs

Resolution

Premium 4K TVs, with their wide color gamut and high dynamic range (there’s that brightness thing again!), are expensive. 4K projectors, though? Astronomical. You’re better off paying for a good 4K TV and supplementing with a sound system — or an Ultra HD Blu-ray player — than you are buying a 4K projector. When it comes to resolution per dollar, TVs win in a landslide.

Winner: TVs

Color accuracy

You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to get decent color from a projector. Depending on the projector type (DLP, 3-chip LCD, or LCOS) you can obtain great color at a nice price. On the other hand, TVs require more effort and better processing to produce the best color, thereby driving up the price. However, the best 4K TVs can produce a wider color gamut than most consumer projectors can at this point, so there’s more potential there.

Related: How we test televisions

If we’re to look exclusively at price-to-performance, TVs come out on top. If price isn’t an issue, and you can invest a large sum into a light-controlled projector room, you can get a much larger image with outstanding image quality. But for most folks, TVs will win if cost is an object

Winner: TVs

Installation

The short answer is that TVs are easier to install. Large TVs may be heavy and little fragile, but they’re simple to place in a home theater set up, and easy to use. Plus, they act as a great unifier for your devices and equipment, since everything plugs directly into the TV itself and, in most cases, is even controlled via the TV’s remote. Unless you’re mounting the TV to a wall, installation is relatively painless. And even if you do opt for the wall-mounted setup, you’ll be able to complete the project on your own. Should you need an installer, their job will be quick and cheap.

Related: Sony’s new curved LED television is bigger than rival curved screens, but is it any better?

Projectors can be complicated, and require more effort and planning to install. The first issue is your screen. Will you be painting a wall, setting up a free-standing screen, or opting for a motorized screen that will need to be attached to your ceiling or wall? Regardless of the method, you’ll need to be sure you have the necessary space — those screens are big. Then, you’ll need to make sure the projector is correctly positioned, which is a bigger challenge than you might think. In fact, we’re going to go ahead and suggest a professional installer, or a serious study of our projector installation guide. Also, you’re going to need to route HDMI cable(s) to your projector or go with wireless transmitters, which adds to cost. And finally, unless you only plan on connecting one or two sources, you’ll want an A/V receiver or at least and HDMI switcher so that you only have to run one HDMI cable up to your projector, but still connect several sources like a game console, Blu-ray player, and cable/satellite box.

If it wasn’t already obvious, we think TVs are the winner here.

Winner: TVs

Sound quality

TVs are the better choice here, and for one simple reason: TVs actually have speakers, and sometimes decent ones at that. Some projectors include speakers, sure, but they’re usually tiny and tinny, and they’re in the wrong place (above and behind you).

Related: Wireless speaker buying guide: Everything you need to know about wireless speakers

However, we couldn’t forgive ourselves if we didn’t talk seriously about the speaker setup in your home theater — this article is all about finding the best home theater experience for your home. Speakers, subwoofers, and receivers all exist for a reason. Many TVs will give you pretty good sound right out of the box, but their primary role is video. If you really want to get the most out of your home theater, whether you’re using a TV or Projector, a solid sound system will make a huge difference.

Still, comparing just TVs and projectors, external speakers are almost always a requirement for projectors, while a high-quality TV can handle basic audio needs on its own.

Winner: TVs

Convenience

If it’s not readily apparent, TVs are the more convenient option. They’re simpler to use, require less planning and effort to set up, and won’t be disrupted by ambient light or objects casting shadows on the screen. Furthermore, you can rest easy knowing a TV will never go out of focus or dim over time.

Winner: TVs

Overall winner: TVs

If you tally up the points, TVs win by a landslide. No question. Congratulations TV!

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a TV is the best choice for you. Throughout the categories, we detailed an ideal projector setup: blacked out room, wall-sized screen, carefully arranged furniture, and a rockin’ sound system attached. It’s an involved set up — and a pricey one — but nothing else delivers the cinematic experience of a projector-based home theater. And if that’s what you’re after, some diligence, a little planning, and some patience will deliver a knock-out performance that will keep your friends knocking down your door for years to come.

Ready to buy that TV? Read our Best TVs under $1,000 and Best TVs under $500.

If you want to go big in your home theater, you’re probably arguing with yourself over whether to go with a really big TV, or a projector and screen. On one hand, projectors have gotten a lot brighter and more affordable over the past few years, but on the other hand, TVs are bigger than ever before, and now 4K Ultra HD resolution is a consideration. Indeed, both options have their pros and cons, and there are specific scenarios where one would be a better option over the other. To help you decide which will work best in your own home theater setup, we’ve put together this guide comparing projectors and TVs. We’ve detailed how the two differ in terms of price, picture quality, installation, sound quality, and convenience.

How much bang can you get for your buck? We’re all looking for a good value, but when we talk about going big in a home theater, how much you pay per inch of picture, and how quality that picture is, are inextricably linked. With that in mind, we’ve broken down key picture quality considerations in terms of their relative costs for both TVs and projector/screen combinations.

Size

TVs were once woefully behind projectors in terms of size, but the gap is much closer these days; you can get an 80-inch TV for less than $4,000. However, projector screens can easily get up to as large as 120 inches, and you can get a decent projector with solid brightness, good color reproduction, and 1080p resolution for less than a high-end 4K UHD TV. So, in the end, projectors are still the most cost-effective of the two here, but it’s getting close and will only continue to get closer.

Winner: Projectors

Brightness

Brightness is a both a big consideration with projectors, largely because perceived contrast will come down to how dark the room is or isn’t. The more ambient light there is in a room, the more brightness you’ll need to ensure the picture doesn’t wash out. And high brightness drives up projector costs in a quick hurry. Most projectors in the $2,000 range, for instance, produce somewhere between 1,500 – 3,000 lumens, whereas most $2,000 LED TVs are easily capable of producing much more luminance. Projector/screen combinations simply have to work harder to get anywhere near as bright as even a budget LED TV, and the trouble with projector bulbs is that they dim over time — ultimately burning out — and are costly to replace. This is never a concern with an LED TV.

Related: The Z4 Aurora projector is a full home entertainment system

On the flip side, if you can get your viewing room really dark, a projector’s lower light output can be quite comfortable to watch. There’s a reason movie theater screens are easy on the eyes.

In the end, if you want a bright and vibrant picture, with no upkeep costs involved, you’ll want to go with TV.

Winner: TVs

Contrast

Contrast is determined by a combination of black levels and brightness. And while a projector’s brightness capabilities can be guessed at by looking at its Lumen rating, black levels are determined entirely by how dark you can get your projector room. Certainly, a bunch of ambient light can wash a TV out too, but TVs can do battle with ambient light and heighten perceived contrast, whereas most projectors don’t stand a chance.

Winner: TVs

Resolution

Premium 4K TVs, with their wide color gamut and high dynamic range (there’s that brightness thing again!), are expensive. 4K projectors, though? Astronomical. You’re better off paying for a good 4K TV and supplementing with a sound system — or an Ultra HD Blu-ray player — than you are buying a 4K projector. When it comes to resolution per dollar, TVs win in a landslide.

Winner: TVs

Color accuracy

You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to get decent color from a projector. Depending on the projector type (DLP, 3-chip LCD, or LCOS) you can obtain great color at a nice price. On the other hand, TVs require more effort and better processing to produce the best color, thereby driving up the price. However, the best 4K TVs can produce a wider color gamut than most consumer projectors can at this point, so there’s more potential there.

Related: How we test televisions

If we’re to look exclusively at price-to-performance, TVs come out on top. If price isn’t an issue, and you can invest a large sum into a light-controlled projector room, you can get a much larger image with outstanding image quality. But for most folks, TVs will win if cost is an object

Winner: TVs

Installation

The short answer is that TVs are easier to install. Large TVs may be heavy and little fragile, but they’re simple to place in a home theater set up, and easy to use. Plus, they act as a great unifier for your devices and equipment, since everything plugs directly into the TV itself and, in most cases, is even controlled via the TV’s remote. Unless you’re mounting the TV to a wall, installation is relatively painless. And even if you do opt for the wall-mounted setup, you’ll be able to complete the project on your own. Should you need an installer, their job will be quick and cheap.

Related: Sony’s new curved LED television is bigger than rival curved screens, but is it any better?

Projectors can be complicated, and require more effort and planning to install. The first issue is your screen. Will you be painting a wall, setting up a free-standing screen, or opting for a motorized screen that will need to be attached to your ceiling or wall? Regardless of the method, you’ll need to be sure you have the necessary space — those screens are big. Then, you’ll need to make sure the projector is correctly positioned, which is a bigger challenge than you might think. In fact, we’re going to go ahead and suggest a professional installer, or a serious study of our projector installation guide. Also, you’re going to need to route HDMI cable(s) to your projector or go with wireless transmitters, which adds to cost. And finally, unless you only plan on connecting one or two sources, you’ll want an A/V receiver or at least and HDMI switcher so that you only have to run one HDMI cable up to your projector, but still connect several sources like a game console, Blu-ray player, and cable/satellite box.

If it wasn’t already obvious, we think TVs are the winner here.

Winner: TVs

Sound quality

TVs are the better choice here, and for one simple reason: TVs actually have speakers, and sometimes decent ones at that. Some projectors include speakers, sure, but they’re usually tiny and tinny, and they’re in the wrong place (above and behind you).

Related: Wireless speaker buying guide: Everything you need to know about wireless speakers

However, we couldn’t forgive ourselves if we didn’t talk seriously about the speaker setup in your home theater — this article is all about finding the best home theater experience for your home. Speakers, subwoofers, and receivers all exist for a reason. Many TVs will give you pretty good sound right out of the box, but their primary role is video. If you really want to get the most out of your home theater, whether you’re using a TV or Projector, a solid sound system will make a huge difference.

Still, comparing just TVs and projectors, external speakers are almost always a requirement for projectors, while a high-quality TV can handle basic audio needs on its own.

Winner: TVs

Convenience

If it’s not readily apparent, TVs are the more convenient option. They’re simpler to use, require less planning and effort to set up, and won’t be disrupted by ambient light or objects casting shadows on the screen. Furthermore, you can rest easy knowing a TV will never go out of focus or dim over time.

Winner: TVs

Overall winner: TVs

If you tally up the points, TVs win by a landslide. No question. Congratulations TV!

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a TV is the best choice for you. Throughout the categories, we detailed an ideal projector setup: blacked out room, wall-sized screen, carefully arranged furniture, and a rockin’ sound system attached. It’s an involved set up — and a pricey one — but nothing else delivers the cinematic experience of a projector-based home theater. And if that’s what you’re after, some diligence, a little planning, and some patience will deliver a knock-out performance that will keep your friends knocking down your door for years to come.

Ready to buy that TV? Read our Best TVs under $1,000 and Best TVs under $500.