The HD Advisor Turns 21

Posted Fri Jul 17, 2009 at 12:00 PM PDT by

Editor's Note: Each Friday, High-Def Digest's own HD Advisor will answer a new round of questions from our readers. If you have home theater questions you need answered, send an email to

If you've already sent a question and don't see it answered yet, please be patient as we work our way through them. To browse through previously answered questions, visit the main HD Advisor page.

By Joshua Zyber

Before we start this week's Q&A, I'd like to thank everyone who read last week's article and voted in the subtitle placement poll. With your help, the option to place all subtitles in the active movie picture has taken a decisive lead in the voting. Unfortunately, this isn't over yet. In order to move the studio to action, we need as large a majority as possible. If you haven't voted for Option #1 yet, please do so. And if you have voted, spread the word to your friends, blog about it, Twitter it, make a Facebook group. Get the word out. Every vote matters. Thank you.

Projection Screens

Q: What do I look for in a projector screen? Do I need to spend $2-3k for a high-end screen (aka Stewart screen), or will something more reasonably priced do almost as well? My home theater supplier is really pushing the Firehawk by Stewart and the on-site demos certainly make it look amazing.

A: Your choice of projection screen will depend on a variety of factors, including your room environment, screen size, and the brightness and contrast characteristics of your projector. Something as seemingly-trivial as whether you ceiling-mount or table-mount the projector can significantly affect the type of screen material best for your installation.

Projection screens are rated in terms of gain, which is a measure of how much light they reflect back to the seating position. The most neutral types of screen are those made of Matte White material, generally rated with a gain of 1.0 or thereabouts.

If you have a lot of ambient light in the room, light reflecting back toward the screen from white walls or ceiling, or a projector with a poor contrast ratio, you may benefit from a gray screen, which will have a gain rating lower than 1.0. A darker screen material will make your black levels appear darker.

In contrast to this, high gain screens with ratings higher than 1.0 are typically made of beaded material that reflects more light directly back to the seating position and makes the picture brighter overall. These are useful for very large screens, or situations where the projector just doesn't output enough light to produce a bright and vivid picture.

It's also possible to add a high gain surface to a gray backing material, which is how the Stewart Firehawk works.

Each of these screen types will have its own advantages or disadvantages. For example, while a gray screen will make black levels appear darker, it will also make bright parts of the image seem dimmer. Depending on how dark the shade of gray is, it may also affect your color accuracy.

On the other hand, common side effects of a high gain screen are hot-spotting, poor off-axis viewing, or "sparklies" visible in bright parts of the image. The higher the gain, the more washed out your black levels will appear.

Which one will work best for you is hard to say. Personally, I've long stuck by my simple Matte White screen. But I'll be honest that I've often considered switching to something that might improve my contrast performance. Unfortunately, I haven't yet found anything that has thoroughly satisfied me that it would be worth the investment.

When you view a screen at a retailer or installer location, always remember that the results you see will be biased by the room environment there and the projector being used, which may be very different than your own. Most screen manufacturers will send you free fabric samples if you ask. This can be helpful to see how the material will fare in your own room, compared directly against your existing screen. However, the samples are usually too small to adequately judge what an entire screen would look like.

As far as cost, you can often save a lot of money by purchasing the raw screen material and framing it yourself. There are many other "Do It Yourself" options that will cost less than screens from the major brand names. I recommend visiting the Screens forum at AVSForum to do some research before deciding on anything. You should also contact the AVS sales staff there to see what kind of pricing they offer on whatever screen you eventually choose.

Dolby Digital Plus on Blu-ray?

Q: I'd like to know how the Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD codecs work to increase the quality of sound. Is there any chance that Blu-ray should one day use Dolby Digital Plus for 5.1 soundtracks instead of the old Dolby Digital on other soundtracks?

A: For your first question, I'll direct you to my earlier Blu-ray Audio Explained and Uncompressed vs. Lossless Audio articles. Those should fill you in on the basics.

Regarding Dolby Digital Plus, that format is rarely (if ever) used on Blu-ray. For the most part, it isn't needed. Most studios have chosen to embrace Blu-ray's larger storage capacity to offer full lossless soundtracks. As far as the secondary backup tracks go, standard Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 are still the defaults because they're the most backwards-compatible with all types of sound system. Dolby Digital Plus may not work with many older A/V receivers, or with first-generation Blu-ray players for that matter.

Keep in mind that the version of Dolby Digital used on Blu-ray runs at a 640 kb/s bit rate, which is superior to the 448 kb/s version used on standard DVD. So you should hear some degree of improvement no matter what.

Region Coding on Warner Blu-ray Discs

Q: Having seen 'Watchmen' at the cinema and enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, I couldn't wait to get it on Blu-ray and enjoy it again at home in HD. Knowing that it will be the Directors Cut made it worth the wait even more. But I live in the UK and we will not be getting the Directors Cut. I have been looking at the US version to import. I cannot find anywhere that says whether it is a region-free disc. I wanted to know before I order it. Do you know if it will be region-free?

A: 'Watchmen' is a Warner Home Video title. To my knowledge, Warner has never restricted any of their Blu-ray releases to a single region. You should be safe to order this one.

I recommend bookmarking this page for region code information on many Blu-ray titles. In fact, they've already confirmed the 'Watchmen – Director's Cut' disc as region free. Enjoy the disc!

Homework Assignment: You Be the Advisor

Some questions that the HD Advisor receives are best answered with a consensus of opinions from our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!

Home-Theater-in-a-Box Recommendations

Q: I have a nice home theater system myself, but a relative of mine is getting married and has listed a Home-Theater-in-a-Box on the gift registry. I would love to get this for them, but the specific item they've listed is a real bottom-of-the-barrel piece of junk that will probably short out within a week and set their new house on fire. I'd like to avoid that. I can't afford to spend major bucks on this, unfortunately. I'm not expecting high-end performance, but I want to get them something that isn't a complete piece of garbage. Is there anything at all even semi-decent that can be had for around $300? It will need to include 5.1 speakers and a receiver. Thanks!

Check back next week for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.

Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.

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