Projectors have come a long way from the clunky, dim models of the past. The latest models are brighter, sharper, more discreet and easier to install than ever. They also deliver a picture size you could never get on a TV without spending a fortune. With all that, they’re highly desirable for home theater buffs who want a true cinematic experience at home.
Over the last year, we’ve seen models bright enough to use in a normal room, short-throw models that take up very little space and have built-in sound bars, and better picture quality than ever with 4K and Dolby Vision features. Better still, you can now get 4K HDR models that can project up to a 150-inch image for as little as $1,000. That’s around the same price and over double the size of a decent 65-inch TV, giving you something close to true movie theater immersion.
There are a lot of different types of projectors, though, ranging from ultra short throw to portable to long throw. There are also a lot of terms to understand, like lens shift, LCD vs. DLP, laser vs. lamp illumination and more. This guide will help you understand all that so that you can make the best buying decision possible.
Here are the basics: Projectors generally use two types of technology, LCD and DLP. They’re fundamentally different systems, with their own advantages and drawbacks.
The rise of ultra-short-throw projectors and brighter long-throw models, meanwhile, has been powered by falling prices in laser illumination technology. Lasers are a far better solution than lamps, because they’re brighter and last far longer — up to 30,000 hours instead of 6,000. That’s essentially a lifetime of use (about 10 years).
Most projector manufacturers now use DLPs, or digital light processing units, manufactured nearly exclusively by Texas Instruments (TI). The heart of the tech is an optical semiconductor called a digital micromirror device (DMD) that contains millions of aluminum mirrors. Those tilt either toward the light source (on) or away from it (off) at up to 5,000 times per second.
Budget projectors like BenQ’s HT3550i use TI’s 0.47-inch DMD, while higher end models, like the Samsung Premium LSP9T use the 0.66-inch chip. Both use mirrors that tilt by +12 and -12 degrees for white and black, but TI recently unveiled a new 0.47-inch 4K-capable DMD with +/-17 degrees of tilt, which should enhance both brightness and contrast.
DLP projector makers include LG, Optoma, LG, BenQ and Panasonic. The benefits of the tech are portability, high contrast, less fringing and cheaper projectors, especially 4K and ultra-short-throw models. The biggest drawback is the rainbow effect, or bright red/blue/green artifacts that affect some viewers more than others.
LCD tech, meanwhile, uses a prism to split a light source into red, green and blue beams. Those then pass through LCD displays containing the image and converge via another prism before passing through the projector’s lens.
Epson is the primary user of LCD tech, along with Sony, Sanyo and others. LCD projectors tend to be sharper, more efficient and more color accurate, but have lower contrast ratios and can experience image degradation over time. In general, they’re also more expensive.
What to look for in a projector
Since the last time we updated our guide, ultra-short-throw projectors have become the hot new category, offering several benefits. You can mount them close to the wall like a TV, with no need to run wires through the walls and ceiling, but still get an immersive image as large as 120 inches — something that’s impossible with a TV unless you’re very rich. They use brighter lasers that never need to be replaced — and because laser light is collimated, focusing is eliminated.
They’re also physically less awkward to install than a ceiling-mounted projector, though that doesn’t mean installation is super easy. To get the perfect screen fit and alignment, you must place them an exact height and distance from your wall or screen. This can be quite a pain, as I’ve discovered.
You also need a perfectly flat wall or screen, because ultra-short-throw projectors beam up at an acute angle, so any imperfections will show as shadows. For that reason, you can’t use a roll-down screen because they have slight ripples.
For the best results, particularly with a lot of ambient light, you should use an ambient light-rejecting (ALR) screen. Those have small ridges that reflect light from below back to your eyes, but absorb any light (ie ambient light) that comes from above. For one of those, you’ll need to budget at least $450 and way up. Some projectors, including models from Epson and HiSense, come with ALR screens.
Brightness and contrast
Home theater projectors generally range in brightness between 2,000 to 4,000 lumens, but you’ll need to take those figures with a grain of salt. Some models might actually hit 3,000 lumens or more, but cranking the lamp to that level will hurt the image quality and lifespan of your bulb. Also, some manufacturers tend to exaggerate maximum brightness.
As a point of reference, many 4K flat panel TVs nowadays can hit 1,000 nits of brightness, but the brightest consumer projectors only display between 100 and 150 nits from the screen. That’s not as big a deal as it might seem, because projector images are much larger and meant to be used in dark rooms, where your eyes will automatically adjust to the light and “brighten” the image.
Contrast is also substantially different on projectors. Unlike OLED TVs, projectors don’t allow for zero black levels because of ambient light, reflections and other reasons. You also can’t have local dimming zones found on LED TVs for true blacks. Some projectors do have a dynamic iris to improve the contrast scene-by-scene, but those can often produce a “pumping” effect, with the image dimming or brightening in mid-scene.
Mounting and fan noise
A big advantage of regular long throw projectors is that you can mount the projector and screen on the ceiling, using zero space in your room. If you plan to do that, don’t forget to budget for a mounting bracket and any necessary long cables, including extra power for Google’s finicky Chromecast. Also, keep in mind that it’s easier to mount a lightweight projector, and DLP models are usually lighter than those with LCD tech.
Some projectors are noisier than others, and usually the more you spend, the less noise you get. Many of the new 4K DLP projectors, when operating in 4K mode, are particularly noisy. There’s one other (cool) thing: if your projector is portable or relatively easy to take down and put up, you can take it outside for magical night screenings under the stars.
HDR and resolution
On the resolution front, only expensive projectors have native 4K resolution; indeed, most movie theaters still use 2K projectors for various reasons. However, there are many relatively inexpensive DLP projectors that use pixel-shifting to attain 4K resolution. That system emits each pixel four times while moving it to the correct position for a 4K image, all in less than 1/60th of a second. As such, it puts as many pixels on the screen in the same amount of time as a 4K native projector — and visually, it performs nearly as well.
On the other hand, Epson’s LCD “4K enhanced” projectors also have 1080p native resolution, but the image is just shifted twice, not four times. So, those projectors are not 4K natively or otherwise, but do produce double the pixel count of a 1080p projector. If you really want a 4K native projector, you’ll have to pay: two of the cheapest ones are Sony’s VPL-VW295ES ($5,000) and JVC’s DLA-NX5 ($5,000).
HDR is a very different animal on projectors compared to TVs. As mentioned, projectors can’t produce anywhere close to the amount of light required (1,000 nits) to qualify as true HDR. Rather, they use a technique called tone-mapping to fit the entire HDR gamut into a lower brightness range.
For that reason, among others, almost all projectors only support HDR10. Only one uses Dolby Vision (the Xiaomi Laser Cinema 2, only available officially in China), and just a couple of models work with Samsung’s HDR10+ — and those are Samsung’s own Premiere 4K models. However, most support a wider 10-bit color gamut that allows for superior color reproduction.
If you’re mounting a short- or long-throw projector between five and 25 feet, you might need to consider the zoom range and whether the projector has a lens shift option. A decent zoom range will make it easier to mount the projector where you want with the screen size that you want.
Lens shift, meanwhile, is used if the projector is mounted higher or lower relative to the screen than recommended by the manufacturer (or any horizontal distance off center). That creates a trapezoidal shaped image, but by dialing in some lens shift, you can optically square it up. Otherwise, you might have to use a “keystone correction,” which digitally stretches or shrinks part of the image, resulting in noticeable distortion or pixel artifacts. Digital correction might not work in gaming modes either, for some projector models.
If you’re interested in a projector for gaming, you’ll want to look up the refresh rate and input lag figures. Some new projectors from Viewsonic, Optoma and others offer up to 240 Hz 1080p refresh rates and input lag settings down to 4 or 5 milliseconds. However, some projectors designed more for home entertainment have very poor input lag and refresh rates at just 60 Hz.
Finally, portable projectors have become popular enough to merit discussion this year. They’re relatively cheap, compact and portable and can run on batteries – making them ideal for entertainment outside or while camping. They’re not nearly as bright as other projectors, of course, but are more designed for a fun night of entertainment under the stars.
As with previous updates, I’m dividing projectors into ultra-short-throw and long-throw categories. As mentioned, ultra-short-throw models have rapidly established themselves in the market due to the extra performance and convenience, and all manufacturers sell at least a couple of models. Within the ultra-short-throw category, We’ll compare two price categories: under $7,000 and $3,500, with three projectors each. In the long-throw category, we’re again looking at projectors under $1,000, $2,000 and $6,000, with three products in each range. Finally, we’ll take a look at the best portable projectors.
Ultra-short-throw projectors under $3,500
LG’s nice-looking HU715Q is the new king of ultra-short-throw (UST) projectors due to the picture quality, tech on offer and reasonable $3,000 price. With a 20,000-30,000 hour laser light source, it delivers 2,500 ANSI lumens, along with accurate colors across 86 percent of the DCI-P3 gamut – enough for most HDR content. And speaking of that, it supports both HDR10 and HLG, along with frame-by-frame tone-mapping.
Rival models offer similar specs, but the HU715Q trumps them in sound and technology. The 20-watt 2-way stereo speakers are great on their own, but you can supplement them with Bluetooth speakers from LG and nearly any other brand to create surround sound. The standout feature, though, is LG’s webOS smart TV capabilities that give you Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime and other apps, all with full 4K HDR support and surround sound, including eARC output for Dolby Atmos and lossless audio. It also supports HDMI 2.1 and better still, full 4K (4,096 x 2,160) rather than just UHD.
Optoma’s CinemaX P2 made our list last year, but it’s still a great choice because the price has dropped considerably. It delivers 3,000 lumen brightness, impressive contrast ratio and accurate colors with 80 percent DCI-P3 coverage. It’s not quite as sharp as the pricier projectors, as it uses TI’s 0.47-inch rather than 0.66-inch DLP tech, though you’ll still get a near-4K image.
The CinemaX P2 may also better match your decor, as it comes in white rather than dark grey like the P1. The 40-watt NuForce Dolby Digital 2.0 soundbar is one of the best on any ultra-short-throw projector, as well. On the downside, it does offer apps but they’re not as good as you’ll find on, say, Google’s Chromecast.
BenQ’s first UST laser projector is at the top end of the price scale at $3,500, but it offers some impressive capabilities. Light output is a bright 2,500 ANSI lumens and it delivers a full 98 percent DCI-P3 coverage for as good an HDR experience as you can get on a projector. You also get a Filmmaker Mode to see colors as the directors intended. It’s powered by Android TV so you get all the streaming services and apps you want, along with apps, games and more. The downside is the lack of decent speakers, as it only offers dual 5-watt speakers with clear sound but limited bass.
If you’re okay with 1080p projection, Epson’s EpiqVision Ultra LS300W is a very interesting option because of the design, excellent sound, built-in Android TV and extreme 3,600 ANSI lumen brightness. That allows for a wide color gamut with no rainbow effect, excellent connectivity and very good sound without the need to buy a soundbar or surround sound system. Best of all, it’s priced at just $2,000, making it one of the cheaper short-throw projectors out there.
Ultra-short-throw projectors under $7,000
Ultra-short-throw projectors are a hot enough entertainment category that Samsung decided to re-enter the market with two models as part of its Lifestyle TV series. The $5,500 LSP9T is the premium model and it certainly brings some premium specs. With separate red, green and blue lasers, it covers 106 percent of the full Rec.2020 color range (147 percent of DCI-P3) — something we’ve rarely, if ever seen on any TV or even pro monitor.
It delivers a very bright 2,800 lumens and a 1,500:1 ANSI contrast ratio. As it uses TI’s higher-resolution 0.66-inch DLP chip (with pixel shifting), you get as close as you can to true 4K without investing in a native 4K projector. Finally, the LSP9T is the first projector on the market rated for HDR10+ — Samsung’s answer to Dolby Vision. On top of all that, the LSP9T delivers 40 watts of audio using Samsung’s Acoustic Beam technology, while offering Samsung’s well-regarded Tizen-powered Smart TV platform.
If you need the brightest possible image, Epson’s LCD-powered EpiqVision Ultra LS500 ($3,899) delivers. It’s rated at up to 4,000 lumens, making it one of the brightest ultra-short-throw projectors in any price range. It also supports HDR modes in HDR10 and HLG and is sold with both 100-inch and 120-inch ALR screens, making the price effectively lower. The main drawback is that it only offers double the pixels of 1080p, rather than four times like competing DLP tech. It also offers a relatively weak 10-watt built-in speaker system.
This is HiSense’s new $4,300 flagship UST that uses a tricolor laser to achieve high brightness (3,000 ANSI lumens) and an incredible 107 percent BT.2020 HDR coverage, topping even Samsung’s formidable LSP9T. It has a powerful 40W Dolby Atmos sound system and built-in Android TV with Google Assistant and Alexa. Best of all, that price includes a 100-inch ALR Daylight screen, or for an extra $500, you can get it with a 120-inch ALR cinema screen.
Projectors under $1,000
There are very few 4K projectors available under $1,000, and Viewsonic’s $900 PX701-4K is one of the most recent. For the money, it offers impressive performance. You get 4K HDR with 3,200 lumens of brightness via TI’s .47-inch DLP chip. More importantly for gamers, you can get a 1080p signal at up to 240Hz with a 5-millisecond input lag time. The drawbacks are a limited 1.1x optical zoom, so you’ll need to make sure it fits in your space.
For around $700, the BenQ HT2050A is still one of the best budget 1080p projectors. It delivers where it counts with the best contrast (ANSI 1,574:1) and color accuracy in its class, and is reasonably bright as well, with 2,200 lumens in “vivid” mode. On top of that, it comes with a 1.3x zoom and vertical lens shift option for maximum installation flexibility. The drawbacks include slightly excessive fan noise, rainbow effect and red-tinted 3D.
If you’re looking to spend a little less, the Optoma HD146X is your best option. Using DLP tech, it delivers 1080p at up to 3,600 lumens with excellent brightness, color accuracy, contrast and black levels. You also get decent (16.4-millisecond) input lag for gaming. The drawbacks are a single HDMI port, 1.1x optical zoom and poor built-in audio.
Projectors under $2,000
BenQ’s $1,600 4K HT3550i is an update to last year’s HT3550, but with a huge addition: Android TV. With that, you get multi-platform wireless projection from Android and iOS devices via Chromecast or Airplay — a huge plus compared to rival projectors. As before, it offers reference-quality 4K color reproduction in both HDR and SDR that’s a match for projectors costing triple the price. Contrast is excellent thanks to the dynamic iris, though brightness is limited to 2,000 lumens. It has a 1.3x zoom and vertical lens shift option, plus a surprisingly good built-in speaker. The fan noise is still present, but less than before.
If brightness is more important than picture quality, take a look at BenQ’s $1,500 TK850i instead. It also comes with Android TV, but delivers far more brightness (3,000 lumens) in exchange for less color-accurate picture quality.
For extra brightness and speed for gaming, the answer is Optoma’s all-new, $1,600 4K-capable UHD38. It cranks the lumens up to 4,000 and like the Viewsonic PX701-4K, offers 240Hz gaming at 1080p with one of the lowest latency figures we’ve seen yet in a projector at 4.2 milliseconds. Otherwise, you can do 4K 60 Hz gaming with 16.7 milliseconds of lag, which is very quick for 4K. It’s optimized more for gaming than entertainment unlike BenQ’s HT3550i, but it can still handle HDR10 and HLG. It supports both zoom (albeit just 1.1x), but also vertical and horizontal lens shift.
Epson’s $2,000 Home Cinema 4010 4K Pro is the Cadillac of under-$2K home projectors thanks to features like 2,400 lumen brightness, dynamic iris, and motorized zoom (2.1x), focus and lens shift. It delivers in picture quality too, covering 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color space in cinema mode with both HDR10 and HLG. It also offers near-4K quality using 1,920 x 1,080 LCD image chips with pixel shifting. The drawbacks are lack of support for 60Hz 4K due to the HDMI 1.4 ports.
If you need that, want to pay a bit less and don’t care about the motorized focus, Epson’s $1,700 Home Cinema 3080 4K Pro is the way to go. It offers similar features like HDR10 and HLG, but supports 4K 60p thanks to the HDMI 2.0b ports. There’s no motorization and the zoom drops to 1.6x, but it supports generous tilt, shift and zoom ranges.
Projectors under $6,000
Fans of Epson’s LCD projectors will be interested in this model, which received a big update in the form of a laser light source. That bumps the brightness to 2,500 ANSI lumens, and the three 1080p LCDs use a pixel shifter to quadruple the resolution to something close to true 4K. It offers very accurate colors with HDR10 and HLG capability, but is also great for gaming thanks to the 120 Hz refresh rate, 20-millisecond input lag and HDMI 2.1 support. You also get a 3-way motorized lens, scene adaptive correction and more for $4,000.
Optoma’s $6,000 UHZ65LV also uses a long-lasting laser light source to deliver a 5,000 lumen image, much brighter than any lamp-powered projector. It also delivers true 4K resolution up to 60p, thanks to the TI 0.66-inch DLP chip. The extra brightness and contrast make it ideal for HDR10 or HLG content. It also comes with desirable features for a long-throw projector, like a 1.6x zoom and vertical lens shift.
Speaking of long-throw laser projectors, LG’s $3,000 CineBeam HU810PW is another excellent pick at a much lower price point. There are some compromises, as the laser light pushes out a lower 2,700 lumens (that’s still a lot), and it has a smaller 0.47-inch DLP chip that delivers slightly lower perceived resolution. However, it has dual blue and green lasers which help it deliver accurate HDR colors with an excellent 97 percent DCI-P3 coverage. It also offers a 1.6x zoom with lens shift and an HDMI 2.1 port that allows for 4K at 60p with up to 12-bit color depth. It comes with LG’s webOS, so it supports Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services without the need for a dongle.
If you’re looking for a true, native 4K projector, Sony’s $4,500 VPL-VW295ES is the least costly option out there. It’s by far the sharpest 4K projector in this roundup, thanks to Sony’s proprietary 4K SXRD native DCI 4K (4,096 x 2,160) panels. It also delivers extremely accurate colors, with 100 percent DCI-P3 coverage and HDR10/HLG support. You also get niceties like a 2.06 zoom lens with powered zoom, lens shift and focus. The main drawback is a relatively dim 1,500 lumen brightness, but it’s a top pick if picture quality is paramount above all.
Best budget portable projectors
Xgimi is a relatively new brand, but has started to gain traction thanks to its lineup of portable projectors. The best of those is the MoGo Pro, which can be powered by a battery (with two hours of playtime) and is small enough to fit in a backpack. But it still delivers a detailed and reasonably accurate 1080p image, while offering automatic focus and vertical keystone adjustment. It even comes with Android TV, giving you all the streaming options you can need – all for $650.
This $470 model is designed specifically for outdoor entertainment, so it’s battery-powered and splash and shock resistant – making it a good choice for backyard movies or sports events, camping and more. It’s also one of the brightest portable projectors out there. It only delivers 720p resolution, but it does come with a streaming app in the form of Aptoide TV.
This 1080p projector has a pretty rich feature set considering the $600 price including a battery. It delivers 400 lumens for reasonably bright outdoor use, has a reasonably powerful 2x3W speaker system with Dolby Digital Plus, comes with Android TV and has a built-in stand for easy adjustment.