Once upon a time, getting a quality projector required handing over considerable amounts of cash – in most cases, more than you’d pay for a large-screen TV.
Thankfully, times have changed. You can now spend less than $1500 on a projector that will give you 100 diagonal inches or more of eye-popping awesome, whereas an 88-inch OLED TV will set you back heinous amount of cash. Granted, those TV’s can wage war with sunlight in a way that many projectors can’t, and they offer more in terms of features, such as Internet apps and digital tuners. Still, if you’re looking to bring the cinema home or rally around a huge screen for the next big game or movie night – be it in your living room, basement, or back yard – there is no better solution than a projector. And now you can do it more affordably than ever.
Even when picking an entry-level projector, there are a few basic considerations to keep in mind. The most important is the projector’s brightness capabilities. Simply put, the higher the number of lumens, the brighter the image. The more ambient light you have in the room when you watch, the more brightness you’ll want to combat it. You’ll also want to consider the projector’s throw ratio, which explains how wide a projector’s image will be given the distance between the lens and the screen. Also, be sure to make sure the projector you pick offers enough keystone correction and zoom ability to match your installation.
Sound complicated? It’s not as hard as you might think. (Here’s a complete guide to projector installation if you’d like to learn more.) Finally, you can count on nearly any projector’s built-in speakers to be terrible. They are an afterthought in most cases, designed to get you by if you’re doing an office presentation, but not much more. Any of these projectors will benefit from even a modest outboard speaker system, though for big movie nights, we say go nuts with the sound system.
Here are our top picks for some approachable projectors that are sure to put a grin on your face and those of your friends and family at your first big movie screening. Just beware: You’re about to have a whole lot more company.
Why you should buy this: 4K resolution, HDR support, 2200 lumens of brightness.
Who it’s for: You want a competitively priced projector with gorgeous color accuracy.
How much it will cost: $1500
Why we picked the BenQ HT2550:
If you’re in the market for a projector, the BenQ HT2550 needs to be at the top of your list. With beautiful 4K resolution, vivid 2,200 lumen brightness, and an HDR color palate, this model is a slam dunk solution for any home theater, especially at its attainable price point.
Great picture quality is at the heart of the HT2550. The projector analyzes every image to provide an optimal balance between color accuracy and contrast. It also boasts automatic vertical keystone correction to true up the image when the projector is places at less-than-optimal heights, and a 1.2x optical zoom helps you fit the picture to a screen.
Though the HT2550 isn’t designed to be portable, it is lightweight enough to do the job, should you want to put together pop-up viewing events, and a quick and easy setup process makes it equally agile if you plan on toting it between locations every so often. In addition, a well-backlit remote helps keep the projector easy to adjust in darkened rooms, and hot keys help you deal with commonly-needed adjustments quickly.
With a lamp that should last a solid 10,000 hours out of the box (15,000 in LampSave mode), the BenQ HT2550 should last through years of playback, and with an image quality this good, you won’t be thinking about an upgrade for years.
The best Value
Why you should buy this: Great picture, even better price.
Who it’s for: Budget-conscious buyers who want beautiful HD picture at the lowest possible price.
How much it will cost: $550
Why we picked the Optoma HD142X:
Those that don’t want to spend major dough for a big-screen addition to their viewing arsenal for the occasional big game or movie night should look no further than the Optoma HD142X. The affordable projector provides a full 1080p image, 3,000 lumens of brightness, and an 8,000-hour lamp life — enough to last for years of heavy use.
Lightweight and easy to move, the HD142X is easy to tote between viewing venues. Though it lacks the automatic setup features of higher-tiered projectors, you’ll quickly be able to adjust the image to fit your screen with the manual zoom lever.
Colors are vivid, especially in Cinema mode, which cuts the projector’s overall brightness in half to provide better shadow detail in dark rooms. As a simple projector solution, the HD142X is the perfect option for the vast majority of everyday viewers. Let’s face it: Most of us aren’t looking to fill out the perfect home theater, we’re just looking to watch a movie after a family barbecue, have a home cinema night, or watch the big game.
The brightest 4K
Why you should buy this: Cinema-grade 4K picture quality for less than $5,000.
Who it’s for: The home theater enthusiast who wants to build a lifelike cinema in their abode.
How much it will cost: $4,700 to $5,000
Why we picked the Sony VW285ES:
Sony’s ground-breaking VW285ES projector is the most affordable cinema-grade model the company has ever produced. A legitimate, native 4K HDR cinema-scale projector (dishing out 4,096 x 2,160 resolution as opposed to the more common 3,840 x 2,160), this model is designed for enthusiasts who want a genuine cinematic experience in their home.
Where other projectors claiming 4K quality typically use some manner of digital pixel shifting to achieve it, this model offers exact pixel-for-pixel reproduction, which is ideal for those who want the most immersive experience possible. The projector offers only 1,500 ANSI lumens of brightness, so the picture isn’t designed for daylight viewing, but it does offer excellent black levels and contrast in darker rooms, especially with the expanded HDR color gamut.
If you’re after full cinema quality, but don’t want to spend the $25,000 it costs to buy a top of the line model (like Sony’s VPL-VW885ES), you’re going to want to take a serious look at this model, which combines great picture with a tolerable price point for the average home theater enthusiast.
The best for Vivid HD
Epson 1450 HC
Why you should buy this: Crisp picture, outstanding brightness, very easy to use.
Who it’s for: Those that want vivid image quality regardless of ambient light.
How much it will cost: $1400 to $1500
Why we picked the Epson 1450 HC:
We all know the ideal viewing environment for a projector is a darkened room, but that doesn’t mean we always have one available to us. Whether you’re a sports bar owner looking for a wall-sized solution for watching big events, a business leader that needs a large viewing option for midday presentations, or a home viewer that wants to start that outdoor movie before the sun goes down, there are plenty of reasons to look for an extra bright projector.
Enter the Epson 1450 HC, a gorgeous 1080p projector that boasts an outstanding 4,200 lumens of brightness. That’s easily enough brightness to project even in strong ambient light. If you’re presenting, you won’t need outboard sound either: 16-watts of built in amplification results in speakers that provide a shocking amount of volume — perfect for rooms that lack outboard audio options.
Vivid colors and great contrast leave little to be desired on the picture front, with crisp full-HD quality that will impress. Sure, 4K would be nice, but you’d have to pay dramatically more to get an image this bright at that resolution.
The bottom line: If you want a clean and beautiful image even in challengingly bright conditions, the Epson 1450 HC is an outstanding choice.
The best for Beginners
Why you should buy this: Easy installation and setup, smart TV functionality.
Who it’s for: Those who want a massive screen size but want to avoid the hassle of mounting a more typical projector.
How much it will cost: $1,060 to $1,200
Why we picked the LG PF1000UW:
One of the biggest struggles that would-be projector owners face is difficult setup. Whether trying to cleanly wire it up a to a ceiling mount, find a table that’s the perfect height and distance from the wall to get a clean image, or simply dialing in settings while standing precipitously on a chair or footstool, we won’t pretend that getting a projector installed is the easiest thing on the planet. Thankfully, LG’s spectacular PF1000UW solves these problems for you.
Because it’s a “short throw” projector, the PF1000UW sits as close to the wall as your normal TV would, making it easy to wire, position, and set-up. Plus, built-in smart TV functionality means it will also act identical to LG’s excellent TV lineup.
A full 1080p resolution and 1,000 lumens of brightness are more than enough for cinema-style viewing, with a total screen size of between 60 and 100 inches. Plus, an LED-based illumination system means that the bulb will last for an astonishing 30,000 hours of playback, making the PF1000UW an excellent long term solution for your big screen needs.
If you want a huge picture but don’t want to break out a stud finder and mounting brackets when it arrives, this is the best projector you can buy.
The best Portable
Why you should buy this: Tiny size, easy connectivity, low price.
Who it’s for: The on-the-go presenter who doesn’t want to lug around a 36-inch monitor.
How much it will cost: $380
Why we picked the AAXA P300:
If you often find yourself wishing that you had a big screen in your backpack, you’ll want to check out the AAXA P300 Pico projector. With an hour of battery life, 300 lumens of brightness, and 720p resolution, this tiny handheld projector is more than adequate for most pop-up projection needs.
Sure, you won’t be mounting this in your home theater, but if you find yourself occasionally in need of a screen — and don’t want to lug a massive LED or LCD panel around with you — the P300 is a perfect choice. It can project images up to 120 inches in low-light scenarios, but you’ll find you get the best quality with a picture of 36-inches or less, which is more than respectable for a projector that fits in the palm of your hand. With a battery life of up to one hour built-in, you won’t have to worry about finding the nearest outlet to show off that slick new PowerPoint (or to sneak in an episode of Stranger Things).
The P300 will last you a while, too. The LED lamp inside the projector is good for 30,000 hours, which means you’d have to use it for hours a day for decades before you need to replace it. If you’re looking for a tiny little projector to take with you anywhere, this is the one we’d pick.
How We Test
We begin testing by setting up each projector in a completely dark room and adjusting its picture settings, screen size, and overall appearance using tools and methods readily available to consumers — just like you might do at home. From there, we use a series of test patterns and familiar content, from streaming services to Ultra HD Blu-ray to over-the-air (OTA) TV, to judge each projector’s performance characteristics, including color production, motion resolution, brightness, HDR quality (if applicable), and detail resolution.
Once we’ve analyzed a projector’s picture quality, we move on to elements that affect the user experience, including user settings or smart platform interface, remote control, external device recognition and control, and other essential touchpoints.
When possible, we’ll view two competing projectors side by side to provide additional context for the pros and cons each exhibit. Finally, we decide as to which type of user a certain projector might appeal to. For instance, some provide better bright-room performance, while others are better for dedicated home theater performance. Some are better for taking with you on the go, while others are better for static setup.
In short, we make a thorough evaluation to determine not only which projectors offer the best picture quality, but those that offer the best overall user experience. After all, you’ll be living with your new projector for years to come, and using it should be a joy, not a pain. Our job is to make sure you have the best possible idea of what you are getting into before you pull the trigger.