Build your own Home Movie Theater Under $150
This article is helpful for all of you movie lovers out there, who at a certain point in your life find it difficult to go and see a movie, and that can be for a variety of reasons - a small student life budget for instance - or you just wanted your own little movie theater experience at home that you can have at any time of the day, ever since you can remember and have no idea where to start. You may think at first that this dream come true requires a considerable financial investment and a large living room, but you are about to find out that this project can be done in a room the size of a small bedroom, under 150 bucks. It may not reach the standards of IMAX, and it may not "accommodate " 50 friends coming over for a movie night at your place, but it's more than enough for your personal movie hunger, fed in the comfort of your own home.
The information you will find in here is purely subjective and based on empirical consumer experience, meant to support the average reader and consumer, with little to no technical background. This is not professional advice and it is up to you the reader to decide whether you would follow it or not, and if yes, in what degree.
First, we will go through the things you need and what I could find best in terms of "highest performance-lowest price possible" (the old paradigm, I know. It is so hard to satisfy all and everything...)
Towards the end of this article, you will find some common problems and struggles that you may encounter on your way to set up your own theater, as well as some tips & tricks I gathered from my personal experience and months of searching and researching all over the internet, including user forums, on the subject.
A classic home movie theater usually implies acquiring a 16:9 ratio image projector, with a bulb that you usually have to change every two years or so of moderate use, with a loud fan and projector body that reaches scorching temperatures. The price of a decent projector starts from $1000 and every bulb is $300-500. These stats would discourage anyone below this budget from the very start. However, the good news is that the current technology advancement offers us consumers some options worthy to consider. There are projectors called "Pico projectors" or "pocket projectors", depending on size (the former fits in your hand), that not only do they go way bellow the $1000 limit, they also use more economic bulbs: the led. Not only it consumes way less energy, but the led lasts practically the entire life of the projector (20,000 hours instead of 5000) and it does not heat up the projector.
Thus, you want to look for a LED Pico or pocket projector, with a native 16:9 image ratio (for a widescreen experience), preferably with DLP technology. The latter is one's personal preference, I'm just mentioning the fact that generally users and professionals tend to prefer DLP to LASER, due to the former's better contrast and crisper image. But that general opinion was expressed for larger and more expensive projectors.
My final choice was a brand new "Optoma P100 Playtime", which I managed to buy on eBay for just $101, shipping and all taxes included (that is the main reason I love shopping on eBay, I always know exactly how much anything will cost me). I do not recommend considering refurbished or used projectors, especially for beginners like me, it just doesn't worth the trouble, not for this class of projectors. I will explain in detail my reasons for making this choice bellow, which by the way was made a year ago and I still don't regret making it.
From the very name of the model, and from the scarce user reviews I could find on the internet, the projector seemed a children toy, a cheap piece of plastic with no real warrantee for its modest quality and at best an amateur version of a projector for sowing photos at family parties for background second rate entertainment. With there doubts in mind, I decided to give it a try, and I'm glad I did.
The second thing you want to check, after lamp life, is the projector's native resolution, which ideally is to be the same with your laptop's or the monitor's maximum resolution, which is at least 1280x800. I said ideal, because resolution is one of the main compromises you will have to make with this class of low budget, small size projectors: none will go beyond a 800x600 native resolution ("pocket"), unless you are willing to break the $150 budget and spend $400 on a (new) Aaxa P300 only (that is on ebay, if you're in luck). Picos will only go up to native 640x480. Their advantage is that they fit in your palm, have no fan and no moving parts, so they are practically silent (not necessarily cool at touch though) and have rechargeable batteries, in case you want to use them outdoors.
Now, the truth is, from my own experience speaking, resolution is never an issue if you stick to watching movies only. My Optoma PT100 has a native 854x480 and it can adapt to my laptop's 1280x800 when it comes to movies and photos with no loss of detail or image quality whatsoever $6. But if you want to use it for anything else, such as reading text files or surfing the internet (as a monitor per see), there is a great loss of detail and contrast, thus text, especially desktop icons and window fonts, is barely readable, if at all. That is why native, not maximum, resolution matters, at least when reading text. Then again, I never tried a 640x480 projector or lower, to tell the difference in image quality, so I have no idea how low in resolution can you actually go without affecting your movie theater enjoyment.
Some users suggested that the laptop's resolution must match the projector's native resolution, and that would get rid of the text blur. Since no optional resolution of exactly 854x480 is available, either in Windows XP or in OS X, I tried several custom resolution software - including Powerstrip that I couldn't make it show my custom resolution among the resolution options so that I could actually use it, not just see it as saved - none of them could make my laptop show a 854x480 image. So I had to give up my new ambition and settle for what I bought the projector in the first place.
A decent contrast ratio is said to be 1000:1 to 2000:1. My Optoma has a 800:1, and I still have no problem with low contrast, at least when it comes to movies. The image is clear; colors are balanced, vibrant even. It's definitely not HD to enjoy games (even though it's called "Playtime" and is supposed to be designed for kids computer games or so), sports and reality shows, but then again, this is a classic movie theater image, where the image size is all that matters. And yes, the image is big.
As big as you can get - that was my motto. And indeed, PT100 is said to reach a 60' image, but I got even larger diagonals on my wall: 100', even 120'. The problem is that the larger you want the image to be, the longer the distance between it and the wall or screen you will need. That wouldn't be a problem for a living room for instance, but for a small bedroom...
Another thing, you can basically throw the projection on any surface, distance or angle (such as ceilings). Personally, the max distance I tried was around 4 feet and I noticed no loss of contrast, resolution or overall image quality, from 10 inches to 4 feet.
The PT100 has 50 lumens, and I found those more than enough for watching in pitch black darkness. That means you get a great image once outside is completely dark, and you can even keep a desk lamp on and still tell what's going on on the screen. However, once it's light outside, you can't see a thing, even on a cloudy, rainy weather, even if you draw all the shades, not unless you cover your window(s) with a dark colored and compact fabric or blanket.
My initial options were Pico projectors like Favi E3 and Optoma PK-101 & PK-201, but then again, they have 20 lumens. I never tried them to see the difference, but now that I got the PT100, I know and can actually tell you how 50 lumens feel like. I also considered Pico laser projectors, which have even less lumens (10-15), but now I know that 50 work just fine, and that I wouldn't go below that, not without a very good reason.
Another issue you should know when buying a LED projector is the fact that, although it's kept cool by the fans and you don't risk frying your fingers, the lenses (which I understand are made of plastic) change their shape due to heat, so you will need to go back to the projector and refocus them every hour or so, otherwise, the image gets very blurry and not focused. Refocusing the lenses cannot be done from the remote, even if it has one (which PT100 doesn't), so you need to place it within reach, otherwise you'll need to turn on the lights to see where you're going. PT100 also has an auto shut down system when overheating, so it does turn itself off sometimes, not sure why, since I never felt it hot at touch. You will also need to refocus it every time you change its position, which requires patience and some practice to get it 100% focused, rolling the focus wheel back and forth until reaching the right balance.
This is optional in my opinion. I tried the PT100 without a screen without big image issues, however, for those who have uneven surfaced walls, like I do, you could find the wall shine distractive at times and you may want to try again with a screen. You can make your own screen, the size you want, with only a couple of dollars. Just buy 4-6 regular, non-shiny, white poster paper sheets from your local store (they have them at Target for under $1 a piece), paste them together on one side and voila! Just remember to ask someone to help with the mounting on the wall you chose, so that you won't bend or tear the paper in the process, since it's pretty large to move around.
Cables & Connectors
You can connect your projector to almost any PC or laptop, as long as it has a VGA, RCA or HDMI port. Check the ports of your projector before you buy it and make sure it matches one of your PC ports, or else you will have to add extra expenses with adapters, or even worse, not be able to find the proper adapter and thus end up not using your projector. PT100 uses VGA and RCA only, and I had to buy the VGA cable separately, since my Windows based laptop has no RCA port to use with the projector's cable. I also had to buy an adapter so I could use the projector with my MacBook Pro as well. I recommend looking for additional cables and adapters online for under $5 a piece, since they can be quite pricy in the stores, that is if you're on a strict budget.
...and yes, you will need a computer or a laptop, in order to use the projector, which I assume you already have, and thus have not included it in the home theater budget. Some projectors may work with DVD players as well, or read video files from TF or SD memory cards. I only used my PT100 with a laptop, so I have nothing to say about those. It has no card slot, which I don't need ( I use DVDs only), but I suppose it would work fine with a DVD player as well, if connected via VGA, which is the preferred connecting option for this projector.
Since we are on a budget, and sound systems can be even pricier than the projector itself, we can still achieve that theater-like feeling if we try to be a little creative. As far as the PT100 is concerned, it has one large speaker, which I never tested, since you need an extra sound cable for it to work with the VGA (and I only used VGA), an option I saw pointless, since it can't ever compete with either my Qosmio or MacBook Pro speakers, so I relied on those, which can be more than sufficient for watching a good old black&white movie. But for those of you that have no laptops with sound output the quality of the MacBook's, I highly recommend using a good pair of headphones, preferably wireless (meaning Bluetooth), so you can sit as far away from the source as you like.
A good pair of headphones (Bluetooth or even wired) starts from $35-40 I think, but you can find some around $20 on eBay (shipping and taxes included). If you decide on Bluetooth, as I did (I literally can't keep a wired pair for more than 2 weeks without damaging the wire somehow and having to throw them away, useless), I recommend buying a brand name set, from a top rated seller, since these products are often unreliable otherwise. I am using Nokia BH-503, which are by far the best I tried among Bluetooth headphones, in terms of sound depth and quality. They may be not as crisp as the wired ones in terms of sound quality and surround-like illusion, but they're pretty close to that and sturdy too (...as long as you don't actually sit on them by mistake).
Get a projector with a native resolution among the resolution options of your source (laptop, etc), preferably, and disregard the marketed max resolution the projector can accommodate with.
Opt for a brand name if you can, for the projector and for the Bluetooth headphones. As for the wired headphones, it does not matter as long as they are not too cheap and low quality, there would not be a noticeable difference between a brand or non-brand set, I know because I've studied music for many years as a child and I was told by my teachers that I have an absolute pitch (...so I should know this...or not).
Look for older models, which have in general considerably lower prices, although brand new. Also, do stick to new items only, unless you're a pro and know what you're doing.
Pocket projectors do have fans that can be quite noisy when sound is not on (like when you read, check your emails, etc), especially in small rooms, but that is not a problem if you are using the projector for watching movies only: the fan noise does not cover the sound at a medium volume, at least in the case of my PT100.
Double check cables and connection ports compatibility, and which cables come with the projector and what you would need to buy.