How to Set Up a Video Projector for Home Theater Viewing

How to enjoy big screen entertainment at home

Setting up a video projector is different than setting up a TV, but in most cases it's pretty straightforward, if you know the steps. Here are some tips to keep in mind for your home theater projector setup.

It All Starts With the Screen

Movie playing on projection screen in home theater
Hero Images / Getty Images

The first thing you need to do, even before considering a video projector purchase, is to decide whether you want to project onto a screen or a wall. If projecting on a screen, you should purchase your screen when you purchase the video projector.

Once you've purchased your video projector and installed your screen, then you can proceed through the following steps to get your video projector up and running.

Projector Placement

Video Projector Placement Options Example
Benq

After unboxing a projector, determine how and where you will place it in relation to the screen. Most video projectors can project towards a screen from the front or rear, as well as from a table-type platform, or from the ceiling.

For placement behind the screen, you need a rear projection-compatible screen.

To project from the ceiling (either from the front or rear) the projector needs to be placed upside down and attached to a ceiling mount. If it is not installed upside down then the image will be. However, ceiling mount compatible projectors include a feature that allows you to invert the image so that the image is projected with the right side up.

If the projector is going to be mounted behind the screen and projected from the rear, that means the image will be horizontally reversed. However, if the projector is rear-placement compatible, it will include a feature that allows you to perform a 180-degree horizontal switch, so that the image has the correct left and right orientation from the viewing area.

Before cutting into your ceiling and screwing a ceiling mount into position, you need to determine the required projector-to-screen distance.

Obviously, it is very difficult to get on a ladder and hold the projector over your head to find the right spot. However, the required distance from the screen is the same as it would be on the floor as opposed to the ceiling. The best thing to do is to find the best spot on a table that will provide the correct distance for the size image you desire, then use a pole to mark that same spot on the ceiling.

Another tool that can help in placing a video projector is the distance chart included in the projector's user manual. Many projector makers also have online distance calculators that you can use. Two examples of online distance calculators are provided by Epson and BenQ.

Once both your screen and projector are in place, it is time to make sure everything works as intended.

If you are planning to install a video projector on the ceiling, it is best to consult a home theater installer. That way you can be sure of the project distance, angle to the screen, and ceiling mounting, as well as whether your ceiling will support the weight of both the projector and mount.

Connect Your Sources and Power Up

Video Projector Connection Examples
Espon and BenQ

Connect one or more source devices to your projector, such as a DVD/Blu-ray Disc player, video game console, streaming media device, cable/satellite box, PC, or home theater receiver.

Most modern projectors intended for home theater use have at least one HDMI input, as well as composite, component video, and PC monitor inputs. However, you should make these inputs are included before purchasing a projector.

Once everything is connected, turn on the projector. Here is a basic set of instructions:

  1. Once on, the first image you will see will be the video projector brand logo, followed by a message that the projector is searching an active input source.

  2. Turn on one of your connected sources. If the projector cannot find your active source, you can also select it manually using the remote or onboard source selection button.

  3. Once the projector finds your active source, you know that it is working. Now, go into your projector's menu and select your projector's placement (front, front ceiling, rear, rear ceiling), so that the image orientation is correct.

  4. Next, adjust the projected image, which will most likely be the onscreen menu of your source device. Once the projector is powered up, make use of any built-in test patterns available through the projector's on-screen menu. Most often, the available test patterns will feature a red, green, or blue screen or grid, such as small white squares with black borders, or black squares with white borders.

Getting the Picture Onto the Screen

Keystone Correction vs. Lens Shift Examples
Epson

Now you need to place the image on the screen at the proper angle. If the projector is placed on a table, raise or lower the front of the projector using the adjustable foot (or feet) that are located on the bottom-front of the projector. There may also be adjustable feet located towards the rear of the projector.

If the projector is ceiling mounted, you will have to get on a ladder and adjust the ceiling-mount to angle the projector properly in relation to the screen. In addition to the position and angle, most video projectors also provide additional setup tools, such keystone correction and lens shift.

Keystone correction is found on almost all projectors, while lens shift is usually reserved for higher-end units.

  • Keystone correction provides a way to make sure the sides of the image are as close to a perfect rectangle as possible. Sometimes the projector-to-screen angle results in an image that is wider at the top than it is on the bottom, or taller on one side than the other. With keystone correction you can fix the image proportions. Some projectors provide for both horizontal and vertical correction, while some only allow vertical correction. In either case, the results are not always perfect. If the projector is table-mounted, one way to correct this is to place the projector on a higher platform, so that is it more in line with the screen.
  • Lens shift provides the ability to physically move the projector lens along horizontal and vertical planes. Some high-end projectors offer diagonal lens shift. If your image has the correct vertical and horizontal shape, but just needs to be raised, lowered, or shifted from side-to-side so that it fits on your screen, lens shift limits the need to physically move the entire projector to correct for those situations.

Once you have the correct image shape and angle, the next thing to do is to make your image as clear as possible. This is done with the Zoom and Focus controls.

Use the zoom control, to get the image to fill your screen. Once the image is the right size, use the focus control to make the image clear to your eye, in respect to your seating position.

The zoom and focus controls are usually located on the top of the projector, just behind the lens assembly, but sometimes they may be located surrounding the lens exterior. Some cheaper projectors may not have a zoom or focus control.

On most projectors, the zoom and focus controls are performed manually, but in some cases, they are motorized, which allows you to make zoom and focus adjustments using the remote control.

Optimize Your Picture Quality

Video Projector Picture Settings Example
Epson

Now you can make further adjustments to optimize your viewing experience. The first thing to do is to set the default aspect ratio. You may have several choices, such as Native, 16:9, 16:10, 4:3, and Letterbox. If you are using the projector as a PC monitor, 16:10 is best. For home theater, if you have a 16:9 aspect ratio screen, set your projector's aspect ratio to 16:9, as it is the best compromise for most content. You can always change this setting if objects in your image look too wide or narrow.

Next, set your projector's picture settings. If you want to take the no-hassle approach, most projectors provide a series of presets, including Vivid (or Dynamic), Standard (or Normal), Cinema, and possibly others, such as Sports or Computer, as well as presets for 3D if the projector provides that viewing option.

  • For display of computer graphics or content, use a computer or PC picture setting if it is available.
  • For home theater use, Standard or Normal is the best compromise for both TV program and movie viewing.
  • The Vivid preset exaggerates color saturation and contrast, perhaps somewhat harshly.
  • Cinema is often dim and warm, especially for rooms with ambient light. This setting is best used for viewing movie content in a very dark room.

Just like TVs, video projectors provide manual setting options for color, brightness, tint (hue), and sharpness. Some projectors also provide additional settings, such as video noise reduction (DNR), Gamma, Motion Interpolation, and Dynamic Iris or Auto Iris.

After going through the available picture setting options, if you still aren't satisfied with the results, that is the time to contact an installer or dealer that provides video calibration services.

3D

Unlike most TVs these days, many video projectors still provide both 2D and 3D viewing options.

  • For both LCD and DLP video projectors, the use of Active Shutter glasses is required. Some projectors may provide one or two pairs of glasses, but in most cases they require an optional purchase. Use the glasses recommended by the manufacturer for best results. (The price range may vary from $50 to $100 per pair.)
  • The glasses include either an internal rechargeable battery via a provided USB charging cable or they may be powered by a watch battery. Using either option, you should have about 40 hours of use time per charge.
  • In most cases, the presence of 3D content is automatically detected and the projector will set itself to a 3D brightness mode in order to compensate for the loss of brightness caused by the glasses. However, just as with other projector settings, you can make further picture adjustments as desired.

Don't Forget the Sound!

Compact home theater system
adventtr / Getty Images

In addition to a projector and screen, there is the sound factor to consider. Unlike TVs, most but not all video projectors do not have built-in speakers. Speakers built into the video projectors provide anemic sound reproduction like that of a tabletop radio or cheap laptop. This might be suitable for a small bedroom or conference room, but definitely not suitable for a full home theater audio experience.

The best audio complement to a large video projected image is a home theater surround sound audio system that includes a home theater receiver and multiple speakers. In this type of setup, the best connection option would be to connect the video/audio outputs (HDMI preferable) of your source component(s) to your home theater receiver and then connect the video output (once again, HDMI) to your video projector.

However, if you don't want all the "hassle" of a traditional home theater audio setup, you can opt to place a soundbar above or below your screen. This will provide far better audio than the speakers built into a video projector.

Another solution, especially if you have a room of modest size, is to pair a video projector with an under-TV audio system (usually referred to as a sound base). This provides an alternative way to get better sound for a video projector than built-in speakers. It also keeps connection clutter to a minimum, as you don't have run cables to a soundbar placed above or below the screen.