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by Jameson Simpson

Dept: Assembly Required
Tech: Front-projection home theater
Retail: $4,956
Street: $3,527 (H2.0 estimate)
Time: 5 hours
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Movie buffs looking to build a home theater typically have four choices: traditional CRT sets, LCD displays, plasma screens and hulking rear-projection units. Some are five-digit expensive, some so heavy that it takes three linebackers to carry them into the house, and some lose brightness from any viewpoint but a small sweet spot directly in front. Even the most gigantic offer an image no bigger than about 6 feet diagonally.

But conspicuously absent from this list of usual suspects is a semisecret but spectacular setup with a vastly bigger display that is often higher-resolution and less expensive than the plug-and-play boxes. It’s called front projection. I installed one in our bedroom, and the projected image is 8 feet diagonally and better than the local multiplex. Best of all, I’m in the theater business for under $5,000. Tickets $5 before 6 p.m., popcorn on demand.

These systems are built around powerful digital projectors of the kind originally developed to blast out PowerPoints but now optimized for home-theater use with display chips capable of HDTV quality.

So why doesn’t everybody have one? Because it’s not plug-and-play. Setting up one of these systems requires a little carpentry (projectors are typically hung from the ceiling) and a little understanding of such things as why a trio of red, green and blue video jacks are labeled Y, Pb(CB) and Pr(CR). Oh, and a spouse who can tolerate some inevitably exposed wiring.

The Denon AVR-2803 receiver I used for my setup had 18 speaker posts–plus another 90 jacks, receptacles, connectors and terminals. So it’s not surprising that at first pass I wound up with rear-speaker sound out of the fronts and nothing out of the rears. (“They’re not rears,” the tech rep told me when I phoned, desperate. “They’re surrounds.”)

While a video nerd could do it in an hour, the whole setup took me closer to 25. But when I finally slid in a DVD and got a bright, sharp picture in place of the infuriating no-signal box, and magnificent sound where there had been but squawks, it was an epiphany. Hobbits were bigger than life-size, I could practically feel Seabiscuit underneath me, and Salma Hayek in Frida was…well, let’s just say it was worth all the effort.

Front-projection equipment tips

Projector:

Screen

Speakers

Click here to see an example of an optimal layout of a home theatre.

Stephan’s home theater
Da-Lite “B” model pull-down screen: $256

Sanyo PLV-Z2 projector: $3,000

Denon AVR-2803 receiver: $800

V Inc. Bravo D1 DVD player: $200

Definitive Technology Pro Cinema 60 Speakers: $700

Total retail: $4,956

H2.0 street estimate: $3,527

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