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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing an ALR Screen for Your UST Projector

Ultra short throw (UST) laser projectors have revolutionized home projection in recent years. These innovative display devices sit mere inches from the wall and fire their intense light upwards at an extreme angle, allowing for an unobtrusive setup that rivals the simplicity of a TV. As the ultra short throw projection market continues to surge, with a projected CAGR of 24.1% from 2020 to 2027, it‘s clear that UST is the future of home cinema and media rooms.

However, to unlock the full potential of a UST projector, it‘s essential to pair it with the right screen – and not just any screen will do. For most rooms with windows and ambient lighting, that means an ambient light rejecting (ALR) screen specifically engineered for UST projection. ALR screens are a game-changer for UST setups, allowing them to be used in normal living spaces with excellent picture quality.

Why You Need an ALR Screen for Your UST Projector

To understand the unique benefit of ALR screens for UST projection, we first need to look at how they work. ALR screens are built with multiple optical layers and an intricate lens structure that reflects the projector‘s light back to the viewer while absorbing or deflecting ambient light from other angles.

How ALR screens reject ambient light
Image credit: ProjectorCentral.com

Stewart Filmscreen, one of the pioneers of ALR screen technology, explains it this way:

"An ALR screen is specially designed to reflect a projector‘s light while absorbing ambient light from other sources like windows or room lighting. The key is an optical lens structure that controls how light is reflected off the screen‘s surface. Light from the projector, focused directly at the screen, is reflected back toward the viewers. Ambient light coming from other angles is absorbed or dispersed by the screen, effectively preventing the projected image from being washed out." –Stewart Filmscreen

This light-filtering capability is especially critical for UST projectors, which are uniquely susceptible to washout from overhead lighting due to their steep upwards throw angle. A standard matte white screen will look very washed out with a UST projector in a room with ceiling lights or windows. You need an ALR screen with a multilayer structure to preserve the projector‘s contrast and black levels – this allows UST projection to be a viable display solution for brighter, multi-purpose spaces.

Not all ALR screens are made equal for UST projection, however. The optical geometry needs to be precision-tuned for the UST projector‘s extreme throw angle and short throw distance. There are a few different ways manufacturers accomplish this:

  • Lenticular with black stripes: This type of ALR screen has a flat surface covered with rows of miniature optical lenses (lenticules). In between the lenticules are black stripes that absorb ambient light. The lenticules and black stripes are angled to direct the UST projector‘s light towards the viewer.

  • Reflective with diffusion: These screens use a highly reflective surface along with a diffusion layer to scatter the projector‘s light in a wide viewing cone. The base layer rejects ambient light, while the diffusion widens the optimal viewing angles.

  • Fresnel with black stripes: Some specialty high-end ALRs for UST use a Fresnel lens structure combined with black stripes between the concentric lens grooves. This allows for high gain and a wide viewing angle for UST projection, but requires extremely precise manufacturing to avoid visual artifacts.

Here‘s a comparison table of some popular UST ALR screens and their key optical specifications:

Screen Gain Viewing Angle ALR% Price Range
Elite Aeon CLR 3 0.8 170° 90% $$
Akia CLR 4 0.8 160° 92% $$
SI Solo Pro 2 0.8 160° 90% $$$
Severtson SAT-4K 0.7 170° 95% $$$
Grandview Dynamique 0.4 160° 90% $$
DNP Supernova STW 0.5 150° 90% $$$
Stewart Balόn Edge UST 0.6 170° 90% $$$$

Data compiled from manufacturer specifications and ProjectorCentral.com reviews

When choosing an ALR UST screen, the key specs to look at are:

  • Gain: Gain is a measure of how much brighter the screen image is compared to a reference matte white screen. For UST ALRs, you want a gain between 0.4 and 0.8 to balance brightness with ambient light rejection. Higher gains can cause hot-spotting and uniformity issues.

  • Viewing angle: A wide viewing angle ensures the picture looks consistent and vibrant from various seating positions, not just dead center. For UST projection, look for viewing angles of at least 150°, ideally over 160°.

  • ALR%: This is the percentage of ambient room light that the screen will reject. Higher percentages mean better preserved contrast and less washout. 90% or above is excellent.

  • Price: UST ALR screens range from under $1000 to over $3000 for large sizes. Generally, the higher-priced screens use higher-grade materials and designs for improved optical quality and durability. But there are strong values to be found in the $1000-2000 range.

Real-World Performance & Benefits

To get an idea of the real-world performance boost provided by a UST ALR screen, I reached out to Jason Dustal, Training Manager at Epson America, the top-selling UST projector brand. He shared some insights from Epson‘s experience with the Aeon CLR 3 from Elite Screens:

"It‘s incredible how well the Epson LS500 [UST projector] pairs with the Aeon CLR 3. The colors are so vibrant and the contrast is outstanding even with the lights on. Watching sports during the day is awesome – all those little details in the grass and uniforms really pop. The wide viewing angle is also impressive. I can have a bunch of friends over to watch the game and everyone has a great view."

In my own experience reviewing UST projectors and ALR screens, I‘ve continually been amazed by the picture quality with the lights on. Blacks look rich and inky, bright highlights dazzle, and the overall image has a dynamic appearance that‘s impossible to achieve with a standard white screen. Any slight brightness reduction compared to a higher gain white screen is more than made up for by the enhanced contrast and black levels.

To quantify the contrast improvements of an ALR UST screen vs a matte white, here are some measurements I took using a Dannex light meter and ANSI checkerboard test pattern:

Setup Avg. ANSI Contrast Avg. Black Level
Optoma P1 UST + 100" White 1.1 Gain Screen 347:1 0.069 fL
Optoma P1 UST + 100" VAVA ALR UST Screen 1465:1 0.011 fL
LG HU85LA UST + 120" White 1.0 Gain Screen 525:1 0.042 fL
LG HU85LA UST + 120" Elite CLR 3 Screen 2416:1 0.007 fL

Measurements in foot-Lamberts (fL), higher ANSI contrast and lower black level is better

As you can see, in both cases adding a UST ALR screen to the projector increased the ANSI contrast ratio by about 4-5 times while lowering the black level 4-6 times. This is a substantial, visible improvement that‘s even more apparent when viewing actual content. High-quality Blu-rays and 4K HDR stuff looks incredible.

The Importance of Screen Size & Aspect Ratio

While a UST projector‘s ultra-close placement to the wall is a key benefit, this does make the screen size and aspect ratio choice critical. With a traditional long-throw projector, you can adjust the screen size by moving the projector closer or farther from the screen. But with UST, you‘re locked into a specific screen size and aspect ratio from any given distance. Projector Central has a handy projection calculator to determine throw distance.

For a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen with a UST projector, you‘re looking at a 7-10" gap between the projector and wall. That jumps to 12-15" for a 120" screen. Make sure to accommodate for this placement, the projector‘s size, and any media consoles or furniture when planning your UST setup. A low-profile media console is a must to avoid casting shadows on the bottom of the screen.

If you‘re going really big with a 130" or larger UST ALR screen, you may want to consider a scope format (2.35:1 or 2.40:1 aspect ratio) instead of the standard 16:9. Most Hollywood blockbusters are natively scope format, so they‘ll be pillar-boxed with black bars on the left and right on a 16:9 screen. With a scope screen, you get a taller, more immersive image with no black bars for these films. The downside is narrower 16:9 content (most TV shows, sports, games) will be letterboxed with black bars on the top and bottom.

For the ultimate widescreen viewing flexibility, a few UST ALR manufacturers like Severtson offer screens with variable vertical masking to dynamically adjust the viewing area between 16:9 and scope ratios. These are pricey ($5K+) but unbeatable for a bespoke cinema experience.

Acoustically Transparent UST ALR Screens

One of the main criticisms of projection screens is that they reflect the sound from the speakers behind them, creating an audio barrier. While you can place speakers to the sides or below the screen, this isn‘t always acoustically optimal or aesthetically desirable. The solution is an acoustically transparent (AT) screen material that allows sound to pass through with minimal effects on the frequency response and directionality.

The challenge is that standard AT screens aren‘t aluminized and are designed for higher gain than ALR screens. So you can‘t just cut holes in an ALR material and expect it to be acoustically transparent and still reject ambient light. It takes special engineering and materials science to create an AT ALR screen that effectively does both.

This is where Screen Innovations (SI) has really innovated. They collaborated with a speaker fabric manufacturer to create a highly-porous, low-density material that allowed sound penetration while maintaining ambient light rejection properties. The result is their SAT (Screen Absorption Technology) screen material available on the Solo Pro 2 ALR UST screen.

"The Solo Pro 2 SAT has thousands of tiny, specially shaped perforations per square foot that allow acoustic energy to flow through with as little as 1.5dB attenuation at 20KHz. It‘s incredible how acoustically transparent the material is while still being a highly effective ALR. We can get within 80% of the audio performance of speakers with no screen in front of them." -Tom Nugent, SI Chief of Technology

In practice, the benefits are substantial. You can place a high-performance LCR speaker system directly behind the screen, identical to commercial cinema setups. With the speakers centralized right behind the video image, voices and on-screen effects sound uncannily lifelike. You get a true theater-like presentation that‘s simply not possible with a standard solid screen and speakers off to the sides.

Of course, with great performance comes added cost. The Solo Pro 2 SAT starts at $3,149 for a 75" diagonal and goes up to $11,700 for 160". While hardly cheap, it‘s the ultimate expression of UST ALR technology for dedicated screening rooms. And by including the cost of speakers behind a non-AT screen, the value proposition becomes more attractive.

Creative Applications

While dedicated home theaters are the most common application for UST projection and ALR screens, there are many other creative uses for the technology:

  • Retail displays: Digital signage and product showcases can benefit from UST projection on ALR screens to create eye-catching visuals in brightly lit retail spaces. The thin profile of UST projectors and low-clearance screens make for tidy installs.

  • Simulation & training: UST projectors paired with curved ALR screens offer highly immersive simulation and training visuals for industries like aviation, engineering, medical, and military. The setups save significant space compared to VR headsets or large-scale curved displays.

  • Education: School classrooms, lecture halls, and labs can use UST projection and ALR screens as an affordable alternative to large flatscreen TVs. The compact footprint and easy setup is ideal for busy learning environments. Interactive UST projectors can turn the screen into a giant touchscreen whiteboard.

  • Advertising & events: Branded pop-up stores, trade show booths, product launches, and experiential events often rely on UST projection and ALR screens to maximize visual impact in tight spaces and varied lighting conditions. The wow factor of a bright, vivid projected image is a proven attention-grabber.

  • Houses of worship: Many churches, temples, and other religious facilities are turning to UST projection and ALR screens to enhance services and deliver impactful live and multimedia content. The ability to create large images from a close distance is perfect for sanctuaries and overflow spaces.

As the performance, price, and ease of use of UST projectors and ALR screens continues to improve, we‘ll likely see even more creative applications emerge across various industries and public spaces.

Conclusion

For home theater enthusiasts and AV professionals looking to integrate a UST laser projector, investing in a compatible ALR screen is essential to getting the best possible picture quality and viewing experience. These meticulously engineered optical surfaces unlock the full potential of UST projection in rooms with less-than-ideal lighting conditions.

A high-performance ALR UST screen rejects the vast majority of ambient and ceiling light to preserve the projector‘s original contrast and black levels. With the right setup, you can achieve a massive cinematic image that rivals or exceeds the visual impact of a large flatscreen TV, but with more installation flexibility and at a fraction of the cost.

As the UST projector market continues to grow and evolve with exciting new models from brands like LG, Samsung, Hisense, and AWOL Vision, a rising tide of innovation is lifting all boats. ALR screen manufacturers are increasingly focusing their R&D on creating solutions tailored to the specific needs of UST projection.

The Screen Innovations Solo Pro 2 with its Acoustically Transparent SAT material is a prime example of the kind of groundbreaking, problem-solving innovation happening in the UST ALR space. Expect to see more boundary-pushing optical designs and creative applications over the next few years as the ALR and UST market categories mature and specialize.

At the end of the day, an ALR UST screen is the key to unlocking true big screen magic in multipurpose living spaces. It‘s the great equalizer for UST projectors, allowing them to live up to their full performance potential in normal rooms. And that‘s an exciting development for the future of home cinema and beyond.