When you’re picking out components to build or upgrade your home theater system, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether to get a TV or a projector. There’s no wrong answer, but the display you use will have a huge impact on your experience each time you sit down to watch a TV show or movie.
To help you make an informed decision, we’ve broken down the major differences between TVs and projectors, including a general feature comparison, and non-technical factors you should consider, like the size of your room. We’ve also given our TV and projector pick once you’ve made up your mind.
More from Rolling Stone
Screen Sizes Vary, But Consider The Size Of Your Room
One of the biggest differences between TVs and projectors is their screen size.
According to the consulting firm Trendforce, the most popular screen size for TVs in North America is 65 inches. Most projectors have a maximum screen size of between 100 and 200 inches depending on the model. The answer here may seem clear, but it’s a lot more complicated.
A projector’s screen size is dependent on its “throw distance,” which means how far away it is from the surface it’s projecting its image onto. For instance, the projector we recommend can throw a 100 inch image from 8.3 feet away. If you’re in a smaller room than that, or need to keep your projector closer to the wall for any other reason, the screen size will ultimately be smaller.
On the other hand, if you have a large room, the projector will be able to make a bigger picture, while the TV will stay the same size. If you’re sitting further away from your screen (hopefully in comfortable seating), projectors have the edge; if your room is smaller, or you’re sitting closer to your screen, it’s probably better to get a TV instead.
One last note: if you’re setting up a movie night outdoors, say in your backyard or on the patio, an outdoor projector gets the edge thanks to its larger screen, and its weather-proofing and durability to hold up in the elements.
Image Quality Is About More Than Just Pixels
Screen size is the biggest difference between TVs and projectors, but it’s followed up very closely by image quality.
The most basic way to judge image quality is by looking at a screen’s resolution, which means how many pixels it has. The more pixels, the better the image quality. Note: This is also heavily dependent on the video quality of the video you’re watching, a low-resolution video will always look bad regardless of how high-resolution your screen is.
Home theater TVs have made the leap from 1080P (full HD; 1920 x 1080 pixels) to 4K (UHD; 3840 x 2160 pixels). Most projectors will accept a 4K video feed, but have a native (actual) resolution of 1080P. This may seem like a total win for TVs — and it is on a technical level — but most video content isn’t available in 4K yet. Video games are another story, as the hallmark feature of Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X is the ability to play games in 4K.
A relatively new technology called HDR (high dynamic range) is another major technical feature that separates TVs and projectors. Video shot and encoded with HDR will have significantly more life-like colors and shadows, and while both the TV and projector we recommend support this feature, TVs get the edge.
Almost all home theater televisions use the updated Dolby Vision version of HDR, which allows the screen to make light and color adjustments on the fly; projectors use a technology called HDR10, which can display high dynamic range video, but can’t make the same changes.
While HDR will be available on many movies and TV shows going forward, it won’t be available for a majority of older videos. Directors and producers still have to decide to adopt a particular format of HDR, and this technology is rapidly evolving. One way TVs and projectors are on equal footing is that this is a hardware feature, so the screen you get now can’t be updated to support a new version of HDR later on.
Neither Has Excellent Built-In Speakers
Let me be clear: If you’re setting up a home theater system, you should invest in good audio equipment, whether it’s a soundbar or multi-speaker set. Both projector and TV speakers are pretty weak, but TVs offer up better sounding speakers out of the box.
Most projectors, including our recommendation, have a single mono speaker. That’s fine if you’re casually watching YouTube videos, but won’t cut it if you’re watching movies and TV shows. TVs have larger, stereo speakers that won’t blow you away, but are less likely to distort at higher volumes, and provide a little more contrast between bass, midrange, and treble frequencies. If you watch movies with a lot of sound effects, you’ll be underwhelmed.
As I mentioned, the solution is to get better audio gear, but TVs have an advantage here, too. A TV is positioned in front of you, so you can hook speakers up, and neatly arrange the different cables behind your set, or inside your TV stand. A projector is behind you, so you’ll have to string speaker wire across your room (or through the ceiling) to avoid making a mess.
Integrated Smart Features Are Great (But May Have a Hidden Cost)
Again, if you’re going to set up a serious home theater system, it’s best to get a dedicated media streamer that supports HDR, and is
capable of displaying video in 4K. Our recommendations here are Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K, and the Roku Streaming Stick+.
Still, TVs are way smarter out of the box than projectors. They have a suite of built-in apps that get updated regularly, and their remotes typically have buttons that will take you to popular streaming services like Netflix quickly. But using this app enables a feature called Automatic Content Recognition, which allows the TV to see what you’re watching. In some cases you can turn this feature off, but it’s something you have to opt out of, not opt into.
Projectors on the other hand are “dumb” devices. They don’t have apps or a lot of fancy technical hardware, so if you plan on using one, you’ll need one of the media streamers we recommended earlier.
The Bottom Line
In many ways TVs have the technical edge over projectors, but most of that can be forgiven if you have the space to create a huge screen. The differences in image quality will be noticeable if you’ve got a keen eye, and especially if you watch 4K Blu Rays or play a lot of video games. Still, the theater aspect of viewing movies and TV shows on a giant screen is hard to beat.
If You Want To Get a TV: TCL Class 6-Series 4K Roku Smart TV
TCL has become a major contender in the home theater TV space since launching its P-Series (now named 6-Series) TVs in 2016. Its latest model, released late last year, is our go-to TV recommendation. We’re highlighting the 65-inch model (it’s also available in 55 inches) because most people are starting to adopt larger-sized TVs.
This set has all of the technical major features we mentioned when discussing the technical superiority of TVs over projectors. It has a 4K resolution, supports Dolby Vision HDR, and has a Roku built inside, which allows you to access all of the major music and movie streaming services (HBO Max is the exception) right out of the box.
The TV has 120 local dimming zones, which it can dynamically dim and highlight based on what you’re watching to make the contrast between dark and light parts of a scene more realistic.
It has four HDMI ports, so you can plug a bunch of accessories in at once, an Ethernet port, so you can connect it directly to your WiFi router or cable modem (you’ll get faster speeds, which are necessary to stream 4K content), and a coaxial input, so you can connect it to an HDTV antenna or cable box.
Excellent tech specs, ample connectivity options, and a modern brushed medal design are what help TCL’s 6-Series TV our pick.
If You Want To Get a Projector: BenQ TH685
I’ve had the opportunity to test BenQ’s TH685 home theater projector for about a month, and I’m constantly impressed by its performance.
It can create a screen up to 200 inches if you have enough space, and has a fairly short throw: 100 inches from 8.3 feet away. In my testing, the screen has been between 100 and 150 inches. It has a native resolution of 1080P, but can accept a 4K video stream and display an incredibly clear image.
The details I’ve been able to see even on 4K YouTube videos (the site compresses video to make it easier to stream) has been fantastic. The TH685 supports HDR10, and while color accuracy can’t compete with my personal 4K (it supports Dolby Vision), it’s still a lot better than a standard dynamic range option.
Audio isn’t this projector’s strong suit, but its 5W speaker does a pretty good job, and is fine for casual viewing. I’ve hooked it up to my current reference audio system (Cyrus Audio ONE Cast and Q-Acoustic 3020i speakers), and the results have been outstanding.
The TH685 has no smart features whatsoever, but does have two HDMI ports, so you can easily hook up a media streamer. It also has a VGA port, USB port, and audio in and audio out ports. This is a healthy amount of ports for most common uses (think media streamer, game console, or computer), but you’ll want to get an HDMI splitter if you want to connect a lot of devices at once.
If you’re fully committed to recreating a movie theater experience inside your home, you’ll appreciate the video quality of BenQ’s TH685. Just make sure to get a media streamer, and hook it up to a better audio system for the best experience.
See where your favorite artists and songs rank on the Rolling Stone Charts.