There are many reasons you might want a projector over a TV: you may want a bigger image than a TV can offer, or you don’t like the look of a TV in your living room, or you want to have casual movie nights with your friends or family. Since movie theaters aren’t an option for most people right now, a lot of friends have been asking me what projector to get for their living room. So to give them the best answer, I tested nine different projectors in my apartment. After three months and way too many movies, I’ve found the projector best suited for most situations.
First, there are a lot of specs and choices to make when it comes to projectors: lumens, laser or lamp-based, DLP or LCD, 1080 or 4K, short-throw, zoom lenses, projection size... there’s a lot. But basically, the important things are: how easy it is to set up, audio, image quality, and price.
Currently, there are five kinds of projectors you can get for your home: DLP, LCD, LED, LCOS, and laser. For this test, I looked at DLP and LCD types, which are common for home projectors and also one DLP projector that utilizes a laser light source instead of a bulb, ranging in price from $530 to $2,800. You can spend a lot more on high-end, dedicated home theater projectors. But for this test, we kept the budget as reasonable as possible. Most of the models I tested max out at 1080p resolution, but we do have a couple of 4K picks as well.
My top pick is the $899 Epson Home Cinema 2150. It’s a 1080p LCD projector with a great, bright image, good speakers, and it’s extremely easy to set up. Before getting into specifics though, there are a few basics to think about when you’re shopping for a projector.
What kind of projector should you get?
DLP, or digital light processing, and LCD projectors are lamp-based, so the bulb will eventually degrade, but they’re much more affordable than laser projectors. DLPs tend to be smaller and more portable, and they offer more contrast and blacker blacks. LCDs tend to have a sharper, crisper image and appear brighter than DLPs even at a lower lumen count. Projectors with a laser source are not lamp-based, so they require less maintenance; on average, the laser lasts 5x longer than a bulb would. And unlike a lamp-based projector, where a bulb emits light through a color wheel to produce the image, laser projectors generate only the exact colors needed for an image. This efficiency makes for a much brighter image and very accurate colors and deep black levels and contrast. All of this comes at a much higher cost, however. Low-end laser projectors are typically around $2,000, although you can find some smaller ones for less.
Then there’s the throw ratio, which is how big the image is in relation to how far it is from the surface. Traditional projectors sit behind the viewer, ideally 10 to 20 feet away from the surface they project onto. Meanwhile, short-throw projectors can project a large image with only a few feet between them and the wall, and ultra-short-throw projectors are basically right up against the wall.
Screen or no screen?
The surface you project on is important — you can use a wall; white is best — but it won’t show off the projector’s best self. Every tiny bump refracts light and creates small shadows, so the image ultimately loses quality and brightness. You’ll benefit a lot from getting a projector screen, especially if you’ll be watching with a little daylight. Projector screens brighten the image noticeably depending on what they’re coated in. I used an inexpensive 80-inch Panoview pop-up screen — you can find a similar one for around $100 — but it still made for a better experience than just pointing the projector at my wall.
4K or 1080?
4K projectors are a lot more expensive and not as common as 4K TVs because the pixels on projector chips are incredibly small. But unless you’re really investing in a proper home theater, most living room setups won’t allow an average viewer to spot the difference between a good 1080p projector and a reasonably priced 4K projector.
And as for content, every projector I tested has an HDMI input, internal speakers, and also an audio output, so I was easily able to stream things by plugging in my Roku stick. You can also use a laptop, Apple TV, or whatever device you use to stream video.
The best projectors for your home or apartment
1. Epson Home Cinema 2150
The best projector for most people
The best projector out of the models I tested — the one I’ll be recommending to my friends — is the $899 Epson 2150. The image is great: it’s big, it’s bright, and the color reproduction is pretty. The 2150 is an LCD projector, which gives it a crisp image even when projecting a 130-inch image, and it can project up to 300 inches. It has 1080p resolution, but unless you’re in a completely dark theater with a screen, it’s not going to look noticeably different than 4K.
The brightness, which is rated at 2500 lumens, is lower than you’ll see other projectors rated. But LCD makes a low lumen count seem brighter and more vibrant than a DLP projector with the same rating. You can watch this with some ambient daylight, but definitely not when there’s unfiltered light pouring in through a window. Toggling to dynamic mode makes for the best daytime image, which is a great thing about Epson projectors: you can easily switch between viewing modes, and each one looks great. Use cinema mode, which has deep blacks, for watching a movie at night.
The 2150’s built-in 10-watt speakers are loud. I didn’t find the need for external speakers, but there is a 3.5mm audio output to hook them up if you want. The fans are also loud, though, and it gets hot. I would avoid putting this right next to your head. That’s easier than it may seem because the Epson 2150 has automatic keystoning. Keystoning is important because it allows you to straighten out the image so the projector doesn’t need to be perfectly parallel with the wall.
There are also manual knobs for focus, zoom, lens shift, and keystone, which are way easier to use than digital controls. The zoom lens is 1.6x, which is more than the average you get on most projectors in this range. This means that, without moving the projector, you can have an image that ranges anywhere from 80 inches diagonally across to 132 inches across. Making the image smaller can better help combat the ambient light in a bright room.
This zoom lens paired with all of the other controls makes the projector really flexible and easy to use; if you move or if you end up putting the projector in a different room, you’ll be able to customize it to the new space very quickly.
All in all, the Epson 2150 offers an enjoyable experience: it’s easy to use and provides a bright, crisp image.
2. Optoma HD146X
The best budget projector
A less expensive but still excellent projector is the Optoma HD146X. It costs $549 and shares many of the same specs as the Epson 2150.
The biggest difference is that it’s a DLP projector, so its rated 3600 lumens of brightness don’t make it brighter than the 2150. It actually appears darker and less vibrant. It’s not as crisp as the 2150 either, again, due to it being DLP instead of LCD.
The Optoma’s image modes are also less flexible, and the “bright” mode produces an unusably green image. The “vivid” or “cinema” modes are much nicer. But if you’re viewing in the middle of the day, you’ll likely need to put your shades down, especially if you don’t have a screen. In addition, the HD146X offers nice contrast, which produces a punchy image.
Lastly, the HD146X’s built-in 3W speaker is not loud, but the fan is loud. At maximum volume, you can still hear the fan if the projector is near your head. It’s manageable, though: if this projector is for your bedroom, the speaker will be fine. But if you’re trying to do a movie night with friends or you have loud street noise, I’d recommend speakers, which you can hook up through a 3.5mm audio output. The 1.1x zoom lens has a shorter range than the 2150, so it’s hard to make the image really big in my apartment. At 11 feet away, the image is about 100 inches, which is big, but I wish it could get even bigger.
Out of all the projectors I tested, Optoma projectors have some of the nicest images. Even though the HD146X is one of Optoma’s less expensive options, the image still stands out. If you’re watching in a room with a lot of darkness and have external speakers, the HD146X will offer a great image at a price you can’t beat for its quality.
3. Vava Laser TV
The projector with the best image quality
If price is less important than image quality, Vava’s Laser TV is a compelling option. The Vava is a DLP projector, but as you can tell from the name, it uses a laser light source, which is brighter and more vibrant than the lamp-based DLP or LCD models. It’s bright enough to watch during the day without a screen, though pulling the shades down on your windows always helps. The Vava also projects at 4K resolution, compared to the 1080p of most other models. The image quality is closest to that from a TV. But since it’s a projector, I think it’s nicer to look at.
That great picture comes at a price, however: the Vava is the most expensive model I tested by over a thousand dollars. At $2,800, it’s triple the price of the Epson 2150 and more expensive than even OLED televisions.
Unlike traditional projectors that are mounted or set up on the opposite side of the room, the Vava is an ultra-short-throw projector. It goes right up against the wall and projects its image almost vertically against the wall. Whether this design is preferable really comes down to your space and needs, but it does have some drawbacks. At five inches from the wall, the maximum image is 80 inches. You can get up to a 150-inch image if you move the projector 10-inches from the wall, but then it starts encroaching into your room.
The Vava is much larger and heavier than traditional projectors, mostly due to the full 60W Harman Kardon soundbar built into it. It provides much louder, fuller sound than the built-in speakers on all of the other projectors.
There were a few other things I didn’t like about Vava: the setup process was annoying — by far the most intensive. It connects to the internet, downloads software, and since it’s connected to the internet, every time you turn it on, it asks you to update. It has an app store, but there are barely any useful apps. Vava says it’s working on getting more, but right now, the only really useful ones were YouTube and Disney Plus. If you’re plugging in a streaming device, you don’t need the app store, but it’s still required to connect to the internet, so it’s just an unnecessary hassle.
All of the settings are digital, including the focus, which I find very hard to know if it’s accurate. Also, the image bends a little on the sides. It was nearly impossible to get it perfect, which is just not acceptable for a $2,800 device.
Lastly, the Vava gets a lot hotter than other projectors, enough to feel a difference in the room.
So even though the image is technically the best and the brightest that I tested, I’d only recommend this if you really don’t want to get a TV, but basically want a TV, and you have a big budget.
4. Optoma UHD52ALV
The best budget 4K projector
For those who want 4K resolution but don’t want to spend nearly $3,000 for it, Optoma’s UHD52ALV is my recommendation.
The UHD52ALV costs $1,799, so there’s still a premium for its higher resolution. The brightness is rated at 3500 lumens, which is just over half of what Vava claims. But in practice, it doesn’t feel that dim.
Like the HD146X, the bright mode on the UHD52ALV has a strong green tint, but cinema mode on it is beautiful. The color made it feel like watching film: everything has a golden, 1970s-style vibe to it, which I think is partly because of its color space. The projector uses Rec. 2020, or BT2020, which can produce more colors than the previous Rec. 709 that most other projectors use.
Using the menus can be a chore, but once it’s set up, the image stays good when you make it bigger, too — and it can get large: up to about 300 inches, which is double the Vava. And you don’t have to move the projector to change your image size. There’s a manual 1.3x zoom adjustment. So from about 11 feet away, it can get an image as small as 80 inches diagonally, all the way up to 100 inches. There’s also a manual lens shift so you can raise or lower the image, and a manual focus.
Audio isn’t bad either. There are two 5-watt speakers, so it can get loud enough, but it’s a bit empty-sounding with not a lot of bass. The projector’s fans are very quiet, and you can easily plug in speakers to its 3.5mm audio output, but it’s not totally necessary.
5. Epson Home Cinema 3800
The best budget 4K-enhanced projector with better sound
Another great 4K projector budget option is the Epson 3800 for $1,499. It’s extremely bright and crisp with great color. It has 3000 lumens of brightness but with a screen you can watch in daylight. The caveat is it doesn’t project true 4K; it uses pixel shifting to double the 1920 x 1080 resolution for a total of approximately 4 million pixels. It’s hard to tell the difference, though. In terms of ease of use, it’s very similar to the Epson 2150 with manual knobs for zoom and focus. It has two 10w speakers, so it’s louder and sounds much better than most of the other projectors I tested.
6. BenQ TH671ST
The best projector for a small space
If you want a really big image or if your space is a lot smaller, then you should get a short-throw projector. The BenQ TH671ST costs $750 and allows you to project a 100-inch image from a little less than five feet away. Its image is sharp even when it’s so big, but the colors, specifically the darks, are muddy. Its brightness of 3000 lumens isn’t very bright, so if you’re trying to get a bigger image, like 200 inches or more, you’ll need darkness. The audio is surprisingly loud for only having one 5W speaker. If you have a small, dark room, this projector is great for it.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the Vava projector as a fully laser-based system — it is not. It is a DLP projector that uses a laser light source instead of bulb. We regret the error.
Photography by Alix Diaconis / The Verge