Home theaters are ballooning in popularity, and projector owners are now obsessed with ALR or “ambient light rejection” screens. Unlike standard white screens, which are shockingly affordable, ALR screens cost well over $600 and promise to improve image quality in unfavorable theater environments—particularly in rooms with lots of unwanted light.
It’s true; ALR screens are amazing. But they can cost over four times the price of standard white screens, and more often than not, you can improve your projector’s image quality without purchasing a new screen. So, when are ALR screens worth buying?
The Problem With Normal Projector Screens
Projectors aren’t made to be stared at. They’re essentially the opposite of TVs—instead of beaming light directly into our eyes, projectors bounce light off a surface, usually a screen. The problem, of course, is that screens reflect all light, not just the light from your projector.
Unless a theater room is pitch black, ambient light will reflect off a white screen, creating glare and washing out the projector’s image. And this ambient light isn’t just a problem during the daytime. The light from a projector can scatter and bounce off of lightly-colored walls, creating ambient light in an otherwise dark room.
First-time projector owners often run into problems with ambient light, even when they’ve done their research and dumped a small fortune into heavy curtains. Some rooms, particularly living rooms, just aren’t well-suited for projectors.
If you’re unable to properly black out a room, an ALR or “ambient light rejection” screen is your next best option. These screens reduce the impact of ambient light, giving you a better picture during the daytime or in rooms with white walls.
How Does Ambient Light Rejection Work?
Unlike a regular projector screen, which reflects light in all directions, ALR or “ambient light rejection” screens selectively reflect light toward an audience. They reduce or eliminate the negative effects of ambient light, giving you a bright and crisp picture without glare or washout.
The technology behind ambient light rejection is a bit complicated, and every manufacturer has its own way of making things work. But basically, ALR screens contain a bunch of tiny microstructures and layered optical filters, which help direct light in desirable directions.
For our purposes, there are just two “desirable directions” for a screen to reflect light—toward an audience and away from an audience. Obviously, we want to see the image from our projector, so light that hits an ALR screen head-on reflects back at viewers.
But we don’t want to see any ambient light on our screen. So, light that hits an ALR screen at an odd angle (diagonally from a window, for example) is directed away from viewers.
Now, there are several types of ALR screen. “Angular reflective” screens reflect a projector’s image at the opposite angle of incidence—if your ceiling-mounted projector points down at a 5-degree angle, the image will bounce off the screen at the same angle (toward viewers). Other ALR screens are “retro reflective” and achieve a higher image quality by reflecting projected light back at the projector (the drawback is that they require precise installation).
Companies like Aeon also sell CLR or “ceiling light rejection” screens. This technology rejects ambient light, of course, but it’s especially good at negating light from ceiling fixtures.
I should also note that ALR screens are basically a requirement for ultra-short throw laser projectors, which shine light at an extreme angle. You just need to make sure that you buy an ALR screen that’s intended for ultra-short throw projectors, such as the VAVA ALR Screen Pro.
Bear in mind that the precision offered by ALR screens can leads to reduced viewing angles. Most new ALR screens have a “viewing cone” of around 160 degrees, which is quite good, but some models are stuck at 90 degrees, which is terrible in wide rooms. (Just something to look out for when shopping!)
An ALR Screen Isn’t Always the Best Option
Because ALR screens cost over $600 and magically reduce the effects of ambient light, people often assume that they’re the best option for every home theater setup. But that isn’t always the case. These screens have their benefits, obviously, but they aren’t a replacement for a proper viewing environment.
Let me put things in perspective real quick; movie theaters don’t use ALR screens. When you’re in a room with dark walls and zero ambient light, the benefits of an ALR screen are negligible or non-existent.
You’re probably using your projector in a living room, basement, or guest room. These rooms can’t get as dark as a movie theater, but they can still get sufficiently dark for high-quality projecting. So, when possible, you should focus on darkening your room, not buying a crazy expensive screen. That means painting your walls, installing some blackout curtains, and eliminating light leakage from other rooms (by patching the draft space at the bottom of a door, for example).
You should also learn a bit about your projector. If you have a decently dimmed room, a projector that shines at 3,000 lumens should still look pretty good during the daytime. Plus, the way that you install your projector can impact image quality, clarity, and brightness—throw distance and other ratings provided by the manufacturer are very important!
I want to note a few more things. First, projectors can’t project black. While an ALR screen will make your projector look better during the daytime or in a room with white walls, a dark room is always preferable. (Of course, a slight loss in quality during the daytime isn’t the end of the world.)
And while most new ALR screens have a wide viewing angle of around 160 degrees, some models have a very narrow “viewing cone” that’s as small as 90 degrees. If you want to use an ALR screen in a wide living room, you need to make sure you’re getting one with a wide viewing angle.
Finally, and this is important, ALR screens only reject off-axis light. Any light that comes from the same direction as your projector will show up on an ALR screen. So, if there’s a big window right behind your projector, you still need to invest in blackout curtains!
Should You Buy an ALR Screen?
From a cost perspective, the average person should try to avoid ALR screens. They’re just too expensive, and in a properly darkened room, there aren’t any mind-blowing benefits to ALR technology. Not to mention, bright projectors (particularly laser projectors) can look pretty decent in a slightly-dimmed room, even without an ALR screen.
I strongly suggest focusing on your room and your projector before you even consider buying an ALR screen, especially if you’re new to this stuff. Working smart and learning about home theaters will give you better results than blindly spending money.
That said, some people just have to live with ambient light or white walls. Maybe you’re renting, or you specifically want your projector in the living room. If that’s the case, an ALR screen can dramatically improve image quality—just try to darken the room a bit before spending $600 to $1,500 on a screen, you may be satisfied by the results.
I should also mention that dark projection surfaces, including affordable paint-on screens, can improve image quality and kill off a decent amount of ambient light. If you’re already in a dim room but struggle with light leakage, consider a dark or paint-on screen as a cheap alternative to an ALR screen. (Bear in mind that dark screens reflect less light, so they require a brighter projector.)