4x3 -vs- 16x9

Note by Allen: The following article was written by one of my top quality component suppliers and is reprinted here [with active links] for your enjoyment and education.  Much of what it says about home theater projectors applies just as well to restaurant and other commercial video systems. Some things have not changed.

Programming is 'originally produced' in either the 4x3 or the 16x9 format. All motion content [films or video] made with 4x3 cameras will remain 4x3.  All content made with 16x9 cameras will remain 16x9. Essentially - we are going to have to accept the black bars you so often see on the top or on the sides of some broadcasts  -or- a picture that has been electronically stretched or compressed to fill the screen.

We can - project or view - in one format or the other [or accept the stretch and compression] - but we cannot change the way a program was 'originally produced'. This is 'fixed' within the mechanics [the apeture] of the image production camera.



Is Your Biggest Decision - Really: 4:3 or 16:9?

Evan Powell, August 8, 2003
ProjectorCentral.com

These days conventional wisdom says that a new home theater should have a 16:9 projector and a 16:9 screen. That may be absolutely right. It also may be absolutely wrong. There are many excellent 4:3 projectors on the market, and they have unique advantages over the 16:9 models. So which is best - 4:3 or 16:9? The answer is it all depends on the trade-offs you want to make, and how you want to manage your home theater experience. But one thing is certain: before you even start to shop for a projector, you need to be entirely clear in your mind which kind of theater you want to create. The purpose of this article is to lay out your options for you and help you decide which way to go.

By the way, if you are new to the whole concept, when we talk about 4:3 and 16:9 formats we're talking here about the rectangular shape of the video image, or what is called its aspect ratio. Your standard TV has an aspect ratio of "4:3". That means the picture is 4 units wide for every three units of height. Meanwhile, the new HDTV standard is 16:9, which is 16 units of width for every 9 units of height. So HDTV's 16:9 is a rectangle that is, relatively speaking, horizontally wider than regular TV.

Here's the problem: video comes in many different aspect ratio formats. TV programs and videos intended for regular TV are done in 4:3 format, often denoted "1.33" since 4 divided by 3 = 1.33. On the other hand, programs made for HDTV are in 16:9 format, which is 1.78 (16 divided by 9 = 1.78). However, these are not the only two formats that video material comes in. Movies, music videos, and other content on DVD comes in a variety of formats including 1.33, 1.78, 1.85, 2.00, 2.35, 2.4, 2.5, and so on. Since there is no universal standard for the rectangular shape of a video picture, confusion abounds. One thing is clear however: no matter which format projector you get, either 4:3 or 16:9, it will NOT fit all the video material you will want to watch into its native frame. So since there is no perfect solution, what is the right way to set up your system?

The simple answer is this. As far as projector/screen formats go, there are two "best" ways to set up your home theater. You can get a native 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen. Or you can get a native 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen. Both of these projector/screen combinations have some advantages, and both have limitations for which you must compromise. One is not better than the other - they are just different. So let's take a close look at the advantages of each.

Option #1. Native 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen

If HDTV and widescreen DVD is your preferred viewing material and you don't care much about what 4:3 material looks like, your decision is simple. A 16:9 projector on a 16:9 screen is clearly the best combination for optimizing widescreen viewing. The 16:9 image fits the 16:9 screen perfectly, and all is well. The major advantage is that you usually get the highest resolution possible for widescreen material.

However keep in mind that when it comes to DVD movies there is a formatting problem to consider. Many movies are wider than 16:9. For example, Dances with Wolves, Tombstone, U-571, American Beauty, and Star Wars/Phantom Menace (to name a few) are all 2.35:1, not 1.78:1. So when you display these movies on a 16:9 screen you will have black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, each bar amounting to about 12% of the picture height. The bars are not as large as they would be on a 4:3 screen, but they are visible nevertheless.

How visible the bars are depends on the black level the projector is capable of, and what type of screen material you are using. Standard white screens will always make the bars more visible. High contrast gray screens like the Stewart Grayhawk will make them darker, and the Firehawk will make them darker still. With these screen materials and the higher performance projectors, the presence of black bars is much less of a visible distraction than it used to be.

Nevertheless, if you are a perfectionist and money is no object, you may want to consider electric masking to close the frame horizontally when "wider than 16:9" movies are displayed. This is simply an option you order with your screen that features black fabric panels that can be opened or closed along the top and bottom edge of the screen to change the exposed area of the screen's surface. They are used to create a solid black frame around the image no matter what aspect ratio the film is. You will find that the overall quality of the video presentation is improved by placing a black frame around it. This is the ideal solution, and if cost were no option we'd recommend it. However, with the new high contrast screens and higher contrast projectors, black bars are very black and thus not all that noticeable. So most buyers won't want to pay the significant additional cost for electric masking just to eliminate them. But those with lots of money and the desire for video perfection should go with an electric masking option.

How do you deal with 4:3 material on a 16:9 system?

All 16:9 format projectors will display a 4:3 image. However, the major limitation of the 16:9 projector (or any 16:9 video display system) is that, one way or another, 4:3 material tends to be compromised in the way it is displayed. This may or may not be an issue for you, but you need to be clear on your options since there is a LOT of 4:3 video/film material in the world. Standard television of course is 4:3. But so are most classic movies (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Fantasia, etc.). Most music videos are in 4:3. Most IMAX specials are in 4:3. So how will you display all of this material in your home theater?

With a 16:9 projector your best option is to display 4:3 material in smaller format using the middle two-thirds of the screen. When you do this you will have blank pillars or columns on each side of the image that fill the space between the image and the sides of your screen. If the 4:3 material is coming from your DVD player or an HDTV channel, the pillars will be black, which is tolerable. If it is coming from your television feed, the pillars will be medium to light gray which is, frankly, hideous. Nothing destroys the impact of a video image more that surrounding it with gray pillars.

You can fix the gray pillar problem several ways, none of which are great solutions. First, you can use optional electric masks that drop down vertically on either side of the image. This is a different set of masks than those you would use to block horizontal black bars. This certainly works well, but it is an expensive solution to the problem.

Second, you can use the "stretch" feature on the projector to distort the 4:3 image horizontally so it fills the 16:9 frame. In this mode people will appear fatter. All cars look like low-riders on oval shaped tires. I will say this. The romantic essence of Casablanca, a 4:3 film, is somewhat compromised when you make Bogart and Bergman look like they've spent the war years gorging on French cheese and pate. To anyone serious about seeing a video or film the way the creator intended it, this tasteless distortion of the 4:3 image (a "featured option" of all 16:9 video display devices) will be unacceptable.

Third, you can usually opt to "zoom" the 4:3 image instead of distorting it. This basically chops off the top and bottom of the image and displays the middle section in full frame 16:9. So with facial close-ups for example, you lose the hair and chin of the subject, retaining just the eyes, nose, and mouth. In general you are constantly aware that vital portions of the image are lost. Your owner's manual will call it "zoom", but it should be called the "4:3 butchering option." It should never be used if you have any desire to see something like Citizen Kane in the way it was originally intended to be seen.

Other variations on these themes have appeared as well, like retaining the original aspect ratio of the center portion of a 4:3 picture while stretching the side portions out to fit the 16:9 frame. This is probably the least odious of several options that stink, and it is a workable solution for regular cable or broadcast television since most of the programming available can't be made any worse by distorting it anyway.

The bottom line is this. A 16:9 format projector is ideal for HDTV and widescreen DVD. But it leaves you with top and bottom black bars on movies that are wider than 16:9, and it forces you to make some compromises with 4:3 material. If you don't intend to watch much 4:3, it is a non-issue. If the only 4:3 you intend to watch is from DVD, then the black side pillars offer a reasonable solution. In this case 4:3 will be displayed in the center two-thirds of the screen, and anything 16:9 or wider will be shown in full widescreen format. However, if 4:3 cable or satellite television display quality is really important to you and you don't want to compromise it in any of the sloppy ways noted above, you can simply go with a 4:3 format projector instead.

Option #2: Native 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen

At first the idea of choosing a 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen sounds a bit old-fashion. After all, 16:9 is the future, right? Why would anyone go this route? Well, there are plenty of reasons. If you want to view material such as classic films, or music videos, or IMAX specials in very large dramatic format, the 4:3 set-up lets you do this in a way a 16:9 system does not. And for those who use projectors for video games (which are mostly 4:3), having them blown up to the biggest image possible can add a new dimension of excitement. With progressive scan, video games can look good even on very large screens. Meanwhile, almost all native 4:3 projectors can display 16:9 material also. There are compromises, certainly, but the compromises are different; at no time will you ever be asked to consider distorting or chopping off a widescreen picture to get it to fit the frame.

When you have a 4:3 projector, you will want to set it up so that it displays a full 4:3 image on a 4:3 screen. When you feed the projector a 16:9 signal, it is displayed using 75% of the native 4:3 display, with black bars at the top and bottom. Those bars will each be 12.5% of the total picture height. However, when you play a very widescreen film like Gladiator which is 2.35:1, the size of the black bars increases so that the actual cinematic aspect ratio of the film is maintained.

Many folks object to 4:3 native set-ups because the black bars on 2.35:1 films are simply too large relative to the image. One can understand this objection, particularly when you see it on your television in letterbox mode. A 2.35:1 film will be shown with top/bottom black bars that are each about 22% of the picture height. That means 44% of the screen is black. That looks terrible on a television since the image just looks way too small compared to what you are used to seeing on that screen. However, on a very large 4:3 screen it doesn't look as bad because the image is still quite large and easy to see.

Why get a 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen?

It all depends on what you like to watch, and how you like to watch it. The central issue really has to do with your own personal sense of aesthetics - do you believe that "4:3 should be smaller than 16:9?" Do you like the feeling of watching 4:3 television at a certain size, then having the image open up wider to view a widescreen movie? A lot of people would quite understandably say "Yes, of course, isn't that what home theater is all about?"

Maybe, maybe not. Time to think out of the box here for a moment. Personally, I prefer a big 4:3 screen. Here's why. I want to watch widescreen movies in their widescreen glory, no doubt about it. So I have a 4:3 screen that is wide enough to give me the 16:9 display I want, which in my theater is 8 feet wide. I put electric masking on it. (In a 4:3 set-up the benefits are more substantial since black bars can be bigger.) Then I set the masking normally to its 16:9 position. Now it looks like I have a widescreen theater. With this rig, nobody would ever know I had a 4:3 screen on the wall unless I opened the masking. And if I put on a super-widescreen film like Gladiator I can close the masking a little to maintain my solid black frame around the image. And I can do this no matter what the aspect ratio of the movie happens to be.

Now let's say I change my viewing material. I want to watch Casablanca. But more than that I want to see it like it was originally shown in commercial movie theaters in 1942, which was in large screen 4:3 format. Frankly, there is nothing more irritating to me than having to shrink down a 4:3 format film just so it fits in the middle of a 16:9 screen. Even worse is using any of the distorting and butchering modes. But I don't have those problems. Instead, I've got a great big 4:3 screen hidden behind the masks. I press a button, open the masks and view Casablanca in its historical 4:3 theatrical presentation.

For me, music videos are the same way - almost all of them are 4:3, and as far as I am concerned, the bigger, the better. Big music demands big video. On a 120" 4:3 diagonal screen I feel like I'm in the front row at the Eagles "Hell Freezes Over" concert. Conversely, when this 4:3 image is squeezed into the middle of a 16:9 screen, the Eagles look like they are on television. The difference in the experience is dramatic.

(Now as an aside, electric masks may add too much stress to your budget. Though electric masks are the ultimate solution in a 4:3 theater, as noted above they are not as necessary as they once were. A good high contrast screen and projector combo will render those top/bottom bars fairly black. Whether you want to spend the extra money for the masking system is optional based on your tastes and budget. Talk to your projector dealer about screen and masking options and prices).

Screen size relative to format

Consider this for a moment. Most people will install the widest possible screen they can fit into the space available, regardless of its format. Screen width is almost always the limiting factor. For example, in my theater space I had two choices. I could install a 16:9 screen that was 8 feet wide, or a 4:3 screen that was 8 feet wide. If I installed a 16:9 screen it would be 8 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. But if I installed a 4:3 screen, it would be 8 feet wide and 6 feet high. The 8-foot width is limited by the room; the screen height is my option.

Now between these two options, how big is my 4:3 image? On the 4:3 screen it is 8 x 6 = 48 square feet. On the 16:9 screen, it would have been 6 x 4.5 = 27 square feet. That's almost half the size! And that's the difference between being at the Eagles concert and seeing it on television.

Meanwhile - and here is a key point - my 16:9 image size is the same either wayŚ 8 x 4.5 = 36 square feet. So the only variable is how I want to display 4:3. Do you want to maximize the use of your wall space? The 4:3 screen gives you more viewing area since it uses more vertical space on the wall.

I would never give up seeing the great classic films or music videos in the largest format I can manage. Especially if it was for a reason as nonsensical (to me) as making sure that all of my 4:3 material was displayed in a "smaller" format than a widescreen movie. So the bottom line is this: I personally don't believe that a 4:3 image should be smaller than a 16:9 - I'm a Big Picture guy and I want them both as big as I can fit on the wall. In my case, that means they are both eight feet wide.

Now. You may feel like I'm completely full of hooey. You may like 4:3 material in smaller format, and the widest regions of your screen reserved for widescreen material. And if you do, then by all means go with your gut. We are talking about YOUR entertainment here. The real purpose of this discussion is to get you to think about what you want to see and how you want to see it. Then set it up the way you want it. There is no "right" solution. There is only the right solution for you.

Conclusion

When shopping for a projector, many people start by reading reviews. Reviews are a great way to get educated, and we are grateful for everyone who comes to ProjectorCentral to see our reviews. We try to give the most evenhanded and unbiased assessment of these products that we are capable of. However, projector reviews should be consulted only after you have decided on the type of projector that you want. It makes no difference if the new SuperGlitzo Plus is the best and cheapest projector ever made - if it is not the right aspect ratio for your theater, it is the wrong machine for you.

So forget about specs and reviews. Instead, start by visualizing how you want 4:3 and 16:9 pictures to appear in your viewing space. You are the director in your own home theater. Think about each type of video/film you want to watch - standard TV, HDTV, music videos, video games, wide screen feature films, classic 4:3 films, etc. Decide how you want to see them appear on your wall. You can then make a well-informed decision on the format that is best for you first. Once you have decided that you want either a 4:3 or 16:9 theater, you can then start shopping for the projector.