When discussing front-projection video, many of us focus solely on the projection aspect of the equation and with good reason. If your projector is sub-par, the surface you point it at doesn’t much matter. This said, with a few exceptions, the projector market seems to have hit a plateau, with nearly every manufacturer offering a 1080p-capable device at increasingly lower prices to consumers. This year’s CEDIA show in Denver proved this more forcefully than ever in recent memory, with top-flight manufacturers claiming 1080p to be the final frontier. 2k and 4k resolutions are coming, but for those looking to the next level of performance from your video system, I suggest we take a look at video screens.
When it comes to screens, no one does it better than Stewart Filmscreen. Stewart screens are used in more professional theaters and post-production houses than those of any other screen manufacturer in the game today. Stewart has been at the bleeding edge of screen technology for decades and, unwilling to rest on their laurels, the company has come up with a truly unique and rather inspired surface with their latest offering, Starglas. Starglas is, in fact, a glass surface that allows for a rear-projection set-up that utilizes either a mirror-type configuration or full rear-projection throw. What makes Starglas unique is the fact that, when used properly, you can view your source material in ambient/full lighting conditions, making a Starglas installation more like a plasma or an LCD then a front-projection system. Going one step further, you can even use Starglas outdoors for a truly unique home theater experience by your pool, deck or barbeque. Don’t worry about damaging or marring your Starglas surface, for its tempered glass is rated for commercial applications and can be cleaned via hose or, perhaps a little more prudently, with Windex.
Moving things back indoors for a second, Starglas can be ordered in a variety of shapes and sizes, from 126 to 204 inches (though I’ve been told smaller sizes are possible), in any aspect ratio from 4:3 to 2:35 and everything in between. You can even get Starglas installed on a table or floor, provided you can mount a projector properly to shine an image on it, for a James Bond-like projection system. Starglas runs about $200 a foot in most markets, which isn’t cheap, but when you consider the alternative, it is assuredly less than 100-inch or larger plasmas, which retail for easily six figures. By this standard, Starglas is an absolute bargain. Starglas boasts a peak gain of .60 percent, with a viewing angle around 47 degrees. 47 degrees isn’t quite as good as the viewing angle provided by most plasmas or LCDs, but many manufacturers’ claims of 170 degrees are clearly exaggerations. I consider Stewart’s claims of a 47-degree viewing angle to be more honest and also adequate for everyone in the family to enjoy the film. Starglas is ambient light-resistant due to its proprietary coating and blocks 100 percent of all UV lighting. Starglas is abrasion- and stain-resistant, making it a versatile solution for those with young children or pets.
I want to get back to the various available applications and sizes of Starglas. For starters, you can equip Starglas with any of Stewart’s masking options, including the touted ElectriScope, which gives you perfect masking to adapt a 6:9 screen for 4:3 and 2:35 images. You can even get Stewart’s Cinecurve screen in Starglas for the ultimate home theater experience. Starglas can be mated to any of Stewart’s award-winning auto-masking systems, ensuring the absolute best image quality, regardless of your source’s aspect ratio. This, of course, drives the cost upwards a bit, but still keeps it well below the price tag asked by large-scale LCD and plasma manufacturers. I’ve been spending a lot of time in postproduction houses lately and the new thing in cinema (besides 4K resolution) is 3D. Starglas is 3D image-ready and actually preferred by most of those who are developing the format for home use.
What makes Starglas a real value, though, isn’t its versatility or wow factor, (more on that later) it’s the fact that, while you can get 100-plus-inch plasmas, the day 1080p becomes the equivalent of SD you’re out a second mortgage on your investment, whereas with Starglas, all you have to do is replace your projector and you’re back in business. Unlike what’s required for huge plasmas, you won’t have to structurally engineer your wall to allow for Starglas’ girth or run hospital-grade 220 power to light it up, making it a more environmentally conscious solution in a world where going green is an ever-more desirable option.
Without question, Starglas is best installed by your dealer or custom installer. My dedicated theater is not equipped to handle Starglas, though I tried to figure out a way to make it work. I had to venture down to my local dealer for this particular review. I spoke with one of the installers at my dealer and he informed me that Starglas is one of their most asked-about screen surfaces and the number of installations is growing as more and more people see the benefits over costlier flat-panel displays. My dealer had recently done an installation where the homeowner built out a faux wall that allowed him to bounce his projector’s image off a large mirror, then onto the back of the Starglas surface itself. The entire installation was completed in a weekend. Since the faux wall was built out about two feet from the actual wall, he flanked the sides of the screen with custom bookshelves for a cozy study-like vibe. The leather club chairs, rich earth tones and subdued artwork made it one of the more inviting home theaters I’d seen in a long time, as you were never really aware you were sitting in a screening room, since the projector was mounted on the floor behind the drywall.
Another installation found the homeowner putting Starglas in his master bedroom. That’s right, in the master bedroom. He placed the projector in the guest bedroom, which shared a common wall with the master bedroom. My installer had not yet installed Starglas in a front-projection configuration, nor had he heard of anyone else doing this – his reaction was, “It kind of defeats the purpose.” Regardless of the client’s needs, minus any finishing or specialty trim, etc., the process of installing Starglas in a rear-projection type configuration is fairly straightforward and easily completed in a short amount of time, provided you plan right, scout the location and use a qualified custom installer. According to my dealer, once Starglas is installed, the only maintenance needed is done at the projector level – oh, and the occasional wipe-down.
My dealer’s Starglas installation had it in a medium-sized theater, featuring a Runco 1080p projector being fed a signal via a Sony Blu-ray player, with the rest of the electronics coming by way of McIntosh. The speaker configuration, which consisted of the beloved Definitive Technology Mythos ST towers for front, left and right channels, mated to a matching Definitive Technology center and in-walls for the sides and rear, was about as perfect as one could ask for, at least to this reviewer. Not wanting to waste any time, I cued up the first disc.
Television and Movies
I kicked things off with Pixar’s classic buddy pic Toy Story (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) on standard-definition DVD. I left the lights in the theater on to test the Starglas’ ambient light claims. Suffice to say, they’re not B.S. In fact, minus the light-mounted just inches from the top edge of the screen itself, there was little glare or reflection visible on the screen. The ambient light performance was quite good and it reminded me a lot of my time spent with Panasonic’s gigantic 100-plus-inch plasma that I reviewed some months ago. While the ambient light performance at first glance seemed about equal in terms of brightness, general detail and viewing angle, the noise floor with the Starglas/Runco combo was far superior, as was the edge fidelity and perceived sharpness. In comparison, the Panasonic was grainy, washed-out and vague. The Starglas was crisp, smooth, punchy and grain-free. When the lights were turned off, the performance just catapulted to a whole other level. The depth of the image was stunning, as were the black levels and color gradation. Edge fidelity was so resolute that the image had a real three-dimensional feel, even though this was an SD source. Colors burst off the screen and were among the most accurate and brilliant I’ve ever seen from a projection set-up. The glass surface of Starglas helped smooth out the roughness that is usually associated with SD when viewed back through an HD display device such as the Runco, which is nice. The image took on a decidedly HD feel, but not like that of any projection system I was used to, no sir. It felt more like viewing the film on the world’s largest plasma. With a diagonal measurement of 120 inches, my dealer’s Starglas installation destroyed the Panasonic and dwarfed even Runco’s own King Kong-sized display.
Next, I cued up the latest Bond flick, Casino Royale (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) on Blu-ray. The Sin City-esque opening scene projected onto Starglas was sharp, with stark contrast between the inky blacks and brilliant whites, yet it didn’t possess any of the blooming or excessive noise I found with the Panasonic when viewing the same scene. While it’s a bit unfair to judge a plasma display against a projection surface like Starglas, for the Runco projector does play a role in the overall performance, one cannot deny nor look past the value for dollar statement the Starglas/Runco combo makes. Nor can you look past the fact that, should you want to save more money, you can mate Starglas to a less expensive projector like my Sony Pearl and still achieve excellent results. Skin tones were rich, natural and very dimensional, allowing for the varying elevations of Daniel Craig’s angular face to be experienced, as opposed to simply being seen. The depth of the image itself bordered on the surreal, more reminiscent of viewing actual events through an open window than a film seen through a playback device. Contrast and grayscale rendering was excellent, with nary an ounce of light or pixel wasted on the surface itself. Seriously, once you watch anything on Starglas, going back to a traditional screen or even a plasma or LCD display just seems like an outright compromise.
I ended my evaluation with some TV viewing via my dealer’s DirectTV service. I watched a couple of minutes of SD and HD programs, ranging from a college football game to cheap infomercial. Regardless of the content the visual was appropriately rich and always enjoyable. When the lights came back on, the image remained. While a bit faded, it was by no means vomit-inducing. I just couldn’t get over how little glare or reflection there was on the surface of the Starglas, given its surface and sheer size. When you turned the lights on near the Panasonic, it proved to be more of a mirror than a display, which simply wasn’t the case with the Starglas. While the installations did vary and no doubt played a role in the ambient light performance of both, if it were my call (or money), I’d have to side with Starglas as being the best all-round performer, be it with low light, black or ambient light viewing.
Okay, so I love Starglas. I love it so much that it hurts to know that, in my current living situation, there is no way I can own or have a Starglas theater. That’s a downside right there, albeit my own fault for not owning a bigger, grander home.
Beyond my own materialism, there are some caveats regarding Starglas. First, it will require you to cut a rather large hole in your wall or potentially build out into your room. If you rent or lease your home, this may not be an option. Building out into your room would eliminate this problem, but Starglas is far from portable and you will be giving up a fair bit of square footage, depending on your projector.
While I consider Starglas to be a more cost-effective solution than larger than life plasma displays, if you want the most badass installation, complete with auto masking, killer projector and topnotch custom installation, the costs will quickly add up and rival those of the traditional competition. However, you’re still going to save at the meter, because unless you’re lighting up Starglas with a true theater-grade projector, it is not quite the pig for power the larger displays are.
With a base price of around $200 per square foot, the Starglas is quite a bargain, considering the benefits it provides over huge plasmas or LCD displays. However, Starglas is only as good as what you and/or your installer pair it with, which is a separate expense. Still, when I priced it out, my no-holds-barred Starglas-based home theater, complete with 1080p projector, auto masking and installation, was still thousands less than the comparable Panasonic or Runco 100-inch plasma mega-display. While not quite as simple as the picture-hanging technique used for most modest-sized flat-panel displays these days, the performance and cool factor of Starglas just blows all other display devices and surfaces out of the water. It is, without a doubt, the best viewing surface I’ve seen for all-around enjoyment on a large scale. It will ruin you and keep you up at night wondering which body part you’re willing to part with for medical experiments just to afford it. At the very least, you’ll walk around your home staring at walls, thinking to yourself, “I could put a screen there … Honey …”