Table of Contents

As many of you must know by now if you’re reading this, one of the most controversial, debate inducing and potentially meaningless posted measurements not only in the projector world but video displays in general is the discussion on contrast ratio, how it is measured, what it means and what are the biggest pros and cons you’ll actually see on screen with a display purported to have so-called “great contrast ratio” or “bad contrast ratio”?

This guide to projector contrast will hopefully bring you closer to some sort of understanding of what contrast is, what measurements matter, if any, and what measurements you can learn to ignore, like most manufacturers' ridiculous on/off claims to name but one.

What is Contrast Ratio, anyway?

Contrast ratio is a measure of the difference in brightness between the darkest and lightest parts of an image or display. It is usually expressed as a ratio of the luminance of the brightest color (white) to that of the darkest color (black) that can be displayed by a device.

What Is Projector Contrast Ratio Specifically?

The easiest way to answer this question is to say it in the most basic of terms. In the context of displays like projectors, contrast ratio refers to the ratio of the luminance of the brightest white to the darkest black that the display can produce. A higher contrast ratio indicates that the display can produce a wider range of brightness levels. In general, a higher contrast ratio is desirable, as it leads to better image quality, more vibrant colors, and improved readability.

So if a cinema projector has a contrast ratio of 2000:1, the white in the image is 2000 times brighter than the black of the image. The higher the contrast ratio, the more detail you can see on the projected video. The more detail you can see in the video the better the projector.

Contrast Ratio Differences

Why is contrast ratio important for projectors?

Contrast ratio is an important specification for projectors because it helps determine the quality of the image projected onto your screen. A high contrast ratio produces images with a wide range of brightness levels and more accurate and vibrant colors, while a low contrast ratio can result in washed-out, dull, and blurry images.

Projectors are commonly used in settings such as classrooms, boardrooms, and home theaters, where high-quality image projection is essential for a successful presentation or engaging viewing experience. A high contrast ratio can greatly enhance the visual impact of the projected image, making it more engaging, clear, and legible.

For home theater projectors, a good contrast ratio is particularly important in low light level rooms, and low APL (Average Picture Level) dark scenes when watching movies and playing video games. This becomes especially true in light controlled, dark rooms.

Higher contrast ratios, especially on video projectors for personal use, usually means deeper black floor levels, mainly because these display devices do not have a high peak white ceiling, so the best way to increase the contrast ratio of these devices is to lower blacks instead of trying to increase brightness because doing so will also increase the black floor due to the added light reflections it creates internally. This means you have to double your effort to reduce the blacks even more, so you may as well start there in the first place if you are starting off with acceptable brightness to begin with, right? This almost always results in an increase in perceived overall image quality.

Contrast has been voted as the most important factor when it comes to picture quality in nearly every scientific test performed, and it becomes even more important with the advent of High Dynamic Range (HDR) displays. What was reported is that the video looked more realistic, had more dimensionality and was more detailed on projectors and displays with higher contrast ratios. It was noted that the blacks looked blacker and whites looked whiter and brighter. It was more noticeable in the dark, light controlled environment.

As the environment gets brighter and brighter, a higher native contrast ratio gets less and less important. This is due to the amount of ambient and reflected light polluting the room and the black levels, which reduces the importance of deep blacks in the display. To this end, having a higher native, or on/off contrast ratio isn't as important as having something like more peak brightness and more saturated colors to overcome the added light in the room to give an acceptable image on the screen.

Lights Off
Lights Off
Lights On
Lights On

Even though you may have a dark room, due to how the human eye works and other factors, small increases in contrast ratio aren't particularly noticeable. You usually have to increase the contrast ratio about 500:1 to be noticeable. Although even ratios above this point may not be very noticeable. In other words, it is not linear. If you double contrast, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will perceive a two-fold increase in the white to black contrast and the effects it creates to your eyes. We'll talk more about perceived contrast below.

How do you measure projector contrast ratios?

There are two main ways most manufacturers and many others measure projector contrast ratio: Full On/Off contrast and ANSI contrast. Each is basically the ratio between a display’s white measurement and its dark measurement. We will describe the differences below.

Full On/Off Contrast

Full On/Off Contrast

The first is what is known by many names, such as sequential, on/off, full on/full off and swing contrast to name just a few. We will use the term “full on/off contrast” for simplicity from here on out.

With full on/off contrast you find the ratio by measuring the brightness of a solid white screen and a solid black screen. The resulting ratio measurements are typically in the 1000’s for native contrast readings and 100,000’s to 1,000,000’s for dynamic contrast readings. (We’ll get into native vs dynamic in a minute.)

ANSI Contrast

The other method of measuring contrast ratio is called ANSI, or Inter-image contrast.

ANSI Contrast

ANSI contrast measures the different blacks and whites of a checkerboard test pattern (16 rectangles, eight white and eight black) and averages the readings of the white rectangles together and the black rectangles together to give you the ANSI contrast ratio. You’ll typically get a reading between 200-600:1 using this method.

Which is better, full on/off contrast or ANSI contrast?

There is a big debate between which method is more accurate. 

Full on/off contrast is typically an easier measurement to take. It also produces a higher ratio, which is why almost every manufacturer advertises full on/off contrast ratio to make their projectors more appealing to consumers. The biggest problem with full on/off contrast measurements is that you don’t watch content that’s all black or all white, so it’s not an accurate reflection of how the device would perform when you watch movies. The other big issue with this sequential contrast method is that it’s much easier to manipulate to inflate numbers. You can do this by measuring the white screen with the projectors absolute brightest settings possible and the black screen with the darkest settings, or even turning off the light source entirely. While this would measure the potential capabilities of the projector, no one would actually watch content like this.

ANSI contrast measurements, on the other hand, are much more true to how you would actually be watching content because there are both lights and darks in the same scene. The biggest issue with ANSI contrast measurements is that the light that reflects off the screen can bounce off the walls, objects or even the person doing the testing which would brighten the black levels an imperceptible amount to the human eye, but would be picked up by the sensitive light meters. This means it’s nearly impossible to get 100% accurate and replicable measurements. The other challenge with ANSI contrast is that the readings are more difficult to take since you would need to measure each rectangle separately. It is especially difficult to compute on ultra short throw projectors where the light meter itself would get in the way of the light path coming from the projector below the screen.

Are manufacturer reported contrast ratios accurate?

Manufacturer’s projector contrast ratio reporting is seldom, if ever, correct. They know that marketing high contrast ratios means more sales, so they totally inflate these numbers using any and all questionable techniques imaginable. Many of these self-reported contrast ratios should be taken with a grain of salt.

Why do some projector manufacturers list 1,500,000:1 while others say 3,000:1?

What if we told you an ultra short throw projector with an advertised 3,000:1 ratio has better contrast than the projector with a listed 1,500,000:1 ratio? You’d probably say something along the lines of, “That makes no sense 1,500,000 is 500x larger than 3,000. How could the projector with the smaller contrast ratio have better contrast?”

We’ll get into the different types of contrast ratios below, but essentially these are two different methods of measuring contrast ratios.

While both are using full on/off measurements, the manufacturer with the larger number is using dynamic contrast, while the manufacturer with the lower number is using native contrast.

Dynamic contrast is a greatly exaggerated ratio that in no way reflects what the picture would look like when you’re watching actual content. Native contrast on the other hand is a much more useful and realistic measurement closer to what you would experience. 

Typically when a manufacturer advertises the native contrast, it’s a subtle flex showing how good their contrast would actually be when you use it. This is why on a projector with incredible contrast like the JVC NZ7 you’ll see an advertised 40,000:1 contrast ratio. To give an idea of how insane this is, a home theater projector with a 3,000:1 contrast ratio is considered very good.

How do they get these huge numbers?

Some manufacturers choose to inflate their contrast numbers by using questionable measurement techniques, as mentioned above.

There are all sorts of tricks to make contrast appear to be much higher than it actually is when watching in any normal scenario.

One way is to completely turn off the light engine for black measurements, and then turn on the light engine to its absolute peak white value, having everything such as contrast, lamp/laser power, etc. cranked up to max, regardless of the effect on color temperature or whether anyone could or would ever watch anything at such a high mode of operation. This is what they do when you see figures that say the contrast is infinity to one, because no detectable light is measurable for black. They do this and anything in between, like using the darkest mode possible with the brightness lowered to a minimum value for black, and then doing the peak whites in the brightest mode, as mentioned in the prior example. This allows them to not show infinity to one, but at least show the maximum possible on/off native contrast that the projector can generate, even if it is splitting the modes and using settings that you would never use to watch actual video content.

How do you make sure the projector you’re about to buy has a good contrast ratio?

Read knowledgeable customer and professional equipment reviews. Find ones that show actual real world measurements using reputable hardware and software measurement tools.

Personally go see some live demos of the projectors you’re interested in purchasing. Preferably in a side by side comparison to see the differences first hand. Sometimes one unit can have higher ANSI contrast but lower full on/off contrast, and still have the more preferable image overall when seen in person. Something that specification numbers can never tell you on their own.

Watch YouTube videos from respected influencers on the models you are interested in. Make sure they are knowledgeable and report from a more technical perspective so they give realistic impressions of the contrast performance, and other parameters that are important to good image quality.

Participate and read industry forums online to get a sense of the contrast performance of the projectors you’re interested in from a diverse group of owners, testers and reviewers.

Perceived contrast ratio vs actual contrast ratio

Contrast, whether perceived or real, can have a real impact on the perception and quality of a video image. While it is always better to increase the real word contrast ratio, either native or ANSI, increasing either will benefit the viewer. Some people do not have the luxury of totally darkening or blacking out their rooms, so the only other option is to do whatever you can to increase the perceived contrast of your display and environment.

Eye Chart
Eye Chart

Contrast sensitivity and visual acuity

Contrast sensitivity is a measure of the ability of your visual system to distinguish an object contrasted against its background. The object must be sufficiently large enough to be seen, but must also be of high enough contrast compared with its background to be visually delineated.

Visual acuity, which measures how clear your vision is at a given distance, is different from Contrast sensitivity. Contrast sensitivity measures how well you can tell the difference between light and dark. As an example, you would use a different type of eye exam chart where the characters gradually fade from a dark black to lighter gray. When you read the eye chart during an eye exam, you are testing visual acuity. This is what is called a high contrast test, which uses black letters on a lighted, white background. You can have great contrast sensitivity, but reduced visual acuity and vice versa.

How does a projector’s contrast ratio affect Contrast sensitivity and visual acuity?

The further back a viewer, the harder it is for them to make out the content on the screen. Because of this, the contrast ratio of a projector can have an impact on a viewer’s contrast sensitivity and visual acuity.

Higher contrast ratios generally lead to better contrast sensitivity and visual acuity. This is because a high contrast ratio allows for better differentiation between different shades of gray and black, making it easier to see fine details and edges. This can be especially important in large venues, where the ability to discern fine details may be reduced because of how far viewers might be from the display surface.

On the other hand, low contrast ratios can lead to reduced contrast sensitivity and visual acuity, making it more difficult to distinguish details and edges. This can be especially problematic in situations where fine details are important, such as in medical imaging, scientific data visualization, or other applications where accuracy and precision are critical.

What affects contrast ratio?

There are several factors that affect the perceived contrast ratio of a projector. These can be settings or features of the projector itself, the projector screen or the light in the room where you’re viewing content. Understanding these factors and how they impact the contrast ratio you see on your display can help you choose the right projector for your needs.

  • Projector brightness

    • If you raise brightness on a projector, it almost always results in the black floor being raised due to reflections both within the light engine and the environment. Lowering lamp or laser brightness can also have an effect on native contrast.

  • Black levels

    • The best way to increase contrast ratios on projectors is to work on the black floor by decreasing reflections internally using light absorbing parts, paints and techniques. You can keep the peak brightness the same and do these things and it will immediately result in a greater contrast ratio.

  • Picture mode

    • Various and different picture modes can affect contrast ratio because many reduce the peak light output, but the projector’s black level stays the same, resulting in a lower contrast ratio.

  • Ambient light

    • Native Contrast: Ambient light doesn’t tend to reduce native on/off contrast ratios because the added stray light gets factored into each reading equally, both bright and dark, thus maintaining the ratio, even if the black floor rises giving worse blacks.

    • ANSI Contrast: Ambient light can affect ANSI Contrast readings though. This is because the black squares of the ANSI contrast pattern are affected by both the adjacent white squares as well as the ambient light, but the white peak squares are only affected by the ambient light, hence the contrast ratio between dark and light are affected adversely.

  • Screen surface

    • Screen surfaces do not affect contrast ratio, contrary to many manufacturer’s marketing bullets or beliefs. Any screen surface that affects one end of the spectrum also affects the other with equal effect. If it lowers the brightness, as a gray projector screen does, it also lowers the black floor, which keeps the contrast ratio the same.

    • However on a darker screen surface by having lower black levels, many viewers will perceive a better contrast ratio.

  •  Projector screen border and backlighting

    • One way to gain what is called “perceived” contrast is to use bias lighting. This is the process in which you add a light behind the video display to bias your eye’s pupils into opening wider, which effectively makes you perceive the contrast and black levels as being darker and higher. This is what you are doing when you add a light around your projection screen, usually with LED strips of differing colors. The best color and thing to do is to use a D65 (6500 degrees kelvin) gray bias light at 5 nits. Remember, this is not actually increasing the contrast ratio, it just makes you perceive it as being increased.

  • Bartleson-Breneman Effect

    • First, let’s define what this is:

      • The Bartleson-Breneman effect is defined as the background becomes darker, the perceived lightening of the image causes all the values within it to appear lighter. This has the greatest impact on the darkest values, which compresses the value range and makes the steps between gray values appear smaller. Against a light valued background the lightness contrast causes the image values to appear darker, but again this has the greatest impact on the darker values, causing them to darken and causing the value steps between grays to widen.

      • A related effect appears in the perceived contrast among areas of different value within an image when the image is viewed against a light or dark valued background.

    • In layman’s terms, this means that as the background of an image becomes darker, then the image on top of the background appears lighter, and vice versa. This can help perceived contrast, as mentioned above. So if a display has blacker blacks and/or a better black floor, then the colors and images above that black level will appear to be brighter, giving a higher perceived contrast between the black background and the image being rendered.

    • Because of the Bartleson-Breneman Effect, the projector screen border can affect your perceived contrast. 

Each of these gray squares in each row are of equal saturation and amplitude, but appear lighter or darker depending on the background behind them:

Contrast Grid

What is a good contrast ratio for a projector?

With so many different use cases for projectors there’s no one answer to what is a good contrast ratio. It depends on how you plan to use the beamer and what the environment of the room will be.

What is a good contrast ratio for a home theater projector?

A good contrast ratio for a home theater projector is typically considered to be at least 2000:1, but the higher the contrast ratio, the better. Projectors with sequential contrast ratios of 3000:1, 5000:1, or higher are generally considered to be very good for home theater use. The best home theater projectors like those from JVC have a contrast ratio of 40,000:1 or more!

What is a good contrast ratio for an ultra short throw projector?

An ultra short throw projector needs to perform in both well-lit and dark environments. Balancing the brightness, contrast and black levels therefore becomes a challenge. With regards to contrast ratios and laser TVs, you want to look for a UST with a sequential ratio over 1000:1. Most 4K ultra short throws fall between 1000:1 and 2500:1. There are some impressive outliers like the Formovie Theater that offers a 3333:1 contrast ratio, and the LG HU915QB that offers the best contrast with a  5206:1 contrast ratio.

What is a good contrast ratio for a gaming projector?

Contrast is a very important factor for gaming projectors because you need to be able to distinguish between the bad guys and the background. A higher contrast ratio greatly helps with this. A 2000:1 contrast ratio is typically considered good for a video gaming projector. You definitely want to buy a projector for gaming that offers at least a 1000:1 contrast ratio.

What is a good contrast ratio for business projectors?

Business projectors typically need to be used in brighter environments. That’s why it’s more important to have a bright projector. Most office projectors have a sequential contrast in the 200-1000:1 range. Getting a conference room projector that has higher contrast can help improve the readability of powerpoints and charts used in business presentations but overall brightness is a much more important factor.

What is a good contrast ratio for church projectors?

Similarly to office projectors, projectors for houses of worship need for a high light output is more important than contrast. With church projectors you want to look for one with a contrast ratio of around 200-1000:1. More is better, but within this range, the congregants in the back of the room can still easily read what’s on the screen.

What is a good contrast ratio for classroom projectors?

When buying a classroom projector you need to keep in mind how it will be used. Teachers will likely not have a totally dark room so the value of contrast is reduced. Because you need to make sure every student can easily read what’s on the screen, contrast should be considered more than business and church projectors. You’ll want to get a projector with a contrast ratio of at least 600:1. But again like the other non-residential spaces, the lumen output is most important in a school setting.

Does better contrast ratio mean better black levels?

Better contrast on a projector does not necessarily mean better black levels, although the two can be related.

 A higher contrast ratio means that the brighter parts of the image are brighter and the darker parts are relatively darker. Black levels, on the other hand, refer specifically to how deep and dark the black areas of an image appear. A projector with good black levels will be able to display very dark blacks without any visible grayish tint.

While better contrast can help improve the perceived black levels, it's not a guarantee that the projector will have good black levels. Other factors, such as the projector's brightness, the quality of the lens and the light source, and the projector's ability to control light leakage and ambient light can all affect the projector's ability to display deep and dark blacks.

Therefore, while better contrast can certainly be an indication of better black levels, it's not a guarantee.

What projectors have the best contrast ratios?

Home cinema projectors typically have the best contrast ratio. If you’re looking for a high contrast projector for your home theater, JVC undoubtedly makes the best.  Here are some high contrast projectors we recommend.

Featured

High Contrast Projectors

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$25,999.95
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Projector Resolution:
4K, 8K
Brand:
JVC
Product Status:
Contact Us to Place Order
Lumens:
3000
Projector Type:
Standard Throw
Light Source:
Laser
Contrast Ratio:
100,000:1
Chipset:
LCoS
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
1.35:1 - 2.71:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
8192x4320
Lens Shift:
Horizontal & Vertical
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz: 44.7ms | 1080p/60Hz: 36.5ms | 1080p/120Hz: 36ms
3D Support:
Yes
Warranty:
3 Years
Standard Lens Focus:
Motorized
Wi-Fi:
No

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$4,799.95
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Projector Resolution:
4K
Brand:
JVC
Product Status:
Contact Us to Place Order
Lumens:
1900
Projector Type:
Standard Throw
Light Source:
Bulb
Contrast Ratio:
40,000:1
Chipset:
LCoS
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
1.40:1 - 2.80:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
4096x2160
Lens Shift:
Horizontal & Vertical
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz: 44.8ms | 1080p/60Hz: 36.5ms | 1080p/120Hz: 35.8ms
3D Support:
Yes
Warranty:
3 Years
Standard Lens Focus:
Motorized
Wi-Fi:
No

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$4,999.00
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Projector Resolution:
4K
Brand:
EPSON
Product Status:
Contact Us to Place Order
Lumens:
2700
Projector Type:
Standard Throw
Light Source:
Laser
Contrast Ratio:
2,500,000:1
Chipset:
LCD
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
1.35:1 - 2.84:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
3840x2160
Lens Shift:
Horizontal & Vertical
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz:19.4ms | 1080p/120Hz: 28.7ms
3D Support:
No
Warranty:
3 Years
Standard Lens Focus:
Motorized
Wi-Fi:
No
ARC/eARC:
eARC

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$8,999.95
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Projector Resolution:
4K, 8K
Brand:
JVC
Product Status:
Contact Us to Place Order
Lumens:
2200
Projector Type:
Standard Throw
Light Source:
Laser
Contrast Ratio:
40,000:1
Chipset:
LCoS
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
1.40:1 - 2.80:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
8192x4320
Lens Shift:
Horizontal & Vertical
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz: 44.7ms | 1080p/60Hz: 36.5ms | 1080p/120Hz: 36ms
3D Support:
Yes
Warranty:
3 Years
Standard Lens Focus:
Motorized

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Featured

High Contrast Ultra Short Throw Projectors

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Projectors
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Projectors
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Projector Resolution:
4K
Brand:
LG
Product Status:
In Stock
Lumens:
3000
Projector Type:
Ultra Short Throw
Light Source:
Laser
Contrast Ratio:
2,000,000:1
Chipset:
DLP
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
0.19:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
3840x2160
Lens Shift:
No
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz: 67ms
3D Support:
No
Warranty:
1 Year
Standard Lens Focus:
Manual
Wi-Fi:
Yes
ARC/eARC:
eARC
Operating System:
webOS

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$2,799.00
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On Sale:
Yes
Projector Resolution:
4K
Brand:
Formovie
Product Status:
In Stock
Lumens:
2800
Projector Type:
Ultra Short Throw
Light Source:
Laser
Contrast Ratio:
3,000:1 (full on/off)
Chipset:
DLP
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
0.23:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
3840x2160
Lens Shift:
No
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz: 43ms | 1080p/60Hz: 41ms | 1080p/120Hz: 37ms | 1080p/240Hz: 34ms
3D Support:
No
Warranty:
2 Years
Standard Lens Focus:
Motorized
Wi-Fi:
Yes
ARC/eARC:
eARC
Operating System:
Android TV

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$2,899.99
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Projector Resolution:
4K
Brand:
ViewSonic
Product Status:
Leaves Warehouse within 3-5 Business Days
Lumens:
2000
Projector Type:
Ultra Short Throw
Light Source:
Laser
Contrast Ratio:
3,000,000:1
Chipset:
DLP
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
0.22:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
3840x2160
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz: 40.8ms| 1080p/60Hz: 37.2ms
3D Support:
Yes
Warranty:
3 Years
Standard Lens Focus:
Motorized

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Projectors
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Projectors
$3,499.99
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Projector Resolution:
4K
Brand:
EPSON
Product Status:
Leaves Warehouse within 5-10 Business Days
Lumens:
4000
Projector Type:
Ultra Short Throw
Light Source:
Laser
Contrast Ratio:
2,500,000:1
Chipset:
LCD
Aspect Ratio:
16:9 [HD]
Throw Ratio:
0.16:1 (D:W)
Native Resolution:
3840x2160
Lens Shift:
No
Input Lag:
4K/60Hz: 21.0ms | 1080p/60Hz: 22.1ms | 1080p/120Hz: 12.3ms
3D Support:
No
Warranty:
2 Years
Standard Lens Focus:
Manual
Wi-Fi:
Yes
ARC/eARC:
ARC
Operating System:
Android TV

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Is a higher contrast ratio better for projectors?

Contrast Ratio Explained

Generally speaking, a higher contrast ratio is better for projectors, as it leads to a more visually appealing image with better detail and depth. A high contrast ratio allows for more differentiation between the darkest and brightest parts of an image, resulting in deeper blacks, brighter whites, and a wider range of shades in between. This can make images appear more vivid and detailed, and can enhance the overall visual experience.
However, it's important to note that a high contrast ratio alone does not guarantee good image quality. Other factors, such as color accuracy, resolution, and brightness, also play important roles in determining the overall visual experience. Therefore, it's important to consider multiple factors when choosing a projector for your needs, and to balance the contrast ratio with other image quality parameters to achieve the best possible performance. In very well lit rooms for example, a brighter light source is much more important than a higher contrast.