I reviewed a $2,800 ultra-short throw (UST) laser projector two years ago and proclaimed it so good I’d buy one. Of course, I had to send that review unit back, which left me with the hard decision: do I spend the money? I did. And after two years, I can comfortably say it was worth it.
I actually have two UST laser projectors in my home right now, both made by VAVA. The first is the original $2,800 model I reviewed, which I eventually purchased for my living room. I have another in the basement on loan as a review unit, the updated $3,500 VAVA Chroma (watch for that review coming soon). VAVA is far from the only company to make UST laser projectors, but they all have a few things in common. Generally, the “affordable models” cost around $3,000 (give or take $500); they typically don’t support natural 4K and use upscaling instead. Plus, they can usually create 100- to 150-inch images.
That cost, of course, does not include a projector screen—you’ll have to pay extra for that or project on the wall. That latter option works well enough but does present some issues I’ll get into later. Suffice to say; a UST laser projector is not cheap. But my time living with them has time and again justified the price.
If you read my previous review, you may have spotted that I ended it by saying I wanted to buy the projector, but my wife disagreed. She didn’t think it passed our “what else could we buy for this amount of money” test. And with a price tag so high, we have to be in agreement to spend the money.
So what changed? The pandemic, of course. My wife and I love movie theaters, and for a while, going wasn’t an option. And it wasn’t even clear when we’d get to go again. And naturally, we started thinking about how much money we were saving by forgoing expensive tickets and even more costly popcorn and soda.
So we decided if we couldn’t go to the movie theater, we’d bring the movie theater home. We already have a 7.1 surround system; we just needed a truly epic screen. 100-inch TVs are expensive, often starting at $4,000 and going for as much as $12,000 or more. If we’re going to spend that much, the $3,000 projector suddenly doesn’t look outlandish.
So we started by buying the VAVA projector and placing that in the living room. We easily hit 120 inches with the correct placement and probably could have gone larger. In our ’50s ranch-style home, our couch is just a few feet away from the projector, and it truly feels like we’re in a movie theater again. Minus the expensive stale popcorn—we provide our own for cheaper.
The downside to owning an older home like mine is that it wasn’t designed for modern-day large TVs. My living room is a long rectangular shape, with a fireplace on one of the “short sides” and a giant set of windows on one of the “long sides.”
To beam an image on the wall or have room for a large TV, either our couch needs to be next to the fireplace, or awkwardly halfway between that and the wall, or in front of the large windows. The fireplace route is just too awkward to consider, so our couch resides in front of the windows. Our TV has always gone on the wall across those windows, creating a big problem: glare.
If we didn’t close the blinds AND shut the curtains, our TV was nigh-unwatchable during daytime hours. All you’d see is eye-searing glare and none of the action. Closing the curtains and windows didn’t always do the trick, either; our windows are enormous, and even the thickest material fails to block all the light.
You’d think that a projector system would be worse off as, typically, light is the enemy of projectors. But UST projectors are incredibly bright and very close to the screen. Even in a bright room, you can get a reasonable image. And best of all, that setup eliminated the glare. We can watch it during the daytime! Granted, some of the detail did get washed out without a proper screen. But washed-out detail is better than glare that prevents any detail at all.
Another significant advantage is that we get our wall space back. With a traditional TV, you get a big black slab on your wall blocking everything up. But with our projector system, when we’re not watching a show or movie, the wall is blank. We can hang artwork or anything else we want. If we had mounted a projector screen on the wall, that would have negated that benefit. But we went a different route—because we did decide to get a projector screen.
Now for complete transparency, we have spent more than $3,000 on our projector setup. For the first six months, we projected straight onto our wall. But that wasn’t ideal for two reasons. First: we’re colorful people, and our living walls are teal. You want to project onto a white surface to get accurate colors. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt things as much as you might think, as you can see in the picture above.
But also, and I know this is a reoccurring theme, my house is old and, as such imperfect. The walls have slight imperfections that you wouldn’t notice otherwise—until you try to project an image on them. Instead of a perfect 16:9 rectangle when watching a movie, we got a wavy almost rectangle. Not a deal-breaker, mind you, but still a noticeable annoyance.
And while we actually could watch TV finally during the daytime, it did get washed out some unless we closed the curtains. An ambient light rejecting (ALR) screen solves all those problems. As the name suggests, ALR screens “reject” unwanted light (like sunlight glare and overhead lights) and bounce back projector light at you. That gives the image a bright, bolder, more colorful look close to what you’d get with a TV. The ALR screen fixed all the issues, and on all but the brightest days, we can watch with the curtains open without issue.
ALR projector screens typically cost more than standard options, but they have been decreasing in price. While you can still find them for $660, for instance, some brands go for under $500. But if you get a fixed mount screen, especially at 100 inches or more, you are back to the “cover your wall” complaint with TVs. It’s a thinner cover, and grey may blend into your wall better depending on your decoration choices, but we didn’t want that.
So for our living room, we splurged on a floor rising 120 inch ALR screen that hides away when we’re not using it. When we turn the projector on, the screen automatically rises up. And when the projector is off, it lowers into its box. With that setup and our 7.1 surround system, our living room looks and sounds like a movie theater. And that’s a good thing because we’re not interested in going back to the theater.
I can’t understate how good the combination of an ALR screen and UST projector looks. It feels like I’m in a theater, only I don’t have to deal with the annoyances. I don’t have to pay stupid high prices for popcorn and soda. No one stands up in front of me right at a pivotal point in the movie. We can pause if we do need to stand! And I can be sure I won’t hear some stranger’s phone ring, followed by an actual conversation during the movie.
But think about it for a moment. Imagine you could go to the theater for everything you watch on TV. The best Netflix shows are showing in my movie theater. Along with The Mandalorian, Star Trek: Stange New Worlds, and The Librarians, a show I’d watch again and again on a giant screen. But it’s not just TV shows and movies that benefit. I have gaming systems too.
Now, if you’re a hardcore gamer, you might disagree with me. But gaming on my projector is fine. No, it doesn’t support 120 FPS, and there’s a tiny bit of latency. That latency is just very slight, though, and I play Rocket League all the time on my projector. I do keep my Xbox Series X and PS5 on my gaming TV just to get the most out of every NextGen feature. But for my PS4 and Xbox One, big-screen gaming is the best gaming.
And when I want to take a chance on a movie I’m not sure I’ll like, it’s so much nicer to watch it on my big screen. Either I get the perfect theater experience with a great movie, or I don’t regret spending $50 on giving The Matrix: Resurrections a chance when it turned out to be a total disappointment (shocking). I probably wouldn’t have even finished that movie on a 55-inch TV, but at least with my 120-inch setup, I could enjoy the visuals.
Yes, I spent nearly $5,000 on my home theater setup. If I’m being honest, as expensive as they are, I won’t recoup my costs in movie theater tickets alone. Right now, if I wanted to see a movie with my family, I could easily spend $100 on the night. Just checking in at AMC, I can see that tickets for the four of us cost a whopping $83 before the snacks. I’ll have to skip 50 movies to equal the cost.
But I get a lot more out of my setup than just movies; I also watch TV shows, play games, and occasionally hook up my laptop or display photos. I used to enjoy the movie theater experience once in a while; now, I get it every day, and it’s fantastic.
Most tellingly of all, though, is my wife. She was against purchasing the projector initially, even though she had seen how great it was when we had a review unit. But when she saw me writing this article, she suggested it could be a lot shorter. She said, “just write, ‘yes, it is’ then publish.” It’s hard to argue with that.