Screen Innovations Black Diamond .8 Gain Screen – Relief for Rooms with Ambient Light
As most enthusiasts are aware, Front Projection technology is capable of throwing great images onto very large screens, but with one Achilles Heel – Ambient Light. This light can be due to poor light control from windows and light sources around a room. Or it can be due to light scatter off of the screen itself, light that is reflected around the room and then back to the screen. Ambient light is a larger problem for front projection technologies compared to other display technologies such as flat panels, and this stems from the fact that the screen itself is highly reflective and usually white. In order to combat this problem, home theaters with front projectors tend to be dark, uninviting bat caves. These bat caves may be ideal for Videophiles looking for the ultimate image fidelity when watching a movie, but they fall short in social settings such as watching a football game with friends, where some ambient light may be desired. To this end, Screen Innovations has created a novel screen technology that relies on a light absorbent, dark, base screen material, that is covered with angular reflective material giving the screen a 0.8 gain. This novel combination of light absorption + light reflection holds promise for enthusiasts who do not want to go the bat cave route, and would like to enjoy the benefits of a large front projection screen in rooms with some ambient light. Does this promise pan out and if so, how much image quality is sacrificed in the process? Steven Zuckermann an enthusiast who is well known at AVS Forum has put the SI Black Diamond to the test, and in so doing has captured the strengths and weaknesses of this screen. He has graciously chosen to share these results on VideoVantage and he is the first person other than myself to write articles for this website. Many thanks for Steve for taking the time to research this interesting area and for providing the article below – Mark Petersen
Projecting With The Lights On – Screen Innovations Black Diamond 0.8 Gain Screen
Front Projection in the home has traditionally not been for everyone. To do it properly has been difficult. It required a dedicated space and many aesthetic sacrifices. Forget about windows. Cover your room in black velvet. Forget about turning the lights on. In short, it required a space that is not very much fun to spend time in.
These kinds of sacrifices were necessary to get the kind of picture quality that video enthusiasts would find acceptable. The achilles heel of front projection is obvious: projection screens have traditionally been white. Unfortunately for white screens, we often expect them to look black. Making something that is white look black can only be accomplished by getting rid of all the lights. In this way, our eyes cannot see the screen; or anything else for that matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I love watching movies in a dark room. In fact, I think a dark room is required to really appreciate a good movie. But, even dark rooms can present problems for white screens. If we turn out all the lights in a room, light itself has the unfortunate characteristic of scattering to places that we would rather it didn’t. Light from the projector can bounce around a room and show that there is a white screen hiding where black should be. So, sometimes it can even be hard to get convincing blacks in a dark room.
Why is black so important? One obvious reason is that we see the color black all the time. We know how black looks. So, if instead of black, we see white or a shade of grey, we know that something is wrong. Things will not look right. Also, many cinematographers use light and shadow to set the mood for a scene or to provide a sense of depth. If we can’t show black as it should be, we are missing something.
In a world of white screens comes a black screen. Screen Innovations, an Austin, Texas based screen company is selling its Black Diamond line of screens. SI is determined to bring front projection out of the Bat Cave and into your family room. The Black Diamond, now in its third generation, is available in .8 gain and 1.4 gain versions. This review looks at the .8 gain version of the Black Diamond.
It seems obvious. If you want to see black, don’t start with something that is white. The .8 Black Diamond screen is dark, almost black in color. But, it takes much more than good blacks to produce good image quality. Everything else, including all the other colors, are important too.
Screen Innovations claims that the .8 Black Diamond will improve image quality over a traditional white screen in both dark and bright environments. On its website, Screen Innovations claims:
In a dark environment standard screen scatter light onto the walls, floors, and ceilings only to be reflected back onto the screen washing out the picture. Black Diamond reduces light scatter by over 75%, increasing viewer immersion and contrast.
In a bright environment Black Diamond is the only screen that absorbs all unwanted ambient light in a room. Ambient light is absorbed above, below, and even in the path of the projector, allowing the screen to maintain and preserve the projectors contrast. Only the projectors light is reflected back into the viewers eyes creating over 300% more contrast compared to all other screens.
Based on these claims, we test the following propositions:
- 1. Light scatter is reduced in a dark room.
- 2. Ambient light is absorbed in a bright room.
- 3. Only the projector’s light is reflected back into the viewer’s eyes.
Are these claims accurate? Let’s see.
For this review, the screen was placed in my basement home theater room. This room is not bad but is not the ideal Bat Cave that many strive for. The wall behind the screen is treated with black velvet. The ceiling is white, except for the two foot area closest to the screen wall, which has also been treated with black velvet. All the other walls are white, except for the wall opposite the screen wall, which has been partially treated to reduce reflections. There are two small windows in the room which have been covered with a semi-translucent dark film. Carpeting is dark blue. Canned lights in the ceiling are the main source of light in the room.
My projector is a JVC DLA-RS20, which is rated at 900 ANSI lumens and a contrast ratio of 50,000:1. The lamp has close to 2,000 hours and is run in its normal, not high light output, mode. This is a typically bright home theater projector.
I look at this screen objectively and subjectively.
For the objective test, I look at a frame from The Dark Knight that is found at the 1:09 mark in that film in a variety of lighting conditions. A frame from this scene was chosen because it has large areas of light and large areas of dark. This kind of scene is particularly challenging. If the dark portions of the scene get washed out, we may be able to watch with ambient light present but the grey-blacks will leave us unsatisfied and the scene will not look as it was intended to look. Also, in a room like mine that is less than perfect, dark areas can get washed out because of room reflections and light scatter, even with the lights off. Plus, all this talk of Bat Caves makes this scene an appropriate one.
For the subjective portion of this review, I offer some comments about the screen based on viewing a variety of material over the course of many hours.
The Objective Test
I look at the Dark Knight scene under different lighting conditions.
I first examine the scene with the lights off. Notice the large area of bright lights in contrast to the dark walls and floor. I cannot see any washout of the dark areas due to room reflections. Light areas are appropriately light. Dark areas are appropriately dark. The Black Diamond produces great looking whites and blacks under these conditions.
.8 Black Diamond 2 – Lights Off
Let’s look at that frame with the lights on. It looks pretty much the same as with the lights off. Again, light areas are light. Dark areas are dark. This makes for a very satisfying image in a bright room.
.8 Black Diamond 2 – Lights On
How much light is present in my room with the lights on? As the next picture illustrates, there is more than enough light to read.
.8 Black Diamond 2 – Lights On
How dark is the room with the lights off? Really dark. As the next picture shows, there is very little light scattering around from those large areas of lights in the scene.
.8 Black Diamond 2 – Lights Off
. 8 Black Diamond 2 – Lights Off – Flashlight On Axis
What about unwanted light? Many rooms have windows where the sun will shine in. Can the Black Diamond help here? To approximate this, I use a Hitachi UB12D 12 volt flashlight and shine it directly on the screen from various angles.
The next picture shows the flashlight shining directly on the screen from directly behind the screen. This approximates the sun shining through a window facing the screen wall. As you can see, this situation causes some problems for the Black Diamond. Although a large part of the image holds up, I think that most people would not want to watch a movie under these conditions.
In the next picture, the flashlight is shining directly on the screen from a 22.5 degree angle. You can see that although the picture gets washed out, the image is still largely watchable. It looks almost like glare coming off a flat panel.
.8 Black Diamond 2 – Lights Off – Flashlight at 22.5 Degree Angle
In the next picture, the flashlight is shining directly on the screen from a forty-five degree angle. You can see that the washout of the image is less the greater the angle from which the light is coming. Again, this is watchable and similar to what might be found with a flat panel in a room with some sun light streaming in.
.8 Black Diamond 2 – Lights Off – Flashlight at 45 Degree Angle
So, what kind of ambient light works well for the Black Diamond? The Black Diamond is an angular reflective screen. This means that light shining on the screen will bounce off the screen at the same angle at which it hit the screen. As a rule, the screen will do better when light hits the screen from wider angles. Ceiling lights are good. Light coming from behind the screen is bad. Light coming from the sides of the screen is okay provided it strikes the screen from a wide angle.
Best and Worst Blacks
Most things that people watch will have some combination of colors, blacks and whites. But, how will fades to black look?
Here is a portion of a 0 Ire screen with the lights off:
That same 0 Ire screen with the lights on:
Although it’s difficult to capture the differences with a digital camera, that there is a difference between blacks with the lights on and off can’t be denied. But, the Black Diamond’s “lights on” black is pretty good for a worst case scenario.
Comparison With High Gain White Screen
Some have advocated an alternative approach toward dealing with ambient light: using a very high gain white screen. Here, we compare the Black Diamond to such a screen, a Dalite High Power screen, which is rated at 2.8 gain. For purposes of these comparison pictures, the Black Diamond 2 is on the top and the High Power is on the bottom.
The following picture shows both screens with the lights on. This picture demonstrates how well the Black Diamond preserves blacks. If you focus on the area in shadow in
the far end of the room, you can see how that formerly close-to-black area now becomes an unsatisfying grey.
Here is what the shadow area looks like on the High Power:
Here is what that same shadow area looks like on the Black Diamond:
As a reference, here is that same area on the Black Diamond with the lights off:
It is clear that the Black Diamond is doing a much better job of preserving blacks than the High Power white screen. With the lights on, the fact that the High Power is a white screen can not be hidden. The Black Diamond, however, appears a very dark grey, if not black.
Further, this split screen shot shows how the white screen responds to light shining directly on the screen:
The white screen is not helped much even when the light is coming off axis. The washout is evident:
One other note. My room is significantly brighter with the High Power material in place as opposed to when the Black Diamond material is in place. Light is clearly bouncing off the High Power onto the other surfaces in my room. Even treated areas get noticably lit up. With the Black Diamond in place, light scatter is significantly reduced. It is not hard to imagine that some of the light scattered by the High Power might be reflected back on the screen further increasing black levels.
Other Screen Materials
Samples of a variety of screen materials were obtained to see how they compare to the Black Diamond with the lights both on and off. This comparison is fun but it has limitations. The sample sizes are small and have been placed on top of the Black Diamond screen. As a result, this comparison cannot capture the elevation in black levels that some of these materials might introduce because of light scatter had I been able to use a full sized screen. Also, and perhaps more importantly for the kind of comparison that is attempted here, the pictures fail to capture the differences in black levels present when the room is darkened. This is a limitation of my camera or my photography skills or both. Further, my projector was calibrated for the Black Diamond. This puts the other materials at a disadvantage. The materials that were sampled are Stewart’s Studiotek 130, Ultramatte 150, Firehawk, Vutec’s Silverstar and a sample of a 1.4 Black Diamond.
Stewart Studiotek 130
Stewart Ultramatte 150
Screen Innovations – Black Diamond 1.4 Gain
Some comments on this comparison.
With the lights off, I suspect that any of these materials would produce a satisfactory viewing experience in the proper room when paired with a complementary projector and at the appropriate screen size. A lot of this is subjective. For example, we might compromise wide viewing angles for more brightness. The pictures accurately show differences in brightness among them. What these pictures fail to show is the differences in black levels. In each comparison, the .8 Black Diamond had obviously blacker blacks. In no comparison did it have the whiter whites. This is to be expected because it is a lower gain screen. Once again, because of the small sample sizes, these pictures cannot show how the brighter materials could increase light scatter washing out brighter scenes and further elevating black levels. These considerations might not be present in a properly treated room.
With the lights on, it is very clear that the .8 Black Diamond is better at preserving blacks than any of the other materials. Even though other materials are brighter, subjectively, the Black Diamond appears to preserve contrast better than the other materials. Because blacks appear black, images appear more realistic and have more depth. Many of these materials were not designed for viewing in ambient light. As such, this finding is unremarkable. The Firehawk and 1.4 Black Diamond are made for ambient light viewing. Subjectively, the 1.4 Black Diamond and Firehawk both do a good job with ambient light present. The Firehawk seems brighter and its blacks are a bit less black than the 1.4 Black Diamond.
Generally, I think that a Black Diamond is a good screen choice for you if your room is not the ideal Bat Cave and if you enjoy watching movies or T.V. with the lights on. In those cases, the Black Diamond will reduce washout in a dark room and preserve blacks in a room with light. But, the better your room and the less that you watch with the lights on, the less of a need for a Black Diamond. In the case of a well-treated Bat Cave, a low gain white screen is probably the best choice.
Other Objective Findings
A word about calibration. Every screen has its own unique color characteristics. The Black Diamond is no different. To get the most from any display, it must be calibrated. Using the DLA-RS20’s grayscale, gamma and gamut controls, I was able to accurately calibrate the image. The Black Diamond’s unique appearance was not a factor in this calibration anymore than any other screen that I have ever used. Users who do not plan on calibrating should be aware that colors, particularly whites, will be influenced by the Black Diamond’s color. This could negatively affect image quality if not corrected.
Although the Black Diamond is a .8 gain screen, its performance is achieved through techniques that are typically used on high gain screens. These techniques result in some side effects. The one that was most noticeable to me was that some brighter material revealed artifacts on the screen that presents itself as texture. This is a form of hot -spotting. This effect can sometimes also be seen on faces. It can be reduced by increasing the projector’s throw. I don’t have that luxury because my projector is placed at the shorter end of its throw ratio. Viewers who are, or may be, sensitive to this should be aware of the issue and decide whether they can live with it. Currently shipping Black Diamond material shows a marked improvement in this area over second generation material. When visible, the texture looks like a mild film grain.
A 100 IRE test pattern was used to test white field uniformity. Uniformity was very good when viewed from any of the four seats in the area across from the screen. However, the further that I moved off axis, I began to notice differences in brightness from one side of the screen to the other. This effect is typical for screens with gain. The drop off was not at levels that would interfere with watching material, if I was inclined to watch at those angles. Less than ideal projector placement will make this issue more pronounced. I believe that some people will be more sensitive to this issue than I am.
All screens that use techniques to increase gain have these limitations, to one extent or another. These issues may make some people rule out using a screen with gain. It is all about the compromises that one is prepared to live with. To me, these compromises are acceptable and more than justified by the positive attributes of the Black Diamond.
I was impressed by the performance of the Black Diamond 2 with the room lights on and off.
Overall brightness of the screen fired by my JVC DLS-RS20 was acceptable under either condition. With this class of projector, I would probably go no larger than a screen size of 100”. This size limitation may be an issue for some people who want very large screens.
The thing I liked best was the way it displays mixed light and dark content. Areas of white against areas of black showed high levels of contrast that produce a very pleasing image “pop.” This effect is particularly apparent with the lights off. The brightness of whites when contrasted with the blackness of blacks, all in the same image and at the same time, was at times simply amazing.
Another thing I liked was how little effect raising room lighting has on the image. Raising the amount of light to a level where I could read comfortably did not appear to materially affect the image. Blacks remained black, but just a bit lighter. Whites remained white.
This screen does “black” so well that many people will not feel the need to use a masking system for the bars above and below 2.35:1 material. I could make out the black bars most of the time but I don’t think I’d go to the trouble of masking them because they were satisfactorily dark for my taste. At other times, the image appeared to be floating in air and the bars were invisible.
On the other hand, screen texture was noticeable from time to time. Most screens with gain suffer from this issue to some extent. I believe that most people would accept visible texture from time to time as a trade-off for the other qualities of the screen. However, many people would find this characteristic distracting.
Build quality is very good. The extruded aluminum frame is high quality and sturdy. It is covered with microfiber, not black velvet. Black velvet would probably be blacker. I liked the microfiber. The screen material is a semi-rigid surface that is almost, but not quite, black in color. It seems more durable than other screen materials but I would not risk doing anything to it to test this proposition.
How does the Black Diamond perform when judged against Screen Innovation’s claims?
Screen Innovations is right to claim that light scatter is reduced. My room remains consistently darker than it had been with the High Power material in place. As the pictures in this review reveal, blacks are preserved in a variety of lighting conditions.
Screen Innovations is also right to claim that ambient light is absorbed. The screen surface is very dark. It is clear that this dark surface is absorbing room light. Raising the level of light in the room dramatically only slightly affects the intensity of black.
Screen innovations is wrong to claim that the Black Diamond only reflects light from the projector. The pictures in this review show light from a flashlight projected back toward the viewer. In truth, it appears that the lower the angle to the screen from which the light originates, the more light is visible to the viewer. Conversely, the greater the angle, the less light is projected back to the viewer.
It is true that a Black Diamond will perform much better than a typical white screen in a room with even a surprising amount of ambient light. But, it should be cautioned that one must not ignore light, especially the light of the sun, even with a Black Diamond. If placed in a room with lots of light coming from the area across from the screen, one is surely to be disappointed. Even if light is coming from other locations, if bright enough and if originating at an unfortunate angle, it will impact the image. But, this screen, combined with due attention to other light control measures such as drapes (or other window treatments) and the placement of room lamps and other light sources, will make a very satisfying front projection experience available in many rooms in which it was formerly impossible with a traditional white or grey screen. It is also important to remember that the Black Diamond’s excellent ambient light and light rejection characteristics do not come free of charge. Like most other screens with gain, the Black Diamond suffers from a limited viewing angle and sometimes visible screen texture. You can not determine how much either of these things will bother you so see it for yourself before you buy.
I highly recommend the Black Diamond for people who want: (1) to obtain the best possible picture quality in an untreated dark room; or (2) to watch a large screen in a family room with the lights on and understand that they may need to treat their windows or move around some lights.
Further information on the Black Diamond can be found at www.screeninnovations.com.