HDTV Screens – It’s All Relative

by | Sep 23, 2014

Samsung TV

The question comes up when standing in front of the huge wall of flat HDTV screens at a retail establishment. How big of a TV should you buy? The answer came to me by way of another question. What frame of reference do people have in common, when talking about screen size? The answer is: movie theater screens.

How does the size of a movie theater screen relate to the size of a TV screen? Perspective. The farther away from something you are, the smaller it appears to be. When you go to the movie theater, you sit a lot farther away from the screen than you do in your living room. The screen in a theater is also a lot larger than the screen of the TV in your home. So, if you sit eight feet away from a 60-inch diagonal TV screen in your home, how far from the 38-foot wide screen in a movie theater would you have to sit to have the images appear to be approximately the same size?

This is a relatively simple question. The answer, as is so often the case with simple questions, is anything but simple, and will take a little background to properly understand.

The 16:9 screen ratio of HDTV’s came about as a compromise between the 4:3 ratio of tube televisions and the ratio(s) of widescreen movies.

HDTV Screens Aspect ratio

The International standard for high definition TV’s is a 16:9 ratio. This means that the screen is 16 units wide by 9 units high. This is a standard that all TV stations and TV manufacturers have agreed to use. This aspect ratio is also the same with your tablet and HD computer screens. 16:9 can also be re-written as 1.78:1 which will make more sense when I address wide screen movie aspect ratios.

The marketing departments of the TV manufacturers know that bigger is better. That is why they decided to sell a TV’s diagonal measurement of the screen. Would you rather have a 60-inch diagonal screen or a 52-inch wide screen? Turns out they are different measurements for the same screen size. The perceived value, however, is greater for a 60-inch diagonal screen. Those marketing folks are smart that way!

If you want to see how your screen measures up, check out the chart that I found on the AVS Forums website by clicking here.

American Motion Picture Aspect Ratio

Now, just to confuse you, the American Motion Picture Industry uses a couple of different ratios for movies: “Flat” which is a 1.85:1 ratio and “Scope” which is a 2.39:1 ratio. If your DVD player is set to play back movies in their native format, you may notice black bars at the top and bottom of your HDTV. Those black bars represent the difference between the HDTV ratio and the movie’s ratio. If you look closely, the thickness of those bars will tell you which ratio the film is presented in. Very thin bars indicate “Flat”, thicker bars indicate “Scope”.

Common ground

If a movie that you see in a theater is presented on your HDTV with bars at the top and bottom of the screen, the common dimension for comparing the two experiences becomes the width of the screen. You may have noticed when the previews end and the main feature starts at a theater, curtains move in or out at the edges of the screen. This adjustment to the viewing size of the screen is for either the flat or ‘scope’ ratio that the feature is presented. On the charts below, when comparing the viewing distances from various size HDTV’s and theater screens, I used the ‘scope’ width for the theater screen.

Did I say large? I should have said HUGE. The last row of seats is a full 100 feet from the screen! That is twice the size of the multiplex theaters!

The Theater

For the movie screen comparison used on the first chart below I took measurements at a local movie theater. Chabot Theater in Castro Valley, CA has everything I enjoy in a movie going experience. It has old school Art Deco neon tubes decorating the front façade and marquee. The screen is larger than the screens you will find at the multiplex theaters (excepting IMAX). The large theater even has a balcony that runs from the central aisle back to the projection booth. Did I say large? I should have said HUGE. The last row of seats is a full 100 feet from the screen! That is twice the size of the multiplex theaters! Even though the building is old school, the projector and sound system is state of the art. The theater has undergone a full digital renovation and delivers with the best of them. The cherry on top, for me, is that the theater is five minutes from my house. This is everything a theater experience should be!

The only disadvantage of this theater is that there is only a single screen. The movie that I want to see isn’t always playing at this theater. This means I will frequently go to the multiplex theater for my movie fix. More on this later.

Data

The center field of the chart below shows the distance you would need to sit from a theater screen that is 38 feet wide to have the same viewing experience as viewing the HDTV screen sizes (along the top of the chart) from the distances given along the left side of the chart. For example, if you have a 60-inch HDTV (diagonal) and your couch is eight feet away from the TV, that would be the same as sitting 70 feet away from the 38 foot wide screen at Chabot Theater. That is the front row in the balcony section. Cool, right?

HDTV screens Relative Distance Table 1

The green shaded areas on the chart above represent the distance from the screen for seats that are three rows in front of the aisle back to the first two rows on the balcony. This is where I like to sit when I see a movie at this theater. Now, I will be the first to admit that the optimum viewing distances represented by the shaded areas above are subjective. I want to be clear; this is where I like to sit. You may prefer a seat closer to or farther from the screen than I do.

The distances that are boxed, represent the equivalent distance that THX would recommend for an optimum viewing experience according to the guidelines on their website.

Multiplex theaters with stadium seating

As I mentioned above, I frequently go to local multiplex theaters to enjoy movies. The following chart works exactly the same way as the one above except that it is for a screen that is 33 feet wide (scope). This screen size is what you would find at a typical multiplex theater. Please note that while the screen is narrower, the stadium layout of the theater means that you are much closer to the screen than the Chabot Theater described above. The “sweet spot” for me in the multiplex theaters is the second row of the stadium seating right behind the handicapped spaces. This allows me to put my feet up on the bars and usually means no one will be in front of me. This “sweet spot” plus two rows back (if I am late to the show and the seats I prefer are taken) is represented by the green shaded boxes on the chart. The following chart is likely more relevant to the majority of readers.

HDTV Screens Relative Distance Table 2

You will notice that the “sweet spot” distance from your TV at home is much closer if you use this second chart. The data on this chart indicates that to have the same viewing experience as the multiplex you would have to sit only 5-6 feet from a 60-inch HDTV.

As on the first chart, the distances that are boxed, represent the equivalent distance that THX would recommend for an optimum viewing experience according to the guidelines on their website.

Conclusion

While this article started out as an experiment to find common ground when recommending the size of a flat screen TV to buy, the process brought into focus the true differences between the theater experience and viewing at home. The 16:9 screen ratio of HDTV’s came about as a compromise between the 4:3 ratio of tube televisions and the ratio(s) of widescreen movies. As with any compromise, something is lost when compared to a single purpose design. Today’s home theater systems deliver incredible visual and auditory performances that were unheard of even 10 years ago. Most systems, however, pale in comparison to the scope and scale of the theater experience at a large screen venue. A 38 foot wide screen and sound that you feel are hard to duplicate even with dedicated home theater rooms. This is the main reason I go to the theater to see movies and why theaters will continue to draw audiences.


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About Brian Hill
Brian Hill is a home theater enthusiast who has an extensive background in sales. His interests include music & movies, F1 & NASCAR auto racing, hot rods (he has a '56 Nomad) and hockey — Go Sharks!
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