Have you noticed that, after living in isolation for a year, the things you miss from pre-pandemic life have become weirdly specific? When this all started, I missed the overall experience of going to the movies. And while I’m still dying to be inside a damn auditorium again—even the lousiest, stickiest multiplex will do—it’s the little things that I fantasize about now. The overpriced Raisinets. The jolt of adrenaline as I pat down all my pockets searching for my ticket stubs. And remember those little Coca Cola guys that goof around onscreen before the screening starts? I’d give anything to have them back in my life!
Well, not anything. Theaters are about to open up again in New York, but I don’t think I’ll be attending any screenings of Raya and the Last Dragon until most of us are vaccinated. (I love movies, but not enough to risk catching or transmitting one of these horrifying new Covid variants.)
Nevertheless, I decided I simply had to have the theatrical experience in my life again. And though money is tight, I’m lucky enough to be employed with a stable income. If you’re looking for a safe way to go to the movies, and you’ve been considering dropping your entire savings on one of those $ 10k laser hyper-premium projectors, please, consider this budget home theater setup. At prices as of this writing, it cost me less than $ 1,000, and it’s big (and loud) enough for all the Coca Cola pre-show robots of my pre-Covid dreams. The movies look pretty damn good, too.
The Projector Screen
$ 80 including hangers
My journey to build a budget movie theater in my bedroom began when I realized that, really, there was no spot in my room for a TV. I think a lot of apartment-dwellers encounter this problem. We tried hanging a flatscreen from the wall on an angled mount, but it made laying beneath it feel like being in a hospital bed. All the while, there was a huge, 80-inch expanse of ceiling in front of our closet—the perfect space to mount a projector screen. I figured, if I could work up the courage to bash some holes into my ceiling and hang something, I ought to start with the screen. At least, if I fucked up, the thing wouldn’t come crashing down onto our heads.
And bash some holes in my ceiling, I absolutely did! I ordered this 80-inch pull down screen (you know, the kind your middle school teacher used in computer class), for only $ 72 on Amazon. After inhaling my first (but certainly not last!) mouthful of drywall, I learned that I needed something called toggle bolts to get the Amazon Basics screen hanging securely. Two trips to the hardware store later, and a near-fatal accident that involved a wobbly footstool and the edge of my girlfriend’s vanity, I had this beautiful screen mounted to the ceiling…on a totally glaring slant. It took me a bit to get it straight. Be sure to get a second pair of eyes when you try to set this up yourself (and for the love of god, measure it out first).
$ 708 including mount
With the screen lined up across from the bed, and my newfound mastery of ceiling-excavation, I was ready for the toughest—and most expensive—part of the home theater installation: finding a budget projector that doesn’t suck. I spent weeks scouring the web for every projector review published within the past few years (remember, this was in the frozen winter, when daily life felt like a prolonged Shining reenactment). The verdict? There are a lot of cheap projectors out there. Even more super-expensive ones. Film nerds will tell you that it’s pointless to invest in an HD projector or TV when 4K (and 8K, and 12K, and probably 8-hundred-million-K) are racing to become the consumer norm. But I already have a student loan payment, and I’m not trying to project life-sized spaceships onto the side of a building in broad daylight. My bedroom is tiny. There must, I thought, be a well-reviewed projector that can get the job done for around $ 500.
To my surprise, the Optoma HD28HDR is more than an adequate solution. The 2020 unit, which supports a 4K input (but doesn’t project a resolution bigger than 1080p) clocks in at $ 649. Sure, this is easily double the price of some 4K flatscreen TVs. But, you’re not going to get a television that’s 80 inches (or, hell, 300 inches!) for less than $ 1,000. The lamp can be a little loud, the speakers are dinky, and it’s not as user friendly as, say, an Android TV that boots up with all the apps you need right out of the box, but, connected to an Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku (more on that next), the HD28HDR is a totally capable home projector. The picture is bright and clear, and with its 120Hz refresh rate, it’s even fast enough for gaming. Bowser never looked so beautiful.
Getting it into the ceiling, of course, is the fun part; you’ll have to mount it up there and try not to shove your forehead through the drywall in a rage when the angle of the lens doesn’t line up with your screen perfectly. Drop a note in the comments if you’d like for me to recommend some breathing techniques. If you go with the HD28HDR, try this Optoma universal mount for $ 59. It seems there are a lot of options for projector mounts, just don’t get your hopes up on the actual installation process being smooth. Anybody know the best way to patch up a half dozen holes in a drywall ceiling?
The Media Player—and Sound System
As I said before, the Optoma projector doesn’t exactly have cinema-quality speakers. So, I considered my options. I could have gone full Bluetooth and purchased a wireless speaker that could hook up with, say, an Amazon Fire Stick. But who wants to go through all that trouble every time you turn on the TV? Another option was to get something like a Roku, and then hardwire speakers and a subwoofer in my room the old-fashioned way, running cords down the wall and all around the room. That, too, sounded like a total pain.
Thankfully, I discovered the mouth-wateringly simple Roku Streambar system. I’m a bit surprised these types of products aren’t more popular. Here’s how it works: The unit looks like a soundbar, and is one, but your projector (or TV) interprets it as a Roku stick as well. That means, when you hook it up to your HDMI port and flip onto the input channel, you’ll get a Roku media interface on your screen. But the Streambar will output all of the audio. Not perfect, movie theater audio. But, audio that sounds a hell of a lot better than what you probably have on your TV (and definitely what’s coming out of those clunky projector speakers).
Better yet, if you have a little extra cash (and you want to get some revenge on your neighbors for all their middle-of-the-night clogging rehearsals), you can also add a wireless subwoofer to the mix and a pair of wireless speakers for a grand total of $ 430 (Streambar included!). Even without the sub and the speakers, the Streambar comes in loud and clear, and saves you the trouble of tunneling through your walls and getting trapped in a tangle of speaker wire like that computer monster in the end of Superman III.
Other Equipment You’ll Need
Depending on the size of your room, you’re probably going to want at least a 25-foot HDMI cord to get from the projector to the soundbar. (I sat mine inconspicuously on a storage chest directly in front of our bed.) I’m sure you have a ball of extension cords laying around somewhere, so I won’t list those, but definitely plan on using them. For all the wires you’re going to hammer into the walls, I’d also recommend a cable concealer cover set. And if you really want to make things easy, pick yourself up an HDMI switcher so you can connect more than one input source without having to climb up to the ceiling and wreck your projector’s alignment. Keep in mind, this Optoma HD28HDR does not have ARC support on its HDMI port, which won’t affect the Roku Streambar situation, but for the experts out there, check out this forum for other audio output solutions.
The Grand Total
I am happy to say that, although I may not set foot in a movie theater for weeks, months, or god help us, years to come, I can watch my Coca Cola robots anytime I want. The floors may not be illuminated with LEDs (I’m working on that), the screen may only be a fraction of the size of my long-lost IMAX theater, but with all lights off and a little homemade popcorn in my lap, it almost feels like the real thing.
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I’ve spent shamefully indulgent portions of my days flat on my back, gazing up at the gigantic screen that quite literally encompasses the entire length of my bedroom wall. When it’s safe to go to the movies again, I’ll be first in line. But until then, I’m going to rest in the blissful knowledge that I own the only movie theater in town where my cat is permitted—even encouraged—to sit at the foot of the bed and keep my feet warm. For under a thousands bucks, that’s well worth the price of admission.
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