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SI Screens Black Diamond II Projector Screen Review

By: Andrew Robinson

No, your eyes haven't deceived you (though after seeing the SI Black Diamond Screen in person, you may think they have). This is a review of a projection screen. Not a projector/screen combo, but just a screen. Why? Since becoming a front-projection video enthusiast some years ago, I have never encountered a product that has done more to bridge the gap between traditional flat-panel displays and front projection than the SI Black Diamond II Screen reviewed here. It is such an innovative and revolutionary product that, upon installing it in my own home, I had to give it the attention it deserves. What makes the SI Black Diamond II Screen so good, you ask? Read on and I'll tell you.

It's no secret that, to achieve a theater-like experience in the home, you need a big screen and, despite recent advancements in larger than life LCD and Plasma displays, the most cost-effective way to go big is through the use of a front mounted projector. Now, every front-projection enthusiast knows the Achilles heel of any projection-based system is light. Light is the enemy and unless you're willing to paint your room Batcave black or use blackout curtains on every window in your home, you're at the mercy of light.

While most screens are white or a dull shade of gray, SI Screens has taken their Black Diamond II screen material to 11 and made it just a shade or two north of absolute black. While this may seem counterintuitive, it makes a great deal of sense. Traditional screens, white or light gray, reflect a great deal of ambient light even in darkened environments, producing a washed-out image. By using a black screen material, the Black Diamond II effectively stops those reflections dead in their tracks, allowing the brightest, most direct source of light in the room, your projector's bulb and subsequent image, to get a proper footing on the surface material itself. Lately, projector manufacturers have been pumping up the lumen output of their products in an attempt to make front projection a viable viewing experience in ambient light environments. However, they're still projecting across a screen that is more or less a giant reflector for all light sources, be it the projector or outside window. You can have the brightest projector on the block, but if your screen isn't absorbing that light, you have nothing more than a fancy flashlight that you turn on during the day.

The Black Diamond II material works with any projector and features a new higher gain of 1.4, which is up from .8 with the previous Black Diamond material. The Black Diamond II screen is virtually impervious to light shift caused by changes in room lighting and/or overall room color. For example, say you calibrate your projector in a totally darkened room but, come movie time, you find yourself with a small reading light on by your viewing position. With traditional screens, depending on whether or not you use a cool or warm bulb, that small light will shift the overall color of the image, either warm or cool. With the Black Diamond II, that simply doesn't happen. It keeps your calibration and viewing experience intact, regardless of whether or not the lights are on or not. Beyond the ambient light benefits of both the higher gain and black surface material, the Black Diamond II virtually eliminates the need for expensive masking in order to preserve contrast and control light spill when watching variable aspect ratio source material. Because the Black Diamond II is essentially a black hole for light to disappear into, when presented with the absence of light, such as projected black bars, there is virtually no difference between the screen's velvet-wrapped frame and the screen material itself, making costly masking systems a bit of a waste. Allow me to get back to that point.

The Black Diamond II screen comes in a variety of sizes, starting at 80 inches diagonal to 215 inches plus. You can even get a curved screen with the Black Diamond II material for the ultimate home theater experience. The Black Diamond II material is offered as part of SI's Reference lineup of screens, with prices starting around $2,000 and up, depending on your needs. SI sent me a rather standard 80-inch diagonal 16x9 screen with a three-and-a-half-inch velvet contoured frame, which retails for $2,199. SI Screens are currently distributed worldwide by Paradigm (yes, the loudspeaker manufacturer) and their vast dealer network, so finding an SI Screen to demo or purchase shouldn't be too difficult.

The Hookup
Normally, if you were to purchase an SI screen, you'd most likely have your dealer install it for you. However, I'm going to detail the process, for it is not impossible for a DIY'er to build and mount, though I'd recommend enlisting a friend to help.

The SI screen arrived in a large tower-like box and, once unpacked, revealed two long velvet-wrapped bars and two shorter velvet-wrapped bars. The material itself is rolled around the whole package, carefully sandwiched between a layer of protective film and thin foam. Building the frame is fairly straightforward, though you'll want to insert the mounting pegs before tightening up the frame, a little point the instructions fail to mention. The Black Diamond material is not made of fabric, so there is no snap assembly here as common with other screens. The material is tension-mounted to the frame via small rubber bands looped through pre-existing holes punched through the material itself. The Black Diamond screen is fairly ridged, more or less a thin plastic composite, which can crease if not handled properly. Once the material was properly mounted to the frame, it was time to put it on my wall.

SI was kind enough to send me display legs for the screen, so I wouldn't have to mar my fabric wall for the purpose of a review. However, after one night of viewing with the screen mounted on temporary legs, I had to hang it permanently. I cut a small hole in my custom fabric wall that conceals my Meridian reference in-wall speakers and, using the supplied mount, was able to hang the screen securely with little effort. On the wall, with no image being projected, the SI Black Diamond Screen looks like a large LCD or plasma display on standby, as opposed to a large blank canvas, as with other screens. Because of its non-perforated nature, remember the screen is a solid, not a fabric, my center channel speaker had to sit out this one out, since the screen rested directly in front of it above the fabric.

Since I flush-mounted the SI screen to my wall, I was still able to utilize my long-term reference screen from Screen Research, which is a motorized drop-down perforated screen that is both THX- and ISF-certified for image and sound quality. The effect of being able to essentially A/B the two products proved most beneficial, which I'll talk about in a moment. For the duration of the review, I used both screens with Anthem's new D-ILA projector (review pending), which is essentially a re-badged JVC projector with a few added tweaks and features. From delivery to show time, the whole process, not including the night I spent deciding whether or not to permanently mount the screen, took about two hours.

Unlike other reviews involving my main theater rig, I decided to kick things off in the middle of the afternoon, with a fair amount of outside light pouring into my living room/theater. I figured that if the Black Diamond Screen was as good as SI and Paradigm said it was, then this would be the ultimate test. I started with some Discovery HD Theater viewing, beginning with the series Chasing Classic Cars (Discovery). Chasing Classic Cars is a weekly show that follows car enthusiast Wayne Carini as he tracks down some very rare vintage autos and restores them to their original glory. The episode I happened to have recorded on my DVR featured a 1969 Ferrari 365 GTC, which Carini was taking to Pebble Beach for auction. I began with my current reference screen from Screen Research down, covering the SI screen. Though the Anthem projector is bright and produces a wonderful image, in the midday sun, the image was washed out and barely visible, with the exception of the brightest, most vivid elements of the image, mainly the graphics and sky. As the show played, I retracted my Screen Research screen and, halfway up, the difference between the two screens was instantly apparent. With enough light in the room to read a book without straining, the image projected on the Black Diamond II screen was shocking and easily enjoyed. Black levels were still a bit muted and lacked ultimate detail and the same was true for lower midrange values, but overall, the result was very impressive. Brighter elements, for example, the sheet metal of the Ferrari itself, were rife with detail, complete with proper color saturation and sharpness, even with surrounding black levels being less than perfect. The grass of Pebble Beach was not only crisp and colorful, but very natural and lifelike in its presentation. Even in the presence of some pretty bright ambient light, the whole image was incredibly dimensional and possessed a clarity I'd never experienced via a projector in these conditions, short of a rear-projection set-up using Stewart Filmscreen's lust-worthy StarGlass.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "But I can watch my LCD in these types of environments, no problem." True, but turn on your LCD or plasma display and then turn all the lights on or open a window nearby. While you will still see an image, it will be washed out a bit or, worse, have massive reflections across the screen from the light sources. The slight washing-out of the image is a commonality between the Black Diamond II screen and its flat-panel counterparts. However, unlike flat-panel displays, the SI screen showcased zero reflections across the image surface. I dragged my Samsung 42-inch LCD TV down from my bedroom, placed it on a table under the Black Diamond screen and compared the two side by side. The two images were more alike in overall quality and clarity, given the conditions, than they had any right to be. However, my enjoyment of the Samsung display was greatly diminished by the presence of large reflections cast over the screen itself. Needless to say, the Samsung returned to my bedroom and I continued enjoying the Black Diamond Screen.

So, are SI's claims about the Black Diamond II screen correct? In a word, yes. You can watch and enjoy your source material via a front-projection set-up (provided your projector has a decent light output) in ambient light or midday conditions, so long as you don't expect it to be equal to its performance in darkened or dark room. Sports broadcasts, like the NBA Finals (NBC) and studio recorded sitcoms or dramas, fared best in bright conditions, though movies like The Matrix (Warner Home Video) could still be enjoyed. But I haven't even gotten to the best part yet.

With the lights off, as impressive as the Black Diamond II's ambient light performance is, nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you for what it can do when the lights go off. With the lights down, I cued up Pixar's Wall•E on Blu-ray (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) and hit play. I don't know how else to describe this, other than to say ... . The image just appeared and seemingly hovered in space 12 feet in front of me. I could see very little of my surroundings, due to the fact that the Black Diamond II screen was throwing little to nothing back at me. I mean it; I couldn't see the surrounding walls, ceiling, floor or even the frame of the SI screen itself. The image simply seemed confined by some sort of magic box that hovered in space. Now I know this may not sound like a big deal, but when I lowered my reference screen in front of the SI screen my room became illuminated and I could even read the text on the spines of some of the larger books resting on a shelf some five to six feet away. With so much light being reflected back into the room, you'd think the image was too bright, yet it wasn't. With my reference screen down, the image was not as vivid, accurate or sharp. Rolling my old screen back up, my room became dark once again and my focus returned solely to the film being projected.

Black levels, especially when Wall•E launches into space, were superb and were among the best I'd ever seen via a front-projection set-up. Color, color separation and gradation were spot-on and natural, though I'll admit animated fare excels in this arena. White values were equally impressive, possessing no bloom of any kind. Everything was very composed and tight, which lent an added sense of depth to the images that, during certain scenes, especially the wide shots back on Earth, had a three-dimensional feeling to them that is difficult to describe, other than to say the images truly seemed to go back into my wall. The effect is awesome and unlike anything I've ever seen.

Not willing to call the game at half-time, I cued up The Matrix: Revolutions (Warner Home Video) on HD DVD and chaptered ahead to the epic battle between Agent Smith and Neo. This time, I didn't bother with my reference screen. Instead, I focused all of my attention squarely on the Black Diamond II's performance. Matrix: Revolutions is presented in 2:35, or "scope," which means there are black bars on the top and bottom when projected on a 16:9 screen like the Black Diamond II. Just as Wall•E showcased earlier, the black bars on The Matrix: Revolutions were a non-issue, as the SI screen seemingly transformed from a 16:9 to a 2:35 aspect ratio surface. The black bars were undetectable from the velvet frame of the screen and, due to the fact that the Black Diamond II emits nearly zero light back into the room, the aspect ratio. Additionally, the contrast and image clarity were presented in full force.

The battle between Agent Smith and Neo takes place at night under the flashing lights of an overhead lightning storm. Beginning with the black-level performance, every detail and nuance were visible, down to the fibers that make up Neo's trademark black coat. The weave pattern was so pronounced that I could easily detect which parts of his jacket were becoming more saturated with rain than the others. Speaking of rain, the droplets in the scene were rich and rife with detail, which is hard to achieve, given their whitish/transparent nature. On the Black Diamond II screen, seemingly every droplet had character all its own. Skin tones, albeit greenish in hue due to the coloring of the film, were rich and natural. The texture presented in the mid-tones and highlights were superb and extremely lifelike. Speaking of colors, be it a punchy animated film or semi-monochromatic fare as in The Matrix, everything just leaps off the Black Diamond II screen, not in an artificial or "dynamic" setting way, but in the way a true cinematic experience should, though I'd argue that even in a public multiplex, colors have never resonated quite the way they do on the Black Diamond II screen. The three-dimensional quality I discussed earlier was present in spades during The Matrix: Revolutions demo from the contours of the actors' faces to the buildings in the furthest reaches of the image. The edge fidelity was about as good as it gets this side of 2 or 4K. The image was just so utterly brilliant and complete from top to bottom that I drifted away from taking notes and began watching the film, which is a rarity, given how many times I've seen this movie.

Wanting to ensure the Black Diamond II's performance was truly universal, I disconnected the Anthem D-ILA projector and fired up my reference Sony Pearl SXRD projector. The Pearl is not a light saber by any means as far as projectors go, but with the Black Diamond II in its light path, it didn't much matter. The image, while a tad dimmer, was just as visually engaging as with the Anthem. I'll even go so far as to say the Black Diamond II improved the overall perceived performance of my now-dated Pearl by several notches. Turning the lights on in my living room washed out the image a bit, but even with the duller Pearl in the system chain, I was still able to watch and enjoy the end of The Matrix: Revolutions.

Low Points
Okay, I love SI's Black Diamond II screen. However, I think you can tell there are a few things that I didn't like. First, the instructions are a bit vague and provide for a little bit of trial and error when setting up the screen, though I have to imagine that most Black Diamond II screens will be installed by dealers making this less of an issue. Second, because of its design, regardless of lighting conditions, the Black Diamond II screen looks best when seated on center or within 30 or so degrees of center. While you can see a rich, viewable image inside of a 150-degree arc, those sitting on the couch in front of the screen will see a better show. It's not a head-in-a-vise scenario at all, so don't think this is a screen built for one or two, but be aware that in some media room-like environments, the friend sitting in the corner may not be experiencing all that you are. Lastly, because of the material itself, you cannot get a Black Diamond II screen in an acoustically transparent model, meaning those of us with fabric walls or in-wall speakers behind the screen may have to adjust our speaker placement or have to look elsewhere for our needs. Personally, I'm moving a center channel speaker, installed in my wall, to accommodate the Black Diamond screen. That's how strongly I feel about its performance value. The material itself is not a smooth or glass-like surface. It has a texture to it that is noticeable in brilliant whites or brightly lit scenes if you're sitting too close or looking for it. I noticed it when I got up close and personal with the screen during a few of my tests. However, as soon as I took a seat in my primary position, it wasn't noticeable.

For a little over $2,000 retail for an 80-inch diagonal screen, SI Screens has seemingly done the impossible with their new Black Diamond II screen material, which bridges the gap between traditional flat-panel displays and front projection like no other. As great as their screen is, and it is great, I'll leave you with this little tidbit: a little over a year ago, I reviewed the massive 103-inch Panasonic 1080p plasma, which retailed, after installation, for a mind-boggling $100,000. That massive TV takes a 240-volt connection just to turn on, and in ambient light, it is more a mirror than a display. The next closest size, as near as I can recall, is a 75-inch display made by LG, which retails anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000, yet it too is a giant mirror in anything but a dark room. Now, consider a complete SI solution. An 80-to-100-inch Black Diamond Screen will cost you between $2,200 and $4,000 all in, and a good 1080p projector can be had for under $3,000 these days. The value that is being presented is astronomical. While anything more than a 99-cent download can be considered big money in these trying times, imagine the look on some rich guy's face when he finds out that you have all of the performance and more of his 100-inch flat panel, yet spent less than the sales tax on such a luxury item to achieve it. The SI Black Diamond II screen is an absolute revelation and a breakthrough product if I've ever seen one.
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