Ah, summer movies. Some years it's capes. Some years it's cars. Some years it's both. The problem is to see that blockbuster movie, you have to go to the not-so-blockbuster movie theater.

Most theaters have all the charm of suburban shopping malls -- probably because they are in suburban shopping malls.

Chain owners like

Regal Entertainment Group

(RGC)

and

Carmike Cinemas

(CKEC)

seem to enjoy making their properties sterile and dirty. What's worse, the movies they show almost always look awful. Prints are scratched. Audio is barely tolerable. Colors aren't balanced. All this for $9.50. Ick.

The bizarre part is while commercial cinema is crashing, home cinema is soaring.

Home theaters used to be the purview of the super rich; the equipment cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and was impossible to install without professional technicians and their astronomical fees.

No more. Prices for home-theater equipment are creeping down from ridiculous toward possible. They're a viable alternative to flat-screen displays. And home-cinema gear is technically simple enough now for many people to install, though professional installation is usually the better choice.

In search of the best projector (intrepid gadget reporter that I am), I decided to safari to three dealers in the New York area. Never mind that moving me usually involves fleets of cars, planes and plenty of professional staff, for this, I armed myself with nothing more than a Google Earth printout and a bottle of water. No supplemental oxygen. No global positioning system. This was going to be dangerous.

First of all, you should be aware that there are three letters to know in home projectors: DLP, which stands for digital light processor. DLPs are proprietary chips from

Texas Instruments

(TXN) - Get Report

. DLP chips are probably the most popular home-projection system.

There are two major types of projectors: one chip and three chip. Single-chip projectors use one light-emitting chip to produce images; a color wheel spins in front of the chip to divide the light into a rainbow of hues -- one chip, many colors.

With three-chip projectors, there's one chip each dedicated to greens, blues and reds. The result is a cleaner image with deeper black and more "pop" -- street slang for lifelike imagery.

The Goods

First stop: the beach town of Babylon, N.Y., and Island Hi-Fi, a high-end audio shop nestled between Domino's Pizza and Blimpie's sub shop.

There I saw first the

Vidikron Model 50. This one-chip projector, ringing in at $10,000, has the clarity in blacks and contrast to rival three-chip units, but at a lower price.

I threw

I Robot

up on a 110-inch diagonal screen. The blacks were black, rich with detail even in heavy shadow. The whites were balanced and did not glare. Better yet, the picture was smooth.

Next I took a look at the

Sim2 C3X at $17,000, a true three-chip projector from the storied Italian projector maker. Sim2 uses all its own optics and most of its own electronics. This little projector, about the size of a Webster's Collegiate, 11th edition, threw an image that rivaled commercial-theater quality, albeit on a smaller screen.

Blacks and whites were dead-on, and I was particularly impressed with the filmlike quality of the images. With just a little bit of imagination, I could fool myself into believing I was watching an old-school Kodak-release print.

My next stop (after learning the hard way that there's a big difference between Wantagh Avenue and the Wantagh Expressway) was AVAD in Old Westbury, N.Y., a regional wholesale distribution center that provides televisions and projectors to more than 1,000 retailers.

I saw a just-for-me demonstration of the single-chip InFocus 777 system on a good size 133-inch screen.

The $14,000 InFocus is billed as one of the brightest projectors on the market. That's probably true. The 777 pumped out Mission Impossible 2 with gusto. There was plenty of color and contrast. It even felt cramped on the nearly 11-foot screen.

But the brightness came at a cost: image quality. Particularly during high-motion action sequences, the richness was compromised. I could sense the electronic gyrations going on deep inside the box. For a single-chip unit, the 777 was impressive. But like an overdone Spanish Rioja, the InFocus had almost too much punch.

So, it was back on the road for big traffic and a big wait. It took me two hours and three minutes to go 35.7 miles. At last, I arrived in Paramus, N.J., where I visited Electronics Expo and bagged my next quarry, the

Optoma HD 72, a single-chip projector listed at a mere $1,995.

The Optoma has gotten a lot of buzz because it provides excellent clarity and richness for such a small projector. That's true. It does. And if I were going small-screen, say throwing a 65-inch image of

Babe

up in my guest room wall to have some fun with the kids, the Optoma would be a nice choice.

But let's be real. Press clippings aside, this is no top-line projector. Even factoring in the price, I was nowhere close to dazzled. Noise was high. Blacks were muddy and the images were flat.

For the money-is-no-object tech snob -- that's me -- the choice is clear: the Sim2. Small, sleek and lovely in form and function, this Italian job is my pick. Never mind the 17 grand.

Take a projector safari of your own. See for yourself that legitimate home theater there for you now. The movies in your home can be better than the movies at the movies.

Now that's a real summer blockbuster.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.