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IMAX vs. XD: Full Comparison and What’s the Better Theater Experience?

IMAX vs XD featured image

IMAX vs. XD: Full Comparison and What’s the Better Theater Experience?

When it comes to the latest blockbuster releases, large format screens are definitely the way to go. From America’s most populous cities on either coast to small towns throughout the Midwest, theater chains and the IMAX Corporation boast a unique range of large-format options to choose from. Two of the most popular competitors in this particular space? IMAX vs. XD. The former is the flagship offering of there IMAX Corporation. The latter is a large-format rival from mega chain Cinemark Theatres. However, which of these two formats ultimately makes for best movie-going experience? Let’s compare.

IMAX vs. XD: Side-By-Side Comparison

IMAXXD
First Introduced19672009
Developed ByThe IMAX CorporationCinemark Theatres
Screen SizeApprox. 72 feet tall and 50 feet wideApprox. 70 feet tall and 133 feet wide
Aspect Ratio1.43:1 or 1.90:1 recommended 2.20:1 or 1.85:1 recommended
Number of Screens in U.S.362 screens168 screens
Global Territories Served80 countries across Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and AustraliaNorth, South, and Central Americas
Average Ticket Price35% more expensive than standard format35% more expensive than standard format
Supported ChainsAMC, Marcus, Regal, B&B, Cinemark, and moreExclusive to Cinemark

5 Must-Know Facts About Large Format Films

  1. Of all the large formats out there on the market today, IMAX remains the most instantly recognizable. However, they’re far from alone in the industry. Some of the IMAX Corporation’s closest competitors include Cinemark XD, Regal RPX, Marcus UltraScreen DLX, and Dolby Cinemas.
  2. There’s actually a large screen format even bigger than IMAX. It’s called OMNIMAX, and it also happens to come from the IMAX Corporation. Towering over five stories tall and featuring a curved dome projection, OMNIMAX theaters increase the size of an IMAX projection to create a near-panoramic viewing experience. There are only a spattering of OMNIMAX screens throughout the U.S.
  3. IMAX has run into some trouble as of late, ever since the discovery of so-called “LieMAX” screens. Instead of offering true IMAX presentations, these “LieMAX” theaters advertise themselves as IMAX but actually fall short of the company’s quality standards in projection, sound, screen size, or other key factors that doesn’t properly align with IMAX’s strict parameters.
  4. Early large format films failed to take off as successfully as IMAX later would because of the sheer amount of technical specs that had to go into the filmmaking and subsequent projection process. From CinemaScope to VistaVision, filmmakers would have to use special film formats during the filmmaking process, then hope that theaters would adopt special projection technology to show the films.
  5. Upcoming IMAX releases include John Wick: Chapter 4, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Cinemark XD is expected to play these same films, but not in true IMAX format.
Movie theater seating
XD is a large-format screen option that is exclusive to the Cinemark movie chain.

IMAX vs. XD: Key Differences

While the above comparison of specs is certainly important to the IMAX vs. XD debate, there’s more to this showdown than just these basic stats. What really helps highlight which moviegoing experience is better? An analysis of the key differences that exist between these two large format options. How do their screen sizes compare? What about their sound systems? Plus how does the price of ticket compare from one format to the next? Not to mention the kind of availability IMAX vs. XD have to offer. Let’s weigh these key considerations at length below.

Screen Size

Firstly, size. Of all the key differences to consider between IMAX vs. XD large format projections, screen size is probably the trickiest of the bunch. You see, IMAX is known for its massive height compared to its width. Cinemark’s XD screen, by comparison, is better known for its massive wall-to-wall width over its height. Whether you prefer a higher projection or a wider projection is up to you. However, aesthetically speaking, Cinemark XD screens end up looking bigger than IMAX screens because of that increased width over height.

Surround Sound System

Secondly, sound. Movie-going is about more than just picture quality, of course. Incredible surround sound is the other half of the equation. In truth, great sound matters just as much as great visuals. So, how do IMAX vs. XD compare in this regard? IMAX utilizes DTS:X audio technology, a close rival to Dolby Atmos sound that delivers similar object-based 3D sound quality. Cinemark XD’s surround sound quality is slightly less exceptional. They utilize 11.1 multi-channel surround systems, which still sound excellent, but do not reach the heights (no pun intended) of DTS:X 3D sound.

Ticket Price

Thirdly, we should consider price. Rising ticket costs are frequently cited as one of the most pressing factors keeping people from going to the movies as often as they’d like. For this reason, it’s important to note that both IMAX vs. XD large format presentations cost around 35% more than the standard general admission price. However, Cinemark tends to be one of the most affordable theater chains in the nation. If you’re attending an IMAX showing at a Regal or AMC, it might not be as affordable as seeing a film at Cinemark. This is definitely an advantage for Cinemark.

ScreenX vs IMAX
The IMAX film standard uses 70 mm film run through the projector horizontally.

Screen Availability

Lastly, what does screen availability look like between IMAX vs. XD? After all, what good is a winning format if you don’t have any screens near you that offer the format in the first place? With this in mind, IMAX has far more screens nationwide than Cinemark XD does. While Cinemark might have more locations overall, the number of XD screens compared to their number of standard format screens is notably less. In the end, IMAX has nearly double the number of screens in America in comparison to Cinemark XD. (That’s over 360 for IMAX, but less than 170 for Cinemark XD.)

The History of IMAX

IMAX predates Cinemark’s XD screen technology by more than four decades. (Clearly, they’re the contender with seniority in this IMAX vs. XD debate.) Dating all the way back to the mid to late 1960s, IMAX’s one-of-a-kind display technology was discovered quite by accident. Four business associates — Roman Kroitor, Graeme Ferguson, William C. Shaw, and Robert Kerr — were tooling around with a 70mm film projector when they realized the already enormous projection format could be tripled in size if a projectionist fed the film through the projector horizontally instead of the proper vertical way. 

This remarkably simple move would prove to be tremendously lucrative for the four of them — not to mention the IMAX Corporation they founded together. By merely re-orienting the reel of film, the quartet had increased the size of a 70mm film projection by nearly three and a half times. (Compared to a 35mm film projection, 70mm was already bigger when projected vertically. Now, with this IMAX formatting, it could appear eight times larger than that.) Other large formats had come and gone before IMAX — CinemaScope, VistaVision, and many others — but IMAX was here to stay.

For the next four decades, IMAX remained loyal to celluloid over the rising popularity of digital projection. But, by the time the late 2000s rolled around, it became unavoidable: digital was going to surpass film, and IMAX needed to adapt. While hesitant at first, it was a move that proved incredibly successful for them. By embracing digital projection, IMAX was able to increase their global screens from under 300 to over 1,000 in under 10 years. Today, there are over 1,700 IMAX screens globally. As we’ve learned, Cinemark’s XD screens can’t even come close to that number.

imax 3d vs reald 3d
There are over 1,700 IMAX screens in over 80 countries across the globe.

How XD Compares

As the story of all great businesses begins, Cinemark did not begin as the company we know it as today. In fact, its beginnings were charmingly humble. Back in the 1960s, two brothers Lee Roy and J.C. Mitchell — opened up the very first Mitchell Theatres location in Waco, Texas. It was a good old fashioned drive-in, and it was hugely popular in the area. (Apparently, large format screens have been intrinsic to the company since the start.) Soon, Mitchell Theatres grew to a state-wide operation. By the late 1970s, the newly renamed Cinemark Theatres had 25 locations across the Southwest.

Over the course of the next few decades, Cinemark grew from a regional chain to a reputable brand name throughout North, Central, and South America. With locations stretching as far into the Northeast as New Hampshire and as far south as Argentina, the chain stands as one of the most powerful and sizable names in the theatrical industry today. They also have several chains under their umbrella, including Tinseltown, Rave Cinemas, and Western America’s Century Theatres. Theirs is a grand total of more than 520 locations with nearly 6,000 screens in all.

Their first large-format XD screen emerged in 2009 — which, as you’ll remember, was precisely around the time IMAX embraced digital projection and rapidly began to expand globally. Short for “Extreme Digital Cinema,” the goal of Cinemark XD screens was to give IMAX a run for its money by establishing dominance in areas where IMAX had yet to expand. Its enormous wall-to-wall screen also appears larger than an IMAX screen, even if the exact specifics of their sizing can get tricky. Regardless of who’s actually bigger, the XD screen appears bigger. That’s what matters.

IMAX vs. XD: Pros and Cons

Pros of IMAXCons of IMAX
Larger than normal screenIMAX films cost more to see than standard films
Films shot with special IMAX camerasMovies don’t show in IMAX for long
Available in 2D and 3D with digital projectionSome IMAX screens are fake “LieMAX” screens
More IMAX screens than Cinemark XD screensIMAX 3D is not the most popular 3D format
Pros of XDCons of XD
Screen appears larger than IMAXLess XD screens than IMAX screens
Ticket price is not much more expensiveSurround sound is not as impressive as IMAX’s
Many more films play in XD than IMAXScreens are shorter than IMAX’s
No need for special certifications or filmingNot as iconic a brand name as IMAX

Can IMAX and XD Cause Headaches and Motion Sickness?

In a word: yes. Both IMAX and XD theaters can cause headaches and other symptoms such as motion sickness due to their large screens and loud sounds. The immersive experience can also contribute to motion sickness in some people. If you’re prone to headaches or motion sickness, you may want to avoid IMAX and XD theaters. If you’re not prone to these issues, you should be able to enjoy the experience without any problems.

Some tips to help prevent headaches and other symptoms when watching movies in IMAX or XD theaters include:

  • Taking a break every 20 to 30 minutes to avoid getting dizzy or lightheaded
  • Avoid sitting in the front row. The closer you are to the screen, the more likely you are to experience motion sickness or headaches.
  • Close your eyes during loud scenes to reduce stimulation and prevent headaches.
  • Bring earplugs or headphones to reduce the sound level and prevent hearing damage.

IMAX vs. XD: Which Is Better?

So, which large format screen is truly the best? IMAX vs. XD? It’s a close call, as we’ve seen time and time again throughout this piece. Every time it seems one format takes the lead, the other comes in with another great advantage in its favor. All in all, it comes down to those key comparisons we discussed above: screen size, sound quality, ticket price, and availability. When you look at the big picture (literally), IMAX comes out ahead of XD. It has the taller screen, the better sound, and more widespread availability overall.

IMAX vs XD infographic

Frequently Asked Questions

How many IMAX screens are there?

To date, IMAX has over 1,700 screens throughout more than 80 countries globally. More than 360 of those screens are located here in the United States.

How many Cinemark XD screens are there?

As of this writing, Cinemark has 168 XD screens throughout the United States. Overall, they have nearly 6,000 screens throughout the world. However, only a fraction of these are XD large format screens.

Is Cinemark XD the same as IMAX?

IMAX screens are taller than Cinemark XD screens, but not nearly as wide. Conversely, Cinemark XD screens are not as tall as IMAX screens and do not have the same sound quality or projection standards.

Is Cinemark XD better than IMAX?

Cinemark XD definitely has its fans, especially for its affordable ticket pricing and its enormous wall-to-wall screen, but IMAX remains the most recognizable large format brand in the theatrical industry. For this reason, let’s say it’s simply comparable to IMAX — not exactly better, but not exactly worse, either.

Can Cinemark XD screens show 3D movies?

Like IMAX, Cinemark XD screens are capable of showing movies in both 2D and 3D. Be warned, however, that Cinemark XD 3D movies will cost more because of the additional fees traditionally associated with 3D movies.

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