Setting Up a Home Theater
The room, the gear, the installation — here's what you need to know
There are no hard-and-fast rules for what turns a room with a TV into a full-fledged "home theater." At the very least it's a bigger, better picture with bigger, better sound. But it isn't just electronics junkies and lottery winners who are going in for home theater systems. Families who want a more engaging cinema experience — minus the overpriced popcorn — are upgrading as well, thanks to affordable options for nearly every budget.
To set up a home theater in your house, you'll first need to prepare a room, whether it's the basement, the attic, or the bedroom of a college-bound son or daughter. Then you'll need to acquire the necessary components: TV, receiver, DVD player, speakers. Finally, you'll have to put it all together. Throughout the process, remember that in the end what's important is not snazzy new technology or killer specs but how comfortable and enjoyable your home theater is. And whether there are enough Milk Duds.
Step 1: Preparing the Room
Without a properly outfitted room, even top-of-the-line home theater equipment will be lackluster. For those with a million-dollar budget, this means thick concrete walls with no windows, solid-core doors with yards of weatherstripping, and sound-absorbing baffles on the walls and ceiling. But for the rest of us who just want to retrofit a corner of the basement or the kids' room, there are some simple things that can be done to improve any space's acoustics and lighting.
Start with a rectangular room with as few doors and windows as possible. Open floor plans and vaulted ceilings make it more difficult to keep the sound effects in and the barking of the neighbor's dog out. If the room is oddly shaped, map out a rectangular (or at least symmetrical) space within it to treat as the home theater.
Next, cover the floors. Bare concrete, wood, and tile reflect sound waves, which can muddy a movie's dialogue and make the sound effects harsh. Try adding carpeting or an area rug and outfitting the room with upholstered furniture to help absorb errant sound waves. The same goes for walls and windows — a painting, bookshelf, or drapes placed at the sides of the room will absorb unwanted noise. Thick curtains over windows are doubly smart because you also want your home theater to be dark — too much light increases screen glare and reduces contrast. Keep in mind, however, that staring at a brightly lit screen in an otherwise dark room will eventually strain your eyes. Installing dimmer switches on lighting fixtures will help you find the happy medium.
Step 1: Selecting the Components
There are two things to pay attention to when buying a television: shape and size. To watch movies in their original widescreen format, you'll need a TV with a rectangularly shaped 16:9 aspect ratio rather than the traditional, squarish 4:3. Sizewise, go for the largest screen you can afford; 27 inches is probably the bare minimum. For optimal viewing, the distance between the viewer and the screen should equal about three times the screen size. So a 40-inch TV is best viewed from a distance of 10 feet (120 inches). Figure out where the television and seating will be located and calculate screen size accordingly. And remember: Whatever TV you choose, measure it to make sure it will fit through the door.
Cathode-ray tube. Surprisingly, old-fashioned CRT sets have among the sharpest pictures — and often the lowest prices ($500-$2,500). Newer flat-screen CRTs eliminate the distortion that plagued the curved edges of older models, and most can display the widescreen formats of DVDs (although sometimes with slight cropping of the image). Unfortunately, the tubes become too long and heavy to make manufacturing sets larger than 40 inches practical.
Rear-projection. So-called big-screen TVs offer the most screen — up to 80 inches — for the money. They produce near-CRT quality in a much slimmer package while remaining relatively inexpensive ($1,500 for a 45-incher). The drawback is that the picture may appear obscured when viewed from an angle.
Plasma-screen. These TVs are so light and thin — only 3 to 5 inches deep — you can hang them on the wall; they're also expensive ($4,000 and up). And while newer models are as sharp and bright as CRT displays, fast-moving images may have a tendency to blur. Also be aware that whenever you watch traditional broadcasts, you'll have to put up with vertical bars on each side of the picture (or distortion if you use the screen-fill function).
Front-projection. If you want virtually unlimited screen size — and have a virtually bottomless wallet — this one's for you. Front-projection sets send the picture across the room to a screen, much like a traditional movie projector. Prices range from $1,000 to well over $50,000.
A Note on HDTV: High-definition television is a type of digital signal that carries a more detailed image and is encoded with surround sound information. All of the above televisions are available in HDTV-compatible models (though you may need a separate HDTV-decoding tuner), which because of their higher screen resolutions can be viewed from a much closer distance — about half that of a traditional display. The FCC recently decided that all television programming must be broadcast in digital format by 2006.
To reproduce the authentic cinema experience at home, you need not only the visual components but also the audio ones — typically, five speakers and one subwoofer. This setup is based on Dolby Digital 5.1 technology, which breaks down audio into six "channels," each intended for a separate speaker: dialogue to one of three front speakers, ambient sounds to a pair of rear (or "surround") speakers, and low-frequency "end-of-the-world" booms to the subwoofer.
Wattage. Wattage is a good indicator of how loud a speaker can play without distortion, but watts enough to power a Who concert will be wasted in an 8-by-12 room. Instead, choose speakers that are closely matched to your receiver's watts-per-channel rating. That ensures that the speakers won't be fried by the movie's bang-up climax. (Don't worry about small differences in wattage; to double volume, you need ten, not two, times the power.)
Ohms. Although some speakers are available in 4- and 6-ohm designs, stick with standard 8-ohm units. The lower the ohm rating, the more electricity needed to generate the same volume, which can cause the receiver to overheat. If you happen to fall in love with the sound coming from 4- or 6-ohm speakers, at least make sure that the receiver is compatible.
Magnetic shielding. Speakers located within a few feet of a CRT television should be shielded to prevent them from interfering with the picture. (Other types of TVs are safe.)
If the hundreds of programming options offered by your cable or satellite TV provider aren't sufficient, it's nice to know you can always run out to the video store to grab a DVD.
Progressive-scan DVD. It's worth spending a little extra for a DVD player with this feature ($130 and up). Unlike traditional interlaced-scan, which first paints every other line on the screen and then goes back and fills in the rest, progressive-scan paints them all at once, making for a smoother picture. And if you don't want an intermission during multiple-disc movies, get a player with a disc changer.
Digital video recorders (often called digital VCRs). DVRs, such as TiVo and ReplayTV ($200 and up), work much like personal computers, recording programming from cable or a satellite dish onto a hard drive. Newer models can even burn copies of a movie or television show using an integrated DVD recorder ($1,000).
Videocassette recorders. Unlike DVDs, VCRs don't have widescreen or surround-sound capability, but don't throw the old one out just yet. Because DVD manufacturers haven't agreed on a universal recording format, videotape remains the most reliable and economical medium for recording movies.
Video outputs. For the sharpest picture, choose a player with Component Video (a trio of red, green, and blue RCA jacks) or S-Video (a round jack with four pinholes) outputs rather than lower-quality Composite Video ones (a single yellow RCA jack). Just make sure your TV has inputs to match.
How does each sound know where to go? That's the receiver's job. The receiver decodes signals from the inputs (DVD player, satellite dish, cable television) and routes them to the proper outputs (television and speakers). Although the differences between even disparately priced models can be subtle, there are a few important variables to consider.
Surround-sound formats. At a minimum, select a device that is Dolby Digital 5.1- compatible — that's the current standard for most DVDs. If you're thinking long-term, however, consider Dolby Digital Surround EX or Digital Theater System ES. Instead of six channels of audio, these formats divvy up the signal into seven or eight channels (for which you'll need seven or eight speakers), which promises to create an even more realistic listening experience. Instead of choosing between the competing formats, pick a receiver that can process both ($1,000-$5,000).
Amplifiers. While most receivers come bundled with a pre-amp to equalize the audio signal and a power amp to boost it, these components can also be purchased separately. Stand-alone pre- and power amps give you the ability to more easily fine-tune and upgrade individual speakers and will enable you to generate superior sound, especially at high volumes, but the extra cost can add up ($1,000-$10,000 per unit).
Power. Whether the amps are integrated or not, make sure you've got a receiver that supplies at least 100 continuous (rather than peak) watts per channel (the letters "RMS" should appear next to the wattage rating) and has enough outputs to connect all of your speakers.
Remote controls have become surprisingly advanced — you can spend thousands of dollars on a voice-activated remote that will dim the lights, start the movie, and fire up the popcorn maker if you simply say "please." But there are also less expensive devices that can cut down on coffee table clutter. (Whichever remote you choose, remember that an illuminated keypad or backlit screen will make it easier to operate in low-light situations.)
Universal remotes. These come pre-programmed to control hundreds of devices from a variety of manufacturers, so little setup is required — just unwrap and zap. They're also useful as replacements for lost remotes. But they become outdated as soon as new gear hits the market ($20 and up).
Learning remotes. More adaptable are learning remotes ($30-$250), which can "acquire" functions from other remotes by reading and recording their infrared signals. Most can operate up to 10 separate devices and have the ability to store "macros" — custom command sequences that trigger several functions at the touch of a button.
Radio frequency/infrared. If you're going to stash your equipment in a closed cabinet, opt for a radio frequency-capable (RF) remote rather than a standard infrared (IR) one. Radio waves travel through doors, walls, even floors, and the remote doesn't have to be pointed in any particular direction. (If the components you need to control aren't RF-equipped, choose a remote system that allows you to retrofit IR equipment with self-adhesive RF receptors.)
Wireless technology isn't yet refined enough to satisfactorily connect hi-fi surround sound equipment, so the last items you'll need to throw into your cart are some wires and cables. The price range here is wider than with any other component — from 15¢ a foot to over $1,000(!) — but don't just assume that fancy gold- or silver-tipped wires are the way to go. The key to a good cable is its ability to insulate the signal it carries from interference, so buy the best-shielded ones you can afford. For video cables, choose those rated at 75 ohms, a necessity for transmitting HDTV signals smoothly; for speaker wire, opt for 99.99 percent oxygen-free copper cabling intended specifically for audio use. If aesthetics are as big a concern as performance, consider flat speaker wire, which is as thin as a credit card, flexible enough to turn corners, and ready to be mounted on walls and ceiling and papered or painted over. (Similarly low-profile interconnects are also being developed.) Regardless of the type of wires you use, when you plug in, make sure that the connections are clean and snug.
Step 3: Setting up the System
The idea is to make your home theater feel as much like the real thing as possible. The display should be front and center, not off to the side so people have to strain their necks, and at eye level. Filmmakers typically play to the center seat 10 rows back; at home, that translates to about three times the diagonal dimension of the screen for traditional TVs and one-and-a-half times for HDTV images. Speakers sound better when they're on stands or mounted on the wall rather than set atop bookshelves or cabinets. The three front speakers should form a line with the TV, parallel to the seating area; the two rear speakers should be positioned opposite each other on either side of the listeners, slightly above ear level. It matters less where the subwoofer is placed, but for the best rumbling effect, put it on the floor behind the seating area or against a wall.
When stacking your gear, make sure there's at least 8 inches between the back of the components and the wall or rear of the cabinet to allow for easy installation, servicing, and ventilation. Receivers generate the most heat, so they need to go on top of the stack or on their own shelf with at least 2 inches of headroom and a clear path for heat to escape.
Avoid bundling wires and cables or placing them near power cords; both practices will increase interference and diminish signal quality. And keep them as short as possible (but never coil them up with a twist-tie). Before you trim speaker wires down to their final length, test the equipment to make sure everything looks and sounds great.
If acquiring all of the components individually seems like too much of a hassle, you can always keep it simple and pick up a home-theater-in-a-box ($300?$3,000). In one budget-friendly package, you'll get almost everything you need for a basic setup — an integrated receiver/DVD player, a complete set of speakers including a subwoofer, even the wires to connect everything. (You provide the TV.) Besides being extremely easy to install — just unpack and plug in — all-in-one systems eliminate the need to figure out whether components from different manufacturers will be compatible. One caveat: You'll have limited upgradeability. Depending on how integrated the system is, you might have to throw everything out just to get a better DVD player.
Where To Find It:
For help finding home theater designers and acousticians in your area, contact the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association