A collection of audiovisual equipment that emulates the movie theater experience in the home. Most home theaters consist of a TV or projection system combined with an amplifier, surround sound processor (Dolby Digital aka AC-3, DTS or Pro Logic), speakers--including a subwoofer--and a source (DVD, laserdisc, VHS). Definitely the cause of much financial difficulty, but for many people it's worth it to be able to blast your neighbors out when Mr Shadow shows up in The Fifth Element.

The sound in a home theater system is as important as the big screen TV. A good stereo TV sitting all by itself sounds better than a bad home theater system install. Boomy (or nonexistent) bass, no audio detail, and/or muddy, inaudible dialog can make a movie unwatchable.

When planning a home theater, remember that the physical geometry of the room is as important as the equipment in the system. Poor room acoustics can cause soundstage and bass-response problems that will significantly detract from the viewing experience. With a few exceptions, one usually can't control the shape of the room available to use. An irregularly-shaped room can be compensated for by creating a "theater zone" within the living space. The key is to create a soundfield that centers on the viewers' seating area.

A system sounds best when there are few or no echoes. A standing wave is created when a sound wave's echoes reinforce themselves, amplifying a specific tone. Another nuisance is when an item in the room starts to resonate to a specific wavelength(s) in the sound from the speakers. This can be dealt with by adding damping items or rearranging things like moving the couch, adding drapes and/or rugs. A hard-core audiophile can even buy damping panels and vertical tube-shaped corner treatments to damp echoes.

the Gear
You need to match the sound to the image, so one does not overwhelm the other. Speaker laminates, grill covers, and other cosmetic considerations should be dealt with at this time. How much speaker wire are you going to need, and what kind? If you are going to run cables under the rug, you need flat cables made for such use, as regular wire will not only cause ugly bulges, but also may cause a trip and fall hazard and eventually wear through in spots and create short circuits.

Speakers
A home theater requires at least five speakers: Front left, front right, and center (placed directly over or under the screen), in the back, left and right rear, and in a corner, a subwoofer. This layout is also known as a 5.1 system. Whether you use full-range speakers for your front channels or not, the subwoofer is needed because movies have deep bass tones not normally found in music, especially for visceral effects like explosions.

The center channel needs to go immediately above or below the TV screen, the front speakers need to be in the front corners of the listening area at roughly the same level as the center speaker, and the rear speakers need to be at the rear, preferably firing sideways towards the listening area. Bass can be adjusted by moving the sub into and out of the corner it is placed in. It doesn't matter much which corner you use, as the human ear cannot locate the source of low frequency sound to any great degree.

Many speakers are sold in sets especially for home theater systems, but you can also pick out your own components. This applies mostly in cases where one already has front speakers and only wants to add to them. The important thing to remember is that a set of speakers sold together is designed to work together, with tonal quality and crossover points that match one another. If the speakers don't sound the same, it can cause jarring differences when audio effects travel from speaker to speaker.

There are several types of surround sound. The most prevalent are Dolby Pro Logic (analog) and Dolby Digital (also called AC-3.) THX Cinema is a signal enhancement developed by LucasFilm that in addition to modifying the signal, mandates power minimums for each channel for proper sound reproduction.

Simply hooking up an add-on surround speaker system to your basic TV/Stereo VCR/DVD can make a basic HTS. There are many such add-on systems out there, in varying levels of sophistication.

Most add-on speaker systems intended for HTS upgrade have a built-in surround sound decoder in the subwoofer, which saves on hookup complexity and clutter. As far as the surround mode, most basic systems only decode Dolby Pro Logic, but that is more than enough for a basic setup.

Where are you going to get the movies you intend to watch? You can get movies off the air, or from cable, satellite, DVD, or videocassette (the VCR's day is almost gone, though.) Don't forget games, either. The sound coming out of some of the latest X-Box, Playstation, or Gamecube releases can only be truly appreciated in an HTS environment.

To build an HTS, you will need a receiver or a preamp/power amp combo to drive your speakers, and a source like a cable box, DVD player, or satellite receiver to provide the signal. The main difference between a receiver and separate components is that a receiver has everything in one box, and separate components allow for more system customization.

Almost all receivers and every A/V preamplifier sold today has surround sound processing, and the better the unit is, the more surround modes it is capable of decoding. There are models for every need and price point, from basic units with minimal switching and surround capability, suitable for hookup to a couple of sources, to heavy-duty, THX-rated devices that can switch multiple sound and image sources of almost every type.

Some receivers even have second-room capability, which allows you to drive a separate TV and speaker system in a remote room, sometimes simultaneously with the main TV/speaker system. This way, you only need one set of sources in your living room driving your bedroom or family room system. This can keep system costs down when wiring an apartment or house.

The DVD recorder is replacing the VCR, and has come down significantly in price. DVDs don't wear out or get "eaten" by the machine, and take up much less space on the shelf. It is often better to buy a system that may not be as fancy as you'd like, but won't break your budget so you have more to spend on good accessories (and of course, some movies to watch.) A plasma-screen high-end HTS is useless if you don't have any DVDs to play, and will perform poorly if you hook it up with lamp cord.

Every aspect of the system is important, from the speaker wire to the DVD player. The higher the average quality of the system, the better the experience.

Setting up
Once you get your gear, sit down and read all of the manuals. Even if you only skim through them, you will at least be familiar with basic operation. This will save an incredible amount of frustration in the future.

Place each component where you intend it to be set up. Once you have done that, you can hook up all of the cables. Start with the sources. Hook up every cable for each piece of equipment before moving on to the next piece.

Some components have multiple outputs that are used depending on the type of software. For example, a DVD player has both analog and digital output for sound, and component and composite video connections. Cutting corners when hooking up devices will only make them impossible to use to their full potential.

Once the components are hooked up, place the speakers in their proper places and then wire them. Moving speakers after you wire them is inviting disaster, not the least from the risk of pulling your gear off of the shelf. Stress on the cable can cause shorts, intermittent contacts, and in general is a bad idea.

A Home Theater System can be a true joy to plan, purchase, and set up, with a great deal of satisfaction in enjoying the finished product. The really nice thing is that it is something that you can share with family and friends alike, and the popcorn (and beer) at home tastes a lot better.

Home Theatre (often known as Home Cinema in the UK 'cos we go to see films in the cinema, not the movie theatre) is what its name implies - a movie theatre at home. Of course, you haven't got a huge screen at home, but the idea is to get as close as possible.

There are a number of key parts of a home theatre system.

The Screen

The screen is what you watch your films on! Essentially, any television screen will do, but the bigger the better. It also makes a lot of sense to get a widescreen TV as almost all films nowdays are shot in 16:9 (or even wider).

There are a number of excellent traditional (CRT) TVs around - for example the SONY WEGA range. Those with more money would head towards a plasma screen - bigger and no more than few inches deep. The other option is a projector which needs semi-permanent mounting and a dark room with a decent screen (a white wall is only just about usable). And while projectors cost less than plasma screens, their bulbs have a very limited life and are very expensive to replace.

The video source

The video source is almost always a DVD disk. Most modern DVDs, apart from having high quality video, also have the audio in true 5.1 channel Dolby Digital. When coupled with an appropriate sound system (see below), this really makes the home theatre experience.

In the early days of home theatre, laservision video discs were also used, but they are pretty well obsolete by now. Video tapes can also be used, and with a Dolby ProLogic decoder (also usually built into the audio units), you can get pseudo 4 channel sound.

You can also purchase a DVD recorder, although any recordings from broadcast TV will only be with as many audio channels as the broadcast signal. If the signal includes digital audio (such as the NICAM system in use in the UK) then this should be encoded directly on the disk without going via an analog stage).

The audio system

As mentioned above, most DVDs have a full 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack. The channels are as follows.

  • (Front) Left
  • (Front) Right
  • Centre
  • Surround (Rear) Left
  • Surround (Read) Right
  • LFE (Low Frequency Effects - the subwoofer).

The LFE channel is the .1 as it's not a full frequency range. This is the basic configuration you'll find in modern cinemas. Dolby EX adds a central rear channel, making 6.1, and SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) adds two additional front channels. But these aren't really supported (and in my opinion, necessary) in a home setup.

The Audio decoder has to split up the digital source into the 6 channels, and then feed it to six amplifiers and out to six speakers (or on some systems, it only has five amplifiers and a line-level out to an active subwoofer with its own built in amplifier). If the DVD player and audio decoder are separate units (as is advised), then the link between them should be digital. This can either be coax or optical. The general view is that coax actually gives a better result, but can only run 1-2 metres, and longer than this should be optical.

Speakers

If you have six channels of sound, you need six speakers! The layout should resemble this.

  +------------------------+
  +  SUB     CENT          +
  +        +------+        +
  +   FL   +  TV  +   FR   +
  +        +------+        +
  +                        +
  +                        +
  +                        +
  +                        +
  +                        +
  +     +------------+     +
  +     |   COUCH    |     +
  +  SL +------------+ SR  +
  +------------------------+
  • SUB - Subwoofer. Exact location isn't important.
  • CENT - Centre (dialog) speaker.
  • FL / FR - Front Left / Front Right.
  • SL / SR - Sorround (rear) Left / Surround (read) Right.

The front two, and the rear two speakers should be the same type (and often all four corner speakers are). The centre speakers are often manufactured specifically to be centre dialog speakers and should be located directly above or below the TV.

Cost cutting

In an ideal world, you should purchase a lot of separate parts.

  • A DVD player (or recorder).
  • An AV decoder.
  • 4 corner speakers.
  • 1 dialog speaker.
  • A subwoofer.

(Of course, you need a TV as well but that's a separate item.)

This can come to a huge amount of money. The cheapest way to do the whole thing is to buy an "all in one" home cinema system. This would usually be an integrated DVD player / AV decoder, and six speakers (often in this case, the subwoofer isn't active). However, the overall quality won't be that high.

The other option is to buy three items - the DVD player, an AV decoder and a "speaker set" which includes all 6 speakers. Ensure that if your AV decoder has a line-level output for the subwoofer, the subwoofer you buy is active. This way round is probably the best price/quality compromise.

However, the more you spend, the better quality system you will get. If you're buying a system just to stick in your lounge, £500 is probably the most it's worth spending. If, on the other hand, you're setting up a dedicated home theatre room, you'll appreciate the extra expenditure.


Sources - the research I've just done to put together my new system.

  • DVD recorder: Toshiba DR3
  • AV decoder: Sony STRKSL500
  • Speaker set: Sony SPSL2

Update on 7th June 2005 - I changed the DVD recorder for a Toshiba RD-XS34. There was nothing wrong with the DR3, but I decided it was worth spending the extra money for a unit with a hard disk.

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