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.
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.
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.
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.