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Home Theater Basics: How It All Fits Together

What is a Home Theater?

A Home Theater (HT) can range from simple to elaborate, but it all simply comes down to a TV, a sound system and a source. Setting up a home theater is all about creating an environment to maximize your enjoyment of movies and television. It isn’t just about spending money to buy the biggest and best, because most of us have to live with a budget. A home theater means choosing the most suitable equipment that our budget allows, and setting it up to achieve optimal results. Achieving optimal results includes the arrangement and connection of equipment, choice of furniture and seating for comfortable viewing.

What Do I Need for a Home Theater?

The basic elements of a home theater are a TV, a sound system (more than just the speakers on the TV) and the source of entertainment; such as a DVD, video tape or a simple off-the-air television signal. How you go about putting together an HT depends upon what you are starting with. If you already have some HT equipment, then start with the weakest link or what needs to be replaced first. If you are starting from scratch, then start with the TV.

Most of us have to work within a budget. If your budget requires you skimp on all the parts, then you might reconsider your purchase. Instead of compromising on everything, use your entire budget for one piece of the system. Start with a good foundation and build from there as your budget allows. For instance, if you have a decent television then maybe you could invest in a good sound system to make TV viewing more exciting. If you already have all the parts to an HT, then focus on improving the weakest element.

Choosing a Television

Most experts agree that the television is the most important component in a home theater. It is also likely to be the most expensive, have the longest life span and be the least upgradeable component. Furthermore, the television picture is the most noticeable part of your HT. For these reasons you should choose a television that will be suitable for the long term. Select a TV that you can be happy with for the next ten or more years.

Most experts and home theater owners agree that you are better off spending the largest part of your budget, or even your entire budget, to get the best TV you can. However, what is best is up to you. It doesn’t necessarily mean the biggest screen, the latest technology or the highest rated brand name. It is a combination of factors which focus, for most people, on the best looking picture on the largest screen. Most would agree that a better picture is more important than a bigger picture.

For more detailed information on televisions and how to choose one, see our article on Different Types of TV.

Choosing a Sound System

Most televisions are equipped with speakers, but they don’t provide much in terms of a theater experience. Some TVs are marketed with elaborate audio features, which for most HT enthusiasts, don’t count for much. The optimal home theater experience requires multiple speakers, separated by enough distance to create an ambient effect. A TV just really can’t do this.

A sound system to enhance movie and television viewing is typically going to involve a multichannel integrated amplifier (often called a receiver), two front speakers, two rear speakers, one center channel speaker and a subwoofer. While some enthusiasts might scoff, even just two front speakers can enhance TV and movie viewing. Two front speakers will increase the ambient effect and will often produce much higher quality sound than TV speakers.

You can buy a prepackaged sound system that includes the receiver and speakers bundled together. While this can yield a perfectly good sound system, and at a reasonable price, many enthusiasts would encourage you to select your equipment separately. The receiver can, and some would argue should, be the brains of your entire HT system. So selecting a receiver should be based upon it fulfilling the needs of your system and the provision of quality audio and not just that you got a good package deal. Furthermore, speakers warrant individual selection based upon what pleases your ears. While speaker quality can be measured, there are some subjective qualities that simply come down to what you like.

Home theater audio equipment doesn’t have to be complicated but there are a lot of possible considerations. Furthermore, audio equipment has a lot more options and price levels than do televisions. We recommend that you read our detailed article on audio technology before making a purchase.

Choosing a Programming Source

Most home theaters are going to have at least a DVD player and a television source. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a lot to get fine quality programming. Nearly any new DVD player costing roughly $75 is going to do an excellent job for you. In a DVD player, a feature you will want is progressive scan (which is a nearly standard feature now). Another feature to consider is a multidisc player, which I have found useful for storing my kids movies, but rarely useful for my own. Finally, the output connector choices ranked from best to worst: HDMI, DVI, component, S-video, composite. Make sure that your TV or receiver (whichever you will be connecting to) accepts the connector your DVD player uses (this applies to your other equipment too).

For television programming, you can simply use an antenna to get High Definition (HD) over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts. For OTA broadcasts, you will need a TV equipped with an ATSC tuner. An NTSC tuner only receives the older analog TV signal, which is due to be phased out by 2011.

A majority of people get their television programming from cable or satellite providers. Cable and satellite providers are increasing their HD programming. Your provider will have to rent you a set-top-box (STB) in order to receive digital HD programming. In some cases you have to pay extra for the digital service and/or the STB. In the near future, all broadcasts will be in HD and cable and satellite providers will have to provide this service.

In order to receive digital HD television, you must have one of the following: a TV equipped with an ATSC tuner, a CableCard slot or a set-top-box. In the case of cable and satellite service, you will still need a STB even if you already have an ATSC tuner.

There are a myriad of other programming sources which are covered in other articles on this website. For more detailed information on VCRs, HDVCRs, DVDs, DVRs, Video Disks, HD-DVD and other sources, see our sections on home theater components.

1 Comment

  1. Home Theater Magazines…

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