Twenty five years ago, only a small percentage of
households in the United States had cable
television, and VCRs were a
brand-new luxury item. Sound systems, for the most part, were limited
to the small speaker built into the television,
and not many people had a screen larger than 27 inches. There was
certainly no mistaking the typical TV room for a home theater -- home
theaters were expensive setups with actual film
projectors and wide
A custom-installed home
Over the years, the world of home entertainment
has changed radically.
These days, most U.S. households get at least 50 channels and have a
good-sized color television and a VCR. More and more people are adding
additional advanced components to their entertainment setup to create
home theater systems. The world of home entertainment is changing
rapidly, and consumers have a wide range of options.
What is Home Theater?
theater is difficult to define -- it's really just a vague term for a
particular approach to home entertainment. Generally speaking, a home
theater system is a combination of electronic components designed to
recreate the experience of watching a movie in a theater. When you
watch a movie on a home theater system, you are more immersed in the
experience than when you watch one on an ordinary television.
To see how home theaters do this, let's first look
at the original
model -- the movie theater. People have had VCRs in their homes for
years, and in the United States, there are video rental stores
everywhere. So why do we keep spending so much money going to the movie
theater if we can watch the movie in our own home for so much cheaper?
We go because the theater offers us an amazing experience we just don't
get at home. There are a few main components that make watching TV and
going to the movies very different.
The basic idea of a home theater is to recreate these
elements with home equipment. In the next section, we'll look at an
overview of what you need to get started.
- One of the biggest differences is the sound
you go to see a movie in a quality movie theater, you'll hear the
music, sound effects and dialogue not just from the screen, but all
around you. If you've read How Movie
you know that a standard movie theater has three speakers behind the
screen -- one to the right, one to the left and one in the center --
and several other speakers spread out in the rest of the theater.
In this surround
system, you hear different parts of the soundtrack coming from
different places. When somebody on the left side of the screen says
something, you hear it more from the left speaker. And in a movie like "Star
you hear a rumbling swoosh travel from the front of the theater to the
rear as a spaceship flies toward the camera and off the screen. You are
more involved in the experience of watching a film because the world of
the movie is all around you.
- The second chief component of the theater
experience is the large size of the movie
In a theater, the screen takes up most of your field of view, which
makes it very easy to lose yourself in the movie. After all, you're
sitting in the dark with only one thing to look at, and everything
you're looking at seems much bigger than life.
- We also enjoy going to the movies because we
can see everything so well. Film
projectors present very large, clear pictures.
The detail is much sharper than what we see on an ordinary 19-inch
television, and the movement is much more fluid. We may not consciously
recognize this, but it does make a significant difference in how we
enjoy a movie. When we can see more detail, we are more engrossed in
the world of the movie.
What Do You Need?
In the last
section, we saw that the major components of a movie-theater experience
are a large, clear picture and a surround-sound system. To build a home
theater, then, you need to recreate these elements. At the bare
minimum, you need:
And, of course, you'll need a room where you can arrange all this
- A large-screen television (at
least 27 inches across, measured diagonally) with a clear picture
- At least four speakers
- Equipment for splitting up the surround-sound
signal and sending it to the speakers
- Something that plays or broadcasts movies in
surround sound, preferably with a clear picture
There are any number of ways you can meet this
criteria. In the end,
your home theater system depends on how much money you're willing to
spend and how important certain areas of performance are to you.
Photo courtesy Sony
One home theater option is a
"home theater in a box"
system. This one from Sony consists of a DVD player with built-in
surround-sound receiver and a collection of speakers.
If you're not looking to spend much money, and
already have a
good-sized television and a stereo system, you can upgrade your
entertainment system into a fairly crude home theater with a couple of
extra speakers and a few other inexpensive components (click
here to find out how). If you invest in a basic surround-sound
system and a new DVD
you might spend $500. For a more advanced system, with a larger
television and an advanced sound system, you might spend as much as
$8,000. For $30,000, you could set up a real theater, with a projection
television, built-in speakers and bolted theater seats (and maybe a
In the following sections, we'll look at the
different options for
televisions, surround-sound receivers, speakers, and video sources.
We'll find out the advantages and disadvantages of different types of
equipment, as well as the price range and long-term benefits. We'll
also look at some of the extra components you can add to put the
finishing touches on your home theater system.
The main thing that sets a home theater apart from an ordinary
television setup is the surround
For a proper surround-sound system, you need two to three speakers in
front of you and two to three speakers to your sides or behind you. The
audio signal is split into multiple channels so that different
sound information comes out of the various speakers.
The most prominent sounds come out of the front
speakers. When someone
or something is making noise on the left side of the screen, you hear
it more from a speaker to the left of the screen. When something is
happening on the right, you hear it more from a speaker to the right of
The third speaker sits in the center, just under
or above the screen. This center speaker is very important because it anchors
the sound coming from the left and right speakers -- it plays all the
dialogue and front sound effects so that they seem to be coming from
the center of your television screen, rather than from the sides.
The speakers behind you fill in various sorts of
background noise in the movie -- dogs barking, rushing water, the sound
of a plane
overhead. They also work with the speakers in front of you to give the
sensation of movement -- a sound starts from the front and then moves
But how do all these sounds get split up? This is
the job of the audio/video receiver, which is the real heart of
a home theater. In the next section, we'll see what this component
The audio/video receiver and amplifier
assembly in a home theater does the same job as the receiver and
amplifier assembly in any stereo system: It receives signals from
various input devices -- a VCR, DVD player,
satellite dish, etc. -- interprets and amplifies those signals and then
sends them to output devices -- your television and
Photo courtesy Sony
A surround-sound stereo
receiver from Sony
A home theater audio/video receiver and amplifier
combines several different components. You can generally assemble a
superior home theater system by buying the components separately, but
most people buy one unit that does all these jobs because it is more
The different components are:
The path of the audio and video is pretty straightforward.
The source component (DVD player, VCR, etc.) feeds a signal to the
receiver unit. You choose which input component you want to feed to
your output unit, and the preamplifier selects this signal and
amplifies its line level a little bit.
- Audio/video inputs for video sources
(DVD player, VCR)
- Surround-sound decoder (aka signal
- Power amplifiers for each sound channel
- Outputs for speakers and television
The receiver is at the heart
of a typical home theater system.
If you've selected, say, a VCR, the receiver sends
the video onto your television and sends the audio to the decoder.
The decoder sorts out the different sound channels from the VHS signal,
and then sends the information to amplifiers for each
sound-channel output. These amplifiers are connected to the appropriate
speaker or speakers.
Digital decoders and analog decoders handle the
job differently. Digital surround sound is quite simple: When a
company is producing a Dolby Digital®
program, for example, they encode six separate audio channels,
specifically balanced for a Dolby Digital speaker setup. A Dolby
Digital surround-sound decoder recognizes these different channels and
sends them to the appropriate speakers.
Analog surround sound is something else
altogether. It turns out
that the different analog surround-sound channels are actually
extracted from the two standard audio channels that make up any
ordinary stereo signal. This is commonly called 4-2-4 processing
because the encoder essentially takes the rear and front channels and
works them into the ordinary stereo channels, and a surround-sound
decoder separates the four channels out again. See How
Surround Sound Works for more information.
There are a wide range of audio/video receivers
receivers are often sold with all the speakers you need, as a complete
home theater system. These systems run as low as $250 and as high as
One of the most important differences between
audio/video receiver models is what surround-sound formats they
support. In the next section, we'll find out what the different formats
are and see what they offer.
Which Surround-Sound Format?
the last section, we saw that audio/video receivers decode the surround
sound information encoded in video signals and drive the appropriate
speakers. Different audio/video receivers are equipped to decode
different formats. Today, there are five home theater
surround-sound formats in general use:
- Dolby Surround
Sound®/Do It Yourself
The most basic type of surround-sound system splits a standard stereo
signal into three separate channels -- left and right front stereo and
rear surround sound. Typically, you connect two rear speakers, both
playing the same rear channel. To find out how to hook up a basic
version of this system using a stereo receiver, check out this
- Dolby Pro Logic®
With five speakers and only four channels, Dolby Pro Logic is also a
fairly basic format. The system has separate channels powering a
central front speaker and left and right front speakers. A Pro Logic
system also has two rear speakers, but both play the same channel. Pro
Logic gives you rich stereo sound in front and a general sensation of
noise behind you. This is the surround-sound format used in all
television and VHS video.
satellite broadcasts also use this format, and it is an option on
- Dolby Digital®
For a richer sound, with more channels, most DVDs and some digital
satellite broadcasts use the Dolby Digital format . The main difference
between Pro Logic and Dolby Digital is that Dolby Digital has two
separate rear speaker channels, as well as a subwoofer
channel (the full name of the format is Dolby Digital 5.1, indicating
five ordinary channels and one "effects" channel). The two rear
speakers are positioned to the right and left of the listener, rather
than behind the listener, to give a more precise surround effect. The
subwoofer channel carries low-frequency sound to give a bass boost and
create a rumbling effect for certain special effects sounds, such as
explosions and trains.
Another significant difference between the
formats is that Dolby Digital is transmitted as a digital signal, like CDs, rather
than an analog signal, like a VHS video track.
This makes for a clearer, richer sound, with less unwanted speaker
noise. Dolby Digital is in limited broadcast right now, but it is the
standard format for HDTV, which
means it may be the most popular sound format in the future.
- Dolby Digital EX®
This format is pretty much the same thing as Dolby Digital 5.1, except
it includes a sixth sound channel for a speaker positioned right behind
the listener. This speaker serves the same function as the front
central speaker -- it anchors the left and right speakers. The sixth
channel works a little differently than the other five: The EX receiver
extracts a signal from the rear left and right channels. At this time,
Dolby Digital EX is not used widely, but in the future more DVDs and
digital broadcasts will likely take advantage of its expanded
Typically, receivers with Dolby Digital decoders cost
more than ones with only Dolby Pro Logic decoders, and Dolby Digital EX
units cost a little bit more. Many Dolby Digital units also recognize
DTS, but this shouldn't be a big concern because the few movies that
are encoded with a DTS track are generally encoded with a Dolby Digital
track as well. All Dolby Digital units also recognize Dolby Pro Logic,
and all Dolby Digital EX units recognize standard Dolby Digital as well
as Pro Logic. Most DVD players have built-in surround sound decoders
for multiple formats.
- Digital Theater
Home theater DTS is based on the DTS system
you'll find in many movie theaters. The home version, an alternative
format that works the same basic way as Dolby Digital, is not in
widespread use. This is simply because Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby
Digital have been accepted as the standard surround formats, so
broadcasts, videos and DVDs are usually encoded in one of these formats
rather than DTS. The format is slightly superior to Dolby Digital in
that it compresses the signal to a lesser degree, which translates to
better sound; but for most people, the difference is negligible. There
is also DTS ES, a DTS format that adds an extra rear channel, just like
Dolby Digital EX.
The cheapest receiver units will only have Pro
If you're used to watching television using your television set's
speaker, or even in stereo, you may be satisfied with a Pro Logic
system. If you want superior surround sound, however, you should go
with a Dolby Digital system. This is definitely a good investment,
since Dolby Digital is already the standard format for DVDs and will
soon be the norm for television broadcasts. If you're looking even
further into the future, consider getting a Dolby Digital EX unit for a
fuller surround-sound experience.
The sound system is what really makes a home
complete, but the first thing you'll probably notice when you sit down
in front of a theater setup is the television. In the next few
sections, we'll see how televisions fit into the home theater.
Standard Direct-View Television
biggest variable in home theater systems is the television. You can go
with a large-screen direct-view television and spend as little as $300,
or you can spring for a front-projection television, which could cost
you $7,000 or more. The main factors that determine television price
are size and picture resolution. Another important consideration is
digital capacity and signal format.
televisions are the sets that we're all familiar with. They
have a cathode ray tube
(CRT), with a scanning electron gun that paints the picture on a
phosphor-coated screen and a tuner that picks up broadcast signals.
Good direct-view televisions deliver an excellent picture, but because
of the tube technology, they are limited in size. The biggest
direct-view television screen you can get these days measures 40 inches
Photo courtesy Sony
A 32-inch direct-view
television from Sony: A direct-view television is certainly adequate
for a simpler home theater system.
This is a pretty big picture, of course, and will
work well in a
basic home theater setup. You might even be content with a 27-inch
model. The general rule for television size is that you want a screen
that measures about one-third your distance from the screen
(if you sit 9 feet from the screen, a 36-inch television screen would
be perfect). These are the guidelines for standard televisions, because
if your screen is bigger, or you sit closer, the scan lines that make
up the picture will seem fairly large, which translates to a lower
resolution. This is inherent in the standard television signal -- it
has a set number of vertical lines of resolution -- the number
of horizontal lines in one screen -- no matter how big your screen is. High-definition
(HDTV) has more vertical lines of resolution, so you'll be able to sit
closer and still see a clear picture when watching HDTV-formatted
Photo courtesy Sony
With a 40-inch screen, the
Sony Wega is at the upper limit of direct-view televisions.
When you're shopping for direct-view televisions,
pay attention to image contrast.
A television with a darker screen will give you a better picture
because there will be a stronger contrast between light and dark --
black will actually appear black, rather than gray. You should also
look for a television with a flatter screen. If the tube is
more curved, the picture will be more distorted and you'll see more
glare from other light sources. A perfectly flat screen will usually
give you the best picture.
If you need a very large television, you'll
probably need a projection
television. In the next couple of sections, we'll see what the
standard projection technologies have to offer.
a very large screen size is important to you, look into rear-projection
televisions. These sets don't have the same size constraints as
direct-view televisions because they don't use the cathode ray tube for
the display. Instead, they use a projection screen.
Projection televisions actually use three different cathode ray tubes
that split up the video signal into three different colors -- red,
green and blue. The different combinations of these colors of light can
produce the entire visual spectrum.
Inside the television, the three CRTs project onto a mirror, which
bounces the full-color image up to a screen.
Photo courtesy Sony
A 53-inch widescreen
rear-projection television from Sony
The advantage of these televisions is that you can
get a very large
picture for a relatively low price. For example, you can get a 45-inch
screen for less than $1,500. When these sets were first introduced,
there were some major drawbacks -- the picture had a fairly low
resolution, and it wasn't nearly as bright as a direct-view set. Recent
rear-projection models have largely overcome these shortcomings,
approaching the picture quality of direct-view televisions.
Some rear-projection sets may have a smaller viewing angle
that direct view sets. No matter where you sit in front of a
direct-view television, the screen maintains the same picture quality.
If you look at a rear-projection screen from an extreme angle, the
picture may be much darker and you won't be able to see what's
happening in the movie. Newer projection sets use high-quality screens
that work well from most angles, but older sets may have a fairly
narrow viewing area.
If you're looking to buy a rear-projection
television, the main things
to compare are cathode-ray-tube size and design and screen quality.
Larger CRTs will project a better picture, and glass lenses work better
than plastic ones. Even a top-notch picture from the CRTs can look
muddy on a bad projection screen, so be sure to pay attention to screen
material. Darker screens are better because they present an image with
better light-and-dark contrast. You should also look for a screen made
of glare-resistant material.
front-projection televisions work in pretty much the same way as
rear-projection televisions, but the system is not contained in a
television case. They are set up more like a film projector -- the
three CRT projectors are combined in one unit, and you center
the television image on a separate fabric screen.
Photo courtesy Newstream
A high-end digital front
projector from Sharp
The main advantage of a front-projection
television is very large screen size.
Since the components don't have to be packaged together, screen size is
limited mainly by the room space -- what size screen can you fit in the
theater, and how much distance can you put between the projector and
the screen. Screens as wide as 200 inches are not uncommon. Projectors
do vary in capacity -- make sure the projector is powerful enough to
project a bright image across the room.
One drawback of front-projection televisions is
that they are
difficult to install, and they may require extensive maintenance. You
have to mount them to the floor or ceiling at the right distance from
the screen. For standard CRT models, you also have to align the
different CRTs so that the different color pictures are lined up
exactly. Otherwise, the images in your picture will have a color fringe
around the edges. Usually, you need a professional to install the unit
Another drawback is they only work properly in a
Consequently, they are really only suitable for a separate home theater
space, rather than a family room or ordinary den. Since they are
designed for watching movies, front projectors don't usually have a
built-in television tuner: They don't receive television
signals themselves, so they must be hooked up to a separate tuner (such
as the tuner in a VCR).
In recent years, several new front-projection
technologies have hit the market. Liquid crystal display
systems have only one projector and lens, so you don't have to bother
with configuring the different colors. These units generate the video
picture on an LCD
screen, and then project this image. This makes it much easier to
set up your system.
Another system, the light-valve projector,
CRTs and LCDs. These projectors use three CRTs and three LCD screens.
They project the three LCD pictures on the screen, just like a CRT
projector. By combining the two technologies, these units project a
clearer picture than either CRT or LCD models. The drawback is that
these units are much more expensive -- you can get a CRT or LCD
projector for less than $2,000, but you can expect to pay $6,000 or
more for a light-valve model.
The other major option is Texas Instruments' Digital
(DLP) technology. DLP projectors generate pictures by manipulating a
panel of thousands of tiny, sensitive mirrors on a semiconductor chip
(called the Digital Micromirror Device or DMD chip). A
high-power lamp shines light through a rotating color wheel, which
rapidly changes the color from red to green to blue. The colored beam
hits a semiconductor chip covered in more than a million hinged
Based on the information encoded in the video
signal, the semiconductor
chip tilts some of the tiny mirrors to reflect the colored light out of
the projector, towards the screen, and tilts some mirrors so they don't
reflect any light. Collectively, the tiny dots of reflected light form
a monochromatic image. To see how this works, imagine a crowd of people
on the ground at night, each holding a square-foot mirror. A helicopter
flies overhead and shines a light down on the crowd. Depending on which
people held their mirrors up, you would see a different reflected
Most individual mirrors are actually flipped "on"
light) and "off" (not reflecting light) several thousand times per
second. A mirror that is flipped on a greater proportion of the time
will reflect more light and so will form a brighter pixel than a mirror
that is not flipped on for as long.
DLP projectors boast the clearest, brightest
pictures of the
front projector technologies. Like light-valve projectors, they are
relatively expensive. But prices are dropping rapidly. These days, you
can pick one up for as low as $1,600.
The most recent addition to the world of televisions is plasma
These televisions don't have CRTs or projector devices, so they have
extremely thin designs. The typical plasma screen is less than 6 inches
deep. These televisions are also very light, so it's fairly easy to
mount one on your wall. If you plan to set up a home theater in a
smaller room, this is a definite plus -- you don't have to worry about
hauling a giant direct-view or rear-projection model in, and you don't
need to figure out where to position a projector.
Photo courtesy Sony
A flat-panel plasma
television from Sony
Plasma televisions create pictures with an array
that receive a constant flow of low-pressure neon and xenon gas. The
cells are arranged in a matrix between sheets of thin glass and are
covered with electrodes. When an electrode applies a charge to
a particular cell, the voltage ignites the gas, changing it to plasma,
which emits ultraviolet (UV) light. The UV light
activates colored phosphors on another layer, and the phosphors emit
visible colored light (this is the same basic process that occurs in a fluorescent
Each cell is dedicated to a particular color --
red, green or blue. Each pixel, the individual dots that make
up a television image, has three different cells, one for each color.
Plasma displays offer great picture quality, but
not always the best.
They may take the lead as the preferred future technology, but at this
point their performance advantages may not justify the price, which is
upwards of $6,000. The real benefit of a flat plasma screen is its compact
size, and if you have a small theater space, this may be reason
enough to shell out the extra money.
Digital or Analog Television?
In addition to the television technology options, you also have to
consider signal format when building your home theater.
For most of the history of television, there was
only one kind of video signal -- analog. In the case of
video, the analog signal contains a stream
of information telling the television's electron gun how to paint lines
on the phosphor screen. The problem with this sort of signal is that it
degrades easily -- when you transmit video, you lose some of the
picture quality of the original.
Over the past 10 years, digital television
has taken its place alongside analog television. Digital video signals
consist of bits
of data, that is, sets of 1s and 0s. The advantage of sending
information this way is that it can't degrade -- each bit has a set
"either-or" value, so the signal will be exactly the same after
transmission. Because they translate visual information so exactly,
digital signals can carry much more detail than analog signals. Digital
televisions, therefore, have superior picture quality.
At this time, there are a number of different
digital formats, with varying levels of picture quality. A standard-definition
(SDTV) signal uses 480 horizontal scan lines of picture information,
the same number as standard television in the United States. These have
increased picture quality simply because the signal isn't degraded in
transmission. The more impressive digital format is high-definition
(HDTV), which boasts many more scan lines of picture information. There
are two different types of HDTV signals -- one uses 720 lines and the
other uses 1,080 lines.
Another advantage of some digital signals is that
they are progressively scanned. Television was developed
way because of technological constraints -- originally the electron gun
couldn't move fast enough to paint the whole screen in one pass. So the
standard television signal is actually interlaced: It sends two fields
-- the odd picture lines and then the even ones -- for every full frame.
We've long since overcome the technological
constraints that made this
system necessary, but we've been stuck with this way of displaying a
picture because it is actually built into the standard television
format. Digital video formats that feature progressive scanning paint
the entire frame with one pass, which improves the fluidity of
movement in a picture.
HDTV sets, and some SDTV models, also feature an
impressive widescreen display. Traditional television has an aspect
of 4:3. This simply means that if the screen is four units wide, it's
three units high. Another way to say this is that it is four-thirds, or
1.33, times as wide as it is high. HDTV screens have a 16:9, or 1.78:1,
aspect ratio, meaning that the screen is 1.78 times as wide as it is
high. This shape is closer to the wide aspect ratio of theatrical
movies, and so is a definite plus for a home theater system.
So HDTV has a lot of advantages, but HDTV sets
also have a higher price
tag. Right now, you can expect to pay $1,200 to $4,000 for an HDTV
direct-view or rear-projection set, and $10,000 to $20,000 for an HDTV
front-projection set. If you're on the fence, one thing that might tip
the scales in favor of an HDTV set is the future of television. The
U.S. government plans for HDTV to be the standard television format at
some point in the near future; so, while HDTV is a high-end luxury
today, it may eventually be the standard format.
Another option is to get an HDTV-ready
These sets, which have the standard 4:3 aspect ratio, have the
necessary resolution capabilities to display an HDTV picture, but don't
have the necessary decoder to interpret the HDTV signal. Out of the
box, they function just like traditional televisions. But you can by a
separate HDTV decoder that upgrades them to display HDTV broadcasts
(either cropped or letterbox to fit the narrow screen size).
These televisions cost a lot less than true HDTV
sets, so they
are a good option if you don't want a television that will be outdated
in ten years but you don't want to spend the extra money for an HDTV
To put a home theater system to work, you
obviously need some way to
watch movies or TV shows. To get the most out of your giant television
and sophisticated sound equipment, you need a high-quality signal. In
the next few sections, we'll look at the various video-source options.
The simplest home theater video source is the VCR.
VCRs are amazing machines, and the library of movies available on VHS
video tape is overwhelming. The huge popularity of the format is a real
testament to its functionality and ability. When they first came on the
scene, VCRs completely revolutionized the home-entertainment industry.
These days, however, VCRs are outdone by most
other available technologies. VHS picture quality is much lower than DVD
-- 240 lines of horizontal resolution vs. 500 lines. Even standard
broadcast television signals carry a higher-resolution picture. There's
only so much you can record onto 0.5-inch VHS tape.
While your VCR does just fine playing movies on a
television, its shortcomings are more obvious when you play a movie on
a top-of-the-line home theater system. If you don't have a hi-fi
you'll really notice the difference. The cheapest VCRs generally have
mono sound, meaning they feed a single audio track along with the video
picture. There's no reason to hook this sort of VCR up to a home
theater sound system -- you'll only get sound out of one of your front
speakers, or the same soundtrack out of multiple speakers.
A hi-fi stereo VCR, which doesn't cost much more
than a mono
VCR, will vastly improve the way your home theater plays video tapes.
You'll still have the low resolution, but if a video is recorded with
Dolby Surround Sound (and most feature films made after 1980 are),
you'll get the full home theater sound experience.
While a VCR won't give you the best picture
certainly an important part of a home theater system, if only because
there are so many movies available on VHS video. Eventually, VHS will
be completely replaced by digital video formats like DVD, but for the
immediate future, VCRs are standard home entertainment equipment.
DVD Players and Digital Movie Recorders
(digital versatile discs) have really taken off in the past five years.
They offer excellent picture quality and very clear, rich sound. Most
DVDs are formatted for one or more surround-sound formats, and you can
find a wide selection of widescreen DVDs, discs that present
the movie in its original theatrical shape. Additionally, DVDs often
have a number of extra
features for the movie fan, such as original theatrical trailers, audio
commentary tracks and special documentaries
All of these qualities make DVDs an ideal
technology for home
theater -- they make full use of all that high-end technology. If
you've already invested in a surround-sound system and a big-screen TV,
you should definitely pick up a DVD player. The players are relatively
inexpensive -- you can get a basic model for less than $200 -- and the
format is rapidly gaining acceptance, with more and more DVD movies
being released every month. DVDs have already taken the place of laser
discs, and will eventually take the place of VHS tapes. In the near
future, DVD players will probably be as common as VCRs.
At this time, most DVD players do lack one of the
capabilities of a VCR -- they can't record video; they can only play
it. There are a few DVD recorders on the market, but these run
upwards of $1,000.
So, should you go ahead and get a DVD player or
wait for DVD recorders
to drop in price? As with any home electronics, it's largely a guessing
game of when the current DVD players will be outdated. It may take a
while for DVD recorders to become standard equipment, and when they do,
you can expect them to be much more expensive than ordinary players.
So, if you're already putting a home entertainment system together, you
would probably do best to go ahead and pick up a standard DVD player.
If you record a lot of programming off television
so you can
watch it later, you might want to supplement your DVD player with a digital
video recorder (DVR). Unlike VCRs, DVRs store video in digital
form, on a hard
Actually, when you hook up a digital video
recorder -- such as a TiVo
unit -- all programming is recorded on a hard drive, and then sent onto
your television set a few seconds later. This means that you can pause
a "live program" -- a program being broadcast at that time -- and start
watching it where you left off. These units don't provide the
programming -- you have to connect another video source, like a cable
outlet or satellite dish. You also have to connect the unit to a phone line
-- it makes a daily call to update its programming information.
DVRs are superior to VCRs in some ways and
inferior in others. They can
record programming with much better picture quality, but there's no way
to archive what you've recorded -- eventually, you'll run out of
hard-disk space. You can, however, record the video from the DVR to
your VCR, and archive your favorite programs that way.
One nice feature of DVRs is that when you record
programs, you only have to enter the program name, not the time that
it's on. The service's programming information will also help you find
programs you like, skip commercials when you record, and record your
favorite shows every week.
Television Reception Options
Home theaters aren't just for tapes and DVDs, of course. You'll also
want to watch television. These days, you have a number of options to
In the United States, the most popular options are
broadcast television (the signals you can pick
up with a rabbit-ear antenna) and cable
Broadcast and standard cable signals both transmit video with 330 lines
of horizontal resolution. This is better than VHS video, but not as
good as DVD or digital television. Standard cable and broadcast TV also
feature programming with Dolby Pro Logic surround sound, but they
cannot carry Dolby Digital.
The main advantage of both broadcast and cable is
broadcast is free, and cable is generally less expensive than satellite
programming. Additionally, cable and broadcast always carry local
stations, while satellite service may not.
If you want to get the maximum use out of your
system while you're watching television, you should consider getting a direct
satellite system, such as DIRECTV
To get satellite programming, you need to buy and install a satellite
dish, hook the receiver up to your entertainment system, and then pay
the monthly fees, just as with ordinary cable.
Right now, the main advantage of a satellite
system is that you
get a better, digital picture (near the level of DVD). Most satellite
programming still uses Dolby Pro Logic surround sound, but providers
will use Dolby Digital more in the future. HDTV broadcasting is also
limited at this point, but it is on the rise. When shopping for a
satellite system, be sure you get one that can do everything you want.
At this time, you need a larger, more expensive satellite dish to pick
up HDTV programming, and you may need a special system to pick up local
Another option is digital cable. Digital
into your house via lines, just like standard cable, but it carries a
better quality picture (the level of quality varies depending on the
One of the most important components in a home
theater system is the speakers.
Even with a top-of-the-line DVD player and audio/video receiver, the
sound quality will be terrible if you don't have good speakers. In the
next section, we'll find out about these essential components.
Speakers vary a
great deal in performance, as well as price. The main rule in shopping
for speakers, whether for a home theater or your stereo system, is to
try the speakers out in the store and decide what sounds good to
Photo courtesy Sony
A Sony micro speaker
For your home theater system, you will need five
standard speakers (or
six, if you're putting together a Dolby Digital Ex system) and an
optional subwoofer speaker for bass sounds. Ideally, you'll want to get
five (or six) identical speakers, to insure rich sound from all sides,
but this might not be feasible, depending on your theater space and
budget. If you're looking to save money, you could even use your
television's built-in speaker as the central front unit, but it won't
give you the best results. Different speaker models handle sound
differently, creating an unbalanced surround effect. To get
theater-quality effects, you should get three identical, full-size
Photo courtesy Sony
In-wall speakers from Sony
The main full-size speaker options are floor-standing
units, bookshelf units and in-wall
units. Floor standing units are the largest, and they generally have
the highest performance levels, as well as the highest price tags.
Bookshelf units and in-wall units are more compact, which is great if
space is limited, and they perform very well. They may lack some bass
range, but a good subwoofer should adequately compensate for this.
Many home theater systems use more compact,
less-expensive speakers for the two rear surround channels. This will
usually give you fine results, and is often the best solution if you
don't have space for full-size speakers in your theater room. Some
people even prefer these smaller bipole and dipole
speakers because they generate sound in multiple directions, giving a
more diffused sound.
Photo courtesy Sony
A digital subwoofer from Sony
Another thing to think about is the speaker
technology. You may want to consider electrostatic speakers or planar
magnetic speakers instead of the conventional dynamic driver
design. See How
Speakers Work to learn more about these different technologies.
To make it easier to assemble a home theater
system, many manufacturers have put together home theater speaker
putting front and rear speakers together in a set. These packages vary
in price and quality, so you should give them a "test drive" before you
buy, just as you would with individual speakers.
If price is no object when you're putting together
a home theater system, you might want to consider THX certification.
In the next section, we'll find out what the THX system is all about.
If you want a top-notch home theater, look into a THX®-certified system. If you've read How THX Works,
then you know that THX
set of standards for movie-theater equipment and arrangement. Lucasfilm
has also come up with certification standards for home theater setup,
and if you want the best of the best, this is the way to go. The chief
aim of Home THX standards is to ensure the highest-quality re-creation
of actual theater sound.
There are currently two THX standards: THX
Select, created with a 2,000-cubic-foot (57-cubic-meter) room in
mind, and THX Ultra,
for spaces with over 3,000 cubic feet (85 cubic meters). THX has worked
with electronics manufacturers to create equipment that lives up to the
THX standards. THX has certified:
A THX-certified home theater will cost you a good bit more
than an ordinary home theater, because THX-certified components are
mainly top-of-the-line equipment. If you just want a superior
entertainment system in your home, you don't need to worry about THX
systems. This sort of system is a luxury purchase, for connoisseurs
driven to get the best possible sound out of their systems, or for
folks with money to burn.
- Audio/video receivers
- DVD players
- Video screens - rated by their effect on
To find out more about THX home theater standards,
check out the THX
Putting It All Together
you have all the components, it's time to set up the theater space.
There are several factors to keep in mind when choosing and arranging
the home theater room.
First of all, consider the architecture of
the room. A
home theater should be something like a movie theater -- you want an
enclosed, rectangular room, with a good amount of space and not too
much outside light. You need an enclosed space to get the best
sound quality -- open rooms don't have ideal acoustics. If you are
building a top-of-the-line theater, you may want curtained walls. This
soft surface cuts down on disruptive echoes. For the same reason, it is
generally better to have a carpeted floor than a wood or linoleum
Once you've decided what room to use, you need to
figure out where to put everything. To find the best position for the television,
just use common sense. It should be easily visible -- you don't want to
crane your neck -- and it shouldn't be in a place that gets a lot of
glare from outside. Put the television wherever it seems most logical,
and build your system around that.
Getting the sound system in place is a bit
complicated. You should set the three front speakers up so that they
are spaced evenly, all at about the same height. Also, make sure they
are near the level of the television screen so that the sound seems to
be coming from the action and actors you're watching on the TV. The
idea is to that you shouldn't be made aware of the speakers when you
watch a movie -- your attention should be on the movie.
You have a couple of different options for
arranging the rear speakers.
Dolby Digital is designed for speakers positioned to either side of the
listener, while Dolby Pro Logic systems should have the rear speakers
behind the listener. In any case, the rear speakers should be mounted
at the same height, spaced an equal distance from the listener. Of
course, chances are you'll have more than one listener, so the spacing
won't be equal for everybody. You can find the central listening
-- such as the middle of the couch -- and space everything according to
that point, while still paying attention to other seats in the room.
It doesn't matter so much where you put your subwoofer.
The low frequencies aren't directional like the higher frequencies
emitted by the main speakers, so it can really go anywhere in the room.
For the best rumbling effect, however, you should put the subwoofer on
the floor or against a wall -- this will help the low frequencies carry
through the room.
Another thing to consider in your home theater is lighting.
It's important that you don't have a lot of bright ambient light in the
room, because this may cause glare on the screen or distract from the
movie. But you also don't want a completely dark room, because the high
contrast of the light from the screen may strain your eyes.
Ideally, a home theater should have soft ambient
lighting connected to a dimmer.
For the full theater experience, you can get an automatic dimmer and
hook it up to the audio/video receiver. When you start up the movie,
the lights will go down to a preset level on their own. Or you can
control the lights with a remote control. Home theater systems can also
be configured with curtains or cabinet doors operated by remote
control. (Check out this
site for more information on home-theater remote controls.)
As we've seen, the best home theater setup
completely depends on your
budget and your needs. If you just want a better entertainment system
in the family room, a basic "home-theater-in-a-box" set, a DVD player
and a good-sized television will be more than satisfactory. But if you
want your own movie theater, with a huge screen and fantastic
acoustics, you'll probably need to bring in a home theater expert and a
contractor. The most important thing is to try everything out ahead of
time to make sure your movies will look and sound great.