Home Theater 101 - Learning The Basics of Home Theater Systems
The idea is simple enough: A home theater provides a theater-like experience in your home. But what exactly does that entail? The quick answer is, there's no quick answer. A home theater can be as simple as a few A/V devices in your living room or as complex as a completely renovated basement designed to look like Hollywood's El Capitan Theater. At its core, a home theater system should provide a high-quality video experience and an immersive audio experience that breathe life into your favorite movies, but a number of roads can lead to that destination. This primer offers a general overview of the basic home theater ingredients--from the A/V equipment to the seating to the other room elements that can shape your perfect home theater. We've provided plenty of links, to content on our website and others, that will provide more information on each element.
Picking The Right HDTV for Your Home Theater System
When you envision a theater-like video experience, you probably think first of a projection system and a very large screen. That's certainly the display of choice in the prototypical home theater. The two-piece projector/screen combination is generally best suited for a dedicated theater room, in which you can completely control the lighting (although many projector manufacturers now offer high-brightness models that are specifically designed for use in brighter environments). Companies like Runco, SIM2, Projection Design, and Digital Projection International offer projectors and services targeted more at the high-end marketplace, around $20,000 and above. However, projectors aren't reserved solely for the wealthy. This type of display device can actually offer the best screen-size-to-cost ratio. JVC, Sony, and Optoma have earned high marks for the performance of their mid-level projectors, which fall in the $5,000 to $10,000 price range, while Epson, Panasonic, and Sanyo offer high-quality entry-level projectors. As for the projection screen, you can choose between fixed-frame, pull-up/-down, or motorized screens, and most screen manufacturers offer a wide variety of screen materials to suit different projectors and environments. You also need to think about what screen shape you want: Do you want a standard 16:9 screen that's perfect for HDTV and many movies or a 2.35:1 screen that lets you watch CinemaScope movies with no black bars (this requires a suitably equipped projector and sometimes an add-on lens). Another option is to add a masking system that uses drapes or panels to tailor the screen shape to suit each source. Some of the top names in home theater screens are Stewart Filmscreen, Screen Innovations, dnp, Da-Lite, Vutec, and Elite Screens.
Of course, the two-piece projection system isn't the only option in the display realm. Flat-panel TVs are pretty much the driving force in the home entertainment marketplace; and, thanks to continually falling prices, you can now get a much bigger screen for your money. Whether you invest top dollar in a 65-inch panel or go with a more modest 47-inch screen, the flat-panel HDTV can still make a great foundation for a home theater system, and the benefit is that you can watch it in all kinds of lighting conditions. In the past, most reviewers would point you to plasma HDTVs, like those offered by Panasonic, to get the best home theater performance--that is, the deepest black level and highest contrast ratio to create a rich image in a dark, theater-like environment. I still find that plasma can offer the best performance-to-cost ratio in the flat-panel realm, especially at the larger screen sizes. LCD HDTVs, which were once considered bright-room-only TVs, have made great strides in performance. Technologies like LED backlighting (with local dimming) and 120Hz/240Hz refresh rates have helped overcome limitations in black level and motion blur, respectively. All of the big names in LCD--including Samsung, Sony, Vizio, Toshiba, LG, and Sharp--now incorporate these performance-improving features, but often at a higher price point than their basic LCDs.
Currently, 3D is the hot trend in HDTV circles. All of the TV manufacturers I listed above have at least one line of 3D-capable models. These TVs require the use of special active-shutter 3D glasses, which may or may not be included in the TV package. These 3D HDTVs are usually the top-shelf models in each company's line and therefore cost more than similar non-3D options. If you choose to invest in a 3D-capable HDTV, you will also need a 3D-capable Blu-ray player to watch 3D movies.
Home Theater Speaker Systems (5.1, 7.1 and more)
The other main element that makes a trip to the movie theater so memorable is the enveloping audio, in which sound elements come at you from all directions. At home, the basic surround sound speaker system consists of 5.1 channels. The "5" stands for speakers in the front left, center, front right, rear right, and rear left positions, while the ".1" belongs to a subwoofer that helps flesh out the bass for explosions and other low-end effects. Some home theater installers recommend a 5.2-channel system, with a second subwoofer that helps deliver smoother bass response across a wider listening area. It's also popular to go with a 7.1-channel system, which uses two side-channel and two rear-channel speakers for a more complete surround experience.
Speakers come in all shapes and sizes, from freestanding towers to bookshelf models to thin speakers that mount on the wall. It's easier than ever before to find attractive speakers that are low in profile but high on performance--through companies like Definitive Technology, KEF, Paradigm, Wisdom Audio, and many more. The general rule of thumb is, the smaller the speakers, the more important it becomes to add a subwoofer to help fill in the low end.
If you're building a dedicated theater room, you have more freedom to pick the exact speakers you want, regardless of size or aesthetic, and to position them in the ideal positions to get the best performance. If, on the other hand, you're trying to incorporate your home theater system into an existing living or family room, you might not have as much flexibility to position freestanding speakers in their ideal configuration. Or perhaps you (or your significant other) just don't like the idea of cluttering the room with speakers. In that case, in-wall or in-ceiling speakers may be just what the home theater fan ordered. SpeakerCraft, Sonance, Polk Audio, and Atlantic Technology are just a few the companies that offer high-performing in-wall/in-ceiling models at many price points. In-wall subwoofers are also available.
If you like the idea of surround sound but simply can't find a way to practically integrate a multichannel speaker system into your room, the soundbar has become a popular solution. A soundbar incorporates multiple speaker channels into a single speaker bar that mounts above or below your TV. These soundbars use acoustic manipulation to create a sense of surround envelopment, sometimes through digital sound processing and sometimes by bouncing the sound off the walls (and sometimes both). This solution generally doesn't offer the precise effects placement and higher-end performance you can get from separate speakers, but it's a good small-room or apartment solution. It's also a great option for somebody who is unhappy with the quality of their TV speakers and wants an upgrade in sound quality, a common issue with flat-panel TVs. Polk Audio offers some great soundbar solutions, as does Yamaha, ZVOX, and Definitive Technology.
Home Theater Electronics or Components
The electronics are the brain of the home theater system. They receive the audio and video signals from your source devices and distribute them out to the speakers and display device. (Some video enthusiasts prefer to only feed audio through their electronics and send video directly from the sources to the display.) Electronics fall into two main categories: A/V receivers and separates. An A/V receiver puts everything you need in one chassis: One box contains all of the A/V inputs to connect your devices, the processors that decode the audio and video signals for output, and the amplification that powers the speakers. Some popular receiver manufacturers are Denon, Marantz, Yamaha, Onkyo, and harman kardon. As the name suggests, the "separates" approach requires two boxes: a preamp/processor for signal input/processing and an amplifier (or multiple amplifiers) to power the speakers. The latter approach is more common amongst high-end audio enthusiasts who want more precise control over their system's performance, particularly in the amplification realm. Anthem, McIntosh, Mark Levinson, Parasound, and Simaudio are examples of companies that offer high-end separates.
When shopping for electronics, you want to make sure that the product has enough inputs for all of your source devices, with a few extra to accommodate anything new you might buy. HDMI is currently the HD connection of choice for most source devices, so you need to make sure the unit has enough HDMI inputs. Also, make sure an A/V receiver or amplifier has enough channels to handle the number of speakers you want to use, be it five, seven, or more. Even if you only plan to use a 5.1-channel speaker system, you might want a 7.1-channel receiver--to accommodate future upgrades or perhaps to use the extra amp channels to power a pair of stereo speakers in another room. Finally, if you have any plans to invest in a Blu-ray player, you should buy a receiver or preamp/processor that can decode all of the newest high-resolution audio formats, like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Likewise, if you purchase a 3D TV and Blu-ray player, you should also get a 3D-capable receiver or preamp, or you won't be able to route 3D video through the electronics.
Home Theater Source Components (Blu-ray and beyond)
The principal source device in any home theater system will be some type of movie player. The DVD player has become ubiquitous and is still an excellent choice to serve up a good-looking image and enveloping surround sound; however, if you want the highest-quality picture and sound, then the new Blu-ray format is the way to go. In addition to offering a full 1080p HD video signal, Blu-ray players can output high-resolution audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio that can make the most of your high-quality surround sound system. As mentioned above, 3D is the hot, new feature in HDTVs; if you choose to purchase a 3D-capable TV, you will also need a 3D Blu-ray player, currently offered by companies like Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and LG. If you have a fairly extensive movie collection, you might consider a video server that can store your movies in digital form, allowing for easy searches, quick start-up, and convenient access to cover art and other info. Of course, the cable/satellite box is another common source device, and many cable/satellite providers now offer high-definition 1080p movies on demand. A whole new crop of streaming video players, like the Apple TV or the D-Link Boxee Box, allow you to stream HD video-on-demand over a network connection, but many of these devices don't offer the higher-quality picture and sound you get from Blu-ray. Finally, gaming consoles have become a popular home theater source, as products like the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 support Blu-ray or DVD playback and streaming video.
Home Theater Rooms, Acoustics and Design
Okay, the basic video and audio elements are in place. Now it's time to accessorize. Again, if you're adding a home theater system to an existing room, you may not have the flexibility to incorporate new seating, lighting, or other HT elements; at the least, you might consider a new equipment rack, TV stand, or TV mount from a manufacturer like Omnimount, Sanus Systems, Bell'O, Premier Mounts, or BDI.
For those who are lucky enough to be creating a dedicated home theater space, the possibilities are endless. Seating will have a huge influence on the overall comfort and appeal of your home theater, so choose wisely. There's certainly no shortage of options, both in traditional theater seating and unique designs, from companies like Fortress Seating, Berkline, or Premier Home Theater Seating.
What's more theater-like than a lighting system that automatically dims when you press your controller's Watch Movie command. With products from Lutron, Vantage, or HAI, you can create a dedicated home theater lighting system or include HT lights as part of a wholehouse lighting system.
To bring out the very best in your audio system, consider the use of acoustic treatment to help tame reflections and correct any other anomalies that your room design might create. Many professional installers offer advanced acoustic calibration, in which they measure the system's audio characteristics and place acoustic products (diffusers, absorbers, bass traps) exactly where they're needed in the room. Visit the Auralex Acoustics website to see some examples of acoustic treatment products.
As the A/V products engage your eyes and ears, a tactile transducer can engage your...well, let's just say your sense of touch. A tactile transducer from Clark Synthesis or Earthquake Sound Corp attaches to your home theater seating and reacts to the action onscreen--for instance, it provides that extra bit of rumble during an explosion to heighten the experience.
Remote Control Systems for Home Theater
Once you've assembled all the different home theater elements, you'll probably want to invest in a universal remote to control them all...that is, unless you enjoy having to use five different remotes just to cue up a movie. A well-selected, well-programmed remote can make life easier for every viewer in the house. If you have a modest home theater system, you might get by with an entry-level universal remote that controls only a handful of devices and has limited flexibility to tailor buttons to your personal needs. Mid-level remotes from companies like Logitech/Harmony, Acoustic Research, and Monster Cable can accommodate more devices and offer more flexibility. These products often sport customizable touchscreens and use computer software programs for easy do-it-yourself programming. If we're talking about a high-end home theater that incorporates A/V gear, lighting, HVAC control, screen masking, and other automation, then you might need to move into the realm of advanced system control, with a product from Crestron, AMX, RTI, or UEI. These advanced system controllers are sold exclusively through custom installation channels and should be programmed by trained installers.
Examples of Beautiful Home Theaters
As with any home-improvement project, you can get a better idea of the home theater concept by seeing examples of the form. Browsing different theaters will also help you decide what you want (and don't want) in your own theater space. Here are some links to explore:
HomeTheaterReview.com's Reference Theater
Managing Editor Andrew Robinson's Reference Systems
Home Theater Resources
A number of websites exist to provide more information on home theater products and services. Beyond HomeTheaterReview.com, we recommend the following resources:
Home Theater Equipment