Explore the options and individual components needed for a real Home Theatre or Media Room. Home Theater for you Americans.
The Most Important Element – Your Sound System
There are 4 basic types of Home Theater Audio Solutions to choose from:
These systems usually consist of 5 very small surround speakers, a small subwoofer, a disc player/ amplifier and wiring all wrapped up in one tiny unit. Suitable for small rooms like a den or college dorm. Don’t expect to be “wowed” by any of these systems.
A long thin speaker containing many drivers designed to mount under a TV on a wall. It can produce virtual surround sound and makes for a nice clean installation. Typically paired with a subwoofer, these systems range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and you do indeed get what you pay for.
Individual selections of Audio/Video Receivers, Speakers, and several source components – BlueRay, Game Box, Apple TV etc. Universal Remote control as always is a must.
Theses separate components consisting of a pre-amplifier, processor and power amplifier replace a typical A/V Receiver; giving better sound and flexibility to the system.
As always, you get what you pay for. Going to a big warehouse store and getting yourself a Home Theatre in a Box is at the low end, shopping on-line or in specialty stores will take quite a bit of time and not necessarily give you a cohesive system. Professional Electronic Systems designers are trained to design systems with the best value in mind, regardless of budget.
$200–$1,000: Home Theatre in a Box. Home-Theater-in-a-box systems. There are some that are priced higher but still maintain a small speaker system.
$3,000 and up: Component Home Theater systems using much better quality components consisting of separate preamplifiers/ processors, power amplifiers and large speakers.
As always, the more you spend the better the system will perform, realizing bigger and sharper images, clearer sound, longer life span and system flexibility. Use half the budget for speakers as this is will give you the most bang for your buck.
Your room will play a big role in which type of system you decide to purchase. For instance; you wouldn’t invest in a huge speaker system if the room is tiny.
If the rooms sounds “echoey” or a bit uncomfortable (bedrooms sound comfortable) your home theatre system will not sound great, regardless of how good or expensive the components and speakers are.
Acoustics is a large subject that can’t possibly be covered here, just know there are lots of solutions that are inexpensive, easy to employ and easy to live with.
There is going to be a lot of wiring – more than most people realize. Wires for each speaker, electrical wire for sub woofer, electronics and TV, as well as wires interconnecting the components. A professional electronic systems contractor will usually be able to hide all the wiring, even if the house is already built and you think it is “impossible” to hide the wires. See our hiding technology for some examples.
What You Watch
There are many sources to choose from whether you want to watch Blu-ray movies, Video games, Television programs or streaming from the internet. Each media will usually require a separate component and should be considered in the planning and budget stages.
Some sources to consider:
TV content: Including cable and satellite
Streaming media: Such as Netflix®, YouTube™, and many others
Online media: Any video or audio on your computer
Game consoles: Nintendo, Playstation
Discs: Such as Blu-ray, CD
Music: Vinyl LPs, Streaming from Smart Devices, iPod
Surround Sound: A Complete Environment
Sound effects, music and dialogue accounts for around 50 percent of a movie budget. Just try watching a movie with no sound… This is why your sound system and room acoustics are every bit as important as the screen, maybe more so. Surround sound done properly should recreate the environment shown on the screen – when it is raining is should sound exactly like you are standing outside while it is raining.
How Many Speaker Channels?
We have all heard of Dolby Surround Sound, or maybe even 5.1. So what is that?
5.1 channels: Most DVDs and Blu-ray Discs™, some Super Audio CD (SACD) discs, and some streaming sources
6.1 channels: A few DVDs with Dolby® Digital Surround EX™ or similar encoding
7.1 channels: Some Blu-ray Discs (with more coming soon)
16 Channels: As of October 2013, Sony Pictures had 15 movies in production coming out with 16 channels of audio. Not really practical for home use but possible if you have a dedicated room and a large budget.
A good 5.1-channel system can give you the full surround sound experience.
7.1 channels improves the directionality of sound effects, gives better coverage and more
9.1-channel format, like Dolby Pro Logic® IIz, adds a pair of front height channels, further improving the sound
Choosing Your Speakers
With thousands of speakers to choose from, and since stores can only carry a few, side-by-side comparisons are difficult and not that useful anyway. For one thing, their room will sound much different than your room at home so to figure out speakers we usually start with the room size, then décor, then expectations. Then we see if the budget matches the criteria, if not we revise things until we have a fit.
Bigger = Better?
Generally, smaller speakers won’t play loudly enough in a big room, and large speakers will overpower a small room. Simple – not quite…
There is no correlation between speaker size and quality, and none between size and price. It is easy to find small speakers of extremely high quality so having a small room doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality. Subwoofers are exactly the same.
Here are a few tips:
Determine your budget before you shop so you don’t get oversold
Conversely, don’t have an unrealistically small budget either
Read some reviews to narrow your choices – look for trends or overall impressions of the brand, not just what is the latest and greatest. Remember most professional reviewers get free product in exchange for a good review…
Take your own favorite movie or DVD to the store and use those
If a store doesn’t let you use your own discs, shop somewhere else
None of us hears in exactly the same way. Trust your own ears
Take a look at the Dolby Home Theater Speaker Guide for complete information on speaker placement for any configuration. You’ll learn the advantages of each configuration and the role of each speaker.
Choosing Your Electronics
Audio Video Receivers – The Basic Building Block
This is your control center and power source. Audio Video Receivers combine the following:
A preamplifier with audio and video controls, processors, inputs, and outputs
A power amplifier to drive the speakers
A radio tuner for FM and sometimes AM and satellite bands
Everything in your home theater system connects to the A/V receiver. Be sure you get one with several HDMI® inputs and enough other inputs for all your sources.
If you play LPs or plan to, make sure the receiver has a phono input. If not, you’ll need a separate phono preamplifier.
How Much Power?
More is better, but watch out for bogus power ratings. In general, products from the US and Britain are conservatively rated, products from elsewhere play loose and fast with the numbers.
A couple of years ago we tested a Rotel receiver rated at a conservative 100 watts / channel against a Denon rated @ 160 watts / channel. It was easy to hear that the Rotel was louder and not distorted when set to 70%, the Denon sounded like it was about to blow up – distorted and not nearly as loud.
You can’t have too much power, but you can have too little. Surprisingly, small speakers sometimes require more power than larger ones. Check the power ratings for your speakers and don’t go under that.
Many A/V receivers now include room calibration to help you fine-tune your speaker placement. It uses a microphone (generally included) and self-generated test tones. The more expensive the receiver is, the more sophisticated this calibration can become. At Beyond Audio we use expensive professional calibration equipment for audio and video, software tools for analyzing all manner of signals and more.
Just kidding – this is only for hard core geeks, or those suffering from insomnia. Unless you are willing to invest hours just to understand the jargon, this will only confuse the matter. We all know that a little knowledge is dangerous and these manuals are chock full of options, jargon and acronyms, and little information that helps you figure out what you should be buying.
The use of separate components— power amplifiers and preamplifiers is an alternative to A/V receivers. Advantages:
Flexibility—more easily expandable and over time this becomes a savings
Power capability – you can have as much as desired and for larger rooms this is a must
Better overall performance
The only disadvantage is increased cost.
Home-Theater-in-a-Box (HTIB) Systems
Slightly easier setup
Quality directly related to the cost
Impossible to upgrade or add too
Sound bars are a very room-friendly alternative to separate loudspeakers.
Speakers from One Manufacturer – the System Approach
Your speakers need identicle “sound signatures” to create the most convincing surround effects. After all this is how movie sound is mixed in the recording studio, and played in a movie theatre. A speaker system made up of different brands / models is not a good choice. Getting all your speakers from the same manufacturer, in the same series will help ensure sound stage consistency.
Multichannel Playback from Your Stereo Recordings
Most receivers include Dolby Pro Logic II (or IIx or IIz) that can generate surround sound from any stereo source. The effect will vary, but live recordings in particular will deliver dramatic spaciousness. If your receiver offers Music and Movie modes, use those modes for listening and viewing.
MP3s: Don’t Expect Too Much
Strangely enough, MP3 music recordings that sound great through ear buds on your commute probably won’t sound as good on your home theater, especially at higher volumes. MP3 files are highly compressed, and you’ll hear the difference very quickly.
Receivers and amplifiers are rated in watts per channel. A typical specification (or spec) for an A/V receiver is 100 W × 5, meaning that each of the five channels can deliver 100 watts.
Ideally, all channels would be capable of delivering those 100 watts simultaneously, but this is usually the case only for top-of-the-line models or separate power amplifiers.
Although most speakers will play pretty loudly with only a few watts of input, you need the extra power to handle peaks, such as the sound of a gunshot.
Beyond Audio Blue Theatre
Online Movies, Music, Radio, and More
Online is the largest source for video and audio. Connect your home theater to the Internet, and you’ll probably find anything that’s available on disc or TV, in some form, with more coming all the time.
Where to Start
First, you’ll need a broadband connection to the Internet.
Next, you’ll need one home theater component that can connect to the Internet
A/V receiver (or preamp/controller)
Blu-ray Disc player
If you have an existing home theater setup but no components that can connect to the Internet, you can add a dedicated box. Some of the better-known examples include:
WD TV® Live Plus box
Streaming Online Content
You name it; it’s probably available online. Options include:
Pandora® Internet radio
Some of these require subscriptions. Although most content right now is standard definition (SD) and stereo, high definition (HD) with surround sound is rapidly becoming more available.
Getting the Best Sound from Your System
You’ll access these services through portals built into your connected component; you’ll see the logo on the screen. Not all components provide all services, so look at the manufacturer’s specification sheet before you buy.
Also, some components are better hubs for audio. We recommend a Blu-ray Disc™ player. It connects directly to your audio system and is designed to use onscreen access and navigation effectively.
With a few exceptions, the TV itself is not a good hub for multichannel audio. The sound has to be routed back to your home theater system, and the results may be unpredictable.
Discs, Cable, and TV Broadcasts
It’s popular right now to declare that optical discs—DVD and Blu-ray—are passé. Turns out they have many advantages:
Best picture quality anywhere and usually the best sound
1080p video, lossless audio
Best source for 3D movies and programs
Interactive features over an Internet connection
Growing inventory of feature films
Lots of titles
Good picture and sound quality
Inexpensive players and they play in Blue-ray players
Cable and Satellite
Cable and satellite services give you the widest range of programming. Other widely available advantages include:
Set-top boxes with built-in digital video recorders (DVRs) for time shifting
Extensive video-on-demand (VOD) offerings, both free and pay-per-view
HD quality varies. Services often use very aggressive compression in order to carry the maximum number of channels. This can degrade the signal and even cause pixelation
Plain Old Broadcast TV
Somewhat surprisingly, over-the-air digital TV broadcasts may offer the best HD quality after a Blu-ray Disc. If you were able to receive analog TV through an antenna in the past, you are able to get digital TV now. Not much of an option in Canada unless you are in a major centre.
Advantages and considerations:
Service is free
Programs generally use much less compression than cable or satellite broadcasts
An indoor antenna may work well; you don’t need a special digital antenna
Viewing is limited to local broadcast stations and their coverage areas
Games, Movies, Photos, and Mobile
Games become even more involving when you play them on a home theater system. Simply connect your game player to the receiver, and select it as you would any other source.
Many newer HD video cameras will connect directly to your system through an HDMI connection.
Similarly, many newer digital still cameras have HDMI outputs, so you can view your photographs on the TV screen.
Many receivers include docks for popular players. New players and smartphones can also connect via HDMI or USB. Smartphones with Dolby Digital Plus, like this Nokia® N8, can let you play downloaded movies and videos on your home theater in full surround sound.
Cutting the Cord
Canceling your cable or satellite TV service may be a viable and money-saving option, depending on your viewing priorities and your location. Ideally, you’ll need the following:
4.5 to 5 Mbps broadband connection
Access to a wide variety of streaming services through your choice of equipment
Ability to receive over-the-air network and local TV broadcasts
Of course, if your cable or satellite company is also your ISP, cancel only the TV service.
Wireless or Ethernet?
A wired connection is faster, less prone to interference and needs less hardware to work
But wireless connections have their own advantages – less clutter, easier to install if your Internet access point is in a different room
If you use Wi-Fi, be sure to set up Wi-Fi security so that nearby computers can’t “borrow” your bandwidth. Your Electronic Systems Integrator can help with this and ensure you are safe from hackers.
Choosing the Right Video Display
When choosing your display, the main considerations are the display type (LCD, plasma, projector), screen size, and resolution.
Flat-panel displays are the most popular of course; the choice is between LCD or plasma. Both offer great feature sets provided they are used in the correct environment and for the correct application.
Thinner, lighter, and more energy-efficient
Available in a larger range of sizes
Due to the glass used, they have less reflections which offers an advantage for daytime watching
Smoother motion which is particularly good for watching sporting events and a very wide viewing angle with a much larger “sweet spot”
Projection can be the best choice if you have room.
Provides the biggest—and often best—picture.
Is best suited for a larger room – great room, family room, in which you can control the light
It does require a video projection screen – please don’t use the wall!
The only disadvantage is the projector plus installation plus screen will cost more, but you get more so…
Take your room dimensions into account, then get the biggest set you’re comfortable watching. Popular home theater sizes go from 42 “to 90 for TV’s, projection systems have no upper limit.
1080p resolution is the popular standard. A 1080p display has a resolution of 1920 × 1080 pixels. Higher resolutions are available; 10X this resolution can be had from a Meridian Projection System.
Home Theater Connections
Almost every display has a variety of connection options. Here are the most common:
HDMI – HDMI provides the best and simplest way to connect your TV to your home theatre or media room system:
One-cable connection between components
Ability to carry video and multichannel audio
Component Video for connections to older components (some set-top boxes, for example)
Uses RCA connectors
Composite Video for older components like VCRs
Single connection for standard-definition video
Uses RCA connectors
Also called S/PDIF, carries Dolby Digital signal
For components without HDMI and for many audio only sources
Uses optical (Toslink™) or coaxial (RCA) connector
Analog Audio for connecting to older stereo-only audio components
Conventional stereo connection
Uses RCA connectors or F-Type Threaded connector
For connecting to antenna or cable service (with no set-top box)
For computer input
Portable music devices / smart phones and tablet
LAN / RJ45
For computer networking
For Internet-enabled sets
May require specialized tools
TV Tips: LED, LCD, and Internet TVs
Lots of jargon and claims go along with the available information on modern TV’s. Here are some clear explanations of various features and considerations you will encounter.
LED or LED-LCD TV
This refers to the type of backlight used for LCD TVs. For years, LCD screens used fluorescent (CCFL) backlights. Now LED backlights are gaining popularity.
Allow local dimming
Local dimming creates a backlight image in sync with the LCD screen. This allows purer blacks, better detail resolution, and a wider dynamic range—which add up to a better image.
Most displays are set up at the factory to look their best on a wall in a retail store. They’re too bright and too blue and will be fatiguing to watch for a longer period of time.
Many big box stores attempt to hook you into spending big money for a simple TV calibration service. Buy a TV from us, have Beyond Audio technicians install it and we will calibrate the TV during the installation at no additional charge.
The vast majority of HDTV sets now include an Ethernet connections so you can get streaming services. For a home theater, however, you may get better results using a separate component like an Apple TV.
TV Size vs. Room Size
Min. Viewing Distance
Max. Viewing Distance
Setting Up Your Home Theatre
Room Acoustics and Your Home Theater
Room acoustics can affect your sound as much as your component choices can, and the decor of the room you choose for a home theater affects the acoustics.
Optimizing the Room
Test the acoustics by clapping your hands. Do you hear “ringing” afterward? That means your room reflects too much sound.
You can do a few things to help:
Place area rugs directly in front of the speakers
Close the drapes when you’re watching or listening
Use bookshelves or other elements that are not flat to help redirect and diffuse the sound
Make sure the speakers are not being blocked in any way
Balance hard and soft surfaces: for example, compensate for a hard ceiling with a carpeted floor
Room-tuning components such as absorption panels, diffusers and bass absorbers They can be attractive, and will improve the sound greatly. See our Sound Control section for some ideas.
These include all the cables you use to connect one component to another. Look for:
Good-quality connectors that fit together solidly
Ethernet cables that are at least Category 6
Be aware that video cables and audio interconnects are not interchangeable, even though they may look alike.
Buyer Beware / Insider Tip.
Any cable that comes in fancy packing, is being extensively talked about by the salesman, or is a cable brand you have EVER heard of is overpriced – typically way, way overpriced.
We have done our own double blind tests on cables to make sure we are providing real value to our clients. We use commercial grade cables that come in plastic bags with no marketing hype. Great quality and great value for money. You don’t need a $ 75.00 cable to connect a $ 135.00 cable box. EVER!
Speaker cable is essentially the same type of wire used for lamps, toasters, and other appliances. Your home theater retailer typically will offer several choices – see the insider tip above.
HDMI Cables – a bit more complicated
HDMI 1.4 for instance adds 3D and other capabilities which you may or may not need. If the cable specification says “High-Speed HDMI,” it will work with HDMI 1.4 for instance – except maybe not…
HDMI 1.4 supports Ethernet. If you want to use this capability and have equipment that can deal with this signal, you will need a cable that is “High-Speed HDMI with Ethernet.” They all look the same by the way.
Furniture – Do You Need Specific Audio Video or Home Theatre Furniture?
Although any kind of shelving may do, furniture designed for home theatre / media room equipment has many advantages:
Hiding wires: A/V furniture often has options that route and or conceal wiring
Convenience: pullout shelves or removable backs in A/V furniture can make hookup vastly easier
Ventilation: extra space or vented shelves / sides / rear panels in A/V furniture keeps things cool
Media storage: keep your discs and other physical media together
We don’t recommend putting speakers on furniture that also houses the home theater components. The vibrations can affect the sound and will shorten component life. Sometimes this placement is unavoidable, particularly the center-channel speaker, and there are options.
This is an excellent alternative to buying furniture for your TV display, and a great way to get the speakers off the floor and in the right locations. There are dozens of solutions available, a few examples can be found here.
Final touches to complete your home theater system.
Get a GREAT universal remote control. Make sure it actually is easy to use. Designs differ greatly! Make sure the person selling you this item really knows their stuff – we re-do a lot of systems that were supposed to be simple to use and were anything but simple.
Use surge protection.
Be sure the surge protector is large enough for the wattage of all connected components.
Better still, a power conditioner which includes surge protection. Many also filter the power to reduce or eliminate electrical interference. Prices for power conditioners range greatly and should be designed to match the rest of your system.
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