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Home theater systems: The buyer’s guide

By The Vann’s Editorial Team
Last revised December 4th, 2009

Not too many years ago, a home theater system consisted of a TV and a VCR. But today, most home theaters include a lot more than just two components. There are cable boxes, Blu-ray players, HDTVs, A/V receivers, speakers, plus the classic VCR. And without some pretty extensive training, building an ideal home theater for your home can be downright difficult. Thankfully, we’re here to help with this guide to home theater systems.

The first thing you’ll need to decide when building your perfect home theater setup is what you want to include. Are you a movie fanatic? Or do you prefer to sit back with your eyes closed, enveloped in your favorite music? Maybe you enjoy a mix of the two. Or maybe you really just want a place to watch football with your friends. What you listen to and watch has a big effect on what your ideal theater will be. Here’s a quick breakdown of what different types of media users should look for.

The true audiophile

If you listen to a lot of music, and don’t watch movies that often, your biggest priority will probably be the quality of sound. CDs and Vinyl both have two channels standard, so if you’re on a tight budget, good left and right speakers with a two-channel receiver and possibly a subwoofer should suit you pretty well. The number of audio “channels” refers to the number of unique sound signals played at one time. Even if you watch TV or movies quite a bit, if you listen to music frequently, a good set of floorstanding front speakers is a wise investment. A subwoofer is also a great idea for even the semi-audiophile. Since a subwoofer is denoted as “.1” in channel nomenclature, that would be a 2.1-channel system. But, expanding to a 5.1-channel set-up (if you have the room) will allow the same two-channel music to surround you better, tricking your mind into thinking the sound is fuller than it is. This is also good for the times when you do watch movies. You’ll also want 5.1 channels if you listen to HD radio or watch HDTV much, since these carry 5.1 channels of sound. But again, the most important factor for the avid audiophile should be the quality of the sound, so make sure to check out reviews and reputation of equipment before buying. Don’t go just for the speaker setups with the most Watts or the most channels — get the best sound your budget will allow.

Mr. Ebert:

If you can quote every line from every movie ever made, you’re in for a treat. Not long ago, the best way to watch a movie at home was a VCR tape with SD video and L/R audio. Then came DVD with 5.1-channel audio and things like bonus features and skip controls. Today, you can get a true theater experience at home. How? Simple: Blu-ray. With Blu-ray movies, the picture can be more than six times as detailed as on a DVD, plus you get two more channels of audio, and every audio channel is now uncompressed. All of this comes together to bring you a home theater experience better than ever before. However, to take full advantage of Blu-ray technology, you’ll need several things in your home theater. First, a Full HD 1080p television is essential. You’ll also want to get a receiver that can handle at least seven audio channels plus a subwoofer, and a 7.1-channel speaker system. Then, of course, you’ll need the Blu-ray player. Blu-ray players can also play DVDs and CDs, so your current collection is still covered when you upgrade. If you’re a very visual person and sound is a secondary concern, if your space is tight, or if you’re on a tight budget, you may want to stick with a 5.1-channel setup. It will be missing two of the channels from Blu-ray discs, but uncompressed surround sound will still sound better than on DVDs, and when watching TV or older movie formats, you won’t be missing anything. However, it’s still recommended that you get a receiver that can handle 7.1 or more channels so that you have the option to expand your system later.

The cable guy:

If you mainly use your home theater for watching TV programming, your needs are going to be a little different than the movie aficionado. There are two common types of programming for TV shows: Standard definition (SD) and High Definition (HD). SD shows are the most common and are broadcast at a resolution of 480i with L/R audio. HD channels boast 720p resolution with 5.1-channel digital sound. For a full explanation of resolution, please see our article entitled “TV resolution: Why it matters to you.” Soon, a few select channels from certain carriers will be broadcast in 1080p. So, you have several options. If you’re mainly interested in TV, and not too worried about future-proofing your set-up, a 720p HDTV is a great choice. It will display regular HD channels and DVDs perfectly, and most Blu-ray players will down-convert and output Blu-ray movies to 720p. They won’t look as great as 1080p, but still better than DVD’s 480i. A 5.1-channel audio system is a good choice if you mainly watch TV. This will ensure you get the full sound experience from HDTV, SDTV, and DVD movies, plus the most important sound channels from Blu-ray discs. However, if you plan on watching Blu-ray movies much now or in the future, it’s a good idea to get a 7.1-channel receiver so you could add two more speakers to your 5.1 setup if you want to later.

The balanced act:

If you’re reading this and wondering which category to put yourself in, don’t worry. Most Americans listen to music, watch TV, and enjoy movies in their home theater. If you’re on the fence about what you’ll use your system most for, we’ve still got you covered. If you watch movies and TV most, your best bet is going to be a 1080p TV with either a 5.1-channel or 7.1-channel setup, depending on space, budget, and preferences. For mainly TV and music playback, a 5.1-channel audio system with a 720p or 1080p TV should suit you well. You could also choose to stick to two channels for space or budget reasons without sacrificing too much. With 5.1 channels or two, though, you should strongly consider getting a good set of front speakers. For playing mainly music and movies, or for a fairly equal mix of the three, you’ll probably want a 1080p TV with at least a 5.1-channel set-up, including a 7.1-channel receiver for expansion possibilities.

Hopefully now thinking about what you’ll be using your home theater to play has given you a general idea of what you’re looking for. Now it’s time to consider the other factors in what components will be the best additions to your set-up.

Where’s it going?

The next major question you need to address is what room your home theater will be placed in. The space you’re occupying can be a major factor in both what you have space for, and what would work well in your area. For example, if you live in any sort of multi-plex, you’ll probably be looking for a more tame system than if you’re in your own space (although if you’ll be in your own home soon, look for a system that can expand). You might love the sound of dual subwoofers, but your neighbors may not appreciate hearing the final battle in Lord of the Rings at three in the morning. Aside from just a subwoofer, though, if you’re living with close neighbors, you probably won’t need as much power in your system as you would in your own pad, since you won’t get to crank the volume to 11 very often without disturbing people, so maximum power will rarely matter. Available space can also be a limiting factor. A standard-sized 7.1-channel set-up just isn’t practical in a small apartment living room. If you’re really cramped and all you can fit in are a pair of front speakers, then that’s your best bet. If you’re allowed to drill into the wall, many speakers have the ability to be wall-mounted, so that’s a great way to add surround speakers without using much space, but if you can’t put holes in the wall, you may need to settle for a smaller system. However, if you’re short on space but craving surround, look into options like virtual surround sound or a soundbar. Either of these products will simulate a full surround set without the full set’s footprint. Another way that your home theater area impacts your decision is that the amount of space you have helps dictate how much sound you need. In a large room, you will need more power to get the same amount of sound you would in a small room. However, this is tough to give a general guide for. The reason is that the power measurement in speakers is very limited in practice. Just like how horsepower is not equal to a car’s speed, a speaker with higher Wattage may sound worse than a more efficient, lower-powered speaker. However, the general rule remains that it takes more sound to fill a larger room. How close you sit to the speakers also matters — the closer you are to the sound, the less sound you need. The environment of the room is another factor. A crowded room will absorb less sound than a more open room, so the open room would need more sound. The texture of the room, and the objects in it makes a difference as well. A room full of soft surfaces like couches and carpet will absorb more than a tiled room with harder surfaces, so the “softer” room will need more sound to achieve the same volume. This sounds really complex, but remember that it’s just a general guide so if you think about your room in comparison to most rooms, you should have an idea of what to look for in the range of speakers. A smaller, cluttered room without a lot of soft surfaces won’t take much sound to get loud; a large, open, soft room will absorb a lot of sound, so it will take a lot of power to “feel the noise.” Remember that how much sound you need also depends how loud you like your music. And if you’re debating between two sets, it’s probably a good idea to go with the slightly louder ones, since you can always turn the volume down if you need, but sound quality gets very poor if you try to play sounds louder than your speaker can handle. You can also damage speakers that way.

This concept is a lot easier to generalize for video than audio. With most modern TVs, it’s recommended that you take the screen size (diagonal) times two to three to determine how far away to sit. But usually the TV is being placed in an existing theater, so you can reverse the math and figure out that a TV with a screen slightly smaller than half the distance from the couch to the screen is ideal. For example, in a moderately large theater room, you’ll sit about ten feet from the screen, so you’ll want a TV in the 50”-60” range. If budget is an issue, a smaller screen will usually be fine, and you can often scoot the couch a little closer. In the example we used, a 40” screen would have still been within the recommendation. We don’t suggest getting a larger TV with a lower resolution because that’s what your area should have and that’s what fits in your budget; it’s better to give a couple inches than drop in resolution.

How much do you want to spend?

How much you’re willing to spend to get great sound and video is another primary factor in setting up your home theater system. Your budget can make a big difference in your ultimate decision. In this economy, careful budgeting is very important. With that in mind, remember to try to make your personal budget go as far as possible. Look for value. But, don’t overspread your budget. If you buy a full set-up of low-quality components now, you may spend more upgrading in the long run than spending the same amount today on a few high-quality components. If you’re craving a full surround set, but can’t squeeze a whole set into the budget, consider Virtual Surround Sound or a soundbar to simulate real surround from one or two speakers. One really great idea when you’re on a tight budget is to invest in a system you can build on. That way you can act conservatively now if you’re debating what to get by making decisions like buying a 5.1-channel set, and if you decide you want the two additional channels, you can easily add them later. You may not have piles of cash to spend now, but in the future, you can add more speakers or better components to your system without replacing much if you plan accordingly. The receiver is the most important piece of equipment for expansion. As the brains and the driving force of your home theater, the receiver should be carefully selected. Having great speakers and components played through a poor receiver will result in much worse results than you could get otherwise. Also, if you get a 5.1-channel receiver now and want to expand to a 7.1-channel system later, you would need to buy a whole new receiver, so be sure to invest in a receiver that can last you for years. Another item you want to keep for years to come is the HDTV. If you get a 720p set now because it’s cheaper, and want to enjoy Full HD down the road, you’ll need to replace it. When it comes to speakers, you have some tough decisions to make. If money is tight, would you rather have more channels, or better speakers? This will depend on your preferences. Most people don’t notice subtle changes in the sound they hear, so a less expensive surround set of slightly lower quality will sound about the same as the more expensive one. Even if someone could hear the differences when comparing the sets side by side, the cheaper set would sound great on its own to most people, so without a comparison, the differences wouldn’t be a factor, as long as both sets could handle the amount of power they receive. Some people, though, have very distinguishing hearing. If your ears are sensitive, it may well be worth springing for the better set. For the most distinguishing ears, it may even be a smart financial idea to start out with top-quality front speakers and expand from there so that over time, the entire set will sound excellent, even to super-sensitive hearing. One more note: when budgeting a system, don’t forget your cables. While some cables, like digital cables, are fairly comparable across the price range, others, like speaker wire, can make a huge difference in performance. With poor speaker wire, great speakers won’t sound near as great as they should, so make sure to include cables in your planning. It also might be a good idea to budget for a good universal remote control to manage all of your home theater components.

Keep the peace

When you build your home theater set-up, there is another thing you need to keep in mind. You need to ensure that all of your components work well together. So, if you plan on using an HDMI input from your receiver to your TV, you need to be sure that your TV has an HDMI input and that your receiver has an HDMI output. Double-check that you have the correct outputs and inputs for all your equipment. Your receiver needs to have at least as many speaker outputs as you have speakers in your home theater. Your speakers should also be capable of handling as much power as your receiver outputs to a single speaker, at least if you intend to have the volume ever turned up full blast. If you won’t crank the volume all the way, it’s probably OK to go with speakers that are not rated to the same power as your receiver, but remember that if you’re not careful, speakers can be damaged. And just for good measure, it probably wouldn’t hurt to make sure all of your equipment will look good together in your home theater environment.

All told . . .

This article has a lot of information in it and a lot to consider. It’s intended only as a general guideline. Since each person’s wants and needs will be different, and product lineups change all the time, it’s not possible to make a guide that tells you exactly what components to put in your system. But, we really hope that this article helps you figure out what to look for in home theater products. After evaluating your personal situation, this guide should have helped you determine the number of channels you need, the video resolution you’re looking for, how important sound quality is to you, how much sound you need for your area, your budget, and size of components you need. If you still have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re passionate about this stuff, and we love helping customers find the solutions to their questions.

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