written by Mike Shea on 21 November 1999
This article will go through the various components that make up a home theater and tell you what to look for and what to ignore. This document is meant to be relatively timeless so specific components aren't mentioned here. Certain trends in home theater make it impossible to not date this article, but the guidelines are more general than specific. For more specifics, read the Equipment Recommendations article. There are four main components of a home theater system. These include a video display, a source, an audio decoder and speakers.
The video display is the most important component of your home theater. If the picture doesn't look good or isn't big enough, it will lower the impact of the movie considerably. The display is also probably the most expensive piece of a home theater, generally covering half of the total value of the system. There are so many types of displays but the ones to look at are traditional tube TVs for the lower end systems, rear projection TVs for mid range systems and front projection systems for high end system. For more information on home theater displays, see the Guide to Digital Television and Digital TV Part 2.
The best component for a strong home theater is a big widescreen TV. For $1700 you can get a 50+ inch widescreen HDTV monitor that will give you the full benefit of DVDs.
The following list outlines important features and the price range of TVs they are found in. If you are spending a certain amount of money, make sure it has the features marked for that price range.
DVD is the best and most popular format to watch films at home. The high resolution video, six channel audio, extra features and cost of DVDs make them the hot ticket for home video. DVD Players come in many shapes and sizes, but it is usually the features that sell the player. If you have a Dolby Digital receiver, don't worry about getting a built in decoder, it is unnecessary. Many full fledged players can be purchased for about $100. Also look for component video out - not just composite or S-video - if you plan on hooking this up to a newer high quality television. Panasonic, Sony, and Pioneer all make great DVD players. It is probably better spent money on a better display or speakers than a higher end player.
Progressive DVD players are now on the market that offer a much better picture for high definition tvs. Progressive dvd players run about $100 more than a standard DVD player, but are only needed for high end displays.
DVD Player Checklist
While many audio purists will tell you differently, there is a much bigger difference in the sound of speakers than there is in the sound of audio electronics. Definitely pick a receiver that has Dolby Digital and DTS. Usual starting place for this is $300. More money gets you more power and higher quality components. Lower quality but much less expensive systems include Sony and Pioneer. Avoid all the special DSP modes in favor of a powerful system of high quality.
Don't let the power numbers fool you. A lot of manufacturers (ahem, SONY!) fudge up their statistics. Make sure that the power rating is for full range, all channels driven. Many folks will give you the wattage with a single channel driving 1000hz. Look for about 85 watts per channel with all channels driving full range. Good brand names include Yamaha, Denon, and Marantz.
Audio Electronics Checklist
The main goal of a speaker is to produce accurate sound from the highest note (20khz) to the lowest (20hz). Very few speakers can reproduce full range sound in one box, thus we need a subwoofer. The easiest and cheapest way to get full range is with bookshelf speakers and an external subwoofer. You can get a good pair of bookshelf speakers that have a flat frequency response from 20khz down to about 80hz with low distortion for around $150 to $350. The key to remember is the woofer size. With anything smaller than a 5" woofer it will be really hard to get down to that 80hz that is needed for localized sound. Little woofers just don't cut it and you will have a frequency hole in your sound. When setting up a good dolby digital system, your front speakers should sonicly match your center and surrounds. Make sure they are of the same model range and same manufacturer.
Good features to look for in speakers are five way binding posts. They have a tendency to show the difference between lower quality speakers and higher quality ones although physically the binding posts make little if any sonic difference.
To fill out the 90hz and lower a subwoofer is needed. Given the amount of air that needs to be pushed, getting to 20hz flat is very difficult and only the best subwoofers get there with little distortion. With the amount of money you save on bookshelf speakers, plan on around $700 for a subwoofer that will reach the proper frequencies at the proper power. $300 is about as low as you can go for the smallest subs and high end subs can hit $2000. See my Subwoofer Buyers Guide for subwoofer purchase tips and best buys.
One of the biggest debates among audiophiles seems to be based around interconnects. A large group of "Golden Ear" critics state that the interconnects between your components make as much a difference as the components themselves. Companies like Audio Advisor sell interconnects for as high as $1600 a pair. Other groups of scientific realists shoot down these claims that high end cable makes a difference and state that any good 14 gauge wire will do. I am personally with the latter. There is nothing wrong with inexpensive speaker wire or electronic interconnects. As long as the proper gauge is used (14 for fronts, 16 for surrounds) and the line level interconnects are shielded to avoid RF interference there shouldn't be a problem. Spend the real money on displays, speakers and components, then fill it out with good quality (not necessarily name brand) interconnects for less than $300 for a full set. The bi-wire facade is another thing to avoid. I have to admit that with all my speakers being capable of biwiring, I was drawn towards it. It seemed so high end to me. The electrical fact of the matter is that biwiring can't make any audible difference. So the bottom line is go for a decent shielded cable and decent speaker wire (14 and 16 gauge) but don't let the name or the price sell you, Radio Smack is fine.
No system is worthwhile if you cannot properly control it. A good universal remote with learning capability is a must-have for any good home theater system. These aren't always cheap, the sweet spot seems to be about $100. Although setup is sometimes very time consuming, the results will be a simple and powerful interface to your home theater.
The last and most important aspect to home theater is setup and the environment. Nothing is worse than a high price home theater that hasn't been properly calibrated or is in an environment that doesn't do it justice. Follow the Liquidtheater Certification Plan closely and calibrate the system properly with the THX Optimizer.
Now that you have pieced together the perfect system, it is time to set it up. With these basic guidelines, a good system can be had for not a lot of money. Put your money in the right place. There is no sense spending $1200 in speaker wire when you could buy the same length for $2 and buy another subwoofer. This can be a very rewarding experience for every member of the family. You will soon be enjoying Sphere and Anaconda exactly as they were meant to be seen.
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