Home Theater Systems
Getting a home theater set up correctly can be a confusing task, with lots of new technical terminology to learn. This article has been written to give you a breakdown of the main components of a home theater system, so you can plan with confidence. It is helpful to plan your home theater setup in terms of three distinct systems, that can each be broken down into a range of devices. Broadly speaking, the three systems are input, processing, and output, but let’s take a look at these in a little more detail.
Input devices are basically anything that will provide an audio or visual source to be played through your home theater system. Commonly this would include a DVD or Blu-Ray combo player, a TV signal, and an audio source like a CD player and radio. Often these would be combined into a single unit that can play a range of media formats. Input could be from a range of other sources though, like a digital camera, USB, or even a home theater PC.
Processing would typically consist of a device or devices that take signal from the input devices, and amplify or process the signal. An example of this is a home theater receiver. Receivers can combine many functions for convenience, even having some input devices in one combined unit. Home theater receivers switch between a range of incoming signals if you have several devices attached, decode or convert signals to the correct output format, and send the signal to the output devices.
Receivers may offer advanced features such as the ability to stream a separate audio signal to another location in the house, and a wireless connection allowing playback from any bluetooth or wireless device. An alternative to a single receiver is to use a surround sound decoder with a dedicated amplifier to boost the signal. This route might be better suited to true audio purists though.
Output devices are the fun part of your home theater system, so make good quality here your priority. While a simple home stereo setup can get away with good quality 2.1 speakers, surround sound speakers immerse you in audio, with a choice between 5.1 or even 7.1 surround speakers for those with the room to install them. Of course, wireless speakers are one solution to the mess of cables required. The other output device, and the most obvious, is a visual display. Flatscreen LCD or plasma TVs are the most common choices, offering an impressive experience for a reasonable price. Each has its advantages, but both offer great quality. For those with space to set up a dedicated home theater room, projectors offer the closest you can get to a movie, at home – but these come at a premium price and have some ongoing costs involved.
Setting it up
Before you really start planning, think about the use of the room you will use. If you are planning a serious home theater room, a 7.1 surround system, large screen and dedicated furniture might be on the cards. If your room doubles as a family lounge area, your system might by necessity be a little more modest. Of course modest doesn’t have to mean low quality, with many manufacturers offering all in one package solutions. Think about the location of power sockets too, as you will need to supply power to all speakers as well as your main system. The services of an electrician might be required in advance if your sockets aren’t positioned well.
This is a simple home theater design, with a 5.1 suround sound speaker setup, and DVD/cable TV fed through a receiver. When putting a home theater system together, it helps to sketch out how your system will fit together, to get a good understanding of how it all works. Consider all of the features you want in your system and shop around carefully. The beauty of a modular system though is that you can add parts to allow playback of almost anything, at any point. Docks for popular media devices like iPhones or other mp3 players are a popular addition.
Once the components are laid out and connected together, your home theater seating is in the ideal spot, and you get to hit that power switch, there’s still more to do. Optimizing your system will require careful tweaking of speaker positions, to find the ‘sweet spot’ in the center of your speakers. Once you find the best spot, individual speakers can be adjusted until the sound levels are just right from every angle. It can be hard to get your speakers sounding just right, so don’t be afraid to have a professional (or knowledgeable friend) help you out.
After all this planning and effort, you can enjoy your new home theater system! Although it sounds complex, don’t be put off – coming up with a system that lets you play all your media collection with ease and great quality can be a very rewarding job – and one that will give you pleasure for years to come.
Tips for Choosing a Home Cinema Projector
One of the first things you’ll want to consider when choosing a home cinema projector is the resolution you want. If you’re used to watching a standard television, then you might be surprised at how much the picture clarity and crispness improves when you watch something through a projector. Of course, if you choose a very inexpensive projector with low resolution, there won’t be much difference.
Anything 720p or higher will have a much better picture than a regular TV, though it won’t really do high-definition images justice. For the best HD viewing, you’ll want a 1080p resolution home cinema projector. The difference is the number of vertical pixels in the image. A 720p has 720 vertical pixels and 1280 horizontal pixels, while a 1080p as 1080 vertical pixels and 1920 horizontal.
Just as on a computer monitor, pixels are the tiny dots of color that make up an image. The more pixels in the space, the better and more detailed a picture will be. That’s why a 1080p has a far clearer picture than even a 720p home cinema projector, and the difference is dramatic when compared to a standard TV image. A 720p project has over 2 times as many pixels as a high-quality DVD image, and a 1080p projector has over 2 times as many pixels as a 720p. You can also purchase a 480p projector, which has almost twice as many pixels as a standard TV, but won’t give you the best quality and won’t make much difference on high-definition images. If you’re investing in a projector, get at least a 720p for the best results.
Another serious consideration in choosing between home cinema projectors is the brightness. This is measured in something called lumens. You’ll want to consider the room you plan to use the projector in when deciding how bright you need it to be. If you can control the light in the room and make it dark for viewing, then you won’t need as powerful a projector. A 1000 lumens projector, at minimum, should work fine. If you have a lot of light in the room and particularly a lot of light on the screen, you’ll need a brighter projector to make the picture clear and dark enough for good viewing. You can purchase 2000 or even 2500 lumens projectors if necessary.
The screen size you purchase to go with your home cinema projector is a matter of personal preference. But it’s best to choose one with an aspect ratio of 16:9 instead of 4:3 (these numbers will be on the package) because more modern media is created in that ratio and will look best on your screen, regardless of the size.
Home Theater Wiring
Whether you are setting up a complete home theater system or just adding a new device to your existing setup, it can be confusing figuring out the best way to connect it all up efficiently while maintaining the best signal quality. Often there are several ways you can do things, so it pays to think carefully before you start your home theater wiring, particularly if you are going to buy cables which can be quite expensive. For example when I recently built a home theatre PC, I originally bought S-Video and 3.5mm stereo to RCA cables, intending to hook up the audio out via RCA and image via S-Video. Then I realised that the two inputs on the TV were on separate AV channels. Fortunately I got around it by doing what I should have done in the first place, which was to use a HDMI cable to carry both audio and video with great quality. In the end, the money I spent trying to do it cheap was wasted!
There’s a few different types of cable used to transmit audio and visual signals between devices. Some home theater cables handle both signals, while others are audio or visual only. Some of these cables can handle higher quality signals than others, and some are better for applications that require a longer cable between devices. With this in mind, lets take a look at some of the types of home theatre wiring out there, and the terminology you will encounter. We will also look at the steps you can follow when planning how to hook up a custom system.
Home Theatre Wiring Formats
Home theatre cable standards can be broadly divided into those designed to carry either analog or digital signals. An analog signal is one where the signal can have a range of different values, whereas a digital signal transmits data as either an on or off value (binary data). Examples of devices using an analog signal are CRT TVs, speakers, vinyl records etc. Devices that use digital signals include flatscreen TVs and computers (although these often have decoders built in to convert analog information to or from digital). If an analog signal needs to be carried over a digital format cable, it will generally need to decoded and recoded (converted) at each end. For example if you want to display an image from a home theatre PC on an analog screen, you need a way to convert the output to analogue – often requiring a signal convertor box if your PC doesn’t support analog output directly. Note that the conversion of an analog to digital signal, or vice versa, can introduce quality loss each time the signal is changed, with this being particularly dependent on the components used to translate the signal.
HDMI is one of the newer digital cable standards. It carries multiple channels of uncompressed video and audio, allowing a single connection to carry data between a disc player and a home theatre receiver between any other digital input source and a TV, or anywhere that an audiovisual signal needs to be carried. HDMI also allows devices to communicate where supported, meaning that an output device can potentially ‘see’ a display device and work out which format to send – so your DVD player knows whether to send a 720i or 1080p signal to your With HDMI, or in fact any digital cable, the quality and length of the cable can make a big difference to the signal quality. HDMI cables are rated as either standard or high speed based on their capacity with high speed being required to transmit full HD signals at a high refresh rate – for example a TV showing 1080p/100Hz would likely need a high speed cable. It’s worth noting that cable quality can vary though, and a lower quality cable might be good enough over a short distance. If you need to run a HDMI cable over a distance of more than 5 meters, opt for a high speed cable.
DVI cables are designed to carry high quality digital video data. Although this format is mainly used for PCs, it does appear on digital TVs, and some other home theatre devices. DVI-HDMI converters can be used where needed without loss, but DVI does not carry an audio signal. Some DVI-HDMI convertors allow an audio signal to be ‘patched in’ so that the audio signal is carried over the HDMI cable as well.
Component is an analog video cable which provides a high quality image by splitting the color information into separate channels for red, green and blue. Component cables use RCA plugs, and are sometimes confused with composite cables for this reason.
S-Video is an analog video format. Cables commonly come with a round 4 pin connector that separates color and brightness into different channels. Although lower quality than component, it is generally considered to provide a better image than composite cable.
Composite is an older analog format, but is still commonly seen as an input option for many devices. The familiar format is red, white and yellow RCA cables to carry left and right audio, and video.
Unless you’re using a wireless speaker system, audio is carried to each speaker by paired speaker cable. Speaker cables vary widely in quality, with thicker wires often providing a better signal. Cabling materials make a difference too – copper wire is most common, but silver and gold can both provide better signal transmission for those with a very large amount of money to spend. Gold is commonly used for speaker cable connections. Longer speaker cable distances can cause some loss of quality, but at normal distances in a home theatre room this will often not be noticeable or even measurable. Speaker cable can be connected using several different methods, either bare wire cable ends that are clipped or screwed in or banana plugs, which can easily be wired up if your speakers require them.
Planning and putting it together
When it comes time to plan a home theatre system, it helps to sketch out the components you are connecting. Consider the output and input formats that each component has – this will tell you what cables you need. Opt for the highest quality at each step to get the best home theatre experience – for example if you have a choice of HDMI or Composite inputs on your new TV, do yourself a favour and use the HDMI! If you can minimise the length of cable needed wherever possible this may make a difference – it’s best to position your components first, and measure the distance between each to find the shortest cable you can get away with.