Home Theatre Buying Guide


Watching a movie in your own home theater is a great way to escape reality without leaving the house. But before forging ahead with a home theater construction project, you’ll need to put serious time into planning the system. The biggest decision will be what room to put your home theater in. Next comes the selection of video and audio components, as well as the accessories that bring everything together. And then there’s the issue of cost: Setting a realistic budget for the project and sticking to it will save you plenty of headaches in the long run.

Another decision to make when planning a home theater is whether to personally install the equipment or hire professionals to handle the project. If you’re a tech-savvy DIY type, there’s no reason why you can’t do things on your own. Along with saving loads of money, you’ll gain intimate knowledge of the gear — a big plus when troubleshooting any future problems. On the other hand, a custom installation company can design the system for you, steer you toward the latest and greatest toys, and then integrate everything in such a way that the equipment doesn’t clutter up the room.

Your home theater doesn’t have to be the only space in the house where you watch movies and listen to music; you may want to also consider a multiroom system that lets you access tunes or TV from any room you happen to be hanging out in. And if you’re really serious about sound and picture quality, there are several room treatment options to consider that can take your system’s performance to the next level. All of these topics and more will be covered in our guide to home theater planning. Hopefully, reading it will help you to avoid some common installation mistakes — ones that can cost both time and money.


Okay, you’ve decided to install a home theater by yourself. Now you’ll need a game plan for getting all that equipment set up and running smoothly. The following guide will walk you through the main points of home theater setup, from finding the right distance to sit from the TV’s screen to adjusting room lighting to get the best picture quality.

After deciding on a TV, the most basic setup step is to determine how far away you should sit from it. High-definition programs on cable, satellite, and disc are packed with picture detail, so you’ll want to sit close enough to see it — but not so close that you can detect the individual pixels that make up the image. Our guide will provide a few examples of recommended seating distances for common TV screen sizes.

The next step will be to unbox your components and run all the cables that connect them to the TV and speaker system. A wide variety of A/V furniture, wall-mounting hardware, and cable-concealing solutions are available to help streamline this process. We’ll cover those bases, and also offer some tips for achieving a clean, professional-looking installation.

The final part of your home theater setup will be tweaking the system for the best possible picture and sound. Although some of these adjustments can me made by using your own gear’s setup menus along with commercially available test DVDs, there are times when you need to call in a pro to take things to the next level. And then there are the esoteric areas of home theater setup — things like room correction and lighting automation. We’ll give you the lowdown on those subjects and more in the following section.


A home theater system can be as basic as a bigscreen TV and speakers squeezed into your current living room. It can also be an elaborate, custom-designed movie palace with plush seating and a projector and screen that slide out of the ceiling. The end result depends on how you choose accessorize your system, and the following guide will give you an overview of what kinds of home theater accessories are available.

Basic accessories that we recommend for any home theater include a power conditioner and learning remote control. The first one gives you a place to plug in all your gear, and the second can take over the functions of your other remotes to eliminate coffee table clutter. And while headphones might seem like an odd addition for a home theater, they’ll come in handy for late-night listening when you don’t want to disturb others in the house.

To help simplify your home theater’s operation, you’ll want to check out more advanced types of remote controls. These usually have large liquid-crystal display screens and can be programmed to perform functions like turning on the whole system and starting a movie with a single button push. They can also control room automation systems that perform tricks like lowering a motorized projection screen and opening curtains.

Finally, there’s home theater furniture. Comfortable, theater-style seating can make the difference between an ordinary home theater and one that you’ll gravitate towards night after night. Read on and find out about the world of home theater accessories.


TV has come a long way since the days when you simply plugged in an antenna and clicked through the four or five channels you could tune in. The range of video source components now includes high-definition disc players, home theater PCs, and game consoles that expand the activity of TV-viewing well beyond settling down to watch CSI. The following guide will highlight the various kinds of A/V sources that are available, and take a sneak peek at what’s around the corner as well.

The question of whether to subscribe to cable or satellite is one that many people find themselves asking these days. We’ll cover the advantages and disadvantages of both, and also talk a bit about the new hard-disk digital video recorders that are used to record programs with either option. Next, we’ll get into some of the finer points of the various decks used for watching movie discs — a group that includes regular DVD players, high-definition disc players, and a special category of players that process regular video signals on DVD to help them look like high-definition TV.

Videogames, too, have come a long way since the days of Asteroids and Space Invaders. With their sophisticated graphics, soundtracks, and storylines, the best titles have something to offer both kids and adults alike. And then there are Home Theater PCs — computers designed to fit in an A/V rack and play both DVDs and digital music, record TV, and browse the Web. Tune in and we’ll bring you up to date on all of these devices and more.


Compared to just a few years ago, the average TV or receiver has an alarming number of audio and video connections populating its back panel input section. Analog audio and video, digital audio and video, computer connections — just name it and it’s there, waiting for you to plug in. Keeping track of all those jacks is hard work, which is why we’re going to spell them out in detail in the following connections guide.

The most common A/V connections carry basic analog audio and video signals. They’re the ones that you use to plug in those red, white, and yellow color-coded cables that come free with your new DVD player or TiVO recorder. After briefly discussing those jacks, we’ll next dive into the advanced connections that transmit high-definition video and multichannel digital audio signals in a high-performance home theater. Not all of the digital audio and video connections on TVs and other gear are compatible with one another, so it helps to know the features and capabilities of each when you’re putting together a system.

Most systems need to juggle a variety of audio and video source components. In a typical installation, the signals need to be routed to a single TV and amplifier, which is where A/V switchers come in. After describing the various types of switchers on the market, we’ll finish off by talking about signal extenders — a useful device in a large home theater where the projector is set up a sizable distance from the rest of the equipment.


A receiver is arguably the most important component in a home theater system, switching audio and video signals, driving the speakers, and performing a number of other essential tasks. Each new generation of products comes packed with a menu of new features, processing modes, and A/V connections, so it’s important to keep up on the latest developments on the receiver front — something we’ll help you do in the following guide.

When shopping for a receiver, it will be a good idea to learn the names and capabilities of the various multichannel audio-processing modes that each one offers. We’ll cover all the latest modes — everything from DTS-ES Discrete to Dolby Headphone — and also explain the differences between 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1-surround sound. Next, we’ll get into the particulars of receiver setup, and then move on to the subject of amplifier power specifications — another key thing to look at when comparing models.

Along with A/V switching, signal processing, and amplification, many receivers offer convenience features like recording loop outputs and multizone audio connections. We’ll be covering those, too, to help you learn how to get the most use out of your receiver. Next, we’ll get into the Auto-EQ processing found on some high-end models, a feature that can help improve sound quality by compensating for your listening environment’s overall acoustics. Finally, we’ll discuss the advantages of buying a separate home theater preamp/processor and amplifier combination over a standalone receiver.


Buying speakers can be hard work. Not only are there a huge number of brands to sort through, but there are also several different technologies to consider, all of which have their own distinct sound. Speaker design is definitely changing with the times. You can still find plenty of boxy, traditional-looking systems, but most manufacturers are now pushing slim, wall-hugging models that fade into the background beside a large flat-panel TV. Confused about what kind of speakers to buy? Read our guide to speakers — it will hopefully steer you in the right direction.

After listing the various speaker technologies and discussing the relative merits of freestanding and on-wall designs, we’ll next go through the types of connections that you’ll find on the back of both affordable and more costly models. Then we’ll talk about newer speaker categories such as in-wall and in-ceiling models — products designed to literally blend in with their surroundings. And the final stop on our speaker tour will acquaint you with the various surround speaker options for home theater.

While familiarity with the various speaker types can simplify shopping, it will also be helpful to learn some of the technical terms that show up in speaker specifications. We’ll cover two of the most common ones: frequency response and impedance. Finally, we’ll talk about speaker placement — a discipline that’s an equal mix of both art and science.

Video Signal Formats

The arrival of digital and high-definition TV via over-the-air broadcasts, cable, and satellite has changed the television landscape for the better. At the same time, the diversity of formats contained in the new digital standard has made TV technology more complicated than it used to be. If you’re in the market for a new high-definition TV and are confused by the jargon you’re coming across — terms like 1080i, 720p, widescreen, and 4:3 — our guide to video signal formats will hopefully make the picture a little clearer.

Not all digital TV signals are created equal. High-definition programs get produced in a number of different formats, and there also some lower-resolution standard-definition ones that are in use as well. While chances are that any new set you buy can easily display all of the digital TV formats, it will be helpful to know some background on the technology before you make the jump from regular TV to high-definition. It’s our aim to give you the information you need to speak digital TV fluently.

Moving past signal formats and into heavier technical topics, we’ll discuss the color space differences between the old NTSC TV system and the new ATSC digital one. Assuming you’re still with us at that point, we’ll next get into the advanced digital video compression codecs used for satellite TV transmission as well as disc production in the high-definition HD DVD and Blu-ray disc formats. After that, you should qualify as a full-fledged digital TV expert.