Know Your Room
The whole point of a good home theater system is that it caters to your room just as it is. Hence, that word “home”. Whether your room is cavernous, middling or peewee, rest assured there is a home theater solution ideal for you. Let’s begin with an examination of your space with the following tips in mind:
1. Limit the amount of incoming light that might cause glare on your TV
2. Treat any hard surfaces that might reflect the audio signal in unwanted directions. These surfaces can include bare windows and walls as well as uncarpeted floors. Drapes, carpet and other sound absorbing materials are simple room treatments that can make a big difference in sound quality. Sound scattering materials like bookcases and furniture are also very helpful.
Art skills be damned, it’s time to put pencil to paper. First, sketch the outline of the room you have chosen for your home theater. Now measure your room and write the dimensions down next to your sketch. Draw some of the possible placements of your entertainment center, speakers, couch and retractable wet bar. Erase, rearrange, erase and rearrange again.
Another fun exercise is to draw all your components, cut them out, and re-arrange them on the sketch of your room. This method protects you from the effects of Writer’s Cramp and you won’t use up nearly as many erasers.
You’ll get some very clear ideas about seating, configuration and possible room limitations. Keep this map handy. You’ll be referring to it later on.
Inputs Are for “Play”
If it’s got a “play” button on it, it’s an input. DVD players, CD players, VCRs, any source of audio or video material are kindly known as inputs. That includes cable TV and satellite receivers, turntable, radio tuners & cassette tape players.
Using the artful doodle of your room, add two columns to the right or left of your drawing, then write down:
Column 1. A list of all the inputs you currently have and will continue to use
Column 2. A list of all the inputs you intend to add to your new home theater system
You’ll find this list to be quite useful when it comes time to scrutinizing and choosing receivers and interconnects.
Outputs Are for Sights and Sounds
Outputs in a home theater refer to your speakers and TV. That’s it. Let’s hear it for brevity.
Receivers—Think Mission Control
The short lesson on receivers goes something like this: receivers select an input, reads its signals, than shoots the signals off to their corresponding outputs. Those would be your speakers and TV.
The good news for today’s consumer is that most receivers on the market support the most current surround sound formats. There are some nuances you will want to pay attention to.
Multi-channels Keep You Surrounded
Aaah, the brilliance of surround sound. Without it, you’re just watching plain old TV. But with it you get the rich texturing of sound effects, the sensation of dialogue being spoken right at you, and a profound detailing of music, all seamlessly integrated to vibrate and resonate into your room, your furniture, your head, heart and bones.
Now, how the heck does it work? In short: multi-channel formats.
“Multi-channel” refers to the way specific qualities of sound are isolated and then piped to different speakers. For example, dialogue goes to the front center speaker, while the bone-rattling lows shoot to the subwoofer. The word “Formats” refers to the many ways this surround technology can be achieved. For example, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital-EX and DTS-ES.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound system when all compiled looks like this:
- 1 – center channel speaker for dialogue and other audio that should sound like it is coming from the TV
- 2 – front speakers (left and right) for stereo sound and the front surround sound
- 2 – back speakers (left and right) for surround sound
- 1 – subwoofer for low frequency effects
So, what’s a 6.1? The addition of a surround speaker to the rear (3 in front, 3 in back). And a 7.1? Two additional surround speakers added to the rear (3 front, 2 side, 2 in the rear).
Now what’s the deal with the fraction known as .1? This fraction refers to the LFE (low frequency response). LFE is often confused with the subwoofer. However, they are different. A subwoofer is a speaker that is designed to reproduce very low frequency information, the kind of rattle-your-windows oomph that your main audio channel speakers aren’t really good at reproducing.
LFE is a channel on a Dolby Digital soundtrack that is available for specific low-frequency information should the director decide to put some in there. Some movie soundtracks have LFE information, some don’t. For those movies that have specific LFE information, the sub gets it and goes to work. If the LFE track is blank, the receiver can send the lower frequency information from the front left and right channel speakers of the Dolby Digital soundtrack to the sub, relieving the main speakers of the low-end work.
Reach for the map of your room you scribbled. Now, as you review your room size and the amount of available wall space for rear surround speakers, you should get some idea of which multi-channel format best suits your needs. 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1? The basic assumption of the multi-channel wizards is that more is better. The more speakers you have surrounding you, the more seamless the surround sound experience will be. Choosing the multi-channel format that best suits you will be determined as much by your budget and room size, as by your personal preference.
Speakers—Without ‘Em You Ain’t Got Much
Speakers are the purveyors of goose bumps. If the receiver is the brain of the system, the speakers are the voice. They are the components that flesh out the visceral emotionality of the surround sound experience. Properly chosen, your speakers should disappear from your consciousness, allowing you to immerse yourself in your favorite music or movie. Conversely, skimping on your speakers will only provide a nagging distraction from the audio experience you so richly deserve.
The good news is it’s absolutely possible for price and performance to blissfully marry.
A Clearer Picture on Types of TVs
Balance is the name of the game in choosing the right TV for your home theater. Ideally, it’s when the right size for your room meets the right format capabilities for your system meets the right budget for your wallet. If you’re looking for a home theater TV, consider that they come in a variety of flavors:
- CRT stands for Cathode Ray Tube. Also known as direct view TV, these are the sets we’ve all grown up with
- Projection TVs include front projector units and big screen rear projection televisions
- LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display. These are flat, computer like screens
- Plasma is a large, flat screen that seems to be the best of the four at getting a lot of attention