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Home Theater 101

Filed Under: audio and video, electrical, entertaining

Okay, so you have an idea of a home theater, but knowing exactly where to put speakers can be a guessing game. Not anymore. Setting up a home theater is easier than you think. Most people don't want a separate movie room, and for good reason. Most of us are not part of the Motion Picture Academy of Directors and don't need the $600 movie chairs with cup holders (although my husband would argue this). It only takes two great things to make any living room into a great movie room: audio set-up and video quality.

I'm not an audio or visual expert, but I do know what works in my room and my set-up. Every room and personal preference is different, so trust yourself when it comes to making adjustments and modifications for your set up. However, here are the basics for any home theater.

Audio can make or break a movie. However, audio is a tricky science. So, to make things easy, let's talk about the basics. Typically, you want a stereo that has 5.1 sound. This means there are 5 speakers - center, front left, front right, back left, back right - and 1 subwoofer, hence 5.1. The purpose of surround audio is not to literally surround you with sounds the entire movie; it's meant to add effect and reality to the movie. When your neighbor is outside mowing the lawn, you don't hear him from every angle all the time. It's ambient sound that adds dimension to your world. Same is true to movie audio.

Back in the day, there was quadraphonic sound, quad meaning 4, and stereos with quadraphonic sound had four speakers. The reason it shifted to five was because audio specialists found that having a center speaker, stereos could dedicate that center speaker to necessary sounds, like dialogue. Have you ever rented an action movie and wondered why you have to adjust the volume between action scenes and dialogue scenes? That's because either the center speaker is misplaced, not working, or is not present.

The subwoofer came along with the same intention, but instead of amplifying dialogue, it amplifies deeper, resonating sounds. Thanks to the subwoofer, the explosion of the Death Star can be felt, not just heard. It allows for more realistic audio since it projects sounds at a deeper tone than the human ear can detech, but the human body can register. Again, a tricky science.

Best set-up
So, where do you place these speakers? First things, first: look at the shape of your room where the TV is. Is square? Rectangle? Does it bend? How many open walls does it have? How much furniture is in it? All these things factor into the sound. Here's the basic rules for any room:
  • Back speakers should be at least two feet behind the head of the viewer, and the speakers should be angled downward, toward the center of the room.
    • The experts out there will tell you that all speakers should face the viewer's seat, but who only has one chair in their living room? Facing it toward the center of the room will be better for all seating arrangements.
    • This means you might have to move your couch away from the wall. This was a great excuse for my husband to buy a reclining couch.
  • Front speakers should be at least two feet behind the TV.
    • Again, this means you might have to move the TV forward. This was a great excuse for us not to buy a flat screen for the wall.
  • Center speaker should sit on or near the TV.
    • Most center speakers are designed to sit on the TV without messing with the picture; however, always check with the manual or the store from which you bought the stereo.
  • The subwoofer should face forward, toward the center of the room with the mesh side open.
    • Most subwoofers have a side covered by mesh fabric. Make sure this side is not faced up against a wall or other blocking object as it will distort the sound.
Those are the basics. If you're unable to have the back or front speakers behind the couch or TV, you should be able to adjust the volume of the speakers through the stereo menu. Either way, the center speaker is the most important speaker in your room. It must be the loudest speaker in your room. This will prevent the need to adjust the volume between action and dialogue scenes. A few inches can make a huge difference in audio.

There is good news and bad news with video. The good news is that it's easy to determine what video is best because, well, you can see it in the store. The same can't be said for audio because audio depends on the set up of your room. The bad news with video is that it's easy to determine what video is best because you can see it in the store. This is bad because it generally means you're comparing a standard TV with a better one sitting right next to it, like an HDTV. Remember, stores are there to make a profit, so they often will put TVs next to each other where you are inclined to by the better, more expensive one.

There are only two pieces of advice for video:
1. Measure how far your couch is from the TV you currently have in your living room. This way, you can step back to the appropriate distance in the store and judge. It will also prevent you from buying a 52" screen TV for a 10X10 room.
2. Once back in the living room, will you notice the discrepancy of the TV when it's standing alone? In other words, there will not be a better model sitting next to your TV in your living room. If you think you will notice a lower quality when it stands alone, buy the better TV.

There are hundreds of sites dedicated to helping you create a movie-room, and most sales people know what they're talking about. However, if you want more information, here are a few sites that offer more detailed accounts of movie-room set-up:

Wall-construction instruction for better sound.
Projection-screen theater
For more on 5.1 and 7.0 set-up
Dos and Don'ts of basic set-up

  • PainTrain

    Good write up except for subwoofer placement. A lot of times (not all the time) the subwoofer will be placed a few inches from the wall in a corner. The subwoofer, or grill, will be directed into the corner. This allows the low frequency cutoff to extend a bit lower.

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