When it comes to selecting a home theater system, the choices on the market today are dizzying. Speakers, receivers, video players and a growing number of smart technologies are just a few of the options you have to consider. Kirk Hobbs, owner of South Shore Audio Video Installation in Weymouth, Massachusetts, has 30 years experience in audio and video installations. When it comes to selecting the right system for your home, he suggests starting with the room itself. When you consider the size of the room, its lighting and what you use it for most, you will be able to select a home theater system that is right for your lifestyle and your budget.
Before You Buy Anything
Before buying a home theater system, take an inventory of the components you already have, including your current TV, game consoles, DVD or Blu-ray player, cable box and speakers. For example, if you already have good speakers, you probably want to integrate these into your home theater. "One of the most important things to consider," Hobbs says, "is the size of the room and how the room is used." If you primarily watch sitcoms or use the room for entertaining your kids, he explains, your needs will be different from someone who wants an immersive theater experience for watching movies.
Selecting a TV
"Another important thing to consider," says Hobbs, "is if the room can be darkened or not." If the room can't be easily darkened, Hobbs recommends looking at an LED TV because reflections from the windows won't be as noticeable. LED TVs are similar to the LCD screens that have been around for years, but use LED backlighting, providing darker blacks and whiter whites than was previously possible.
Although the size of your TV should be determined by your tastes and needs, if you aren't sure what screen size you should be looking at, a good place to start is to look at screens that are about two-thirds the size of the distance you will be seated from the screen. Your 48-inch screen would give you an immersive viewing experience if you sit 6 feet from the TV. If you sit 8 feet from the TV, a 64-inch screen is more appropriate.
Sound bars are an attractive option for small rooms, general TV viewing or for anyone on a budget. A sound bar has two speakers and one subwoofer, which is what the 2.1 stands for. The bar itself goes directly above or below your TV and the subwoofer can be placed anywhere you have room. Because there are only two speakers, a sound bar can't give you the immersive surround sound experience you get from a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system. However, if your tastes lean more toward TV shows than blockbuster movies, or if your room can't accommodate many speakers, a sound bar is a solid choice that gives you superior sound.
To have surround sound, you need at least a 5.1 audio system–that's five speakers and one subwoofer. Three speakers go in the front of the room and two go on each side or slightly behind your couch. You also need a receiver that is capable of directing the appropriate sound to each speaker. With a 6.1, 7.1 or 8.1 system, the additional speakers go behind the couch. Speakers can be mounted on the walls or even in the ceiling. For best results, speakers should generally be placed at least 5 feet away from each other and at least 2 feet from any corner. This makes space just as much a factor as a budget in selecting a speaker system.
If you don't need to incorporate your current speakers into a home theater system, or if you just don't want the hassle of figuring out how to connect them, an all-in-one home theater may be the best solution. These come in a variety of packages at a wide range of price points. These include the speakers, subwoofer, receiver and often a DVD or Blu-ray player, all designed to work together. A wireless system makes it even easier to install, and you could have your system up and running in less than an hour.
Building It Yourself
If you already have a good set of speakers and decide to assemble a home theater system yourself, the most important thing to consider is a receiver that is capable of connecting everything you have. If you want surround sound, the receiver needs to support this too, such as a 5.1 or 7.1 channel system. In many homes, these components go beyond just the TV and a CD player. Many home theater receivers can also be connected to your computer or tablet for streaming photos and videos to the TV. If you are building your theater system yourself, Hobbs recommends getting a universal remote. Putting together a home theater without a universal remote, he says, is like putting together a car's engine and transmission without including a steering wheel.
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