Everything but Gum Under the Seats: Buying a Home Theater System

If you like watching movies and such on your big TV, it might be worthwhile to look into making it sound as good as it looks. What we used to call a “Home Stereo” has morphed into the Home Theater System. What’s the difference? Oh, about 200 dollars. Seriously, the difference is that a Home Theater System is built with TV and video gear in mind, rather than just audio.

A home theater system performs 2 functions: It serves to get all that great sound into speakers, obviously, but it also serves as a central control system to route signals from one component to another. The video inputs on the home theater system just give you a convenient way to send the right signal to the TV. Sometimes the video output of the system has to be hooked up to a TV if it has a menu system only visible on the TV, or if the system includes a built-in DVD player.

Anything billed as a Home Theater System gives you the option of more than two speakers. The most common is Dolbytm 5.1, which refers to 5 main speakers (2 front, 2 rear, 1 center) plus a Subwoofer. This produces sound similar to what you get in a movie theater. The 2 front speakers are for the main action, the center is mostly for the dialog, the 2 rear speakers produce the off-screen ambient sound, and the subwoofer is for the very low-frequency sounds that really make you feel like you’re there.

The most common way to buy Home Theater systems is the Home Theater in a Box (HTIB). This aims to make things a little less complicated by packaging the receiver and all 6 speakers together, sometimes with a DVD player built into the receiver. This works well and saves time and money unless you’re a true audiophile and want to customize extensively. Most HTIB systems even include speaker wire and enough cables to get you started. The guy with the big hat that sits in front of you is optional.

Start by making sure the system you’re looking at supports the connection types that your other equipment has. Make sure there are enough inputs of the right type to hook up all your other audio and video gear. Check especially the digital video and digital audio connections to be sure they’ll work with what you already have.

One of the most misleading and confusing specifications touted by Home Theater marketers is output power. I’ve seen studio apartment size systems that claim to deliver 1,500 Watts of power! Just for perspective, this is about the same amount of power an electric heater produces! While there are ways to measure power output that will give such figures, they do not give a realistic yardstick for comparing systems. The only way to directly compare power levels is to compare the RMS value. This is a sort of average figure that measures the usable power available. Bear in mind that a power level of 100 Watts per speaker, plus 200 Watts for the subwoofer, should give enough volume for the average living room. This may be advertised as 700 watts total power (100 X 5 speakers + the subwoofer). If you’re on a budget or you have a small viewing room, you can cut these values in half and you’ll probably still be happy with it.

The only main problem with the 6-speaker system is where to put all those extra speakers. The 2 front speakers should go where you’d normally put stereo speakers – one on each side, facing the viewer. They should be no farther apart than the distance from the viewer to the TV. The Center speaker can usually go right underneath or on top of the TV, or as close to the TV as practical. The subwoofer can go anywhere in the room, although you should try to keep it a few inches away from walls or large furniture. Your placement will be partly dictated by the need to keep the wires out of the way. Since a subwoofer is fairly large and heavy, it’s designed to sit on the floor. A subwoofer makes an excellent end table, although you shouldn’t put your Ming vase on it – it can vibrate things right off the top when it’s at high volume.

The rear speakers are the most problematic in many living rooms – How to get those wires across the room? Well, you can go over, under, around, or through. Under the rug is not a good idea. Over the ceiling or around the room looks ugly, and through the walls is a lot of hassle and expense unless the house was built with speaker wires in the walls. There are such things as wireless rear speakers. If you can’t think of any other practical way, look into a wireless rear speaker setup.

If you still have your old turntable and want to keep using it, you may run into a problem because the new home theater system has no input labeled “Phono”, and if you plug the turntable into the “Aux” jacks, you may find the sound is too low to hear. If this happens, you have two options. Newer turntables have a built-in preamp (Pre-Amplifier) that will boost their output to a level the Aux input can use, or you can get an external phono preamp that goes between the turntable and the receiver to perform the same function. These units are typically about the size of a deck of cards and sell for about 30 dollars.

This post has been adapted from my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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