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What to Consider When Building a Home Theater System

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So you’ve finally decided that the TV speakers just aren’t enough. And of course, they would never be. No matter how fancy schmancy your brand new 3D LED TV might be, it would still be too thin and compromised to actually have anything resembling decent sound.

Of course, now we’re stepping into a world of watts and channels. Of Dolby and DTS. Of 5.1 and surround sound. Don’t know what they are? Then you’ve come to the right place to find out. And we haven’t even started yet on things such as speaker placement, room acoustics and room size.

So what should needs to be considered when trying to complement that beautiful new flat panel TV?

Just what is a home theatre system?

A home theatre system consists of three categories of components – The display (TV, projector, etc), the speakers, and the AV Receiver/DVD/Blu-Ray player. This article is written with the presumption that you’ve already decided what method of visual display you want. If you haven’t considered what to get yet, there are many other excellent guides to do so on the Internet, far more qualified than this writer in espousing the virtues of various methods over others.

However, as a general rule of thumb, with a baseline of 40 inches for your display, you should be sitting no more than 6 feet from it. For every foot further back you have to sit, add 3 to 4 inches to the display size. For example, a 47 to 50 inch display would necessitate the viewing distance to be at least 8 feet. This is so that you are far enough to not see individual pixels in the display, and not too far to the point that clarity and detail in the image are not discernible.

Speaker me this, Speaker me that

Home theatre sound systems usually come in three ‘sizes’ ; ‘tall’ speakers (3 to 5 feet in height), ‘small’ speakers (generally 6 to 10 inches in size) and ‘soundbars’ (all the speakers are integrated into a single housing that is 4 to 5 feet wide and less than 6 inches in depth). In addition, you will get at least one center channel (the soundbar is essentially one giant center channel already) which usually goes right under or above the display, and a subwoofer.

Speakers in a surround sound system, rather obviously, provide all the sound. Home theatres have a minimum of 6 speakers (2 front speakers, a center channel, 2 surround rear speakers and a subwoofer), in a 5.1 configuration (with the ‘.1′ meaning one subwoofer). High-end and more expensive home theatres come equipped with 7.1 configurations (2 surround side speakers) or 9.2 configurations (one extra surround rear center speaker and two center channels – high and low – instead of just one).

The size of these speakers can vary, with either a mix of tall and small speakers, all tall, or all small layouts.

Just what gives the speakers their sound?

And so we come to the heart, soul and liver of the home theatre – the AV receiver/receiver + DVD/Blu- Ray player. The AV receiver is responsible for all of the sound that is produced in the home theatre.

What it does is take the output from any external audio source or from the onboard DVD/Blu-Ray player, process it, and send it out to all of the speakers that are part of the entire setup. In a surround system like the one we are hoping to build, this means determining how much sound goes to which speaker, getting the right volume levels, and determining spatial placement of sound.

That means that if a car explodes on the left side of the screen in a movie, then sound should come from the left side, in front, at the appropriately loud level such an incident would create. This is the most important function of an AV receiver, as it determines the quality of the home cinematic experience.

Processing technologies such as Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Digital, DTS, and DTS-Master Audio HD are important in determining the quality of the sound. As such, a receiver that has all or more of these patented technologies would be a good bet for having high quality audio output. These technologies cannot all run at once, but more technologies means more circuitry has been implemented in the receiver, meaning better processing and high quality output.

Some terms that you need to learn and where they apply

#1. Watts RMS

Watts RMS refers to how much power a HTIB system can output on a consistent, steady basis. This means the total power of all the speakers/channels in the system. If a HTIB says it outputs 600 watts RMS, then it would probably mean that the front two speakers and center channel output 100 watts each, with the surround speakers providing 75 watts, and the subwoofer 150 watts, giving a total of 600 watts.

#2. Watts Per Channel

This refers to how much power an AV receiver can output. This is not to be confused with the power output a speaker has, as that is a separate rating for the individual speaker. If an AV receiver says it can output 150 watts per channel, that means speakers with ratings of 150 w or more can be used on that channel. You would want the speaker to have a higher rating than the AV receiver, to ensure that the speaker does not, for lack of a better word, blow up from being fed too much power.

Just where in your home is this home theatre going to be?

Most of the time, people would designate the living room as the home theatre space, whilst other would have a room dedicated to this purpose. Either option is naturally dependent on how your home is laid out, although there are a few things that need to be noted before the business of actually choosing equipment for this purpose.

Once you’ve decided on the room you want to use, the next thing to consider is the amount of space you actually have available. Consider the space you have, and the speaker configuration that would fit your space best.

Try to make sure that you set up against a completely flat wall, with straight walls on three sides, to create a soundspace whereby sound can be contained and controlled. Surround speakers are important, but not critical, and you can make compromises with their placement as they do not need walls or ceilings to project their sound properly.

Bear in mind also, that the smaller the space, the less power you need, as you would need less watts for any given volume level to fill your home cinema viewing space. It’s no use spending wads of cash on a 1000 watt RMS system if 350 watts RMS will fill up the sound space nicely.

AV Receivers VS Home Theatres in a Box (HTIBs)

There is a choice, between a dedicated AV receiver and separate DVD/Blu-Ray player, or a receiver with a DVD/Blu-Ray player built in. Both have pros and cons. A dedicated AV receiver, even on the lower end of the scale, can run into thousands of ringgit. Prices start at around RM1600 for a low-end Denon or Yamaha AV receiver. This is not including speakers or a media player either!

However, the sound produced will be far superior to anything any combined receiver/Blu-Ray player could ever possibly have, as the dedicated electronics would concentrate solely on audio quality and nothing else. You pay for what you get, as they say. Even the most expensive home theatre systems with a combined receiver and disc player would struggle to match the sound quality of the cheapest audiophile AV receiver that you can find.

Having said that, they are incredibly complex pieces of machinery, as you need to make sure your speakers can handle the AV receiver’s power output, as well as needing to find your own speaker cabling. You would also need to finetune the sound to compensate for speaker placement and room acoustics.

However, HTIBs have all the speakers, wires and packaging necessary to get your Home Theatre system up and running out of the box. If you just want to be able to have a home theatre without having to worry about anything blowing up, then a HTIB is for you.

Hailing from Kuching, Sarawak, Syed Rafie is more than just a wordsmith with an unnatural love for electronics, gadgets and video games. Working as a writer and editor at Malaysia’s largest online shopping mall, Lazada, he tends to favour pursuits that challenge his lack of physical refinement and his obvious intellectual deficiencies. Follow him on Twitter for more product news, previews, reviews, comparisons and personal thoughts that could mangle your understanding of the space-time continuum.

Siddartha is a Blogger from India. He is currently pursuing Masters in MIS and he loves writing about technology. You can follow him on Twitter | Facebook | Google+. You can subscribe to GadgetCage RSS Feed or Email Notifications.

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