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Home Theater Setup Guide

** This article will help you get started with the basics of home theater setup along with some advanced tips to help you realize the dream of having your own home theater.

 

Designing and/or building your own home theater is a great feeling for the home theater enthusiast. Having your own home movie theater to immerse yourself in your favorite Hollywood epics is an achievable dream for more and more people. Once the domain of the rich and famous, home theaters are now popping up in basements, bonus rooms, dens, rec rooms and family rooms across America. Budgets can range anywhere from $5,000 or less for the do-it-yourselfer to $50,000 or more for professional home theater design and installation. Some designers will help you come up with a theme for your theater. Whatever your available space and budget, there is a solution that will fit. Consider it an investment and money well spent.

Q: What makes a "Home Theater" different than a standard "TV Room"?
A: 
Ultimately, you want to have a dedicated space where you can have total control over the room lighting and sound. After that, it basically boils down to 2 things... picture and sound.

The Picture: These days, big screen televisions are all the rage. Whether it's a flat-panel plasma, a rear-projection set, or a LCD or DLP projector, the choices are plenty. Most home theater enthusiasts prefer a digital video projector to re-create the movie experience as close as possible. As LCD and DLP technology matures, the screen sizes have been growing larger and larger while the prices have been going lower and lower. With the introduction of High-Definition Television (HDTV) and the 16x9 rectangular screen format, these big screens can show the detailed, high-resolution images you deserve without sacrificing image quality. Traditional Standard-Definition Television (SDTV) produces an image with a 4x3 format that is nearly square in shape. Most of today's movies available on DVD are in widescreen format, so a fullscreen 4x3 image will cut off a portion of the movie (Pan & Scan) or you get the black bars (Letterbox effect) on the top and bottom of the screen. The SD lower-resolution images are not as well suited for large format screens.

The Sound (system): A traditional TV typically has one (mono) or two (stereo) speakers. What you need to achieve the movie theater sound experience is a surround-sound system. Without this, your big screen movies will feel as flat as the screen. A surround-sound system consists of several speakers that are placed in specific locations around the room. A surround-sound receiver will decode the sounds from your movies and route different parts of the soundtrack to different speakers. For example, character voices come from the center-channel speaker located in the front of the room. Environment sounds, such as planes, trains and automobiles come from the surround speakers located at the back of the room (sometimes on the sides). The low-rumbling sounds from explosions are sent to the subwoofer, which handles the bass frequencies and shakes your room. A surround-sound system will really make your movies come to life and help provide the desirable "authentic" movie theater experience.

Let's get started! 
We will plan our custom home theater room utilizing a fixed-pixel, front video projector for the greatest visual impact and a multi-channel surround-sound system to achieve the greatest audio impact.

Choose a Room: 
Many people find that a room without windows in the basement is the ideal spot. The preferred room shape is rectangular and the fewer the number of windows the better. If you have an unfinished room, now is the time to customize it for your home theater. Otherwise, you can use an existing den, rec room or family room. Just remember that control of light and sound is an important consideration.

Design the Room Layout:

Screen... this should be placed on one of the short walls. You will need to allow room on the right and left side of the screen for speakers. The exception to this rule is if you have a perforated screen composed of tiny holes that allows for passage of sound through the screen and placement of speakers behind the screen. The screen should not be too low or people seated in the back of the room may not be able to see the bottom portion. The bottom of the screen should be about 4 feet above the floor. The top of the screen should be no more than 35 degrees above the viewer's eye-level from the front-row position. If your room can be completely darkened then a white screen is best. However, if you are using a room such as a living room with some ambient light spill, then you should go with a high-contrast gray screen material. The gray screen surface will improve the contrast by absorbing the ambient room light and lowering the black levels. Another consideration is screen reflectivity that is rated by the screen gain. A screen with a gain of 1.0 diffuses light evenly in all directions. Some home theater enthusiasts prefer a higher gain if they have ambient light in the room. Just remember that there is a trade-off, as the gain goes up, the viewing angle goes down. With today's bright projectors, you can get by with a lower gain, especially when you can control the room lighting. Do-it-yourselfers may choose to paint a screen directly onto their wall or purchase screen fabric and build your own frame using wood or square aluminum tubing. Click Here for Video Screens.

Seating... the distance from the spectator's eyes in the front row to the screen should be approximately 1.5x screen diagonal. This is equivalent to approximately 3x the screen height. Another option is to divide the room (in both directions) into thirds and place the seats where the thirds criss-cross. Typically, the front row in most home theaters is between 10 to 15 feet back. Keep in mind that the image will be brightest when viewed straight-on and the further off-center the seats are placed, the dimmer the image will become. If you have multiple rows of seats, it's generally a good idea to use theater risers and create a terraced floor similar to the stadium seating you will find in some movie auditoriums. Click Here for Theater Seating.

Light... cover any windows you may have with heavy drapes or blackout cloth to block out as much light as possible. Automated curtain/drape openers-closers are also available for those desiring that level of sophistication. Lighting reflections in the room can also be kept to a minimum by painting the walls with dark colors. Click Here for Curtain Openers.

Wiring... if you are starting with an unfinished room, you can run the wires through the ceiling and walls, before the drywall is hung. Otherwise, cables can be laid along the walls and hidden under the baseboard. 12-gauge (best) to 16-gauge wire should be used for audio. Use CL2 or CL3-rated wire for any in-wall wire runs. If possible, run your power cables at a 90-degree angle to your A/V cables to avoid hum.

Walls... if you are building your own walls, then you can help reduce sound transmission by staggering the studs on walls opposite each other. Use batt insulation between the studs on all four walls to absorb the high-frequency sounds. Optionally, between every other stud, you can cover the batt insulation with fiberglass panel to absorb the low-frequency sounds. For the ultimate in sound, allow the walls to vibrate. Hang the drywall using hat/furring (resilient) channels. Overlap the sheetrock with different thickness of drywall (ex. 3/4 in. and 1/2 in. drywall). This will effectively keep the two layers from sharing a common resonance frequency and makes it more difficult for the acoustical energy to pass through the wall. Leave a gap between the ceiling and sheetrock and seal with acoustic sealant caulk.

Floors... you can build up your terraced floor by laying out treated studs on the cement foundation and then anchoring plywood sheets to this horizontal framework. Similar to the walls, you ideally want to have your floor vibrate when the subwoofer is rumbling. On an unfinished floor, lay low-density fiberglass insulation between the horizontal framework with high-density isolation pads under the untreated studs. For a DIY alternative, place HVAC rubber isolation pads every 16 inches in a grid-like pattern on the floor. Lay 2 x4 untreated studs across the isolation pads. As an alternative to HVAC isolation pads, you can use rubber furniture bumpers or nail-in, rubber chair feet. Next, place R13 batt insulation between the studs. Cover with 2 sheets of plywood of varying thickness. Don't let the floor touch the walls, instead, leave a 1-inch foam spacer around the perimeter.

Door... a cheap, hollow door is not the way to go if you want to keep sound out of the rest of the house. Preferably, you want to use a solid-core door, such as a "Safe 'N Sound" molded panel door from Masonite (available at Home Depot). A cheaper alternative is one of the new, solid MDF doors on the market. To further soundproof, you can add weatherproof strips around the doorframe to seal any cracks. Others prefer to use a heavy, insulated exterior door. If you do use an exterior door, you may need to reinforce your door frame and allow extra room for the threshold.

Add the Components:

Video Projector... optimally, you would like to have a digital video projector that has a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 (Full HD or 1080p) or 1280 x 720 (WXGA or 720p) at a 16 x 9 aspect ratio for proper High-Definition Television (HDTV) viewing. The latest models sport DVI (Digital Video Interface) and HDMI (High-Definition Media Interface) digital inputs with HDMI being the connector of choice for watching copy protected high-definition movies. Look for a projector with a high-contrast ratio of at least 2000:1 (higher contrast will provide better black levels) and a high-brightness such as 1000 lumens. You can choose between DLP (Digital Light Projection) and LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) projectors. DLP used to have the advantage, but recent developments in LCD technology have made the 2 technologies on par with each other. Most home theater video projectors are of the single-chip design, but three-chip LCD and DLP projectors are available for those who are not on a tight budget and want an extremely large projected image.

Older LCD projectors had a problem with, "screen-door effect" where the space between pixels would be noticeable at large projection sizes, but this is no longer an issue with recent LCD projectors. Pixelation, scanlines, artifacts (digital blocks), staircase effect, and other image flaws due to the MPEG compression and image scaling are other things to try and avoid when you are shopping for a video projector.

Most projectors are backwards compatible with 4:3 programming via a simple menu setting or button on the remote. Depending on the throw (distance) length of the lens, the video projector may either be placed on a shelf behind the seating area or hung from a ceiling mount. A ceiling mount usually requires a video projector that has vertical lens shift and keystone correction capability. Optionally, you can hang a plasma screen or add a flat-screen or rear-projection set. Click Here for Video Projectors.

Audio Receiver and Speakers... for many individuals, the Home-Theater-In-a-Box (HTIB) route is the simplest and least expensive way to go. Here you are guaranteed to get matching components and all the necessary equipment. If you get a HTIB, look for a system where the receiver is separate from the DVD player. New on the market is the "Instant Theater" which is an all-in-one video projector with a built-in DVD player and speakers. Sound Bars are another realitvely new product that house all the surround sound speakers inside a single horizontal bar that is designed for placement below large Plasma and LCD screens. However, it's always best to have individual components geared for a specific task and this also makes upgrading individual components that much easier.

Receiver... this is where you will plug your speakers and sub-woofer into. You can also plug your video components, such as DVD player, VHS player, etc. into most receivers and then have control to switch between components from the receiver's remote. The receiver houses the technology used to decode the Dolby Digital or DTS (Digital Theater Systems) signal and split it apart and route it to the appropriate speakers. Expensive, high-end models may feature THX certification. This high-end equipment that carries the THX logo is certified to meet the standards that allow the equipment to sound more like an actual movie theater.

Surround Sound Speaker choices:

5.1 (5 speakers + 1 subwoofer)... This is the minimum you should look for as most modern DVD movies are encoded in this audio format. Anything over this is really overkill for the time being.

6.1 (6 speakers + 1 subwoofer)... Same as 5.1, but includes an additional Surround Sound speaker for placement in the center of the back of the room.

7.1 (7 speakers + 1 subwoofer)... Same as 5.1, but includes 2 additional Surround Sound speakers for placement on the sides of the room.

Speaker Placement:

Front Speakers... are used for the main source sounds and effect sounds. Place one an equal distance on each side of the screen. Some people refer to the front speakers as the "mains".

Center Channel Speaker... is for the dialog from the characters talking onscreen. Center it between the front speakers and mount it just below or above the screen. Those who have perforated screens can place the front speakers behind the screen.

Surround Sound Speakers... are used for effect and surround sounds. Place them behind the last row of seats, elevated slightly above your head height and angled slightly inwards. If you have a Surround Back speaker, place it at the same height between the Surround Speakers. Some people refer to the Surround Speakers as the "satellites".

Di-Pole... these play sound to the front and back of the room. Place them on the side wall in the "null" position (i.e. with the center of the speaker aimed at the listeners head). This is also the typical placement for 7.1 Surround Speakers.

Subwoofer... is used to enhance bass frequencies from all channels, and can also reproduce the Low-Frequency-Effect (LFE) channel included in Dolby Digital and DTS. Unlike the other speakers, the subwoofer is non-directional so placement is not as critical. Typically it is placed near the front speakers and turned towards the center of the room.

DVD Player... at a minimum, look for a model that features progressive scan and component video (YUV) connections. If your screen/set supports HDTV, you should consider a High-Definition DVD Player. Blu-ray and HD-DVD were 2 competing HD technologies, but in early 2008, Blu-ray won this format war. Look for a Blu-ray Player with Full-HD (1080p) output and support for Profile 2.0 or later. If you are on a tight budget and are not ready to convert your movie library from DVD to HD DVD, you might consider an "Up-Scaling" DVD player that can process the image and scale it up to HDTV resolutions. HD-DVD players also make excellent DVD up-converters. Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD players have a HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) connector. Up-converting DVD players typically sport DVI (Digital Visual Interface) or HDMI digital video connectors for the upconverted video to travel over. DVI only carries a video signal whereas the more advanced HDMI can carry video, multi-channel audio and HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection). A standard-definition DVD player should have either digital coaxial output or optical cable output for the encoded audio channels to travel to your AV receiver's surround sound decoder. A high-definition DVD player will typically only need a HDMI connector to route the audio along with the video to your AV receiver, but they will generally provide a fiber-optic connector for those who want to route their audio separately. If your receiver has a Dolby Digital Decoder, your DVD player does not need one.

Progressive Scan... the de-interlacer will take the interlaced video image that consists of 2 alternating fields (even and odd) of 30 frames each and output a full-frame image composed of 60 fields. The progressive image is flicker-free, artifacts are minimized and scan lines are less visible which all allow for closer seating to the screen. The positive effects of progressive scan are very noticeable on the text of sub-titled movies, and when pausing a movie. Note that some de-interlacers are better than others and can create better progressive scan output.

Plugging in:

Wire... preferably, hook up the speakers with balanced speaker wire in 12 or 14-gauge. Purchase shielded, twisted video cables with gold connectors to maximize signal strength (transfer) and to prevent signal loss due to corrosion. Banana plugs or spades make for the most secure connections. Use color-coded wire and wire labels to help simplify the task of matching up the correct ends.

Digital Audio Cable... the audio from your DVD player should travel over a fiber optic TOSLink (Toshiba Link) cable to your AV Receiver. If you have a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player you can alternately use a HDMI connector for both the video and audio to your AV receiver or straight to your HDTV. Your subwoofer should connect to your AV receiver's digital output jack via a digital coaxial S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) cable. Some subwoofers are "powered" and have to be plugged in, while others are "passive" and do not need AC power.

Power Strips... use a good quality surge protector to plug all of your AC components into. Some protectors also have coaxial cable connectors and will filter and protect your signal from those sources using coaxial cable. If you can afford it, a power conditioner is a smart purchase to protect all of the A/V components you have invested in your home theater. These will not only help you avoid power surges and spikes, but they will also remove any noise on your AC line and help provide the cleanest picture and sound. Another alternative is to use a Battery-Backup or UPS with Automatic Voltage Regulation (AVR). This is ideal for sensitive electronics as the AVR will keep the voltage at the desired level, during both brownouts and overvoltage situations. Typically, the higher the joule rating equates to better surge protection.

Audio and Video Fine-Tuning:

Audio Calibration... calibrate your speakers to make sure they each produce a nearly identical volume leave at your central seating position. Set your receiver to generate a level test tone from each speaker. If for some reason your receiver doesn't have this ability, then some of the DVD setup discs (see below) provide audio tests. Next, use a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) meter to set each speaker to the same decibel level (about 75 decibels) at the listener's head height. For a more dramatic effect, you can set your surround sound speakers 2 or 3 decibels higher that the front speakers. Pink Noise from 20 Hz to 80 Hz can be used to test the subwoofer. Set it 3 Db lower than the other speakers. If you're on a really tight budget, then simply use one of your favorite DVDs as a reference DVD. Select a favorite scene and set the sub-woofer to your desired level of rumble.

Video Calibration... use a test DVD such as "Home Theater Setup Disc", "Home Theater Optimizer", "AVIA Guide to Home Theater", "Digital Video Essentials", or "Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up" for a step-by-step configuration walk-through. These DVDs will provide tutorials, demo clips, test patterns and filters that will help you to properly adjust the color, tint, brightness, contrast, black-levels, sharpness, overscan, electronic focus, multipoint convergence, etc. If you want a "richer" black, activate your equipment's Black-Level-Expansion (BLE) to set the black-level to 0 (zero) IRE instead of the normal 7.5 IRE (grayish-black). A PLUGE test pattern can be used to calibrate the proper black-levels. 

Miscellaneous:

Acoustics... use barber carpet or theater carpet on the floors and use area rugs to cover any wood floors. Floor carpet can help reduce echoes off hard surfaced floors. Carpet can also be placed on the walls, as can cloth wall hangings and heavy fabric wallpaper. To add a decorative, yet functional touch, create your own "acoustic panels" to hang on the walls. These are simply insulated panels covered with acoustic fabric. Their absorption properties will help eliminate the reflection points and echoes of the mid and high frequencies. An elegant alternative is to use acoustical "soffit traps" that hang along the ceiling edges and reduce excess reverberation and bass build-up. "Bass traps" can be created and placed in the corners of the room where low frequencies build up. These traps dampen the acoustic energy (sound pressure) out of the sound wave. To position your traps, just use your ears to zero-in on the precise area of heavy bass in the corners. Pillars and columns work well for this and you can buy specialized "tube traps" or you can create your own by filling concrete forms with sand and painting the tube exterior. Without effective low-frequency absorption, your bass range may sound unclear. For the ceiling, you can create uneven surfaces and hide your pipes by constructing a tray ceiling. If your budget has room, consider an acoustic drop ceiling composed of soundproofing tiles. Adding theater columns or pillars to the sides of your room will also help break up the flat wall surface and add a decorative touch. If you have bookshelves, media shelves or an A/V rack in the back wall of the room, their uneven surface will help diffuse and scatter the sound to prevent primary reflection. Click Here for Theater Decor including theater carpet and rugs.

Tactile Transducers... also know as Bass Shakers, these devices plug into an amp and are placed under theater risers or directly under theater seats. They are activated via the LFE channel of the surround sound system and will shake the floor and seats when there is bass rumble on the screen.

Furniture... couches/sofas and chairs will work equally well. For ultimate comfort, look for those sofas and chairs that feature the ability to recline. Individual chairs with arms may be best to keep children from distracting each other. Leather makes a good upholstery material that is durable and easy to keep clean. Microfiber, woven fabric, velour and nusuede are also good choices. For those with larger budgets, specialty home theater seats that can interlock and may feature motorized reclining and built-in cup holders. Click Here for Theater Seating.

Curtains and stage... add a motorized curtain system to jazz up your home theater. These devices can work via IR and RF signals and can work with existing rope/chain systems or complete track solutions are available. Program your learning remote to open the curtain at the beginning of a movie, and this will add a dramatic effect. When the curtain is open, you can easily hide the track by hanging a valance in front of it. Another consideration is to build a stage at the bottom of your screen. This is a great place for all kinds of performances, including: karaoke, practice recitals, rehearsals and business presentations. Click Here for Curtain Openers.

Room Lights... Don't use fluorescent or table lamps as they produce too much screen glare. Use directional lighting such as track lighting and wall sconces. Fiber-optics placed in the ceiling can create the "starry sky" effect... check out our Star Field Ceiling Kit. Putting the lights on dimmers will give you full control of the lighting atmosphere. Click Here for Theater Lighting.

Aisle lighting... for added safety and a visual accent similar to an actual movie theater, you can add decorative floor lighting (and step lighting), such as fiber-optics or LED rope lights in tracks along the edge of the aisle. If you already have standard outlet boxes in your theater or media room, try replacing those with some decorative LED Night Lights with Louvers or downward facing scoops....Click Here for Aisle and Stair Lighting.

Room Color... Ideally you want a dark room, especially on the end with the screen. Black is a safe-bet, but you can mix in other dark colors such as navy blue, dark green, burgundy, and grays. These colors come into play when considering theater seating, theater carpet and wall color. Keep your walls a dark shade to avoid reflecting light from the screen that has the undesirable effect of reducing the screen contrast and creates "washout". Make sure your screen frame is black and absorbs any light that hits it. Da-Lite professional screens have optional Pro-Trim available to cover the frame. A DIY alternative is to cover the screen frame with black velour fabric.

Remote Control... with so many components, you are sure to end up with a collection of remote controls. The simplest solution for many is to purchase a universal remote that is also a learning remote. These infrared remotes can be programmed by entering manufacturer codes and/or by aiming your current remote's IR sensor at the learning remote. Others can download codes via your PC off the internet. Some of the most popular remotes are the "event-based" remotes. These allow you to program a series of events that are triggered with the press of one button. For example, "watch movie" may turn on your receiver, projector and DVD player, open your movie curtain and then begin playing a movie. Infrared repeater systems can be incorporated for those with equipment racks in a separate room from their seating area.

Personalized DVD Intros... would you really like to feel like you are "at the movies"? Then, you need some pre-show entertainment material that will play on your screen as your guests are entering and before the main attraction plays. These custom DVDs can be personalized with your family name, such as, "Smith Family Theater", "Smith Family Productions", or "The Smith Home Cinema", etc. They feature 16:9 widescreen format footage and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround-sound. Also included is concession stand animation and random trivia questions, just like the big movie theaters show.

 

Optional DTV (Digital Television) Components to Consider:

 

  • Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS)
  • Digital Video Recorder (DVR)
  • Digital-Video Home System (D-VHS)

Well, there you have it! If you have made it all the way through this home theater setup guide, then you should be well on you way to designing and building your own home theater. After that, it's time to dim the lights, butter the popcorn, and hit "play" on the remote! No more crowds and no more lines, it's your own "full immersion" home theater movie experience!

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