Choosing a Home Theater System

Build from components, or buy a pre-packaged system?

Every home theater system includes a few basics: a high-definition television (HDTV), a surround-sound A/V receiver, a DVD or Blu-ray player, and speakers.

The good news is that plenty of preconfigured options are available to help you obtain most of these components in one purchase.

These all-in-one home theater solutions make it easy to set up a home theater, because the manufacturer does all the research and homework for you—just choose the solution that best meets your needs, and set it up according to the instructions. Add the HDTV of your dreams, and you’re all set for movie night.

Where to Start

The first thing to decide is whether you want help building the entire system or just parts of it. You can purchase prepackaged speaker systems, for instance, individual components, or an entire home theater system. These systems—sometimes called home theater in a box—include pretty much everything you need but the television: an A/V receiver and DVD or Blu-ray player, a surround-sound speaker system, and a subwoofer to make movies come to life in your living room.


Sony HES-V1000 Server

If you decide to go with the entire home theater system, you’ll want to start comparisons with the receiver: It’s literally the hub of your home theater, which makes it the most critical component.

Be sure your receiver includes six- or eight-channel discrete audio input jacks; HD component video inputs; an output for high-resolution, low-distortion video playback; external amplifier connections; ports for computer connections (such as USB or MP3); and an AM/FM tuner. It should also have built-in Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Digital, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, and DTS 96/24 decoders capable of advanced 24-bit processing.

Watts per channel (WPC) can be deceiving: What you really want is a receiver that can output full power continuously. When you check specs, look for the WPC output in RMS terms. RMS means that the listed power output is the actual sustained output at a specific volume level.

Finally, look for a receiver with the lowest distortion levels you can find: You’ll get the best sound possible. The term total harmonic distortion (THD) will be displayed somewhere in the specs for the system. A .01 percent distortion level at full output is far more desirable, for example, than a 10 percent distortion level.

What to Play


LG Network Blu-ray Disc System

Next, consider the types of movie formats you’ll want to watch. You have multiple choices when selecting movies to play in your home theater: DVD, Blu-ray, and downloads from the Internet. Many home theater systems come with a combination receiver and a DVD or Blu-ray player.

Because most Blu-ray players can also play DVD’s, it’s a smart move to purchase a home theater system that includes one so you can play multiple types of discs. Look for a player that can output films at HD 1080p/24p plus upscale DVDs to 1080p.

A nice-to-have in your player is support for BD-Live—content that can be delivered through the Internet—and for Blu-ray BonusView, which lets you view picture-in-picture content. If you have a home network, look for a system with a receiver that can connect to it, like the LG Network Blu-ray Disc Home Theater System. It lets you stream movies, TV shows, videos, and music directly to your TV by connecting it to your broadband home network.

Get Big Sound

To build the right sound from your A/V receiver, you’ll need a minimum of five speakers plus a subwoofer for 5.1 surround sound. You can go with any brand and size, but your theater will only sound as good as the audio it can reproduce. Because most movie soundtrack information is concentrated in the front speakers, the left, right, and center speakers should be of the same caliber, brand, and series for the best sound. The back left and right speakers—called surround-sound speakers—should also be matched to ensure great sound.

Harmon Kardon offers an outstanding surround-sound speaker package with the HKTS-18 5.1-Channel Home Theater Six Speaker System. The system combines identically voiced, magnetically shielded two-way speakers along with a center channel speaker and a 10-inch, 200-watt subwoofer. The system includes speakers, all speaker cables, shelf stands, and wall-mount brackets for satellites.

Many packaged systems offer wireless rear speaker options, as well, which makes setup incredibly easy. To obtain the finest sound, find a system with full-range speakers that can reproduce audio from the 30-Hz to 20-kHz range. Include a subwoofer, too, to reproduce low bass sound in the 16–30-Hz range. Superior systems include a subwoofer with a dedicated amplifier.


Harmon Kardon HKTS Speaker System


Get the Right HDTV

To ensure your home theater system looks as good as it sounds, you need to add HDTV to complete your home theater system. A standard analog TV set displays about 345,000 pixels in a process called interlacing. By contrast, the 1080i HDTV signal displays more than 1 million pixels—more than three times the detail of an analog television. Newer HDTVs display in 1080p, which puts across all of the lines of resolution sequentially in a single pass rather than the interlacing of 1080i. This single pass creates a smoother, cleaner image, currently the best on the market. If your budget can handle it, go with a 1080p HDTV.
All HDTV televisions can display in 16:9 aspect ratio, similar to your local movie theater. When selecting an HDTV, go with the largest screen your space, viewing distance, and budget can accommodate.

Think of a movie theater: Part of the pleasure is watching the action unfold on the big screen. The more you can see, the better the overall experience. There’s one caveat to the “go big” concept, however: The larger the screen, the more distance you’ll need from the TV. HDTV displays offer incredible amounts of detail, so most people want to sit as close as possible to catch those fine points. At some point, though, you need to consider eyestrain and overall viewing comfort. Assuming that you’re selecting a 40–60-inch display, you’ll want to place your armchair anywhere from 5 to 12 feet from it.

When considering the actual display of your HDTV set, keep in mind that movies are produced at 24 frames per second and that Blu-ray disc players are capable of reproducing that same level of quality. Look for a display that can keep up with this standard, and you’ll be amazed at the visual experience your home theater can produce.

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