Set up your own home theatre

Creating a theatre experience in your home is much like building a real movie theatre. Of course, the scale of your living room or den is probably smaller than most cinemas, and there may not be any gum stuck to the seats or popcorn scattered on the floor, but the basic principles are the same: big crisp picture, big multi-channel sound.

The perfect room

Begin planning your home theatre by thinking about where you're going to set it up. There are several factors to keep in mind when choosing the space.

First, consider the layout of the room itself. A home theatre should share some of the same basic elements as a true movie theatre. You'll want an enclosed, rectangular room with a good amount of space and not too much outside light. An enclosed space will yield the best sound quality: open-concept rooms don't have great acoustics. To eliminate potential echoes, it's best to have carpet on the floor rather than wood or other hard surfaces.

Once you've decided which room to use, you need to design a rough layout. Room size and shape will usually present only a few options for locating the television. Put the TV wherever it seems most logical, and then build your system around it. Ideally, the screen should be in a position in which it doesn't get a lot of glare.

Screen size

The television you choose depends on a few factors. Larger screens usually cost more, so size is often a factor of budget. As well, room size will also help determine how big you can go. Essentially, the larger the screen, the more “theatre- like” the experience.

The essentials

To build a home theatre, you'll need these four components:

1. Progressive-scan DVD player

2. Television 32" or larger. Generally, bigger is better, although some types have limitations

3. Receiver/decoder to amplify and decode multi-channel sound

4. Speakers-typically, six or more

Screen types

Once you've determined the optimum screen size, consider the choice of front- vs. back-image projection systems. Front-projection sets use the same configuration as movie theatres: they project the picture onto the screen. Front-projection sets usually have large screens, but older models suffer from poor picture quality. Newer multimedia projectors offer a high-quality image. The catch, of course, is apparent if you've ever tried to check your watch in the cinema: most front-projection systems require almost total darkness to produce a high-quality image.

Rear-projection TVs include conventional and flat-screen cathode-ray tube sets (CRTs), plasma and liquid crystal display (LCD) models. While you can buy CRT sets that will give you an excellent picture, the sets themselves are big and heavy. The newest technological advances are being incorporated in LCD and plasma sets. If your budget allows, consider choosing either of those.

Plasma screens were the first of the high-tech products to deliver crisp, realistic images, and recently prices have dropped dramatically. In the past couple of years, LCDs have become available, and they have a reputation for better reliability and slightly superior resolution compared with plasma sets.

Don't sit so close!

The optimal viewing distance from the TV depends on its size. Eight to 12 feet is a good distance for a TV that's between 32" to 40". At that distance, you won't see the individual horizontal scan lines on the screen. High-definition TVs allow you to sit closer, since there are no scan lines at all. Sets larger than 40" usually require a viewing distance greater than 10'. Keep in mind that if the TV is going in the basement, you need to get it there. Make sure it will fit down the stairs before you buy.

DVD players

DVDs can encode digital signals and store much more data than VCR tape, so most of the technical advances in home theatre components have come along since DVDs became available. This has two repercussions. First, the data for the image is digital and non-degrading, which results in a sharper, cleaner picture than could be had with a VCR. Second, because of the large storage capacity of a DVD disc, sound information can be split into multiple channels.

The decoder

The biggest upgrade from a regular television set-up to a home theatre is the sound. When you see a movie in a theatre, you'll hear the music, sound effects and dialogue all around you, which is the effect home theatres emulate. This is different from playing sound through the speakers of your television. The improved, multi-channel sound is what makes the receiver/decoder the foundation of every home theatre system. The DVD player sends the video signals to the television and the audio signals to the decoder. The decoder then sorts out the sound channels so that different sound information comes out of different speakers. If someone in the movie is speaking on the left-hand side of the screen, the sound comes from the speakers on the left-hand side of the theatre. If a car comes from behind the viewer and drives off into the distance beyond the screen, the sound will follow this action.

Viewing distance

The size of your television screen will help determine how far away you should arrange the seating. Most large screens don't look good if you sit too close. Sitting closer than eight feet to a conventional TV that's more than 30" won't yield the best picture. The closer you get, the more obvious the screen's scan lines.

Speaker placement

To get the best effect of a surround-sound system, at minimum you need three speakers in front of you, two speakers at your sides and two behind you.

The most prominent sounds usually come out of the front speakers. When something is making noise on the left-hand side of the screen, you hear it more from a speaker to the left of the screen. When something is happening on the right, you hear it more from a speaker to the right of the screen. Another speaker sits in the centre, just under or above the screen. This central speaker anchors the sound coming from the left and right speakers, and plays all the dialogue and front sound effects so that they seem to be coming from the centre of your screen rather than the sides.

The speakers behind the seating fill in numerous sorts of background noise, such as dogs barking or traffic passing. They also work with the front speakers to give the sensation of movement.

Room Acoustics

The shape of your room and how it's furnished will ultimately affect the quality of sound you hear from your system. For instance, too many bare surfaces can cause reflections that make the sound more harsh. If you're stuck with a room with tile or wood flooring, adding carpeting and drapes can dampen this effect.

Lighting

It's important to be able to control the light in the room. Too much ambient light in your home theatre may cause glare on the screen. But you also don't want a completely dark room, because the high contrast of the light from the screen will strain your eyes.

Ideally, you should have soft lighting connected to a dimmer. For the full theatre experience, you can install an automatic dimmer. When you start up the movie, just push the switch and the lights will dim to a preset level. Or you can install a remote control so you can dim the lights with a remote from the comfort of the sofa.

Putting it together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your choice in a home theatre set-up largely depends on your budget. If you just want a better video/sound system in the family room, a basic “home theatre” speaker set, a DVD player, a good-sized television and a whiff of hot buttered popcorn will do the job. If you want a high-tech set-up, complete with a huge screen and fantastic acoustics, consider hiring a home theatre expert who can help you through the planning and installation.


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