Home theaters have evolved by leaps and bounds over the past ten years. They’ve gone from a simple television with maybe a VCR (videocassette recorder for you youngsters) and a game console to full-blown high-definition multimedia centers with Internet access and more components than you could ever hope to fit in the TV stand. This is the reality of home theaters today, and there are ways to make them more manageable and easier to use. Here are five tips for setting up your home theater:
The Right Television
If your home theater is a body, then the television is the head. No matter how good your DVR, gaming console, DVD or Blu-Ray player is, your television set is the one place that has the potential of creating a disappointing overall experience. On the other side, many televisions made today have apps and other programs that enable you to experience media directly from the Internet without the need of an external device. When building your entertainment center, it could be argued that the most important thing to get right before anything else is the television. Make sure the television you’re looking for has decent picture quality, built-in support for services such as Netflix, if you haven’t been driven away by their recent price change, and plenty of connection options in the back. After all, we have more devices than we used to, shouldn’t it make sense that your television has enough ports to support them?
The Right Speakers
Having more watts doesn’t mean having louder and/or better sound. Plenty of entry-level speaker systems boast having an all-in-one solution at a low price and frequently display their amplifier stats on the package as if they meant something. The best rule of thumb is to find the biggest and best sound solution and taking a look at what’s two or three levels down from that in terms of price. If what you find there looks like it might be good enough, then it probably will be.
There’s no substitute for hearing things for yourself. When it comes to televisions and sound systems, the best way to make sure you have something that looks and sounds right is to visit an electronics store with them on display and give them a try. Stores such as Fry’s Electronics, home theater specific retailers, and others usually have a small sound room with everything they sell available for you to try out before you make your purchase.
Whatever you do, don’t buy the DVD player / speaker system combo you see at major superstores for less than $50. These are ripoffs and will make you regret your purchase faster than you think. A good quality home theater sound system has an amplifier separate from the disc player. Yes, I’m sure there are exceptions, but we’re talking budget market here, not prosumer.
Get the Cables Right
Whatever you decide to do, don’t spend too much on digital cables. Home theater geeks love to brag about their $200 Creature cables that have gold plating on the connectors and spacecraft materials from the planet Krypton laced throughout the cable and blah blah blah. Look, when you have a digital connection, the extra nonsense that goes in to a cable is just that…nonsense.
Analog cables are slightly different. In some cases, better quality cable will cut down on signal interference to a degree. While there is certainly no reason to pay hundreds of dollars for cables, make sure you do your research before making a purchase. If there is a digital option available to you, and you’re not dead set on using an analog signal – consider going that route instead.
If you have some devices that send video out in through a component connection, there are options available for you to go from component to HDMI, allowing you to free up your component ports for other uses (such as some cable company’s DVR units).
Things to Watch Out For
In addition to digital cable and all-in-one systems, it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for anything that looks suspicious. The home theater market is full of companies and brands that want nothing more than to get you to spend piles of money on something that nearly worthless. If you come across home theater equipment that carries a brand name you’re not familiar with, it’s ok to check for reviews online. Brands like Vizio, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, etc. are all major names that have proven time and time again to make products that have predictable quality, at least most of the time.
Cables are one exception to this rule. The brand name of a cable doesn’t matter as much as the overall quality of the cable itself, no matter what Creature or any other brand tells you.
Computer vs. Set-Top Box
If you have an old computer laying around, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of noise, you may already have the perfect addition to your media center. Adding a computer to your home theater setup can make a big difference on what you’re able to do. You can surf the web from the couch using a wireless keyboard and mouse, install third-party set-top software such as Boxee or Hulu and use the computer just like a Boxee Box.
Set-top solutions can save you the space the typical computer takes up and a few dollars if you don’t have a spare system laying around the house. The Roku Box, Boxee Box, and others are a great solution if you frequently subscribe to web shows or have decided not to pay a monthly cable bill for your television entertainment. Online services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix can give you access to many of the shows and movies you would otherwise be missing. If you’re an Apple user, the Apple TV is also a good choice, especially if you have shared iTunes libraries that you’d like to access from your home theater.