Recipe for a Home Theater - A Full HD system starts with great ingredients

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The giant balloons in the Thanksgiving Day Parade cry out to be seen on a big screen. The roar of a football game shouts surround sound. Classic holiday movies demand to be seen anew in high definition. And home videos and digital slide shows of gatherings past signal family members to come to the sofa.

The holidays and home theater were made for each other. After all, when the eating's done, it's then that sports nuts and movie connoisseurs get down to some serious holiday viewing. Unless you're a video equipment enthusiast, though, creating a crowd pleasing system can be as elusive as putting together the perfect black truffle soufflé.

Setting up a home theater isn't difficult once you understand how each component contributes to the big picture. Here's grandma's recipe for what you need – or what someone you know deserves.

One TV Screen

There seem to be as many flat screen choices as boxes in the cereal aisle. Don't despair. Your first choice should be a known brand featuring "Full HD" resolution, meaning if you counted the number of picture elements, you'd find 1920 pixels across and 1080 pixels down. The bigger the screen, the more you'll appreciate the lifelike quality of high definition programs. So, a 40-inch model (measured diagonally) is an entry point, but a 50-incher is even better.

LCD and plasma technologies have become such strong performers that you can't go wrong with either type of TV. One example is the Samsung LN40A650, a 40-inch LCD model. Another is the Panasonic TH-50PZ85U Viera 50-inch plasma HDTV. Both come with built-in stands for placement on furniture, but the stand can be removed if you'd prefer an optional wall mount.

Samsung LN40A650
Samsung LN40A650


 
Panasonic TH-50PZ85U VIERA Plasma TV 50"


One Blu-ray Disc Player

The best way to exploit all the resolution of your Full HD display is by connecting a Blu-ray Disc Player. The successor to the DVD player accommodates high definition movies and DVD's. The newest BD players contain an Ethernet jack for downloading additional content from the Internet. They include the popularly-priced Sony BDP-S350.

Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray Disc Player
Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray Disc Player

 

One Home Theater Receiver Kit

Since home theater is as much about sound as it is about picture, you'll need a sound system. Pieces can be purchased separately (see below) or as part of a kit that includes a Blu-ray Disc player, A/V receiver, and speaker system. For example, the Sony HT-SS2300 Blu-ray Home Theater Kit comes with a 5.1 channel receiver, four satellite speakers, a center speaker, and a subwoofer.

Sony HT-SS2300 Blu-ray Home Theater Kit
Sony HT-SS2300 Blu-ray Home Theater Kit


One A/V Receiver

Even if you have an old receiver attached to a stereo system, it almost certainly lacks the latest digital connections and the ability to decode a Dolby Digital sound track. Today's affordable home theater receivers are extremely capable and provide smart setup features like a microphone you place in the listening position to automatically calculate delay in milliseconds from discrete speakers so that dialog, effects, and music all arrive at the right time. Sony's STR-DG820 7.1 Channel Home Theater Receiver, for instance, does that. It supports up to seven speaker channels plus a low-frequency channel (the ".1") used by the subwoofer. It also has four HDMI inputs – a boon if your TV has only one or two such inputs but you're finding that almost every new source component contains an HDMI output. The goal is to switch all your components through the A/V receiver and to use just one main HDMI input on the TV.

Sony STR-DG820 7.1-Channel Home Theater Receiver
Sony STR-DG820 7.1-Channel Home Theater Receiver


One Set of Six Speakers

A 5.1 system requires a center speaker directly below the screen and four satellite speakers (one to the left and one to the right of the TV screen; one left surround and one right surround placed at the sides of seated guests). The subwoofer is the speaker dedicated to rumble and deep bass; it sits on the floor, typically in a corner of the room. All the other speakers can be placed on furniture, perched on stands, or attached to the wall. If possible, they should be at ear level when the audience is seated. The JBL Cinema Sound CS6100 5.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker System fits the bill. It includes a 300-watt powered subwoofer capable of producing a mighty boom for your buck.

JBL Cinema Sound CS6100 5.1 Home Theater Speaker System
JBL Cinema Sound CS6100 5.1 Home Theater Speaker System


One Media Player

If you want to display on your big screen HDTV the family video stored in your home office computer or if you want to use that big screen to show your photos with music – but you don't have a home network – then a small digital media player can bridge the gap. Western Digital's WD TV HD Media Player accepts two USB storage devices such as an external hard drive, a flash memory stick, or a card reader. It will aggregate the content from two devices. The paperback-size device plugs into an HDMI input on your receiver or TV and comes with a remote.

WD TV HD Media Player
WD TV HD Media Player

 


An Assortment of Cables

You'll likely need at least two HDMI cables: one to attach your Blu-ray Disc player to your receiver and another to connect your receiver to your TV. You may need another one to connect your DVR to your receiver and yet another to attach a media player. Available lengths vary, but a 6-footer affords more leeway than say, a 3-footer. You can save a little money by buying a couple of 2-Packs like this package from Xtreme Cables:

Xtreme Cables 6' HDMI CABLE (2-PACK)
Xtreme Cables 6' HDMI CABLE (2-PACK)

Check to see if speaker wires are included with a home theater speaker system. If not, wire can be purchased on a spool (bring your own cutter) or in several ready-to-attach lengths. The subwoofer uses a male RCA to male RCA cable. Depending on your source components' outputs and whether you've run out of HDMI inputs on your receiver or TV, alternative connections can be made using component video cables and optical or coaxial digital audio cables.

One Universal Remote

Though you can use your home theater receiver's remote to operate the sound and source for your TV, if you want deep control of all your equipment – and not clutter the coffee table with multiple remotes – consider a good universal remote such as the Harmony One.

Harmony One Remote
Harmony One Remote

Setting up a home theater involves selecting, connecting, and installing a variety of components. But getting it done isn't that different from preparing a multi-course holiday dinner. You can add as many courses or components as you have room for or your budget allows. And by the way: don't forget the cranberry sauce … or the batteries.