The Basics of A home theater system
I wouldn’t trade my current home theater system for anything in the world, but I have to admit that it took me a while to get it right. I learned a lot about the basics of home theater systems, how to choose the right components, and how to create the perfect layout. Here is what I learned about creating the perfect home theater system.
plan according to space and budget
Figuring out your budget is a practical starting point for your project. Another thing to consider is the size and shape of the room you want to use.
If you’re like me, your home theater system is something you will upgrade over the years. You can establish a starting budget to get the essentials and purchase additional items or upgrade your tech with a yearly or monthly budget you set aside to improve your home theater.
Get started by creating a list of essential items and non-essentials. Essential items include the TV itself, a mounting system, your basic sound components, and a comfortable seating option.
Non-essential items that you can add later include lighting, shades, gaming units, or upgrades to your sound system. You can spend more on furniture at a later date to make the room more functional, or device to invest in soundproofing to improve sound quality.
Here is a quick breakdown of how you should plan on spending your budget:
- Plan on spending around 50% of your budget on your video system. Your video system includes your TV set and the components you will use to watch content, whether it’s a cable box, DVD player, or streaming device.
- I recommend spending around 30% of your budget on your sound system.
- Spend 10% of your budget on quality cables and circuit breakers.
- You can use the remaining 10% on a cable management system, or items that will help you personalize that space.
I will admit that my first home theater system setup was too ambitious for the space I had. The room felt crowded and impractical.
Plan your setup according to the size and shape of the room you want to use. The size of your home theater room should influence the size of the display you choose, how you set up your sound components, and where you place your couch or armchair.
Your Home Theater Room
Let’s take a closer look at the factors that can impact your TV viewing experience.
When you watch TV, you pick up the sounds that come from the speakers as well as sounds reflected from different surfaces. Have you ever seen a movie theater that doesn’t use wall-to-wall carpeting and covers walls with a plushy material? It’s because soft surfaces absorb sounds and limit unwanted reverberation and diffusion.
Room acoustics can create an immersive experience or distort sound. Here are a few tips to help you master room acoustics:
- Remember that hard surfaces reflect sounds while soft surfaces absorb them.
- Sound should come out of the speakers, bounce off the walls, and reach you in the middle of the room for an optimal experience. Keep this in mind when placing your couch or armchairs.
- A room with a rectangular shape will deliver the best experience possible while a cube will create too much resonance.
- Bass sounds can cause issues in small rooms. Avoid bass-boosted setups if you don’t have a lot of space.
- Foam, fiberglass panels, and fabrics will help you control sound reflection.
- If there is excessive sound propagation in your home theater room, use bookshelves filled with thick books to limit diffusion.
Working with a room’s acoustic properties is a process of trial and error. Thankfully, a lot of sound systems come with smart features and can adjust to their environment automatically.
To understand more about optimizing acoustics for small rooms, check out this video:
walls and flooring
The walls and flooring material will impact how the room reflects and diffuses sound. Hardwood flooring can cause too much reverberation and distort sounds. Install wall-to-wall carpeting, carpet tiles, or place a large rectangular carpet in the middle of the room.
Glass is one of the worst surfaces for sound reverberation and diffusion. If there are large windows in your home theater room, cover them with thick curtains and take down any mirrors.
You can improve sound quality by covering your walls with acoustic panels or curtains if you’re on a budget.
lighting and colors
I highly recommend using dimmable lights in your home theater room. Dimmable lights allow you to use that room for other purposes, and they help create a movie theater feel. If there are steps that lead down to your home theater room, have some fun with LED step lighting to create that movie theater feel!
Glare and eye strain are the two main things to watch out for when designing lighting. You can reduce strain by placing a soft light behind your TV display.
You can prevent glare by not directing any lights toward the TV display and by being mindful of how light will reflect off different surfaces. Cove lighting with LED strips or box panels will direct light toward the ceiling and create a soft and indirect lighting effect.
When it comes to colors, avoid white surfaces and bright colors that would reflect light. Choose matte neutral tones like gray, beige, taupe, or muted jewel tones if you want a touch of color. If you can, use matte black paint around your TV display.
Your sound components
Movie theaters typically use three speakers located behind the screen along with additional speakers installed throughout the room to create a surround sound effect. You can recreate that surround sound effect at home with the right components and setup.
A surround-sound receiver is a crucial component for your home theater system. This device receives audio and video signals from the source you’re using to watch content and sends these signals to your TV display and speakers.
Your receiver creates an immersive experience by splitting sound into different channels and sending these channels to the different speakers.
I recommend using at least five speakers for your home theater system. You will need a central speaker placed above or under your TV display. This central speaker will handle most of the dialogue and sound effects. Placing this speaker above or under your TV will create a more natural effect.
You can add dimension to the sound by placing speakers directly to the left and right of your TV display. You should place two additional speakers behind you. Positioning these speakers to the left and right of the sitting area will simulate movements and give sound a unique 3D quality.
You will get better results if you place the speakers at ear level or slightly higher.
Think of a subwoofer as a specialized speaker that handles bass. Adding a subwoofer will give more depth to your sound system.
However, bass sound waves are extremely reflective, and controlling acoustics can be challenging once you add a subwoofer. It’s best to install acoustic panels to limit reflection and preserve the crispness of these sound waves.
It’s easy to notice if there is a placement issue with your subwoofer because base notes will sound dull and lack definition. You can prevent excessive reflection by placing your subwoofer at least 10” away from the wall, avoiding corners, and not installing your subwoofer in a cabinet or under a table.
Soundbars are a popular alternative that I highly recommend if you’re building a home theater system in a budget.
Soundbars are devices with several built-in speakers and receiver functionalities. You can build a basic home theater with a TV display and soundbar, or pick a soundbar that comes with a few extras like a subwoofer and additional speakers you can place behind the sitting area.
Calibrating your sound system
You won’t get the most out of your investment in audio components until you calibrate your sound system. Most devices come with auto-calibration features that will walk through a testing process that will adjust different settings to match the acoustics of your room.
If you decide to use manual settings, focus on EQ to adjust bass and treble levels. You should also adjust the frequency response of your different speakers to adjust the range covered by each speaker and determine at which level sounds go to the subwoofer.
For an indepth view on how to calibrating your home theater check out this video of a THX certified installer calibrating a home theater system:
We can’t cover the basics of home theater systems without discussing what could be the most important choice; your TV display.
Do you need a 4K TV? Should you splurge on an OLED screen? TV tech terminology can be confusing. Here is what you need to know about the different technologies currently available:
- LCD or LED TVs use a Liquid-Crystal Display located in front of a backlit LED panel. The liquid crystals control the color of the pixels digitally.
- OLED stands for Organic Light-Emitting Diodes. These TVs are thinner and lighter since they don’t use a backlit panel. OLED TVs use individual diodes that make up the pixels to display different colors.
OLED TVs can display brighter colors and deeper blacks. The downside of these displays is that individual pixels can burn, and you will end up with black spots where the dead pixels are.
The display technology you pick isn’t as important as the quality of the picture processor. Picking a TV from a well-known manufacturer and spending a little more to get a quality product ensures that you will get a performing picture processor that delivers optimal picture quality, color depth, and color accuracy.
Resolution refers to the number of pixels that make up your TV screen. A screen with more pixels will deliver a sharp image with more details.
Here are the different resolutions you can find:
- A standard screen has a resolution of 1,280×720 pixels.
- A Full HD TV has a display of 1,920×1,080 pixels.
- If you invest in a 4K or UHD TV, you will get a resolution of 3,840×2,160.
- Some manufacturers offer 8K TVs. These screens have a resolution of 7,680×4,320 pixels, which means these TVs have more than 33 million pixels!
Keep in mind that you won’t get the full effect of your 4K or 8K TV unless you have access to content available in that resolution. Blu-rays deliver that kind of content, but Netflix and other streaming services typically reduce the resolution of the content to make up for a slow internet connection.
Some TVs come with a High Dynamic Range or HDR feature. This feature enhances the differentiation between levels of brightness. You will notice that highlights stand out and that you get a better color detail and contrast. It’s a feature worth looking for if you’re thinking about getting a 4K or 8K set.
The optimal size for your screen depends on the size of your home theater room and your viewing distance. As a rule of thumb, you can find the ideal screen size by dividing the viewing distance in inches by three.
Consider installation when picking a screen size. You should place your TV parallel to your line of sight, and limit the tilting angle to 15°. The viewing angle shouldn’t exceed 40° on the left and right.
A larger screen will create a larger sweet spot, which means you can sit more people. However, a larger screen will increase the optimal viewing distance. Pushing your couch further back in the room might not be an option since you would be too close to the back speakers.
Personal experience has taught me that creating a home theater room where you enjoy spending time in is often a matter of details.
Going wireless reduces clutter and makes setup easier. You can opt for a wireless sound system, or upgrade your sound system by adding a wireless transmitter.
There are several options available to stream content to your TV wirelessly. Keep in mind that adding wireless streaming devices to your setup might require you to upgrade your home network with a more performing router or Wi-Fi repeater.
Cable management solutions
You don’t need to go wireless to create a home theater system that is easy to manage. There are different cable management solutions you can explore to create a functional space.
Running in-wall speaker cables limit clutter and make your cables invisible. If you don’t want to cut holes in your drywall, look into covering cables by using wall plates or installing cable raceways on the floor.
Pick a TV stand with some built-in cable management options, or look for a cabinet that you can customize by drilling holes to run cables through it.
I recommend labeling your cables and using cable ties or a similar system to keep them organized. Measure your room carefully to pick the right cable length and avoid having to coil cables that are too long.
For quick tips on cable management for your home theater, check out this video:
Powering your home theater
You will probably need to add a few power strips to your setup. Take outlet location into consideration when figuring out how you will lay your cables and power cords out.
You should invest in a surge protector to prevent damage to your expensive equipment. You can find power strips with built-in surge protectors, or replace an existing power outlet with an outlet that comes with a built-in surge protector. Make sure every piece of equipment is powered through a surge protector.
Accessing a variety of content from different sources will help you get the most out of your home theater system. If you’re a movie buff, you probably have an existing collection of DVDs. You can easily integrate that content by adding a DVD player and some shelves to organize your collection.
Streaming options give you access to a huge selection of movies and shows. If you opt for a Smart TV, you will be able to stream content through the apps installed on your TV. If you didn’t pick a Smart TV, you can add that functionality by adding a streaming device or streaming content through a gaming console.
Some cable plans give you access to on-demand titles. If you have a cable subscription, connecting a cable box to your home theater system will give you access to a wider selection of content.
There are additional options to explore to access content with your home theater system:
- Stream content from a computer through an HDMI cable.
- Set up a media server on your home network to access audio and video files stored on your computer.
- Use the casting feature some computers have to send content to your TV wirelessly.
- Turn your home theater into a video setup by adding a gaming console.
- An HD antenna will add local channels to your content selection.
- Your DVD player can double as a CD player, but you will get better quality audio if you add a high-end CD player to your home theater system.
Building my home theater system has been a fun project that has kept me busy during the weekends. I absolutely love the result and use my setup to watch my favorite movies, catch up on shows, and play video games occasionally. It’s been a process of trial and error, and I hope you can learn a few things from my mistakes and avoid spending money on unnecessary components like I did!