Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.
Column 18 January 10, 2002
How to Make a House a Home (Theater, That Is)
Question: I’ve read your columns, and I’m starting to think about setting up a home theater of my own. What’s the most important factor for good home theater?
There’s no single factor that makes for a great home theater. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something! But there are certainly things that are more important than others. Here’s my list, from most important to least important, and you may be surprised:
1. Your eyes and ears
Self evident? Hardly. It’s amazing how much the resolution of my DLP projector improves when I clean my glasses! Many folks invest thousands of dollars in speakers and electronics but literally can’t hear the difference. If you’re over fifty years old, you may have trouble hearing high frequencies well. If you’re under twenty five years old and spend time wearing headphones, dancing at clubs, or attending at rock concerts, you may have trouble hearing well at all.
2. Ease of use
System integration and ergonomics are the second most important factor in home theater, and they’re often neglected. Simply put, if you can’t use it, you won’t. This might mean:
q hiring someone to set things up properly for you
q choosing gear for ease of use over slight differences in sound quality
q routing video signals for optimal ease of use
q buying equipment from a single manufacturer and using their proprietary control system
q choosing gear based on whether it has discrete remote control codes for macros
q investing in a custom programmed remote control system
3. Your room
Home theater means a big picture and big sound. To get it, you’d be surprised at how often the room itself is a bigger factor than the equipment you put in it. How big a TV or screen can fit in your room? Can everyone see the picture without straining their necks? If there are windows in the room, can you black them out? If not, you’ll need a display device that can overcome a lot of ambient light.
How does the room sound? Concert halls are designed with acoustics in mind; your living room probably wasn’t. A room with cathedral ceilings and an open floor plan is great for entertaining, but isn’t so great for home entertainment – it’s a lot of space to fill sonically, and there may be echoes. Similarly, a room with glass walls and hardwood floors will be too live (sound bounces right off them). Conversely, a room with plush carpeting and thick drapes may be too dead (no reverberant quality to the sound at all. There are some who prefer this for home theater; I don’t). Finally, it’s hard to hear the nuances of a soundtrack over extraneous noise – does your room have appliances, air conditioners, or toddlers running around?
How comfortable are the chairs in your room – are they inviting to sit in for a two hour movie? Home theater guru Russ Herschelmann takes it a step further – he suggests that your entire theater should be planned around your chairs (mostly their type and location, but he’s also concerned about the height of the chair backs and how that interferes with home theater sound).
For ideal home theater room dimensions, see Russ Herschelmann’s articles from Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. There's even a spreadsheet on their website.
4. Big picture
After watching a movie in my basement, a comment I often get is, “wow, I didn’t realize how important good sound is to the movie experience.” No question about it, sound is critical. But you can have a really terrific sound system, and if you’re watching a small screen, it just isn’t a terribly cinematic experience. Size matters. Watch Titanic on a 27” TV and it’s not, well, titanic. Watch Titanic on a 55” television and it’s impressive. Watch Titanic on a seven foot wide screen, and it’s terrifying. Not only can you can see the details of the special effects, you can see the acting. As Kate Winslet runs through the corridors looking cold and terrified, you can see the horror on her face. (You can also see how cold she really is – her lips are blue! Director James Cameron deliberately kept the water on the set kept extremely cold.)
There’s more to it than just visual detail, though. Ever been to an IMAX theater? Your entire field of view, including your peripheral vision, is filled by the enormous screen. This convinces your brain that you are actually experiencing the roller coaster / deep sea dive / mountain trek that appears in front of you. A large screen at home begins to suggest the same involvement to your brain. Simply put, a movie on a really large screen is immersive.
5. Big sound
But to sell that reality, you need an aural environment to back it up. Today’s DVDs include six or seven channels of digital sound. To play that back, you need a receiver that can decode Dolby Digital, at least five matched speakers placed properly in the room (three arrayed in a left-center-right line in front of you, one on either side of you, all at ear level), and a subwoofer for low bass impact. A receiver that supports the latest formats, Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES discrete, is even better, along with one or two additional speakers placed directly behind you.
If you nailed the top five, you’ve got yourself a real home theater. To improve the experience, the next area for improvement is...
6. Your speakers
Once you get out of the bargain basement price range, differences in electronics are somewhat subtle - though if you want to play your system REALLY LOUD with no distortion, real differences emerge. Not so with speakers, where you can hear marked differences between brands at all price levels, and even differences between models within brands.
7. Your electronics
Next up, you can upgrade your electronics. New surround sound formats can be a big deal, but amplifiers are often difficult to tell apart in a double blind test. With electronics, there tends to be a point of diminishing returns – at a certain price level, everything’s good. Even if something is better, you may have to pay a lot more to get that minor improvement. Still, better quality components can produce better quality results, so if you have the money, feel free to help boost the Japanese economy.
8. Your cables
Good cables do make a difference, but they are also the subject of the most marketing voodoo in all of home theaterdom. See Column #3 for specific advice.
Let’s not forget…
Those are the basics. But there are a few other important things to keep in mind (in no particular order):
There are products designed to protect you from voltage spikes like lightning that should be in everyone’s home theater. And then there is a whole category of products designed to “condition” your power in one way or another. Some of these products have voodoo marketing pitches that rival the cable folks. If you live in an area with badly fluctuating or unreliable power delivery, these can be well worth the considerable expense. Otherwise, they are completely unnecessary.
The more detail and resolution in your source, the more real the home theater experience can be. Currently, HDTV provides the best picture, but is not easily available everywhere (see column 10). HDTV can provide full six channel digital surround sound, but often just provides two channels of digital surround sound. Contrary to popular opinion, DVD is not a high resolution source, however, it’s often still the best source commonly available, especially when “enhanced for widescreen TV” (see column 11). DVDs also offer the best sound – typically six and sometimes seven channels of digital surround sound. Next comes satellite and over-the-air broadcast television, followed by digital cable television, analog cable television, and finally VHS video tape, which is really rather fuzzy. Digital satellite TV may provide two or six channel digital surround sound, the rest just provide two analog channels.
Let’s face it – you can watch Casablanca on a 19” TV and it’s still a great movie. You can watch the latest Dead Teenager Movie on an IMAX and it’s still a waste of two hours of your life.
There are a lot of ways to make your home theater more inviting. You can add movie posters, popcorn machines, home theater rope lighting (sold cheap at Target, of all places), a ticket booth and marquee outside the room (not so cheap…), and your own personal touches. A home theater should be a place where you can relax, and enjoy!
Double blind test – a test where both the tester and subjects don’t know the identity of the product being tested, or the order in which the products are being used. Tests like this are scientifically sound, and are rarely done partly because they’re a bit hard to do, and partly because they often show that differences between electronic components are not nearly as pronounced as the marketing folks at the manufacturers would have you believe.
Macro – a programmed sequence of commands. For example, the macro “Watch DVD,” might launch the following sequence: turn receiver on, turn DVD player on, turn TV on, set video and audio inputs on receiver, set receiver volume, play DVD, dim room lights, and display DVD control buttons on remote control screen. Macros are wonderful, but there’s one tiny problem: if your DVD player is already on, pushing the “on/off” button will actually turn it off. That’s not what you wanted at all! There are two ways to get around this problem: 1) only buy equipment that has discrete remote control codes. In other words, there’s a separate command for “on” and a separate command for “off.” For details, see http://www.remotecentral.com. 2) Most touch panel control systems can be purchased with electronic control systems that can determine electrically whether your equipment is on or off, and allows logical branches (If…Then) in the macros.
Toddler – human child from age one to four. Makes a lot of noise; requires a lot of attention. Can be cute; very distracting. Good for family and general well being. Bad for home theater.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart