With a little help from our friends at Home Theater magazine — and not too many quatloos — you, too, can bring the big-screen theater experience home.
By Rob Sabin
Everybody watches TV. But if you’re still watching on a miniscule screen that spews tinny sound from the built-in speakers of your ultra-thin TV, you probably haven’t got a clue about how much fun you could be having in front of what they used to call “the tube.” You think you get wrapped up now in an hour of The Walking Dead? Just wait until you see walkers coming toward you on a massive display that looks like the viewscreen of the Starship Enterprise. Clearly, what you need is your own home theater. And, these days, there’s no reason you can’t have it.
Now, this takes some qualification. There are degrees of everything, and it is possible to spend $100,000 or more to build the dedicated movie palace of your dreams that’ll kick the butt of your local cineplex — yes, even the one with the plush motorized recliners and gourmet popcorn delivered to your seat. But that’s not the only definition of a “home theater. So let me open your eyes and ears with another perspective.
A home theater is any assemblage of technology whose purpose is to enhance the visual and aural perception of movies and television shows, with the intent of creating a more engaging and immersive viewing experience.
Notice, I said “visual and aural,” not “visual or aural.” A home theater is a home theater because it delivers an enhanced viewing experience for both audio and video — they go hand in hand. Buying a new HDTV without sound reinforcement does not count. And notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say you had to have a subwoofer the size of a boxcar or seven tower speakers. Nor do you need an amplifier that makes the house lights dim or even a TV of a particular size or type. You simply need to be committed to “enhancing” your television experience with the intent of making it more “engaging and immersive.”
So let’s say you’re streaming movies and shows today in a college dorm room on a laptop while listening through earbuds and you bring in a pair of high-quality powered desktop speakers with a little subwoofer. You just got yourself a home theater. If you then move to an off-campus apartment and upgrade to a 42″ HDTV and plug your desktop speakers into that, you’ve enhanced your home theater and made the experience more engaging and immersive. If you step it up further to an all-in-one soundbar that offers virtual surround sound, that’s a home theater, too. See? It’s not about how many speakers you have or how big the screen is. Sometimes, it’s about the intent and the incremental changes you can make to escape ever more fully into the fantasy world. Throw on the Imperial Walker attack in The Empire Strikes Back on Hoth and feel a slight chill as your room rumbles — now, that’s home theater.
Don’t Buy Crap
You think I’m being funny but I watch people spend their cash on low-value, poor-performing equipment at all budget levels. Once you get above a certain relatively low entry point, there is a select mix of high-value, high-performance gear in every price bracket. As an editor for Home Theater magazine and hometheater.com, I’m frequently asked by people what they should buy at a certain price, then I watch them ignore my advice and listen to the salesperson in a box store instead. When I ask them why they didn’t buy what I recommended, they tell me that they’re not as serious as I am about sound or video, so their purchase should be fine. That’s dumb. If your eyes and ears work properly, there’s no reason you won’t get the same pleasure out of a piece of gear that I do, and your appreciation will mature over time just as an oenophile’s palate does. So do your research and get your money’s worth.
Size Does Matter
While there’s no minimum screen size that constitutes a home theater, try to get the biggest display you can afford that properly fits your space. I’m not saying you should sacrifice good picture quality, but stepping up to a larger screen or sitting closer to the one you own widens the viewing window and drives up that engagement factor. If you purchase a full-HD television with 1080p screen resolution — and that’s most TVs nowadays — you can get awfully close to it without seeing the pixels that comprise the picture. That’s even truer with the new 4K-resolution Ultra HDTVs that are just hitting the market, which offer four times the pixel density of 1080p.
As for zeroing in on a screen size, every room is different, and things like your room size, furnishings, wall hangings, position of windows and other factors have bearing on what feels right for your space. Here’s what to do: Visit the manufacturer’s site for a set you’re considering and get the outer edge dimensions (width and height) for a couple of different screen sizes you want to compare. Then, on the wall you plan to use for your TV, create the outline of one of them with blue painter’s tape in the location you expect it to appear. Step back and take a look. You’ll instantly know if you can go bigger or need to drop down a size to find what seems balanced and aesthetically pleasing for the room and wall.
Back in Black
I’m not talking about the color of the TV frame, I’m talking about the image coming off the screen. When you start reading, you’ll see a lot of reviewers blathering on about black levels. It’s an obsession because it makes a huge difference in the picture. When a TV can make black look deep and inky instead of just gray, you can get natural gradation and details in the shadows and spectacular contrast between the darkest and brightest parts of the image. In short, you get “punch” and resolution that starts to mimic real life. Both types of HDTV display technologies you see advertised — plasma and LED-backlit LCD — can achieve great blacks, though there are tradeoffs. Plasmas are still valued by enthusiasts for their black levels and saturated colors, but they’re less efficient and not as bright, a weighty factor if you watch in a bright room. And don’t forget to take your new TV out of the default Vivid or “torch” picture mode and select Cinema or Movie for the best image quality. If it looks a little dark, you can edge up the Contrast (and/or the Backlight on LCD TVs), but the picture should be fundamentally right.
Sound It Out
Most of today’s flat-panel HDTVs have speakers that point toward the back wall, away from the listener, so it’s no wonder we can’t always hear the dialogue. They cannot throw a wide, tall and three-dimensional sonic image that even small standalone speakers with real woofer and tweeter drivers can deliver. Their tonal balance and timbre is off, so instruments and voices don’t sound natural. In short, TV sound sucks.
The ideal home theater audio system has a minimum of five speakers that cover the front left and right positions (the traditional stereo music pair), a center channel speaker for dialogue, and a pair of surround speakers that are best positioned to the left and right of the main seating but can be placed behind as well. Add a powered subwoofer to assist with special effects and bolster the bass of your main speakers — that’s the “.1” in a 5.1-channel system. If you’re flush and want to add two back-wall surround speakers to go with the side surrounds, you’ll have a match for today’s newer 7.1-channel movie soundtracks, but that’s overkill for most folks and only a modest enhancement. Driving all these speakers usually requires an audio/video receiver (AVR), which combines a multichannel amplifier with a surround processor that steers the correct information to each speaker. They come in both the 5.1- and 7.1-channel varieties and, like speakers, in a wide range of prices. Non-techies inevitably find AVRs terrifying to set up and operate, and I can’t blame them. But you’ll likely get the best performance by mating a good AVR and speakers and cabling it all together, either by yourself or with the help of a professional installer. An installer can also hook you up with a universal remote to simplify system operation.
Still, that traditional A/V system with all the speakers and wires is simply too much for many people, which is why sales of all-in-one powered soundbars are exploding. These are typically squat, wide speaker systems that go in front of the TV and can often be hooked up with only a single cable to the TV. A decent one that won’t hurt your ears can be had for around $300-$400, or you can spend up to $2,000 on a high-performance model. The sweet spot range is $500 to $800, which will deliver musically accurate and highly dynamic sound. Most soundbars come with a wireless powered subwoofer you can place anywhere in the room where there’s a wall outlet. Some simply reproduce soundtracks in two-channel stereo, while others can process the 5.1 channels in a soundtrack coming off a cable box or disc player and create a modest semblance of virtual surround speakers at the sides of the room.
In lieu of a component system or a soundbar, you can also consider a powered compact speaker system, which is typically a pair of speakers plus a small subwoofer. They offer similar benefits to a soundbar minus the faux surround sound, but allow you to spread the speakers a good distance apart for better imaging up front, and they may deliver more musically accurate performance as well.
The old “garbage in, garbage out” adage fits for the home theater market. You’re getting a high-def television and an audio system to help you extract the incredible sonics imbedded in today’s programming, so make sure you feed your theater the good stuff. That means opting for high-def streams of movies and shows when you can, getting an HD cable or satellite box, and using Blu-rays instead of a standard-definition DVDs. Good Blu-ray movie transfers have a noticeably better HD picture than broadcast or streaming, and if you use an A/V receiver, it’ll decode the higher-resolution audio soundtracks that remain exclusive to this format (DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby True HD). A Blu-ray player may also make your regular DVDs look a little sharper, and most players today are Internet-ready and loaded with apps for Netflix and the other popular video and music-streaming services.