Overview: Create a home theater setup
The very best home theaters are in rooms designed and setup just for that purpose. But bringing a home theater setup to your house doesn’t have to call for major remodeling or a huge expense. You can adapt a family room, an extra bedroom or just about any other room for a perfectly fine home theater setup that your family will love. The key is to know the factors that make a room more or less suitable. This article will help you choose a room and furnish it for optimal sound and viewing. We’ll also tell you how to choose cables and connectors that’ll deliver the best sound and picture quality. We won’t, however, cover home theater technology or equipment. Visit an electronics store for a review of the many choices that will best fit your room.
What’s so critical about a home theater setup?
A bigger screen is nice, but it’s the sound that really makes home theater shine. Unlike a standard TV, which provides sound through a built-in speaker or two, a home theater setup has several speakers (usually six) placed around the room. The system divides the soundtrack and sends different sounds to different speakers. So when James Bond is flirting with his latest girlfriend, the voices seem to come straight from the screen. When the bad guys open fire from the right, you hear it from the right. When a helicopter zooms over, you might duck as the roar seems to pass right over you and the subwoofer shakes the room. And this isn’t just for 007 wannabes. A simple conversation in a restaurant is more realistic as you hear the clink of silverware and the sound of waiters rushing all around you.
Step 1: Choose a room for optimal sound
Don't dismiss home theater if you don't have a perfect room. Simple alterations help make up for shortcomings, and almost any room can become a good home theater. For the best sound and viewing, however, choose a room with these characteristics:
An enclosed room.
Four walls and a door form the best home theater room. An enclosed room lets you nudge up the volume without disturbing others and limits the area that has to be filled with sound, so you'll get a more powerful effect from your system. Blocking out light and getting speakers in the right place is easier too (Figure A, below).
A rectangular room shape.
Shape influences how sound bounces around the room. Perfectly square rooms or rooms that are twice as long as they are wide can create muddy sound patterns. The perfect room is about 1-1/2 times as long as it is wide, with the screen and front speakers placed against one of the short walls.
Large enough for the audience and the screen.
If your home theater only has to accommodate a few people, you can use a very small room—I've seen them as small as 8 x 10 ft. But you don't want a large screen in a small room. Sit too close to a large screen and you'll see the individual dots that make up the picture. Ideally, the eye-to-screen distance is about three times the screen size (measured diagonally). So a 36-in. screen looks just right from about 9 ft. away. When shopping for a TV, bring a tape measure so you can judge picture quality from the seating distance in your home.
Centered seating space.
You don't just need seating space; you need it in front of the screen. An onscreen image appears sharpest when viewed straight on. The farther you move off center, the dimmer it gets. Most screens present a good picture within an arc of 60 to 90 degrees.
Ideal theater room layout
Figure A: Home Theater Room Details
Home Theater Room Layout
Furnish a home theater room with sound-absorbing materials. Locate seating so the screen-to-eye distance is about three times the screen size. Side and rear speakers sound best when positioned at ear level when you're seated.
Step 2: Furnish the room for sound and screen
As with any other room, style and comfort will drive your furnishing decisions. But also keep light and sound in mind. For a vibrant picture, you want very little light in the room. For better acoustics, choose soft furnishings that absorb sound, not hard surfaces that reflect it (Figure A).
Cover hard floors.
Wall-to-wall carpeting is ideal, but a large rug over wood or tile flooring is almost as good. Decorate walls with sound absorbers. Heavy fabric wallpaper is an acoustical improvement over bare walls, and cloth wall hangings—such as decorative quilts—are even better. Pictures or paintings help, but not if they're covered with glass or plastic. A bookshelf against a wall is also an effective sound absorber.
Block out light.
Heavy curtains that completely cover windows are best (for both light and sound). Window coverings that fit inside window openings, such as blinds or shutters, block light pretty well but sometimes allow shafts of light to pass around them. Whatever light does enter the room will be less distracting if you choose darker colors for walls, carpet and other furnishings.
Reduce light reflections.
You already know how annoying strong reflections off a TV screen are. But you've probably learned to ignore the subtle reflections that cloud your TV screen. For picture clarity (and less eyestrain), avoid reflective surfaces, especially glass: mirrors, picture glass, table tops or cabinet doors. Even paint sheen has a noticeable effect. Choose flat or eggshell instead of satin or gloss.
Easy-to-find HDMI cables provide the best video
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HDMI cable connector
HDMI cables allow a high definition video feed.
Make the most of high-definition TVs and HD cable, satellite
and DVD (Blu-ray) boxes by using HDMI (High-Definition
Multimedia Interface) cables to connect them. HDMI cables are
widely available and give you the best video feed possible. Many people
think they’re watching HDTV when they really aren’t—their equipment
doesn’t allow it. Often those TVs are connected with older styles of cables that
can’t even carry a high-definition signal. There are some older TVs and components
capable of HD video, but they need special cables and connectors. You may have to use
DisplayPort, FireWire or i.LINK cables and connectors with them. Though they’re less
common than HDMI cables, you can still find them at electronics stores and online.
Glass Fiber Optic Cables Are Usually a Waste of Money
You can spend a lot of
cash on glass fiber
optic cables, but you
really won't notice any
change in picture or
sound quality. So
don't be hoodwinked
by the salesperson at
the A/V store.
Gold-plating is worth paying for
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Gold plated connector
Gold plating will maintain a high quality connection for a long time.
When you buy connectors, it's smart to pay
the extra bit to get gold-plated parts. Gold
is the ultimate not only in conductivity but
also in resistance to corrosion. Even years
from now, there won't be any degradation
in the electrical connection. That means
signals won't deteriorate over time either.
Use RCA connectors only when you have to
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RCA cable can't deliver high definition video.
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Component cables deliver better video than RCA cables, though not high definition.
If you have older components or picture-tube TVs, you
may be limited to red, yellow and white RCA connectors.
Forget HDTV; it simply isn’t possible. However, there is a
way to get a better picture. Normally, the cables with the
red and white ends carry the audio signal while the yellow
transmits the video, but you can improve the picture if
you have all three cables carry only the video signal.
Look at the back of the TV. If the YPP ports or the
RGB (red, green and blue) ports are available,
connect the cables to
them. Run a single cable
female ports. You
still won’t get HDTV, but
you’ll get the best picture you
can. If you need to use RCA
connectors, invest in “component”
cables for a better signal.
If you’re using the TV speakers,
you’ll still need red and white RCA
cables for the sound.
Twisted pair speaker wires are just fine
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Twisted pair speaker wire
Buy bulk “twisted pair audio security” cable for speaker wires.
Big, fat, expensive speaker cables
are mostly about appearance. The
truth is, you can get the same
results with inexpensive bulk
"twisted pair audio security" cable
from the home center. If your
speaker runs are less than 100 ft.,
16-gauge cable is good enough. But
if they're 100 to 200 ft., choose
Retwist stranded cable
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The factory twist direction is not ideal for solid screw terminal connections.
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Retwist the strands in the opposite direction for solid connections.
The twist direction of the strands in
speaker cable needs to be reversed before
the cable can be secured under terminal
screws. Untwist the strands, then retwist
them in the opposite direction. That way,
the strands will compress better under the
screw head for superior contact.
Direct wire-to-terminal connections
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Make a shepherd's loop for screw terminal connections.
Avoid using crimp-on hooks, loops and bayonet connectors on stranded wire ends. The
wire alone will make much better contact with a screw head terminal. So, bend a “shepherd’s”
loop on the end of the wire in a clockwise direction and tighten it directly under
Make sure you have RG6 coaxial cable
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RG6 Coaxial cable
Use RG6 coaxial cable and make sure it remains undamaged.
Look at the printing on the cable. If it reads RG59,
replace it with RG6, a far superior cable. Coaxial
cable is the lifeblood of incoming signals from satellite
dishes or feeding cable boxes. It’s also sometimes
used to feed signals from A/V components to your TV.
To receive the best possible signal, it has to be in pristine
condition. Inspect the sheathing for damage from weather
or rodents. If the sheathing is cracked or you can actually see
the braided wire through the sheathing, the cable needs to be
replaced. Any moisture that penetrates the sheathing can wreak
havoc with your signal.
Use press-on coaxial connectors
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Coaxial connectors and special tools
You need these two tools for high quality coaxial connections.
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Close-up of coaxial connector
Compression coaxial connectors are better than the older crimp and screw connectors.
If you have old-style crimp or screw-on coaxial connectors, replace them
with press-on coaxial connectors. Other styles won’t deliver signals the
way these will. But you’ll need a $20 pressing tool and a $15 coaxial
stripper and rather expensive push-on connectors. It takes
some trial and error to set up the stripping tool for each
brand of cable and a bit of practice to press on the ends.
However, once you figure it out, you’ll have great
After installing new coaxial connectors, carefully
inspect to remove any stray strands of
shield foil or wire crossing the white insulator to
the center signal wire. Bad coax connectors are
the single biggest problem that cable and satellite guys fix to restore good reception.
Avoid tight turns or kinks in coaxial cables
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Damaged coaxial cable
Kinks and tight bends can ruin coaxial cable performance.
The wire at the
center of coaxial cable
is molded inside a foam
jacket to keep it away from
the shielding and to block
interference. If you kink the cable
or bend it around a sharp corner, you
crush the foam. At that point, the damage is
done and there’s no way to undo it. Never bend
cable around a radius smaller than 3 in.
Never, ever splice cables
No matter what type of cable you're using, no
splice is as good as continuous cable. So buy
enough cable to reach the destination without