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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 between matching-labeled 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.
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 14-gauge cable.
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.
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 the terminal.
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.
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 connectors.
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.
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 any splices.