The Basics of Home Theater:
Last updated 3/30/2006
This section of my home theater guide is meant just to get the reader up to speed on what home theater is and what sort of options are available. We'll begin with a very brief history of home theater, and look at what we'll cover in the other sections.
Over the course of the last couple decades, innovations in home audio and video equipment have provided consumers with the opportunity to create theaters in their own homes. Faced with the rising cost of movie tickets, expensive snacks and drinks, crowds, and common problems with audio and video quality in huge multi-screen theaters, many people have chosen to create their own theaters at home. VHS was the first format available, with people renting tapes or even buying tapes of movies they liked. LaserDisc offered much better audio and video quality, but the high equipment and software costs kept it restricted to a small market. At the same time, Dolby Labs developed ways to provide surround sound at home, using the stereo signal from a VCR or LaserDisc player to bring the benefits of theater sound into the home. George Lucas's THX company (founded in the early 1980's to deal with the difficulty in insuring that theaters show movies the way the creators intended, both relating to video quality and audio quality) also expanded their rating system to include home equipment, and began to provide guidelines for the best way to create a home theater; they also began to evaluate and certify equipment as THX compliant. By the mid-90's, Dolby had upped the ante by producing what is now called "Dolby Digital" (originally called AC-3). Originally restricted to LaserDisc, this digital audio format contains up to five discreet full-range audio tracks (front left, front right, center, surround left, and surround right) as well as a LFE (low frequency effects) channel that could be directed to a subwoofer. LaserDisc remained a niche product, however, so few people were able to enjoy the benefits of Dolby Digital at home. Then, in March 1997, DVD arrived. DVD improved on the video quality of LaserDisc, and offered the benefit of a consumer-friendly format a 5" silver disc (identical in appearance to a CD) that could store an entire movie on one side, a great improvement over LaserDisc's 12" platters and mid-movie side changes and disc changes. In the decade or so since 1997, DVD has rapidly left behind its "early adopter" niche market status and become a mainstream product, with player prices falling below $100.
The rapid and widespread adoption of the DVD format came almost hand-in-hand with the growing adoption of digital television, primarily high definition in the form of HDTV's. HDTV's helped further the growth of home theaters by providing those theaters a number of alternatives for having large and vivid "screens" (in the case of front projectors, literal screens). The first years of the 21st century have seen a steady trend of lower prices for HDTV's, better quality displays, and more source components capable of exploiting the HD displays (ranging from HD cable and satellite receivers to upconverting DVD players to next generation game consoles). The growth of HDTV has been reinforced by the government's plans to discontinue analog television broadcast in April 2009 (allowing them to sell off most of that bandwidth), after which point analog TV's will cease to be made and existing analog sets will be forced to rely on digital converter boxes to get broadcast TV. Unfortunately for consumers who were looking for ways to get full benefit from their new HDTV's, 2006 ushered in a new format war eerily reminiscient of the VHS/Beta disaster of a quarter century ago: Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD, two similar 5" blue-laser optical disc formats that function almost identically to DVD while offering true high definition resolution. I'll touch on that format war in the section on DVD and HD Disc players.
COMPONENTS OF A HOME THEATER
A home theater can be simple (a shelf system or "Home Theater in a Box" - HTiB - with DVD/CD player, radio tuner, digital processing, and amplifier all built in and bundled with speakers) or extremely complex (a separates-based system with separate DVD player, surround sound processor, amplifiers, speakers, subwoofer, and even a front projection display with a special screen, a projector, and a line doubler). Most home theaters fall somewhere in between. This guide will touch on some of the typical components people are likely to want to use to build a home theater.
- Terms and Technology: Newcomers and long-time home theater folks alike can get very lost very quickly when faced with the ever-growing sophistication of home theater technology and the huge array of terms that come with that technology. In this section, we start off by taking a look at the technology and lingo of home theater.
- Receivers and Surround Sound Processors (SSP's): Once you move beyond your TV's built-in speakers, you will find yourself shopping for a surround sound receiver. We'll look at receivers and at their more "big brother" the surround sound processor (SSP), which lacks the receiver's built-in amplifiers. The receiver serves as a gathering point for all inputs in the system, as well as a digital processor for modern surround movie soundtracks. It will switch between audio inputs from DVD players, VCRs, CD players, digital cable boxes, DSS, and other sources. Internal amplifiers will drive the speakers. Many receivers will also provide video switching, so you can connect a multitude of video sources through it to your TV. We addressed the different digital audio processing and decoding formats in Terms and Technology, but we'll touch on it again here.
- Speakers: Speakers may seem like a simple topic, but there are actually a lot of considerations and alternatives when shopping for speakers (including subwoofers). We'll look at some of the choices available.
- Displays: A home theater needs something to view the movies on, right? These days, that means HDTV digital sets that can support resolutions of between 720 and 1080 horizontal lines. Shopping for an HDTV can be pretty intimidating, though do you want direct-view tube, LCD, DLP, rear projection, front projection, or plasma? Do you need an internal HD tuner? We'll try to sort some of it out in this section.
- DVD and HD Disc Players: The DVD player could be given credit for sparking the growth of home theaters over the last decade (although it should probably share that distinction with some other advancements). With decent entry-level players under $100, movies available to rent almost everywhere now, and the cost of buying discs on par with or even less than VHS used to cost, DVD is hard to resist. Hot on the heels of the now-beloved format is a strong interest in delivering content at true HD resolutions. That interest has led us to a nasty quandary known as format war, specifically HD-DVD versus Blu-ray Disc. We'll look at the three disc formats (including some audio cousins of the DVD) and the players that spin them.
- Other Audio/Video Gear: Depending on where your home theater is set up, you may want to have some other equipment included. CD players or CD changers, VCRs, DVD recorders, cable or satellite TV, game consoles, media servers, and other odds and ends might appeal to you. Some of this may be equipment you already have and want to keep around for old time's sake, while some may be new equipment that you want to add to your system.
- Cables: All of these pieces we've discussed have to be hooked together somehow but the vast array of different cable types can be both confusing and intimidating. Even what quality of cables you use can be a hotly-debated topic, as some people believe expensive cables are a waste and other people believe skimping on cables will negate much of your investment in other equipment. We'll try to sort through all of the confusion and offer some ideas. I have also included some explanation of what different cables are required and what the differences are.
- Sample Wiring Diagrams: If you've messed with home audio and video equipment for years, connecting it all may be a purely unconscious act of arranging cables. For a lot of folks, however, the options will seem almost insurmountably confusing, especially once you look at the back of a modern receiver or DVD player and find a truly frightening mass of plugs. To help tame this beast, I've cooked up some generic sample wiring diagrams.
- Home Theater Links: There are countless web sites available that discuss home theater topics. From news sites that provide up-to-the-minute word on upcoming disc releases and reviews of many titles to sites offering consumer reviews of home theater equipment to forums to manufacturers' sites, there is a lot of information out there. Finding it all can often be a major problem. This page contains a fairly extensive list of links.
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