As technology has made home theatre equipment more affordable – more like buying a small car than a second home – their appearance in homes across the country has grown enormously.
A desired feature in new homes. A near-necessity in certain parts of the country and neighborhoods. Home theatres – or media rooms – are big on home wish lists. They take less work than a pool. They can be used in any region in the country. They provide more fun than an outdoor kitchen (which just means you can cook twice as much!). And they offer a great way to relax at home, watch a movie or tv with your feet up and with the rude chatterboxes behind you. (Unless, of course, you have young children – then just be happy to have your feet up – as the chatting doesn’t end until abruptly when the turn 14.)
But what do you need?
The good news is that systems exist that provide a great home theatre experience at a reasonably affordable cost. And if you want to get serious, plenty of options are available to create a home theatre on par – if not better – than an actual movie theatre.
Here are the seven requirements for your home theatre.
1. Room. Yes, you’ll need a room. While you can set a home theatre system up in your family room, a true home theatre has a room of its own. Often, this is in the basement because the ability to completely darken the room provides the most authentic and quality experience. If you do have a room with windows – just make sure you can shut out all light. In short, do what works best for you home and family.
In fact, ours is somewhat of a hybrid room. It’s in the basement, but still somewhat of a shared space. We have windows but can block them with heavy velvet curtains.
2. Screen. The size and type of the screen will depend on your needs and usage. In fact, your screen can simply be a wide screen television. This provides a more economical option and can be made to work in a family or tv room. You may want to go with a larger screen tv than you normally would just to watch your favorite tv shows, though. You will also want to enclose the tv within an entertainment center or the wall for a home theatre experience. If you do use a tv, you can buy a pre-built home theatre system that comes with its own speakers, receiver/player.
For true audiophiles, and those who want to experience sports and tv as if they’re part of the action, you can’t beat a large projection screen. These can pull down from the ceiling – manually or electronically – or be permanently mounted to the wall.
The size and type of the screen will depend on the size of your room, the lighting within the room, and the usage of the room. For size, the larger the room, the larger your screen can be. Screens come in white or gray. Generally, gray screens are believed to provide better contrast, especially in rooms with some ambient light (natural or artificial) that are not completely darkenened.
Here’s an excellent article explaining screens in greater detail and offering reviews of various models.
3. Projector. If you aren’t using your tv, you’ll need a projector. These are similar to the old slide projectors your dad whipped out at important family gatherings. They are also used commercially for business presentations. The biggest confusion comes in which type of projector to get: LCD or DLP.
Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) is the same technology used in backlit watches and flat panel computer monitors and televisions. It’s an older technology that is not unlike those previously mentioned slide projectors. There are some advantages to LCD projectors as you can adjust each of three colors separately (a three-color model is preferred over a single color unit), but you must align all three colors perfectly. In addition, the contrast is muddier with LCD projectors and every pixel (each individual dot that makes up the picture) comes with a border that creates an look called a screen door effect. It doesn’t ruin the picture but it is not as sharp as what’s possible in the new DLP technology.
DLP is a new technology that uses mirrors and spinning colors to create the picture. As a result, you get better contrast, better color, and no screen door effects. It is possible to get a rainbow effect, but most people don’t have it or ever see it. Of course, being newer, DLP projectors are usually more expensive.
Another consideration in your projector is the lumen output – the amount of light it emits. The best number of lumens and light pattern depends on the size of the room and screen as well as the amount of ambient light in the room.
4. DVD/Receiver. Don’t bother setting up a home theatre if you plan to use an obsolete VCR. You need a DVD. If you also want to use a tv with your system, you’ll also need the tv signal. And you’ll need a receiver to join the the DVD, TV, and projector together. That's why the receiver is considered the heart of your home theatre system, so be sure to do your research to pick the model that's right for you and your budget. I’m not going to begin to cover DVDs as there are so many types, brands, and models out there. Just get one that’s good enough to give you a picture worthy of a large screen and lots of expensive equipment.
5. Speakers. Not only does the home theatre experience depend on the visuals but also the sound. Speakers are a vital part. Depending on your set up, you’ll need a minimum of four to six. You’ll also need a separate bass and woofer. There is a disagreement whether speakers are best in the wall or ceiling. I’ve heard convincing arguments for both. In the end we have some of each that was entirely dictated by the construction and layout of the room. If you’re a purist, you may not like such compromises, but at the end of the day, I’m practical if I’m anything. Speakers are the type of equipment that you get what you pay for. However, unless you have a particularly discerning ear, you may not appreciate the difference between a $50 speaker and a $200 speaker. Let your budget and your ear be your guide.
6. Seating. This can get fun. Many kinds of seats are available. In various coverings although leather is the most popular and preferred. If you’re in the family room, you may want a sectional sofa or a couch with a pull up leg rest. If you a separate room, you really should get home theatre seats. These come with cup holders, leg rests, back reclines for the ultimate comfort. They don’t have that at the local megaplex!! You can even get “butt boosters” which help you feel the sound in the seat. Personally, I found this annoying and believe a good speaker will give you enough of a boost. But some love it.
You’ll want to set your seats up theatre style. So you will probably want multiple rows. The seats are modular to be arranged in a number of configurations. If you have multiple rows, you should also build a platform so each row is at least 6” higher than the one in front of it. Make sure you build your platform with enough room to recline and lift up the leg rest AND still have walking room between the rows. Yes, home theatres need a fair amount of room.
7. Décor. Now to the really fun part – at least for you ladies whose hearts don’t race at the number of lumens and decibel ratings of the woofer and tweater. Use velvet drapes to block windows if you have them – they recall the elegant theatres of old. Tie them back with big tassel ties when you want to let the sun in. Decorate with movie posters. Get your own popcorn cart. Use acoustical tiles or panels on the ceiling and walls to really finish off the look and feel. Or upholster the walls – and ceiling – to enhance the sound quality of your home theatre while providing the ultimate opulence.
Although home theatres can be quite pricey, you can do them reasonably in your family room if you invest in a good widescreen tv, quality speakers, and good a DVD player receiver. And if you want to create your own movie theatre show place, the technology and equipment is now available without having to take out a second mortgage. Here's a good overview.
Do your research and find a reputable retailer – with references – to guide you through the decisions and installation. In the end, you’ll never want to fight the crowds at the movies again.