Home Theater Systems Buyers Guide
What Is A Home Theater System?
Why Do You Need A Home Theater System?
Home Theater Versus Do It Yourself Setup
What Comes In A Home Theater Kit?
What Equipment Should I Already Own?
Components Of A Home Theater System
What Is A Home Theater System?
If you are the type of person who loves to enjoy your movies as they were meant to be
enjoyed, then a standard high definition television with built in speakers just isn't going to satisfy you.
A good home theater systems will provide you with all the key specifications that will turn your
living room into a small entertainment center or cinema. Instead of just using a standard TV with built in
speakers, hooked it up to a DVD player with amplifier and subwoofer. You can get good quality speakers that is able
to amplify the sound all around the room.
Home theater systems are not just great for watching and enjoying movies, they also provide a
new way to listen to your favorite music.
Why Do You Need A Home Theater
Ever wondered why movies are so much more impressive when you see them at the theater rather
than watch them on a DVD in your own home? Aside from the fact that movie theaters make use of huge screens, it
also comes down to the fact that they use speakers that can project sound at all angles around you.
This speaker setup helps to create the feeling of being immersed in the action. You can hear
things going on all around you, and truly get lost in the movie experience. You'll literally hear that gun shot to
the left of you, that plane flying over your head, or that gang running towards you. This can make all the
difference in the way you feel about the movie.
Surround sound isn't just limited to Hollywood Blockbusters, either. Modern camcorders now let
you record in surround sound, making the experience of watching your home movies even more immersive. Other types
of recording, such as live music, can also benefit from this setup.
Home Theater Versus Do It Yourself
Of course, you don't need an all-in-one home theater kit in order to get the feeling of being in
the middle of the action. You could choose to put together all the elements yourself over time.
The benefit of going the DIY route is that you don't have to buy every element at the same time.
You could buy the DVD player first, for example, and the receiver and front speakers, then add on the rear speakers
at a later date. This is useful if you want to get the very best equipment possible but can't afford to buy it all
in one go.
Another advantage of the DIY route is that you can often find better quality speakers. Many
all-in-one kits are designed to be affordable, meaning that they use smaller speakers without a subwoofer. This
makes them more suitable for smaller rooms. If you've got a very big space to fill with sound then the DIY route
could be best. For standard living rooms, however, there are always entertainment systems fit for the job.
Unfortunately, however, it can be a lot more confusing to set your home theater elements up
yourself when bought separately. With an all-in-one kit the setup process is usually extremely quick: everything is
coded, so it's as simple as connecting all the speakers and pressing play. All-in-one systems also guarantee proper
communication between the DVD player and the receiver.
What Comes In A Home Theater Kit?
The basic home theater kit will come with the following items:
• Six speakers or a soundbar
• A radio tuner
• Cables to connect the components
The radio tuner is often contained within the amplifier, and is called a “receiver” instead.
Some systems may have extra components, including:
• A Blu-Ray disc player
• A DVD recorder
• A VHS player/ recorder
• A projector
• A TV
• A multi-disc player
What Equipment Should I Already
Most home theater systems assume that you already own a TV at the very least. Aside from that,
everything else is usually taken care of.
The Kind Of TV You Need
It's important to note that any old TV is not going to cut it with a home theater system. It
might work with the connections included, but will it really recreate that theater experience if you've got a tiny,
low resolution screen? Probably not.
Standard analogue television screens will not produce a good quality image, no matter how good
the equipment is that you get with your home theater system. The sound, however, will see a big improvement.
You're probably better off opting for an HD flat panel screen: LCD, LED or Plasma. Thankfully
these screens have drastically come down in price lately (unless you're looking for built in 3D capability), and
the difference in image quality is well worth the extra cost.
When you do buy your TV, make note of the various connectors you see on the back. You'll need to
buy a home theater system that matches.
Components Of A Home Theater
Speakers are a crucial part of any home theater system. Because home theater kits are designed
to be an affordable at-home-cinema option, the speakers can often be pretty weak when compared to standalone
offerings. This means it's crucial that you do your research and find speakers powerful enough for the space you
wish to setup your new home theater, but that still fit within your budget.
This section will take you through the various options when it comes to speaker setup:
First, it's crucial to understand the terminology you'll find when shopping for speakers. The
subwoofer is a crucial element of any surround sound speaker system, providing the bass sounds. Active subwoofers
often produce the best sounds thanks to the fact that they come with their own power supply.
The satellite speakers are the smaller speakers in the system that go next to the TV and behind
the viewer in the room. These are usually connected to the TV via cables, which can make it difficult to set them
up so they don't look messy. Wireless speakers can help with this, using a wireless transmitter to do away with the
need for having cables running across your living room (though they usually incorporate some cabling).
2.1: For those on a smaller budget, or who don't have much space for a full surround sound
system, a 2.1 speaker system could be a sensible choice. This makes use of three speakers in total: the subwoofer
and 2 front speakers. The inevitable downside, of course, is the fact that this can't match the surround sound
experience of other speaker layouts.
5.1: The 5.1 speaker setup system is extremely popular, and comes with 5 surround sound speakers
as well as the subwoofer. This is much more successful in producing an authentic atmosphere than the 2.1 system,
though does take some more effort to setup and place the speakers somewhere in your living room.
7.1: For those who want the best surround sound experience, the 7.1 system makes use of two
additional rear speakers on top of the speakers you get in a 5.1 kit. This does improve the surround sound effect,
but you have to weigh this against the drawback that there are a lot of speakers (8 in total) to set up!
Instead of 2.1, 5.1 or 7.1 speaker setups, some home theater systems will make use of a
soundbar. This is a good choice for those who don't want to take up so much space with a set of speakers.
Instead of 3, 6 or 8 speakers, the soundbar is a slim, long bar that includes a number of
speakers inside it. There's no need to connect a soundbar to a receiver, as there is with surround sound speakers,
since the amplification is built in, and they have the technology to create a virtual surround sound despite all
the speakers being housed in one device.
Because of the shape and style of a soundbar, it can fit in nicely with your TV without taking
up too much space. You do need space for the subwoofer (for the bass frequencies) but these are often wireless,
making it really easy to find the right place for them in your living room (as long as there's somewhere to plug it
into a power socket).
Other Features To Look For In Your Speakers
Aside from the specific speaker setup, you should also take a look at some other specs:
• Auto Setup: This is an extremely useful feature to have, meaning that the kit will work out
the best sound balance of the speaker system without you having to spend too much time doing it yourself.
• Power Output: The power of a speaker is measured in watts. The higher the watt measurement,
the louder the system can go. That said, a bigger wattage doesn't always mean the highest quality speaker system.
You will, however, need to opt for a higher wattage to fill a larger room with sound. 50 watts per channel is
enough for a 15 meter-squared room, and larger rooms may require up to 100 watts per channel.
• Shielding: If you're going to place the front speakers very near to your television screen
then it's important to look for shielded speakers. What this means is that they're magnetically shielded to stop
them from interfering with your TV screen. This feature is common in most home theater systems.
The DVD player is another crucial element of any home theater system. You may already own a DVD
player, so before you even think about buying your system you may want to assess what your current player can do,
and whether it's worth sticking with or not.
Note: If you do want to stick with your current DVD player, then there are a number of home
theater systems that don't come with this included to help save you money.
As with the speakers, some home theater kits use lower-end DVD players in their packages to help
keep the overall cost down. If you've bought a DVD player recently then it may be able to do more than the player
included in the kit. Then again, some kits do come with very good DVD players, and the benefit of using the player
in the kit is that the setup will be seamless.
Take a look at your DVD player and see whether it works with high definition (HD) TV screens,
and comes with any functions such as upscaling (to produce better images from lower resolution discs), the ability
to record to DVDs, and so on.
If you don't have an HD DVD player, or you have one that has only the bare minimum of features,
then the chances are that you could benefit from a DVD player that comes as part of a home theater system.
Here's a guide to some of the features you'll want to look for in the DVD player that comes as
part of a home theater system:
Although most DVD players come with progressive scan these days, it's still worth mentioning as
it can make a big difference to your picture. What does progressive scan mean? In short, older TVs create the
picture using 625 horizontal lines. The odd-numbered rows are produced by the TV, and the even-numbered rows and
produced. This means that older screens tend to flicker, even if it's so fast that you don't really notice it.
DVD players that include progressive scan have the ability to create all the lines at once,
rather than in quick succession. The result is a sharper image that is especially good at displaying motion. This
isn't as good as HDTV, but it is a good option to consider if you don't have the HDTV option.
HDTV DVD players can produce images in a much higher resolution than standard DVD players. This
can either be provided in 720p (a 720 pixel vertical resolution that uses progressive scan), or 1080p (1080 pixels
with progressive scan or, more commonly, 1080i (interlaced)). Note that there's no point in getting an HD DVD
(Blu-Ray) player unless you already have an HDTV screen, and you will need DVDs in the correct format in order to
benefit from this function. The good news, however, is that it's pretty much standard on all DVD players included
with home theater systems these days.
The chances are that not every DVD you own is going to be in HDTV quality. In this case, look
for a DVD player that includes upscaling of standard definition up to high definition. This can greatly improve the
image quality of standard DVD discs, meaning you can enjoy your older movies as well as your newer Blu-Ray
3D is a newer technology employed by home theater systems. To get 3D to work you'll need a 3D
Blu-Ray disc, a 3D Blu-Ray player, 3D TV and 3D glasses. If you already own a 3D TV, or are thinking about
upgrading in the near future, then it's well worth finding a home theater kit that includes a 3D player. This is
becoming more and more common nowadays.
The receiver is a crucial element of any home theater system in-a-box. It will perform a wide
range of functions, including powering of the speakers in the system, the ability to switch between various
audio/video components, decoding for music, movies, TV shows etc., set up options and radio tuning.
Key Features To Look For In Your Home Theater Receiver
First things first, you need to search for a home theater receiver, rather than a stereo
receiver, if you're going to use it for surround sound speakers.
As mentioned in the speakers section above, you may also want to choose a receiver that comes
with an auto setup/ auto calibration feature. This means that the sound of your speakers will be adjusted
automatically for best listening results.
Next, check how many channels the receiver offers. When you're buying a home theater system
in-a-box this will be as simple as checking whether it's a 2.1, 5.1 or 7.1 system. If you're going the DIY route,
however, make sure that the number of receiver channels matches the number of speakers in your system. Most will
offer at least 5.1 surround sound. Because subwoofers are usually self-powered, they don't need to be powered by
Sound Decoding Options
Most receivers today are going to support at least Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks that come
as standard on HD movies and TV shows. Dolby Digital is by far the most commonly used sound option on DVDs.
Some newer receivers come with even more sound decoding options.
• Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD bring the sound closer to the true movie theater experience, using 7.1
channels with more audio information per channel.
• Note, however, that these sound formats only come on specific Blu-Ray discs.
Aside from the main features of each component mentioned above, there are a range of extra
features that you may or may not find in any home theater system. These really are optional, and won't suit
everyone. Remember that it's not worth paying extra just to get additional features that you're unlikely to ever
use! That said, you may have a use for some of these functions. Here's a quick guide to some that you may find in
home theater systems.
Some DVD players will let you load more than one disc at a time. Most people do not need this
feature, but it does come with its uses. For example, you could load up several movies ready for a movie marathon
and save the effort of getting off your couch to change them over. Or you could insert a number of music CDs and
use it as a jukebox for a party.
As hinted at above, many DVD players included as part of a home theater system will come with
the ability to listen to music CDs. Standard audio CDs are almost always fine, but you may want to check format
compatibility for even more playing options: MP3 files, DVD-audio and so on.
As with music CDs, there are several different DVD formats too. Most DVD players are going to be
able to play the official DVDs that you buy from stores, but if you record your own home movies or want to watch
DVDs compiled by your friends then you need to take a closer look at the supported formats.
DVD+R and DVD-R are the most common formats for recorded discs. DVD+RW and DVD-RW are also
relatively common, with the benefit of being able to be recorded multiple times. Another format to look out for is
DVD-Ram, but this is less commonly used and less commonly supported on current DVD players. If you regularly use
any of these DVD recording formats then it goes without saying you need to find a system that specifically supports
it. You may also want to check whether your DVD supports DivX and XviD video compression.
Recording doesn't usually come as standard on most DVD players, unless you get into the higher
price brackets. If you want to be able to record TV shows then you'll need a DVD recorder to record directly to
DVDs or a DVD player with a built in hard drive to store your recordings as files on the player.
THX certification helps to distinguish between quality products. To become THX certified, home
theater systems must meet certain audio and video quality standards. There are a few types of THX certification at
• THX I/S Plus: This is good for small rooms or dorm rooms, where the viewing distance from the
TV screen is 6-8 feet.
• THX Select2: This is for medium-sized rooms of up to 2,000 cubic feet with a 10-12 foot
• THX Ultra2: Look for this if you want to setup your home theater system in a room of 3,000
cubic feet and a 12 foot+ viewing distance away from the screen.
For more information, visit the THX website: http://www.thx.com/
Multi-Region DVD Playback
Most DVDs are set to a certain region (except for those marked Region 0). This stops you buying
a DVD from the US, for example, and playing it on a DVD player that you purchased in the UK. Not only can this
leave you with fewer choices as to where you buy your DVDs from, but it can also stop you buying DVD movies that
may have been released in another country but not yet in your own.
Buying a multi-region DVD eliminates this issue by letting you play DVDs from any of the world
Built In Radio
If you want the ability to access the radio on your home theater system then there are a number
of features you may want to look out for. Digital radio can provide you with information about what you're
listening to, for example.
Nowadays, more and more home theater systems are coming with Wi-Fi connectivity built in. The
reason for this is the ability to connect to online TV features: certain applications and services available
through the internet on your TV system.
What can you do with a home theater system that comes with the ability to connect to the
internet? Here are some examples:
• Catch up with your friends through social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook,
• Make video calls on your HDTV (as long as you own a webcam) using Skype,
• Listen to a range of online radio station,
• Stream movies and TV shows through paid services such as Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video
• Stream free videos from sites like YouTube,
• Stream music from the internet using services such as Pandora.
The price of a home theater system can vary massively, depending on the quality of the various
components, the number of speakers included and so on. The good news is that there is something to match pretty
much any budget but, as mentioned above, lower budgets often mean lower quality speakers.
Here's a guide to what you can expect to pay, depending on the size of your room:
• Less than $300 will usually buy you speakers good enough for a small living room or bedroom.
You may want to get fewer than five speakers, or a soundbar, if space is at a premium.
• $500 - $1000 is the price you can expect to pay for larger living rooms if you need a more
powerful home theater set, or you want to piece together the components yourself.
• If you have a very large space to fill then you're probably going to need to go the DIY route,
and could spend anywhere up to $1500 and beyond.
Be aware that there may be extra costs involved with your new home theater system, depending on
which cables you already own.
Should You Go For A Budget System?
Note that budget home entertainment systems often make use of smaller speakers. This is great if
you want a simple option for a small room, but not if you want enough power for full sound in larger rooms. Smaller
subwoofers and speakers just can't psychically produce the kind of sound you may expect from a full surround sound
system, so it helps to get the best system you can possibly afford.
As you can see, there's a lot to consider before you buy your new home theater system. These
kits have massively come down in price in recent years. Although the cheaper sets may not offer the same sound
quality as higher-end options, they're a good choice for those who want an enhanced movie-watching experience in
their living room but don't mind if it's not completely true to the original sound recording.
Read more Home Theater System Reviews.