Our living rooms have become one of the central points of American entertainment today. As technology has advanced, options have grown and changed as well; we can plan our audio and video experience to be more intense than ever. From a stadium full of excited sports fans to the top of a mountain surrounded by deadly orcs -modern home theaters can be designed make you feel as if you are right there experiencing all your media firsthand… or like you should have upgraded your sound to go with that expensive new flat panel HDTV. Just like anything else in life -the home theater experience requires prior planning to get it just right.
A typical home theater system includes a television (of course) with a receiver that all the other components plug into. If you have surround sound or even just a few larger speakers that can be placed near the TV, those parts would connect to the receiver. Due to the fact that televisions have become so much thinner, their sound capabilities have been equally diminished. Since flatscreens don’t usually sound nearly as good as they look, the soundbar has also become a viable option for those who don’t wish to add actual speakers or a stereo package to their set up. Video game consoles, disc players, and cable/satellite boxes can also all be plugged into the receiver or soundbar so that when you switch from, say, playing video games to watching something on cable -you can use your universal remote (we’ll get into those next) to switch the input to your receiver without getting up or losing out on the rich sound from that sweet audio system that you’re going to build after reading this article.
Not All Remotes Are Created Equal
Arguably one of the most important pieces to the home theater system is the part you hold in your hand. The remote isn’t just a “clicker” anymore -it is the first point of contact between you and all the wonders of high definition images and the clarity of high quality audio that makes the experience even more real. Universal remotes today allow you to control multiple devices (ideally, ALL your devices) without having to sort through a pile of controllers -or put houseguests and babysitters through a tedious rundown of which one does what. It’s important to consider the level of tech-savvy of your users when choosing the universal remote -grandma may not be able to operate the high end Logitech Harmony series of remotes, while the A/V connoisseur may not be satisfied with a remote that doesn’t include a color touchscreen and charging base. There is also the issue of price range -touch screen remotes can be found for as low as $60 or as expensive as up to $300.
There are, of course, still the standard remotes that come with a device and control all of it’s specific features. Sometimes, when troubleshooting problems with input or set up of a device, it’s still the best tool you have. Many newer electronics nowadays come with a remote that is specific to them but still allows you to program it for one or two other devices. If you have a modest set up -like a TV with a Blu-Ray player and not much else- this might be sufficient for your needs. The instruction manual with such a remote will instruct you how to program it for other devices.
Universal remotes, like remotes in general, come in a wide variety of prices and capabilities. At the bottom of the universal food chain is the generic universal remote that can be found at just about any department or electronics store starting around $20. One example of a low-priced universal that can take care of most of your needs is the URC WR7 Universal Remote. Next is the mid-range of universals that come in between $40 – $100. Somewhere between the cheapies and the fully programmable high-end remotes, these will usually control more devices than an inexpensive remote, but don’t allow quite as much customization as their more expensive cousins. The RF-20 Master Control comes in at around $50, controls ten devices and features an LCD screen display.
We’ve all been there -your lose the remote for good, or your child or dog decides to destroy it beyond repair, so you find and bring home the cheapest universal you can find -maybe $10. It will change the channel, adjust the volume and most likely even turn the device on and off. Unfortunately, what many of these low-priced remotes may not conveniently include is the correct setup button or features. Does your television have Picture-In-Picture (PIP), a sleep timer, or multiple screen ratio options? Many of these basic universal remotes come up short when combined with newer TV’s or complex stereo receivers. The more expensive universals will have more buttons, more compatibility with different devices, and should be able to do everything your regular remote can do and then some. If you choose the wrong one, the old saying might never be more true –you’ll get what you paid for.
If you’re prepared to invest in something that will give you more for your money, the high-end universal remotes can range in price from just over $100 to several hundred. Besides controlling more devices, usually offer extras like additional IR blasters, backlit buttons and rechargeable batteries/charging bases. The Logitech Harmony Touch, for example, is priced at around $210.00 and can control everything in your living room -including the PS3 with the purchase of an additional dangle. CNET.com refers to it in their online review as, “hands down, the best universal remote we’ve ever tested.”
The remote communicates your needs and desires to the system you’re listening to by way of the receiver. As stated above, this is a unit that everything else connects to through the vast array of inputs in the back. This can be intimidating for a lot of people, but if you’re planning a home theater system it’s well worth the few minutes (or whole afternoon) required to get your entertainment experience tweaked to perfection.
You may notice that some receivers are referred to as “stereo” and some “home theater”. Once upon a time, stereo was synonymous with quality sound because it offered two channels -left and right- as opposed to it’s single RCA plugged predecessor. Home stereo receivers are sufficient for listening to music, radio, or MP3s if you’re not interested in combining audio and visual for optimal performance.
Today’s home theater receivers, however, can do everything the stereo receiver does plus HD video, online music services and more complex levels of sound. The numbers assigned to different receivers refer to how many channels, or units that emit sound, can be connected and individually controlled by the media you are experiencing. The standard is 5.1 -that’s two front speakers, a center or soundbar, and two rear or side surround speakers. The subwoofer is the .1, and can sometimes be built into other speakers. When considering whether you need the 7.1 channel option, remember you’ll need two more speakers and the requisite connection (wireless or wired). If you already have the standard 5 speaker setup in your living room, those two extra channels could be placed in another area of the home -like on the kitchen counter or the back patio- or you could add a higher set of wall-mounted front speakers or similarly mounted rear speakers.
One thing that’s important to remember when purchasing a receiver is that the bigger your speakers are, the more machine you’ll need to provide output for them. The wattage on your receiver has to be adequate to send out the sound signal to the number of speakers and the size of the room. You’ll need enough inputs and outputs for all your devices to communicate efficiently also, so keep in mind how many components you need to run through it. It wouldn’t hurt to make a list and keep it handy while you browse: speakers, TV, Xbox, Wii U, Blu ray player, MP3 player, cable box, media server… the possibilities are only limited by the number of inputs/outputs your chosen receiver has, including Bluetooth and WiFi. For an idea of the sort of side-by-side comparisons you can make while shopping receivers, check out Audioholics AV receivers chart.
The budget level home theater receiver will suffice for the novice or someone who only has a few components -like a TV and DVD player. The Onkyo TX-SR313 5.1 channel receiver at B&H Photo is a low-priced unit from a respected brand at around $200 with free shipping. It’s got a respectable (for it’s price range) 4 HDMI ports and direct connection for iPad/iPhone.
Median range for a decent receiver is around $500, and this Sony STR-DN840 comes in right around that at $498.00. It’s unusual for a mid-range unit to have built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as this one does, and it sounds great -but there is a downside. It’s got fewer HDMI inputs than most mid-ranger or higher units (only 5) , and it’s interface is not the most intuitive -but if you pick out a universal remote that works, that won’t matter much after set up.
Finally the unit with all the bells and whistles, including AirPlay compatibility and a hefty price tag of around $1,299.00, is the Sony BDP-S185 comes at around $80 and and has a wide array of functions for the price. It plays DVDs, MP3s and streams content live from Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu and more. One thing to remember when purchasing a lower priced Blu Ray player, however, is that it’s not going to load discs as quickly or be as well-made as a higher end unit.
If performance trumps price in your search for a up to date media player, then the Samsung BD-F5900 is a step up from the Sony model above. It has all the connectivity (also excluding Amazon streaming content, unfortunately), includes optical and stereo audio outputs, and loads a disc in a mind-boggling ($100-$150) 5.9 seconds.
For the true entertainment enthusiast, only the best will do -and that’s where the OPPO BDP-103 steals the show in just about every way. First, let’s talk price: this is a high-end unit and it will cost you twice as much, if not three or four times, as any other mid to high end player. It has won both readers and editor’s choice awards from PCmag.com, and gets rave reviews on CNET as well. It will play a lengthy list of formats, streams content from Netflix, YouTube and Blockbuster, and features Dolby true HD audio with support for up to 7.1 channel surround. Did I mention it also upconverts DVDs and plays 3D movies? The Oppo is made to last, and sets the bar for Blu Ray players in more ways than one.
Don’t Cross The Streams!
If you haven’t experienced streaming Netflix, and you have yet to spring for one of those Blu Ray players that integrates it already -don’t fear! There are still more options for getting movies and shows to your living room TV, and they may even make you think twice about paying for standard cable.
Roku, Apple TV and Google TV, and Google Chromecast are streaming boxes that attach to your TV and your internet connection, providing content from various customizable sources up to and beyond your local cable provider. While Google TV comes with an entire keyboard that features a touchpad and functions as a remote for the whole system (which includes internet browsing, albeit frustratingly slow), it is priced similar to Apple TV and the interface is significantly less streamlined.
Apple TV is about what you’d expect from Apple, inc -the interface is smooth and minimalistic, the remote is sleek and looks like a stylized ipod and it connects to itunes for browsing music and video content both. It’s about $89-$99 for the unit, and allows you to store/play content on the icloud also. Probably the coolest thing about Apple TV is that it allows you to play content from your iphone, ipad or ipod on your HDTV wirelessly with relative ease.
If you don’t own any iproducts and you’re not particularly fond of balancing a small keyboard on your lap when you just want to watch movies -the Roku 3 may be the right choice for you. Having just as many (or more) content options as Apple TV, the Roku 3 typically costs about the same (and can frequently be found in the FatWallet hot deals for even less). It’s remote features a nifty headphone plug in, so you can watch TV in bed, and not disturb your significant other.
Want a simple no nonsense streaming device? Then pick up the Google Chromecast. Just plug it into an HDMI port, connect to a wifi network and start streaming. You can use your smartphone, tablet or laptop as a remote control. At $35 this is also the least expensive way to stream shows.
The Speaker Standard:
- SoundbarsIf all you want is a little extra boost of audio clarity from your entertainment options, the soundbar may fit your needs -especially if you’re working with a smaller space. A sound bar can be mounted on the wall below your TV, placed on a table or tv stand in front of the TV and sometimes they even come as a platform that’s sturdy enough to have the TV sit on top of it on a tabletop. Another bonus of the sound bar is that they are typically easy to connect and setup. They can be powered or passive, meaning either they have their own amplification and signal processing or they have to be connected to a receiver and they basically function like another speaker. They’ll range from around $75 like the RCA RTS735E Home Theater Sound Bar at Amazon to a few hundred dollars for the Vizio S4221w-C4 Soundbar Speaker + Wireless subwoofer to high end units like the The Wirecutter. It sounds as good as two front speakers and a subwoofer but takes up half the space. At almost $1100 will melt your credit card in the process.
- Surround SoundWhen putting together a full home theater surround system, you need to include: a center channel speaker, left and right speakers in the front of the room (typically they flank the TV/entertainment center), surround speakers (he’s right behind you!), and a subwoofer. Each of these performs a different job in creating the theater experience in your living room, and they have to work together to really do the job well. It is highly recommended that you use speakers that all come from the same family, or brand, so that the quality of their individual voices is well-matched.Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to find the most expensive options to get the best surround sound experience. What is important is to make sure you research things like what material the components are made of, how far the sound will travel compared to the space you’re working with, and where each speaker will be placed. Of course, some people view the speakers as an investment and spend even more on them than on the HDTV. It’s really a matter of personal choice (and how much research you’re prepared to do).Perhaps the easiest way to go about finding a good surround option is the pre-packaged systems. This is a budget friendly way to get all the speakers you need without having to look into each individual piece -and it guarantees you won’t have mismatched brands that don’t work together as a unit. If you are an audio aficionado and have specific needs (listening to music versus watching lots of movies) you may opt to hand pick each speaker, focusing on your needs (front left and right speakers are more important for music fans, whereas balance is more important for movie lovers).Surround speakers require a certain level of strategy in placement -one of the most important considerations is how they will connect with the receiver from their various placements in the room. Wireless options have become more common, and have improved in quality over the last few years -but there are several factors to consider when deciding whether to go wireless or start drilling floor holes for speaker wires to travel through. Price is one of the first considerations -buying cheap wireless speakers is almost always a bad idea.
- Wireless WondersWireless speakers have to combat other radio and WiFi signals to work -so it’s important to consider whether your home LAN network or cordless phone is operating on the same frequency as your new sound system. At the higher end of the wireless spectrum is the acclaimed BEOLAB 18 Wireless system for about $10,590 (including the subwoofer). The quality of the sound from this wireless system is impeccable, like all B&O systems, but as always the cost is ridiculous.Slightly less expensive, at about $1800 ($1100 if you skip the subwoofer) is the well rated sound bar, and when you match it with two Play:1 speakers, and the wireless Sonos SUB you turn it into actual 5.1 surround sound system. This creates a small, but powerful wireless speaker system for 1/5th the cost of the B&O system listed above. Now you won’t be getting the same sound quality from the Sonos system, but for the price difference it does well.
- Wired SpeakersIf you aren’t ready to take the wireless plunge, there are plenty of great inclusive package deals for wired surround sound speakers in various price points. This means you will be required to run speaker wire from the receiver near the TV to wherever the surround speakers are going to be -like behind a couch. There are few things in the world of interior decorating that look tackier than a length of speaker wire tacked haphazardly onto a wall or around a door frame. On the pro side, wired speakers will rarely suffer a crackle and have no effect on wifi or radio frequencies.
At the budget range, the Logitech – Z506 5.1 Surround Sound Speakers at BestBuy sell for $79.99 or less and have all the components you need to fill your living room with adequate sound.Midrange sets will vary from several hundred dollars up to maybe $600. The Onkyo HT-S5600 7.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker/Receiver Package that is priced around $580. It is a well respected system with 4 HDMI inputs, 3D ready and a front USB port for iPods/iPhones.If you’re serious about the investment of high-end equipment, you could spend five figures on a really impressive home theater system -but would the average joe be able to tell the difference from a $1000 set up? If you are a true audiophile, then quality systems like the Bang & Olufsen system above is what you are looking for. If you are like the rest of us, and just want a solid system for a decent price, then the Onkyo HT-S5600 mentioned above would fit the bill nicely, without putting you into the poor house.
Even if you’re opting for a wireless speaker system, there’s one thing that can’t be avoided in hooking up a home theater system. Cables are like the nervous system of your living room media experience, and plenty of people experience anxiety when faced with a jumble of them in an uncomfortable space behind the TV stand or entertainment center. It’s important when purchasing any new component for your new or existing system to pay attention to what sort of input options it has. When purchasing cords, I’ve always avoided brick-and-mortar stores for the simple fact that they charge premiums for products you can almost always find online for less money. The pitfall here, however, is that some online sources sell inferior cords for dramatically inexpensive prices. It’s always good to look for reviews to verify whether you’re really getting a good deal -or just a lower quality product. Good brands to look for are Accoustic Research or Belkin -they’re high quality cables, but far less expensive than the high end Monster family of cables that boast the ultimate in high speeds, ethernet and financial burden (starting at $90 – $150 for HDMI).
Audio/video cables come in a wide range of prices, determined by things like what materials they’re made of (gold, copper, etc), how well they are constructed, how long they are and how they transfer signals back and forth.TV’s today are mostly high definition -but without HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) cables, you won’t be seeing the true potential of your device. The HDMI is a flat metal connector with 19 pins that transfers both audio and video and supports up to 8 channels of high resolution signal. It’s the standard for getting the best picture out of your HDTV. It’s also a standard in the sense that pretty much all HDTV cables are going to give you the same picture -as long as they’re well-constructed.
RCA cables are the round peg-like ones you’ve probably seen before if you’ve ever owned a boom box or low-priced bookshelf stereo with detachable speakers. The “component” RCA cables usually have a yellow, a red and a white end -the yellow is video and the red and white are left and right stereo channels, respectively. Similar to these is the RGB, which are cables that have same shape but with red, green and blue color coded plugs. These split the video signal into separate signals so that more resolution and higher bandwidth can be transmitted through each cable. RGB cables also allow information to travel between devices regarding the picture, thus increasing power and quality.
Older devices will often have S-video, which is a round ended cable with 4 pins inside of a metal ring on the end. S-video is quickly going the way of the Dodo -but it’s a step up from the RCA composite connection, and can handle resolutions up to 480i. We also went over these in our HDTV buying guide.
Shopping for an HDTV can be a bit confusing -the three and four digit combinations of numbers and letters begin to look like Greek after a while if you don’t know what all of them stand for. Beyond the mumbo-jumbo of identifying numbers and acronyms, armchair AV clubs tend to spread vicious rumors about what sort of screen has the best picture quality or what’s the newest and best technology for a crisp, clear image. It’s easy to latch onto a number (1080) or a letter (i versus p) and make it a priority, but these can be misleading as they are all measurements of minutiae that combine to determine the quality of the picture based on different criteria. What matters in the end is personal preference -do you prefer to watch TV in a darkened room or on sunny days? Are you looking for a TV that has brighter colors or has blacker blacks? Plasma, LCD, and LED televisions all have strong points and weaknesses -but none of them is going to look bad. Projectors are a whole new world (a BIG one), and they bring new meaning to the term “home theater”. For a really informative guide to buying a new HDTV, check out our Ultimate HDTV Buying Guide.
The Grand Finale
After you’ve gone through all this study, research, and strategic hooking up of audio and video equipment, you’ll finally get to plop down in your usual spot and test your setup. Those trumpet fanfares and spotlights that signal the start of every major motion picture have never been more majestic or awe-inspiring as they are the first time you fire up your freshly completed home theater system and crank up the volume on those surround speakers. It may seem like a lot of work to plan and set up, but you only have to do it once -and when it is finished you’ll have a home theater experience you can enjoy until they come out with virtual reality displays. Or until the you move. Either way, the more planning and preparation you put into creating your home theater experience, the more you’ll enjoy it.
What are the experts picking?
Cnet gave the Logitech Harmony One Advanced their editors choice in fact they said it was the best remote they have tested.
Cnet gave the Panasonic DMP-BDT220 which puts it near the top of the recommendations of blu-ray players list. What did they think of it? They said it if you wanted a great image quality in a blu-ray player, with a plethora of streaming services, AND is super fast, then this player should go to the top of your list!
Techlicious gave their “best soundbar under $300” award to the Vizio S4221w-C4. What did they have to say about the Vizio S4221w-C4 soundbar? It’s hard to knock the features on this sound bar. With bluetooth you can stream sound from your tablet, cell phone or computer. You can set it up to accept up and down volume from your normal TV remote, all the while producing extremely clear, natural sound that gives you an overall experience much like a full surround sound system.