How To Plan a Home Theater System

Welcome to the Audio Advice Guide to a Home Theater System. If you are in the market for a new home theater system or improving part (or all) of the one you already own, you’ve probably figured out that the options can be more confusing than advanced algebra! The good news is that having a great home theater or media room is one of the best things you can do to enhance time spent at home with family and friends. We created this guide to help you understand the available options and how they might work or not work in your particular situation.

We’ve divided the guide into several sections to make it easier to use and navigate. If you are just starting out and want to learn about all the options, we suggest you read the entire guide, but if you are just interested in a particular option (such as a new TV or projector), you can jump to that section.

We have designed this guide to be a basic educational source for someone interested in a home theater system. Entire books have been published on some of the items we cover in a few paragraphs, so we hope you’ll consider this your go-to quick reference.

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Home Theater System - Table of Contents

Home Theater System Tech

Lots of changes have happened to the world of home theater in the last few years. We will go over all of the latest, and give you a bit of history on how we got to where we are now.

Home Theater System Room

You’ll learn how to best utilize your space and how to plan for the best layout. We’ll teach you about speaker placement, sight lines, seating layouts, and more.

Home Theater System Display

Determine the optimum screen size for your room and discover the pros and cons of a flat panel TV or front projection.

Home Theater System Sound

The audio side of home theater has more options than you can imagine. We’ll dive into the various ways to set up immersive audio so you and your friends will swear rain is falling on your head and you’ll feel the urge to duck when that sword flies by in the fight scene!

Home Theater System Conclusion

They say you can give three people an identical bag of groceries and you’ll likely wind up with three totally different dinners, from amazing to not so great. The equipment you purchase is like that bag of groceries. We’ll give you tips on how to put together a system that will make you proud and deliver all of the performance you paid for.

What this guide will not have: We will not make any specific recommendations on brands or models, except in a few rare cases where one brand is really the only choice. Of course, you’ll find a wide range of choices at audioadvice.com, but we want this buyer’s guide to be all about guiding you along the journey of creating your dream home theater or media room.

If you are looking for recommendations on home theater brands or models - you can read through our Best Home Theater Systems, Best Home Theater Speakers, and Best Home Theater Receivers articles.

 

Home Theater System Tech

While it's pretty obvious that you need some kind of video display for your home theater or media room, it’s not always obvious how the various audio options will impact your experience. We thought it would be fun to turn back the hands of time to help explain just how much of a breakthrough the latest audio technology for home theater is!

The year was 1984, Miami Vice was the first television show to be broadcast in stereo. You needed a stereo VCR, an amplifier, and a pair of speakers to listen. The improvement in sound from the tiny speaker inside the 20-27” TVs of the time was simply amazing.

The industry soon figured out that with all that great sound, it was harder to understand what the characters were saying on the screen. Dolby Labs came to the rescue with Dolby Pro Logic. Their process took anything mixed in mono (which was always the dialogue track) and sent it out to the center speaker. Dolby Pro Logic also added some ambient effects that became the surround channels. As a result, 5 channel surround was born. Bear in mind, these 5 channels were all being interpreted from a basic stereo audio mix.

Then along came Dolby Digital. This was a huge breakthrough because each speaker was assigned a channel. Surround sound no longer relied on guessing; the actual information was there. Dolby Digital allowed the producer of the audio track to assign sounds to each channel and balance how much went where. This greatly helped surround effects become more immersive as the engineer had the freedom to mix say 20% to the front and 80% to the back on one effect, and possibly 50/50 on another, enabling sounds to travel from front to back in our rooms. Other variations of Dolby Digital evolved, including DTS, TrueHD, and DTS HD Master, which all relied on the individual channel technology.

This brings us to present day and Dolby Atmos. Are you starting to notice a common name in all of these? Yes, Dolby Labs has played a huge role in advancing audio technology over the years. Dolby Atmos is as big a jump forward, if not more, than Dolby Digital. With Dolby Digital, the engineers just basically have a front to back and left to right fader to assign sounds with. What if your room could be mapped as a three dimensional cube and the engineer could assign sounds to appear at any exact location? Dolby Atmos was originally designed for large commercial cinemas with up to 128 discrete channels. A typical Dolby Atmos home setup will have less channels, but still provide you with an incredible experience. With object based sound mapping today, engineers can literally make it sound like a fly is buzzing around your head or give you the sensation of raindrops falling on top of you. We will give you more details on the speaker options in the sound section.

The whole idea of a home theater experience is to make you believe you are in the movie. With Dolby Atmos, the sound is just so incredible, and therefore gets us much closer to that elusive feeling of being right in the center of the action. Another really great feature of a Dolby Atmos system is that it will take your older, non Dolby Atmos content and still use all of the speakers, giving you something that while not all the way to Dolby Atmos is far better than anything you’ve heard before. The Atmos processor takes the existing 5.1 soundtrack and manipulates it to fill in all your Dolby Atmos channels, and the effect is great!

As you start to learn about your home theater options, you’ll need to make a decision in one of three directions. Do you go full blown Dolby Atmos now? Do you plan to enable it to be a future upgrade? Or, do you settle for a more basic surround sound with Dolby Digital? The choice is up to you, but if you want to smile every time you watch a great movie, we feel you should definitely make the jump to Dolby Atmos!

On the video display side of tech, the past few years have certainly seen their share of improvements. It seems hard to believe that it was only 2012 when Sony introduced the world's first 4K TV. Audio Advice was actually one of 12 dealers chosen by Sony to show off this new technology. Fast forward to today and 8K is here. The 2019 Super Bowl had a few 8K cameras on hand! Televisions are now available with an OLED panel or LED panel, both providing amazing pictures on most models, while projectors have started using lasers for the ultimate picture. We will go over more of the differences in the display section of this guide.

Audio Advice Tip: Historically, video technology has advanced at a much more rapid pace than audio. A pair of 20 year old speakers likely still sound great today, but a 20 year old TV is so far behind the times it's not even funny. When you are thinking about how to allocate your investment, consider how long the audio portion is probably going to last you. If you need a place to cut costs, do it on the video side as we are sure, next year will bring something better and cheaper, but a good speaker setup will last you for decades!

Home Theater General Room and Screen Placement Considerations

Ask any recording engineer and they will tell you that the physical room has a huge impact on the sound you’ll be able to get in that room. If you are lucky enough to be designing your dream home theater from scratch, there are some ratios you can use to get your room to a great basic shape. While this is a matter of some small debate, if you get somewhere between a ratio of 1 to 1.6 or 1.7 and 2.3 to 2.4, you will be doing great. As an example, if you went 1 to 1.6 to 2.4, a room with a 10’ high ceiling would be 16’ wide and 24’ long. Staying within this ratio will ensure your room has fairly consistent bass in the main seating area of the room. The worst possible room would be a cube, say 10 by 10 by 10. Try to stay away from dimensions that are close to each other. If you are planning on multiple rows of seating, remember to account for riser height. In other words, keep the ceiling at 9’ or greater if you plan on more than one row.

When you are laying out your space, in general, the screen or video display will go on the short wall. This will let you have some seating right in the middle of the screen with the main speakers fairly equidistant from the seats from left to right. Obviously your seating layout will affect this, especially in family rooms, but at the very least try to get the screen centered on the seating area with your speakers an equal distance off to each side of the video display if it is a television.

Many of you might want to outfit your bonus room above the garage with a great home theater. Usually there is a window right where the big screen needs to go, but we came up with a solution for this decades ago. Since most of us are concerned with resale value, it's probably not a good idea to remove a window (plus it costs one heck of a lot). A clever solution is to take a piece of white vinyl and tack it up around the sides of the window frame using very small tacks. This will totally block out the light from the window and allow you to mount that big 120” screen right over the top of it and you’ll never know it’s there, and from the outside of your home, the white vinyl looks like you just have a blind pulled shut!

You will find that viewing a two hour movie or three hour game will be a lot more comfortable if the screen is at or about eye level. When flat panel TVs came on the scene, many people felt it would be cool to mount the TV above the fireplace mantle. This is still very common today. We do not feel this setup is great for the muscles in your neck, so if you can, put your TV at eye level.

Audio Advice Tip: There are now TV mounting brackets that allow your TV to have the great look of being above the fireplace, but can easily move the TV down in front of the fireplace for viewing. These mounts are either manual or powered. This gives you the best of both worlds with the clean look of above the mantle and also giving your neck a break by moving the TV down to a good position.

If you are going for a real home theater experience with a front projection system and a large screen, you will need to think about something called sight lines. When you are in a typical, older commercial cinema and someone tall or with big hair sits down in front of you, that is an example of sight lines being off. The newer cinemas with stadium type seating came about for this reason. You need to think of your home theater the same way.

For a theater with one row of seating, sight lines are not really an issue. Most home theaters have more than one row and this is where sight lines become very important. Putting one row of chairs behind another row without some kind of riser for the back row is a very bad idea. You really must do a riser. The biggest factors influencing correct sight lines are the height of the riser and the height the screen is off the floor. Our experience tells us that a 6” riser does not cut it, and an 8” one is barely enough. If you have the ceiling height for a 12” or 16” riser you will be much happier. We have also found through experience that putting the bottom of the screen 30-36” in height above the floor on the primary row gives you a very comfortable screen height. This is high enough to keep your feet out of the picture when you recline, but not so high as to strain your neck. 34” to 36” height off the floor usually works out well with a 12” riser.

Home Theater System Sight Lines Diagram

Audio Advice Tip: If you go with a riser, be sure to put in some kind of step light to make the step easy to see. If you can, place the step light in the side of the riser as opposed to the front of the step to prevent the step light from being a light that shines right on your screen.

Riser depth should be a minimum of 6’ to allow for people to pass in front of the footrests on a reclined theater chair, and if you can, 6’6” to 7’ is and even better riser depth.   You can get by with a shallower depth if you are using seating that does not recline or commercial like, movie theater rocker seats with no recline. With that type of seating, you can get by with a 5’ deep riser in most cases.

Audio Advice Tip: Many people want three rows of seating to accommodate more people but do not have the ceiling height or depth of a room needed for two risers. A great solution is to make the rear riser extend to the back of the room and put a bar behind the second row of seats.  The barstools will get the people in that row up high enough to avoid any sightline issues and barstools take up far less depth than a home theater recliner. Plus, you’ll have a great spot for the big spread you’ll put out for your Super Bowl party!

Home Theater System Riser Diagram

Home Theater System Speaker Layout Options

Before we get into the actual speaker options, it’s important to plan for where you want your ultimate home theater to wind up. Even if you can not afford to put in all the speakers now, you should think about the future so you can easily update as your budget allows. Or, you may decide to go all in from the very beginning.

Interestingly enough, there are actually more options for speaker placement than there are flat panel tv screen sizes! We will start from the ultimate layout and work down from there, with advice on each one. We will cover the main speakers in one section, then subwoofer options in another.

For all of these speaker options, a variety of speaker types can be used. We will discuss the pros and cons of each type in our speakers section below, but in room, on wall, in wall, and in ceiling speakers can be used. In addition, for Dolby Atmos, if you can’t get to your ceiling, there are many Dolby Atmos elevation speakers available that sit on top of your speakers.

7.1.4 - Seven channels plus 4 Dolby Atmos Speakers - Ultimate

With this great setup, we have 3 front channels, a pair of side surrounds, a pair of rear surrounds, and 4 Dolby Atmos speakers. For the ultimate, we recommend going with in ceiling speakers for Dolby Atmos. However, if it is not possible to get wiring to your ceiling, most speaker brands make a Dolby Atmos elevation speaker you can place on top of your front and rear speakers to reflect the effects off the ceiling. Here we show options for both in ceiling and upward firing Atmos speakers.

Side view:

Home Theater System - 7.1.4 Sideview with Dolby Atmos

Overhead view:

Home Theater System - 7.1.4 Overhead view with Dolby Atmos

Ideal Setup for 7.1.4

Main Left Center Right

You will want to position your main left and right speakers at anywhere between a 45 to 60 degree angle to your listening position. The center channel should be centered on your screen. Ideally, the height of your left, right and center will be at ear level. While this is not always possible, especially with a big flat panel TV, you can put the center channel just below the TV.

Surround Speakers

With Dolby Atmos, you want your main side surrounds to be at ear level and in line with your ears. If you do not have another row of seats on a riser behind the main level, the rear surround speakers should be at ear level as well. The rear speakers are like the front speakers and should be spread out at a 45 to 60 degree angle if possible. Positioning the surround speakers at ear level combined with in ceiling or upward firing Atmos speakers gives you an amazing surround effect.

Audio Advice Tip- If your seating is close to the back wall, when you map out a 60 degree spread the rear speakers may still be very close together, in this case, position them to just outside of the main seating area.

Atmos Speakers

For in ceiling Atmos speakers, we feel they work best spread at a 90 degree angle from the main seats when looking at them from the side. They should be in line with your left and right main front speakers.

For elevation Atmos speakers, simply place them on top of your front left and right speakers and rear left and right speakers

5.1.4 - Five channels plus 4 Dolby Atmos Speakers

We are commonly asked, “Should a theater have one pair of Atmos speakers and both side and rear surrounds OR two pair of Atmos speakers and one surround pair?” We are also asked, “Should you put the one pair of surrounds on the sides or in the rear?”

We prefer the 5.1.4 layout over what would be a 7.1.2 layout. We also feel, if you are going with Dolby Atmos, you want the one pair of surrounds to be on the sides.

Side view:

Home Theater System - 5.1.4 Surround Sound Sideview

Overhead view:

Home Theater System - 5.1.4 Surround Sound Overhead View

Ideal Setup for 5.1.4

Main Left Center Right

You will want to position your main left and right speakers at anywhere between a 45 to 60 degree angle to your listening position. The center channel should be centered on your screen. Ideally, the height of your left, right and center will be at ear level. While this is not always possible, especially with a big flat panel TV, you can put the center channel just below the TV.

Surround Speakers

With Dolby Atmos, you want your main side surrounds to be at ear level and in line with your ears. Positioning the surround speakers at ear level combined with in ceiling or upward firing Atmos speakers gives you a great surround effect.

Audio Advice Tip- Many earlier systems for surround sound were done with side speakers up high. You may already have this type of system. For the best in surround sound, you will want to move the side surround speakers down to ear level if possible.

Atmos Speakers

For in ceiling Atmos speakers, we feel they work best spread at a 90 degree angle from the main seats when looking at them from the side. They should be in line with your left and right main front speakers.

For elevation Atmos speakers, simply place them on top of your front left and right speakers and use a speaker stand for the rear Atmos elevation speakers.

7.1.2 - Seven channels plus 2 Dolby Atmos Speakers

We see many existing home theater systems where there are already seven speakers in the room. If you have this type of layout and want to add Atmos but only do one pair, this is a great option. We do, however, recommend a 5.1.4 layout if you are starting from scratch.

Side view:

Home Theater System - 7.1.2 Sideview

Overhead view:

Home Theater System - 7.1.2 Overhead View

Ideal Setup for 7.1.2

Main Left Center Right

You will want to position your main left and right speakers at anywhere between a 45 to 60 degree angle to your listening position. The center channel should be centered on your screen. Ideally, the height of your left, right and center will be at ear level. While this is not always possible, especially with a big flat panel TV, you can put the center channel just below the TV.

Surround Speakers

With Dolby Atmos, you want your main side surrounds to be at ear level and in line with your ears. Positioning the surround speakers at ear level combined with in ceiling or upward firing Atmos speakers gives you a great surround effect.

Atmos Speakers

For a single pair of Atmos in ceiling speakers, they should be positioned at about an 80 degree angle from the primary position as shown in the drawing when looked at from the side. This is basically 10 degrees off a straight line drawn up from your ears which puts them slightly in front of your listening spot. They should be in line with your front left and right speakers.

For elevation Atmos speakers, simply place them on top of your front left and right speakers.

5.1.2 - Five channels plus 2 Dolby Atmos Speakers - Most Popular

This option is very popular and a great value. There is a good selection of reasonably priced Dolby Atmos enabled home theater receivers with 7 channels of amplification on board. A 5.1.2 layout also works well in a moderate to small sized home theater or media room.

Side view:

Home Theater System - 5.1.2 Side View

Overhead view:

Home Theater System - 5.1.2 Overhead View

Ideal Setup for 5.1.2

Main Left Center Right

You will want to position your main left and right speakers at anywhere between a 45 to 60 degree angle to your listening position. The center channel should be centered on your screen. Ideally, the height of your left, right and center will be at ear level. While this is not always possible, especially with a big flat panel TV, you can put the center channel just below the TV.

Surround Speakers

With Dolby Atmos, you want your main side surrounds to be at ear level and in line with your ears. The combo of the lower down side surrounds with the upper Dolby Atmos speakers will give you a very nice surround effect.

Atmos Speakers

For a single pair of Atmos in ceiling speakers, they should be positioned at about an 80-degree angle from the primary position as shown in the drawing when looked at from the side. This is basically 10 degrees off a straight line drawn up from your ears which puts them slightly in front of your listening spot. They should be in line with your front left and right speakers.

For elevation Atmos speakers, simply place them on top of your front left and right speakers.

7.1 - Seven channels with no Dolby Atmos

This is an option that might be used in a home theater where you had an existing system, but the surround sound receiver was not Dolby Atmos enabled. There are also a few situations where you might be using in wall or on wall front speakers, making it not possible to do the Dolby Atmos elevation speakers and you are not able to get into the ceiling. In this case, a 7.1 will provide good surround effects. If you are starting from scratch and have other options, we do not normally recommend this type of setup but we will go over what we think is ideal for what used to be before Dolby Atmos.

Side view:

Home Theater System - 7.1 Sideview

Overhead view:

Home Theater System - 7.1 Overhead View

Ideal Setup for 7.1

Main Left Center Right

You will want to position your main left and right speakers at anywhere between a 45 to 60 degree angle to your listening position.  The center channel should be centered on your screen. Ideally, the height of your left, right and center will be at ear level. While this is not always possible, especially with a big flat panel TV, you can put the center channel just below the TV

Surround Speakers

This is a case where we recommend that you raise the side speakers up to help give you more of a full surround effect.  About 6 feet off the floor usually works out well. Or, as we show here, you can use an in ceiling speaker - however, the only reason you would want to do the in ceiling is if you do not have a Dolby Atmos enabled receiver. If you did, do Atmos!  The rear speakers should be mounted at or around ear level to improve the surround effect with the upper placed side speakers.

Again, this is more of a legacy layout and is only recommended when you have either equipment or room constraints.

5.1 - Five channels with no Dolby Atmos

This is the most basic surround sound option. While it only uses 5 speakers plus a subwoofer, we would like to point out that this type of system will normally provide a lot more excitement than a soundbar type system. For smaller sized rooms, this system will provide pretty decent surround effects.

Side view:

Home Theater System - 5.1 Sideview

Overhead view:

Home Theater System - 5.1 Overhead View

Ideal Setup for 5.1

Main Left Center Right

You will want to position your main left and right speakers at anywhere between a 45 to 60 degree angle to your listening position. The center channel should be centered on your screen. Ideally, the height of your left, right and center will be at ear level. While this is not always possible, especially with a big flat panel TV, you can put the center channel just below the TV.

Surround Speakers

In this system, since we have no rears or Atmos heights, we like to see the surrounds placed on the sides and anywhere between ear level and about 6 feet off the floor. Or, you could go with an in ceiling speaker just above the main seats. Again, if you can do a Dolby Atmos based system with more speakers, we highly recommend it, but some rooms just do not allow us the flexibility for the speakers we need.

Home Theater System Room - Subwoofers

Subwoofer Options

Nothing adds excitement to a movie soundtrack like a great deep bass explosion. A subwoofer is a must for a great home theater. For even better performance, multiple subwoofers will give you more even bass response. All speakers interact with the room, and nothing has more interaction than a subwoofer. As the sound bounces around the room, the bass you hear can be totally different in one spot of your room than another. If you use more than one subwoofer, things will even out more. Four subs is the ultimate and normally gives your very even and full bass response.

You may be thinking your home theater system only has one subwoofer output. Have no fear, this is the way we suggest you set things up with all of your subwoofers running in mono. You can either use Y adapters or some have inputs and outputs for daisy chaining.

Single Subwoofer

Many rooms only have room for one subwoofer. We recommend you put it on the front wall and if possible have it near a corner. This will couple the subwoofer better to the room, giving you more bass impact.

Home Theater System - One Subwoofer

Two Subwoofers

Having two subwoofers is a far greater improvement than you would think. Funny enough, there are two big advantages to having two subwoofers. First, if they are properly placed, two subs will greatly reduce that effect of standing waves where certain bass frequencies are either too quiet or too loud. If they are in different spots in the room one sub may have a dip where the other has a peak, thus evening things out. The second improvement is in the dynamics and lack of strain. When you have two subs, neither is having to play as loud as one sub would have to. This gives them more headroom for dynamic effects and your bass sounds just seem to be more effortless since they are not working as hard.

There are a couple of options for placing two subwoofers in a home theater that work well. First, you can put them both on the front wall near the corners. If you have the option of placing them asymmetrical where one is a little closer to the corner than the other, this increases the chances of them working better as a team to overcome the dips and peaks of the bass in your room.

Another great option is to put them in diagonally opposite corners. This usually works even better, especially if you are not sitting precisely in the middle of the room. We will go over set up tips for two subs later on in this guide.

Home Theater System - Two Subwoofers Front Wall
Home Theater System - Two Subwoofers Diagonal Corners

Four Subwoofers

Just like the fact that no one has ever told us the screen was too big, no one ever complained about having too many subwoofers in a room! The bass impact this can provide is just flat out spectacular when you plan it properly.

The ultimate way to go is to put one on each midpoint of the four walls of your room. This is not always (rarely actually) practical but does result in extremely even bass response.

A more practical way to go is in each corner of the room. For many situations, this is the only way to fit in four subwoofers.

Even if you have the slightest thought of ever getting to four subs, if you are planning your dream room, go ahead and wire things up for this great future upgrade...you will not regret it!

Home Theater System - Four Subwoofers

Physical Room Issues You May Encounter

You may wind up laying out the perfect room only to find the way your room is constructed does not allow you to put speakers exactly where they should go. This is especially true for in ceiling and in wall speakers. For in ceiling Atmos speakers, if you have a stud in the way, we find it better to move them to the left or right rather than front to back to find the spot where they can fit in the ceiling between the studs. For side speakers, we will usually suggest you move them slightly backwards, and for rears, move them further apart than closer together.

In some conditions, it may not be possible to have the speakers symmetrical. If this is the case, don’t give up, just follow our suggestions and bear in mind all of the decent surround sound receivers will let you compensate for different speaker distances. It's better to be off a little than to have no speaker at all!

Basic Acoustic Considerations

We feel it is important to touch on some basic home theater acoustics. You could write an entire book on home theater acoustics, and trust us, there are several out there. It is also possible to spend tens of thousands on acoustical materials. For most people, the 80/20 rule will work out though. This means it's pretty easy to get things about 80% right, which is doing great, and getting that last 20% of perfection can wind up costing a fortune.

Remember when we said the worst room would be a 10 by 10 by 10 cube? Well, if you made the room entirely of glass, it would be even worse! Yes, reflections of sound bouncing all around can make it very hard to understand what the characters on the screen are saying. You will always benefit from some sort of material to absorb those reflections. One great solution is a wall mounted, free standing acoustic panel. Placing two 4’ by 6’ wall panels on your side walls near the screen will have a huge impact on improving your sound. Continuing this pattern down both side walls and around the back is even better. This is obviously a very basic acoustic treatment, but it's far better than raw sheetrock. The best rooms use a combination of absorptive, diffusive, and bass traps to get things perfect, but is for a whole other article! We do highly recommend that you use some sort of acoustic material in your theater room.

Audio Advice Tip: Some acoustic panel companies sell panels with movie themed art on the panel. This is a great way to give your room a cool look while helping its sound at the same time!

For a typical family room, acoustics may be less of an issue as most family rooms are not a rectangular box like a home theater room. This greatly reduces reflections that make it hard to understand the sound track. Adding curtains though is a great idea, especially if your room has a high cathedral ceiling which can contribute to bad reflections. If you do have a cathedral ceiling, consider some fabric type art or tapestries on the upper parts of your walls to help the acoustics.

Lighting

The last thing we’ll touch on for your ultimate home theater or media room is lighting or better yet, the control of it. Have you ever seen a movie theater with a bunch of windows? The same thing should apply to your home theater room. This is especially important with a front projection system. If you have windows, use some kind of black out shade or curtain on every single one. If you are building from scratch, it's a great idea to put sconces on the side walls so you can have a very dim glow but don’t forget you’ll need to clean the room as well. Be sure to install some recessed cans (on a separate circuit of course) to light the room up for cleaning. Dimmers that can be remote controlled add a really cool feature to your theater. That way you can walk into a fully lit room, get your seats, then dim the lights as the movie starts.

We hope this summary gives you some basic information about how to think about the design and layout of the physical aspects of your home theater. Now let’s move on to the fun part, picking out the gear!

Electrical Considerations

When planning a home theater, especially if you are starting from scratch with new construction, there are a couple of simple things that can save you some headaches later. When you get into the larger home theater all-in-one receivers or separate components, be sure you have enough power at the equipment location. In almost all cases, a dedicated 20 amp circuit (your electrician will know what this means) is needed and in some, you need more than one. You can show your electrician the specs on your gear to be sure, but if in doubt, it’s better to have too many circuits than not enough. Nothing is worse than a breaker flipping during that big dynamic blast and your whole system shutting off.

If you need more than one circuit, you want to tell the electrician to make sure they are both on the same phase or leg of the electrical panel box. You also want any outlets for powered subwoofers, projectors, or TVs on the same leg. We have seen many instances in existing construction where we get terrible audio hum or hum bars in the picture if the components are all connected together using different legs. Having the electrician move things in the breaker box always fixes this, so do it right the first time if you have the opportunity.

Home Theater System Display

Through our Audio Advice stores, we have installed thousands of home theaters and media rooms. One thing we have never heard anyone say is: “The screen is too big!” Yes, when it comes to home theater, it seems like bigger is always better! The advent of 4K content with 8K coming soon has also improved the argument for an even larger screen. With all of this high resolution content, you just can not see any video artifacts unless you are almost right on top of the screen.

To help figure out what screen size is correct for your room, it’s pretty easy if you go back to some 10th grade geometry. For a standard HDTV, which is a 1 to 1.78 ratio (height to width), you can usually take where your main seats are and be very comfortable with a 38 degree or so field of vision. This will give you a fully immersive video experience. In our example below, we have our main chair 10 feet from the screen. A 38 degree field of vision, results in a screen width of 71”, which is just slightly less than the screen width of a typical 85” TV. If you are comfortable in the middle row of a movie theater, this will feel good at home, so you can adjust up or down in size based upon where you feel comfortable in a commercial theater. Of course, one way to increase your field of vision is to just sit closer!

Home Theater System - Display Degrees

For widescreen front projection where the screen is in a ratio of 1 to 2.35 or 2.40, a 42 to 45 degree field of vision usually works out well.

As you can see from these numbers, most people who want a serious home theater will go for a front projection system as its just not possible to buy (for a reasonable price) a screen much larger than 85” these days. That is why we see so many people opting for a front projection system for their ultimate home theater.

Flat Panel TVs

But first, let’s talk about regular flat panel TVs and what to look for when you are shopping for that new big screen. Do you remember curved TVs and 3D TVs? How many do you see now? Audio Advice was never a fan of either type and we turned out to be correct, as the market said most people cared about a better picture. For your dream home theater, the picture quality of your display should be what matters the most over features and gadgets.
There are two main types of technology available in flat panel TVs these days: LED and OLED. Some manufacturers have variations on these themes. In the last few years since 4K was introduced, flat panel TVs have improved greatly. Their brightness, sharpness, and contrast is pretty amazing compared to 10 years ago. For those of you who remember and loved the deep blacks plasma TVs could reproduce, OLED technology has come along which gives you those same type of blacks, but just like plasma with some trade off in brightness.

Let’s take a deeper look at things to look for in a flat panel TV. First, your environment and budget will have a big impact on whether you should consider an OLED over LED technology. As a general rule, OLED will give you a wider viewing angle. If your seating layout is pretty spread out, OLED might be worth considering. However, in most cases, OLED can not produce the light output LED sets can. If you don’t plan on turning the lights down, and fully controlling the light spilling into your room, LED may be a better choice. If you can control the light and want a great picture, it is hard to beat OLED. The technology behind OLED basically turns off all light when there is black, so you get a perfect black.  It’s main limitation these days is panel size. OLED costs far more to produce than LED, and you’ll see most models in the 55” to 65” size. Once you go above 65”, there are a few choices, but they cost far more than some very good LED sets in that size. Some of the very best OLED panels have come up with a way to improve the light output, giving you a picture that is almost as bright as the best LED sets. This of course comes at a price, but boy do they look great.

When considering LED, you’ll notice lots of talk about the backlighting. The better the backlighting, the better your picture will be. Initially, LED TVs only had edge backlighting, and some entry level models still only have this. Adding more zones of backlighting greatly improve the picture and as such, you’ll see some models that are considered full array backlighting. There are differences in the viewing angle for different models of LED sets. This does not matter if you sit in front of the TV, but as you start to get off axis, it can be something to consider.

Another term you’ll see when TV shopping is HDR, which is short for High Dynamic Range. HDR is the latest tech from the video world to improve picture quality and we see it becoming very widespread. Almost all new 4K BluRay discs are done in HDR and many streaming services are adopting it. We highly recommend that you consider a TV or projector with HDR capability.

The real test of a flat panel TV these days, we feel, is its video processor. In simple terms, this is the system that takes the digital signal coming in and turns it into a TV picture. One true litmus test of a great video processor is how well it handles fast motion. We highly advise you to watch some fast moving scenes (a train going by is especially good) when picking out your flat panel TV. You will find some brands and models can handle this a whole lot better than others. After motion, look for the ability to pick out colors within colors. A great test here is a scene with a dark piece of clothing or landscape. Can you pick out the various shades of the dark color within the color? Again, this will tell you how good the all important video processor is. We think it’s important to spend some time doing these viewing tests as you are probably going to be spending thousands of hours watching the TV you pick out.

Audio Advice Tip: When testing TVs, ask to see some content that is similar to what you will be watching. Some TVs will be on display connected up to a thumb drive or small computer feeding it a virtually perfect signal. With this type of signal, the TV’s processor does not have to work as hard. Or you can just call our experts to get their advice on the best looking TVs!

Wide Screen Explained

If the idea of a big front projection system has peaked your interest, you are just like us, we love big screens! And if you want an image larger than around 85”, it is just flat out more cost effective to go with a projection system. You may have wondered what we meant when we mentioned a widescreen 2.35 or 2.40 type of screen. Technology improvements in projectors have made the dream of a true widescreen much more affordable than before. You can now get projectors for under $3,000 that allow you to do widescreen. So, just what is the difference in widescreen and a normal HDTV image?

Broadcast TV (think sports and TV series) is all done in 16:9, however about 85% of popular movies are produced in widescreen. If you have ever watched a movie on a TV and noticed the black bars at the top and bottom, what you are seeing is a widescreen movie. Now wouldn’t it be great if you could get the full size image for sports on a 16:9 screen and be able to have that same image height, yet the full width for a big movie? That is what a widescreen system will do for you.

They say a picture is worth 1000 words, and this should explain the “why” behind widescreen if you are into movies.

Home Theater System Display Differences

For a deep dive into widescreen, check out our blog here that explains things in much more detail.

Wide Screen Experience

To get widescreen, you have two choices these days. The technology that has enabled widescreen is what is called Lens Memory, allowing you to memorize two different zoom settings on your projector. One is for normal HDTV, then another is more zoomed out for widescreen. Since there is nothing in the blank part of the picture, you simply zoom out your projector so it fills a widescreen. When setting up your projector, you will need to make sure you have enough range of throw distance for both 16:9 and 2.40...more about that later. This lets you fill up a huge wall to wall widescreen with a movie, which is quite immersive!

The other choice is a more expensive option, but there is a reason behind it. When you zoom your projector out, you are not using the pixels in the panel of your projector where the black bars at the top and the bottom are. The more you zoom out a projector, the less brightness it has. In some cases, you may have a massive screen size wise and are on the edge of being able to have it bright enough. Many new projectors are designed to work with an aftermarket lens from a company called Panamorph. We said we were not going to mention any brands, but they are really the only choice and are recommended by all the major projection brands. When you use a lens with your projector, you take advantage of all your pixels, making the widescreen image about 35% brighter than the same image zoomed out. We have to say, if you are a true video pureist, this is something to consider, but for most systems, the lens memory works great.

Front Projection Technology

If you’ve decided on a nice front projection system, you’ll soon see you will need to choose between different types of projector technology. DLP projectors were some of the first on the scene to make things more affordable, but we now see other systems on the market. There are two types of DLP, single chip and three chip. The single chip uses a color wheel. Before you choose a single chip DLP, you should make sure you do not see the rainbow effect many people see with a color wheel. Other companies have developed systems called SXRD, DLIA, and 3LCD, which all use three light sources for the primary colors of red, green, and blue. We feel these systems are preferable to most DLP for home cinema. All of these systems use a lamp that will need to be replaced every 1000-1500 hours of use. The latest tech uses a laser system instead of a lamp, and we must say, the colors on a laser system are just amazing. You also have the advantage of a system capable of 20,000 hours of use, and heck, by then we will have 24K!

When choosing a projection system, think of the screen the same way you think of your speakers. Projection technology will progress, but most people (unless they just go bigger) tend to keep their screen for decades.

The first step in picking a screen is deciding if you want a normal HDTV 16:9 (1.78) ratio or full widescreen with 2.35 or 2.40. If you like movies and can afford a projector that can display full widescreen, we highly recommend you go this way. If you mostly watch sports and network TV, you are probably better off with a 16:9 screen. There is one exception. If you have limited width for your screen, you might be happier with a 16:9 screen. For instance, if you use our rules for viewing angle and determine from your seating distance the width of your space only allows for a 38 degree field of vision, go with a 16:9 screen.

Home Theater System Display 38 degrees

Audio Advice Tip: Once you have done the math to figure out the ideal screen size, get some painters tape and tape out the image on your screen wall to see how it will feel to you.

 

The next step in picking out your screen is to decide if you want it to be acoustically transparent. All commercial cinemas have the main front speakers behind an acoustically transparent screen. This makes it seem like the sound is coming right out of the screen, which is a great effect. In the home environment, in wall or fairly thin speakers can be used behind an acoustically transparent screen. Or, if you have enough depth in your room, you can build out a false wall and hide your big speakers behind an acoustically transparent screen. Within the acoustic transparent screen family, there are two types of screen material that allow for the sound to pass through. The first is a woven type material that looks somewhat similar to speaker grill cloth. With this type of screen, you can place the speakers pretty close to the screen which makes it a great choice for in wall speakers. The other type of material has tiny holes in the screen. This results in a flatter screen surface, which some video puriests would argue gives you a slightly better picture. However, with the perf screen, you need to have your speakers a little further away from the screen as opposed to right on top of it. A few inches will typically be enough. The perf type screen also has some high frequency roll off, so if you go this route, you’ll need a surround sound processor or receiver that has room correction (which almost all of the current ones have). With either type (and especially with the perf type) we recommend putting some dark acoustic panels all over the back wall, and if you do in wall speakers, paint them flat black if you can.

The effect of an acoustically transparent screen is just fantastic. It does require more planning and a good acoustically transparent screen can cost almost twice as much as the same sized non transparent screen, but we feel if you have the budget and can set things up this way, it makes your home theater feel much more like a commercial cinema!

When you are looking at front projection screens, you’ll also see differences in the screen surface material. You’ll find white, grey, and even almost black screen surfaces. You will also see a specification called gain, which is usually expressed as a number from around .8 to 2. Each of these types has an environment they are best suited for.

The most common type of screen will have a white surface. Within white screens, you’ll see gain specifications from around 1 to 1.4. Most white screens provide what we feel is the most accurate picture reproduction. They also have a very wide viewing angle where you will not get any drop off of light if you are not perfectly centered in the screen. A very common, and recommended gain is 1.3. Unless you have a very bright projector (above 2500 lumens) and your screen is less than 10 feet wide, we would recommend you go with a gain of around 1.3. For the most accurate video experience a screen with a gain of 1.0 is considered close to perfection, but we feel the reduction in brightness is not worth that minimal trade off, unless you are coupling a high output projector with a smaller screen.

The grey or almost black type screen are great for rooms where you do not have full control of the light coming into the rooms. While we do not feel these are quite as color accurate as a white screen, if you have a lot of light, they will look better in that type of room compared to a white screen. These type of screens are typically used in a family or media room where you cannot make things completely dark allowing you to have a home theater experience in a multi use space.

The last choice you will have in a type of screen is to have it mounted permanently or to drop down from an enclosure.  For the typical home theater space, a wall mounted screen will be your best and least expensive choice. For multi use rooms, you just can not beat a motorized screen. This allows you to turn a normal looking family room into a home theater with the push of a button. Motorized screens can be recessed into the ceiling for the ultimate in stealth. There are also options where the screen is housed in an architecturally pleasing housing you can mount on the ceiling or wall. Bear in mind that when you are planning, all of these will need electrical power. We are even seeing some motorized screens now housed in a very small enclosure with a battery powered, rechargeable motor. These are currently limited in size, but what a cool idea!

If you decide to go with a front projection system, there is one other factor to bear in mind. A front projection screen, just like a commercial cinema, reflects light back off the screen. This is totally different than a flat panel TV. It is a good idea to paint the walls in your room a dark color (we like dark grey) and make sure the type of paint is not reflective. Be sure to use a flat or matte type paint. Satin, eggshell, or semigloss will reflect a lot of light, so we do not recommend them. Also remember, the ceiling is a point of reflection, so it’s a good idea to paint it a dark color with flat or matte paint.

Audio Advice Tip: Building a nice set of cabinets around your 140” movie screen is a great way to give your theater a custom look. You need to remember that light reflects back off the movie screen and onto nearby surfaces. This means if your screen is recessed, light will bounce off the recess which can be very distracting. We highly recommend you use a matte finish for whatever surrounds your screen and try to avoid any materials like granite that reflect the light back. It is actually best to use something to absorb the reflections like a black felt type material.

 

Home Theater System Sound

We will break this section down into source components, audio video receivers and processors, and speakers.  Let’s start with the beginning and work our way out.

Source Components

Many years ago, it was not possible to have a home theater without a DVD player, followed by BluRay players. With the advent of high speed internet and a massive increase in streaming services, the physical disc is dying off. Many people think there is no need for a BluRay player in a home theater these days. We would argue they are missing out on a better experience. BluRay players are not very expensive compared to the price of other theater components, and if you shop around, purchasing a physical disc in many cases actually costs less than buying it from a streaming service. With RedBox kiosks blanketing the countryside, it's actually even less expensive to rent a BluRay from RedBox (typically $2 for a BluRay) than it is to rent a movie from Apple, Vudu, Amazon, etc as those are usually $4-$6. The real reason though is the sound. You’ll get full audio quality on a physical disc, which does not always happen with a streaming movie. Most streaming services will try to make the picture look the best and compromise the audio with more compression. When you have the actual disc, you are assured of the best possible sound, and heck, it even costs less in many cases. Our advice is to include a BluRay player, and better yet a 4K model, in your theater plans.

For the ultimate movie lover, in a high performance theater, an even better option is Kaleidescape. Once again, they are about the only player in this space. They make a hard drive system that allows you to download a bit for bit perfect copy of the movie. This can take over an hour even with a high speed connection, but the picture and sound are well worth it. Since it is an exact copy, it technically can have a slightly better picture and sound than the physical disc, as its spinning and some error correction occurs when the laser reads the disc. Of course, this is for the ultimate theater as Kaleidescape players start at over $4,500.

The most common source these days though is streaming. Your choice here will be an Apple TV, a Roku device, an Amazon Fire device, a computer, an Nvidia streaming device, just to name a few. If you are using a smart TV, many of them have a host of built in streaming services. These streamers also allow us to “cut the cord” by using one of the network TV streaming services. Our advice on streaming devices is to get the one that best suits your ecosystem. If you are an Apple family, an Apple TV is probably going to be a better choice. We do think a Roku gives you the most streaming services options and their universal search will show you every place you can find content, letting you know the price of each. We found the Amazon devices tend to drive you towards paying for content when it might be free on another service. Any home theater should have a streaming player and we recommend to go ahead and get a 4K model so you can enjoy 4K streaming.

The legacy source box that we are actually seeing less and less of in theaters is a cable or satellite receiver. Both cable and satellite have been promising us more 4K content, but it appears the streaming services are currently winning this battle. We’ve all probably had one of these and if you have not cut the cord yet, you’ll probably have one for local content and sports.  If you have had yours for a while, be sure and call your provider to upgrade you to the newest model. Many times people will stick with a very outdated cable or satellite box just not knowing they could upgrade if they asked. It's usually free if you sign up for another year or two of service.

All In One Audio Options

The fastest growing category in home theater audio is the soundbar. Usually this is an all-inone speaker system that goes under your TV to provide sound. Most soundbars give you far better sound than TV speakers and many have an option for a wireless subwoofer with some giving an option for wireless surround speakers. Some even have upward firing Dolby Atmos speakers to take you a step towards Dolby Atmos.

Most soundbars either do all of the audio switching at the soundbar or are designed to have the TV do the switching and get their signal from a single optical or HDMI cable. Both the convenience of having everything built in and their ease of setup has led to their huge growth.

There is a smaller category of soundbars that are designed to be used with a surround sound receiver. This type does not have any amplifiers built in and uses a more conventional wiring scheme.

We see a couple of use cases where a soundbar system makes sense. If you are limited on space and budget, you can get decent audio from some of these systems, especially the ones that allow you to add a good wireless subwoofer. The other area it makes sense for is if you just have no way to run wires around your room, or perhaps you are in a temporary space and not allowed to make any changes to the room.

Good soundbar systems will cost less than a typical separates audio system, but you will probably spend above $1,000 for one that includes a good subwoofer and a little more for a system with wireless surrounds. If you can make the room for separate speakers, we think almost all separate systems give better sound than an all-in-one soundbar, so the choice comes down to your desire for better sound and budget. We have a feeling if you are reading this guide, you want better sound, so let’s jump into the separate audio component world.

Surround Sound Receivers and Separates

The heart of a great home theater will need a surround sound receiver or a stack of separate components. We’ve done some deep dives into specific models on our site, so this section will be more general to give you an idea of what to look for in this very important part of your home theater. You are probably going to have your home theater receiver for years and years, so we suggest you take some time to make a good choice.

First, what is the role of a home theater receiver or separates? Virtually every single item in your system will be connected to your home theater receiver. All of your source components will be plugged into it as one role is to provide switching of your sources. One the output side, the home theater receiver will connect to your TV or projector, sending the source you selected out to your display device. All of your speakers will be connected up as well. Your receiver will power most of them, provide adjustments for the output levels of each one, give you adjustments on what signal goes out to your powered subwoofer and in many cases with the help of a special microphone, calibrate your speakers to the room. Finally, when the digital signal comes in from your source device, the home theater receiver decodes all of the channels, sending the correct information to each speaker while at the same time changing the digital signal into an analog signal for your speakers.

When you think about it, a home theater receiver has to be good at a whole lot of things, and every single one of them has an impact on how good your system sounds and even how your picture looks. Let’s break them down.

The first piece to look at is to get a count of your source components and make sure the home theater receiver you choose has enough inputs to switch everything you have. We’d suggest having a spare input or two for future use. Most home theater receivers of good quality have a lot of inputs but there is nothing worse than starting to connect everything up only to realize you need one more input than your receiver has. Also, if you think you might add an analog source component like a turntable, be sure the receiver has inputs for an analog source and if you do not have a separate phono preamp already, look for one with phono inputs.

On the switching side of things, you also want to confirm your choice will work with your source components and display. For instance, you may have gotten a new TV with the ability to display HDR10 content. Your source component can also handle this. But if you pick an older or less expensive model that can not handle the higher speed needed for HDR10, you will not be able to use that type of signal and will have to tell the source to reduce resolution. Make sure whatever output from an HDMI standpoint needed for the source is there in the receiver. For example, HDR10 requires HDMI 2.0a. You’ll want to confirm the receiver you are considering is capable of this.

Next, you’ll want to think about the number of channels you’ll need. Home theater receivers these days have anywhere from 5 to 13 powered channels. If you think you will never have more than the basic Dolby Digital system of 3 front speakers and a pair of surround speakers, a 5 channel receiver may be fine for your needs. However, if you have thoughts of adding to your system now or later, consider a receiver with more channels on board.

If you are thinking about Dolby Atmos, you will need at least 7 powered channels and for a full scale Atmos system, 11 powered channels is preferred.

Audio Advice Tip: Some receivers give you the ability to decode more channels than they have amplifiers on board. For example a receiver may only have 7 powered channels but give you non powered outputs for up to 11. These outputs are called pre-amp outs. They would need to connect up to a power amplifier to drive the additional speakers, but this is one way to future proof your system. You can get a 7 channel receiver now, then if you take things to 11 channels, add more speakers and an amplifier later. This can save you some money up front, but give you option value for the future.

When you are looking at receivers, you’ll see power ratings for how much power the receiver can provide. Way back in the 1970s, when there was a “power war” going on among brands, you would see all kinds of crazy power ratings as there was not standard. People in the business from back then fondly remember the term 1000 watts ISBL. This jokingly meant 1000 watts, If Struck By Lightning! The FCC soon jumped in and made brands standardize on a power rating and it was easier to compare models. The FCC made the brands say if the wattage rated was with all channels driven, and at what frequency range, and at what distortion level. A typical rating might have been 100 watts per channel, with both channels driven from 20hz to 20Khz at .01% distortion. Most brands rated their power within this specification criteria to make it easier for consumers to compare.

We are seeing the wild west appear again in power ratings. You really have to read the fine print to determine if the stated power is real or not. The brands are still doing what the FCC requires, but printing ratings that do not apply to real life. One of the easiest frequency ranges to push with an amplifier is 1000hz. We see some brands rating their power at 1000 hz instead of the entire audio range of 20hz to 20,000 hz. We also find power rated at only one channel driven, instead of all 5, 7, or 11 and we see very high distortion numbers on the spec. What may read like a 100 watt per channel receiver may actually be only a 30 watt per channel unit if you measure it with all channels driven, across the whole frequency range, and at a normal distortion level.

Why is this important? Movie soundtracks can be extremely dynamic. This means they could jump from a whisper to a loud crash in a split second. To deliver those great dynamics, your power source (receiver typically) needs to be able to handle those transient power demands. Being able to do 100 watts at 1000 hz does you no good when you want to capture the sound of an explosion, you need to full frequency range. It's even more important now with Dolby Atmos. In the past, the power needs of the surround speakers was somewhat minimal, but with Dolby Atmos, those surround speakers now get big, full range sound, and at the same time as all of your other speakers.

You want to get a receiver that has a big power supply. This is the part that provides power to all of the components inside the receiver. The bigger the power supply, the better the receiver will handle the dynamics of a movie.

Audio Advice Tip: If you don’t want to try and dissect all the power ratings, just look up the total weight of the receiver. If it's heavier than 20 pounds, it probably has a decent power supply and a pretty good amplifier section. Just be very leery of components quoting a lot of power (over 100 watts) that are lightweight because they will likely not sound very good.

Another important factor in a home theater receiver is its decoder and DACs. DAC stands for Digital to Analog Convertor. This system takes the incoming digital signal and converts it to analog for our ears.  Unless you are really up on DAC technology, it's hard to read a spec and know a good DAC from a bad one. But the difference a DAC can have on sound can be profound. Most brands will state the type of DAC they use and if you are geeks like us, you can actually Google the part number and find out its cost, which as a general rule, relates to performance. We’ve done this and have seen them range from under 50 cents to $10+. Typically, the more expensive a receiver is, the better DACs it will have inside.

One more factor to look at in a receiver is its set up flexibility. Most of the better ones have gotten pretty good at this, but you may have a specific need that not everyone is capable of. One thing we like to see is the ability to assign a source to more than one input and the ability to have a different video and audio source. One great example of this is watching the big game, but listening to the local announcer at the game. Another example might be someone who likes to listen to music while casually watching the news. We also like home theater receivers that give us more flexibility in adjusting levels and crossover points. Finding out these answers will either require a deep dive into the online manual or a call to our experts!

The last big component of a home theater receiver is what it can do to make your system sound better in your environment. Just a few short years ago, this was not even possible, but we have seen huge advances in automatic room equalization. When a speaker is designed and tested in a special anechoic chamber, it will have a pretty even response from top to bottom. But when this speaker goes in a typical room and its sound waves start interacting with the walls, floor, and ceiling, the response you get can look like the Swiss Alps! While it's hard to fix the dips caused by the room, a good room eq system can knock down the peaks, getting you much closer to the sound the speaker maker intended. Most home theater receivers in the $1000 price range and up will include some sort of room equalization system. We can not recommend these systems more highly as they can have a huge benefit. We think the system called Dirac is the best, but unfortunately, it's only found on the most expensive receivers on the market, but boy oh boy does it do an amazing job. We’ll give you some tips on how to best implement room eq in the set up and calibration section.

As you can see, like we stated in the beginning, there is an awful lot going on inside a home theater receiver. This is why separate components are a great option for people who want even better sound.

A home theater receiver has the preamp section that does all the switching, digital to analog conversion, routing of the signals, decoding of the surround stream, and any room eq. That is a lot! It also has an amplifier for each of the powered channels. Now if you think about it, the signals coming into a surround receiver are very low in level. The circuitry supporting those signals needs super accurate and steady power supplied to it. Yet when a big dynamic peak hits, your speakers are screaming out to the receiver to give them more power. This can cause a drain on the power going to the critical low level components and result in a bit of a harsh or muddled sound. The demands on a receivers power supply are almost totally opposite each other. On the one end you want very steady low level pure power with no deviation for the preamp section, yet the amplifier sections wants wild power swings to handle the dynamics of a movie or concert soundtrack. This is where separate components come in.

With separates, you buy what is called a surround sound processor and separate amplifiers. The surround sound processor only has to deal with the low level signals and the amplifiers only have to drive speakers. The resulting sound improvement is usually quite significant, especially with a great speaker system. One huge advantage of separates is the lifetime cost. Amplifier technology has been pretty stable for many years. As a matter of fact, some 20 and 30 year old power amps still sound great today. However, the decoding side of home theater seems to improve every couple of years. If you invest in great amplifiers, you’ll have them for decades and they will provide the best possible sound to your speakers. When technology changes enough that you want to upgrade, you only have to change the surround sound processor and you can keep your great amplifiers. We see people do this over and over across decades.

Power amplifiers come in packages of from one channel per amp to 12. This allows you to tailor your set up for your needs. Perhaps you also want to enjoy listening to just stereo music in your theater as well as movies. You could get a really great 2 channel power amp and spend less on the other channels.

When you get separate components, you are assured each one is designed just to do its job and not be a jack of all trades like a home theater receiver. Does it cost more? Yes. Is it usually better for the long haul? Heck yes!

Now lets have some fun and look at all the possible speaker options.

Home Theater System Speakers

Dedicated speakers for home theater systems come in a large variety of types and sizes. While we will not recommend any specific brands in this section, we will go over the pros and cons of each type and give you some suggested best practices for each kind of speaker.

A state of the art Dolby Atmos home theater could have as many as 15 speakers or more in it, each serving a different purpose. While the ultimate home theater would have every single speaker be identical, that is just not practical in a typical home environment.

In a home theater system, you’ll have a left channel main speaker, right channel main speaker, a center channel speaker, left and right surround speakers, left and right rear speakers, Dolby Atmos speakers, and finally a subwoofer. Let’s look at how to decide where you should allocate your budget for each category.

Main Left and Right Speakers

These, as the name suggests, are your left and right front speakers. They typically go on either side of your video display or behind an acoustically transparent projection screen. They could be floor standing, bookshelf, on wall, or in wall depending on what best fits your room and budget.

The left and right speakers receive a lot of information from the audio track of a movie or concert. These are two speakers you do not want to cut corners on. One minute they may be playing the musical score of a movie and the next, helping to knock you out of your seat with a big explosion. If all you watch is sports and low key drama with mostly dialogue, you could drop back on what you spend on the left and right, but for general use, these are some of the most important speakers in your home theater.

If you like concert videos or just want to listen to music in your home theater, these are even more important. About 75-80% of the sound in a concert video will come from the left and right channels, and if you decide to listen to some vinyl in your home theater system, 100% of the sound will be coming from the main left and right speakers.

Center Channel Speaker

This is the most important speaker in your home theater system. When you are watching a movie, if you can not understand the dialogue then you will just not enjoy the movie. Almost all of the spoken voice in a movie will be in the center channel track. Many center channel speakers will be long and skinny to fit under a screen and there are also on wall and in wall center channels that can do a great job.

Ideally, the center channel should be identical to your left and right speakers. When voices or soundtracks pan across the front, this makes everything totally seamless. Producers will also mix the same content across all three front channels and if they are the same, the effect is just great.

If you are not able to have the same exact center speaker as your main left and right, make sure you at least have the same brand and if possible, they should be in the same series within the brand. Most good speaker manufacturers will design their center channel speaker to match up really well with their floor standing or bookshelf models in the same series. The better brands even use the same speaker components so you get a sound that is almost identical to your left and right channels if you stick within the same series. If you have a choice of two models within the same series, always go with the bigger one if you can, as the center is so important.

Take our advice and do not scrimp on your center channel!

Left and Right Surround Speakers

In a home theater, you will have at least two of these on the sides and if your budget and room allow, another pair for the rear surround track. Just like the left and right main speakers, these can be floor standing, bookshelf, on wall, or in wall.

The positioning and design of these speakers has drastically changed with the onset of Dolby Atmos. Before Dolby Atmos and its object based surround, the surround speakers were made to help give you that sense of space. Many models had speaker components on each side or on an angle sending the sound to both the front and back of the room if they were used for side surround speakers or to the sides if positioned as rear surround speakers. We also used to recommend to mount them up higher to help create that sense of space.

All of this changed with the introduction of object based surround and its lower surround speakers, and ceiling or elevation height speakers. Now we want the sound coming from the surround speakers to be directional and not aimed in multiple directions. We also want them to be closer to ear level since we now have dedicated Atmos height speakers.

It also used to be that producers were not sending a lot of big effects and full range information to the surround channels. Since Dolby Atmos has come into being, we are observing movie soundtracks with as much information in the surround channels as the front channels.

Once again, in the ideal home theater, the surround speakers would be identical to the main speakers, but it's not very practical in most rooms to put a big floor standing speaker on either side of your seating (if you have room though then go for it!). We will normally see an on wall or in wall speaker be used for the surround channels.

Just like the center channel, you’ll want to have the same brand and if possible within the same model series to keep things matched up. And while the surround speakers are not as important as the main left and right, producers are increasing the content sent to these channels, so a great home theater can no longer get away with really small surround speakers.

Atmos Height Speakers

Atmos speakers will be placed in two possible positions. They will either be mounted in or attached to your ceiling or be the Atmos elevation type speaker that just sits right on top of your main left and right speakers. If you go for 4 Atmos speakers, which is preferred, the elevation type will sit on top of your rear speakers. This means if you are doing elevation Atmos speakers, your rear speakers will need to either be a bookshelf or floorstanding type speaker, or you might just put your Atmos elevation speakers on a stand if you are doing 5.1.4 with no rears.

For most home theaters, the Atmos upper speakers will probably either be in ceiling speakers or the elevation type that sits on top of your main speakers. We are seeing a new breed of Atmos in ceiling speakers that have the speaker components mounted at an angle on the front. This is great as it allows you to aim them at the primary listening position, rather than having them fire straight down like a typical in ceiling speaker would do. If you are serious about your home theater and you are going with in ceiling, we highly recommend you get this type.

Just like all of the other speakers we’ve discussed, you’ll want to stick with the same brand when possible - if the brand makes an Atmos speaker. This is the only area where things can get a little tricky as not all high performance speaker brands have an Atmos speaker at this time. Most of the major brands do, but a few of the smaller very high performance companies do not make in ceiling speakers at all. In this case, it pays to take the advice of someone you trust to find the best match. The same thing might also apply to elevation Atmos speakers if your main speaker brand does not make elevation Atmos speakers.

Our advice is to go with as large as possible for the Atmos speakers. For example, if you have a choice between a 5 or 6” in ceiling or an 8”, go with the 8” version.

Subwoofers

Subwoofers for home theaters will come in two basic types, in room and in wall. Most in room subwoofers will have the amplifier built into the subwoofer. For in wall subwoofers, the amplifier will be a separate component. The purpose of the subwoofer is to provide the deep bass. There are two parts to this. First, the “.1” track of a movie is what is called the LFE channel. This stands for low frequency effects. This signal will be sent to your subwoofer. In addition, it is likely your other speakers will not be able to handle the very deep bass information in the other channels. This part of the soundtrack is also routed to your subwoofer. Your home theater receiver or processor will typically let you set the frequency this kicks in for each set of speakers. Sending this low bass information to the subwoofer instead of the speakers has two benefits. The subwoofer is specifically designed for this type of information and will usually do a better job at reproducing the deep bass. Plus, by removing the deep bass part of the track from your other speakers, they do not have to work as hard. This makes them sound more effortless and also reduces the power demands on the amplifier driving those speakers. Deep bass takes the most power of any type of signal to reproduce, which is why you see subwoofer amps with very high power ratings.

When you think about all the subwoofer is being asked to do, it's easy to see why it is another very important part of your home theater. You’ll find subwoofers in a wide range of prices. Typically as you spend more money, you will get a subwoofer that goes deeper and can define bass tones better. Some inexpensive subwoofers lack the ability to give good bass definition, garnering them an industry term of “one note bass,”meaning that they pretty much just boom with little bass definition or speed. A great subwoofer should be able to sound like an upright bass instrument, a kick drum, or an explosion and everything in between.

You will also see some subwoofers with built in room equalization. We find this to be a big benefit, especially if your home theater receiver or processor does not provide this feature.

Finally, we highly recommend at least two subwoofers for a serious home theater.  We went over this in the speaker layout section, but in a nutshell, two or more subwoofers will help your room have more even bass response across your seating area.

Speaker Types

In this section, we will cover what we feel the pros and cons are for each speaker type in each of the categories of home theater speakers. We will look at the in room types of floor standing and bookshelf: on wall, in wall, in ceiling, and elevation speakers. We left subwoofers off as there really are no pros and cons...you need one or more period in a serious home theater!

Floor Standing Speakers

These are usually 36” or greater in height and 7” wide and up. Typical depth ranges from around 9” to 16”. Floor standing speakers will usually represent the best a speaker company has to offer. Usually, the most expensive and best performing speaker from a speaker manufacturer will be their floor standing models. Many of these are capable of full range music reproduction, which is one reason these are preferred by music lovers for enjoying music as well as home theater. Floor standing speakers can be great in a home theater flanking a large flat panel or front projection screen. It is also possible to build out a screen wall and hide them behind an acoustically transparent fabric wall.

Pros

  • These usually sound the best, giving you big, full range sound
  • No special construction is required, just put them into your room
  • They make a great platform for elevation Atmos speakers
  • When properly place in a room, you can almost get a sense of the performers spread out in front of you, giving you that feeling of “being there”

Cons

  • Hard to make them disappear since they are fairly large
  • Most floor standing speakers need to be away from the back wall to sound best, usually 12-16” out into the room

Typical Uses

  • Main left and right front speakers
  • Side surround speakers
  • Rear surround speakers - they make a great platform for Atmos elevation speakers


Bookshelf Speakers

As their description implies, bookshelf speakers are normally small enough to fit on a typical bookshelf, although some are substantially larger. Bookshelf speakers, when set up to get the best out of them, can give you some of the great sonic aspects of a tower speaker. They will lack the deep bass of a tower, but some models, when coupled with a subwoofer, are able to put out a very large and convincing soundstage for music.

We see bookshelf speakers used in media or home theater rooms flanking the screen inside built in cabinets or used on stands in the room. When placed on stands, they make an excellent choice for surround speakers as well, especially in a Dolby Atmos system where we want the surround channels close to ear level. Usually, for best music performance, they are similar to floor standing speakers in set up and like to be away from the back wall.

When you couple the smaller model of a bookshelf speaker for your surround speakers with the larger model floorstander from the same speaker company, you typically get perfectly matched speaker components making for a really seamless surround sound effect

Many center channel speakers fall into this category as well. Most are shallow enough to fit on a shelf. There are several cabinets for flat panel TVs that have a section made to house the center channel.

Pros

  • Small in size
  • Can fit inside a cabinet or on a speaker stand
  • When used on a stand, can support elevation Atmos speakers
  • If you spend some time setting them up, they can provide a big sound stage

Cons

  • Best performance is usually had by getting them out in the room on stands

Typical Uses

  • Main left and right front speakers
  • Side surround speakers
  • Rear surround speakers - they make an excellent platform for Atmos elevation speakers
  • Can be used for Atmos ceiling mount speakers, although that would be a fairly industrial look


Wall Mounted Speakers

Wall mounted speakers are usually less than 8” in total depth and normally less than 12” wide. There are two categories of wall mounted speakers. Some are very thin, designed to be mounted on either side of a flat panel TV or front projection screen. The other category is usually deeper and designed to be mounted on the side and/or rear walls for your surround channels. Both types have the advantage of the speaker designer knowing they are going to be mounted on a wall. This means their sound is usually pretty consistent from room to room.

Wall mounted speakers for the left, right, and center can be an excellent option for a basic surround sound system with a flat panel TV. If you get the same model, you will have perfectly matched speaker drivers for the left, right, and center, which is a plus. Thin, wall mounted speakers can give a very good look from an architectural standpoint, although if you put them on each side of a TV, they are not exactly going to give you that 45-60 degree ideal spread unless you are sitting really close. For many people the trade off in appearance makes them very appealing.

Wall mounted speakers are like bookshelf speakers in that they are not able to produce deep bass and should always be used with a subwoofer if they are going to be the left and right speakers. The thin ones also make a good option for surround speakers as they will not stick very far out into the room.

The larger models available to be used for surround speakers are a great choice. These usually provide excellent sound, and when paired up with the same brand of tower or bookshelf speakers, can give you a totally seamless surround effect.

Pros

  • Thin size makes them able to disappear
  • They can look great flanking and above/below a flat panel TV or screen
  • No need to cut a big hole in your wall compared to an in wall speaker
  • A great way to get a well matched surround system when used as surrounds

Cons

  • An Atmos system will require in ceiling Atmos speakers as they offer no physical support for elevation Atmos speakers.
  • A subwoofer is a must - although we feel a subwoofer is a must anyway

Typical Uses

  • Main, right, left, and center speakers
  • Side and rear surround speakers


In Wall Speakers

In wall speakers mount inside your walls. These require sheetrock or your wall material to be cut out to allow the speaker to be recessed inside the wall. Almost all in wall speakers are designed to fit inside a stud bay, making them less than 14 ½” in total width, while the typical model is 8-12” wide. In wall speakers can be fairly substantial in height as some speaker manufacturers try to push their performance to be as good as their best floor standing models.

This type of speaker probably has the widest performance variation of any of the speaker types. You can find very inexpensive in wall speakers from tier 2 or 3 speaker manufacturers who are just trying to hit a price point that do not sound very good. On the other extreme, some speaker companies make in wall speakers that can sound absolutely amazing.

For a totally stealth home theater where everything disappears except the screen, in wall speakers are your best choice for all of the left, center, right, and surround speakers. Their grills can typically be carefully painted to blend in with the room. They also work extremely well behind an acoustically transparent front projection screen, giving you that true movie theater effect where the speakers are behind the screen.

Due to the increasing popularity of acoustically transparent front projection screens, many of the top tier speaker companies have spent millions on R&D on their in wall speaker products. The speaker designers for these companies know the speaker will be in the wall and can account for how that affects the final sound. With this new category of high performance in wall speakers, you no longer have to place a large pair of floor standing speakers in your room to get incredible sound. Some companies even give you the option of rotating the midrange and treble drivers on their in wall models, which allows you to turn it on its side for a center channel application.

Even though some in wall speakers are physically quite large, it is still best to couple a subwoofers with them.

Pros

  • A true stealth speaker as all you see is the grill
  • A great choice behind an acoustically transparent front projection screen
  • Great for surround channels as they can be mounted in the wall at the correct height
  • Able to do all of the main lower channels as the same or similar models, giving you a great surround effect

Cons

  • An Atmos system will require in ceiling Atmos speakers as they offer no physical support for elevation Atmos speakers.
  • Requires cutting holes in your walls
  • Can require some framing changes if you turn one of the larger ones on its side for a center channel

Typical Uses

  • Main, right, left, and center speakers
  • Side and rear surround speakers


In Ceiling Speakers

In ceiling speakers are extremely popular for distributed audio systems to play music throughout a home. These are usually a 6” to 12” circular speaker you mount in the ceiling with a paintable grill. The important thing to remember about in ceiling speakers is in most cases they are designed to send the sound straight down - which may not be best for your home theater application. Some speaker companies make in ceiling speakers that have the speaker components mounted at an angle inside the housing, allowing you to direct the sound at your listening area better. This type is ideal for Dolby Atmos height channels. A few even come in a large fully enclosed tall square box designed to fit in a normal 8” ceiling rafter space.

Just like in wall speakers, in ceiling speakers come in a huge variety of quality levels. Due to their wide use as distributed audio speakers, you want to be careful to pick a good brand because there are many out there that have no business in a home theater due to their bad sound. However, most of the better speaker companies have invested tons of time trying to make their models sound as good as possible, which in some cases is very impressive.

In a great home theater, in ceiling speakers are perfect for the Atmos height channels. If you pick out the same brand as your other main speakers and get the type that allow you to angle the sound towards your seats, you will have a wonderful Atmos height solution.

In some media rooms there is no place to put any other type of speaker and this is where in ceiling speakers can be a great choice. Many times these will be just a 5.1 surround system with three speakers in the ceiling on the same wall as the TV and two rears in the ceiling. If you choose models that allow you to direct the sound towards your seats, this can be a great solution for a discrete theater.

Since Dolby Atmos gives you the best result with both lower and upper speakers, it is really not advised to attempt a Dolby Atmos system with all in ceiling speakers.

Pros

  • Blends into the ceiling
  • The angled drive types are an excellent choice for Dolby Atmos height channels
  • Good choice for a discrete 5.1 surround sound system in a media room
  • Most speaker companies make an Atmos type in ceiling speaker designed to acoustically match their other conventional speakers

Cons

  • Wide range of quality models on the market, so be careful
  • Requires cutting a hole in your ceiling and is the most difficult to get wiring to an existing construction situation

Typical Uses

  • Dolby Atmos height speakers
  • Surround speakers in a none Dolby Atmos system


Elevation Speakers

Elevation speakers are the newest category of home theater speakers. They came about when Dolby Atmos was introduced and are specifically designed to handle the Dolby Atmos height information.

These are an excellent choice when it is not possible or you don’t want to run wiring and cut holes in your ceiling for Atmos height speakers. Some brands are even taking their tower speakers and giving you the option of building in the elevation speakers into the top of the speaker cabinet.

If you want to have Dolby Atmos without in ceiling height speakers, find the type that best matches your main speakers.

Pros

  • Great Dolby Atmos solution
  • Requires no construction, just put them on top of your front and/or rear speakers

Cons

  • Requires something to sit on top of, so you will need tower or bookshelf speakers on a stand
  • Does not give you quite as precise placement options as an in ceiling type

Typical Uses

  • Dolby Atmos height speakers

 

Audio Advice Tip: When choosing your brand of speakers, do some research on speaker companies. With hundreds of brands on the market, there are thousands of choices. As a general rule of thumb, look for speaker companies that are trying to push the limit on performance. If a speaker company produces speakers costing around $10,000 a pair and up, this usually means the company has deep roots in good sound and really cares how all of their speakers sound. These types of companies are the best place to start your search.

Home Theater System Conclusion

The final step in your dream home theater is not picking out all of the components, installing them, and making sure everything works. Sure, right out of the box, you’ll have an impressive picture and good sound, but to get all of the performance you paid for takes a little more effort.

As we said earlier, there is an old saying that says you can give two people identical bags of groceries. The skilled chef can turn that bag of groceries into an amazing meal, where as someone who knows nothing about cooking might produce something inedible. Think about all of your home theater gear as that bag of groceries!

Our sections above covered how you will want to best set up all of your speakers and display so we will assume here, you’ve got that part covered. This section is more on how to fine tune your gear to get the best sound and picture and is aimed at the average DIY person. We want to get you to about 90% of audio and video perfection. That last 10% can take hours and hours of calibration time and requires some skills and test equipment not available to the typical home theater enthusiast. If you are willing to do just a few steps, you can take your system from something just decent to something very special.

We will go over audio calibration then video. When doing video fine tuning, it's a good idea to turn on your TV or projector and let it warm up for at least 30 minutes before you begin.

Speaker Placement

These tips will typically apply to the two front speakers, center channel, and subwoofer if they are in your room and not on or in the walls. Your other surround and Atmos speakers will usually be fixed in their location.

If you have floor standing or bookshelf speakers, you’ll probably be wondering how to get them in the best spot. Even if you have very little flexibility in where they can go, at the very least, get out a tape measure and confirm each speaker is the same distance from the rear wall. If you have your speakers angled slightly in - which we suggest for most speakers, make sure the angle is the same on each one. This is just a simple matter of measuring from each rear corner of the speaker to the back wall. Many floor standing speakers and speaker stands for bookshelf speakers will have spikes to keep them from rocking when you place them on carpet. If you have carpet, be sure and use the spikes and play around with their leveling to get your speaker to where it does not rock. Some speakers even come with floor protectors so you can use spikes on hard floor surfaces. If you have these, use them and get the speaker to be solid by adjusting the level.

Perhaps you have some wiggle room in where you can place your main speakers. If you do, there are a couple of quick steps to help you figure out the best spot for them. Every room reacts differently with your speakers. One trick to “hear” what is going on is to move your speaker out of the way, stand on the side wall and start talking out loud fairly loudly. Move slowly away from the wall and you’ll notice a spot where the sound of your voice changes and gets less “chesty” sounding. Mark that spot, then do the same for the rear wall. You can then walk out from the rear wall and you will likely get to a spot where your voice starts to sound thin, that is the most forward range. This will probably be a pretty big area, but it gives you a starting point to play around with speaker placement. Try to stay within the 45 to 60 degree spread for your left and right speakers from your main seats. That works out to a calculation of speaker distance apart/distance from center seat to speakers of roughly between 5 over 6 and 10 over 9. Basically, slightly less than an equilateral triangle of the distance between the speakers and the distance you are away from them, and slightly more than an equilateral triangle. Of course, this is not possible in all rooms, so just do the best you can. If you have to decide to have them further away from the walls than getting the perfect 45 degree spread, choose to stay away from the walls.

If you are using an in room center channel speaker, it may be positioned lower than your left and right speakers. If this is the case, get some rubber feet (many center speakers come with these) and use them to angle the speaker towards you. You’ll need to put them both on the front and back to keep it from sliding, plus this provides some isolation from the cabinet.

Subwoofers can sound totally different based on where they are in the room. Our advice is to locate your subwoofer near a corner on the front wall, but not totally in the corner. If you have some flexibility you can play some music with deep bass tones and move your sub around a bit until it sounds more natural. Just be careful of your back, subs are heavy!

Audio Adjustments

When you go into the setup menu on your source components, many will give the option under the sound or audio menu to output PCM or surround sound. The surround sound option might be called many different things, but the thing to remember is PCM is going to just be a stereo output. You might have a choice of bitstream, Dolby Surround, Dolby or others, just do not choose PCM. Interestingly, many BluRay players and video streaming devices will come defaulted to PCM, so you’ll get sound but it will just be in stereo.

If you are using a TV with a soundbar, make sure your TV audio is set to output Dolby Digital and not PCM.

Another audio trick is the way your system will handle broadcasts that are not in surround sound, but just stereo or mono. These types of broadcasts come across in PCM. Most good home theater receivers have a way (in the set up menu for each input) to determine what to do when the receiver sees a PCM signal. Almost every one we have ever seen has the receiver defaulting to what is called “all channel stereo” or just two channel if it sees a PCM signal. This is fine for music sources, but not so great for a TV show or old movie. You should be able to go into the settings for the input, and change the setting for PCM to Dolby Surround or something like that. This will make TV broadcasts especially much better. You will need to do this for each input that has a home theater source connected to it.

Calibrating the Audio

Every home theater receiver or separates has a section in the menu for calibration. Under this menu, you tell your system how far away from the main seat the speakers are, set the relative level for each speaker, and set up speaker crossover points.

If you do not touch this section of the menu, you’ll still have sound and will not know what you are missing until you go through a few simple steps. These steps should not take more than a couple of hours to go through and the benefits will be with you for years and years.

The first thing to do is set speaker size. Some receivers give you a choice of large or small. If you set the speakers to large, this means they get the full range of sound with nothing routed to the subwoofer. For home theater, unless you have massive speakers, we recommend you set this choice to small. Other receivers will let you set an exact crossover point, usually somewhere between 40hz and 120hz. We recommend 80hz in most cases.

If you are lucky enough to be setting up an Atmos system, you’ll have to tell your receiver about your speakers. Elevation type Atmos speakers will need to be chosen if that is what you are using and you’ll want to tell your system if you are using 2 or 4. The same holds for in ceiling Atmos speakers. For in ceiling, there are usually three choices, front, middle, and rear. Usually if you have one pair of Atmos in ceiling speakers, they will be middle and two pair will be front and rear.

The next thing you need to do after everything is wired up, is to confirm you got everything connected properly. When wiring your speakers, you need to be really careful to make sure you have consistency in the plus and minus connections. Choose a color code on your wiring and stick to it, we usually have wire that is red and black and use red for the positive and black for the negative, just pick something easy and double check everywhere.

An easy way to confirm you have the right speakers connected up is to go to the level setup menu and start playing some test tones. If the tone says its playing the left rear speaker for instance, and your right front speaker is playing, you have a wiring problem you need to sort out before you move to the next step.

This step requires a way to measure distance and sound volume. There are many free apps for smartphones that can do a pretty good job measuring relative volume levels. Search for a highly rated SPL Meter app for your device and you should be good to go. While an old fashioned tape measure can work, we find measuring speaker distances much easier with one of the new laser tape measures.

First go into the distance section of your setup menu and input the distances your main center seat is from each speaker. Then go to the test tones section and start up the tones. Look at your SPL Meter app and then adjust the controls in the menu until all of your speakers measure about the same level. If you have a receiver with any kind of build in EQ system, you don’t have to get this perfect the first time. And if you do have a built in EQ, write down or take a screenshot of your speaker distances; we’ll tell you why next. If you do not have a receiver with EQ built in, get the levels as close as possible. You’ll probably notice the subwoofer measurement jumps around a lot, just try to get it close, we’ll tune it by ear later.

Once you have done this, if you have a receiver or processor with room EQ, then it’s ready to run. Follow the on screen prompts as you move the microphone around, keeping it pointed in the direction the on screen prompts tell you. Once you are done, you’ll want to go back and check the distances and levels. We have found that while most of these automated room EQ systems do an amazing job at fixing room dips and peaks, they do a terrible job at distance and some even mess up the levels. So go back and put in all those measurements you wrote down before you started the EQ program.

The final step is listening! If your center channel is inside a cabinet, it's possible the cabinet will affect the sound some. Play a soundtrack with some deep male voices. If the center sounds muffled or you hear some resonance, one trick we like to use is to raise the crossover from 80 pt 90 or even 100 hz. Feel free to play around; you can’t hurt anything.

The subwoofer level is best adjusted by ear as well. Try something with big explosions and make sure you can really feel the bass, but also confirm you don’t have it too high by playing some music. The subwoofer should enhance the sound, not overwhelm it.

If you have some hearing loss and might strain to hear the spoken voices in a movie, raising the center channel speaker level up about 2-3 db over the other speakers will make voices louder and better separated from the effects.

Calibrating Your Display

Front Projectors

Today’s projectors are so much better than models from just a few years ago; even out of the box performance is very good. With just a few steps you can take your projector from good to even better! These will be the basic steps that should apply across most brands of projectors.

When tuning up your projector, it’s important to first make sure its fully warmed up (we suggest about 30 minutes). Hopefully you have already made sure your projector is mounted perfectly level and square to your screen with the image set up correctly on the screen.

Some projectors will come with the lamp setting in some kind of eco mode. We all want our home theaters to be bright and engaging, so go into your projector menu to look for this. It may be called lamp or output mode. We suggest you set it on high, this is not to be confused with high altitude mode. If you do happen to live in an area above 5000 feet, you should turn high altitude on.

The next step is to bring up the focus pattern on your projector. Use the buttons to zoom all the way in and out, then fine tune it until the focus is as sharp as you can get it. Most projectors will display some text towards the middle of the screen. You will need to be very close to the screen when you focus to get things perfect. This can take a bit of fooling around. Once you get close, try just tapping the buttons on the projector remote instead of holding them down to fine tune.

Next, we feel most projectors work best if you turn off any auto iris features. Find this for yours and turn it off.

We now need you to find a good quality blu-ray to do some tests with. We really like the last scene from the movie Lucy. It’s got some great content where you see black detail, white detail, and lots of colors. Find a scene that looks good and pause the disc so you can easily compare things for the next step. One with lots of color will work great for the next step.

It's now time to find the best picture mode. Most projectors have several preset modes in the menu. You’ll notice as you go through these modes that the color and intensity will change dramatically. If your room is totally light controlled, we think what many projectors call the Reference mode is best, but you should play around and find the one you prefer in your environment.

Audio Advice Tip: If you are having a crowd over for a big game party and are going to have the lights turned up in your theater, change the mode to one of the bright sports modes for the big game event.

We’ll now adjust the black detail which we do using the brightness control.  If you can find a scene where someone is wearing black clothes that have some detail of different textures of black you will be good to go.  Pause the disc on this scene, then run your brightness control to each extreme so you can see the effect. You’ll probably notice when its turned all the way up, you can see lots of details in the black but everything looks washed out and all the way down, there is no detail.  You want to find the happy medium, which on most projectors will probably be around 50-70%.

The next step is to adjust the white level, which is done through the contrast control.  Now you want to find a scene where someone is wearing white clothes that have lots of details.  Once again, go to each extreme so you can see the effect. Here we want to see all of the details in the white, without making the picture look dull.  For many projectors, you’ll wind up between 70 and 95% on the contrast control.

Most projectors will also have a gamma control.  This will show several different settings. Find a scene with a lot of bright detail and pause the disc.  This step is somewhat like being at the eye doctor and flipping through lens options. Find the gamma setting that looks the most natural.

Finally, we think most projectors look best with their sharpness control turned pretty far down.  Too much sharpness seems to put a false edge on everything. Pause a detailed scene and keep turning the sharpness down until things start to look dull, then click it up a couple of notches and you’ll be very close.  This should probably land between 20 and 50%.

After you’ve done all of these, it's a good idea to check the focus one more time and you are done.

If you had a fun time doing this and want to learn more about calibration, get a copy of the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark and Calibration disc.  It will go into far more detail than our basic guide and will give you some tools to fine tune even further.

Flat Panel

Adjusting a flat panel is pretty similar to what we discussed above for a front projector.  Obviously you will not need to focus it and flat panels do not have an auto iris feature. Unlike projectors, most flat panel TVs come preset in what we call “torch mode” in the industry.  This means that when the person at the warehouse club pulls one out of the box, the picture really jumps out. Most TVs call this setting something like “vivid”. You will definitely want to get it out of the way it comes straight from the box.

For a flat panel, we suggest you follow the steps above for the picture mode, brightness, contrast, and sharpness.  This will get you 90% of the way to a great calibrated set. And if you want to dive in deeper, try the test disc we recommend.  Remember, you can’t hurt anything so feel free to experiment with all of the settings.

Thank you!

We hope you have enjoyed our home theater system buyer’s guide. A great home theater is one of the most fun and used things in a modern home. Hopefully our guide has started you down the path to owning a home theater or media room that will make you smile every time you turn it on.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact us via email, phone, or chat from our website. We’ve been creating great home theater systems ever since home theater first came about and would love to help you turn a place in your home into one that will become your favorite room in your house!