Welcome to From Scratch, where we break down the absolute basics of a particular A/V topic. In this one, it's all about how to get started with home theater.
In the world of A/V gear, nothing has caused more heartache, more teeth gnashing and more handwringing than having to set up a home theater system. Hardly surprising; we are, after all, talking about setting up something that has multiple components, a million different wires, more settings than there are planets in the universe and a real potential to make you utter the words “Forget it, we’ll just buy a soundbar instead.”
Fortunately, you’ve come to us. Good on you. Because we know what you need to get your home theater worries sorted out. Firstly, go get a drink. Pour yourself a whiskey, pop a beer, whatever you need to do. Got it? Good. What were going to do is start from the very beginning, breaking down the components you need, where to put them, how to wire them up, and how to actually put all those intimate settings so you get something that looks and sounds good. More importantly, we’re going to tell you only what you need to know. That’s one of the big problems with home theater: it contains so many bits that most of us will probably never need. In our latest From Scratch, we’re going to see if we can sort that out.
So What Do I Need To Buy?
We're going to assume that you already have a TV, and something to play through it, like a Blu-ray player or a games console. If you don’t, then you sort of need to get those things first. We round up the best TVs under $500 here, and the best Blu-ray players here. Once you have set yourself up with those, come on back. We realise that we’re sending you off on little missions here, but there’s a point to it, we promise.
Actually, before we go on, hold up a sec. This something we forgot to mention. While you’re reading this, you’ll probably start despairing over the sheer number of things we are asking you to buy. Good news is, you can get them all in complete kits. Your entire home theater system, in a single box – well, multiple boxes, because that’s how they’re usually delivered, but you get the idea. One click and it’s yours. If you want to see more of these, we’ve got a good roundup here.
Now: let’s break down exactly what you need to kit out your room with a home theater system. Firstly, you will need an A/V receiver. This is a big, black (most of the time) box with lots and lots of controls and a huge number of inputs and outputs on its reverse side. This is what you’re going to run your entire system through. It will take the audio and visuals from your Blu-ray player/console, feed the visuals out of the TV, and the audio to your speakers. It will do it in such a way that allows you to alter the sound to get the absolute best out of it. A good A/V receiver can make a massive difference to the quality of your viewing, and so we thought it a good idea to round up the best right here.
Then you’ll need speakers. Ah, speakers. No single component has been responsible for more heartache than this one. Mostly, this is because there are so many types. Really, you only need to worry about three. Let’s break them down real quick.
The most common speakers seen in home theater what are known as floorstanding speakers. These are big, tall, thin speakers that come in pairs, and usually go either side of the TV. It’s pretty easy to see why they are often known as tower speakers. Most floorstanding speakers are good enough that you could, in theory, just add them to your system and stop there, relying on them completely for your audio needs. After all, they cover the entire audio spectrum from the bass to the treble, and often do so with considerable aplomb. So why should you get more speakers? Because you’re just one good sound. You want fantastic sound, and although floorstanding speakers are great, your sound will be much better if you keep going.
You should, for example, invest in a subwoofer. These are speakers specifically designed to pump out the bass frequencies. Usually square, low to the ground, and hefty, like a dwarf linebacker. Adding one into your system will instantly give you some beautiful subsonic vibes, allowing you to hear in full, fantastic clarity the massive explosion that Chris Pratt has just triggered on your TV. Subwoofers, by the way, are either down-firing or front-firing. A front-firing sub has its main speaker pointed out the front of the unit, while a down-firing sub has it pointing out the bottom. We could spend a long, long time breaking down the advantages and disadvantages of each one, but both are perfectly satisfactory. Also, you should call it a sub, and not a subwoofer, if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Then there are the surround-sound speakers. You’ll either have five of them or seven of them, and they’re usually tiny, discreet speakers slightly larger than two fists held together. You dot them around your room, either by mounting on the walls or on separate speaker stands. By sitting in the approximate centre of this circle of speakers, you’ll feel like you’re sitting in the middle of the movie. You also need to know what the terms 5.1 and 7.1 mean. The first number (the one before the point) refers to the number of surround sound speakers in the setup, the most common of which are five and seven. The number after the point represents the number of subs in the setup, which is usually one. You will occasionally see 5.2 or 7.2 systems, indicating that two subwoofer have been used. Another easy way to spot people using this setup is to drive around your neighbourhood and look for houses with the glass blown out of the windows.
Also, it’s not too common to see floorstanding speakers and surround sound speakers in the same setup. It happens, and you can get some fantastic sound if you do so, but don’t feel you need to have both.
Where Do I Put Them All?
So you’ve got all this equipment, unboxed, and it’s sitting in the middle of your living room floor, staring at you. Chances are, you got some idea of where to put it all, because you have a brain. But that isn’t really the point, is it? The point is to put it not just in the appropriate place, but in the best place. And finding that takes a little doing.
Let’s assume for the moment that you have all three types of speakers knocking around. Let’s start with the easy bits: the floorstanding speakers. These go, as your probably shocked to hear, on the floor, usually on either side of the TV. The exact placement of these is largely dependent on the shape of your room, but you want them in a rough triangle with the place you’re going to be sitting. They should be roughly equidistant, and shouldn’t be too close to walls or corners, which can lead to their bass frequencies getting a little muddled.
Next up, the subwoofer. The received wisdom is to put the thing underneath or next to the TV, but there’s actually a little trick you can use to find the best place to put it. Wire up the subwoofer (and we’ll talk about wiring in the section below) then put it in the place where you’ll be sitting. Find something bass heavy. A track by Skrillex or Diplo would be ideal. Start playing, then crawl around the room at floor level. Yes, we know you look ridiculous, but there is a purpose to this, we promise. Find a spot in the room where the bass sounds the best, where it sounds as it’s meant to.
That’s where you want to put your sub. This trick isn’t completely full proof, and again, largely depends on the size of your room, but it’s still very useful tool to have in your arsenal.
What About Surround Sound?
The easiest one of these to place is the center speaker, which should be labelled as such. Put it in front of or just underneath your TV. Job done. Next, check out the front left and right speakers, which, again, should be labelled clearly. These are quite tricky to place. You need them at ear level when you’re sitting in your listening position, and you also don’t want them too far apart or too close together. Doing either of those things will mess with your sound. Start with the speakers around three feet from the TV on either side, and work from there. You’ll need to experiment a little bit to get it right.
Assuming you’ve got a 7.1 system, you will have four more speakers to place. Two of them should go directly to the sides of your listening position, again at eye level. The biggest mistake we see is people mounting them in the ceiling or in the corners of the room. Don’t do that. Don’t be a corner-mounter. Get two on either side, and two at the rear. And by rear, we mean a good three or four feet behind your listening position.
By now, you may be thinking: what if I have a small room? What is my listening position (usually the couch) is up against the wall? How do I place rear speakers then? Answer: you don’t. If you have a small room, a 7.1 system is going to be wasted. You’re far better off buying a 5.1 system, or better yet, ditching surround sound entirely and just going for a good pair of floorstanding speakers. It will save you time, money, and irritation. We know. We’ve been there.
Okay. Got it. Now How Do I Wire This Damned Mess Up?
Interesting question. Glad you asked.
Looking at the back of your A/V receiver, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ll need a dozen types of cables that aren’t included in your purchase. This can send you running in a panic to Amazon, trying to decipher just what a coaxial audio D/Si200 cable is, and whether you need it to hook your sub up properly. It’s true that we used to need all sorts of different connections to get our system working, but that’s until one glorious thing came along and rendered most of them irrelevant: HDMI.
HDMI cables are instantly recognisable, and beautifully simple. They are thin rectangles with one edge cut at a slight diagonal, and they will take care of 90% of your home theater needs. Your TV? HDMI. Your console? HDMI. While it’s certainly a good idea to have additional HDMI cables knocking around, because they can be incredibly useful for a whole bunch of things, they certainly aren’t essential.
Okay, so there are a couple of other cables you may need to know about. Surround sound systems sometimes use a digital coaxial cable, a cylindrical orange or black plug with a little golden nubbin shooting out of it. You may also see a cable with two plugs on the end of it, also cylindrical, and also with the same gold nubbin. That’s a stereo audio cable, and you plug both bits in to activate both the channels in your speakers. You won’t find these in surround sound systems, but they do still pop-up from time to time.
You may (and this is rare) come across things like component video cables and composite video cables and optical cables. We don’t think it’s worth going into what they do here, as there is becoming increasingly uncommon, but if you’re interested there is a good explanation right here.
And by the way, ignore the thing that says S Video on it. Nobody in the history of home theater has ever used an S Video cable. Nobody even knows what they are.
Once you’ve got your cable type sorted, hooking things up should be relatively straightforward. Every system is different, so we can’t give you a completely all-encompassing way to do it here, the good thing to remember is signal flow. The output HDMI from your TV and Blu-ray player/console should go into the HDMI inputs on the receiver, and the speakers should connect up to their relative spots as well.
Am I Done?
Almost. We promise.
It’s certainly possible to do is plug everything in, load up Netflix, grab another beer and enjoy. But you’ll lose the benefits of actually taking the time to tweak your system a little.
First things first: sort out your TV. It’s probably stuck in its bog-standard viewing mode, because you would want to mess with the complicated menu systems? Well, jump in there, and see if your TV has a movie mode. It may even have something labelled THX mode, which is specifically geared to surround sound, and which you should use if you’ve installed such a thing. Do the same with any satellite or cable boxes you have hooked up, and any Blu-ray players. If they’ve got anything even remotely resembling a movie mode, turn it on.
You can, if you’re so inclined, purchase something called a test disc. You slot this into your player, and it runs you through a series of tests to get the absolute best picture possible out of your TV. Generally, we recommend this. They’re usually pretty simple to use, and can make a real difference. But you certainly don’t have to mess around with them if you don’t feel the need to.
Next, it’s time to set up your sound. Hopefully, good speaker placement will already have won half the battle for you, but the other half is won by twiddling with your A/V receiver. Again, it’s a little difficult to say exactly what to adjust without knowing the exact model of your receiver, but the good ones should give you plenty of guidance. You'll usually be messing around with some sort of equaliser, which will allow you to boost and cut different frequencies to get the best possible sound. Some models will even come with a separate mic, that you then put through a deliberate calibration process to figure out how the sound should be.
By the way, you can also add things like projection to your home theater system. That's something for another From Scratch, but you can always take a peak at the best projectors available right now.
Above all, the best way to figure out if everything is to your liking is to sit and listen. It’s nice to know that the trickiest part of this entire thing is accomplished by watching a movie or playing a videogame. Just chill. But while you’re chilling, listen close. How’s the bass? The high end? Good? OK? Could it be better? Try tweaking the EQ on the receiver a little. Maybe adjust your sub’s position. Hopefully you followed the advice not to start mounting speakers on the wall yet, so you can move them around a little. Play with different volume levels, and watch different programs and movies. What are your ears telling you?
When it comes down to it, the most important thing you have in your entire home theater setup wasn’t actually in any of those boxes scattered across your living room floor. The most important thing you have in your home theater setup of the two organs stapled to the sides of your head. Use them, and you’ll never look back.
Oh, the couches? Sorry. That's your problem.