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The Best Home Theater

on July 3 2014

Digital media consumption has reshaped the entertainment market landscape in the past decade, but much of the recent growth has been in hand-held devices such as smart phones and tablet computers with tiny speakers and tiny screens. A recent IBM study estimated that mobile music and video usage quintupled between 2008 and 2010 alone. Ad Age reports that last year for the first time Americans spent more time using digital media than watching TV.

Traditional home televisions and stereos cannot compete with the easy convenience of viewing a film or listening to an MP3 whenever and wherever the consumer has an idle moment, but neither are most movies or music really designed to be enjoyed on the go. A consumer who gives up the convenience of mobility and personalization of a hand-held to watch television on a regular TV or listen to music on a regular stereo in a poorly thought-out room mostly loses in the exchange. A richer system that hits the sweet spot of the movie theater or concert hall coupled with the convenience and ambiance of one’s own home, however, can offer consumers a best-of-both-worlds venue to watch movies, listen to music, or even play video games as they were intended: The user fully immersed in the experience. Hence, the growing popularity of home theater.

Don’t be misled by the comparison, though: There’s more to the perfect home theater than buying a big-screen TV and attaching a bunch of nice speakers to it. We’ve all gone to movies in cheap, flimsy-feeling theaters and attended concerts in barely refurbished athletic arenas—and we know a high-quality audiovisual presentation requires more than big and loud equipment. A superior facility employs a well-thought-out design to maximize audio and video performance. Below are the major pieces that must come together before your new home theater will make you never want to leave the house.

The primary function of the room where a home theater is located is to keep extraneous noise from leaking in and your system’s sound from leaking out. Ideally, you would like to have a low ceiling, solid doors, and thick walls with minimal windows. The room should be rectangular and the floor carpeted or covered by rugs: no concrete, bare hardwood, or tile. Any windows need to be covered with thick curtains. It should not be empty, as this will lead to sound echoing, but it should also not have any clutter that creates visual distractions. Because of the need to minimize exterior light while avoiding eyestrain from staring at the screen, you should install dimmer lights. The room’s shape and dimensions should facilitate correct speaker placement.

Sound is the hardest part of a home theater to get right. You want uniform delivery to everyone in the room, so there’s no arguing about the volume control. Surround sound—not watching a 3-D movie on the biggest screen you can stuff in front of you—is what most creates the illusion of being inside your chosen entertainment experience. Fortunately, high-fidelity equipment typically comes with automatic speaker calibration to help adjust levels for less-than-perfect rooms that allow less-than-perfect speaker placement. You can also use “pink noise”—a test sound you can download from the Internet—to check speaker setup by turning it on and moving about the room to verify uniformity.

When buying speakers, you can choose among either pre-matched systems or off-the-shelf components. In either case, you will want a center channel, two flanking speakers, two or more surround-sound speakers, and one or two subwoofers. If space is limited, you may opt instead for a soundbar, which allows some of the illusion of surround sound with a vastly smaller footprint.

One choice here is between a projector and wall screen versus a big-screen TV. If you are thinking truly epic and you have enough room to support it, then a projector is the way to go. Although Samsung now makes a 110-inch screen television for more than $65,000, a first-rate projector capable of excellent resolution at the same size as the Samsung costs only around $4,000. Screens also have other advantages besides size, such as portability and reduced eyestrain, but a major disadvantage is having to keep the room dark while watching. The fan noise of some projectors can also be distracting.

If your room is not so spacious, the lighting is hard to control, or you will be mostly watching lower-resolution video sources, then a flat-screen TV is likely the better choice. To determine the optimum size, figure roughly 10 inches of screen per foot of distance. So if you’re sitting five feet from the screen, the maximum size to consider for viewing is about a 50-inch diagonal.

Plusher furniture absorbs more sound, which means better audio. Do not jam your chairs or sofas against the wall, as this position is detrimental to sound quality. Although you want comfortable furniture that provides plenty of back support, avoid high-backed chairs that can block the sound from speakers located behind you. Some furniture designed specifically for home theater comes with tactile transducers, or “bass shakers.” These devices turn low-frequency sounds into vibrations so that you actually feel deep noises such as explosions and thunder.

Other Components
The other equipment in any home theater includes wiring, the remote control, and video and audio sources. Especially if you are integrating your home theater into a smart-home system, you should have the wiring installed by a professional who uses high-quality components. As a percentage of cost, wiring is one of the smallest expenses, so why cut corners, especially when the labor of having it redone will be much higher than the cost of the wire itself? In addition, a professional can make sure your wiring is fault-tolerant, safe, and flexible.

In today’s smart home, the remote control will likely be your phone or your tablet, rather than a stand-alone device, because of the convenience and flexibility. Otherwise, you want a universal remote that is easy to operate by all family members.

Video and audio sources like Blu-ray, DVD, cable, satellite, and videogame consoles will feed into a receiver that then sends the signals to the screen and speakers. Make sure the receiver you purchase has plenty of inputs and outputs for all the components you will be hooking up to it both now and in the future.

Installation, Service, and Support
The best equipment in the world will be wasted if it is set up and installed incorrectly. Remember that you have never done this before, whereas an experienced professional will have had hundreds of previous installs and knows how to do it right. Even something like one bad cable can unknowingly negate all the time and money you have expended to achieve the perfect aesthetic effect.

A professional home-theater installer will take into consideration all aspects of the installation environment in advising you which components to buy and how to locate them. Although a real pro should know about everything from room lighting to maximizing space to smart and clean hiding of components, at a minimum you want someone with the acoustic expertise to customize and utilize your space for optimum sound.

Additionally, a good installer will show you how to operate your equipment and be on call if problems develop after the project is completed, or you decide later to modify or augment it. In fact, a modular system that can easily be tweaked and upgraded later is another hallmark of a professional installation.

To hire a professional local designer/installer with 15 years of proven experience, call SafeT Systems (865-693-0095).

This article originally appeared in the Cityview Magazine’s 2014 Home Automation Guide.

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