So you want a mind-blowing, chest-rumbling movie theater experience from the comfort of home, but the very thought of exploring home theater technology makes you weak in the knees? Not to worry, we've done the work for you. From figuring out what you want, to how it'll look (and sound) in your home, we cooked up a comprehensive how-to primer to guide you through today's ever-changing audio-visual jungle.
Before you dive head-first into the world of home theater technology, it's important to step back and figure out your priorities. Are you a gamer? Movie buff? Music fan? Will this be a special place for you or your entire family? Would you like the technology to stand out or the system to be hidden? Because, although the phrase "home theater" may trigger images of a big, fancy flat screen television bookended by plush red curtains and red velvet seats, "There's a lot of pieces to putting together a home theater, not just the TV itself," says Andrew Myer, sales and installation director at Soundscape, a home theater specialty shop in Roland Park. Beyond television, there's the "source" (i.e. DVD player, satellite radio, cable box, video game box, etc.), sound, cabinetry, lighting, electricity sources, and so forth.
"Look before you leap is the rule here," says Brian Hudkins, owner of Gramophone in Timonium and Columbia.
But don't let your head start spinning just yet. Read on.
Find a reputable dealer
There's a big intimidation factor when stepping into the home-theater technology arena for the first time. That's exactly why an entire industry has been built to cater to those shoppers who are moderately, nearly, or completely clueless about the newest advances in home theaters.
"It can be a daunting task to figure out what's what and what you need," Myer says. Coming to a home theater store—of which there's no shortage in the Baltimore area—or even big-box stores like Best Buy with home theater departments, "is a way of simplifying the process by pointing out the basics," he explains. "Less people are spending time in stores listening to speakers and looking at displays. They want a turn-key solution. They want a package. It's like driving a car—you just want to get in, turn the key, and go."
Jade Merrick, supervisor of the Magnolia Home Theater department at Best Buy in Owings Mills, agrees. "The main thing we try to do is make sure people are comfortable with their decisions. There's a lot of information out there and it can be confusing."
Hudkins, of Gramophone, recommends not only getting recommendations from people who've had home theaters installed, but taking it a step further and actually calling the dealers to confirm that they did the work. "It is rare when we actually get called by a prospective client," he says. "You really should think of it as you would when hiring any good contractor."
So get thee to a home theater specialist. Look around, ask questions, get a lay of the land. There's no need to buy everything (or anything for that matter) on the first visit, and it will get you familiar with what you'll need to set up your dream system.
Set a budget
It's been weighing on your mind since you laid eyes on this article—the big, black cloud of budget. As expected, home theaters don't come cheap, but the more you spend, the more you get (if you're smart about it, that is). According to David Berman, entertainment technology expert and director of training for the Home Theater Specialists of America, home theaters fall under "best, better, and good" configurations. "Best" come at a whopping $100,000 and up. "Better" will set you back somewhere between $20,000-$80,000. And "good," more of an "entry-level" system, he says, usually land in the $5,000-$10,000 range. If these monetary scenarios are beyond your means, fear not: Specialty and big-box stores alike carry more wallet-friendly options sure to blow your mind as well.
Don't be surprised if much of the cost comes with installation, especially with higher-end equipment. "That's where it can get expensive," Myer says of installation labor. "It's something that can be a real part of the cost. People don't typically know how much work is involved" with installation. There are definitely ways to cut corners with the process, Myer points out, such as camouflaging speaker wires along a baseboard or carpeting instead of installing them within walls, which is labor-intensive.
When it comes to home theaters and how one can look and feel in your home, the sky is truly the limit. Want a mini movie theater (with seats that shake during explosions and plunge along with an airplane)? Or maybe you'd rather your system be completely hidden, with a large flat-screen that mysteriously rises up from the floor or gently drops down from the ceiling? Not a problem.
Berman and his wife definitely had different priorities when they began designing a home theater in their home. When the couple went shopping for a television, his wife, who was born in Japan, "just wants this TV to be invisible until she turns on her Japanese soap opera," he recalls with a laugh. "I put a plasma TV in the wall inside a picture frame that makes it look like a work of art and now it's the greatest thing we've ever had."
Indeed, when couples walk into a home-theater supplier, each person usually has different priorities (namely, one half usually couldn't care less what the system looks like, while the other would rather the whole thing be completely invisible). If you suspect you and your sweetie may fall into this category, there's no need to worry. "There are companies out there that do nothing other than come up with ways to solve those problems of making things disappear," Myer says. But be warned: A motor/gearing/bracket system to power and reinforce a television that rises from the floor costs about $7,000—not including the TV itself or the fancy carpentry that will house it.
If hiding the system is what you're after, the best planning can occur when a home will be or is already undergoing a renovation or addition. Open walls are a home theater designer's best friend, as wires can be completely hidden. The space can also be specifically constructed to reduce ambient light and provide the best possible acoustics.
Plasma vs. LCD
And now, what you've all been waiting for, that time-honored debate of plasmas vs. LCD. The answer lies not only in what you'll be watching on the television, but where you'll be watching it. Plasma televisions beat LCDs when it comes to displaying movement and sharper contrast ratios (which translates into superior movie and sports viewing), while LCDs are better for video games, according to Best Buy's Merrick.
Plasma TVs are covered with a thin layer of glass, so if you'll be putting one in a room where you expect a good deal of sunshine, glare may be an issue, and an LCD may be a better choice.
"LCDs tend to be better in bright light situations, because by nature they don't have any glare," he explains.
While prices are comparable between the two, LCDs tend to be slightly more expensive beyond the 50-inch mark. As for the nuts and bolts of the two—especially plasmas—Myer is quick to point out that misinformation and mythology abounds.
"The plasma television is a phosphor-based screen kind of like the tube television we all grew up with," he says, while LCDs (short for liquid crystal display) operate on a tiny amount of liquid crystal. So while it's true that plasmas are indeed gas-powered, it's unlikely that they'll "run out of gas," a popular misconception amongst consumers far and wide.
"I get that every day," Merrick says. "It's just not the truth." Both plasma and LCD televisions have life spans of 15-20 years. Both have life spans of 60,000 hours on average, Myer adds. "That's a lot of TV if you do the math," he chuckles.
While most of us focus mainly on the visuals when it comes to home theaters, much of its impact comes from a high-quality audio system. Merrick estimates that a screen is only about 30 percent of a home theater experience; the other 70 percent is what you hear.
"Imagine Star Wars without the sound," Hudkins says. "The sound system is way more than 50 percent of the system from a performance standpoint."
An ideal system is five speakers plus a sub-woofer, which provides all-important bass (perfect for explosion-packed action flicks). Because what's a home theater system if you can't feel it in your chest, right?
If space and wires are an issue, one-speaker systems by big-name companies like Phillips and Yamaha offer a high-tech alternative that sounds almost as good as multi-speaker systems. Acoustics are affected by everything from drapery and glass to the shape of a room, so to get the sharpest sound, experts recommend a visit by a home theater specialist.
Do you already have three remotes (one for the TV, one for the cable box, and another for the DVD player) in your living room? That's sure to double once your home theater comes along.
Universal remote controls, like the much-touted Harmony remote, are the all-in-one answer to this high-tech quandary (it'll even automatically change settings so even the "technologically challenged" can turn the entire system on with the touch of a single button). New Ethernet TV connections allow users to download content—like Netflix movies, for example—directly from the Internet. Wireless TVs will do away with everything but the power cord. And with Blu-Ray disc and high-definition DVD players up for debate, there's no shortage of high-tech playtime ahead.