Home Theater System Planning - What You Need To Know

How to get started with the home theater experience.

Home Theater Room
Home Theater Room. Getty Images 540695744 - Vostok

Home Theater is an exciting entertainment option that provides an immersive viewing and listening experience. Your home theater system can be something as simple as 32-inch LED/LCD TV and a soundbar or home-theater-in-a-box system. However, if you want something more, you have a lot of options that can be tailored to your budget and preferences.

Here are the 10 things that can put you on the road to a great home theater experience.

One - The Room

The first place to start is the room you intend to use. The size of the room will determine the size and type of video display device (TV or projector) that would be best to use. Whether your room is large or small, additional questions to consider include:

  • How much is ambient light present? For TVs, ambient light can result in screen glare or screen surface reflection. For video projectors, ambient light can result in a washed out image.
  • Is the room carpeted or not carpeted? This will affect how sound, especially bass, is distributed throughout the listening area. Hard floors will be more reflective, which can result in unwanted sound echoes and uneven bass. Carpeted floors will help in the absorption of unwanted audio artifacts.
  • What type of wall construction do you have? Drywall is much better than wood paneling as it is less reflective, but it can still generate unwanted vibration. To tame vibrations, you may need to use acoustic treatments.
  • Will you be placing your home theater system components in free space, or in a cabinet or closet?  Depending on how you want the room to look will determine where and how you place your components.
  • Will you be placing speakers within the room, or in the wall or ceiling? Whether ceiling or in-wall speakers (and speaker placement in general) are practical depends on room acoustics and what surround sound formats you will be most commonly used.
  • Where will you be sitting in relation to the screen image? This will determine the optimal screen size for the best visual experience.

Two - The Video Display Device:

This is the first component to consider for your home theater system. The idea of home theater is to bring the movie theater experience home. The most important element of this experience is the visual experience of viewing a large image on a screen. Here are your choices:

  • Anl LED/LCD or OLED TV. Plasma TVs have been discontinued, but you may still find one used, refurbished, or on clearance.You have a choice of TVs that can display 720p, 1080p, or 4K Ultra HD resolution images. However, 720p and 1080p TVs are now rarely available in screen sizes above 40-inches - so if you are looking for larger screen sizes, 4K Ultra HD is what is your most commonly available option.
  • A Video Projector/Screen Combination. Although centering a home theater setup around a TV is most common, the video projector option delivers a really big screen viewing experience. Just as with TVs, you have the choice of 720p, 1080p, and 4K options, as well as projectors that are optimized for small or large rooms.The key thing to point out is that the setup procedure for a video projector is different than it is for a TV, and, of course, having a room that can light controlled (made darker) is best.

Three - Home Theater Receiver or Preamp/Amp Combination:

The next essential element is sound. The starting point here is either a home theater receiver or preamplifier/amplifier combination.

The Home Theater/AV Surround Sound receiver provides most, if not all, the inputs and outputs that you connect everything, including your TV, into, providing an efficient way of centralizing your home theater system.

Home Theater Receivers combine the following functions:

  • A radio tuner for AM/FM and, in some cases, HD (High Definition Radio), Internet Radio, or XM and/or Sirius Satellite Radio.
  • A Preamplifier that switches and controls which audio and video source is selected and processes the incoming stereo or surround sound signals and distributes them to the correct amplifier channels and the subwoofer output. The preamp in an AV receiver can also route video signals coming from source components (such as a DVD player) and direct the video signal to the TV.
  • A built-in multi-channel amplifier (5.1, 6.1, 7.1, or more, channels) that sends the surround sound signals and power to the speaker system.

However, in many higher-end home theater system installations, the functions of a receiver are often provided by separate components: preamp/processor, tuner, and either a single multi-channel power amplifier or even separate amplifiers for each channel.

The preamp/power amp combo provides more flexibility in switching out and/or upgrading the separate aspects of the home theater system as well as isolating any interference that is caused by having all these functions combined in a signal chassis and sharing the same power supply. However, for most users, a good home theater receiver will be just fine.

Four - Loudspeakers

The next thing to consider is loudspeakers. Just as the size and type of room dictate the type of video display device you need, the same factors also affect the speakers you need for your home theater - Key points to remember:

  • Before you buy, listen to several types of speakers and setups.
  • For a 5 channel setup, you need front left/right, center channel, and left/right surround speakers.
  • Consider buying the same brand and related model speakers for your home theater. This will ensure that you will have a better acoustical match between both the speakers and the room.

Five - The Subwoofer

You need a subwoofer. A subwoofer is a specialized speaker that only reproduces the extreme low frequencies present in movies or music. There are several types of subwoofers you can use, and, once again, the size and type of room, and issues such as whether the room is carpeted or not will help you determine which subwoofer is right for you. Once again, you need to perform listening tests.

Six - Source Components

  • DVD Player - At a minimum, you need some type of DVD player for your home theater system. Two things to consider: progressive scan and upscaling capability. These capabilities will ensure you get the best possible image from your DVDs, especially if you are viewing them on an HDTV.
  • Blu-ray Disc Player - A Blu-ray Disc player provides physical access true high definition source content, you can also use it to play standard DVDs and, in most cases, audio CDs as well.
  • Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc Player - If you have a 4K Ultra HD TV, another source component option that you should consider is an Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player. When playing Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs, these players provide a true-4K resolution for display on an Ultra HD TV. Also, all Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players will play standard Blu-rays and DVDs and will provide 4K upscaling so that they look their best, as well playback of audio CDs.
  • CD Player - Since all DVD, Blu-ray, and Ultra HD Blu-ray players can play CDs, you may not need a CD-only player. However, having a separate CD-only player in a home theater system is quite common, especially if it is a high-end unit providing better CD-audio performance than other options.
  • Turntable - With the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records, many mid and high-end home theater receivers provide inputs for a phono/turntable. Playing vinyl records in a home theater environment brings new life to that old vinyl as well as providing enjoyment for new vinyl record releases.
  • Antenna/Cable/Satellite - You need to decide how you will receive your primary TV programming: Antenna, Cable, or Satellite. If you opt to subscribe to a Cable or Satellite Service, you might also consider combining that service with a DVR. DVRs provide a way to record your TV programs on a Hard Drive, rather than disc or tape.
  • Internet Streaming - Another content source option that is becoming more important is the internet. If you have high-speed internet access, you can stream both music and movies, without having to buy a DVD or Blu-ray Disc. An increasing number of Blu-ray Disc players and Smart TVs have the ability to connect the internet and stream video content from popular services, such as Netflix, VUDU, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, and more, but there are also external boxes, referred to as media streamers that provide this option as well.

Seven - Surge Protector or Line Conditioner

Surge protectors are the unsung heroes of a home theater system. Although they are not foolproof, providing your system with some sort of surge protection is a good idea. You never know when you might have a sudden power outage or even a brownout that may affect your system. 

Also, if you want a more comprehensive way of protecting against power surges, as well as being able to monitor your power, and, in some cases, regulate your power, you might consider a Power Line Conditioner.

Eight - Connection Cables and Speaker Wire:

You can't have a home theater system unless everything is connected; whether you buy basic connection cables and speaker wire or the really high-end stuff. The main things to consider is to use the right type, right length, and to connect everything correctly. Some connections are color coded - make sure the colors on the cable ends match the connections on your components.

For speaker wire, the gauge can be a factor, depending on the distance the speakers are from the amplifier or AV receiver. 16 or 14 gauge speaker wire is best. 18 gauge is very thin and should not be used for longer distances.

Nine - Control Options

One of the most confusing parts of a home theater system is not all components and the connections, but management and control. Each component comes with its own remote, leading to a collection that can number half-a-dozen or more.

One solution is to opt for a sophisticated, but easy to use, universal remote that can control most of the functions of each of your components. After the initial hurdle of programming the remote, the frustration of controlling your home theater eases.

However, an alternative to a universal remote is to use an Android or iPhone to control your home theater system via downloadable apps. Some apps work with several product brands and models, while others are tied to specific brands. Check out some examples.

Another option that is becoming more available is voice control via Alexa and Google voice assistant technologies through Echo and Google Home Smart Speakers.

Ten - Furniture

You have a fancy home theater system, now you need a place put your components, such as stands and racks, as well as some comfortable seating that will make you want to spend your time with your home theater.

The Bottom Line

There is no home theater system that is exactly like another, everyone has different rooms, budgets, brand preferences, and decorative tastes.

Although putting together a basic home theater system need not be complicated and be a nice weekend project for most consumers, there are common mistakes that are often made.

If you find yourself getting too far over your head, or you are planning a high-end custom home theater, consider enlisting the aid of a professional home theater installer. The installer can make useful suggestions on components or installation options that will work best in your room environment, keeping in mind your own budgetary considerations.