Home Theater System Planning - What You Need To Know

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

A home theater system is an exciting entertainment option that provides the consumer with an immersive viewing and listening experience. Your home theater system can be something as simple as 32-inch LCD TV and a home-theater-in-a-box system, or a sophisticated custom-built system with a video projector and in-wall speakers. However, there is a lot to consider in-between.

Here are the 10 things that you need to keep in mind.

1. The Room

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

How much ambient light is 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? Wall construction can contribute to the acoustic properties of the room.

Will you be placing your home theater system components in free space, or will you be housing your components in a cabinet or closet and installing your speakers in the wall or ceiling? Depending on how you want the room to look will determine where and how you place your components. Also, whether ceiling or in-wall speakers (and speaker placement in general) are best depends on what surround sound formats you will be most commonly using.

Where will you be sitting in relation to the screen image? This will determine the optimal screen size for the best visual experience.

Before embarking on buying your actual home theater system components, especially for a medium-to-high end system, it might be a good idea to consult with a home theater installer to come onsite and assess your room and address the above questions. The installer can make useful suggestions on components or installation concepts that will work best in your room environment, keeping in mind your own specific home theater system budgetary considerations.

2. The Video Display Device:

This is the first actual component to consider for your home theater system. After all, 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. This is where you have a choice of:

The actual size of the room will help determine the size of the screen that can be accommodated.

From there, you need to decide what type of video display device would be most appropriate.

You also have the option of incorporating 3D viewing into your home theater system. However, you will need a 3D-enabled TV or video projector and other supporting components to do this. For more details, read my Guide to Watching 3D at Home.

If you're using a 4k video projector, get more details about how those work

3. Audio Reproduction - Home Theater Receiver or Preamp/Amp Combination:

The next essential element of the movie theater experience is sound. The way this is implemented in a home theater system is either a home theater receiver or Preamplifier/Amplifier combination.

A Home Theater Receiver usually combines the functions of three components:

  • 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 (such as a Blu-ray/DVD player, VCR, CD player, etc...) 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.

4. A Home Theater, AV, Surround Sound Receiver or Separate Preamp and Amplifier

The Home Theater/AV Surround Sound receiver is the heart of a home theater system and provides most, if not all, the inputs and outputs that you connect everything, including your television, into. A Receiver provides an easy and cost-effective way of centralizing your home theater 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.

Such a setup 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. For the average consumer, however, a good receiver will function just fine.

To dig deeper into home theater receivers, including a lot of product choices, check out my Guide To Home Theater Receivers and Surround Sound

5. Loudspeakers

The next components to consider for your home theater system are the 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.
  • 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. Check out more on Loudspeakers: Best Surround Sound Speakers.
  • You Need A Subwoofer -  The advent of home theater has introduced the Subwoofer to many consumers. 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 in a home theater system, 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. Check out some top subwoofer brands and products

Once you have your speakers and subwoofer, check out some tips on how to set them up in 5.1 and 7.1 channel configurations.

Bonus Tip: Speaker setup information for Dolby Atmos immersive surround sound.

6. Source Components

  • DVD Player - At a minimum, you need some type of DVD player for your home theater system. Two things to consider in a DVD player: Progressive Scan and Upscaling capability. This will ensure you get the best possible image from your DVDs, especially if you are viewing them on an HDTV. List of Best DVD Players
  • Blu-ray Disc Player - Also, if you decide to get a Blu-ray Disc player to access true high definition source content, instead, or in addition to, a DVD player, you can also use it to play standard DVDs and, in most cases, audio CDs as well. For more on the Blu-ray Disc player option, check out my articles Before You Buy a Blu-ray Disc Player, and Blu-ray Disc and Blu-ray Disc Player FAQs and Best Blu-ray Disc Players
  • 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, providing the best possible visual experience. It is also important to note that 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. Check out Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc Players and Discs
  • 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. Check out my suggestions
  • DVD Recorder - In addition, you may also want to include a DVD recorder or DVD recorder/VCR combination in lieu of your old VCR, while you still can.
  • If you still have a VCR, you can also connect it your home theater system (especially if it is a HiFi Stereo unit) - but keep in mind VHS delivers very poor image quality in comparison to DVD, and although DVD is much better than VHS, Blu-ray actually delivers a true high definition image, and of course, for 4K TVs Ultra HD Blu-ray takes it up a notch further. The differences between formats such as VHS and DVD vs Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray become especially more noticeable as screen sizes get larger. For those that that are still clinging onto VHS, take note that new VCRs and DVD/VCR combos are being discontinued.
  • Antenna/Cable/Satellite - Also, you need to decide how you will receive your primary television 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 - Finally, another home theater source option 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 TVs have the ability to connect the internet for this purpose, but there are also external boxes, referred to as Media Streamers that provide this option as well, and they are very affordable.

7. 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 brown out 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 Line Conditioner. 

8. 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 - this makes life a lot easier.

In terms of speaker cable, the gauge of the cable can be a factor, depending on the distance the speakers are from the amplifier or AV receiver. I use 16 or 14 gauge speaker wire myself. 18 gauge is very thin and should not be used for longer distances.

9. Control Options

One of the most confusing parts of a home theater system is not all components and the connections, but actually managing and controlling it. Each component in a home theater system 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 for your system, such a device will enable everyone in the family to use the home theater system without frustration. 

An alternative to a universal remote that is becoming very practical, is to take advantage of the capabilities of most Android and iPhones 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. For examples, check out my list of Remote Control Systems and Apps.

10. 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. Check out some home theater seating options.

Final Take - Actually, This Is Just The Beginning!

There you have it, the basic elements of a home theater system. There is no home theater system that is exactly like another, everyone has different rooms, budgets, brand preferences, and decorative tastes when it comes to home theater. The key thing is to keep the basic elements of a well-balanced home theater in mind while assembling it according to your own needs and tastes.

Although putting together a basic home theater system is not a complicated as it seems on the surface and be a nice weekend project for most consumers, if installing a high-end custom home theater, make sure you enlist the aid of the professional home theater installer.