Home Theater System Planning - What You Need To Know

How to get started with the home theater experience.

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 more, there are a lot of options that can be tailored to your budget and preferences.

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

One – The Room

Roku 6 Series 4K HDR Roku TV — 2018

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. 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 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 – TV or Video Projector

LG G7 Series OLED TV with LG HF80JA Projector
LG G7 Series OLED TV with LG HF80JA Projector (Not To Scale). Images provided by LG Electronics

The idea of home theater is to bring the movie theater experience home. The most important element of this experience is viewing a large image. Here are your choices:

  • An 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. 4K Ultra HD is the most commonly available option above that size.
  • A Video Projector/Screen Combination. Although centering a home theater setup around a TV is most common, video projectors deliver 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 is that the setup procedure for a video projector is different than for a TV, and, of course, a room that can be light controlled (made darker) is best.

Three – Home Theater Receiver or Preamp/Amp Combination

Marantz SR7010 Home Theater Receiver
Marantz SR7010 Home Theater Receiver. Image provided by Marantz/D&M Holdings

The next essential element is sound. The starting point here is 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 systems, the functions of a receiver are provided by separate components: preamp/processor, tuner, and either a single multi-channel power amplifier or even separate amplifiers for each channel.

A preamp/power amp combo provides more flexibility in switching out and/or upgrading, 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

Cerwin Vega VE Series Speaker Family
Cerwin Vega

The next thing to consider is loudspeakers. Just as the size and type of room dictate the TV or video projector you need, the same factors also affect the speakers to consider.

  • 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 provides a better acoustical match between the speakers and the room.

Five – The Subwoofer

Fluance DB150 Powered Subwoofer (left) - OSD Audio IWS-88 In-Wall Passive Subwoofer (right)
Fluance DB150 Powered Subwoofer (left) - OSD Audio IWS-88 In-Wall Passive Subwoofer (right). Images courtesy of Amazon

You need a subwoofer. A subwoofer is a specialized speaker that only reproduces the extreme low frequencies present in movies or music. The size and type of room, and 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.

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

Speaker setup information for Dolby Atmos immersive surround sound.

Six – Source Components

Sony UBP-X800 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player
  • 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 to 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 as 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. A separate CD-only player in a home theater system is 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, consider combining that service with a DVR. DVRs provide a way to record TV programs on a Hard Drive, rather than disc or tape.
  • Internet Streaming: Another content source 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.
  • DVD Recorder - You can include a DVD recorder or DVD recorder/VCR combination. However, these devices are getting very rare, so get one while you can.
  • If you still have a VCR, you can connect it to your home theater system (especially if it is a HiFi Stereo unit). However, 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. For 4K TVs, Ultra HD Blu-ray takes it up a notch further. The difference between VHS and DVD vs Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray become especially noticeable as screen sizes get larger. If you are still clinging to VHS, take note that new VCRs and DVD/VCR combos have been discontinued.

Seven – Surge Protector or Line Conditioner

Furman Elite-15 PFi AC Power Conditioner
Furman Sound

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.

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, consider a Power Line Conditioner.

Eight – Connection Cables and Speaker Wire:

HDMI Cable with plug
Getty Images, luxxtek, 157569998, Collection E+

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

GE 33709 Universal Remote

One of the most confusing parts of a home theater system is 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.

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

Ten – Furniture

Flash Furniture 2-Seat Black Leather Home Theater Recliner with Storage Console

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.

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.