Home Theater System Planning - What You Need To Know

The ultimate home theater equipment list

The purpose of a home theater is to provide 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 a 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's everything you need to consider when planning a home theater system setup.

Home Theater Room Setup

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 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 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 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, in the wall, or on the ceiling? Whether ceiling or in-wall speakers are more 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? This will determine the optimal screen size for the best visual experience.

TV or Video Projector

The most important element of the home theater experience is the screen. Here are your choices:

  • An LED/LCD or OLED TV. 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. Video projectors can deliver a truly big-screen viewing experience. Just as with TVs, you have the choice of 720p, 1080p, and 4K options. There are also short-throw projectors that are specifically optimized for small rooms. Setting up a projector comes with special lighting considerations, so you should be able to make the room as dark as possible.

Home Theater Receiver or Preamp/Amp Combination

An essential component of surround sound systems is a home theater receiver. Home theater receivers combine the following functions:

  • A radio tuner for AM/FM, HD, and satellite radio.
  • A preamplifier that controls which audio and video source is selected. It then processes the incoming 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 to the speaker system.

In many higher-end home theater systems, the functions of a receiver are provided by separate components. A preamplifier/amplifier combination provides more flexibility, and it helps to isolate any interference that is caused by having all these functions sharing the same box and power supply. However, for most users, a home theater receiver will work just fine.

Marantz SR7010 Home Theater Receiver
Marantz/D&M Holdings

Loudspeakers

The next thing to consider is speakers. 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. Try to buy all the same brand and related model speakers for your home theater to provide a better acoustical match between components.

The Subwoofer

A subwoofer is a specialized loudspeaker that reproduces the extreme low frequencies present in movies or music. The size of the room, and whether the room is carpeted or not, will determine which subwoofer is right for you. Once you have your audio equipment, you'll need to carefully position your speakers and subwoofer.

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

Source Components

What good is a home theater if you can't watch movies or listen to music? Here's a checklist of all the source components you'll need:

  • DVD Player: If you're going to get a stand-alone DVD player, make sure it comes with progressive scan and upscaling capabilities, which will ensure you get the best possible image on an HDTV.
  • Blu-ray Disc Player: A Blu-ray Disc player provides access to true high definition source content. You can also use it to play standard DVDs and audio CDs.
  • 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. All Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc players will play standard Blu-rays and DVDs, and they provide 4K upscaling.
  • CD Player: Since all DVD, Blu-ray, and Ultra HD Blu-ray players can play CDs, you may not need a stand-alone CD player.
  • Turntable: With the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records, many home theater receivers provide inputs for a phono/turntable.
  • Antenna/Cable/Satellite: You need to decide how you will receive your primary TV programming. If you opt to subscribe to a cable or satellite service, consider combining that service with a DVR.
  • Internet Streaming Device: If you have high-speed internet access, you can watch movies online using a media streamer like the Roku. 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, and Hulu.
  • DVD/VHS Recorders: If you still have a VCR, you can connect it to your home theater system (especially if it is a HiFi Stereo unit). You can include a DVD recorder or DVD recorder/VCR combination. However, these devices are getting very rare, so get one while you can.

Surge Protector or Power 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 brownout that may affect your system. If you want to monitor and regulate your power usage, consider a power conditioner.

Furman Elite-15 PFi AC Power Conditioner
Furman Sound

Connection Cables and Speaker Wire

You can't have a home theater system unless everything is connected. Each cable must be the right type and length. If 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 between the speakers and the amplifier or AV receiver. It's best to use 16 or 14 gauge speaker wire; 18 gauge is very thin and should not be used for longer distances.

Remote Control Options

Each component comes with its own remote, which can get confusing, so you should invest in a universal remote. You can also control your home theater with your phone using a mobile remote control app. Some apps work with several product brands and models, while others are tied to specific brands. Another option is voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant technologies through Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers.

Home Theater Furniture

Now that you have a fancy home theater system, you need a place to put your components. You might also want to invest in some comfortable home theater seating.

Install It Yourself or Call a Professional?

There are some common mistakes to avoid when planning a home theater. If building a home theater with separate components, you must make sure they are all compatible. You should also measure your room in advance to make sure you have enough space for everything you need. If you think the room needs structural adjustments, carefully research how much it will cost before you get started.

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.