How to Set Up a Home Theater System With Separate Components

How to get started setting up your home theater system

Home Theater brings the movie-going experience home, but for many, the idea of setting up a home theater system is intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Here are some guidelines to get you started.

What You Need To Set Up A Home Theater System

The Home Theater Connection Path

Source components, such as a satellite/cable box, media streamer, Blu-ray Disc or DVD player, are the beginning point, and the TV and loudspeakers are the endpoints. You have to get the video signal from a source component to your TV, video display, or projector, and the audio signal to the loudspeakers.

Onkyo TX-SR383 Jamo S 803 HCS Speakers J10 Sub
Images via Onkyo and Jamo

Connecting It All Up

A basic setup may include a TV, AV receiver, Blu-ray Disc or DVD player, media streamer, and possibly a VCR (or DVD recorder). In addition, you need at least five speakers and a subwoofer.

Below is a general outline on how to connect them together.

There may be several variations not discussed dictated by the capabilities and connections available on the specific components being used.

The Home Theater Receiver

Pioneer VSX-933 Dolby Atmos Home Theater Receiver
Pioneer Electronics

The home theater receiver provides most of the source connectivity and switching, as well as all audio decoding, processing, and amplification to power your speakers. The rest of your audio and video components are usually connected to the home theater receiver.

  • Sending Video from the Home Theater Receiver to TV: Connect the TV monitor output (preferably HDMI) of the AV receiver to one of the video inputs (preferably HDMI) on your TV. This allows you to view the video image from all the video source devices connected your home theater receiver on your TV screen. The AV receiver needs to be on and the correct source input selected, with your TV switched to the video input (not channel 3 or another channel) in order to view the video feed from your home theater receiver on your TV screen.
  • Sending Audio from the TV to the Home Theater Receiver: One way to get sound from a TV to a home theater is to connect the audio outputs of the TV (if it has them) to the TV or Aux audio inputs on your AV receiver. Another way is to use Audio Return Channel (HDMI-ARC) if both your TV and receiver have this feature. Either method will allow you to watch sources connected directly to the TV and hear stereo or surround sound audio from programs that have it, through your home theater system.

TV or Video Projector

LG G7 Series OLED TV and LG HF80JA Projector
Images via LG

If you receive TV programs via antenna, connect that antenna directly to your TV.

If you have a Smart TV, make sure it is also connected to the internet.

If you receive your programming via a cable or satellite box, connect the incoming cable to the box. However, you have two options to connect your cable/satellite box to the TV and the rest of your system.

  1. Connect the audio/video output of your box directly to your TV.
  2. Connect the box to your home theater receiver, and route the signal to your TV.

If you have a video projector instead of a TV, the setup procedure is different.

Blu-ray Disc, DVD, and/or CD Player

Two Blu-ray Disc Player Connection Examples. Pre and Post-2013 Models
  • For a Blu-ray or Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player, the connection setup will depend on whether your home theater receiver has HDMI connections, and whether the receiver can access both audio and video signals going through those connections. If so, connect the HDMI output from the player to the receiver and from the receiver to the TV.
  • If your home theater receiver only offers HDMI pass-through, then you may have to make additional digital audio (optical or coaxial), or analog audio connection between the player and the receiver in order to access audio from the player. If you have 3D Blu-ray disc player, home theater receiver and 3D TV, there are additional connection options to consider.

If you have a streaming Blu-ray Disc player, also connect it to the internet via Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

  • For a DVD player, connect one of the video outputs of the player to the DVD video input on the AV Receiver. If your DVD player has an HDMI output, use that option. If your DVD player doesn't have an HDMI output, use another available video output (such as component video) in combination with a digital optical/coaxial cable from the player to your AV receiver.

To access digital surround sound, an HDMI or digital optical/coaxial connection is required.

  • To connect a CD-only player to your AV receiver, use the player's analog or digital audio outputs. If you have a CD-Recorder, connect it to your AV receiver through the Audio Tape Record/Playback input/output loop connections (if that option is available).

Media Streamer

Roku Express (top) - Roku Ultra (bottom) Media Streamers (not to scale)
Images provided by Roku

If you have a media streamer, such as a Roku, Amazon Fire TV stick or box, Google Chromecast, or Apple TV, make sure it is connected to the internet, usually via WiFi. To view streaming content from these devices on your TV you can connect the streamer to your TV two ways using HDMI:

  • Connect to the TV directly.
  • Route it through a home theater receiver.

Routing a media streamer through a home theater receiver en route to the TV provides the best combination of video and audio quality.

Notes For VCR and DVD Recorder Owners

Funai DVD Recorder VHS VCR Combo

Although VCR production has been discontinued and both DVD recorder/VCR combos and DVD recorders are now very rare, there are still a lot of consumers that use them. Here are some tips on how to integrate those devices into a home theater setup.

  • Connect the audio/video outputs of the VCR or DVD Recorder to the home theater receiver's VCR video inputs (if you have both a VCR and DVD recorder, use the AV receiver's VCR1 connections for the VCR and VCR2 connections for the DVD recorder).
  • If your home theater doesn't have inputs specifically labeled for a VCR or DVD recorder, any set of analog video inputs will do. If your DVD recorder has an HDMI output, use that option to connect your DVD recorder to your home theater receiver.
  • You also have the option of connecting a VCR or DVD recorder directly to the TV and then let the TV pass the audio to your home theater receiver.

Connecting and Placing Your Loudspeakers and Subwoofer

Speaker Connections and Setup Diagram
Speaker Connections and Setup Diagram. Images via Yamaha and Harman Kardon

To complete your home theater setup, you need to connect the speakers and subwoofer and place them correctly.

To further aid your speaker setup, take advantage of the built-in test tone generator and/or automatic speaker setup/room correction system that may be provided on your receiver to set your sound levels. An inexpensive sound meter can also help with this task. Even if your receiver has an automatic speaker setup or room correction system, having a sound meter on hand to allow further manual tweaking of your speaker levels is a good idea.

The following speaker setup examples are for a typical square or slightly rectangular room. You may need to adjust your placement for other room shapes and additional acoustical factors.

5.1 Channel Speaker Placement

A home theater setup utilizing 5.1 channels is the most commonly used. For this, you need 5 speakers (left, center, right, left surround, right surround) plus a subwoofer. Here is how they should be placed.

  • Front Center Channel - Place directly in front, either above or below the television.
  • Subwoofer - Place to the left or right of the television.
  • Left and Right Main/Front speakers - Place equidistant from the center speaker, about a 30-degree angle from the center channel.
  • Surround speakers -- Place to the left and right side, just to the side or slightly behind the listening position - about 90-110 degrees from the center channel. These speakers can be elevated above the listener.

7.1 Channel Speaker Placement

  • The Front Center and Left/Right Main speakers and Subwoofer are the same as a 5.1 channel setup.
  • Left/Right Surround speakers – Place to the left and right side of the listening position.
  • Rear/Back Surround speakers – Behind the listening position, slightly to the left and right (may be elevated above listener) – place at about 140-150 degrees from the Front Center channel speaker. The speakers for the surround channels can be elevated above the listening position.

The Bottom Line

The above provides some basic options on how to set up a home theater system. The extent, combinations, and connection options vary depending on how many and what types of components you have, as well as your room size, shape, lighting, and acoustical properties.

Home Theater Surround Sound Setup
Home Theater Surround Sound Setup. Getty Images - adventtr

Here are some additional tips that can make your setup task easier:

  • Read the owner's manual and illustrations for all your components that outline connection and setting options.
  • Have the correct audio, video, and loudspeaker connection cables, and at the right lengths. As you go through the connection process, consider using a label printer so that your cables and wires can be easily identified later if you need to make connection changes.
  • The THX Home Theater Tune-Up App provides an easy way to check your initial TV or video projector picture settings and make sure the speakers are connected correctly.
  • If the setup task becomes overwhelming and nothing seems to be "right", there are some initial troubleshooting tips you can take advantage of. If that fails to solve the problem(s), don't hesitate to pay someone (such as an installer that subcontracts with your local dealer) to do it for you. You will get a system set up quickly and working properly. This can be money well spent.