Top 10 Home Theater Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

How to relieve that home theater setup stress

You spent a lot of money and time setting up your new home theater system, but something just doesn't seem right. Did you make any mistakes? Check out our list of common mistakes many of us make when trying to put together a home theater environment.

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Buying the Wrong Size Television

Woman Standing In Electronics Store Facing a wall of TVs

Glow Images / Getty Images 

Everyone wants a big TV, and with the average screen size purchased by consumers now 55-inches, a lot of larger screen sets are finding places in many households. However, an excessively large TV is not always best for a particular size room or viewing distance.

For 720p and 1080p HDTVs, the optimum viewing distance is about 1-1/2 to 2 times the width of the television screen.

This means that if you have a 55-inch TV, you should sit about 6 to 8 feet from the screen. If you sit too close to a TV screen, (although you won't damage your eyes), there is a greater chance that you may see the line or pixel structure of the image, along with any processing artifacts, which can not only be distracting, but uncomfortable.

However, with today's trend towards 4K Ultra HD TV, you can get a better viewing experience at closer seating distances than previously suggested. For example, you can sit as close as 5 feet from a 55-inch 4K Ultra HD TV.

The reason for the acceptable closer distance for 4K Ultra HD TVs is that the pixels on the screen are much smaller in relation to screen size, making its structure much less noticeable at closer viewing distance (perhaps as close as just a little over one times the screen width).

You can also make the mistake of buying a TV that is too small. If the TV is too small, or if you sit too far away, your TV viewing experience becomes more like looking through a small window. This is especially a problem if you are considering a 3D TV, as a good 3D viewing experience requires a screen that is large enough to cover as much of your front field of view as possible, without being so large that you see the screen pixel structure or undesirable artifacts.

To determine the best TV screen size, first, make sure you take stock of the space the TV is to be placed in. Measure both the available width and height - also, measure the seating distance(s) from the screen that you have available to view the TV.

The next step is to take both your recorded measurements and your tape measure to the store with you. When at the store, view your prospective TV at several distances (in relation to your measurements), as well as to the sides, to determine what distances and viewing angles, will give you the best (and worst) viewing experience.

Base your TV size buying decision on the combination of what looks best to you, and is the most comfortable for your eyes, in relation to your available space.

One of the biggest reasons TVs are returned is that it is either too big to fit in a designated space (such as an entertainment center) or it is too small for the seating distance/room size.

Once you have determined the size of the TV that works best, you can then explore the other factors that go into buying the right TV.

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The Room Has Windows and/Or Other Light Issues

Home Theater Room With Windows


Room lighting has a definite effect on the TV and video projector viewing experience.

Most TVs do fine in a semi-lit room, but darker is better, especially for video projectors. Never place your TV on a wall opposite windows. If you have curtains to cover the windows, make sure they cannot pass light through into the room when they are closed.

Another thing to consider is the TV screen surface. Some TVs have an anti-reflective or matte surface that minimizes room light reflections from windows, lamps, and other ambient light sources, while some TVs have an extra glass-like coating over the screen panel that serves to provide extra physical protection for the actual LCD, Plasma, or OLED panel. When used in a room with ambient light sources, the extra glass layer or coating can be susceptible to reflections that may be distracting.

Also, if you have a curved screen TV and if your room has windows or uncontrollable ambient light sources, the screen curvature can not only produce unwanted light reflections but also distort the shape of reflections, which can be very annoying.

One way to find out how susceptible a specific TV might be to windows and ambient light sources to see how it looks in a brightly lit retail environment -- stand both in front and off to either side of the screen and see how the TV handles brightly lit showroom conditions.

Also, if the retail location has a darkened room for exhibiting TVs, also see what they look in that environment. Just keep in mind that retailers run TVs in "Vivid" or "Torch Mode" that exaggerates the color and contrast levels produced by the TV - but that still can't hide potential light reflection problems.

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Buying The Wrong Speakers

Cerwin Vega VE Series Speaker Family

Cerwin Vega

Some spend a small fortune on audio/video components but don't give enough thought to the quality of the loudspeakers and subwoofer. This doesn't mean you have to spend thousands for a modest system, but you should consider speakers that can do the job.

Speakers come in several sizes and shapes, from space-hogging floor-standers to compact bookshelfs, and both box and spherical shapes -- and of course, for home theater, you need a subwoofer too.

Tiny cube speakers may look trendy but are not going to fill a large room with great sound, as they just can't move enough air. On the other hand, large floor-standing speakers might not be the best match for a small room, as they just take up too much space for your taste or physical comfort.

If you have a medium, or large size room, a set of floor-standing speakers may be the best option, as they typically provide a full range sound and larger drivers that can move enough air to fill the room. On the other hand, if you don't have a lot of space, then a set of bookshelf speakers combined with a subwoofer, may be your best option.

Also, whether using floor-standing, bookshelf speakers, or a combination of both for home theater, you also need center channel speaker that can be placed above or below a TV or video projection screen and a subwoofer for those low-frequency effects.

Before making any speaker buying decisions, you should listen to some at a dealer (or get an extended tryout period from online-only dealers) before you buy. Do your own comparisons, and take your own CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs to hear what they sound like with various speakers.

Although sound quality should be your main concern, you should also consider size, how they look in your room, and what you can afford.

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Unbalanced Speaker Levels

Radio Shack dB Digital Sound Level Meter
dB Digital Sound Level Meter.

Robert Silva / Lifewire

You've connected and placed the speakers, turned everything on, but nothing sounds right; the subwoofer overwhelms the room, dialog can't be heard over the rest of the soundtrack, the surround sound effect is too low.

First, make sure nothing is blocking the sound coming from your speakers to your listening position. Also, don't hide your speakers behind the door of an entertainment center.

One way you can balance them is by using a sound meter in conjunction with a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray Disc that provides test tones, or by using a test tone generator that may be built-in right into most home theater receivers.

Most home theater receivers have a setup program available that aids in matching the capabilities of your speakers to the characteristics of your room. These programs go by different names: Anthem Room Correction (Anthem), Audyssey (Denon/Marantz), AccuEQ (Onkyo/Integra), Digital Cinema Auto Calibration (Sony), Pioneer (MCACC), and Yamaha (YPAO).

These systems, in conjunction with a provided microphone and built-in test tone generator in the receiver, determine the size, as well as the distance, of the speakers from the prime listening position and use that information to assist in adjusting the sound output level of each speaker, including the subwoofer.

Although none of these systems is perfect, they help to minimize the guesswork of matching the sound coming out of your speakers with the room environment. In most cases, you can make further manual tweaks for your own listening preferences.

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Not Budgeting For Needed Cables and Accessories

Accell Locking HDMI Cable

Robert Silva / Lifewire

One common home theater mistake is not including enough money for all the needed cables or other accessories that make your components work.

There is a constant debate on whether it is necessary to purchase very high priced cables for a basic home theater system. However, one thing to consider is that the thin, cheaply constructed cables that come with many DVD players, VCRs, etc... probably should be replaced by something that is a little more heavy-duty.

A more substantial cable can provide better shielding from interference and will also stand up over the years to any physical abuse that may occur.

On the other hand, there are also some outrageously priced cables. For instance, although you shouldn't settle for cheaply made cables, you don't have to resort to spending $50 or more for a 6-foot HDMI cable.

Here are some tips:

  • When buying speaker wire, consider 18 or 16-gauge thickness, as thinner wire (20, 22, or 24 gauge) may not hold up or perform well for longer distances.
  • When buying HDMI cables, don't fall for the hype that high-priced cables are necessarily better. If the HDMI cables are labeled as complying with the latest speed standard (18Gbps), they are suitable for any video and audio signals in use now, or the near future.
  • Whether you are mounting a TV on the wall or on a stand, make sure you include money for any mounting or safety hardware that you might need. Even if you are placing your TV on a stand, you should consider securing the TV to the stand or wall.
  • If you own a 3D TV, make sure you have also purchased enough 3D glasses for your family so that no one is left out of the experience once you get your TV home.
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Cable and Wire Mess

DYMO Rhino 4200 Label Printer


Every time more components are added to our home theater, that means more cables. Eventually, it is difficult to keep track of what is connected to what, especially when you attempt to track down a bad cable signal or move the components around.

Here are three tips:

  • Make sure your cable runs are not too long but long enough to allow easy access to your components.
  • Label your cables using colored tape, printed label, or other markings, so you know what is going where. Some home theater receiver makers provide a small number of pre-printed labels that can affix to your cables and speaker wire. Another practical option is investing in an inexpensive label printer will aid in this task.
  • Take advantage of any wireless connection options that may be available that are practical for your setup.
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Not Reading the User Manuals

Example of an E-Manual For Samsung UHD TVs - screenshot

You think you know how to put it all together, do you? No matter how easy it looks, it is always a good idea to read the owner's manual for your components, even before you take them out of the box. Get familiar with functions and connections before you hook-up and set-up.

A growing number of TV brands offer a user manual (sometimes labeled as E-manual) that can be accessed directly through the TV's on-screen menu system. However, if a full printed or onscreen user manual is not provided, you can usually view or download one free from the manufacturer's official product or support page.

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Buying by Brand or Price, Instead of What You Really Want

Frys and Best Buy Ad Examples

Fry's Electronics/Best Buy

Although considering a familiar brand is a good starting point, it does not guarantee that the "top" brand for a particular item is right for you. When shopping, make sure you consider a variety of brands, models, and prices into consideration.

Also, avoid prices that seem to be too good to be true. Although a high-priced item is not necessarily a guarantee of a good product, more often than not, that "doorbuster" ad item will not be able to fill the bill, in terms of performance or flexibility. Be sure to read ads carefully.

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Not Buying a Service Plan on an Expensive or Large TV

Reading the Fine Print

Bart Sadowski / Getty Images

Although service plans are not needed for all items, if you are buying a large screen flat panel LED/LCD or OLED TV, it is something to consider for two reasons:

  • The sets are big and house calls are costly when paid out of pocket.
  • If you have a problem with a flat-panel TV screen, such as cracking or pixel burnout, you cannot repair that individual defect. As a result, you will most likely have to replace the entire screen - which probably means the entire set.

However, just as with any contract, make sure you read the fine print before signing on the dotted line and pulling out your cash.

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Not Getting Professional Help When You Need It

Installing a TV

RMorrow12 / Flicker

You've connected it all, you set the sound levels, you have the right size TV, used good cables, but it still isn't right. The sound is terrible and worse, the TV looks bad.

Before you panic, see if there is something you may have overlooked that you can resolve yourself.

If you are unable to solve the problem(s), consider calling a professional installer to help. You might have to swallow your pride and pay $100 or more for the house call, but that investment can salvage a home theater disaster and turn it into home theater gold.

Also, if you are planning a custom installation, definitely consult a home theater installer. You provide the room and budget; the home theater installer can provide a complete component package for access to all desired audio and video content.

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