On With the Show

If you’ve ever stood at the end of a long line outside your local multiplex, only to finally get make it inside a crowded theater where a small child incessantly kicks the back of your broken chair while your feet remain stuck to the floor by soda glue, then it’s probably safe to say that you’ve dreamed of your very own home theater.

What is a home theater?

A basic home theater consists of a few essential elements: A television (anything 27 inches or more qualifies), a surround sound system with at least four speakers, an audio/video receiver and some kind of video equipment to play movies. Chances are, you probably already have most of the equipment necessary to create a small home theater.

Did you imagine a dedicated room in the basement that’s perfectly designed with plush theater chairs, a huge screen, a projector, a popcorn popper and movie posters on the walls? That’s just one way home theater manifests itself.

One person might imagine watching movies from bed on a 60-inch screen that drops from the ceiling. Someone else may be content to have his home theater tucked in behind the cabinet doors of an armoire in the living room.

No matter what your desire, there’s equipment available for it, and people who can make your wishes a reality.

How does it work?

While it’s easy to run out to a specialty electronics store and pick up a 32-inch TV, hi-fi VCR and surround sound system, you do have more choices.

Let’s start with your movie-playing options. In addition to a VCR, you could consider buying a DVD player, a laserdisc player or you could get your movies sent via satellite through a direct broadcast system.

How will you display these movies? At the entry level, you could upgrade your current TV set for a model with a larger screen and more features. Get a model with picture-in-picture so you can check on the front door’s security camera without taking your eyes off the football game.

If the room will be used solely for movies and you won’t have any natural light coming in from the windows, a front projection system is usually recommended. Projectors can be mounted in the ceiling and drop down when needed, or pop up from a hiding place inside a coffee table.

If a room will be used for other activities besides watching movies, opt for a rear projection television, a direct-view TV set (usually going up to 40 inches diagonally), or possibly a high definition television (HDTV) or a flat plasma screen.

Whether you opt for a multiscreen entertainment center like this or a two-piece projection system, home theater components fit every taste and budget.

Flat plasma screens work well in both light and dark conditions, can be placed almost anywhere and with a 180-degree viewing angle, the image will look perfect no matter where you’re seated in the room.

At first glance, many rear projection TVs resemble standard picture tube televisions. But instead of using a picture tube to form images, a video projector, housed either inside the TV or situated behind a video screen, beams pictures onto the screen from behind. Because the projector is contained inside the TV or inside an enclosed room behind the video screen, no natural room light can interfere with the image on the screen.

HDTV sets are designed to receive high definition digital signals from local television broadcasters and satellite providers. Video shown in high-definition digital has six times the detail of standard analog broadcasts. Because HDTV sets still run well over $5,000 per set, and because there’s still not a great deal of content available to watch, some installers are telling their clients to "wait and see" what happens.

On the audio side, there are also plenty of options. If you already have an a/v receiver, consider upgrading to a model with Dolby Digital, THX or DTS. Consider adding a subwoofer to your surround sound speaker setup for better bass. Or, put some tactile transducers under the frame of your couch or theater chairs. These devices vibrate in sync with the action on the movie screen so you really feel like you’re in the movie.

Want speakers? There are hundreds of speaker manufacturers. Who has the best? That’s for you to decide. A good installer can test speakers against each other and help to point out the differences in features.

A number of companies offer almost every type of accessory for your new home theater: authentic movie posters, electronic leather seats, custom bars and even curtains that contain miniature fiber optic lights. Other things to consider: acoustic treatments for the walls, lighting control to dim the lights for show time, and a universal remote control (or high-tech touchscreen) to replace the system’s multiple remotes.

How much does it cost?

What You'll Pay
  • From $5,000 to $65,000 for a video projector
  • From $9,000 to $20,000 for a flat plasma screen
  • From $800 to $7,000 for a motorized video screen
  • From $300 to $4,000 per theater chair
  • For the basics, you can head out to any superstore and pick up a car full of components for some very reasonable prices. Today you can expect to pay under $300 for a basic DVD player and about $500 for a 32-inch TV.

    When you visit a professional installer to put a home theater together, the prices will be higher. But in this case, you get what you pay for. If you’re planning on adding a moderate home theater setup to your living room expect to pay upwards of $5,000 for quality products and advice. And, if you’re dreaming of a dedicated room just for movies, you’ll start at $10,000.

    For a list of home theater resources, see Where to Go.

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