Your Home Theater Tips and Tricks

Over the past few weeks, we asked you to help us put together a Connected Home Media feature about your home theater. We wanted to hear about that one unique thing about your setup that makes it ideal for you, the one tip or trick you implemented that makes you proud of your system. We wanted to hear about the best advice, or even the strangest advice, you heeded that makes your monitor deliver crystal-clear imagery. Or what made the difference between average sound and butt-kicking surround-sound thunder.

We got an enormous response to our call for submissions. You have an amazing array of home-theater tricks and anecdotes to share. Following are some of the most illuminating and interesting we received. If you missed the deadline to submit your stories, feel free to add your insight in the Comments section below.

Foundation Rattler
Reader John Smale says, "I recently built a new home in Calgary, Alberta Canada, and I specifically designed the basement portion of the two-story home to accommodate a home theater installation. Once we moved in, I started working on two raised platforms for enough seating for 8 to 10 people, 9' ceilings, a curved stage. I prewired for two possible projector locations, wired for 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 speaker locations, and installed a 120" projector screen. All walls and ceiling are insulated for sound and the floor for warmth. Both raised seating areas sit on a layer of 3/4" rubber, and two tactile transducers shakes the floor along with the movie. The room isn't yet finished, but I plan to purchase the Sony VPL-HS20 projector this summer and start enjoying it."

Too Much Gear
Reader Jeff Williams says, "I had too much gear. Although it was great to be able to trickle down last year's DVD player to another room in the house when I got a new and better one, it was a pain to have to redo setups, reprogram remotes, and find additional space in the bedroom or den. A better solution was to distribute the video over coax and use IR extenders to have all media sources in one location. Setup includes three UltimateTV units (two RCA, and one Sony to handle remote code overlap), a Pioneer laserdisc player, an Integra Research DVD, and a Windows Media Center PC. All are viewable from any TV in the house, and I can record or replay seven programs simultaneously."

Creative Integration
Reader Jimmy K. Justice Sr. says, "I integrated my computer into my home theater system using a plain dual-output video card. I have broadband and can surf the Net or play MP3s off my computer, using my home theater speakers. Using the computer's flat screen and the TV to play computer games with surround sound is great. With five computers at home, I can have my own LAN party on the fly. Instead of using a plain old power strip for surge protection, I purchased an APC Smarts UPS 2200 to protect my home theater system. Basically, I can watch or listen to music when the power goes out. Uptime is 1 to 2 hours during a blackout."

Home Theater on a Budget
Reader Keith Beindorf says, "My theater was built on a tight budget. I was already finishing my basement, so the costs of drywall, flooring, and plumbing took away most of what I needed for the ultimate home theater. Still, I came away with a setup that serves us well and sounds/looks awesome. For my projector, I went with the cheap but well received Dell 3100 for $899. It fills my 8' screen (homemade with materials from eBay) with bright clear images. I also found a bargain for my speakers in the Athena line, now available at Best Buy. These babies rock, and with the right configuration, you can get a top-notch system for about $1100. I went with the AS-B1 for surround, the AS-F1 in the front, the standard center, and the upgraded 400-watt sub. Add these to my existing Denon AVR, and you have an amazing system for under $2500."

Split Signal
Reader Collin Isenhart says, "My suggestion is a simple little feature. I split the TV signal—one to the receiver and one directly to the TV. This lets me watch TV and listen to music at the same time."

Reader Mark D. Swidler says, "I built a home theater in my living room. I put one leg of an "L" sectional on Teflon pads so that I can swing it out to be parallel with the other leg, forming two rows of seating. I'm using a Sony VPL-11HT front projector onto a Da-Lite Da-Snap white screen (80" x 65"). The projector has been calibrated using S.M.A.R.T. to get perfect color tracking, and it has a filter on the lens. The projector is connected to both my Comcast HD cable and my Dell PC. The Dell PC has a PC-DTV HDTV PCI Card, which permits capturing of HD Over The Air programming directly to the hard disk. I also have a Sony DRU-500 DVD 4X burner so that I can save the HD programming to DVD blanks (half hour per disk). The project works great with the PC (using Powerstrip to control the resolution and aspect ratio), and I use several DVD software players (PowerDVD and WinDVD). Plus, I can play HD material (such as T2 and Living in the Shadow of Motown) using Windows Media 9. The sound is from an M-Audio 7.1 HD digital PCI card directly attached (Digital Out) to my Outlaw receiver with external amps (Bedeni and RAM) and homemade speakers plus subs. The PC also has an ATI All in Wonder 8500DV to capture the cable signals and permit burning to DVD, and it lets me capture mini-DV freeware home movies and edit them for DVD burning."

Region Fix
Reader Peter Faulkner reports, "Living in a shoebox-size house in Tokyo should guarantee even the smallest of systems would do the job, right? That's unless you forget about region coding. Although my wife is Japanese and loves movies in her own language, I like the original dialog while I give the kids a mix of both to ensure their bilingual skills are helped along. So what's wrong with this picture? Systems in Japan are sold only with Region 2 enabled. So that means I'd have to purchase a US model also. No, I say. The solution: On a resent business trip to Singapore, I got the latest Philips model with multiregion codes enabled by the manufacturer, multi-power (100~240V, 50~60Hz), PAL, NTSC, speakers, subwoofers, and so on, for almost the same price as the US system. Be warned: Don't take any other luggage. The box was 20Kg—the economy class allowance!"

Making It Fit
Reader Brian Peabody says, "A home theater that's not much to look at isn't really a contradiction in terms. A decade-old purpose-built room still houses the 35" direct-view monitor of similar vintage. A 21' wide expanse of custom oak cabinets and shelves holds gear and media, with sound-deadening draperies, the obligatory comfy chairs, and IR-controlled scene-preset lighting. Nice, but not extraordinary. But oh, the sound—THX-certified electronics, surrounds and subs, with floor-standing full-range drivers up front. In a rare bit of foresight, the room was built with connections to remote speakers throughout the house. Now all of the source components, including a Turtle Beach Audiotron, are shared between the theatre system and a colocated six-zone Niles Audio receiver that powers the rest of the house."

Big-Time Imagery
Reader Paul Madore says, "Most people set up a home theater using a TV for the display, but what makes my home theater unique (although that's quickly changing) is that I have a Sanyo PLV-Z2 LCD projector that allows me to throw a 70" or larger picture onto the wall. To complete the setup, I have a Stewert Filmscreen Firehawk Snapon screen, a Denon 3803 receiver, and Polk Audio speakers. The projector and screen cost less than the Samsung DLP television I was looking at, and in my opinion looks much better since the resolution of the Z2 lets me play HD material. I have my computer, TiVo, Xbox, and DVD player connected to the Z2, but I play all my movie material through the computer, as it looks far superior to any other device I have. Having my computer connected lets me play Windows Media HD material, as well as normal DVDs, with no degradation of picture quality due to conversion. It’s definitely an eye opener when you see and hear it."

One Remote
Reader Rob Lloyd reports, "My home theater is a dedicated room with a 6' x 4' fixed screen and custom 7.1 speakers, including a subwoofer that shakes the house. All my equipment is controlled through one remote that goes to an IR receiver in the center speaker. That signal is sent to the IR distribution box in another room that holds all the equipment. No blinking lights, no noisy fans (perfect with the HTPC) to look at. Very clean look. All the equipment is on a 19" rack, making access easy for rewiring or replacing components."

Receiver Central
A reader named Mike says, "For me, as a home theater newbie, I wanted simplicity when it came to connections. I found using an AV receiver that could pass HD content over component and upconvert S-video has made a big difference. So I only switch inputs on the receiver, and I have one component feed into the TV. My two cents."

Speakers Up High
Reader Steve Sapers says, "Windows, doorways, and a fireplace, not to mention dogs and kids, compromise my TV viewing room. After much consideration and discussion, I decided to place the five speakers on the ceiling (with the subwoofer on the floor, of course). I chose white Mirage Omnisat Micro speakers. I sent Mirage a floor plan of the room, and representatives were helpful in suggesting where to place the speakers. Installing them and running the wires was a challenge, but I highly recommend this solution. The sound is bright and airy. Few visitors notice or guess where the speakers are located."

Home Theater Garage
Reader Philipp Carner reports, "We converted our garage into a home theater. We built a wall just on the other side of the garage door (removing all the hardware), so from the outside there's nothing different but from the inside it looks and feels—after tapping into the home's heat and A/C—like a regular room. I needed to open up the top of the exterior walls to put in insulation, so I ran additional power, speaker, phone, and Cat 5 network cable at the same time. We looked at many different home theater seating options, but I didn't like the sharing of an arm rest. So we went with four individual leather-recliner rockers in the front row and put a couch on a raised platform to make the back row. Rope lights illuminate the step. The cupholder problem was solved with wooden plant stands. We cut a hole in the top to insert a stainless steel camping mug, from which we removed the handles. Then, we covered the whole thing in leather with pockets for the remotes. The cup holders are the perfect size! All the lights are X10 controlled to enjoy the 65" widescreen HDTV and the 600 watts of Dolby Digital EX sound."

The Importance of Configuration
Reader John Barr says, "We finally finished our basement and decided to build in a home theater system—Pioneer 53" HDTV, B&K receiver, Sony DVD player, Maestro speakers, Storm woofer, and a bunch of Monster cable. I get great video from the progressive-scan DVD player with component video out, but I didn't get great sound until I found that it didn't come with DTS turned on nor digital out. What a difference. The best feature of my system now is the Motorola HDTV receiver (antenna, not satellite) because all the primary stations in Chicago have HDTV channels. We get DVD-quality picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (sometimes) for movies, sports, and good TV series. We just have the minor problem of commercials, which my ReplayTV system takes care of, but I don't yet have an HDTV PVR. Sound is all about having quality speakers, a subwoofer, and the patience to adjust the sound levels and distance at the sweet spot."

PC-Controlled Living Room
A reader by the name of Thom reports, "I've been experimenting with a PC-controlled living room since 1998. I originally purchased a Creative Labs Blaster PC, which featured a PIII, 5.1 surround, and an IR Remote. It was adequate for the time, but I wanted DVR functionality, so I built my own PIV with an NVIDIA Personal Cinema. This unit had many problems, so I dumped it for a far-superior ATI All-in-Wonder. This unit has an RF Remote that I can use in any room of my split-level. I liked the product so much that I purchased a second one for the PC in my den. Now, I have two DVRs and I can also watch DVD movies in true 5.1 surround on a dual-sub 500-watt Klipsch PC speaker system. It pounds!

Music Integration
Reader Michael Burke says, "My home theater is quite simple in comparison to many others out there. I have a Hitachi UltraVision 46" projection TV for viewing, a Sony STR-DA3000ES HT receiver, and a 5.1 speaker setup consisting of four B&W LM1s for front/rear, a B&W VM1 for the center, and a B&W ASW600 subwoofer. The VM1/LM1 speakers are wall mounted so no floor real estate is taken. I also have an RCA DVD player attached and DirecTV satellite. The only other piece of equipment is a Dell GX115 connected to the receiver. This PC has no monitor, keyboard, or mouse connected. It's wirelessly connected to the home network in the house. It runs Windows Server 2003 as an OS and Windows Media Player 9. Windows 2003 lets me run the PC "headless" without the need of a keyboard or mouse. I have another PC across the room for the general "family" user, and the kids play their games there. This PC runs Remote Desktop 5.2 and connects to the Windows Media Player PC with the /CONSOLE switch. When connected this way, the remote PC actually interacts with the console of the Windows 2003 Media PC to run Windows Media Player. I have more than 450 CDs ripped to a file server in my computer center downstairs (another Windows 2003 server). This server has mirrored 80GB hard disks and serves all the music files to the Media PC upstairs (or anywhere else in the house). All music files are ripped in 192K WMA format. This configuration lets me play the music files from any PC in the house. What sets my system apart is how the music integrates. I have no CDs to change now (they're stored downstairs for now), and any song is at my fingertips at any time. I'm also considering a Dell Jukebox with an FM transceiver for the car. I can then just download songs from the file server to the jukebox."

Tell Us More!
Have you enjoyed reading about the experiences of other Connected Home denizens? Tell us about your home theater below!

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