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How To Set Up The Perfect Home Theater

Initial Decisions

So Uncle Sam has hit you back with a big return, or somehow you’ve managed to cheat the spouse out of a few grand – no biggie. All you’re concerned with is how to enjoy your movies and TV as best as possible, right? However, with the amount of HDTVs available and the choices in all the other components you need, you need someone to show you the way. Sony or Samsung? White van speakers or Klipsch? We’re going to help you make sense of all that.

First up, you have to make a few decisions. Where are you planning on setting up this home theater? Your family/living room? Your basement? Your bedroom? Once you’ve chosen which room you want to set up in, you have to assess the room.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • In order of priority, how would you rank the following: TV, movies and video games?
  • Can you see where you’d want the display to go?
  • Do you want to wall mount your display, or rest it on a TV bench or credenza?
  • Do you want to wall mount your speakers? If so, do you want them to be flush with your walls?
  • Are you able to move furniture around to suit the home theater setup, or must your home theater setup suit the current furniture arrangement?
  • How much light comes into the room during the day?
  • Do you want to dim or turn the lights off when watching movies?
  • Do you like to turn the volume and bass up when watching something?
  • Which of the following are you planning on connecting: over-the-air HD, cable, satellite, an HTPC, media player, DVD player, Blu-Ray player, XBOX 360, PS3, Wii
  • Are you planning on using a PS3 as a Blu-Ray player?

Some of the functionality you need can be found in HTIB (home theater in a box) systems, but I strongly advise not going this route. I say this because HTIBs will severely limit you at one point or another for a number of reasons. Firstly, as the receiver is often built into the DVD/BD player, it isn’t very powerful or dynamic and usually only has a maximum of two inputs. Your speakers will also be of very poor quality compared to what you can get individually. They make look small, but despite claims of companies that can gain better sound through some sort of research, it is impossible for small speakers to fully reproduce the audio spectrum. All these drawbacks, combined with the fact that you can put together a system for the same or only a little bit more money lead me to recommend purchasing components separately.


The display is the centerpiece of your home theater system, and choosing it will probably be the most difficult part of setting up your home theater. Fear not, as the questions that were asked of you earlier will make this choice a lot easier.

If you answered that you prefer movies first, you’ll need to look at a display that has good black levels and good contrast. This means that the ideal displays will be one of the better plasmas, like a Pioneer Kuro (these will only be available till the end of 2009) or a Panasonic, as well as glossy-screened LCDs such as the Samsung A650/750/850 series TVs. If you have a bigger budget, there are also LED-backlit LCD TVs such as the Samsung A950 or Sony XBR8 series. If you’re looking at an LCD, you should look for one that has 120 Hz processing, as it can smooth out judder in movies. And if you’re a movie buff, make sure the TV has 24p input – this will allow Blu-Ray movies to be displayed in their natural 24 frame-per-second rate.

If you like watching TV first, good contrast and black level are still things you should look for. Plasmas generally have better picture quality and better image processing of standard definition material, but some are prone to image retention if you’re watching a 4:3 image (the black bars on the left and right side may temporarily be slightly visible after you’re done watching). The Pioneer plasmas are hands-down the best displays available (and don’t have image retention to boot), but they are pricey, hard to find and going out of production at the end of 2009. You can choose gray bars on some TVs, or stretch the image to fill the TV, but if you’re not open to those ideas, an LCD might suit you better. Also, if you think you have children who might accidentally leave the TV on a standard definition channel, or you watch a lot of news with static logos or tickers, you should probably be looking for an LCD.

The other major factor in deciding on a display is ambient light. Is there a lot of light coming in during the day? Are you able to control it to some extent (good blinds or window coverings)? If so, you can go ahead and spring for a nice plasma or glossy-screened LCD TV, as they will reward you with better picture quality, but will reflect and wash out in sunlight. If you can’t, or don’t want to control the light coming in, you should be looking at a matte screen LCD, such as the Sony XBR6 series, Samsung A630 series or even the Toshiba REGZA series if you’re on a budget.

You might be wondering if you should get a 1080p TV. Well, 1080p resolution is only beneficial if:

  • You are sitting close enough to notice the extra detail (ex. Less than 6 feet from a 50” TV)
  • The content you’re watching is 1080p (Blu-Ray is the only source of this at the moment)

In addition to that, there are a number of factors that are more important than resolution, and those are contrast, black level, color saturation and color accuracy. These days, the price difference between 720p and 1080p TVs is closing, and the majority of TVs on the market are 1080p, so these points may become moot soon. For more information on 720p and 1080p check out our 720p VS 1080p guide.

If you’re planning on setting up a full home theater, give no attention to the built-in speakers or networking features, because all that will be outsourced to your other A/V equipment.

Lastly, reading reviews on the models you’re interested in will provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision. Satellite TV Guru has extensive reviews on many modern TVs, and makes for an excellent starting point.


One of the most important components in your A/V arsenal is the receiver. The receiver will take all the inputs from all of your devices, including the cable box, satellite box, video game consoles, HTPC, video camera, iPod and whatever else you can find. All of your speakers will plug in to the receiver, as it will provide sound to them, and it will also connect to your TV with a single HDMI cable (this is only with modern HDMI-switching receivers).

There are many good choices today, but one of the key factors here is HDMI switching. There are many cheaper receivers that can switch HDMI sources and simply pass them on, but these aren’t great because most of them can’t decode the audio over HDMI. You’ll want something that can decode audio over HDMI, including the new lossless audio codecs, DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. If you’re using a PS3 to play your Blu-Ray discs, you don’t have to have this codec compatibility as the PS3 decodes it internally and passes it on as linear PCM audio, but I would still advise getting a receiver that can decode those codecs, because you might change your player at some point.

A couple of good choices would be the Onkyo TX-SR606 and the Sony STRDG820.


If you want to flush wall mount your speakers, you’ll need to have someone wire your home if it isn’t pre-wired. Flush speakers can look great, but usually don’t sound as good as standalones.

As I mentioned earlier, the speakers in HTIB systems are always pathetic. They may sound okay to you in the store, or even a custom-designed booth with pre-selected optimized sound that hides the imperfections of the speakers (this is how it might seem that better sound comes from research, a concept that evades all but that one company) but sooner or later, you’ll realize that they’re holding your experience back. You’ll find that you’re missing midrange sound, can’t hear high definition audio, or that you can’t connect a couple of consoles because there aren’t enough inputs. You might miss good DVD upscaling, AM/FM radio or iPod integration. Eventually, you’ll regret that purchase!

You’ll need to decide if you want 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 for your speaker setup. 5.1 is common for DVD and is still the most common standard for audio on Blu-Ray, though some discs come with a 7.1 track. 7.1 can be more immersive, but the difference from 5.1 to 7.1 is not nearly as drastic as the difference from a standard setup to 5.1. This is pretty much entirely up to you, because it’s not necessary for a good experience – good speakers, a good receiver and a good source (Blu-Ray for example) will make more of an impact than a greater number of speakers.

Look for a pair of good towers (floorstanding speakers) for your fronts. The bulk of stereo audio will come from these, and you want to find speakers that reproduce the full range of sound, from deep, low bass to crisp, bright highs, and everything in the middle. The midrange is actually very important, as this is where cheaper and smaller speakers compromise the most. A pair of towers can range widely in price, so if your budget is small, you can start with something cheap, like Polk Audio Monitor 50 speakers for about $140, Polk Audio TSi300 speakers for $200 or Cerwin Vega VE-8 speakers for about $150.

Your center channel is one of the most important speakers, if not the most important speaker in your setup. 80% + of the dialogue in movies and current TV shows will come through this speaker, so you want it to reproduce voices naturally, and also be tone-matched to the front speakers. Imagine a shot of a NASCAR car racing from left to right on the screen. The bellow of that V8 should sound the same as the sound pans from the left speaker to the center channel and over to the right. Many if not most towers (floorstanding speakers) have a matching center channel, so try to spring for that.

Discrete rear channels really made surround sound fun with the advent of Dolby Digital and DTS, but these are still the least-used channels in the whole setup. Many of the brands that make the tower speakers, also make matching surround speakers, and this is a good way to go when matching speakers, but if you’re starting out and on a budget, bookshelf speakers are a great way to get started, easy up on the lucci spending, and not miss out on much. You could try the Polk Audio R150 bookshelf speakers for about $85 bucks, MTX MP42B bookshelf speakers for about $80 or Cerwin Vega Cls-6 bookshelf speakers for about $200.

If you really want a 7.1 setup, just get another pair of the same bookshelf speakers and you’ll really be surrounded with sound! My recommendations here are for budget users, but if you want to look at spending a bit more, have a look at the higher-end Klipsch, Polk Audio, as well as PSB and Paradigm speakers.

We now come to the subwoofer, the final piece of the speaker puzzle. The price of this particular component really depends on how much you like your bass. It can be a great experience, rumbling your sofa and shaking the pictures off your walls in action-packed scenes, but be aware that bass travels to other parts of your house very well. It’s the first (and sometimes) the only thing that others around you can hear, but everything in moderation, right? Again, most of my recommendations here in the speaker category are for those on a budget, and if you are, have a look at the Polk Audio PSW10 10” subwoofer for about $120 or the Yamaha YSTSW012 8” subwoofer for about $60 if you’re really strapped for cash (but somehow can justify a new home theater setup – I kid!).

Klipsch, PSB, Velodyne and Paradigm are some great brands to look at when you’re moving up a little, or if you have a little extra to spare.

Blu-Ray Player

If you have or are planning on getting a PS3, you can use it as an excellent Blu-Ray and DVD player. Why is it excellent? It has some of the fastest load times for Blu-Ray players, and has never skipped a beat in my testing. Constant firmware updates means that it will always be compatible with the latest Blu-Ray features too. The only thing I’d change about it is that I’d prefer if it would output the lossless audio codecs so that the receiver can decode them, rather than the PS3 itself. However, it does a good job in this area too, so there’s little to complain about. It also makes for an excellent DVD player because of its upscaling abilities. It utilizes its powerful processor to make DVDs as good as they’ll look on large, high-definition screens. Finally, having one device be a console, DVD and Blu-Ray player makes for less connections and less fuss!

If you don’t have and don’t want to use a PS3, just make sure you get a Blu-Ray player that is capable of BD-Live 2.0, or at least capable of being updated. I’d recommend the Sony BDP-S550 or Samsung BD-P2500, but the PS3 first.

HTPC / Media Player

HTPCs have been a great addon for home theaters, but what are some typical uses?

  • DVD playback with upscaling
  • Blu-Ray disc playback (if equipped)
  • PVR & Timeshifting capabilities (for cable from a coaxial cable, not satellite and not digital cable)
  • Music, Pictures & Video Jukebox
  • DVD Jukebox

HTPCs are great if you want to surf the web, check your e-mail and maybe play games on emulators as well, but if your main functionality is described above in bullet points, a better option these days is the Western Digital TV HD Media Player. You can connect hard drives or flash drives to it, and it’ll play any type of video, audio or picture file that you can find. It’s a great way to make a DVD, Blu-Ray, CD and photos jukebox for just about $100, and there’s no software setup or tweaking, and no Windows problems to deal with!

Physical Arrangement

The 5.1 speaker setup looks like this:


The 7.1 speaker setup looks like this:

Putting It All Together

When you have all the pieces of the puzzle in front of you, putting them together can seem daunting. It really isn’t all that bad. All of your devices plug into the A/V receiver, and the receiver processes those signals and sends the video portion to your display, and the audio portion to your speakers.

The receiver has a plethora of inputs at the back, but don’t fret, they’re all clearly labeled and if you do have trouble, most manufacturers provide free support for setup.

Once everything has been plugged in, most receivers will want you to identify and label inputs, which is also not too bad. Better receivers include a microphone and setup utility (Audyssey in some cases) that will find the correct volumes and EQ settings for the room you’re in. These days, setting up your receiver is as easy as pie!

And Then There Was Light

What we’ve done in this little guide is show how to get started in home theater the right way. By selecting your components individually, you’ll avoid the initial mistake of buying an HTIB system and an inferior display that doesn’t meet your needs.

The satisfaction of knowing that you were the one to compare, choose and finally set up all your components will probably drive your interest in home theater further – to bigger and better sets, professional-grade speakers, A/V distribution throughout your home, projection setups in dedicated soundproof rooms and more!

3 Responses to “How To Set Up The Perfect Home Theater”
Dodgeblogium » CoTV a touch of Spring… - March 26th, 2009 at 10:58 am

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Dodgeblogium » G20 BoMs - March 29th, 2009 at 7:30 pm

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Anon - July 10th, 2009 at 10:17 am

Wow great guide to HT setup. I just followed your steps, and I have a complete HD system running. For room design and other consideration i followed this one:
Complete guide to home Theatre

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