Home Theater System Overview
All the parts you'll need to assemble a system.

If you're currently watching movies on your television, congratulations! You're already enjoying home theater! You see, home theater is nothing more than the marriage of sight and sound, a blending of audio and video. Of course, by comparison to the local cinema, your television's small screen and dinky speaker will deliver a grossly inferior experience. The goal of home theater system is to bridge this quality gap; by employing a surround sound processor, amplifier and appropriate speakers, your system will approach-and in some ways surpass-the sound and image of a good commercial theater.

Bits and Pieces-What You Need

The essential parts of a home theater system are a display device and an audio/video source. Sound complicated? Relax. Those are just fancy terms for a television (display) and VCR or DVD player (sources). Add a receiver and speakers, and you're done! Since the subject of video could fill a book of its own, we'll focus our discussion on audio gear.

Components or Systems - What's Best for You?

There are two ways to get a home theater audio system, separate components or all-in-one integrated systems. Here's a brief comparison to help you choose what's best for you.

Integrated Systems

These all-in-one systems are often called "home theater in a box" or home theater "shelf systems." Like their names imply most, if not all, of the audio components you need for home theater are included in the package: speakers, preamp/processor, amplification and sometimes sources such as radio, CD player and even DVD player.

  • Advantages - This type of system is very easy to choose and buy. Just listen to the various models on display, compare features and price and buy the one that's best for you. These systems are usually very easy to hook up and use. They are generally offered by some of the biggest brand names in the business. Some of them are very inexpensive for the amount of product you get.

  • Disadvantages - At the time of this writing there are very, very few integrated systems on the market that provides truly excellent, high performance sound. Most have limited capacity for adding sources and upgrading.

While we are not especially keen on these systems for your main entertainment room they can make a great choice for secondary rooms or vacation homes. And we are ever hopeful that someday, some company will bring to market an integrated home theater audio system that combines high-end performance and simplicity.

Separate Components

This type of system includes a preamp/processor, amplifiers (or receiver), speakers and whatever source components you may like such as CD player, DVD player, VCR, etc. Each component is chosen separately and often come from different manufacturers.

  • Advantages - This type of system offers tremendous flexibility, choice and performance. You can mix and match components from various manufacturers to get the best of each category and exactly meet you unique needs. This approach also allows you to add or upgrade one component at a time to build toward your ultimate system goal.

  • Disadvantages - Component systems are harder to choose, set up and use than integrated systems. But you have a secret weapon to overcome these obstacles… this Handbook! Read on and we'll show you how to make choosing, setting up and using a component system less daunting.

Consider the Source
A source is anything-music, movies, sports, etc.-that you watch and hear in your home theater. These can be divided into two groups: Broadcast Sources and Software Sources. The quality of your source will determine the performance of your system.

Broadcast Sources are transmitted to your home from a remote destination by one of the following methods:

  • Cable:
    This is how most Americans receive their sports and movies. But while cable is popular, convenient, and offers a wide range of options, its quality is inconsistent. Digital cable systems are just starting to appear in selected markets and claim to offer video and audio performance competitive with digital satellite broadcasts.

  • Satellite:
    Those big dishes provide a world of entertainment possibilities, and the quality can be excellent, but this medium's appeal remains limited by the size and cost of the hardware.

  • Mini Dish:
    These inexpensive 18" dishes mount almost anywhere, receiving hundreds of digitally-broadcasted satellite channels whose quality is unsurpassed. This fast-growing medium is HDTV-ready and the latest units offer digital surround sound.

  • Antenna:
    If you have a functional antenna on your rooftop, use it! You'll only get a limited number of stations in most areas, but they can be received with superb quality, and at no cost.

Just like the disc drive in your computer or the tape deck in your car, software source components read data-in this case, audio and video information-stored on a tape or disc, and feed it to your system. Some popular software choices for home theater include:

  • Laserdisc:
    These LP-sized silver platters look and sound great, and seem to last forever. Expensive hardware, a tiny rental market, and a maximum playing time of only one hour per side have prevented this format from achieving the success it deserved, but now that it's being replaced by DVD, existing stocks of players and discs are available at "fire sale" prices.

  • DVD:
    The size of a CD, these do-it-all discs are the ultimate format for movies, music and computer software. DVDs deliver amazing picture resolution and digital surround sound on a convenient little disc. Both the discs and players are reasonably priced, software availability increases daily and most video rental stores offer DVDs for rental.

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