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Home Theater Equipment: A Shopping Guide for the Enthusiast

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This is a guest post written by Darren R. Sussman, founder and chief engineer of Reid Sound, Inc., a company specializing in audio/visual services for all types of events including theater, concerts, meetings, tradeshows, and more. This is the first of two parts.

I am involved in audio-visual professionally, but what I do is more corporate and theatrical and less home theater. I did, as Flexo mentioned in his Ultimate Shopper’s Guide, build a theater in my basement, so I do have experience with shopping for equipment. That said, let’s get right to it.

The most important thing when shopping for equipment is to do a lot of research. I can’t stress that enough. When I say do your research, I don’t mean go to the store and talk to the sales people. Let me tell you a little secret about home theater sales people: the majority of them have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re making it up. Worse, they’re spreading misinformation. I can’t stand going into stores and standing there hearing sales people telling customers information that they clearly don’t understand themselves and that is often just plain wrong.

You have to go in knowing what you’re talking about. The best way to do that is to read magazines like Sound & Vision or Home Theater Magazine. Both provide not only reviews of equipment, but articles about what other people have done in addition to advice on how to best choose equipment. In my reading, they’ve generally been pretty honest and accurate.

Once you’ve started doing this research, you can start to get an idea of what the different specs on various pieces of equipment mean. Here’s where you’re also going to have to do some research on your own. Many stores don’t print the important specs on the information cards that they put out with their equipment. Most of the time the sales people won’t know the answers if you ask about the specs. What sort of specs am I talking about? Things like display resolution, contrast ratio, lens zoom, etc. Don’t know what I mean? That’s why you have to do your research.

When you’re finally ready to go to the store, remember a few things. First, if you can, find a small, independently owned store. It’s more likely that the sales people in these stores will be helpful and knowledgeable. Second, if you go to a store like Best Buy or Circuit City, remember that this is (usually) not a good environment for auditioning equipment. Lighting tends to be bad, televisions are displayed with their brightness and contrast settings turned way up (to make them appear more “dynamic”), the store tends to be loud, so it’s hard to hear what the audio equipment is doing, etc. Always take your anything you see or hear in a store like this with a grain of salt. Next, bring auditioning material with you. If you have a favorite CD that you’ve listened to over and over, and you know exactly what it should sound like, bring it with you so you can hear it on your potential new speakers. Bring DVDs that have a range of visual styles. Now, this is important: if the sales people won’t let you try out their equipment with your own test materials, leave the store. See what I mean about shopping at the big stores?

Once you think you’ve found what you’re looking for, make sure the place you buy it from has a good return policy. It’s very often that what looks or sounds good in the store just doesn’t seem quite as good when you get it home. Be sure that they’ll let you “try it out.”

It’s okay to shop around online, too. Just be sure that you’re actually getting a bargain once you factor in shipping and taxes, and make sure that you’re buying from a reputable source. Websites like PriceGrabber are good for making comparison as well as seeing reviews of the vendors. Again, check the return policy, and remember that if you return to an online store, you’ll have to pay for shipping again.

Here are a few general tidbits:

Should you buy plasma, LCD, front or rear projection?

Well, the answer is: it depends. Plasma tends to have better black levels than LCD or projection televisions. It also tends to have a wider viewing angle than LCD. It is, however, subject to “burn-in,” the process whereby a static image displayed on the screen for too long will end up being forever displayed on the screen. This can especially be a problem if you watch a lot of widescreen movies that have letterbox bars on them or if you play a lot of video games.

LCD tends to be brighter than any of the others, which is good if you’re going to be watching television in a brightly lit room or a room with a lot of ambient light.

Rear projection TVs tend to get you larger screens for less money, but they also tend to take up more space than comparable LCD or plasma screens. They also often suffer from “hot-spotting”, a condition where you will notice a brighter spot on the screen unless you are sitting level with the center of the screen. Newer rear-projection screens are much better about this and have a much better viewing angle, but the problem still exists. There is also the choice between LCD, LCoS, DLP and CRT projection televisions, but I’ll let you find out about that for yourself when you do your research.

Finally, there are front projectors, which, as Flexo’s post pointed out, do provide you with the largest image for your money. Be careful with this, though. Most casual viewing spaces are not right for a projector. First of all, front projectors work best in dark rooms. Ambient light will wash out the image from a projector very quickly. To overcome this, you need a brighter projector, which means you are spending more money. If you can black out your windows with heavy curtains and if you are okay with watching television with the lights off, then you can begin to consider a front projector.

Next, consider the surface you have to project onto. The screen that you use is just as important to the image of the quality as the projector, itself. If you are projecting onto a wall, you will not get as good an image as if you are projecting onto a quality screen from a company like Da-Lite or Draper. For the best possible image, you will want a good screen, and that adds to your overall cost. Also remember that front projectors have lamps (bulbs) in them that need to be replaced approximately every 2,000 hours. These lamps are not cheap and range from $100-$500.

What size screen or television should you get?

As a general rule, you want to sit three times the height of your screen away in order to get the best results. For example, the screen in my theater is 106″ diagonal, which translates to roughly 4 feet tall. The best place to sit, then, is 12 feet away. Figure out how much space you have in your viewing room and work backwards. If you sit too close to the screen, you not only invite eye-strain, but you also are more likely to see pixelation in the image, often called the “screen-door effect.” Don’t buy more than you need. Bigger is not always better.

How powerful should your speakers be?

The above holds true for speakers, as well. If you have a small room, don’t buy a 15 inch subwoofer that can put out 500 watts. It’s unnecessary. Also realize that a higher wattage amplifier doesn’t necessarily mean more power. You have to consider the power handling of your speakers and match that appropriately with your amplifier. Small speakers will often work fine in a small room.

Should you pay for expensive cables?

Don’t be fooled by expensive cable. Copper is copper, and it always carries the same signal. It is true that if you looked at signals run through standard cable and run through Monster cable side by side on a scope, you would see a better signal with the Monster cable. However, when you go to plug in your equipment for yourself, I can guarantee you that you won’t see a difference. There is a huge cost savings if you just buy regular cables.

There’s certainly more to it, but that goes beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. I know that Flexo wanted me to give some specific insights on the theater that I built, so in another post, I’ll tell you a little bit about that process.

Updated December 26, 2010 and originally published August 18, 2006.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Luke Landes

Thanks, Darren. I’m looking forward to Part 2.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Recommend any good wireless speakers? I’ve got a decent sized living room that’s 14.5′ X 18′, but it’s built on concrete slab. I’d like to put speakers behind my love seat across the room (for that surround sound effect…although it wouldn’t *technically* be “surround sound”…but with the concrete slab, I can’t drop wires under the floor into my basement (and subsequently run them under the floor). Likewise, I don’t want to drill holes in my wall to run the speaker wire.

As a result, I have a very mediocre pair of wireless JVC speakers that I occasionally use. Wireless speakers are fantastic for mobility, but output too much hiss too actually be used for a decent sound experience.

I don’t know if there are actually decent wireless speakers out there, or if the technology just isn’t there yet.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

No, there really aren’t any good wireless solutions, yet, and they’re really not all that wireless, anyway, since you usually have to plug them into a power outlet. What you could do, if the speakers can be put near the walls, is run your cabling along and underneath (or even behind) the baseboards. Then put the speakres on stands. The cables won’t be completely hidden, but they won’t be too obvious and they won’t be running across the floors, plus you won’t have to actually cut into your walls. Wireless will probably never manage to replace a wired connection in terms of reliability and sound quality. At least, not any time soon.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

Just to clarify … plasmas these days rarely, if ever, get burn in.

It was an issue when they were first introduced but is hasn’t been an issue with models produced in the past 5+ years.

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