What is Home Theatre?
Home theatre is the fusion of sight and sound. Its essential parts are a display device (a television) and an audio/video source (cable, DVD, satellite, antenna, VCR). A home theatre's primary function is to route sound and pictures from these sources to your surround-sound speakers and television. The goal is to bring you as close to the ultimate theatre audio experience as possible. Depending on your individual audio/visual needs and the extent to which you wish to pursue "true" surround sound, home theatre can mean different things to different people.
Home Theatre Systems Versus Separate Components
There are two ways to achieve the sound experience of a home theatre: separate components or an integrated home theatre system. Separate component systems usually include a preamp or processor, a receiver or amplifier, a number of speakers and other source components such as a DVD player or VCR. The number of sources can be as many or as few as an individual can hook up or afford. Component systems offer you a great deal of flexibility: you have the freedom to mix and match pieces to meet your unique needs and you can build a system, one piece at a time, as your budget allows. This flexibility, however, comes with a price. Choosing separate components can often be confusing and set-up may be complicated for some less-experienced electronics shoppers.
Often referred to as home theatre "shelf systems" or "home theatre in a box," integrated home theatre systems offer a simple solution to the world of endless home theatre component options. Most systems include all of the audio components needed for home theatre sound in one package: preamp or processor, amplifier, speaker and, at times, sources like a CD or DVD player as well. This type of system is extremely easy to select, assemble and use. The majority of major electronics manufacturers offer some type of home theatre system and, considering the amount of product for the price, this option can be an excellent value. Many audiophiles claim, however, that integrated home theatre systems offer less impressive sound quality than component systems. They argue that, at times, advanced features on integrated systems fail to match up to component systems and that it can be hard to upgrade an integrated system.
Surround Sound Formats
The home theatre receiver is the foundation and hub of home theatre systems because it has a surround-sound processor. All home theatre systems include one of Dolby® Digital (AC-3), Dolby® Pro Logic® or DTS® (digital theatre systems) surround sound.
Dolby® Digital (AC-3)
The most popular digital surround sound format, it is often referred to as 5.1 (five main channels of full-range sound plus a low frequency effects channel or subwoofer). Dolby® Digital offers realistic surround effects and dynamic range.
Dolby® Pro Logic®
Converts encoded two-channel stereo signals into four channels (left, centre, right and monophonic). The majority of movies made in the past 20 years, most TV shows, commercials and VHS videotapes are encoded with Dolby® Pro Logic®. Some experts contend that Pro Logic® has its limitations because the rear channel is monophonic. In other words, no matter how many speakers you use in the back or your room, they all receive the same limited frequency signal.
Digital Theatre Systems (DTS®)
Competes with Dolby® Digital in the 5.1 system arena. It uses a lower digital compression than Dolby® Digital (DTS uses 1:4, Dolby® Digital uses 1:12) and has a higher fidelity due to 20-bit audio (Dolby® Digital has 16-bit audio). However, DTS requires three times as much disc storage space, limiting the variety and length of soundtracks and language tracks available. Only about three percent of DVD movies are DTS encoded. Also, in order to play a DTS disc, you must have a DTS surround processor and a Laser Disc or DVD player with a digital output. Not all DVD players on the market are capable of playing a DTS disc.
Like many other electronics categories, home theatre prices tend to vary a great deal. If you choose to build a system out of individual components, you can spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Integrated home theatre system prices generally range from around $500 to $1,500 with an average price range of $700 to $1,000. Of course, like anything else, the more bells and whistles, the more expensive the system.
Consider These Important Features...
It is important to consider these features when choosing a home theatre system:
This is the primary measure of the power of home theatre systems. Generally speaking, the greater the power output in watts, the greater the capacities for loud, clear sound. But remember, quality sound is more than volume alone. Some low-powered home theatre systems actually sound better than systems with much more wattage. Look (and more importantly, listen) for total harmonic distortion level ratings under 0.1 percent and for power ratings that cover a wide audio frequency spectrum.
Centre channel power
Most home theatre systems have three front channels (right, centre and left). The centre channel contains the majority of the movie dialogue and action. In order to maintain proper surround sound balance, the centre channel power rating (wattage) should be similar to the front/main power ratings. Again, look for power ratings that cover a wide audio frequency spectrum.
Most home theatre systems have a rear section that may offer one monophonic channel (in Dolby® Pro Logic®) or right and left channels (as in Dolby® Digital and DTS®). Rear power in a Dolby® Pro Logic® system is usually sufficient at levels less than half of front channel power ratings. For best results in a two-stereo system, each channel should have equal wattage. Look for power ratings that cover a wide audio frequency spectrum.
Subwoofers provide home theatre systems with a low audio signal using a speaker to provide bass sound usually from 20 to 80 Hertz. They are designed to produce the lowest possible bass response human ears are capable of hearing. Some of these frequencies are so low they are more often felt than heard. Generally speaking, the greater the subwoofer output in watts, the greater the capacity for loud and vivid bass sound (i.e., thunder or explosions).
Digital-ready 5.1 inputs
Digital-ready 5.1 inputs allow for the addition of an external digital decoder (a DVD player with built-in decoder, for example). Home theatre systems with these inputs are considered to be future compatible with digital television, radio, cable and satellite broadcasts.
The more audio components you have, the more audio inputs you will need. The number of audio inputs varies from system to system (most systems offer between two and seven). A good rule of thumb: you can't have too many, especially if you plan to add components in the future.