How To Set Up A Home Theatre System

Details about placement and set-up of a home theatre system.

Sure, you can watch your favorite movie on a regular television with a regular VCR. But for the full, immersive audio and visual experience, a home theatre system is the way to go. It's not quite the same as tearing up your living room and installing a curtained screen and stadium seating, but with the right equipment and the right set-up, movies and TV shows will look and sound almost as good on your home theatre as the latest feature looks and sounds in the local multiplex.

A home theatre is more than a simple big screen TV with stereo sound. Your image can be displayed on a traditional TV, a flat screen, a rear projection, a screen with a projector, or on the tricked-out Cadillac of screens, a plasma screen. And then there's your audio, which in a proper home theatre set-up surrounds you as you watch. Most home theatre systems come with five speakers and a subwoofer. This may seem like a lot of speakers at first, but once you have everything put together, you'll see that five speakers is the right amount.

Home theatres also have a receiver. This works just like a stereo receiver: all of your components are routed through it, and most units even have an AM/FM radio built in. Your reason for buying a home theatre is probably to have a DVD player, but surprisingly, not all home theatre systems have a DVD player included! Double check to make sure that yours does. Some, but not all, DVD players also play MP3 CDs and VCDs. If you listen to a lot of music in MP3 format, and if you burn VCDs on your home computer, these features will probably be important to you.

You'll also want to check the output options on your DVD player. This is the connection between the player and the screen. All models will have a standard component, RCA output; these are the red, white, and yellow plugs. The yellow is the video output, and the red and white are your two channels of stereo audio. These outputs will give you a decent picture, but an S-Video output will give you a better one. This output is a small, circular, multi-pin jack, and will be marked with "S-Video or simply an "S." When using the S-Video output, it's important to remember that it's only a video output, so you'll still need to use audio cables to get sound. The same holds true for composite outputs, which will give you the best picture. Composite breaks up the video signal into red, green, and blue channels. The three jacks should be these three colors, and may also be marked with "Y," "Pb," and "Pr." If you have a high-quality plasma screen, you'll get the sharpest and cleanest picture if you use the composite output.

If you purchased your home theatre as an all-in-one system, there should be a set of audio output jacks on the back of your receiver. Your speakers plug into here. But even if you purchased your receiver and speakers separately, it should still be obvious where they connect.

The next thing you'll want to think about is your power. Your home theatre system should be plugged into a surge protector to avoid damage during a lightening storm, and the surge protector should be plugged into a grounded outlet. If you have a plasma or other expensive, high-quality screen, you might consider using a power conditioner. This steadies and purifies your power source. A lot of electricity that's pumped to residences is considered "dirty," or not constant, and this can interfere with the quality of your image. Starting at $200, power conditioners aren't cheap, but purchasing one may be worth your money to get a superior picture.

Additionally, you'll want to avoid plugging anything in and turning anything on until it's all set up. It might be tempting to switch things on before they're connected, but to avoid connecting live jacks or any sudden surges in power, you'll be better off if you set everything up and then turn it all on at once.

As you're getting ready to set everything up and plug everything in, you'll want to have two things at arm's reach. The first is a flashlight. This is so you'll be able to see which input and output plug on the back of your receiver is which. They're marked, but it's often small, and it's often in raised type that's the same color as the unit, so a flashlight will really help you see what's what. The second thing is the manual that came with your equipment. Many of us want to tear right into set-up without reading the instructions, but a quick read through the manual can save you some troubleshooting headaches as you get into your task.

Before you set up your home theatre, you'll need to figure out what room in your house in which to put it. A square or rectangular enclosed room will yield the best acoustics. Carpeted floors are also best in home theatres; a hardwood floor will make the audio echo. You'll also want to choose a room in which you can control the lighting easily.

Whether you've got a TV, big screen, or plasma, you'll want to put it at least 12 feet from your couch, chair, or wherever you're going to sit when you watch. Generally, the larger the screen, the farther away from it you want to sit. When you decide on a good place for your screen, make sure that there's no lamp or window glare on it to interfere with your picture.

The next thing to take care of is speaker placement. In a 5.1 surround system, your center speaker should go above the screen; directly on top is fine, as long as it's not in danger of falling or being knocked off. Your two main speakers go five to eight feet from the screen on both sides. If it's possible, they should be a little bit behind and above the screen, and they should definitely be equidistant from the screen. Your two surround speakers should go behind your couch or seating area, above the viewers if possible, and equally distant from them. Some variation from this set-up is okay, but for optimal surround sound audio quality, this speaker arrangement is best.

Then there's the question of what to do with the subwoofer. It's big and clunky, but a good bass rumble is a lot of what you're paying for when you buy a home theatre. It's the "point-one" in your 5.1 surround sound. Bass is non-directional, so you have some options on where to place it. Your best bet, though, in terms of both sound quality and room arrangement, is to place it on the floor next to the screen.

There are a few other things to keep in mind when arranging your home theatre. First, make sure you'll have access to your components and cables, should you need to get to them. Home theatre furniture may be popular, but if you need to switch things around once you get everything set up, it can be a real pain to get to the backs of things if they're in an enclosed unit. Open shelves are probably your best bet. Second, most of your components will have heat vents. Make sure these vents have space to let that heat out; setting things up too tightly may cause your equipment to overheat. And finally, if you decide to stack things, don't put more weight on a piece than it can bear. For example, a heavy television shouldn't rest on a slim DVD player.

The question of what cables to use always comes up when putting together a home theatre. Chances are, your equipment came with cables. But, if you purchased your home theatre at a big box retailer, the salesperson probably tried to sell you different cables: high-quality, so-called "monster" cables. These are usually expensive, and while they may give you a better picture, you might not find that they're worth the money. You're looking for two things on cables: a snug fit in the jacks and a good conductor on the end. A loose connection will give you wavering picture quality, as will a lower-quality metal. Another rule of thumb is that the greater the distance between connected pieces, the higher quality of cable you'll want to use. In general, though, you might want to choose the $15 cables over the $80 ones.

When everything's connected properly, turn it on, watch, and listen. Sit where you'd normally sit when watching TV. Does the screen look good, or is there glare from a lamp on it? Does the audio sound good, or does it sound hollow? Make sure everything's connected properly if you're not satisfied with how everything looks and sounds, and tweak placement and volume as needed to get the best audio and video.

When you're finished setting up, check to see where your wires are. If they're in a place where they can be tugged easily or where people might trip over them, you'll want to move them out of the way. Running them under carpet is a good idea, as are wire covers, which can be purchased at any hardware store for a few dollars. If you're handy and don't mind putting holes in your wall or floor, you might consider running them under the floor or behind the wall. Finally, tying up your wires close to the receiver with wire ties will keep your set-up neat.

Now that your home theatre is put together and ready to go, you'll want to make sure that you're getting the most out of it. Keep all of your speakers turned on for the best sound. And, when you watch a DVD, go to the audio set-up menu and choose the 5.1 surround sound option. Many DVDs have this option, and when you use it, it truly feels like you're in the action.

© High Speed Ventures 2011