Home Theater's Biggest Mistakes

-Contributed by TechLiving Magazine

by Mike McGann

10 Stupid Things Smart People Do When Setting Up a Home Theater.

Home theater isn't like what you see on TV; tons of good-looking men and women dying to view a scary-real-life picture in a plush, high-tech room.

Unfortunately, in the rush to reach home theater nirvana, a lot of people make mistakes that can leave them somewhere between mildly disappointed and wanting to toss the whole mess out a window. Look, we know you're smart, but we also know that for some people, a part of the brain just shuts off when thinking about buying and setting up electronics, reducing them to technology "Rainmen" - "Definitely must have surround sound, must have surround sound; I'm an excellent installer, an excellent installer." If you want a good performing system, regardless of price range, it pays to figure out what you want, what you can afford, what you're capable of doing yourself and what has worked for other people. While reading reviews in magazines might be helpful, a better bet might be visiting home theater forums, where you can learn from other's mistakes and successes with various products. We've compiled a list of some of the biggest mistakes (and how to avoid them) to give you the best shot at ending up with a home theater system you can really enjoy.

1. In Over Your Head

While a lot of people can set up a home theater system, it's not for everyone and can be deceptively difficult. Sometimes, the best decision you can make is to write a check and let someone else do it.

"Some customers assume that they can set up their own home theater system without the help of a qualified dealer. Before they know it, the 'do-it-yourselfers' are in over their head. The system doesn't work correctly and never will. The cost to get it fixed is greater than it would have been if they had called a qualified dealer in the first place," says Terry Menacker, president of Overture Home Theater, a retailer/installer of custom home electronics located in Wilmington, Del. Menacker is admittedly biased against do it yourselfers. "Even worse is that many customers don't know they're in over their head and live with a system that isn't working up to it's potential."

As a rule of thumb, if you're the type of person that always needs computer help, you might want to reach for the checkbook.

2. What Am I Buying?

Imagine buying a two-seater sports car and then figuring out it's lousy at hauling home repair stuff from the local Lowe's. This is the kind of mistake people who buy home theater systems make all the time. Music aficionados end up with great movie systems that are so-so for music, and movie fans get systems that are killer for music, but uninspiring when replaying Saving Private Ryan. Not all home theater is created equally. The things that make one mind-blowing for movies not be so great for playing video games or listening to two-channel music. With a little forethought, you can design a system that suits your needs and preferences.

For example, a front-projection video display would be perfect for the real home theater; it performs at its best in a darkened room - great for a dedicated theater room, but maybe not so great in a bright family room where it will be mostly used to watch football games or the nightly news. Also, those tiny speakers that sound so fabulous in your bedroom might not sound so good in a giant living room with a cathedral ceiling. So before you run off to the store, figure out what you want your system to do, how you plan to use it, and where.

3. Picture Confusion

Since home theater comes baked in with a lot of complicated jargon, it's good to know the basic terms and setups. One thing that seems to trip people up a lot these days may seem like complicated math, but it's just 4x3 and 16x9.

"One of the most common things people do is they complain about 'those black bars at the top and bottom of the picture. I want a TV that doesn't do that'," says Steve Feinstein, product development manager for Atlantic Technology. "No matter how many times you explain about 16:9 versus 4:3 picture formatting, widescreen versus standard TV, etc., all you get back is a glazed-eye stare, and then they say, again, "Yeah, but I don't want any of those black bars.' It's hopeless."

Well, maybe not hopeless, but clearly confusing. In short, 4x3 is the same old shape TVs came in back in the 1950s and the way the vast majority of TV is broadcast today. A 16x9 is wider and is the basic format of high-definition TV and anamorphic "enhanced for widescreen" DVDs. With either kind of display, you'll probably have to live with black bars at some point, either top and bottom on a 4x3 when watching letterboxed TV shows (like ER) and movies or on the left and right of 16x9 when watching CNN. Ultimately, all programming will move to the wider format, although it may take a decade or so, which means more black bars if you buy a 4x3 set and progressively less if you go for 16x9.

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4. Mismatching products

When buying theater components, it's crucial that they work well together. A good rule of thumb is that decent speakers require at least 100 watts of power per channel and more power is better, as you are actually more likely to blow out your speakers from cranking up an underpowered system than playing an overpowered system loudly.

Another benefit is improved dynamic range. That means dialogue stays fairly quiet, while explosions are louder. A badly-matched system will often play everything in narrow volume band, making everything less enjoyable.

5. Oh, Those Impulse Buys!

Men like to laugh at women who buy shoes or clothes on impulse, but the truth is, when it comes to electronics, those "open box" (or worse...off of the back of a truck) specials invariably leap into their cars and then come back to haunt both the checkbook and the home theater system they get wedged into.

Have a plan and stick to it. Don't let a sale (or worse, a salesman) get you to suddenly reverse course and toss out months of carefully considered planning.

6. Using the Wrong (or No) Tools

If you want to set your system up properly, you need some basic tools. Start with a good wire stripper for the speaker wires, a decent set of screwdrivers and two items not found typically in a toolbox: a sound pressure level meter (available at RadioShack, $30) and either Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials or Ovation's Avia Guide to Home Theater ($49 at Best Buy and Circuit City). You need the latter two DVDs to do basic calibration of your audio and video systems so they sound and look as good as they were designed to perform.

7. Knocked Out of Balance

After years of plain stereo sound, usually just from the TV, a lot of people are tempted to overdo it when it comes to the rear-surround channels. "Invariably when I hear someone's first home theater system, the surround channels are at least 10 dB higher than everything else," says Peter Tribeman, president of Atlantic Technology. "No matter how many times the proper calibration method is spelled out in the owner's manual, first-timers believe that if the surrounds are not audible all the time then something is 'wrong.' These channels are often so loud you cannot understand the dialog."

The best way to get balanced sound is to sit in your normal listening position with the SPL meter and use the Test Tone button on your receiver's remote. The receiver should play static through each of the speakers in your system and boost or reduce the levels in each channel so that they read the same level on the meter.

8. Failing to Embrace Digital Audio

There is a lot of speculation among electronics industry insiders about how many people properly connect the digital audio from their DVD players and satellite receivers; some feel less than half of do-it-yourselfers get it right. It's easy to get fooled, as connecting the standard stereo RCA audio cable from your DVD player to the receiver will give you Pro Logic surround sound, just not true digital 5.1-, 6.1- or 7.1-channel audio. Make sure you have a single cable; either an optical cable, a thin fiber optic cable that glows red at the end when you plug it in, or a coaxial digital cable, which looks a lot like a single audio cable. Both ends should be plugged into "digital" ports.

Another thing that trips people up is the audio setting on the DVD player. Make sure it's set to Dolby Digital/DTS and not PCM, which just puts out a digital version of the stereo soundtrack.
If you've been living with mere analog surround, you'll be amazed at the increase in clarity of dialogue and detail of sound effects once you make the change to digital.

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9. Getting Blinded by the Light

If you love your TV, you must do one thing right away when you get it home from the store. Immediately reduce both the brightness and contrast levels for the display. TV makers ship them out set at levels designed to look good on brightly-lit showroom floors. Unfortunately, these near- super-nova levels are bad for the TV and make for bad performance once you get them home, with washed-out color and eye-popping brightness.

10. Making a Big Mess

Okay, assuming you've avoided all of the above traps and have managed to create a good sounding system with a great picture, you may still have one problem: your wires are strewn all over the place. Aside from the fact that those who live with you are going to want to string you up, you could be compromising the future performance of your system by not neatly bundling your cables and properly securing all components.

"When you look inside a quality electronic component, you can't help but notice that the wiring it is neat and carefully run," says Menacker. "If not, it would be noisy, have poor sound, or a low quality picture and probably wouldn't be very reliable. Sloppy, incorrectly run wiring that is poorly terminated will devastate the performance of any system. There are specific techniques that must be followed to insure proper performance."
You'll find some major rewards if you spend the extra time and effort to set up your home theater system properly: better performance and a longer life for your electronics.

Following a few simple rules can make a big difference in how much enjoyment you get from your home theater. As for the good-looking women, well, c'mon, we're not miracle workers, right?

Hire a Pro or No?

One of the toughest things for people to figure out when creating a home theater system is whether or not they need professional help. No, not counseling, which your significant other might try to send you to if you cover their living room with cables and remotes, but professional audio/video installers and designers.

One rule of thumb is where you buy your gear. If you're shopping at retail, can read the directions and plug a few things in, a pro is probably not going to drastically improve on your system's performance. You would be well advised to buy a copy of Digital Video Essentials or the Avia Guide to Home Theater, two DVDs that can help you get the most from your system in terms of audio and video performance. If you can set up a PC and get it running by yourself, you can probably cope. If on the other hand, you feel uncomfortable operating anything beyond a remote, most large electronics chains, including Best Buy and Circuit City, will come to your home, for a fee, and set up your new system. A warning, though, most major retailers contract out for this service and the quality varies. If you do need help, your best bet tends to be someone you hire and can find when things go wrong. But don't expect an installer to come running if you tried it yourself and made a mess of things.

If you are buying big-buck products from specialty retailers, you will probably need a lot more expertise to get the most from your new toys, and in some cases, to get them to properly work at all. Just like you wouldn't take a Ferrari to Jiffy Lube, you need a pro to make your Krell or Runco work right. "To get the best out of today's complex electronics there is no substitute for experience, proper system design, training and the correct diagnostic equipment for set up," says Terry Menacker, president of Overture Home Theater, Wilmington, Del., a retailer and installer of custom home electronics.

If you're considering a high-end ($100,000 or more) full-blown home theater installation, you'll want to consult a local custom audio/video installer. Check out ElectronicHouse.com, the Imaging Science Foundation or the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). Each one can provide you with a list of trained installers and/or technicians.

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