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Building a Home Theater: Things to Consider

Target: These days Blu-Ray offers very high fidelity video with multi-track audio.

This is a checklist of things to consider when building your home theater.

Source Player:

  • Supports all popular physical media.
  • Source connectivity. Ethernet/wifi. But also USB, MHL and bluetooth for your mobile devices. Could also be in receiver.
  • Apps. Related to connectivity make sure you can use your favorite streaming services (or play from the network).
  • Fast loading. It makes a difference, make sure it's a least tolerable.
  • Make sure player supports the latest audio/video codecs. With HDMI I recommend using your player for transport+transcode only so it will need to massage the data before sending it to the receiver.
  • Can also handle mapping all the different aspect ratios onto your screen gracefully.
  • In addition it should natively support your TVs frame rate and screen resolution.
  • Make sure it can map the source audio track to your receiver. This is fairly mature and only really matures if your receiver is ancient.
  • Digital outputs only. In a Blu-Ray player all your sources are digital so don't waste money on analog outputs when your receiver already has digital to analog conversion.
  • Make sure the a/v quality is verified. It may be digital only but the source is converted to something your TV can use plus you may be using your player to enhance or clean up. Look for reviews online. This is not a big deal these days, but some vendors decode and don't verify things like color accuracy are correct.

Video Quality:

  • Screen size: make it large.
  • Screen resolution: at least 2k, but 4k is becoming standard.
  • Dynamic range: Black should be black, white should be very bright. Read CNET reviews.
  • Color accuracy: Read CNET reviews. Make sure gray scales are correct and that the color spectrum is both covered completely and accurately.
  • Frame rates: Make sure the TV is capable of high frame rates without blur or other forms of persistence. I always view in person before buying.
  • Consistency: Fidelity of image, especially large TVs, varies over the surface of the screen. Check your TV out of the box.

Audio Quality:

  • # of channels. Make sure you have at least 5.1. 7.2 is better and with Atmos you could in theory add 64 speakers to your home theater!
  • Frequency response and accuracy: correctly produce sound without being boomy, muddy, distorted or harsh.
  • Various forms of distortion: see above.
  • Transient response: Make sure it effortlessly reproduces bass and without washing out the higher frequencies.

Everything Else:
These are the things that transform a few boxes of hardware into an amazing experience. Don't overlook them.

  • The Room:
    • If you can wing it dedicate a room. Otherwise pick a room with as few holes as possible. This makes it easier to reproduce balanced sound.
    • Walls. They shouldn't be thin. Sound reflects off walls and thin walls distort sound. Lock down anything that rattles. Use solid materials in your walls. If you can't change anything then find some rugs to hang up. Good sound absorbing rugs.
  • Furniture:
    • Find a couch or chairs that you love to sit in.
    • If you need a table make sure it is rigid, does not resonate or rattle and make sure it isn't reflective (like glass) because it will make using remotes a total pain in the ass.
    • Wall mount your TV if possible. Pick the correct height.
    • Pick a good, solid box for your home theater gear. Bury it in a closet or walls if possible. Like the table nothing should resonate and also it should be extremely sturdy because your gear is heavy.
    • Same goes for speaker stands.
    • Placement. Make sure your TV is at the correct height and centered. Make sure your speakers are at the same height and correctly placed in your room. Make sure your speakers are symmetrical.
    • Cable management. If not built into your furniture buy some ties or a cable management kit.
  • Power:
    • Lightning/surge protection: Make sure you buy good gear that can withstand high energy strikes over and over. They can also disconnect the outlets on overvoltage. My favorite brand for surge protection only are from Furman.
    • It is also good to include a fair amount of isolation and filtering. This ensures that one device will not impose itself on another (like digital noise from your TV injecting noise onto your amp or your amp causing glitches in your TV). Furman excels at this.
    • Also consider grounding. Star grounding is the only way to go and high end power strips include star grounding with a large amount of metal to reduce voltage drop between components. This will eliminate buzz and noise and also ensure your devices work together. Furman also excels at this.
    • There is another thing to consider and that is capacity. Some power monitors include huge reservoirs of capacitors. This accomplishes two things. One, it decouples your home theater from the power lines so your home theater doesn't interfere with the rest of your house. Second it allows your amp to take a "deeper drink" when it needs it. This is possible because low capacitors physically near your amp can provide many 10s of amps where your line can only provide 10-20 amps. (btw this is only is only true for brief periods of time, like a bass drum. This can improve the sound of your bass.) Also, do not buy a UPS. That is a totally different class of power device.
  • Network:
    • Be sure to provide a high speed internet connection with equally high speed upload rate to your home theater.
    • Low latency is important for gaming or responsive browsing.
    • Wire your network with ethernet rather than wifi.
    • Pay extra attention to security.
  • Sound and Vibration:
    • As mentioned above make sure your room has good acoustics.
    • Make sure your furniture does not rattle or resonate.
    • Make sure external sources of sound are dampened or eliminated. This could be neighbors, traffic or equipment like your fridge and air conditioner.
    • Computers are noisy. It is relatively inexpensive to build a system with only a single moving part: the system fan (passive power supply, water cooled CPU, SSD hard drive).
  • Light:
    • Manage sources of light in your home. Day time may not matter so much but be able to black your room for your favorite movies at night.
    • At the same time make sure you provide some mood lighting or a small amount of light for more casual occasions.
  • Cabling:
    • Generally expensive cables are a waste of money, but here are a few things that make a difference.
    • For digital buy compliant cables.
    • Make sure they are shielded. This keeps out noise.
    • Buy cables with great connectors. This makes better connections that don't degrade and they fail less often.
    • I also recommend buying a cable with a slip sleeve. This makes the cable more supple and they bend with less stress making them last longer.
    • From source to TV and source to receiver (or receiver to TV) you're set. HDMI is all you need. If the cable is HDMI compliant it's good enough. Don't waste money.
    • For XLR follow the recommendations above.
    • For speakers buy as heavy a gage as you can. Use the tips above and ignore the marketing.
    • Keep speaker cables away from line level cables. Keep them both away from digital cables.
  • Input devices and integration:
    • One of the most important, but often the most neglected. This is closely related to integration so I combine them here.
    • First, make sure all your requipment supports CEC. This will allow one button click power on/off.
    • Buy a universal remote. Something with great UX and ergonomics. Preferably something that you can set on your table and doesn't stay alight. Or handheld with an accelerometer. But the key here is having one remote with 1 click power on/off.
    • Since you're likely to be running many apps and surfing the web (slowly but surely replacing that laptop/desktop) buy a good integrated kb/mouse. Again it should have fantastic UX and ergonomics.
    • Make sure these devices have great battery life.
  • Calibration
    • This is all a waste if you don't calibrate.
    • Pay a professional to calibrate your audio.
    • Pay a professional to calibrate your video.

That's everything I could think of.

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