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Home Theater Guide – 1

November 2, 2007 Leave a comment

Couple of months back when I started off to buy my home theater setup, I was awestruck with the number of options available. I was especially bothered about spending a chunk of $$ only to realize I missed something or if some better/ cheaper alternative was available to what I brought. So I did my digging…this post is a kind of Home theater 101 based on what I found from my self learning. Coincidentally this also started my audiophile hobby so most of the post will be biased towards that.

Components of a Home theater
Keeping aside the TV, the following are the components of any HT system:
1. Audio/ Video source – DVD or CD player
2. Receiver
3. Speaker setup

A good home theater system will take your movie watching experience to a whole new level. This could be either a life like dialog delivery or a 3D sound environment that makes you think you are part of the movie. The different components of a HT system work towards this:
1. DVD or CD player – read the disc and send the audio + video signals to the receiver
2. Receiver – receiver comes in between your DVD player and the TV/ Speaker systems. It receives the signals from the source (DVD player) and distributes the signals to various units. Eg. video goes to the TV, sound is distribued across the speakers.
3. Speakers – reproduce the sound sent by the receiver

In order to create a life like audio environment, the HT setup distributes sound in 360 deg around the viewer. This is accomplised by the placement of the speakers. In a 5.1 setup, there will be 5 speakers that are placed around the viewer thus giving a realistic experience.

A “5.1” setup means there are 5 speakers and 1 sub woofer. Other popular setups are a 2.1 – stereo setup or the new 7.1 hidef setup. In these, there are 2 and 7 main speakers accompanied by a subwoofer.

Types of Speakers
One can broadly classify them into the main speakers and the sub-woofer. Different types of sound (instrumental, vocal, birds, animals, vehicles, music etc) fall in different frequency range. The sub woofer is used to play the sounds in the low frequency range (< 100 Hz) and the main speakers play the frequencies above this. The actual value of this cut-off frequency changes from system to system and also based on user preferance. It is called the “cross-over” frequency. Based on your preference you can set the value of cross over as 80, 100 Hz etc .

 As discussed above 5.1 means that there are 5 main speakers and 1 sub woofer.

Of the 5 main speakers, each speaker serves a special purpose. The receiver actually splits the sound from the DVD and sends different parts the different speakers. The vocals (dialogues etc) go to the central channel. Then the sound is distributed over the rest of the speakers. This enables effects like sound fading when subject goes out of screen etc.

So how to choose a HT system?
Whether you buy a cheap 200-300$ setup or a 15000$ both are going to have the same components listed above. What makes difference is the quality of sound reproduction – the elite ones reproduce sound the closes to the natural source. This is because they are able to accurately reproduce sounds of different frequencies. So sound quality of the speakers is the number one criteria for selecting a HT setup.

The second criteria is your DVD/ CD player. This player should be able to support multiple formats (CD audio, Apple, Mp3, WMA). One important thing is that it should support the latest Video and Audio formats – HD DVD, Blue-ray, Super Audio CD (SACD). There is a huge variety of players from 50$ to 3000$ to choose from.

The third criteria is the receiever. First it should be able to support a 5.1 setup atleast. Then it should have the required ports – HDMI, S-Video, component etc. Again based on the quality there are receivers available from 200$ to 8000$ and more.

The fourth criteria should be ease of setup. High end speakers usually need special placement to deliver the best sound quality.

When selecting a HT system the first three criteria should dictate what setup you choose. The ease of setup need not really be a deciding factor. Of course you would start with a budget so that really might be the deciding factor on what you end up buying. But within a given budget, it is generally a good idea to spend 50-60% on the speakers and the rest on the player+receiver.

In the next post I will go through some famous brands/ setups available. 

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