What home theater is right for me?

What home theater is right for me?

What seems like a simple question gets complicated by the myriad opinions out there. Not only are there established standards from THX, DTS and Dolby, but home theater gatekeepers also have their own take. Each one is more snobbish than the last. If you don’t do it exactly right then you’re lacking.

This is the first part in a series looking at specific user needs for home theater to help you find what works best for your own personal needs; and as always the main consideration is budget.

What is home theater?

The first consideration we must approach is what we will be calling home theater in this series. A home theater does not have to be a facsimile of the megaplex, and it doesn’t even have to be used for movies. What we will consider home theater is an audio/video system providing multiple sources of entertainment including a display and speakers. Really basic stuff.

The reason we have to get this out of the way is because there are industry organizations that have their own definition of what a home theater is and how it should perform. These organizations differ – sometimes dramatically – on what a home theater should be. We want to focus on what a consumer like you would consider to be an acceptable home theater system.

Analyzing the standards

We can’t provide you with any real consensus on what the standards are because they all differ on number of audio channels, speaker placement and sound pressure level. However, we can address what the general agreements are.

  • Discrete multi-channel sound playback
  • Channel separation
  • Intelligible voice playback
  • Simulates cinema experience
  • Delivers the director’s intent

These are broad definitions, and purposefully so. Even attempting to narrow down the agreed upon standards we can only find intentions. How we get there is debated.

The main advantage of using a standard is that the standards bodies are scaled for size so a Dolby cinema should give a similar performance in a Dolby home theater. The same goes for THX, DTS and SSDS. Even still, these standards bodies have multiple standards for home theater which add channels cinemas don’t have, or provide analytical channel mixing to provide different effects.

Discrete multi-channel sound playback
Movie soundtracks and music recordings usually have multiple channels. This is differentiated from the practically obsolete mono channel recordings. Stereo provides two channels, left and right. Quadrophonic provides four channel surround sound. Those formats designated with a decimal, such as 2.1, 5.1, 7.1, 11.2 and so on, indicate a number of full range speakers plus a number of low-frequency channels which carry frequencies from all channels through one speaker called a subwoofer.

Channel separation
Standards bodies dictate precise positioning of each speaker channel to provide the listener with the ability to distinguish each channel independent of the others. In a 5.1 system this allows the audience to know from which direction a specific sound is coming from, like a helicopter flyover for example. Some sounds may come from multiple channels and their correct positioning will allow that sound to appear from a space between those differing locations. Low frequencies aren’t directional in nature which is why a single speaker can handle every channel from one location.

Intelligible voice playback
For movie soundtracks the most critical focal point is the voice tracks. If you can’t make out what the characters on screen are saying you’re going to have a bad time. (Unfortunately many newer films were mixed this way and speaker size and placement don’t matter; I’m looking at you Avengers.) Standards usually focus on the center channel as it contains most voice tracks and position the other speakers in relation to it.

Simulates cinema experience
A home theater should provide a similar experience to what you might expect from a large cinema only at a smaller scale. In my line of work we often find home theater is a better experience to cinema when executed properly. This means the display screen is the right size for the room, it’s light output is adequate, the speakers are the right size and provided with the right power, they’re located in the right spot, and the lighting in the room is controlled.

Delivers the director’s intent
As mentioned before, the standards allow a film studio to produce audio and video to a specification that can then be reproduced in the cinema and at home with effective results. This means the colors are accurate to the director’s intent, the screen shape is correct, and the audio performs at a certain level.

What to expect from this series

With this introduction out of the way, what can you expect? As we’ve seen above, home theater makes many compromises to the cinema experience and standards are meant to guide which compromises make the best sense. What we will attempt to do is use several real-world examples and discuss which compromises suit that particular consumer and why. This will take into consideration living conditions, lifestyle and budget.

We hope you follow along and learn what can provide you with the best possible home theater experience.

About Steven Kippel

Steven Kippel has worked as a systems designer for a leading high-end audio/video custom integrator in Southern California since 2003. He is responsible for researching new technologies and integrating them into existing systems and new construction projects. He has designed several high-profile systems for discriminating clients on the cutting-edge of technology. When he is not hard at work, Steven is spending time with his wife, playing with his band or promoting concerts and bands in the Inland Empire. His favorite bands include The Cure, U2, Eisley, Living Sacrifice and DragonForce.

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