How To Build Your First Home Theatre System

Chances are you've spent a good chunk of money on the game consoles, Blu-ray player and home theatre PC (HTPC) hooked up to your TV. However, if you're connecting all of that gear to your TV's crappy speakers, the results will be less than stellar. It's time to fix that. Setting up a proper home theatre doesn't have to be terribly expensive or complicated. Here's how to build (or rebuild) your home theatre.

Beefing up your home theatre isn't difficult, and there are heaps of benefits. You'll get a chance to organise your cable clutter, label your gear, free up badly needed audio and video inputs, and, with a few smart additions to your setup, improve your video and sound. In this post, we'll walk you through the basics you'll need for any home entertainment system, and offer a few pointers to get the best bang for your buck and make setup easy.

What You'll Need For Any Home Theatre

There are a few core components to any home theatre setup. Not that when we say "home theatre," we're not talking about putting a full movie theatre in your home, we're simply describing what your home entertainment system will be like when you're finished: multiple devices, an awesome TV and great speakers, all working together in harmony.

We're going to assume you have a few components already, such as a game console, Blu-ray player, Foxtel box or PVR -- the stuff you're actually going to hook up to your home theatre. We'll tackle how to shop for the best audio components without breaking the bank in a moment, but for now here's a quick list of the core items:

  • HDTV: High-definition televisions are quite affordable these days, and the impending switch to digital means most Australians are likely to have a relatively capable TV. A new TV doesn't just have to mean a bigger screen either; the latest TVs are extremely thin and light, making them easy to move around, and come with smart features like built-in internet streaming, Wi-Fi connectivity to your other devices and their own range of apps.
  • Receiver: Your receiver will be the hub that handles all of the video and audio for your system. Your consoles, PVR and most other inputs will be plugged in to the receiver, and the receiver will send the video to your television and the audio to your speakers. That leaves you with a more organised system, and one device to connect and manage all of your gear.
  • Speakers: The biggest benefit of setting up a home theatre is that you have complete control over the audio. Don't underestimate the receiver's role in this, but getting a decent pair of speakers that's right for your space will make everything you watch sound much better. Good speakers come at all price points and sizes, so you don't have to worry that just because you have a small space or tight budget you won't be able to enjoy great sound.
  • Soundbar (Optional): If you're looking for a space-saving and affordable way to add great sound to your home theatre, consider a soundbar. Most modern soundbars are powered and amplified, so you won't need a receiver. You'll connect all of your devices to your TV, then output the sound from your TV to the soundbar. Depending on the soundbar you buy, you can get high-quality sound in a package that's a fraction of the size (and the cost) of surround systems.
  • Cables, Labels And Power: If you're thinking that you have everything plugged in now so you won't need additional cables, you're wrong. Now's the time to pick up some new, spare longer cables for all of your devices. Whether you need HDMI, component video or Ethernet will depend on your exact requirements. In every case, we'd recommend shopping online; pricing is much better than you'll see in any retail store, especially for HDMI. Speakers rarely come with speaker cable, so make sure you purchase some of that if you're adding new speakers to the mix.

With that brief overview in mind, here's some more specific advice on each element.

Choose The Right HDTV

Buying the right HDTV isn't difficult, but it can be easy to spend more than you need to because you think you have to have 1080p video or a 60-inch screen. The most important things that determine the type of television you buy are the type of video you plan to watch and where in your living room you plan to put your TV. The farther back you sit from your set, the less your eyes are able to tell the difference between 1080p and 720p. If you're sitting really close to your set, a 60-inch may be simply too large for your eyes to absorb. Conversely, if you're sitting really far away, you're not getting the benefit of real 1080p video.

Make sure to check out our guide to HDTV specs to demystify the important specs (size, resolution, picture type (LCD/LED/plasma), refresh rate) without getting hung up on the unimportant ones (drive frequency, contrast ratio). Don't get seduced into buying a TV with fancy features such as 3D or "smart" applications just because they're there: If you already have a game console or a cheap set-top box that you use to stream video, buying an app-equipped TV may not make sense. Voice and gesture controls are cool, but if you have a universal remote (or connect other devices to your TV) it won't get used much. Don't like or own 3D movies? Don't spend extra on 3D. All of those added features cost money -- money you could better spend on getting the best and biggest TV for your space and viewing distance.

Choose The Right Receiver

Finding the right receiver can be a difficult task. Prices and features are all over the map. It's easy to get seduced by stats such raw power, HDMI inputs, and add-on features like AirPlay support or Pandora streaming when you're shopping for one. Here's the bottom line: look for the features you need, and no further.

For example, if you don't have iOS devices or Macs, don't get stuck paying more for AirPlay support, something many manufacturers charge extra for (after all, you can often add those features yourself for less). If you don't plan to hook your home theatre up to a set of 7.1 or 9.1 surround sound speakers now or in the near future, don't pay for it in your receiver. There's something to be said for future-proofing, but if you're not planning to upgrade and make use of the features in 6-9 months don't bother. Remember: Electronics prices always go down and new models of everything are released every year.

Stick to reputable names (Denon, Onkyo, Marantz, Pioneer) with well-regarded hardware, and make sure you research specific models before you buy them to make sure you don't end up with something with known issues. If you have older game consoles or peripherals, make sure your receiver can support them before you buy -- it's easy to assume that any receiver will be a snap to configure for an old PlayStation 2, but that may not be the case depending on the cables you're using (a problem I ran into when I set up my receiver).

Check out this buying guide from Digital Trends and this article at Crutchfield for specifics on the specs you'll see while shopping for receivers, what they mean and whether they matter (spoiler: most of them don't.) We've hghlighted five models worth considering if you want some specific ideas.

Choose The Right Speakers

You may already have some speakers in mind, but before you even think about brands and models, look at the space you'll be placing them in. Think about where you'll place your speakers before you buy. Will you mount them on the walls or do you need stands? Will you have to run cable to get your speakers where you want them? Do you have furniture or other decor in between you and the speakers, or that you have to work around?

Start with speaker placement. Don't take it lightly: The right placement can seriously improve your audio quality. Ideally, you'll have your left and right front speakers at the same angle and distance from where you sit. Your rear surround speakers should be positioned in a similar manner. You can see what we mean in the image to the right. Check out the previously mentioned Dolby interactive speaker setup guide for tips specific to your space. It will help you place your 2.1, 5.1, or 7.1 speaker set for the best possible sound. Similarly, this guide from Crutchfield is a great primer to speaker placement.

Remember, if you live in a small space, or an apartment with neighbours on all sides, you shouldn't buy a huge set of floor speakers that could fill a space three times the size of your living room. The beauty of having a home theatre is that your components are modular, so if your budget grows later, you can buy better (or more) speakers later, and sell the old ones.

Now it's time to go shopping. Digital Trends has a great guide to speaker shopping, including some of the tips we've already mentioned. You're going to see terms like impedence, sensitivity, and frequency response, which are good to understand, but don't give them too much credence. They're important, but often fudged. We rounded up your favourite living room sets in a Lifehacker Hive Five not too long ago.

Choose The Right Soundbar

A soundbar is a small set of speakers in one, long housing. Most are self-powered and amplified, so you won't need (and actually can't use) a receiver with them. If you're dealing with a small space or you don't want the cost associated with receivers and speakers, a soundbar may be right up your alley. They usually only have one or two audio inputs, so you can't connect a lot of devices directly. Instead, you'll connect all of your audio and video sources to your TV, and then connect the audio output on your TV (usually optical or coax) to the soundbar. The soundbar will probably have three drivers (left/right/center) in it, and it may even ship with a wireless subwoofer, depending on the model you buy.

Soundbars are growing in popularity, since they're relatively affordable and offer good coverage. However, there are limitations: Since soundbars generally have few or no audio outputs, you're stuck with the audio you get from it. You can't add external speakers, and you don't get the features and fine control over your audio and video that a receiver offers. You trade a lot of power for convenience and budget.

We're not saying soundbars are a bad solution, just that you really have to consider what's important before you buy one. Know what you're giving up first, and try to avoid some of the common pitfalls that come with soundbars.

Check out Crutchfield's guide to soundbars before you buy. If you're a streaming music lover, save up for the Sonos Playbar, which sounds fantastic and works well with streaming services such as Spotify.

Put It All Together

When everything arrives at your door, put aside a few hours for setup. With luck, you won't need that long, but it's always better to have more time than too little, and you definitely don't want to be stuck trying to get your home theatre up and running 15 minutes before the season finale of your favourite show. Make sure you have all of your components, their instructions, and the tools and cables you need, too.

  1. Unbox everything and make sure you have all of your cables, documentation and tools handy.
  2. Disconnect everything you already have connected, and put your receiver where you want it to go. Turn it on, just to make sure it's working properly.
  3. Remember everything we said about speaker placement? Before you even set them up, it's a good idea to take the measurements required first, and then tape a sheet of paper to the floor where you'll stand your speakers, or to the wall where you plan to mount them.
  4. Run the necessary speaker cables to where your speakers will live. If you're planning to run them under furniture or through walls, now's a good time to do that, before you install the speakers in their permanent homes.
  5. Connect your external speakers to the audio outputs on your receiver. Try tuning the receiver to the radio just to make sure you're getting sound to your speakers.
  6. Now connect all of your video sources to the video inputs on your receiver. For most devices, HDMI will be your preferred connection method -- just about everything these days supports it. If you have older gadgets using component or composite, make sure you have the right cables and connect those as well.
  7. Connect your receiver's HDMI video output to your TV. If your receiver does video processing and signal conversion, even those old component and composite devices should pass video to your TV via HDMI. If it doesn't, you'll need to plug your receiver's component and composite video outputs to your TV as well.
  8. If you have devices connected directly to the TV that your receiver doesn't support, connect your TV's audio output (usually optical) to your receiver.

Essentially, think of it this way: Plug all of your devices into your receiver's inputs, then plug your TV and speakers into the receiver's outputs. Your video sources go into the receiver, and out to your TV and speakers. Every setup will be different, but these steps should give you some guidelines.

Make sure to test your devices along the way so you don't plug everything in only to find one item isn't working and you have to pull your receiver back out of the entertainment centre to troubleshoot it. Also, you might be tempted to try and connect everything in place without re-running cables. Don't do it. Start from scratch. Then you can run new cables where you want them to go, use twist ties or labels to keep them organised and neatly wrapped, smooth out any kinks and leave yourself slack where you need it, and replace any older video or audio cables with newer compatible ones (nothing like tossing out an old component cable for a new HDMI one). While you're at it, make sure you have plenty of slack on your cables so you can move your receiver, consoles or other devices around when you need to get to the back.

Avoid The Most Common Setup Mistakes

Make sure the process runs smoothly by following these tips to avoid mistakes (some of which I made when I recently upgraded my setup):

  • Use this as an opportunity to organise your setup. Grab some twist-ties and a label maker, and label every cable you use on both ends. You'll never have to trace a cable again, or get someone to hold one end while you tug on the other. It'll save you a stack of time, and if you ever need to replace a cable with a longer one, you'll know exactly which one it is. I used a label maker (but if you don't have one, bread tags will work too).
  • Organise your power. I took the opportunity to replace my powerboards with newer models that include a few spare outlets for future expansion. I also placed all of my "always on" devices (my modem, router, NAS) on one board that I'll never turn off, and everything else (consoles, TV, receiver) on another that I can turn off to save power.
  • Get new cables, and plenty of them. As we've already noted, buying cables online is much cheaper than grabbing one at a local store. Stock up in advance (eBay is a good resource). Also, make sure you have all the tools you need to do the job before you begin, and if you've had trouble with any of your cables before now, this is the best time to fix the problem. Ethernet cable with a loose clasp? Now's the time to replace it or re-crimp it.
  • Read the manual. This should go without saying, but it's easy to get caught up in the moment and completely overlook something basic about your gear. In my case, I had completely forgotten that the receiver I purchased doesn't have built-in video processing. That meant the component devices I connected wouldn't output video via HDMI (as I had duped myself into thinking) and needed component out from the receiver. Remembering that would have saved me buying an overpriced video cable at a local store.
  • Update everything as soon as you plug it in. Odds are your receiver (and any other devices you may not have updated lately, like your Blu-ray player) will have at least one firmware update waiting for it as soon as you plug it in. Go ahead and update everything that can be updated.
  • Calibrate your TV and your speakers. Once everything's hooked up and working, calibrate your speakers, your receiver, and your TV for the best possible video and audio quality. We've shown you how to calibrate your TV in less than 30 minutes, and we've walked you through calibrating your speakers for volume and placement as well. A few minutes with your components will give you a huge improvement in overall quality.

When you're finished, you'll have a home theatre that's perfect for your space, is easily expandable, and can be relocated without hassle.

Photos by Andrey Yurlov (Shutterstock), PsyComa (Shutterstock), Designs Stock (Shutterstock), Blake Patterson, Mark Krynsky, Leo-setä, Jeff Wilcox, brianfagan, and Jon.

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