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Setting up a proper home theater doesn't have to be terribly expensive or complicated. If you're still watching TV on a tiny screen and crappy speakers, it's time to upgrade. Here's how to set up your first real home theater.
There are a few basic components to any home theater setup. In this case, when we say "home theater," we're not talking about putting a full movie theater in your home—though we've shown you how to do that before—we're just describing what your home entertainment system will be like when you're finished: multiple devices, an awesome TV, great speakers, all working together in harmony.
What You'll Need for Any Home Theater
We're going to assume you have a few things already, like a game console, Blu-ray player, or a cable box—the stuff you're actually going to hook up to your home theater. Our home theater will be a little basic (after all, these can get really complicated if you have the budget and the space), but it's a good start if you don't have much gear. We'll tackle how to shop for the best components without breaking the bank in a moment, but for now here's a quick list of what you'll need:
- HDTV: We're willing to bet you already have one of these already, but if your TV is part of the problem, it's time to fix it. The new year's models announced at CES are heading out to stores, and the older models are flying off store shelves at discount prices. If you're thinking about an upgrade, now's a decent time to shop around and snag a bargain. 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 if you have to, and come with smart features like built-in internet streaming, Wi-Fi connectivity to your other devices, reminders for your favorite programs or big events, and more.
- Receiver: Your receiver will be the hub that handles all of the video and audio for your system. Your consoles, streaming set-top boxes, and other inputs (or most of them) 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 organized system, and one device to connect all of your gear and manage it.
- Speakers: The biggest benefit of setting up a home theater 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 leaps and bounds better. Great 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 theater, 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 it's HDMI, component video, composite video, Ethernet cable, or plain old speaker cable, you'll need it for your setup. I'd also suggest you take this opportunity to grab a good label maker and label everything. When I set up my home theater recently, I took the opportunity to buy a few new power strips to keep everything organized as well.
Now that we have the general components you'll need, let's look at each one in detail, along with tips on how to shop for each one.
Choose the Right HDTV: Buy for Your Space, Not Your Ego
Buying the right HDTV isn't difficult, but it can be easy to buy more than you need because you think you have to have 1080p video or a 60" 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, 60" may be simply too large for your eyes to absorb, but 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, etc) without getting hung up on the unimportant ones (drive frequency, contrast ratio, etc). Then visit PCMag's HDTV buying guide to help you determine whether or not you need a "Smart" TV, a 3D TV, or voice and gesture control. Don't get seduced into buying them 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 a Smart 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 may be useless. No 3D movies? Don't spend extra on 3D. All of those added features cost money—money you could spend on getting the best and biggest TV for your space and viewing distance. If you need a suggestion, The Wirecutter just updated its pick for best TV.
Choose the Right Receiver: Stick to Your Budget and Don't Go Overboard on Features
Finding a great receiver can be a pretty difficult task. Their prices and features are all over the map. It's easy to get seduced by stats like 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 more for (after all, you can often add those features yourself for cheaper). If you don't plan to hook your home theater up to a set of 7.1 or 9.1 surround sound speakers now or in the near future (or don't have the space), don't pay for it in your receiver. There's something to be said for futureproofing, 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 buy something with known issues (some of our more seasoned readers may have great suggestions in the comments, too). 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 and what they all mean (and more importantly, whether they're important. Spoiler: most of them aren't.) We've looked at some of your favorite receivers if you need some specific models to start with, and our friends at The Wirecutter have some buying tips as well.
Choose the right Speakers: Buy for Your Space; You Can Always Upgrade Later
You may already have some speakers in mind, but before you even think about brands and models, look at the space you're trying to sound out. If you're like me and live in a small apartment (or have a small living room), 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 above, but check out the previously mentioned Dolby interactive speaker setup guide for tips specific to your space. It'll 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 neighbors on all sides, you probably shouldn't buy a huge set of floor speakers that could sound out a space three times the size of your living room. The beauty of having a home theater is that your components are modular, so if your budget grows later, you can buy better (or more) speakers when you have the budget or space, 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 thought. They're important, but often fudged. The Wirecutter has some bookshelf speaker recs, and we rounded up your favorite living room sets not too long ago. Personally, I just picked up a pair of Audioengine P4 bookshelf speakers, since my space isn't terribly large, I wanted to start with 2.1, and they offer great sound in an affordable package.
Choose the Right Soundbar: Great for Space-Saving Solutions, Not for Expandability or Control
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 have one or two audio inputs, so you can't connect a ton of devices to it 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, mostly because they can sound out pretty well-sized spaces and they usually run a couple hundred bucks. Sounds attractive, right? It's not all roses: 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. Just know what you're giving up first, and try to avoid some common pitfalls that come with soundbars.
Check out Crutchfield's guide to soundbars, and then check out The Wirecutter's pick for the best before you buy. If you're a streaming music lover, save up for the Sonos Playbar. It sounds fantastic (the Wirecutter mentions it as an alternative to their pick for the best).
Put It All Together
When everything arrives at your door, set aside a few hours. 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 theater up and running 15 minutes before the big game, or before the season finale of your favorite show. Make sure you have all of your components, their instructions, and the tools and cables you need, too. Now, let's get started:
- Unbox everything and make sure you have all of your cables, documentation, and tools handy.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Connect your external speakers to the audio outputs on your receiver. (Again, this will usually require speaker cable, which won't come with your speakers). Try tuning the receiver to the radio just to make sure you're getting sound to your speakers.
- Now connect all of your video sources to the video inputs on your receiver. For most devices, HDMI should be your preferred connection method—just about everything these days, from cable boxes to game consoles, supports it. If you have older gadgets using component or composite, make sure you have the right cables and connect those as well.
- 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.
- If you have devices connected directly to the TV that your receiver doesn't support, like a cable box or over-the-air antenna, 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 center 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 organized 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 Home Theater Setup Mistakes
When you have all of your components and cables and you're ready to put everything together, here's are some tips to make sure you do it right the first time, get the best picture and sound out of your gear, and not repeat the mistakes of someone (me) who's done this very recently:
- Use this as an opportunity to organize 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 ton 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), just so everything was easy to read.
- Upgrade your power. I also took the opportunity to take out the old surge protectors and replace them with bigger, badder power strips so I had enough outlets with a few left over for future gadgets. Plus, I took the opportunity to put all of my "always on" devices (my cable modem, router, NAS, etc) on one strip that I'll never turn off, and everything else (consoles, TV, receiver, etc) on another strip that I can turn off and save some cash on power.
- Get new cables, and plenty of them. Learn from my mistake: If you think you'll need a cable, buy it in advance somewhere cheap, like Monoprice or Blue Jeans Cable. There's nothing like getting stuck and having to go to a local electronics store just to get the job done, knowing you're paying extra on a component cable for convenience. 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 may 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 (like I had duped myself into thinking) and needed component out from the receiver. Remembering that would have saved me a trip to Best Buy for the aforementioned overpriced video cable.
- 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 all 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 before too. A few minutes with your components will give you a hugeimprovement in overall quality.
When you're all finished, you'll have a home theater that's perfect for your space, and is expandable in case you move and have to disconnect everything, want bigger speakers, buy a new TV, or add a game console (PlayStation 4, anyone?) in the future. Best of all, if you buy for your current needs (and anticipate future ones without spending too much on them), you'll save a few bucks in the process. Take the opportunity to get your cable clutter organized and set up your home theater in an organized way, and you'll also get the benefit of being able to dive behind the TV without fear if something stops working all of a sudden.
This has been a bit of a crash course: The home theater setup we've described is fairly basic, and these setups can get complicated. If you want to take your boring TV to a living room theater, this is a good starting point, but you could always do more research, go bigger, and add more gear if you choose. We could also write entire articles just on choosing the best speakers, or demystifying the lingo used to sell home theater equipment. Hopefully these tips (along with some of the linked resources) will make sure you safely upgrade from a bunch of stuff plugged into a TV, uncalibrated, with terrible TV speakers, to something a bit more robust and deserving of the cash you spent on the gear you already own.