What do you need for home theater?
Julie Govan is the Brand Manager at Crutchfield, and has been writing about consumer electronics since 1999. Her areas of expertise include home theater, surround sound, digital cameras, and HDTV. In her spare time, she also writes book reviews and fiction. She earned a B.A. in English from Davidson College, and went on to receive a master's degree in English literature from the University of Virginia.
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Putting together a great home theater system can be simple. The key is pairing a good high-def picture with engaging surround sound. We've outlined the components you'll need below, some of which you probably already own.
Why build your own system?
The simple answer is sound quality. When it comes to surround sound, you've got two options: building your own system out of separate components or choosing a pre-packaged one. Pre-packaged systems are designed to be easy to choose and set up, and can definitely deliver an engaging surround sound experience. But with a component system, you'll typically enjoy higher-quality construction and better audio performance. [Shop for home theater systems.]
Component systems are good for folks who:
- want a full surround sound experience and high-quality audio
- already have a few key components, like a Blu-ray® player, receiver, or a set of speakers
- prefer to create a customized home theater system
- are comfortable choosing and setting up separate components
To learn about your other audio options, check out our article on four ways to get better sound with your TV.
Now, let's dig into the components you'll need for a complete home theater system:
A gorgeous picture is the focal point of many home theater systems. Today's high-def TVs offer a stunning, high-resolution picture. Some of them also offer the 3D experience in the comfort of your own home (a compatible 3D Blu-ray player and glasses are required).
Video sources: Blu-ray movies, high-def broadcasts, and more
If you've got a high-def TV, you'll want plenty of high-def sources. A Blu-ray player will give you the sharpest picture possible. High-definition Blu-ray Discs™ are a great source for full 1080p video, not to mention ultra-detailed surround formats like Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD™ Master Audio. For more information, check out our article about Blu-ray players.
Other top-notch home theater sources include HDTV programming, which delivers high-resolution video and digital audio, and video game consoles, which offer impressively crisp images and high-impact surround sound.
A home theater receiver
In order to enjoy surround sound, you'll need a home theater receiver. A receiver acts as the control center for audio; it processes audio signals, amplifies them, and sends them to your speakers. All home theater receivers can process and amplify multichannel surround sound as well as stereo audio, because they have built-in surround sound decoding.
Some people use their home theater receiver to manage video as well as audio — by running all their video signals to their receiver, they can make a single video connection from their receiver to their TV and simplify everyday use. It's a great option if you want to connect multiple sources, like a cable box, a Blu-ray player, and a video game console or two, to your home theater system. Then whenever you want to watch a movie or play a video game, you just have to press a button on your receiver's remote to switch to the right inputs, without having to switch inputs on your TV.
- Check out our in-depth guide to choosing a receiver.
- Find out how to set up your receiver for the best picture and sound.
- Start shopping for a home theater receiver.
Speakers and a subwoofer
To faithfully re-create the larger-than-life, wraparound excitement of movie theater sound, you need at least five speakers and a subwoofer. Some people opt for six or seven speakers and a subwoofer, so they can hear even more channels of surround sound.
- For more info on what each speaker does, and how to choose, see our guide to choosing home theater speakers.
- Watch our video about recommended speaker placement.
- Read about room-friendly ways to connect surround speakers.
- Start shopping for speakers.
Cables, power protection, and more
Often, people forget about essential accessories. They end up rushing out to the store in the middle of setup, or making do with a cable that isn't really suited to the purpose. The result? Extra hassle, and a real risk of missing out on the system performance they paid for. You can avoid that by planning out your system before you buy, accessories and all.
You'll need speaker cables, audio cables, and video cables. You may already have some cables you can use. Just don't forget that very old or very cheap speaker cable can degrade your sound quality, the same way very old or very cheap speakers just don't sound good. Also, "freebie" audio and video cables that come in the box with a component can also result in lower-quality sound or picture; reduced picture quality is especially noticeable with today's high-end TVs.
Have you ever fumbled around with the remotes on your coffee table, and ended up changing your TV's input when you mean to pause the movie on your Blu-ray player? A universal remote can really help you simplify your system — and clean up your coffee table.
It makes sense to use a power protection unit to safeguard your investment from lightning strikes and power surges. Some home theater fans choose a power protector with built-in line conditioning to ensure cleaner power, a better picture, and more accurate audio.
Many receivers come with a built-in Ethernet port or Wi-Fi connectivity that enable a host of features including free Internet radio, access to media on a networked computer, subscription music services, and more.
A/V furniture, speaker stands, and speaker brackets
Depending on your room's size and shape, and the equipment you choose, you may need some stands to place your gear on. Be thinking about whether you'll need anything like this ahead of time, so you can avoid putting your TV on a couple of old crates, or having small surround speakers on the floor behind your sofa where you can't really hear them.