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"How Do I . . . ?" Six commonly asked questions about home theater


Julie Govan

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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I've been writing about home A/V for long enough to occasionally forget how confusing a home theater setup can be. My family reminds me — they're always calling me with questions, and they're pretty smart people, who have historically been up on the latest technology. And I'm sure they're not the only well-informed people out there with questions about home theater and TVs.

So I turned to the experts — some Crutchfield product advisors who talk to people about home A/V all day, every day — and asked them if there were any questions that they heard frequently. And boy, were there!

Here they are — six of the most common questions people ask, written down and answered. Take a look! If I answer something you yourself have wondered about, great. If you already know all the answers, congratulations — you're ahead of the curve!

Question 1. "How can I display a 4:3 picture on a widescreen TV? What do I actually get?"
With all the fancy new widescreen TVs out there, this question is perhaps the most frequently asked of all. It's not surprising! If you don't like horizontal black bars (also known as letterboxing) on your squarish older TV when you watch a widescreen movie, it stands to reason you're not going to like vertical black bars when you're watching a Seinfeld re-run on your gorgeous new widescreen set.

Many folks don't really notice the effects of stretch mode, especially when watching sports. Some visual purists, on the other hand, may be put off.

So what can you do? Well, every widescreen set I've ever seen has a "stretch" mode that widens the image, and eliminates the vertical black bars that otherwise appear. This approach can leave actors looking kind of short and dumpy, however.

Some sets give you additional options, like "zoom" mode, which fills the screen by increasing the size of the image, then cutting off the top and bottom. You may even see an intelligent stretch mode, which stretches the left and right portions of the image, but leaves the center essentially untouched. (Because actors tend to stay in the center of the shot, this avoids some of the problems of a garden-variety stretch mode.)

As HDTV becomes increasingly popular, you're probably going to see less and less new material shot in squarish 4:3 aspect ratio. However, that doesn't change the material that already exists. If you're like me, and watch a ton of DVD movies (and don't really mind black bars), it probably isn't much of an issue. But if you mainly view TV shows, you may want to look for a TV with plenty of viewing options. For more info on widescreen vs. 4:3, check out Steve Kindig's article on choosing aspect ratio.
Question 2. "How big a TV screen do I need for where I sit in my living room?"
It sounds like a joke, but it's pretty much true: the answer is "the biggest TV you can fit through your front door." The reason is that TV definition — i.e., the precision with which it can display an image — has gotten so much better that you can sit a lot closer than you once could.

Take the rear-projection "big screen" TVs of the eighties. A lot of these sets looked pretty good from 10 or so feet away, and were a lot of fun for watching football games, etc. But get too close to them, and the blurry blocks of color didn't look so good.

Now, with most larger (36" and up) TVs being HDTV-capable, you're getting much crisper resolution than ever before — and that means these TVs are more viewable at close quarters, even if you're just watching broadcast TV. It's really amazing. Plus, flat-panel TVs are making it easier to have a big screen TV in your house without taking up tons of floor space.

So what would current guidelines be, assuming you're buying a newer, HD-capable TV? Well, figure about two feet closer than you would have been before. So, whereas you'd plan on being 11-12 feet away from a 45" analog TV without HDTV capability, you might figure on sitting about 9 feet from a 45" HDTV-capable set. And you can get closer than that — I have personally sat about seven feet away from a 46" HDTV-ready TV to play video games, and enjoyed it very much! For more suggestions on specific screen sizes, check out our TV viewing distance chart.

Question 3. "All right, I know what 5.1-channel sound is. But what are 6.1-channel sound and 7.1-channel sound? What do I actually gain?"
Whew! This kind of question can take some time to answer, as I know from trying to explain it to my parents. First, some background: 5.1-channel sound is the most prevalent form of surround sound. You have a center channel speaker above or below your TV, a pair of front left and right speakers, and a pair of surround speakers, all playing different signals. The subwoofer plays just the low bass. So the "5" means the five speakers and the ".1" means the subwoofer. It's a very effective, enveloping form of surround sound, and just about every new DVD movie with a multichannel soundtrack provides a 5.1 surround option.

With 6.1 channel sound, you gain an extra rear center surround. The original surrounds would still sit to the left and right, while the extra rear surround sits directly behind you, and plays its own unique channel of sound.

It's easy to see how a 6.1- or 7.1-channel setup can be so engrossing. (The setups above use traditional, rather than dipole/bipole, speakers as surrounds.)

There are movies encoded for 6.1 surround, but not as many as there are for 5.1 sound. As a result, receivers that can power a 6.1 system (that is, they can power 6 speakers, and have an output for connecting to a powered sub) usually have some kind of option for translating 5.1 sound into 6.1 sound. Essentially, what they do is fill up that rear surround with audio copied from the left and right surrounds. It's still pretty effective.

7.1-channel sound simply adds yet another rear speaker. However, because there isn't encoding for 7.1-channel sound (you can't buy a copy of Spiderman on DVD that's prepared to play seven unique channels of sound, plus a subwoofer channel) all most 7.1 receivers do at this point is use special processing to send duplicated sound to that second rear center speaker (a few receivers may do more intelligent processing).

Therefore, if you have a 7.1 setup, and you're watching a movie that's encoded for 5.1 sound, your two rear center speakers are going to be playing a mix of the music and effects that are also coming from your left and right surround speakers. If you're watching a movie encoded for 6.1, your two rear center speakers are probably going to be playing the exact same signal — that is, the one created for a single rear center speaker by the engineers who put the soundtrack together.

So, what's the point? Well, with more surround speakers, you will enjoy an even more engrossing surround effect — and the whole point of surround sound is to feel like you're part of the movie.

A 7-channel amplifier, like this Sony ES model, can power seven separate speakers, while also sending unamplified sound to a subwoofer.

Flat speaker cable makes for much more discreet placement.

Some DVD home theater systems, like this Pioneer, offer a wireless back surround, eliminating the problem of running wires.

A single digital cable, like this optical digital cable from Monster, can transfer all of a movie's multichannel sound from your DVD player to your receiver.
Question 4. "I used to have 5.1-channel sound, but now I have a receiver that can do 6.1 (or 7.1). Do I have to use six or seven speakers? If I decide to, how do I add new speakers to my system? Won't they sound different?"

First things first. If you have a 5.1-channel speaker setup, and you don't want to add more surround speakers, no problem. You just need to dive into your 6.1- or 7.1-channel receiver's menu and set it so that it knows you're only going to be listening to five speakers and a subwoofer. This may involve some time with the manual, but don't worry — it can be done.

If you would like to add another surround or pair of surrounds, look for speakers that are voice-matched to your existing speakers. Voice-matching is important because it means sounds don't change as they "move" around the room — a thundering express train doesn't turn into a toy locomotive as it travels from your front speakers to your surrounds.

If the speakers you already own are discontinued or otherwise unavailable, first look for speakers by the same brand. Not an option? Looking for similar tweeters and woofers, and comparable cabinet design, is your best bet — for example, if your new speakers and existing speakers all have 1" aluminum dome tweeters, you stand a better chance of matching the sound closely.

Question 5. "I want to have a surround sound system, but I'm afraid of tripping over speaker cables/my wife won't let me/I don't want to run wires through my walls. Aren't there wireless surround speakers out there?"

Before you look for wireless surround speakers, make sure you've checked out the many options for speaker cables. There are flat paintable cables that can run right along the baseboards, and most people will never notice they're there. So if speaker cable concerns are all that's keeping you from surround sound, then get going! (Can you tell I'm a big fan of home theater?)

If those cables still won't work, wireless speakers may be your best bet. There aren't a ton of really great-sounding wireless speakers out there, unfortunately. However, A/V manufacturers have started to produce a few all-in-one DVD home theater systems that come with a wireless surround speaker or speakers. If you're in a pinch on speaker cable placement, they may be a good bet!

Question 6. "The manual says I'm supposed to send multichannel sound from my DVD player to my receiver by way of a single digital cable. How can this be? Don't I need separate cables for all those different channels of sound?"

It sounds crazy, but it's true — and it's much easier than buying and connecting a bunch of stereo cables. To pass 5.1- or 6.1-channel sound from your DVD player to a multichannel receiver, all you need is a single optical or coaxial digital cable.

Here's the reason — your DVD player is sending the digital signal to your receiver, as a string of 1s and 0s, and those 1s and 0s contain the necessary info about all the channels of sound. When your receiver gets that digital signal, it translates it into multiple channels of analog sound, amplifies those channels, and passes them along to the necessary speakers. It's as easy as that!

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