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Home Theater Hacks by Brett McLaughlin

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Chapter 1. Buying Gear

Hacks 1–8

Although there are literally thousands of options and dials you can tweak and spin on most home theater components, the components themselves are the most important part of any solid home theater system. All the adjustments in the world won’t make up for having the wrong pieces of equipment in your theater.

In fact, before you even start to turn dials and pull up menus, you might want to see what you’ve got sitting in your cabinet. Sometimes making some small changes in your equipment list can have a huge effect on your theater’s audio and video, and even its usability. This is especially true in today’s world of combination devices. Merging VCRs, DVDs, TVs, and CD players might make for less wiring to have to hide, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie-watching and music-listening experience, and you can forget swapping out or trading up to newer and better technology.

Of course, all of this rides on finding the right equipment, preferably at the best possible price. Buy the right components at the best prices, and you’ll stretch your dollar further. You’ll end up with a bigger and better system if you do your homework. In this chapter, you’ll learn the basic language of the trade, and then explore the common (and not-so-common) places to pick up equipment, oftentimes at way below retail prices.

Master Theater-Speak

You’re not going to get very far in the world of home theater if you don’t understand how the techies talk. Learn the lingo, and you won’t get bullied into buying something you don’t want; you’ll also understand how different components interact, and you’ll end up with a much better setup.

If you’ve ever walked into a home theater boutique, you’ve probably been quickly overwhelmed by the strange language that’s coming out of some well-intentioned salesperson’s mouth. It’s sort of like showing up at a Ferengi yard sale and not knowing the difference between a warp coil and a plasma conduit. What’s worse, it’s easy to be convinced that you need something you don’t, or that what you intended to buy isn’t really the right component for your system.

The basic definitions you’ll need to be familiar with are listed here. The following sections go into further detail on each item, and explain other important acronyms and terms related to each.

Televisions

This is a pretty obvious one: the television, of course, is what you actually watch video on. However, TVs have become increasingly complex these days, and some TVs are self-contained theater systems; you can buy a TV that includes its own VCR, DVD player, satellite receiver, and virtual surround sound system. For the purposes of this book, I’ll include computer monitors and other video sources in this category, except when they are specifically called out in the text.

DVD players

For those of you not stuck in the ’80s, DVD is the medium of choice for watching movies and, now, even television series. DVD stands for digital video disc, and these discs look just like CDs, although they hold a lot more data. Players can be as simple as a deck that does nothing more than play your disc, or complex enough to enhance the sound and picture of a disc, and even make copies of a disc.

VCRs

VCR stands for video cassette recorder. The predecessor to DVDs, the VCR still is an important part of most home theaters. For those of you who have cases of VCR tapes with all the episodes of The X-Files on them, it’s still the best-understood means to capture your favorite television show; however, DVD recorders and personal video recorders such as TiVo and ReplayTV are changing that in this century.

Satellite and cable receivers

Satellite receivers provide you an audio and video signal, generally of television/cable channels, from a satellite dish. DISH Network and DirecTV are the most common providers, and both use roof- or pole-mounted minidishes pointed up into the sky. Cable receivers provide the same basic functionality, but they use underground cable and obtain signals from providers such as Time Warner Cable or other local out-fits. Although there are some differences between satellite and cable receivers, they generally are interchangeable in terms of basic operation.

Receivers

A receiver is a unit that essentially consolidates and redistributes signals. Receivers usually get video and audio from devices such as a VCR, DVD player, or satellite receiver, and play those signals through TVs (for video) and speakers (for audio). They also make switching between input and output sources simple, and they are the cornerstones of any decent home theater system. Receivers, then, provide preamplification and signal distribution as well as speaker amplification.

Separates

The term separate doesn’t refer to a specific component; instead, it indicates that the tasks that are typically rolled into a single receiver unit are broken up among several components. A simple separate-based setup might include a preamplifier and a single amplifier; more complex setups could involve preamplifiers, signal enhancers, equalizers, and an amplifier for each speaker in the system.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, and it actually leaves out several common components such as speakers, cabling, and equalizers. However, it’s enough to get you past the tech-speak of the typical salesperson, and help you know what you’re actually buying. The next several subsections provide you further detail on each category.

Televisions

Although televisions were the very first entry into what has now become the home theater market, they remain the most important. A receiver is the basis of all your audio, but it’s the television that ensures you get a killer picture; it’s also what most people notice first.

Although there’s not much complexity involved in choosing a television [Hack #9] , there are a few terms you need to be clear on.

HDTV

HDTV stands for high-definition television. In a nutshell, HDTV is all about trying to reproduce the picture you get on 35mm film, the gold standard in picture quality. A true high-definition (HD) picture will have 1080 lines of data, interlaced, or 720 lines, progressively scanned. Progressively scanned simply means the picture is drawn one line at a time, line by line. The alternative, interlacing a picture, means half the lines are drawn on the screen, and then the other half (in other words, the first, third, fifth, etc., lines are drawn, and then the second, fourth, sixth, etc., lines are drawn).

Tip

Writing or saying “1080 lines of data, interlaced” and “720 lines, progressively scanned” is a pain. It’s more common to see these expressions abbreviated by stating the number of lines, and then either “i” for interlaced or “p” for progressive. So, 1080i and 720p are the HD formats. You also will see other formats use the same notation: 480i, 480p, 720p, and so forth. For the time being, though, the highest available resolutions are 1080i (there is no 1080p, although it’s coming), and 720p (there’s no 720i).

As for comparing HDTV to 35mm film, the dividing line is getting smaller every day. Many experts say that direct replacement of 35mm film will occur when 1080p (progressive, not interlaced) pictures are being shown at 24 frames per second. Because most broadcasters are gearing up for HDTV broadcasting (if they’re not already there), 24 frames per second is very achievable; all that’s left is to get resolutions running at 1080p, and that’s not far away either. In short, HDTV is already nearly a direct replacement for the film you see in theaters, and in coming years (months!?) it will be an exact replacement, as far as visual information goes.

DTV

DTV stands for digital television, and you see this in reference to a lot of first-generation HDTVs, as well as a few of today’s higher-end televisions. More often than not, DTV simply means the television accepts a digital signal as opposed to an analog one. As a result, a DTV doesn’t really offer you anything special at all, other than ensuring your TV was made sometime after about 1990! However, on a more technical level, DTV really refers to any signal other than the true HD signals, 1080i and 720p. When most people refer to HDTV, they actually are referring to a DTV signal because very few signal sources are being shown in true HD today. In fact, even DVDs can’t currently display a true HD signal.

Aspect ratio

The only other term you need to be clear on when dealing with TVs is their aspect ratio. An aspect ratio is the ratio between the horizontal width of the picture and the vertical width. The two ratios you need to be particularly comfortable with are 16:9 (pronounced “sixteen by nine”) and 4:3 (“four by three”). 16:9 pictures are widescreen, and 4:3 pictures are the standard TV format you see so commonly today. That said, it’s important to understand that the aspect ratio of a picture can be different from the aspect ratio of a television. For example, you can watch 16:9 (widescreen) movies on your 4:3 TV; that results in the black bars you see on the top and bottom of your screen. In the same fashion, a 4:3 picture has extra space on the right and left sides when viewed on a 16:9 television. I’ll talk more about the TV aspect ratio you want [Hack #13] later.

If this seems confusing, don’t worry: TV manufacturers are going to plaster these terms all over televisions because they are the primary selling points. If you get a widescreen HDTV, you get all the bells and whistles; a 4:3 HDTV is the next step down; from there, you’re into plain-vanilla TVs. That’s really all there is to it.

DVD Players

DVD players are a lot more complex than the average TV, at least from the standpoint of the consumer. They have been made even more difficult because DVDs now generally double as CD players, and must handle multiple video formats as well as some of the newer audio formats. Here are the highlights of what you need to know.

DVD

You already know that DVD stands for digital video disc. Against almost all odds, DVDs are a mostly standardized format, and you don’t need to spend lots of time figuring out if such and such DVD will play in this or that DVD player. Given technology and the insurgence in HDTV, though, this is beginning to change. Over the next several years, expect DVDs capable of displaying 1080i and 720p pictures to appear and to be incompatible with older DVD players. With this future exception, though, DVDs as a rule play in any DVD-compatible player, from the cheapest to the most expensive.

Warning

The one notable exception was in consumer-burnt DVDs, such as from a computer. These discs often won’t play on very low-end DVD players.

Progressive scan

You already know what progressive scan is from the discussion on HDTVs. However, it bears mentioning again in this section. Although most DVD players provide progressive scanning, some older or less expensive ones don’t; avoid these if at all possible. What good is a DVD if you’re not getting a flicker-free picture?

DVD-Audio

This is a term related to audio more than DVDs, but due to DVDs serving as CD players these days, it fits well in this category of components. DVD-Audio is a format that allows a musical track to play in more than a simple stereo format (left and right channels); instead, DVD-Audio discs play in 5.1-, 6.1-, or 7.1-channel formats (see Chapter 4 for details on these formats). The intention is to provide a live-like listening experience, with sound coming from every direction. You can find DVD-Audio and SACD sections in chain stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City these days, so these formats have become both popular and easily obtainable.

SACD

SACD stands for Super-Audio CD, and is somewhat in competition with DVD-Audio. SACD is focused on audio quality in general, while DVD-Audio is focused specifically on multichannel sound. As a result, you will find some SACDs that are multichannel and some that are simply stereo; however, the sound quality of even the stereo discs is far superior to that of a standard CD.

The bad news is that, at least for now, you’d be hard pressed to find a progressive scan DVD player that supports both DVD-Audio and SACD without dropping at least $1,000. Most DVD players are progressive scan these days, and many also support DVD-Audio formats. If you’re looking for a SACD player, you’re probably going to have to add it to your system as a separate component, in addition to your existing DVD/DVD-Audio player.

Before spending lots of time looking for a killer SACD player, or even a DVD-Audio player, make sure you actually want one. The offerings in these formats still are relatively sparse; additionally, SACD discs don’t play in DVD-Audio players (other than at normal CD quality), and vice versa. If you’re not a music student or a serious music aficionado, you’re probably better off just picking up a solid DVD/DVD-Audio player and leaving SACD alone. However, if you want to listen to Rachmaninov in C# minor, SACD might be for you (if none of that made sense, don’t worry about SACD too much).

VCRs

What is there to say about VCRs anymore? They really do seem to be yesterday’s news, and the only high point in sight is the new wave of high-definition VCRs (HD-VCRs). There aren’t even enough VCR terms to warrant their own list! There was a day when you had to worry about two heads, four heads, high fidelity, and even Betamax (remember those?). Today, anything that costs you more than a twenty will provide what you need for easy recording; nobody expects VCR tapes to look like DVDs, so picture quality is not much of an issue.

The one exception to this rule is the HD-VCR. This component is exactly what it sounds like: a VCR that plays tapes in HD format. These tapes come in true HD as well, meaning the picture you get is 1080i or 720p. For those of you paying attention, this does indeed mean that an HD-VCR playing a correctly formatted tape will provide a better viewing picture than a DVD (remember that DVDs don’t play in HD formats yet). HD-VCRs also can record your favorite high-definition TV program for repeated viewing. Does this mean the VCR is coming back? Probably not. These units are quite expensive, and with a new DVD format looming I don’t expect these units to be anything more than the next fad.

Satellite and Cable Receivers

Satellite and cable receivers also are well-understood devices, so I won’t spend much time here. Satellite receivers bring in a signal from a satellite dish, usually from either DISH Network (http://www.dishnetwork.com) or DirecTV (http://www.directv.com). Both providers offer similar packages and comparable prices. If you’re trying to decide between the two, there are a few important things to consider.

Local channels

Getting local channels through your satellite is a major coup; nobody wants to switch to the VCR just to pick up these channels. Although most major cities are covered, smaller cities are hit-or-miss. Pay attention to this before making a decision.

HD programming

If you’re into home theater, you should be into high definition. The two satellite providers are not equal in the offerings here, and frequently see-saw in the balance of power. I switched to my current provider, DirecTV, to get ESPN in high definition; I also wanted HDNet so that I can watch the Dallas Stars in glorious high def. However, by the time you read this, DISH might be the better choice for HDTV. Check with your provider before signing up.

Package deals

Last but not least, you might want to just look at what the coolest deals are. A lot of times you can get a certain number of rooms hooked up for free, or a complimentary TiVo (see Chapter 12), or free installation. All of these are nice bonuses, and you shouldn’t ignore them.

If you aren’t interested in putting a dish up on your roof, most likely cable is for you. Generally, cable setups are simpler to maintain, although they’re often slower to provide innovations such as high-definition channels and digital sound (both are now available, by the way).

Tip

One thing I don’t see as a distinguishing feature is susceptibility to poor weather. My DirecTV system rarely goes out, even in major storms, and the few times it has, my mother-in-law’s cable system has been out as well. Go figure.

If you do go the cable route, Time Warner Cable is the dominant provider, although there are others, such as Comcast and the like. Take your pick: if there aren’t major differences in price, most cable providers provide similar equipment with similar capabilities, and usually even similar channel lineups.

Receivers

Receivers are the most important part of your home theater setup; at the same time, they often are the last thing the typical consumer thinks about, as they don’t seem to “do anything” on their own. A good receiver simply distributes and amplifies signals—video from input sources to a TV, and audio from those same input sources to speakers. However, because all of your audio and much of your video pass through this device, it’s critical to get this component right.

Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital (http://www.dolby.com) is arguably the major force in sound formats today. This term is usually representative of several sound formats: Dolby Surround Sound, Dolby Pro Logic (and Pro Logic II), and Dolby Digital itself. This grouping, taken as a whole, allows for two-channel, six-channel (5.1), seven-channel (6.1), and eight-channel(7.1)sound, from almost any type of input source. Systems that don’t support Dolby might as well give up competing; it remains the gold standard for audio formats.

Tip

The (.1) in these formats refers to the low-frequency effects channel, most commonly just referred to as the sub (as in subwoofer). Because it’s not providing directional material (bass is omnidirectional), it is relegated to a decimal place.

DTS

DTS (http://www.dtstech.com) stands for Digital Theater Systems, Inc., a company that produced an audio alternative (and now several alternatives) to Dolby’s suite of formats. Initially the format was just called DTS, and was most commonly used for listening to music, or to movies with sweeping musical scores (Gladiator, for example, sounds majestic in DTS, as compared to Dolby Digital). Today, DTS offers a number of additional musical and theater formats, such as DTS-ES (for 6.1-channel sound), Neo:6 (for surround playback of stereo music), and DTS Virtual (for down-converting surround tracks to stereo). DTS is just as prevalent as Dolby Digital these days, and it remains the killer suite of formats for highly musical audio, as well as being great for movies.

THX

THX (http://www.thx.com) is George Lucas’s set of specifications for sound reproduction. THX really isn’t as much a sound format as a set of specifications for listening. When listening to a THX system, you’ll still have to choose a Dolby Digital or DTS audio format. THX systems provide audio correction and equalization in an attempt to provide the home theater audience an experience as close as possible to what you can get in movie theaters. The downside is that because THX makes changes on the fly, you might not hear the exact DTS or Dolby track that is encoded on your favorite DVD. For this reason, some audio experts consider THX a nuisance at best, and a real problem at worst; the THX brand sells components, but it’s not worth breaking the bank over.

Most receivers will support, at a minimum, Dolby Digital in 5.1 channels and DTS in 5.1 channels. Spend a little more money and you’ll be able to add 6.1- and 7.1-channel sound, as well as THX and THX-EX (the EX flavor supports 6.1- and 7.1-channel sound) capabilities; you also can easily get the various DTS music formats, such as Neo:6. Still, there’s more to a receiver than the acronyms that can be splashed across its face; Figure 1-1 shows the front of a higher-end audio receiver.

Despite the acronym frenzy found on the front of a receiver, one of the key features of a great receiver turns out to be what is on its back. As a general rule, you want as many connections, for as many devices, as possible. Figure 1-2 shows the back of a fairly high-end receiver, and you can see the wealth of places to hook up cool toys.

Picking the right receiver is a lot like choosing a car; even if you can narrow down exactly what you want, there are plenty of options in your functionality spread, and budget and brand preference often become the prime considerations. Discussion of exactly what to buy is left for the hacks in the rest of this chapter, as it largely depends on what sort of theater you’re trying to put together.

Separates

The final category to look at is separates. As mentioned earlier, this doesn’t refer to a specific type of component, but rather, to the idea of splitting out functionality from the receiver into individual pieces. As a rule, the more focused a component can be on one job, the better it will be at that job. The typical receiver has to perform preamplification tasks (preparing a signal for distribution to speakers), as well as amplifying the signal itself. In many cases this involves some form of equalization, with the ability for consumers to add more equalization as they desire. This doesn’t take into account the need to route signals properly, either, allowing seamless switching between VCRs, DVDs, your trusty TiVo, and your favorite video game system.

Front of a Pioneer Elite receiver
Figure 1-1. Front of a Pioneer Elite receiver
Back of a Pioneer Elite receiver
Figure 1-2. Back of a Pioneer Elite receiver

A more effective approach to home theater, albeit an expensive one, is to split up these tasks. The most common approach to separates is to break the receiver’s job into two tasks: preamplification and amplification. This involves one component for signal routing, connection to your DVD, cable receiver, and other input sources, and equalization, and another component for speaker amplification. Of course, that one amplifier must support as many as seven (or, in some cases, nine or more) speakers, and can be broken up into several separate amplifiers. Not surprisingly, the more amplifiers you buy, the more expensive the overall system cost becomes. Figure 1-3 shows a preamplifier, and Figure 1-4 shows an amplifier.

Outlaw processor/preamplifier
Figure 1-3. Outlaw processor/preamplifier
Rear of a seven-channel Outlaw amplifier
Figure 1-4. Rear of a seven-channel Outlaw amplifier

You can take this scenario as far as your budget allows. Many of the best home theaters you will find will have a preamplifier, an equalizer, an amplifier for each speaker in the theater, and one or more line doublers and scalars, both of which are used to increase picture clarity and density. At some point, though, you’re getting only a fraction of a percent improvement at a cost of thousands of dollars (yes, you read that correctly. In other words, know when to say “when!”

With these basics down, you’re ready to actually look at getting your own theater started, and the hacks in the rest of this chapter will help you know what you need. First, you’ll learn some basic tricks to ensure you get the best sound and video components; then, you’ll get to see the various options available for buying equipment.

Audition Before You Buy

There’s no substitute for listening and watching equipment in action before buying. However, there’s as much science as there is art to choosing a good home theater. Preparation and a few tricks will help you pick the best system for you.

There’s a lot of pressure when a salesperson is hovering over you, waiting to see if you’re going to buy a particular piece of equipment. In fact, this is the number-one reason people walk out of chain stores [Hack #3] or boutiques [Hack #4] with equipment they’re ultimately not happy with. But this pressure is largely due to a lack of preparation and method. If you have specific criteria in mind and a particular method you always follow, you’ll feel less pressure, have no trouble telling a salesperson “I’d like to take a little more time,” and will usually be a lot happier with your purchase.

Prepare Your Ears with AM Radio

Auditioning speakers and audio components is a lot like critiquing food. Professional critics know that their taste buds become saturated after a few bites of something so they use a palate cleanser such as raspberry ice to reset their sense of taste between dishes. Although there isn’t a raspberry ice for the ear, you can reset your hearing by not listening to loud music, bubbled up in your front seat, on the drive over. This will prevent you from building up any preconceptions or expectations about how something should sound.

One weekend I went to a chain store and listened to a system that failed to impress me. The following weekend I was back at the same store and I listened to the same system, and it sounded much better! I realized that on my second trip I took a car that had AM radio, so I listened to news on the way over, and probably had my window rolled down. The lower-quality sound in the car conditioned my ears so that the equipment in the demo room sounded better than I first thought. Some might think this means you would buy a system that isn’t as good. On the contrary, loud music, especially when it’s coming out of several speakers within a few feet of your ears, dulls your hearing. You lose a sense of dynamics, subtlety, and all the other intangibles that make good music “good.” The system I didn’t like at first was providing those nuances, but by the time I got to the store on my first trip, all I could hear were screaming guitar breaks. The second time, I noticed the sound had more texture, the dynamics were terrific, and the smallest background sounds were present. I missed all this the first time because of the loud music in my car.

In the same vein, be willing to take breaks between speaker auditions. Over time, sounds can begin to blur together; just like the food critic, your senses have been saturated. Take 15 or 20 minutes to walk around the store or stroll outside, or even consider coming back the next day when your ears have had a chance to relax. Taking time to make a good purchase is always a great idea.

Bring a Favorite DVD and Audio CD for Auditioning

No two people are completely the same, and this is certainly true when it comes to movies and music. When you’re trying out home theater components, you’ll often find that salespeople play the same disc (usually a DVD) over and over again. Although that might be their favorite movie, it’s more often a disc that’s perfectly suited to the system they are trying to sell (this is particularly true in larger chain stores). However, unless the disc being played is your favorite movie as well, you might not like the sound you get when you take those speakers home. Suddenly your favorites sound boomy or brittle. Instead of relying on the store to select auditioning material, bring your own.

It’s important to bring material you like and are familiar with. You might even want to watch or listen to a disc a few times before going into the store, just to refresh your memory. When trying out speakers, you’ll find that some speakers are laid-back and work great for classical or jazz and dialog-heavy movies. Other speakers are a bit harsher, forward, and in-your-face. These work great for rock, rap, and action movies. By bringing your own styles of music and movies, and your favorites within those styles, you’re getting a great system for your particular tastes.

Boutique stores [Hack #4] actually expect you to bring your own media because they know it makes a difference. There is no reason you should not bring your own disks to a chain store as well. Some great demo DVDs are listed here, along with a good track to try out on each:

  • Star Trek: First Contact: Chapter 2 (the Borg battle scene)

  • Toy Story 2: Chapter 1 (Buzz versus Zoltron’s robots)

  • The Fifth Element: Chapter 24 (Diva solo)

If you’re a seasoned home theater guru, you might want to consider bringing a sound pressure level (SPL) meter [Hack #61] and some calibration DVDs [Hack #62] . Although your friends might laugh at you for this, a boutique salesperson will not mind in the least (and probably will appreciate how serious you are about making a good purchase).

Avoid Switch Boxes

Lots of stores, both chain and boutique, will have multiple speaker systems connected to a receiver or amplifier through a switch box. Refuse to make a decision based on these setups! Most of these switches have a 4-ohm resistor to prevent a receiver or amplifier from overdriving a speaker and potentially damaging it. This means that signal is getting filtered between the source and the speaker. Unless you plan to use the same switch box at home, you’re not getting an accurate sonic picture. Insist that any speakers you listen to are connected directly to a receiver or amplifier.

The same principle is true for video devices. Just as a switch often is used to connect multiple speakers to the same receiver or amp, multiple display units (TVs, in particular) often are connected to the same DVD player. Again, you’re not getting an accurate picture of what’s going on. Even if the switch uses only component video for connectivity, there is still a tremendous variety in the available switches’ qualities [Hack #59] . Again, a salesperson interested in your desires rather than making a buck won’t mind taking the extra time to connect your sources directly to a display unit.

Evaluate the Whole, Not the Parts

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in trying out several components is choosing them independently. This might sound strange; shouldn’t you base your decision about a component on its own merits? However, components and speakers don’t operate in a vacuum. A set of speakers might sound amazing with a high-end preamplifier and amp, but if you’re using a receiver, those same speakers might not be as clear, or as focused.

It’s great to narrow down your choices to a few specific pieces of gear. However, don’t buy anything until you test everything together! I recommend taking down the brand of your existing components, as well as the model, and seeing if the store has the same models to test with. If you’re auditioning equipment at a boutique, you even can bring in your existing components and try them out. Again, this takes a lot of extra time and effort. However, the end result is a system that sounds like what you expect, and that’s worth some additional work.

Always Look at the Manual

Even the best salesperson, in the smallest boutique, can’t know everything about every model from every manufacturer. This is where manuals come in: you never should buy anything without taking a look at the owner’s manual. Whether it’s a television, speaker, or DVD player, the manual is going to tell you things a salesperson won’t remember (or doesn’t want you to know, in some cases). If a salesperson isn’t willing to crack open a box and let you see a manual, politely tell him you’re not interested in shopping at his store. Just be sure you’re willing to back up this assertion, or you’ll end up looking pretty foolish (and lose any ability to negotiate down the line).

Buy from Chain Stores with Skepticism

Buying from a local electronics store has the advantage of letting you check out gear in person, but you’ll have to endure crowds, obnoxious music, and frequent interruption from salespeople along the way.

Buying from a chain store requires a lot of forethought; you need to dress appropriately, prepare your ears, and have demo discs in hand (all discussed in detail in this hack). These preparations might make it seem that it’s better to avoid people altogether and just shop online. However, the advantages of a brick-and-mortar store are significant:

  • You can watch and listen [Hack #2] to the specific gear you take home.

  • You can visually inspect components to ensure new or like-new condition.

  • You avoid the often-dangerous shipping process (and the possibility of having to return equipment, often at your own cost).

  • You can see your favorite movie or hear your favorite CD on a variety of equipment.

All of these are great reasons to at least look at your local electronics stores. However, each advantage comes with its own set of drawbacks.

The Pitfalls of Chain Stores

Although it’s nice to listen to a specific set of speakers or audio components, chain stores often set up systems to favor the systems at the expense of the listeners. You won’t be sitting (or standing) in the exact same area, in the same size room, in your own home theater. In fact, most chain stores have huge rooms, with at least one glass wall, and you’re standing up—about as different from a typical home theater as you can get. So, although you will get an idea of the sound you would obtain at home, realize that it’s not a perfect picture of what to expect. If you want a closer-to-home experience, boutiques [Hack #4] often have viewing and listening rooms that closely simulate a home theater, with regular walls, only one door, low lighting, and even theater seating.

It’s also nice to be able to make sure the components you are buying are in perfect condition (even new equipment can easily be smudged or scratched in transit from the manufacturer). To really gain this advantage, though, be sure you insist on getting the specific model you are viewing rather than another unit already boxed up. You’ll also need to ensure that you don’t get stuck with display unit that doesn’t have a remote, instructions, or other materials that should be included.

Tip

Sometimes you can negotiate a lower price on a unit that has been demoed in the store; don’t be afraid to dicker, even at a chain store.

You will avoid shipping charges, but these often are offset by sales tax, especially on larger purchases. If you’re buying more than $1,000 worth of gear, you’ll often break even in comparing local sales tax with shipping on non-taxed items. The only notable exception to this rule is larger TV sets, which typically cost a bundle to ship.

Tip

There’s an ugly rumor going around that the days of buying tax-free across state lines are coming to an end. Although it might still be years before this comes into play nationwide, you might want to do some reading on the subject. The term for this is use tax—a tax on goods bought out of your state of residence, but intended to be used or consumed there. As an example, visit http://www.tax.ri.gov/info/whats.pdf to see what the State of Rhode Island expects from its citizens.

It is also appealing to see your choices in movie and audio on a specific system. However, remain skeptical: as mentioned here and in Chapter 5, chain stores often ensure that systems are perfectly tuned with thousands of dollars of equalization, causing you to hear something more than just a receiver, speaker, or CD player. Assume that what you hear is the best possible case, not the average case.

Dress for the Best Service

Everyone pays more attention to people when they dress up, and no serious job applicant walks into an interview in old jeans and a ragged T-shirt. It’s obvious, at least in those cases, that although dress might not define you, at least it plays a part in identifying you. Dress can say you’re serious about a job, a person, even a purchase. It’s in this last category that a lot of ignorance lies. Taking the time to put on an outfit a few notches just below what you’d wear to a job interview will make a huge difference in the attention you get from qualified salespeople at home theater stores.

Dress might not make as much of a difference in chain stores, but particularly in boutiques and other small shops, a well-dressed consumer will almost always get more attention, better information, and generally, a better deal. Ten extra minutes in the closet can result in hundreds of dollars saved, and a system that pleases you for years rather than months.

A Limited Inventory

Of course, it should go without saying that the biggest problem in chain stores is the lack of selection. You won’t see Marantz, Pioneer Elite, Onkyo, Meridian, Lexicon, B&K, and most other high-end component manufacturers in even the largest chain stores. This means you’re effectively limiting yourself to lower- to medium-ended manufacturers. If you’re on a shoestring budget, this might be acceptable, but if you’re looking for the best, you’ll want to investigate boutiques [Hack #4] and higher-end online sites [Hack #6] .

When you shop in chain stores, realize this going in. If you’re looking for the very best in home theater, you’re probably going to leave frustrated and upset. If you’re on a tighter budget, though, you often can find some good buys. However, realize that any audiophile friends you have might turn up their noses at you. Don’t get in a tiff about this; you bought within your budget! Ask them how their credit card bills look, and then you can do the laughing.

Buy in Person from Electronics Boutiques

An electronics boutique offers the advantage of in-person tryouts without many of the downsides of a larger chain store.

Most home theater enthusiasts realize that chain stores [Hack #3] rarely cut it, for either quality or selection. If you want more than a “home theater in a box,” you’re going to have to spend some money, and in that case, you deserve more than a too-bright, too-crowded chain store. In these cases, an electronics boutique is ideal.

Boutique stores are smaller stores, often on a side road, that specialize in home theater. You’ll have to look for them; they often don’t advertise as much, or have as much visible presence, as the Best Buys and Circuit Cities of the world. However, if you find a good boutique, you can easily become a customer for life.

Understand the Pricing Model

Before you walk into your first boutique, you should realize you are probably going to pay anywhere from 10% to 15% more on items than you would if they were in a chain store. Boutiques have higher overhead and less revenue, and they pass those (lack of) savings on to you. However, you have to realize many of the components in a boutique aren’t available in chain stores, so this theoretical price increase becomes just that—theoretical.

If you want to pay the absolute lowest price for equipment, you’re going to have to shop online [Hack #6] . But on the Internet, if you don’t know exactly what you want and what to watch out for, it’s easy to pay less for something that doesn’t serve your needs. Some will urge a potential consumer to figure out what he wants at a boutique, write the items down, and then shop online. I have a real distaste for this; if you’re going to spend several hours at a boutique (and you will, if you’re serious about choosing the best gear), you’ve taken up valuable time for the owner and salesperson. I think it borders on outright dishonesty to then devalue the information and assistance they provided, buying the gear they helped you select from an anonymous Internet dealer. Realize that 10% of a purchase is more than warranted if you have a great salesperson who helped you find what you wanted, was patient with you, and gave you plenty of options.

Prepare First, Shop Second

Another important tip when shopping in boutiques is to go in prepared. You should have, at a minimum, the following items written down.

Room dimensions

This is one of the single most important preparation tasks. If you don’t know the room size, including ceiling height, you really handcuff even the best salesperson. Speakers perform completely differently based on the size, shape, and structure of a room. This information is invaluable in a good boutique providing you a tailored system.

Room construction

Detail whether your room is an interior room or an exterior room. Know the difference between a wood-framed house and manufactured housing. You also should note the location and size of windows, doors, eaves, overhangs, and anything else that could affect where you place speakers.

At a minimum, I need…

This is your list of desired applications. Don’t worry about detailing that you want a receiver, DVD player, CD player, and so forth. Instead, list the uses you want your theater to serve—movie playback, watching cable TV, listening to CDs. If you want to listen to surround-sound music, let your salesperson know; on the other hand, if that’s really not a big deal, know that going in. Additionally, let your salesperson suggest the equipment, unless you’re really sure of what you’re doing.

Budget

Although this might sound pedantic, it’s really frustrating to spend hours with a customer showing him incredible systems, and then as you talk price, he mentions he wants to spend only $1,500 on a complete system. Know what you can spend, and let your salesperson know up front. She can pick better systems, and ensure you can afford what you hear.

Shop for the Complete Package

One of the biggest advantages of a boutique is that they usually offer installation services and even equipment calibration. Although this is going to cost money (doesn’t everything?), it can be a huge advantage to have the people who sold you your equipment install it. They know the gear inside and out, and they might even offer you a discount if you buy equipment and let them install it. Additionally, if something goes wrong, you’re not on the line; the people who sold the equipment are the ones who have to deal with it.

Another real advantage to this approach is that you often can swap out equipment if something goes wrong. If your boutique installers get to your house and realize something isn’t going to work, they’ll likely allow you to exchange the gear for something else that works. Finally, if you forgot to get that one component video cable, or if you run out of speaker cable, a boutique can take care of these little details easily.

Shop Intelligently at eBay

Although ebay.com isn’t the best place to buy all your gear, it’s a great source for certain types of gear, often at lower-than-normal prices.

No book on buying anything would be complete without mentioning eBay. One of the largest and most diverse marketplaces around (online or otherwise), eBay is a good source of a lot of electronics, including home theater components. You’ll often find slightly used or B-stock gear at killer prices that aren’t available anywhere else. With all that said, you’ll need to be just as careful with eBay (if not more so) as you are when shopping at a chain [Hack #3] .

What Should I Get Online?

One of the keys to using eBay to your advantage is determining what you can and can’t buy online. More accurately, this could be phrased as figuring out what you should and shouldn’t buy online.

The basic rule of thumb is that if an item is essentially a stock item, it’s fair game for buying online. Stock items are anything that is manufactured and is generally the same across the board. For example, receivers are a stock item; as long as you have the same manufacturer and model, they’re going to sound more or less the same, unit after unit, as long as they’re in good condition. The same goes for DVD players, VCRs, CD players, and most other audio/video components.

Where you get into trouble is with items that, even when manufactured, don’t always come out exactly the same. Speakers fall into this category. I’ve listened to two “identical” speakers that don’t sound at all alike. You also need to be very cautious about items that have great potential for damage in transit. Although you can pack a DVD player in a ton of foam, it’s very hard to ship speakers, as well as larger items such as TVs, without causing some shakeup. At a minimum, you’re probably going to have to calibrate [Hack #61] these devices (which might mean paying a professional, if things are really out of whack). This also is true, although somewhat less so, with receivers and preamplifiers. These can be shipped safely, but be prepared to spend a lot of time explaining what you want to the seller, and ensuring that they follow through.

In general, stick to your more basic components, such as DVD players, CD players, and other video units, and you’ll have far fewer problems.

Avoid Scams

One of the greatest boons of eBay, and yet one of its potential downfalls, is the ability for literally anyone to sign on, in complete anonymity. Like any good thing, it hasn’t taken long for people who are out to make a fast buck to figure out ways to exploit the system. As a result, you’ll have to be careful to avoid getting ripped off; home theater, along with musical instruments, is a primary target for these scam artists. You can do several things to minimize your risk if you do shop online, though.

Insist on pictures

A great way to separate scammers from real sellers is through pictures of the item for sale. Often, these are part of the listing, and you can form an initial impression. One giveaway of a potential scam is to see a picture pulled off of a product web site. For example, Figure 1-5 shows a Lexicon MC-12 from the Lexicon web site (http://www.lexicon.com). It’s as stock as it gets, and no more represents a real unit than a hand drawing.

Lexicon MC-12 picture from Lexicon web site
Figure 1-5. Lexicon MC-12 picture from Lexicon web site

Figure 1-6, on the other hand, shows a picture that obviously was taken in someone’s home.

“Real-life” picture of Lexicon MC-12B
Figure 1-6. “Real-life” picture of Lexicon MC-12B

If you don’t see any realistic pictures, email the seller and ask about it; a real seller won’t be offended in the least. If you’re still concerned, ask for additional pictures of the equipment in an unusual (and therefore inaccessible from a vendor web site) position; pictures of the top, bottom, or sides of the unit are always great. Again, a legitimate seller won’t be upset in the least by this.

The same principles apply for “new, in the box” auctions, which sometimes show up. Although the seller might not want to take the unit out of the box, you can ask for different shots of the box, such as close-ups. In one auction, I even asked the seller to make a small mark on the box and photograph it; I had no doubts about the seller once he did what I requested. Remember, nothing says a buyer has to accept things just the way they are; only a fool buys from an anonymous, seemingly illegitimate seller.

Pay attention to feedback

This should be obvious, but you need to take a close look at feedback on eBay; it’s there for a reason. Buying a high-end piece of equipment from someone who’s sold only two items before is a risky venture, at best. Also be on the alert for users who have changed their username or are brand-new (signified by the eBay sunglasses), as there’s another potential for problems.

In addition to looking at the number of transactions, always click through to the actual feedback itself. Reading through these comments often alerts you to how the seller handles payment, how quickly he ships, and how easy he is to work with. Of equal importance is to check out how many times the seller has actually sold before. Figure 1-7 shows my profile, where you see a good mix of buying and selling. It’s also OK if someone sells all the time, but don’t buy high-end gear from someone who’s never sold before!

eBay feedback
Figure 1-7. eBay feedback

Email, email, email

A great way to feel out a seller is to simply email him— repeatedly. Email certainly isn’t as personal as a phone call or a face-to-face meeting, but you often can get a feel for someone through a few emails. Ask about the equipment, and make sure you get detailed responses. If you’ve exhausted your equipment questions, ask about the shipping policies; and then ask if he’s sold similar items before; then ask about his payment policies. Often, you don’t need to pay attention to the specifics of his replies as much as to the tone and feel. Are you dealing with an open person who seems to care about the transaction? Or is the seller testy, impatient, and prone to be slow and unresponsive? The latter could indicate that you’re not going to have a pleasant experience.

If you’re buying a high-dollar item, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for a brief phone discussion. Any seller not willing to spend 10 minutes on the phone for the sake of selling a multithousand-dollar item isn’t worth your time.

Find High-End Equipment Online

Online sites such as audiogon.com and videogon.com provide high-end gear, both new and used, at low prices.

So, here’s the basic problem: you don’t have a good boutique [Hack #4] nearby; you hate the chain stores (and their selection is terrible) [Hack #3] ; and eBay [Hack #5] doesn’t offer the really high-end gear you’re looking for. This is actually a common situation (I’m in it myself, for what it’s worth), and thankfully there’s a solution. There are a couple of high-end online sites that offer even the most unusual gear, at less-than-factory prices.

Audiogon

Housed at http://www.audiogon.com, this is the original site for killer equipment online. Audiogon has lots of home theater gear, but caters to the stereo (two-channel music) crowd as well.

Videogon

Videogon is a follow-on to Audiogon, and is online at http://www.videogon.com. Videogon is more squarely focused at home theater, and is probably where you want to start if you’re into…well…what this book is about.

Tip

Just in passing, there’s also a high-end camera marketplace at http://www.photogon.com.

You’ll find everything from the standard fare seen on eBay to $20,000 components on these sites; needless to say, you won’t be limited in selection.

There’s also a nice network of reviews that will help you find just the right gear for your particular system.

Both of these sites have essentially the same navigation. The main page (shown in Figure 1-8) has a listing of categories down the left. You also have subcategories to choose from. However, I often find things miscategorized (or not placed in a subcategory at all), so stick with the main headings and work from there.

Videogon home page
Figure 1-8. Videogon home page

Once you drill down into a category, you’ll see a list of featured ads (see Figure 1-9), auctions (seen in Figure 1-10), and finally, dealer demo listings (Figure 1-11). Each area is worth some investigation, as long as you know what to watch out for.

Be Careful of Auctions

The high-end sites have auctions, just like eBay [Hack #5] . However—unlike eBay—you don’t have the same robust set of protections on your purchases. There is not a well-established recourse for filing grievances, there is no safe harbor, no escrow, no feedback… you get the idea. Although these sites include many items that you simply can’t find on eBay, you should exercise real caution. You also should start by reading the terms of use: http://cgi.audiogon.com/auction/rulesauc.html.

Audiogon featured ads
Figure 1-9. Audiogon featured ads

Tip

Realize that I’m not ragging on the auction system at these sites; I’m just saying you might want to take a few extra steps as their infrastructure develops.

The best way to reduce risk, though, is not to simply bail on any gear up for auction. In fact, that would defeat much of the value of these sites. Instead, go back to “old school” eBay tactics. In the early days of eBay, it was common to trade 5 or 10 emails, and often to have a phone call, with a seller during a transaction (at least, that’s the way I did things). Although this won’t guarantee you will avoid any charlatans, it certainly will help you avoid a lot of bad situations.

Finally, follow all the tips outlined in working with an eBay seller [Hack #5] . Request pictures, get details, go the whole nine yards. Additionally, you can ask the seller if he has done any business on eBay. If he has, get a user ID and check his feedback. This is just one more step in making sure you get the best gear, at the best price, in the best condition.

Audiogon auction listings
Figure 1-10. Audiogon auction listings

Retail Prices Are Useless

Many of the listings on Audiogon and Videogon have a “sale” price and a retail price. This is pretty typical fare for sites such as these; the retail price always is much higher than the sale price, which makes you feel like you’re getting some sort of deal if you buy. That said, you should realize retail prices are absolutely useless. Even the manufacturer inflates its retail prices; certainly you realize that even dealers don’t sell gear at retail, don’t you? So, never get too excited just because a sale price is some huge percentage off “retail.”

The best way to figure out if you’re getting a good deal is to hunt around. Most popular items have multiple listings, and you can compare listings to see what the street price is. Another good idea is to see if you can find the item being sold in a brick-and-mortar store, and call that store for a price quote. Even if you can’t find a local store, this technique will help you determine if the price online is reasonable. As a general rule, buying direct from someone online should save you at least 10% to 15% off of buying it in person, and you avoid taxes in most cases.

Dealer demos
Figure 1-11. Dealer demos

Always Call Dealers

One of the real steals at sites such as Audiogon are the dealer listings. This might come as a surprise; I actually ignored these for the first several months of shopping online. Typically, dealer demos are like web site ads; you just want to click through them and make them go away. This couldn’t be further from the case, though, at these high-end sites. First, you’ll often find dealer demo units. These are units that have been shown on the floor, or perhaps have been opened up or are surplus stock. In almost all cases, though, these units are new and are in great condition, but have below-market prices. You’ll also find some dealers just advertise regular stock on these sites to attract business.

Whatever the situation, you need to call these dealers and ask them for their pricing. Equipment manufacturers (especially the high-end ones) have very restrictive agreements with their dealers as to what prices can be listed.

However, a phone call might reveal that a dealer is willing to go far below what he can legally list a unit at.

Tip

For the ultraparanoid, this isn’t illegal. It’s just a technicality you find in areas like this. The same applies, incidentally, for many high-end guitar builders, including Martin, Taylor, and Collings.

As a point of reference, I was shopping for a Lexicon MC-12. These listed at about $10,000 at the time, and the best you could buy them used on eBay was for around six grand. I called up a dealer I found on Audiogon, and he offered me a new unit at just over $4,500! This wasn’t even B-stock or a refurb; it was a new, never-been-opened unit, and I got it at well below used prices. Needless to say, I’ve been back to that dealer many times, and I’ve found the same paradigm (albeit not always at such a drastic savings) is in effect all over the place. Five minutes on the phone have saved me thousands and thousands of dollars over the years.

Buy Cabinets for Your Gear

Purchase the best cabinets you can afford for your gear to ensure that it runs as cool as possible, and looks good doing it.

Let’s face it: gear is expensive. You easily can spend $20,000 on a good home theater over the course of a couple of years, and that’s still leaving plenty of room to upgrade. But that gear isn’t worth much, if you never let anyone listen to it. So, here’s the common scenario: you invite your friends over for the “ultimate” movie experience. But instead of being in awe of the sound and picture, the first comment you hear is “Gee…why’s it all just sitting out on the floor?” Not a pretty picture, is it? One of the most important purchases you’ll make, in going from cool gear to cool theater, are cabinets. You’ll be able to organize your gear, tuck it away neatly, keep the cable situation under control, and look high-end, all for a fraction of what you’ve already dropped into the black hole which is your home theater expense sheet.

Starting Out “On the Cheap”

If you’ve squeezed out every penny to get what you could in terms of equipment, you might have to begin with a lower-end solution than nice wood cabinets. With a decent set of tools and some effort, you actually can put together a nice set of component shelves. Unless you’re Bob Vila, you probably won’t have hinged doors, custom-fit racks, and the like, but it’s still a lot better than a $5,000 receiver sitting on a cardboard box.

Purchase some medium-density fiberboard (MDF) from Home Depot or Lowe’s, and cut it to size. For a nicer look, bevel the edges (this will make your shelves look much more expensive!). Then drill holes and run rods through the holes to create a support structure. Connect the whole thing with your basic bolts and washers, and you’re done! For extra support, especially on carpets, add some casters to the bottom shelves to level things out. As an example of this sort of setup, check out Figure 1-12; it should give you some ideas.

Home-built component rack
Figure 1-12. Home-built component rack

Be sure you heavily prime the MDF, especially if you’re painting the shelves black, to ensure a nice matte finish. I’ve also heard of folks lining the shelf tops with truck bed liner for extra traction—go figure! In any case, I’ve not gone into detail because most of you will want to jump to the higher-end cabinets as quickly as possible, especially if you’ve got bigger TV sets.

The Real Deal

When you’ve decided to move up from the homemade equipment, you have two basic options available to you: custom shelving and store-bought home theater racks.

Tip

If you happen to be into woodworking, that obviously is a third option, but you’ll find it takes many hours to put together a top-notch home theater cabinet. This is more than just shelves and dowel rods; you need to take into account cooling, some sort of door or enclosure, rear openings for cables, and a lot more. Go for it if you like, but take plenty of time to plan ahead.

The most custom solution is to find a local carpenter, and have her put in shelving. This is a killer option, as you can tailor the shelving and cabinetry to your specific needs. You’ll also be able to mount the shelving in a closet or on a wall, if you’ve got the space, which provides a really clean, integrated-looking system. The downside, though, is that you’ll often get a carpenter who doesn’t know a thing about audio and video gear. You’ll have to walk her through proper ventilation and your cable system. Keep in mind that you need access to the rear of your equipment for cable checks, calibration, and the inevitable upgrade. If you can’t find someone who has already done a few similar installations, you should exercise caution, lest you end up with really expensive bookshelves!

The second option—the road most taken—is to buy cabinets. Just skip right over eBay and chain stores for this, though, as you’ll be dissatisfied. You should check out Videogon first; it has a section just for this category: http://cgi.videogon.com/cgi-bin/fs.pl?furncabi. Unfortunately, it’s still somewhat undersized; nonetheless, you might find just what you need there.

If Videogon fails, search Google for “home theater cabinets.” You’ll get a slew of results to wade through and check out.

Tip

I’ve purposefully omitted specific sites, as I’ve found that the most reliable locations seem to change every few months. What worked for me might not work for you six or nine months down the line.

Personally, I recommend wood cabinets (see Figure 1-13), as metal just doesn’t appeal to my eye. You’ll also save a bundle in shipping wood as opposed to metal. I also urge you to overbuy; if you have 10 components, look for a unit with at least 12 shelves; you never know when you’ll find the next piece of must-have equipment, and you want room to add it into your system. Also, ensure the shelves are adjustable. All components are not created equally!

In the same vein, please, please measure your components! I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard of someone buying shelves that their gear didn’t fit into, and having to spend more than a hundred bucks to ship back the cabinets. Get the widest component you have, and record its width. Also get the height of your tallest component, and the depth of your deepest component. Then, ensure you get the interior measurements of the cabinets you’re looking at, and ensure things will fit. I always add at least two inches to my requirements to ensure a comfy fit and room for cables and the like.

Home theater cabinet
Figure 1-13. Home theater cabinet

As a last piece of advice, I recommend you find home theater cabinets at a furniture-style shop rather than the other way around. I find that the stores that major in cabinetry have better and sturdier cabinets than the home theater stores. This is a big enough market these days that this shouldn’t be an issue, but watch out anyway.

Cable Management?

One of the big draws for cabinets these days is cable management. This is usually marketing jargon for a set of conduits through which you can run your cables, supposedly hiding them from view. The problem is that, even in the high-end gear, these conduits are small. You’ll spend hours threading cables through one end, hoping (praying!) that the cables will make it out the other end. And, once you get even a few cables threaded through, things get really complicated. I’ve yet to see a unit with larger cable runs, and honestly, if the conduit were big enough to be useful, it probably would look obnoxious anyway!

As if that’s not bad enough, when you have a problem, you’ll be ready to murder someone once you realize you’ve got to mess with cables, so carefully run through those little conduits (I’m getting frustrated just thinking about it). The best cable management involves a little Velcro [Hack #36] , not expensive routing.

Avoid Glass Like the Plague

A final word on racks before you spend your hard-earned money. Under no circumstances should you ever buy glass shelves. I say that with great reluctance because some of the coolest setups you’ll ever see are built out of glass; in fact, I once spent almost $900 on two glass component racks. The problems, though, are many.

Dust

I mean, it gets on everything, you can’t hide it, and it’s constantly blowing up off of the (often static electricity-charged) glass shelves.

Clarity

You might think clear glass is cool, but it doesn’t hide anything. Your one silver component suddenly jumps out of the rack, while all of its black-finished neighbors hide. This gets really annoying after the fifth time someone asks you “Now, why didn’t you get a black DVD player?”

Cable management

What a mess: if you can’t hide a silver component, imagine the quite visible mess of component, coaxial, RGB, and other cables that litter your racks.

I’ve yet to find a single rack with glass shelves that addresses even one of these issues, let alone all three. And, to add insult to injury, the glass racks are usually more expensive! So, save your money (and sanity) and stick with wooden shelves (or, if you prefer, metal).

Plan Your Room Décor

Take your theater to the next level by adding creative lighting, wall sconces, seating, and decorations.

So, now you’ve got all the gear—televisions, receivers, speakers, DVD players, and the rest—and you’ve even spent a bundle on enclosures [Hack #7] for your components. However, your theater still doesn’t feel like…well…a theater. What gives?

Most likely, the answer is that you’ve simply got a room with great audio and video. And that, my friend, does not a theater make. You’ll be amazed at what the accessories in your room can do; you’ll soon find that carpet, paint, lighting, posters, and seating add up to a better experience than even some of your components! Ultimately, components are subtle things, and sound and video are in the eye (and ear) of the beholder; but everyone knows what a theater looks like!

In my experience, the bar-none best place to get room décor is the Home Theater Market (HT Market), located online at http://www.htmarket.com/index.html. These guys have the best selection, and are the most responsive, that I’ve found. Make no mistake: I’ve probably spent a few bucks more here than if I’d hunted for each individual piece online. That said, I’ve received stellar service, and they’ve even thrown in free shipping from time to time as a thanks for repeat business.

Paint and Carpet

There’s a more complete discussion on paint [Hack #18] in the section on video components, as you’ll need to understand how lighting affects the color palette before selecting paint. Still, begin to consider how theaters are painted. You probably can’t think of a single one with light colors; they’re usually done in black, midnight blue, or some other deeply tinted dark color.

Also think about the ceilings of these rooms. They are almost always painted the same dark color. This is often a common mistake in home theaters; enthusiasts get the side walls right but forget about the ceiling. You also should consider removing any ceiling fans. For those of you up north, this is no big deal; but I’m in Texas, and pulling the ceiling fan was a serious decision, albeit one I think I made for the best. I probably pay a little more to air condition my theater, but it looks like a theater (who ever got up from watching a movie and got distracted by the fan over their head?).

Finally, think carefully about carpet. At a minimum, choose a dark color to go with the rest of the room. If you’ve got room in your budget, though, consider a themed carpet. The Home Theater Market has some killer designs available at http://www.htmarket.com/homtheatspec1.html. These aren’t super cheap, but if you have someone local provide installation and the carpet pad, it’s actually not all that bad.

Tip

I’ve received more comments about my carpeting than any other single piece of home theater gear or décor I have!

Lighting

Another major addition to any good theater is lighting. Again, the gold standard is the real movie theater. Normal in-ceiling lights just don’t provide that movie atmosphere. Decorative sconces, though, are just the ticket. Once again, HT Market is the answer: http://www.htmarket.com/homtheatligw.html. You might want to brace yourself for sticker shock here, though; this stuff is very expensive. I seem to recall spending about $800 on lighting, but it was well worth it. Adding four sconces throughout the room, and placing them on a dimmer, makes for a killer setup.

Sconces rarely will provide enough lighting for your entire room, though, and often serve as effect more than anything else. For the main lighting, you might want to consider some in-ceiling pot lights (see Figure 1-14). These provide good light sources, and yet they are focused and can be precisely pointed. I personally like the areas of light that they produce, as opposed to a more general “light the whole room” approach. A good electrician can purchase and install these for a fairly low cost.

Posters

I’m a nut for posters. I have three movie frames and I’m constantly changing out movie posters in each. I’ll have the Lord of the Rings trilogy one month, the Matrix trilogy the next, Star Wars the next (I’m into trilogies, can you tell?)…and I’m always getting compliments on the frames. For a small investment, you can pick up nice frames at HT Market: http://www.htmarket.com/posframandca.html.

In-ceiling pot lights
Figure 1-14. In-ceiling pot lights

The only real “gotcha” here is to ensure that you get a frame that mounts solidly to the wall, and that can be changed out easily. I prefer the brass Loc frames for a classy, yet manageably priced, theater. You can mount them to drywall or to studs in your walls, and it’s trivial to pop posters in and out.

You can buy posters almost anywhere, so don’t feel limited by HT Market’s selection. http://www.allposters.com/gallery.asp?aid=754680 is another good source for posters, and of course Google is the ultimate resource for finding anything you want.

Seating

Home theater seating is one area where people can get a bit contentious. Some feel that the only way to really outfit a theater is with true “home theater seating.” In other words, you want the bucket seats that rock back, just like you find in a theater. However, these are both fabulously expensive (more than $500 a pop in most places) and not that comfortable.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the La-Z-Boy recliner, and I think you can get a few comfy models from them, save big money, and be more comfortable. You can buy models with cup holders, so you really don’t lose anything (if you’re especially adventurous, add a massage chair, and you’re in heaven!). So, don’t get too hung up here; the main thing is to have comfortable seating that doesn’t look out of place with the rest of your room.

The Little Things

Once you’ve got all of this covered, there are still plenty of little things you can add to take your theater to the very top of the elite. One of my favorites is decorative woodwork. Most hardware stores offer all sorts of decorative chair rails and molding. If you’re so inclined, this sort of thing can really class up a room. Figures 1-15 and 1-16 show some of the woodwork in my theater; notice the fancy-looking joints. This is pretty easy to do; just cut a small rectangle and attach it to the wall, and then join the molding at the wood block. Add a little bevel to the rectangle, and you add yet another level of sophistication.

Ceiling molding
Figure 1-15. Ceiling molding

Another small, but easy, touch is ensuring that everything matches. Wood finish is so cheap these days that you can easily ensure that your end tables, shelves, cabinets, and woodwork are all the same color. This brings the room together, and helps make things look as though they belong. You’ll have lots of other ideas, as well: experiment, and go with what works.

Corner molding
Figure 1-16. Corner molding

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