The Ultimate Guide To The Best Home Theatre

Home theatres are well worth the price of admission for the sensational sight-and-sound experience they deliver.

Have you heard about the newest form of aerobic exercise that involves sitting still? It’s called the Home Theatre Workout. Canadian homeowners with eye-popping, big screen TVs and you’d-swear-you-were-there sound systems, get their heart racing, blood pumping and break out into a sweat — without even getting off the couch.

How do they do it?

They feed their VCR the latest action-thriller video, fasten their couch seatbelt and hold on for a visual and audio ride that practically burns calories and flexes muscles. And you probably thought people who watched a lot of TVs were Couch Potatoes

Just test -watch a big screen TV and surround-sound system with a video like “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford. An opening scene has Ford trapped in a crashed bus that’s flipped over and is straddling train tracks. A massive train, with its blinding headlight and piercing whistle, barrels down the tracks toward Ford and you. Ford leaps off the bus, the train careens into it with a fire-ball explosion and you jump out of your seat, if not your skin. Luckily both Ford and you are safe – except for the fact that you’ve spilled your drink on your lap. Only then do you remind yourself, “It’s just a movie.”

Set up your private movie palace and say goodbye to getting a babysitter, searching for a parking space at the theatre, standing in line at the ticket booth and squeezing yourself into a fold-down theatre seat, surrounded by 100 strangers.

A home theatre in your living room promises a sight-and-sound experience the whole family will enjoy, at your convenience, whether it’s after dinner or in the middle of the night. You and Arnold Schwarzenegger can jump from the top of buildings, your kids can fly through the sky on Aladdin’s magic carpet and together you can run from a heard of “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs with Sam Elliot. And all without leaving home.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

Peter Kelly, the manager of Bay Bloor Radio in Toronto, says if you already have a TV and hi-fi VCR, you’re halfway there. “If you have these two components then you can get a name brand audio system and speakers for less than $2,000. If you already have speakers, it’s even less than that.”

If you’re starting from scratch, you can get a decent home theatre for about $3,000 to $4,000. To set up a more elaborate system, you need $5,000. Stretch your budget to $10,000, and you can have it all – and probably charge admission to your friends.

WORKING WITH WHAT YOU HAVE

Louis Fillion Inc., a Montreal company that built up a thriving business mainly as audio specialists, recently expanded into home theatre products because of the growing interest. Fillion says, “When a customer wants to install a home theatre in his home, he often already has a 28-inch TV. We suggest he keep it for now and invest in a surround-sound audio system. Later, when his budget allows, he can get a big screen TV later. We recommend a good sound system that will suit his dream installation when he can afford it. A small screen with a good sound system is like having a big screen with a poor sound system.

True-to-life sound is vital to the getting a sensational home theatre experience because some experts and psychologists say hearing a crash has more effect on you than just seeing one. So if you’ve got a TV, hi-fi VCR, and stereo system, all you need is a surround-sound decoder and speakers.

Fraser Brooks, the manager of Sound Plus in Vancouver, says there is a lot of confusion about surround-sound. “Most people have heard of it and seen a Dolby logo sign on their TV screen when watching a movie. But they don’t know if it exists in their TV or in their speakers, or what you need to get it,” says Brooks.

A surround-sound decoder lets you use your stereo receiver to separate sounds and drive them through individual speakers (also called channels).

It takes five speakers to get surround-sound: left, right, center (separate or built into the TV) and two rear speakers. A good system allows you to not only hear the exploding glass when Bruce Willis blows up a building in the movie “Die Hard,” but to also hear him whisper on his transmitter as if he’s whispering in your ear.

A five-channel decoder with Dolby Pro-Logic circuitry can be a separate unit or built into amplifiers, receivers, and TVs.

ROOM DESIGN AND SET-UP

Ideally, the location of a home theatre would be a plain room in your home with no features such as a fireplace or windows. But in most cases, home theatres are installed in family and recreation rooms and they work well. Even a spare bedroom, if not too small, is equally suitable.

Fillion says, “When we design a system for a home we not only suggest what components the customer should install and where, but make suggestions regarding the decor of the room. Many homeowners formerly hated audio and video systems because the components were ugly and wires were running everywhere. But times have changed. The modern designs blend much better with most decors.” And the variety of cabinetry available, offering options to cover the components if you want, provide something for every taste and budget.

Lighting of the room is crucial to the picture quality of your TV. percent ambient light washes out the image. Put the TV on a clear wall along the narrowest dimension of the room, in the darkest area. Watching TV in semi or complete darkness is best; a movie becomes even more believable if there are no distractions from reality.

The backdrop behind your TV also affects your home theatre experience. The plainer and darker the wall, the better. It shouldn’t compete with the image you’re watching.

How the audio components are placed is just as important. The left and right speakers should be placed on either side of the TV. The center speaker (which is the one you hear the dialogue through) should be directly above or below the TV screen so it associates directly with the image. Front speakers should be placed at ear level when you’re seated.

Surround-sound speakers should be behind or toward the rear of your seating so you are bathed in sound. Wall or ceiling speakers are ideal for this. The sub-woofer (the speaker that gives that low base sound) is the only component that can be placed almost anywhere but the rear is best.

A good dealer will sit down with you, have you sketch out your room and advise you on component placement. Many will come to your house and set it up for an installation charge. This is well worth the extra money. You can have great products, but if they aren’t installed right, you won’t be getting the experience you paid for.

NEWEST PRODUCTS

1. TVs

If the TV you own today is smaller than 28 inches, you should probably demote it to your bedroom or kitchen if you want to set up a home theatre. A 28-inch TV or larger is the starting point for a decent home theatre experience.

There are three kinds of TVs: direct-view (up to 37 inches), rear projection (over 37 inches) and front projection (over 70 inches). One of the newest developments is wide-aspect ratio TVs. Toshiba’s Theatre Wide, for instance, has a wider, but less tall format and a 16:9 (width to height) ratio. Standard TVs have a 4:3 ratio so the new wide-aspect TVs allow you to enjoy the same magnificent images and sweeping vistas seen at the movies, without the dark horizontal bars that appear when letterboxed or cinemascope (21:9) programs are seen on a conventional TV.

Theatre Wide has 900 lines of resolution, a 160 degree viewing angle, and 450 ft lamberts making it the brightest wide-screen picture in the industry. An advanced comb filter technology that eliminates dot crawl and cross-color interference further improves picture performance. A specially designed short-focus lens provides consistent picture focus in the corners – especially critical for widescreens TVs. The addition of a new dark screen improves contrast for a richer, deeper picture and razor-sharp images. You can also scroll the image vertically and adjust its location to your preference.

Complementing the brilliant picture is a state-of-the-art audio system that has four settings: theatre, stadium, nightclub and concert hall to enhance the home theatre experience.

Other features include a picture-in-picture (P-I-P) option that allows you to watch two programs simultaneously. A picture-outside-picture (P-O-P) option displays the second program outside the main image to avoid picture overlap. The channel search functions let you surf through other channels without interfering with the main picture.

Brooks believes the way of the future for TVs is the new small projection units such as Sharp’s Sharpvision. The unit looks like a slide projector and projects an image from 20 to 200 inches on to any flat surface (although a viewing screen is best). “You don’t have to have a mammoth box bolted to your ceiling to get images of 80 inches and up,” says Brooks. “Screens are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t know when it’s going to stop.”

2. Sound Systems

Remember the sound of helicopters in “Apocalypse Now“? You felt their vibration physically in the theatre and the right sound system should give you the same effect at home. A good A/V receiver is the foundation of a great sound system.

Surround-sound itself is continuing to develop. Dolby Stereo sound transcended to Dolby Pro Logic which will evolve to Dolby Surround Digital in a few years. This will give even better home theatre sound.

THX sound systems, a surround-sound processor develop by Lucasfilms, claim to even more closely mimic the cinema experience. Brooks says, “THX is the newest thing to have a great home theatre. It’s a design specification or a set of parameters for the amplifier and speakers that generates even more realistic sound effects.”

But sound quality is also affected by the speakers attached. Get the best you can afford but if you have to compromise, spend more money on a good centre channel speaker because that is where the dialogue comes from.

Fillion says, “It’s much easier to buy a TV than a sound system because TVs are a choice made visually. We can show you various makes and models. But to choose a sound system, a store needs to have it set up on the premises to demonstrate it.” Try to find dealers who can let you hear the distinguishable differences between different amplifier and speaker systems.

3. VCRs

Most people don’t use their VCRs more than five percent of their VCR’s potential,” says Brooks. “They just rent movies, put them into the VCR and play them. Even simple time-shifting to tape something at a later date poses a challenge for most people.”

But that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from improving their products and adding features. Toshiba will soon launch their new high-performance hi-fi VCRs. Toshiba’s revolutionary V3 technology incorporates some features previously only available on professional models. It produces clearer sound and better picture quality than other VCRs. Toshiba’s top-of-the-line M-760 VCRs, for example, has six video heads instead of the traditional four heads. By reducing the width of each head, the pictures are clear, sharp and there is no flickering.

The technology involves a newly designed classics that represents a major step toward global standardization of Toshiba components. Although several different video systems are used through the world, V3 is designed so that the same chassis can be used for VCRs of any, or all of these systems. This standardization gives Toshiba the flexibility to provide high-performance features on VCRs at more affordable prices.

4. Laserdisc Players

The popularity of laserdisc players is still limited by their inability to record programs. They are generally more expensive than a standard VCR but their picture quality is claimed to be 30 to 60 per cent better.

Video stores that rent laserdisc movies are limited. Laserdisc movies cost about $40 and up to buy. “But we’re seeing a lot more video stores carrying laserdisc movies than we did a few years ago,” says Brooks.

A laserdisc player’s freeze-frame capability is an added bonus. For certain purposes this is ideal, such as still-picture shows. For example, “Masterpieces of the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg” allows you to see these magnificent works of art at your leisure – without going to Russia and walking through the 400 rooms and hallways. It’s the next best thing to visiting gallery.

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