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Home Theater Hacks by Brett McLaughlin

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Hack #1. 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.

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