Whether you're dreaming about a home theater or you're already enjoying one, you have Theo Kalomirakis to thank. He's the man who is responsible for the modern vision of home theater. The movement first began when he re-created New York's classic '20s Roxy Theater in the basement of his Brooklyn brownstone.
Kalomirakis says that he tried to recapture the magic of a classic '20s movie theater in a miniature. By doing so, he accidentally tapped into what he calls the collective consciousness of moviegoers who share his affection for a time when both the movies and the setting in which they were viewed were special.
The ultimate home theater is a place, like the theaters of the past, that transports you to a different world. However, not all movie-viewing rooms are meant to serve this purpose. Some are just nice, comfortable places to watch movies that you love.
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Take It From the Top
Before planning your home theater, choices have to be made. This first question is, Do you actually want a movie theater-like environment, similar to the one Kalomirakis built for himself and now builds for his clients? Some prefer a media room in which to enjoy music, surf the Web, watch sports and other TV programs. Some just want to make existing rooms, such as a den or a family room, more high tech.
The type of environment you choose will affect many other decisions, so that's the most crucial part of the design process. Dave Gilbert, of Cherry Hill, NJ's Hi-Fi Sales, says, Percentagewise, I'd say that about 90 percent of our clients do a media room and 10 percent choose a home theater.
The reasons for these decisions have to do with both budget and lifestyle. Most of Gilbert's clients who have a home theater will also have a media room or den with a lower-quality surround-sound system that they use for everyday events, such as watching whatever television shows that are broadcast in surround sound. But it can also be a special place, he adds. They \[clients\] will use their home theater as a place where they'll watch a movie on a Friday or Saturday night.
Both Gilbert's and Kalomirakis' companies belong to the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA). If you're not sure which approach to take, contacting this organization may be a valuable step.
Whether you're going for a professionally designed home theater or a do-it-yourself media room, you'll need to decide on equipment. The type of equipment for a home theater or a media room is usually the same. Some basics include a large-screen TV (start with at least 30 inches) and video sources, such as a DVD player, satellite or cable TV, a VCR and, increasingly, a digital video recorder (DVR), such as the new Replay TV and TiVo units. A digital surround system requires a Dolby Digital receiver, or some unit that's capable of decoding both Dolby and the competing DTS (digital theater systems) sound scheme. This, in most cases, will act as the main controller of the system. You'll need left, right, and center speakers in the front, and a pair of surround speakers on the side walls near the rear of the room. Since 1999, Dolby and DTS have been promoting packages that add one or two additional surround speakers on the rear wall for additional sound coverage. Dolby calls this Dolby Digital EX; DTS calls it DTS-ES.
Of course this equipment does not have to be purchased all at once, which would require a substantial investment-think early 401(k) withdrawal or second mortgage. The vast majority of home-theater and media-room owners purchase most of their gear in stages.
The list of ultimate components is purely a subjective one. Ask any two home-theater buffs what their favorite pieces are, and you'll get two very different answers, However, any component in our setup would make an excellent building block for a home theater.
Tuning In to the Right Receiver
The audio/video receiver is really the brain of a home theater. Competing for the title of our ultimate receiver is Pioneer Elite's VSX-39TX and Yamaha's RX-V1.
Ever since the late '80s, Pioneer Electronics' Elite division has been making smart, stylish equipment that combines sophisticated, rugged construction with an extended factory warranty and wraps it all inside a handsome, glossy black-lacquered piano-like finish with rosewood side panels. Retailing for $2,500, the VSX-39TX, their latest model, incorporates both DTS and Dolby Digital EX sound processing and the ability to plug in up to five audio and five video components. Besides pumping 120 watts of power to five channels, a separate output is included for a powered subwoofer, to generate ultra-low and ultra-loud bass.
Yamaha's RX-V1 is a similarly beautiful unit and includes many of the same features as the Pioneer unit. It also includes 110 watts per channel and has enough room to plug in 12 different components. Unlike Pioneer's unit, Yamaha has built in the ability to drive eight speakers (and also has a separate output for a powered subwoofer), not just the six of Dolby Digital EX. The Dolby or DTS folks don't approve, so true movie aficionados may shun this feature. For everyone else, it adds a more enveloping sound scheme to any media room or home theater.
Obviously, an A/V receiver needs to be connected to a set of speakers. Our top-of-the-line system is the AM-15 \[Accoustimass-15\] product, says Joe Damato, group marketing manager for Bose. It has dedicated amplification for bass reproduction in our module, and it also passes through all of the high power that would be available from a receiver, and that powers the Cube speakers. The AM-15 includes five black or white speakers and a matching powered subwoofer.
The AM-15 retails for $1,400. A lot of people ask us why we ask the prices that we do for our products; they look almost too simple for the price, says Damato. The reason is that \[the speakers\] do so many things automatically, that we believe that they command a premium price. Whether it's size or performance, or that these smart circuits do a lot of things that you would have to do manually. Even so, you'd never be able to achieve the same level of performance. Damato also says that industry outsiders never think about such fine-tuning.
The Bose set is small and unobtrusive. If space needs to be balanced with quality, as is often the case with a do-it-yourself media room, these can be a great choice.
For something larger, there's Now Hear This (NHT). Go to the top of their line, and you'll find the VT3s, which include a pair of front speakers, each with a built-in powered subwoofer, a center-channel speaker and two surround speakers. These are serious-looking speakers, all the way down to their angled front on both the left- and right-front speakers. This balances the sound and properly aims it into the room. Such quality doesn't come cheap. The price tag on these babies is about $7,000.
The Vast Realm of Video
Currently, the best software medium for movie lovers is DVD. There are several thousand movies, TV shows and other materials available on DVD, with much of it also available to rent at your local video store.
Sony's DVP-S9000ES ($1,500) is a nice selection if you're looking for a great player with a few extras. Besides the DVD function, the unit also plays audio CDs as well as the new Super Audio CDs. The player features 480-line progressive video output via its Precision Cinema Detection feature. Sony says this function analyzes the original film/video frame composition and then restructures it for DVD playback.
The DVP-S9000ES plays a single DVD superbly. Several manufacturers now make video jukebox units, which will hold anywhere from 5 to 300 DVDs and audio CDs. One such unit is Pioneer's DV-F07 ($1,250). The unit has the same glossy black finish and rosewood panels as the VSX-39TX receiver mentioned earlier, and it can hold any combination of 300 DVDs, CDs or CD-Rs (CD-recordable discs). Two units can even be slaved together to double that capacity.
Achieving a film-like television picture is much more daunting (read more expensive) challenge than adding movie-theater-quality surround sound. However, it's here, depending on your budget, that hiring a pro can really pay off.
Inside Runco International's Hayward, CA, factory is a demonstration room equipped with a VX-1c projector mounted on the ceiling and a Dolby Digital EX surround rig. Watching the Bruce Willis sci-fi adventure The Fifth Element on this setup is an awesome experience, with a picture that would put many movie theaters to shame. There's little or no stair stepping on diagonal lines. There are no ghosts. Of course, the unit also needs a screen, such as those sold by Draper and other manufacturers. And not every home theater or media room is right for a front-projection rig. These require 10- to 12-foot ceilings, a large space and a lot of money.
Another extremely viable, and much less expensive, option for a wide-screen television is a 16-by-9 rear-projection set. The 16-by-9 aspect ratio is perfect for the movie lover who wants to avoid looking at the black letterbox bands that mar watching wide-screen movies on conventional 4-by-3 sets. Toshiba's TW65X81 ($6,500) HDTV-ready unit has a 65-inch screen, which is certainly big enough for most typical dens and media rooms. It can handle 480i, 480p, 720p and 1080i high-definition signals, as well as conventional VCRs, laser discs and anamorphic wide-screen DVDs. Mated with an HDTV set-top box, it's capable of delivering just about anything your TV has to offer. It also has a little brother with similar features, the TW40X81 ($2,800), which has a 40-inch screen.
Apartment dwellers have a special challenge. Fortunately, a plasma-screen TV can come to the rescue. Andy Siedschlag, training director at Runco, says that high-rise apartments are perfect for such setups. You can't get a rear-projection type unit into the elevator; plasma makes a good choice. He adds that screen sizes of 50 inches and over are pretty decent selections for a home theater.
When asked if their 50-inch PL-50C (a mere $25,995) plasma-screen TV is good enough to serve as a main home theater screen, Siedschlag gives a confident reply: Absolutely. In fact, we feel that the picture on the PL-50C is the best image out there that you can get on a plasma display. Siedschlag credits this to the plasma glass itself. The other is that we couple our controllers with it, he adds. The PL-50C comes with an outboard controller, which does all the aspect ratio scaling and the video processing.
Outperforming Other Systems
Once your gear is installed, its calibration should be checked and adjusted, ideally once a month or so. One of the easiest ways to do that is with the Video Essentials DVD. By following the narration and on-screen instructions, you can dramatically improve the quality of your television and your Dolby Digital (or Dolby Pro Logic) sound system. Additionally, you'll learn a lot about how your system works.
To set the picture on the TV properly, Video Essentials comes with a strip of 35mm film that's tinted navy blue. Hold the strip of film over your eyes as you set the color and tint levels of the picture. However, to calibrate the surround sound in your media room to its fullest, try investing in a sound meter ($35 at RadioShack for one with an analog display, $60 for the snazzier digital display).
While Video Essentials is arguably still the best game in town for a DIYer, it's now getting a tad long in the tooth. There's no DTS, Dolby EX, HDTV nor progressive scan information. These technologies were still not finalized when the disc was released. Look for an updated version sometime this summer.
Behind the Black Box
Because A/V receivers are both expensive and sometimes difficult to upgrade (everything gets plugged into them), a variety of black boxes have come along to extend the life of this one component.
Entech, a division of Monster Cable, manufactures several of them, including the CVSI-1 ($999), which integrates the three cable component video outputs of DVD players into a receiver that lacks these inputs. The unit tricks the receiver into showing its on-screen GUIs (graphical user interface) on the TV screen over a DVD being run through a component video.
Another problem many A/V receivers may face is the growing number of components being plugged into them. For such a situation, Entech has its Director AV4.1 Input Source Selector ($349). This unit accommodates up to four S-Video or composite sources, along with left- and right-channel audio switching for each.
Both units use Entech's standard curved-metal casing, which, at 8 by 6 inches, looks a bit like a car audio amplifier with four rubber feet. Dolby Digital EX, which adds additional surround speakers on the rear wall of a media room, is just starting to appear on flagship A/V receivers. For those with Dolby Digital receivers who wish to upgrade, Audio Design Associates has the ADA 6.1 Decoder for $600. (See Surrounded by Sound, pg. 19.) This unit can be added to coax that additional surround track out of Dolby EX. The unit is relatively simple to add to an existing A/V receiver. It will probably take more time to hook up the additional one or two speakers you will need and hide their wires than it will to connect the unit to an A/V receiver. (For information about home theater packages, see Home Theater in a Box. For a list of home theater resources, see Home Theater Resources on the Web.)
Dream Becomes Reality
What has played into the home-theater mythology is the Hollywood screening room, where we used to think that only big movie stars and producers could have a screening room in their house, says Kalomirakis. You know, everybody's playing movie producer right now with their movie theaters. Everybody can share a little bit of that exclusive magic that was once only the domain of Hollywood until home theaters came along. So we can all bask in that kind of glory. Now you have your chance too.