After I moved into a new house 18 months ago, I knew I wanted to take everything I'd learned over the past few years and set up my own personal dream home theater system. I spent several months thinking about the constraints on the space and my own goals. I then spent about six months doing research on various aspects while putting it together. About a year later, it was complete.
In this part, I want to cover the basics of how to define what would make your own perfect home theater. This is the earliest step in designing your own system for your own space, so it'll be just writing stuff down and doing research online.
Come up with a wishlist
The first thing you'll want to do is come up with a list of things you'd like to have in your own home theater. We'll talk about constraints later, so for now, think sky-is-the-limit on what you want. For me, my wishlist looked something like this:
- For a screen, a large plasma or LCD wall-mounted
- For a TV source, HD either from cable or satellite
- For watching movies, I'd like HD as well, either blu-ray or HD-DVD
- One or more video game systems
- Some way to stream movies/music from computers in the house
- I want all components hidden away or behind doors
- I want any and all speakers to be as hidden as possible, no visible speaker wire
- I'd like the room to be multi-functional and not solely for watching TV
Counter your wishlist with real-world constraints
A wishlist is a good start for your research, and you'll want to start using Google for a bit to see what sorts of costs and other limitations your wishes might include. Think about your space and whatever preliminary research you've done to hone your wishlist down to something a bit more realistic. It helps to break out the tape measure and talk to anyone else you're sharing the space with (spouse, kids, roommates).
For my own living room project, I listed my own following constraints for my living room:
- Distance from top of fireplace to ceiling where I want to wall-mount a TV is about 34 inches
- Bank of three windows along one wall will bring in lots of natural light
- Hallway closet about 20 feet away if I wanted completely hidden components
- House came with 5 speakers installed in the ceiling
- A toddler in the house meant components needed to be in a kid-proof enclosure
Budget: let's talk about money
The biggest obvious constraint on anyone planning a new home theater system is likely to be money. For me, I was willing to spend several thousand over the course of a year getting the components, but not all at once. After looking at my wishlist and my constraints, I did a good bit of research on the various components I'd need and I made myself an estimated budget like so:
- TV: about $3k limit
- hi-def DVD: $500
- video game systems: $500
- Home Theater A/V unit: $500-$1,000
- Component rack: $500-$1,000
- Various other components (TiVo, streaming media server, etc): $1,500
I quickly realized by the end, I'd probably go over my mental $5,000 limit, but the estimated budget helped me get a handle on where I was spending money and what sort of things to look for when shopping.
Research absolutely everything before you buy
I'd say it only took me a couple weeks of living in my new house to write down lists of wishes, constraints, and a budget. I spent the next six months or so researching each and every component and purchase decision before buying anything. With your lists in hand, try these research tips:
- Go to a local electronics retailer with a good selection of TVs to compare brands side-by-side. Try and watch a known source (your favorite movie or channel) on different screens. Don't base any judgments on demo reels optimized for each screen (they rarely show high-action)
- Crutchfield is a great resource for shopping and comparing brands. They've got high-resolution photos of the back of every A/V unit, which comes in quite handy, as well as customer reviews.
- The AVS Forums are a great starting point. While shopping for a TV, I would often venture into the LCD area to see what people were saying about the various models before going out to test them myself.
- Amazon is a good way to check user reviews before considering some purchases. You'll learn a lot about the limitations of a device from owners.
- Engadget HD is a decent source for new product information. If you're spending months researching things, you'll often find a new model may replace the one you were thinking of buying.
I would strongly suggest that you don't skimp on this planning and research stage. Spend at least a few months shopping around for the best model and best price before you plunk down your money. In my case, I was replacing an old TV, old A/V unit, and old DVD player, so after a couple months of research, I would upgrade each part until I was done a year later.
Also keep in mind the longer you wait to buy just about any piece of electronics, the bigger the chances are that it will be either hundreds of dollars cheaper a few months from now, or replaced altogether by a better unit (or both)
Next in part 2: Buying a TV and picking the right screen for you