Regarding various aspects of home theater and tips on how to have great sound and video on a budget.
My home theater (and how I designed it)
In order to design a home theater that fits your lifestyle, you have to define the project requirements up front. This is not only defining your viewing habits, but also your space and family constraints.
A key take-away is modest equipment, properly set, up will blow the doors off of expensive equipment that’s just tossed together. Attention paid to room lighting & acoustics, speaker positioning, matching speakers to room size, clean reliable AC power, good wiring practices, and calibration will likewise pay off handsomely.
I’ve been involved in audio since the mono vacuum tube days, and into home theater before it was even called home theater. My first A/V foray was to run broadcast TV audio through an isolation transformer into my stereo. (It sounded awful: full of hum, NTSC video noise, and quite bandwidth limited.)
As time went on, A/V quality improved and I followed along: Stereo sound on video tape, and then VHS-Hi-Fi, stereo MTS broadcasts, etc. I had a large 19″ video monitor and a nice stereo, pretty stylin’ for the day. I even bought a very expensive VHS copy of Star Wars when they came off “rental only” status. This was the late 70s to early 80s, IIRC.
LaserDiscs happened in the early 80s, which offered a huge improvement in both audio and video quality. Finally, decent home video… and acceptable stereo to my hi-fi. I immediately invested in an expensive LD player, hooked it all up, and got a few discs. Wow! I had to upgrade my screen to a monster sized 26″ 120 lb CRT to enjoy it. And I bought Star Wars on LD too, of course.
Then came Dolby Surround w Pro-Logic (all analog at this point) which was my first taste of theater surround in a home environment. I immediately went for it.
Surround Sound, Yay!
Next came the digital surround generation, with AC-3/Dolby Digital (and dts) in 5.1 surround. Letter box or original aspect ratio became popular about here as well.
(So yes, another copy of Star Wars on LD with Letterboxing and I think AC-3 too.)
As the audio and video standards changed, I trailed along: DVDs and the various enhanced surrounds, THX, more speakers and receivers and oh my!, etc.
(Yes, more copies of Star Wars…)
But all these years of will-nilly changes and upgrades were encrusted onto and hacked into my system. I had a mismatched speaker set, an awkward to use amp & video switching system… a real hodge-podge of equipment strung together. It was time for a rethink and a carefully designed upgrade. Plus there was this Hi-Def thing about to happen.
So, stepping back a bit…
My viewing and listening habits
I like a big picture and effortless clean sound with plenty of bass, which means a big screen and a full surround sound with sub-woofer(s) are key ingredients.
I mostly watch feature movies, nature and BBC type series, and anime. It’s extremely rare I watch anything during the day, “broadcast” TV, or streaming services. (I like to see the “behind the scenes” and the “making of” segments that aren’t usually available online.) Also, the technical deficiencies of streaming really annoy me: The video often stutters or has video codec or transmission artifacts, and the audio typically is down-mixed and bit depth reduced i.e. lower fidelity and less channels. Since I’m into high quality sound and have a large screen, these are big negatives for me.
So I watch primarily physical media (4K/blu-ray/DVD), and I have some legacy medium-fi Laserdisc and lo-fi VHS video tape media I drag out on occasion.
Audio wise, I have several hundred audio discs (CD’s, SACD’s, DVD-A, and some dts and AC-3 as well). Some are high bit rate 2 channel, some are multi channel PCM, some have even been encoded via a surround codec for surround presentation. For example, I have most of the classic “RCA Living Stereo” recordings on SACD, many in a three channel format as they were recorded. These are well recorded and feature top musicians and conductors of the day, worth checking out.
So the home theater audio system does “double duty” for these multi-channel hi-fi audio discs. That also means I don’t like dipole surrounds as I prefer to match the surrounds to the front channel speakers.
Finally, I have a large LP collection (vinyl in today’s new-speak) and some 78’s I still listen to. However, these are played on a separate stereo system with a high quality stereo pre-amp, and aren’t part of the home theater equation here.
(Go Old School!)
We own a modest cozy home on a large-ish lot with driveways between us and the neighbors… meaning a cranked up home theater is less likely to disturb them. The living room looked to be the best home theater space… except I wanted it to also be a “people” living space, where we entertain guests, watch the fire, and chat with friends. Also, I intensely dislike big black voids (i.e. flat panel TV) as they suck up the “feel” of a space. An alternative large screen will be needed. Seating for six people, ambient lighting, and a floor to ceiling, wall to wall bookcase on one wall and a large picture window on another completes the room description and needs.
These requirements suggested a pull-down projection screen with a ceiling mount projector, smallish speakers, and hiding a lot of the equipment in a nearby closet. (whee.) Aside from the space issue, not having the equipment in the room removes visual distractions and keeps dust and fur from invading it. It also means a fairly elaborate IR repeater system is needed for the remotes to work. Fortunately I have a tolerant wife who shares my A/V enthusiasms, so no issues from the family… aside from budget.
Before doing all the whiz bang electronics stuff, get your room up to par visually and acoustically.
The typical household room is usually poorly suited for high quality audio/video presentations. It is often acoustically bright and harsh sounding with too much echo, the ambient noise level is usually too high, and it will be full of rattles when the subs kick in. Doors and windows will be where you want to place speakers, and a fireplace will be where the screen should go. And so forth.
In my case, the room has a standard 8 foot ceiling, a hardwood floor, a picture window, 2 doorways, and a fireplace. All these needed to be considered for treatment.
A few sound basics
Hard parallel surfaces are bad, they bounce the sound back and forth and make mush out of everything. (This is why some many trendy restaurants are impossibly loud and difficult to have a conversation in.)
Fortunately, only one such parallel surface needs to treated to avoid the bounce, and also fortunately carpets, heavy fabrics, and soft fluffy couches are good sound absorbers.
Ambient noise is another tough one, you want the room to be as quiet as possible. That can be difficult in a city, with neighbors, traffic, barking dogs, and other acoustic assaults. Windows are a prime way sound will get into a room, double pane glass and more heavy curtains will help.
In my case, the ceiling/floor issue was easily resolved with a large area rug on the floor, the window got a set of opaque mist curtains and blackout drapes to block reflections from the glass and quiet city and street noise. Media storage (books, CD’s and DVD/blu-ray) provided acceptable diffusion on the two other walls.
Next, consider the visuals and lighting. Projectors works best in a dark room so windows and doorways are not friends, especially in daytime. The blackout curtains “double dutied” as sound control and light reduction from the window, the doorway happily already had a pocket door, and putting the room lights on a dimmer took care of the last bit of lighting treatments. The pull down screen blocks the visual clutter of the fireplace and mantel, and the darkened room diminishes the impact of the knick-knacks.
Equipment and Placement
Speakers get placed around the room, equipment goes on a rack in the wiring closet, wiring goes everywhere… Ha-Ha! Oops, what about evolution and upgrades? To illustrate, here’s the history of my A/V systems…
Gen zero: Old School S-Video wiring
I had a 27″ CRT monitor built into the wall with a S-video connection. An early outboard AC-3 decoder (now called Dolby Digital) handled the surround decoding chores. The sources were a VHS-S Hi-Fi tape deck, a Pioneer LaserDisc player, and gradually various DVD-players as DVD’s started to enter the market.
Gen one: Projection System
My gen one system was still mostly analog. The video was S-Video, with composite as a fallback. This first system had a series of 4:3 NTSC projectors and screens, ending up with a DLP based computer projector @1024×768 res. The receiver (a Pioneer, I think) had S-video switching. Audio was a 5.1 surround setup with AC-3/Dolby Digital, dts, and Dolby ProLogic for older material. Most audio was sent over S/P-DIF digital cabling, and I was using Infinity bookshelf speakers, great sound for the money.
Gen two: Going Widescreen – appx 2007
The second gen was an upgrade to widescreen and HDMI, now the default digital A/V connection. The projection system got a big upgrade to a 2K 16×9 Panasonic PT AE200U projector and 120″ 16×9 screen in preparation for the eventual move to hidef sources. The receiver is now a Pioneer 7.1 unit with a couple of HDMI A/V connections, and a region free DVD player with an HDMI output. More speakers called for a speaker upgrade, the old ones were getting dated. I went from Infinity’s to the Andrew Jones designed Pioneers.
This generation was the first foray into using a Harmony unified remote control to sequence everything, a decided improvement.
Gen three: Hi-Def
The third gen upgraded the rest of the electronics to 2K (or 1080p) hi-def: A blu-ray player, a 1080i broadcast tuner (last used for the Chinese 2008 olympic games, I believe), and receiver (an Onkyo TX SR-806) that could handle up to 1080P signals on HDMI. The new disc player loads faster and plays DVD-A and SACD in surround and bitstreams the audio over HDMI to my receivers decoders, another win. As a bonus, the Onkyo rcvr had a pretty good upscaler for older VHS, Laserdiscs, and std def DVDs.
Gen four: Dolby Atmos and 4K sources
I was planning on replacing my older receiver with a current one with plenty of inputs (both old style analog video and HDMI), when Dolby Atmos was released. I decided to hold off a while to see whether it was going to take off or not. Meanwhile, I continued with the Onkyo receiver with my Pioneer speakers and a Sunfire subwoofer with the projection system.
Two years later, it was time. Atmos was the defacto “best sound”, and in the meanwhile, 4K UHD blu-rays were starting to trickle out. I still have that nice Panasonic projector & 16×9 screen that I don’t feel a need to replace yet, but the promise of Atmos was intriguing. However, a full home Atmos system is a 7.2.4 (7 mains, 2 subs, 4 ceiling). 11 channels is a lot of amps in a small box, not a good idea. Also, that’s a lot of new speakers and ugly wiring, and long speaker wiring loses power rapidly. Hmmm.
Around 2015, Pioneer released up firing atmos speakers add-ons for my existing Pioneer (Andrew Jones design) speaker system and Onkyo released the PRSC5530 AV “controller” front end “preamp”; ie no internal amps.
This was exactly what I wanted.
For the speakers, I don’t have to cut holes in the ceiling(!) and the speaker system maintains it’s “matched” characteristics.
For the electronics, the Onkyo pre-pro has balanced audio outs, which allows the use of reliable pro balanced cabling and associated locking XLR connectors. Combined with Atmos, all the various other surround and upmix modes, plenty of I/O and Spotify music streaming support, this was (and is) an excellent performer.
One the many interesting feature of Atmos is the use of two subwoofers, a left and a right feed. It’s been long known that properly placing a pair of subs will smooth out the inevitable room bass response irregularities, and that if you play the same signal through them they will be a not-insignificant 6 dB louder than a single speaker, ie your “boom-bang-crashes” can be louder with less strain. And although low bass is fairly non-directional, one sub still tends to muddy the spatial locations of sounds a bit. A pair of subs located along the front line speakers is a big improvement in many ways. I use a pair of tiny Energy ESW-M6 subs, they fit my room nicely and provide a decent sub experience.
Next, I acquired a bunch (7 plus a few spares) of pro audio Crown D75 rack mount amps for my amplifier stack. Crown D75 amp review.
These units from the late 70’s / early 80’s are good quality “old school” analog amps designed for recording studio in-room use. They are good sounding, rugged, dependable, compact(1U), very quiet both electrically and acoustically (no fan), have balanced inputs, and can be easily run in bridged mode with a flick of a switch. In bridged mode, these easily crank out a solid and clean 100W signal!
My amp plan for the five front channels uses 3 Crown amps in bridged mode for the 3 main speakers (L/C/R), 1 Crown amp in 2 channel mode for the front verticals. All the amps are located in the front of the room near the speakers For fun, I swapped out the 3 main amps with rebuilt tube amps. Note the subs are self powered.
For the six back/side speakers, I used 3 Crown amps in 2 channel mode for the surround and vertical speakers; these amps are in the utility closet rack with the Onkyo pre-amp and media players.
Next is power and cabling management. With this many amps (seven stereo amp chassis and three subs!) it’s required to power sequence them to avoid blowing your AC power breakers. Plus, it’s very user unfriendly (and error prone) to have to manually turn all the amps on and off in a special sequence. A Furman remote power sequencer and AC filter system (driven from the 12V preamp control signal) was engaged to handle these chores for the two amp equipment racks. The Furman’s plug into a heavy duty rack mount UPS, which provides extra filtration and safety against power flickers and brief outages. Lastly, a dedicated 20 amp circuit from the breaker box is what the UPS is plugged into.
For the audio, eight channels of pro balanced cabling (a “stage snake”) was pulled from the wiring closet through the attic to the front of the room to drive the five amps and two sub-woofers, plus the all important spare channel should a wire go defective. XLR connections pretty much eliminate the inevitable “bad connection” issues with consumer grade cinch/RCA connections, and balanced wiring is inherently immune to hum and noise pickup on longer runs, like here to the front of the room amplification.
I spent several days wiring everything up and testing it, fixing several issues along the way. For example, the cheapy IR repeater system proved to be flaky, so I replaced it with a higher quality one.
And I ran into myriad and many weird HDMI issues with getting Atmos to work, see here (LINK NEEDED) for the excruciating details. Among other things, it turns out a lot of the newer “blockbuster” movies with an Atmos soundtrack… only put the Atmos soundtrack on the 4K UHD releases, not the 2k blu-ray. Bah!
Next was the usual speaker and monitor calibration, input labeling, and programming the unified remote control.
Results to date: Here’s a shot of my living room in home theater mode. The bit of dim room lighting is for the photo, not my usual darkened viewing environment. (Cat included for size reference.)
The 120″ pull down screen is about 12 feet away from my usual recliner. That works out to about a 40 degree viewing angle, a bit better than the 36 degrees THX standards call for. Coupled with the 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos audio system, it makes for a very immersive movie experience.
And bliss ensues for several years, until…
Planned for 2020: Updating my trusty but aging 13 yr old Panasonic AE2000 projector with a new 4K HDR one, the Optoma UHD60. This should be a significant upgrade in resolution, brightness, contrast, and color fidelity.
Gen five – 4k projector projector update – 2020.01.16
Well, well, well…
The new projector is a significant improvement in resolution, overall brightness, black level, and color fidelity and brilliance. Yay! The dark detail is much better, without the usual purple cast. Rainbows are not readily apparent (to me, anyways) and much better than the last DLP I had some 15 years ago.
– The Blu-ray of “Howl’s Moving Castle” is vivid and practically leaps off the screen, and “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” has subtle and rich details in the many dark scenes.
– Even my ancient LaserDisc collection looks pretty good after some playing around with de-noising and sharpness options.
And now, the downsides…
1) Pixelization Issue
There was a significant amount of very annoying pixelization in SDR mode until I cranked down the “Brilliance” control to 2. The resulting dull and washed out picture then require considerable black and white level adjustment to look good again.
I used a grey scale test pattern and some source viewing to re-calibrate, a full instrument recal is in the works now.
2) Focus and brightness uneven
The focus at the edges is a little fuzzy and brightness linearity across the screen in merely OK, with falloff at the the corners. Clearly visible with test patterns, but not noticeable during viewing. Probably a design trade-off caused by some cost cutting in the optics.
3) 4k HDR vs HDMI vs Atmos vs everything – (HDMI system issue, not a projector problem)
HDMI is a flaky and temperamental standard at best, and hair pullingly annoying always. It turned out my 4K compatible pre-amp actually doesn’t pass thru the HDR handshake, nor did my first 4K disc player. I replaced the player, but the HDR feature only works with a direct player connection to the projector, which means the preamps config and status screens aren’t visible. My first and second attempts at using HDMI splitters failed with no HDR, sound dropout issues, or a failure to recognize the Dolby Atmos soundtracks.
For now, I’ve bagged experimenting with this as the number of 4K discs with HDR in my collection is about five, and the HDR to SDR conversion in the player is pretty good anyway.
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