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Home Theater Design 101

BY: MADDIE FREEMAN | 2.9.2017 |

Family with teenage girls watching TV in the living room

As electronics get better (and cheaper), the home theater has transformed from an expensive luxury into a household staple. Even the most modest studio apartment can enjoy cinema-quality sound and picture quality. Home theater design, on the other hand, is where things remain complicated. How do you tailor all those components and cables into an A/V experience that doesn’t overwhelm the senses (or your living room)?

As you select and set up the essential components for your home theater system, keep the following best practices in mind.

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Television

woman on living room sofa watching giant wall-mounted flat screen television

The TV is the centerpiece of any home theater design, and you have a variety of features from which to choose. The key specs to look out for are:

Screen Size

Resist the temptation to go as big as you can afford—an outsized TV in a small space puts you too close to the screen to fully appreciate its picture quality. A good rule of thumb for determining screen size: measure your couch’s distance from the TV (in inches) and multiply it by .84.

Resolution

What’s the difference between 720p, 1080p, 2160p (4K), and beyond? Naturally, the higher the number, the greater the picture quality—and the higher the price. While only 4K delivers an intensely realistic picture and rich color, 720p resolution may produce all the fine detail you need, depending on what you typically watch:

RESOLUTION AKA PIXEL COUNT WHERE IT'S USED
720p Standard HD; HD 1,049,088 DVDs; most HD broadcasts on TV
1080p Full HD 2,013,600 Blu-ray discs; certain on-demand content (no over-air signals yet available)
4K/UHD Ultra-High Definition 8,924,400 Limited content from on-demand services, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus

WiFi Connectivity

A standard feature on newer TVs, WiFi connectivity lets you stream movies, shows, and sports on demand. Some TV models are even equipped with a full Web browser, so you can catch up on Facebook from your couch. Consider a WiFi-capable model a must if you have a smaller space—they don’t require any additional components.

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Stands, Mounts, and Consoles

flat screen television mounted in media center cabinet with dvds and media players

Organization is key to a clean-looking home theater setup. A stand, mount, or console (or some combination of the three) can accomplish several goals, whether you’re trying to hide wires and components or just create a more versatile viewing space.

Wall Mount

  • Perfect for: smaller spaces. With your TV on the wall there’s more room for seating and space to move around.
  • Special Features: wall mounts allow you to change the TV viewing angle to ensure everyone in the room has a good view. You can also find models that mount to the ceiling if wall space is at a premium.
  • Before You Buy: read Groupon’s TV mount buying guide and make note of your TV’s VESA pattern; this will determine what type of mount to buy.

TV Stands and Media Consoles

  • Perfect for: corralling a TV and home theater components, all while keeping the screen at an ideal viewing angle.
  • Special Features: seek a model with drawers if you’d like to hide remotes and game controllers when they’re not in use. Also look for cord cutouts, which corral your cords to a central location, making them easier to manage.
  • Before You Buy: make sure the unit has enough shelves and space for your peripherals—measure each component and leave three inches of clearance on all sides to allow them to vent.

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Sound System

wall-mounted flat screen television with home sound system speakers

Most people can get by with 2.1 channels—that is, two speakers and a subwoofer—but some will appreciate the immersive experience produced by 5.1- or even 7.1- channel systems. How complex you want your sound system to be will depend largely on how you plan to use it.

Wired or Wireless?

Sound systems are increasingly designed to be wireless, which eliminates a lot of clutter and installation hassle (especially in large rooms). However, if your home theater is going in a smaller room, a few wires may be easy to manage—and worth the price break that typically comes with them. Consider the following before selecting your audio components:

  WIRED WIRELESS
PROS Less expensive Sleek, wireless look
Intuitive setup No in-wall routing required
More compatibility options  
CONS   More expensive
Surround-sound systems can require lots of wiring Compatibility with other components may be limited
  More complicated setup

Sound Bar

  • Perfect for: people who mostly watch TV and want to improve upon their set’s built-in speakers. Read our guide on how to install and get the most out of your soundbar.
  • Highlights: sleek and low-profile, sound bars are usually no more than 4” deep, fitting neatly under TVs or mounting easily to walls.
  • Special Features: A Bluetooth-enabled sound bar forgoes a tangle of cords by streaming audio wirelessly from a compatible TV (or smartphone). Some Bluetooth models come with a wireless subwoofer.

Speaker System and Receiver

  • Perfect for: cinephiles and gamers. Only a true surround-sound setup, with multiple speakers and an A/V receiver, will fully reproduce the dynamic sound of Blu-ray movies and next-gen video games.
  • Highlights: to achieve a truly immersive surround-sound experience, shop for a 7.1-channel system, which makes on-screen action sound as though its unfolding all around you.
  • Special Features: look for a remote that lets you toggle which component is sending video to your TV screen and sound to your speakers.
  • Before You Buy: If you’re up to the task, shop for components separately. This lets you pair speakers that fit your space with a receiver that offers all the features you want.

Pro Tip: For surround sound, distribute speakers on either side of the TV, directly below the TV, and behind the couch. A subwoofer sounds best when placed in a corner facing the couch.

 

Home Theater in a Box

  • Perfect for: anyone who wants surround sound but is intimidated by the prospect of shopping for separate components and making sure they all work together
  • What’s Included: most home theaters in a box include at least 5.1 channels and a receiver, plus detailed instructions for setup and connecting to a TV

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Media Devices

flat screen televisions with streaming services

Is it time to cut the cable cord? Your home theater system can easily replace a cable box’s worth of content with a streaming device or media player.

Blu-Ray Players

  • Perfect for: movie buffs and anyone looking for sharper image and sound quality than is currently available via streaming.
  • Special Features: some newer Blu-ray players are compatible with 4K Blu-rays, a must-have companion for 4K TVs.
  • Before You Buy: check if the player is equipped with WiFi; if so, it can stream content from popular apps such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, potentially eliminating the need for a separate streaming device.

Streaming Media Players

  • Perfect for: “dumb” TVs without WiFi; a dedicated streaming media player makes it easy to watch apps like Netflix, queue up your Spotify playlists, and find live sports channels.
  • Popular Options: Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire. Find out how they differ.
  • Before You Buy: make sure your TV supports the streaming device (and has an available HDMI port); you’ll need a home WiFi network with at least 5MB/s download speeds (the minimum recommended speed for streaming HD video).

Game Consoles

  • Perfect for: well, gamers.
  • Popular Options: The latest round of consoles include the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
  • Special Features: newer game consoles come equipped with streaming apps such as Netflix and Hulu, eliminating the need for a separate streaming device.

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Home Theater Accessories

surge protector power strip with neatly organized cords

A few accessories are inevitable when setting everything up. Keeping them organized, or even hidden, is key to a modern-looking home theater design.

Cables

HDMI cables are your most vital cable option, as they connect your TV to your Blu-ray player, A/V receiver, streaming device, and other home theater components. You’ll need one HDMI cable for each of these devices. A few might require different cables, however. Cable boxes typically use coaxial cables, while some high-end audio components use optical cables.

  • Buy them in conjunction with new components. Cables usually aren’t included.
  • Buy cables in multi-packs. You’ll get a price break and cover all your components in one fell swoop (the best swoop there is).
  • Tailor the length to your setup. If your Blu-ray player sits on a console under your TV, for example, you’ll only need a 3 ft. cable—any longer and things start to get cluttered. Wall-mounted TVs typically require longer cables.

Power Hubs

Your home theater setup likely comprises several components, so you’ll almost certainly need a power hub for all their plugs.

  • Surge protection is essential. Whatever you buy, make sure it has a surge protector if you’re plugging in multiple devices.
  • Power strips are effective, low-cost options for basic setups. If your home theater involves fewer than six components, you can likely get by with a power strip.
  • Wall taps provide the cleanest look. Wall taps stay planted on the wall (also plugged into an AC outlet) rather than on the floor.

Pro Tip: If you’re unable to conceal your power hub, you might as well boost its functionality by getting one with USB ports. That way, you can charge your mobile devices as well.

 

Storage and Organization

The key to getting the most out of your home theater system is keeping it organized. Find a dedicated place for your remotes and cables to live, or they’ll quickly turn into clutter.

  • To conceal cables: Cord channels hide unsightly cables behind a slim plastic cover that can be easily mounted to the wall and painted to match the color of the room. In-wall wiring makes cables even less visible, but requires more effort and DIY know-how.
  • To store remotes and game controllers: Buy a storage bin low enough to slide under your couch or TV stand.
  • To keep your disc library organized: Consider storing your games and movies in specialized storage bags or devoting a separate shelf unit to them.

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