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Home Theater Buying Guide

Beginners Home Theater Buying Guide
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Beginners Home Theater Buying Guide

Getting Started

A good home theater system can rival the experience you get at your local cinema. With the vivid picture quality of today's LED TVs and video projectors, and the lifelike audio of a surround sound system, the only thing you're missing out on is the high price of popcorn. And if the movies are a regular family outing, the cost of a year's worth of tickets and snacks can pay for a home theater in no time. Here's everything you need to know about building the perfect home theater system.

Before choosing home theater equipment

Before getting started, you should consider the room in which you'll be building your home theater, because that will influence the gear you should choose.
Will your theater be going into a room where you can control the ambient light, or will it be in a common room in the house where there will be lots of windows and other lights? If possible, build your home theater in a room where you can easily eliminate all sources of light. Not being able to do so will have an effect on the type of display you should get.
How big will your home theater be? Will it be squeezed into one of your spare bedrooms, or span an entire basement? A larger room can accommodate a bigger screen, as well as more seating options.
Is the room already finished or still a work in progress? Running home theater cables will be much easier in the unfinished basement of your own home than retrofitting connections for a finished space (like many living rooms). Will your home theater be in an apartment, condominium, or townhouse with a shared wall? If so, you'll have to be aware of how loud your system gets if you don’t want to disturb your neighbors.
With those things in mind, we can get started planning the perfect home theater.
Set of tower speakers, center channel and subwoofer

Home Theater Display: TV vs Projector?

While audio is a very important factor in any system, the video side of things must be determined in the first stage of planning. When building a home theater, you have two options: a TV or a projector. Each has its pros and cons, and a variety of factors can make one or the other the better choice for your particular theater needs.
There are two main factors that will help when deciding between a TV and a projector: how large of a display you would like, and what the lighting situation will be in your home theater room.

Home Theater Projectors

If you want the most “film-like” theater experience possible, which will allow multiple screen size options, choose a projector. With a home theater projector, the limiting factor to screen size will be the size of your wall. Many entry level home theater projectors can project an image up to 300 inches in diagonal—that's a screen the size of twenty-five 60-inch TVs in a grid!
Most people who use a projector in their home theater will opt for a screen between 100 and 150 inches. A 150-inch screen will measure around 11 feet wide by 6 feet tall. When placed at the suggested height of 24 to 36 inches above the floor, a screen this size is just about the largest you can expect to fit in a normal room with 9-foot ceilings.
Although it's common to spring for the largest display you can find, there is such a thing as having a screen that's too big. Before you buy the biggest TV or projector screen you can afford, check out the screen size and distance calculator in our TV Buying Guide to determine what the ideal size is for your room.
Equipment placement is another consideration for a projector based home theater. In addition to a large, empty main wall (for the screen), you will also need space to place your projector—either on a shelf in the back of the room or mounted to your ceiling. To get the best picture quality out of your projector, you'll also need to invest in a projector screen, which is usually permanently mounted to the wall, but retractable screens are also available.
The final thing to consider is that projectors are intended to be used in dark conditions, ideally in a room where you can control all sources of light. If your home theater will be in a room that's part of an open floor plan, a projector might not be the best choice. Light leaking in from adjacent rooms will affect picture quality, and your projector will be nearly unusable during daylight hours. These are the main reasons that most people who build their home theater around a projector usually do so in an enclosed room that is dedicated solely to the theater.


If your home theater will double as the place where your casual watching is done, you'll be better off with a large 4K TV. It's much easier to turn on a TV when you just want to watch your usual shows or to catch a news broadcast, without worrying about lighting conditions.
Another reason to choose a TV is when absolute image quality is more important to you than pure display size. OLED TVs and high-end LED TVs like the Sony Z series can produce a higher range of brightness, making them the better choice for HDR content.
And lastly, if you are building a home theater on a budget, an LED TV is going to be a better choice than a projector. At current prices, you'll get more bang for your buck with a TV. For instance, at the time of this writing, the most affordable 4K projector costs roughly 50% more than a 75-inch 4K LED TV.
If a TV is the better choice for your room, but you're worried that it won't be big enough, you can still outfit your home theater with some serious screen size. There are quite a few 85-inch LED TVs (and larger) on the market today, and priced for nearly any budget. With the suggested viewing distance for an 85-inch TV being between 10-13 feet, a TV that size is still plenty big for most moderate home theaters.

Video Sources

With your display established, you'll need a way to get movies to the screen. The two main categories of video sources are disc-based players and media streaming devices. Just a few years ago, a Blu-ray player was a must-have in any home theater, but widespread broadband internet and the growing selection of video apps have made streaming media players just as popular. Each device has its benefits, and you will most likely end up with a device of each category, or one that combines both capabilities.
Media streaming devices consist of products like the Apple TV or a Roku player, and let you watch movies through streaming apps like Netflix, Google Play Movies, or Disney+. They're usually very inexpensive, easy to operate, and many offer 4K media playback. These traits make them a great choice.
But if you're buying a new TV or projector for this project, it will almost definitely be "smart." A smart TV or projector has integrated media streaming capabilities, meaning you won't need to add a separate streaming device. And if you're sure that you're only interested in streaming your media, you won't need to add any other video devices to your home theater setup. Of course, although it's very convenient, streaming media does have a few downsides.
The first is that it's dependent on the quality of your internet connection. If you have an internet outage, you'll be unable to use your home theater. Streaming 4K content also requires a lot of bandwidth, and if your internet plan has a data cap, you can quickly find yourself surpassing it.
Streaming content is also often highly compressed. Compression is the act of optimizing a stream of data to make it smaller and easier to transmit over the internet. However, the act of compression also compromises the quality of audio and video signals, leading to degradation. If you've ever seen blocks of solid black in the shadowy scenes of a streaming movie, that's compression. It's one of the inevitable tradeoffs that come with streaming content.
Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray players overcome both of those downsides. With physical media, you'll never have to worry about internet outages or slowdowns—a disc can be watched at any time. Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs also offer the best possible version of content. Their video stream is uncompressed, so you'll get the ultimate picture, and they often include more advanced audio information that is not available with streaming services. Plus, they also usually include bonus content like blooper reels, deleted scenes, and director's commentary.
Today, most Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray players include built-in smart functions, so one way to save a few bucks during your home theater construction is to choose one of these devices and have access to both options.
And if you're planning to do any gaming in your home theater, the current generations of both PlayStation and Xbox can function as a Ultra HD Blu-ray player and streaming device, in addition to gaming.
Close up View of Home Theater

Home Theater Audio

Deciding on your home theater audio system will be the trickiest part of the whole project, because there are limitless potential solutions. Before we start explaining specific options, it's important to establish the basics of home theater audio.
The audio at your local theater sounds so amazing for two main reasons: the layout of the speakers and the power of the bass. Speakers are placed around the entire theater, creating what's known as “surround sound." These speakers envelop the viewers in sound that matches the action on screen—the buzz of a helicopter flying from left to right, bullets whizzing overhead, and explosions booming somewhere behind them. And those booming sounds are extra convincing thanks to the system's thunderous bass, which is created by massive subwoofers.
When setting up a surround sound system, you'll see sets of numbers like "5.1" or "7.1.2." These numbers represent the amount of sound "channels" in your home theater.
Home Theater Speaker Placement
A 7.1-channel surround sound system
In an "X.Y.Z" setup:
"X" is the number of main audio channels. A 5-channel system would have a center speaker, right and left front speakers, and right and left rear speakers; these should all be placed around ear-level. A 7-channel surround sound system adds an additional speaker on each side wall.
"Y" is the number of dedicated bass channels, or subwoofers. Most home theaters will use just one subwoofer, but if you have a large room or want truly earth-shattering bass, you can include two subwoofers in a home theater.
"Z" denotes the number of height channels. These are speakers that are mounted to the ceiling or up high on walls of the theater, allowing sounds to truly come from that direction. As this is a newer technology for home theaters, you won't always see this figure. You will often see this referred to as an "Atmos setup," which is a reference to Dolby Atmos, the most popular encoding technology to utilize height channels.
Now that we've established that, let's get into the equipment. Your audio setup will comprise one of the following (or some combination of them):


Soundbars are designed to replicate the surround sound experience with as few components as possible. They contain multiple speakers in a single long and narrow unit, meant to easily fit in front of a TV on a TV stand. The main goal of a soundbar is ease of use—just connect it to your TV with a single cable and begin enjoying improved audio.
Most soundbars include a wireless subwoofer, and some can even be used in conjunction with a set of rear wireless speakers. Connecting to additional speakers gives the soundbar a closer approximation of a true surround sound system.
Soundbars are a great choice if you are looking for the easiest sound solution, and want to avoid running speaker wires across your room. They are also the most affordable way to improve upon your TV's built-in speakers.
The main downside of a soundbar is that it will never fully match the sound and feeling of a true surround sound system. Soundbars use sophisticated audio processing and separate speaker drivers to give the sensation of a multi-channel system, so you'll still see them sold as 3.1, 5.1 or 7.1-channel soundbars. But because all front channels are placed in a single bar of limited width, they will never truly match the immersion offered by a dedicated surround sound system with separate front and center channel speakers.

Multichannel surround sound system

This is the method that any serious theater builder should choose. If your budget allows, a totally customer surround sound system is the best way to get cinema-quality sound in your own home theater. When building a surround sound home theater system, you will need to select every individual component: the speakers, the subwoofers, the AV receiver and additional (optional) amplifiers, and even the speaker wire. It takes more work and will be the most expensive method, but it gives you the ultimate level of control over customizing your sound system.
First you'll need an AV receiver, which is the brains of the setup. These can range any from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. They will offer all sorts of complex features and are categorized primarily by how many channels they support. The simplest way to pick your first AV receiver is to narrow it down to the models that fit your budget and offer enough audio channels, then consult reviews or audio product specialists for recommendations.
It's important to consider your future plans when selecting an audio receiver. Will your theater grow? You can always use less audio channels than your AV receiver is rated for, but it will be more complicated and costly to try to add additional channels as your home theater set up grows. Make sure it has enough HDMI inputs to handle all the additional components you plan to have. You should also familiarize yourself with the various surround sound formats (Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, etc) and choose a receiver that offers the ones you'll need.
Learn more about the ins and outs of audio/video receivers in our AV Receiver buying guide.
There are two main ways to select speakers for a home theater:
First is to pick out each of your speakers individually. The main thing to be aware of when doing this is that every brand of speaker sounds a little different. These different tones can be very apparent when mismatched speakers are used together in a home theater; imagine the sound of an actor's voice changing as it moves from the left speaker to the center, and then on to the right.
To prevent this, you'll want to stick to the same brand for all of your speakers, and even the same model line if possible.This will guarantee that the speakers are timbre-matched, which means that they will all have the same sound characteristics. For instance, you can mix and match speakers from the Polk Signature lineup, depending on your budget and room size, and not need to worry about sound variations.
When building your home theater speaker system, first pick the front right and left speakers. You'll have to decide between bookshelf or floorstanding speakers; the size of your theater will best determine which to choose. Once you've settled on the front speakers, find the matching center channel speaker as recommended by the manufacturer. Don't skimp on the center channel speaker—most of the dialogue comes from that channel, so having a quality speaker ensures you'll hear every nuance in an actor's performance.
It's less important to match the rear, side, or height channel speakers to your front speakers, as those usually only provide ambient sounds. A common tactic for those on a budget is to choose an affordable pair of standmount speakers as the fronts. As your budget grows and your theater gets more advanced, you can reassign those speakers to rear channel duty and invest in some higher-end models to take their place in the front of the theater.
For a deeper understanding of speakers, check out our Speaker Buying Guide.
With the main speakers selected, it's time to find a subwoofer. These are categorized by the size of their main driver. As a general rule, the bigger the driver, the deeper and louder the bass. And the deeper the bass, the more you "feel" it. A powerful subwoofer will literally shake your walls—something to keep in mind if your home theater will share a wall with a neighboring apartment or townhome. Keep in mind that a large speaker like this will require a powerful amplifier to perform its best. Beware large subwoofers with an anemic amplifier, they will sound muddy, with no definition of notes in a musical passage or individual low frequency sounds on a movie soundtrack.
Alternatively, you can simply look for a home theater speaker package, which is a concept similar to the Home Theater in a Box. Some brands offer pre-matched speaker packages that include all the five or seven main channels and a subwoofer for one price.
Choosing all of the components for a home theater speaker system can be a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. Our home audio experts are here to answer all of your questions about choosing the right equipment for your needs.

Other things to Consider


Comfortable seating helps transform a room from just a "TV room" to a bona fide home theater. Dedicated home theater seating from a brand like Palliser offers a modular solution with a variety of customization options. Home theater recliners are a popular choice, as are seats with built-in cup holders, integrated LED lighting, and even massage functions. If your home theater will be used by more than four or five people, arranging your seating in two rows gives all viewers a head-on view of the screen. And if you're really serious about seating, consider building a home theater riser for the second row of seats.


Although experts will discuss being able to control outside light from getting into your theater, it's important that you don't make your theater room pitch black. Watching TV in a completely dark room can actually be a strain on your eyes.
Instead, your home theater should be very dark, but with controlled accent lighting. Typical home theater lighting consists of dimmable wall sconces, or accent lighting built into a soffit. Another common option is an adjustable backlight behind your TV or projector screen. Other than the accent lighting, all other sources of light should be eliminated. That might be as simple as shutting off a ceiling light, or require taking steps to completely block stray light that leaks in through an adjacent window.

Wall Color

If you're serious about creating the ultimate viewing environment for movies, it's worth considering the color of the walls and ceiling in your home theater. Walls should be as dark as possible, to minimize reflected light. Of course, most people probably aren't comfortable painting an entire room black, so use whatever dark color you are comfortable with—something like a navy blue or deep burgundy red is a great choice, even lending a luxurious feel to your theater. If you are running a projector in your home theater, your ceiling should also be a darker color. A white ceiling will reflect light from your projector, reducing the contrast and overall quality of the projected image.
You should also be careful with your placement of any reflective surfaces in the room. Keep framed photos off of the rear wall, as they can reflect light back at the screen. If you have a glass-topped table between your seats and the screen, cover it with tablecloth for the same reason.

Acoustic Treatments

If a surface is reflecting light, it can also reflect sound. A room with bad acoustics can seriously affect the quality of your sound system. That cloth cover on the glass table will also help absorb soundwaves that would otherwise bounce off of it. Acoustic panels can be placed on your walls to accomplish the same task. While you can buy acoustic panels, the internet is filled with plans for easy DIY acoustic panels.

Interconnects/Cables/Power Conditioning

All of the components that are part of your new home theater system will need to be connected. While wireless technology allows the user to stream programming via WIFI or even Bluetooth, the individual parts of the system will almost always need to be physically connected with wires. These wires include video (HDMI) cables, digital and analog interconnects, and speaker cables. A line conditioner (sometimes called a “surge suppressor”) is also an indispensable option, both for protecting your investment, as well as filtering your A/C line to remove radio frequency and electromagnetic interference (RFI and EMI, respectively). Similar to a fuel filter in an automobile, a good line conditioner will lower the noise floor, and provide steady, stable power for the multiple electronic components plugged into it. While there is no hard and fast rule concerning these cables and their relative cost, a good rule of thumb is to spend around 25% of the entire system on the cables and interconnects that tie everything together.
With all of these things taken care of, your new home theater system is complete! If you still have questions or are seeking a particular recommendation, reach out to our home theater experts at 800-860-3577.