Monday, January 16, 2012

My Home Theater Setup - 5.2 Dolby/DTS

I figured I show off my home theater setup a little and give some thoughts on what makes a good one on a budget. My setup is by no means the largest or most advanced, but there are some key elements which really matter, and don't have to cost the earth.

I am very happy with my setup and prefer it to the real theater. My objective for a home theater is as a direct a replacement of the real one in terms of its positive benefits.

The Display

The heart of any home theater is the display. The most important thing here is to get a technology that looks good to you, specifically. Not to your friends, not to the sales guy at the store. When I set mine up, the LCD/plasma war was still in full swing. I went with plasma, for two reasons:

1.) Motion on plasma looks fantastic to me. On LCD, I can see the refresh flicker on high-motion scenes (even on the 120 and 240 Hz at the time) and its very distracting.

2.) True darks. Plasma has them. LCD does not. I primarily watch movies, and in a darkened room. I can practically read a book by the dark screen presented by an LCD. It lessens the experience for me.

Here is my 720P display. It is mounted to a real brick chimney using 4 expanding masonry anchors that can take 500 lbs each. The anchors holes were made using a masonry bit and in the mortar between bricks. It uses an aftermarket swiveling mount. Above it I have mounted my center channel.

My display is angled down since it must sit over the fireplace. The most important thing is to put it at a comfortable height you can watch for several hours without neck strain. Plasmas are very heavy so mounting this was a two person job. LCDs are much lighter, and OLED screens are even lighter still.

The next step in a home theater setup is sound. This is the foundation upon which the entire experience is built. It is also why most home theaters leave much to be desired. Splurging on a great screen and skimping on the sound will have you craving the real theater with its high price, lackluster food, and distracting movie-goers. Most of my sound equipment has been custom designed and built to save money.

The Front Channel (L+R)

The most important speakers in a home theater are the left and right front channels, hands down. A great pair of front channels for a stereo configuration only can easily beat a full 7.1 lineup of mid-grade speakers in terms of performance and sound reinforcement. Why? Well, its simple - even in a 7.1 configuration, the vast bulk of program material is still carried by the front left/right channels. If they aren't up to snuff, the whole experience suffers, and cannot be salvaged no matter how great your center channel or subwoofer is.

Here is one of my front channel speakers. These have more cost in terms of labor and design work than all my other speakers combined. I designed and built hem almost 6 years ago. For a long time they were the only speakers I had, and they performed quite well.

My right channel speaker. Notice that it presents a fairly confined beam of sound where it sits - this is only ideal for the center couch listening position.

My left channel with / without the speaker cover.  The speakers are built from 3/4" solid MDF, and are quite heavy.

Each contains two 6.5" woofers, and a single silk dome tweeter. It uses a second order custom crossover I built myself. These are not simply ported boxes, either - each has two separate sound chambers, with their own external ports, and connected by an internal port. This spreads resonance over a much wider range. Between just my front channel speakers, I have more woofer cone area than a single 10" or 12" subwoofer.

The Center Channel

The next speaker to look into is the center channel. Center channels are important for one thing in particular: dialogue. All dialogue should be anchored on the screen. The center channel can go above or below the screen, I had to mount mine above since there was not enough space between the mantle and the screen. Center channels should provide good, flat response in the range of the human voice. Fidelity is far more important here than power capability.

My center channel uses the same speakers as my front channels, but has a simple ported alignment. It also has an adjustable volume control for the tweeter to get the tone just right, on the back of the speaker.

The center is mounted using an LCD mounting bracket using 5 masonry screw-type anchors that actually penetrate the brick in spots.

The Subwoofer

Subwoofers basically fill the low-end gap that your front channels cannot reach unless they are absolutely gigantic. The other thing they do is explosions, which aren't so much heard as they are felt. To do this, a sub must be able to play to 20hz.

If you have very good front channels, your subwoofer can be focused better on a narrow range of frequencies. I have front channels that can play down to 40 Hz. The means my subwoofer must only take care of 20 to 40 hz - this is set at the receiver. However, do not be fooled into thinking this is an easy octave to cover - it is the hardest, by far. A really terrible sub can go down to 40hz. A better sub can play at 30 hz. A very, very good sub can play to 20hz. Generally, you will not spend less than $500 for such a subwoofer. Keep in mind that part of the price will be the amplifier built into the subwoofer. It will also generally need to be ported, which will make it much larger than a sealed box (twice as big).

My subwoofer construction and setup is covered here. I have two 12" diameter subwoofers in sealed enclosures equalized to 20 hz. This is where I get the ".2" in "5.2" :) This gives me more cone area than a single 15" speaker, and less distortion. I use an external 100W stereo amplifier to save on space and give flexibility. I also built the equalizer itself.

The Surround Speakers

The surround speakers are invaluable for providing and immersive experience.  However, they need not be large or capable of  low frequency reproduction.  They do however, need to be positioned correctly.
If they are not, they are basically worthless. In home theater setups, the surround speakers often present the most difficult problems since they must be located in a walkway, or floating in space.

My surrounds are built into my end-table lamps to sit at the exactly correct height without being a separate decor item. Construction information on them can be found here.

The Receiver

The receiver is one area where you can get great equipment for very little cash. I have an Onkyo. It has worked quite well. Be sure to get a receiver that can do 7.1 (most can) for future upgrades. I'd also get one that has optical inputs if possible - they break ground loops and the cables are quite cheap. Beyond $300 you aren't getting much extra. I'd recommend 70 watts minimum per channel as well, with efficient speakers, this will be plenty. By efficient, I mean greater than 85 dB/w.

On top I have an upconverting DVD player. Blueray players are quite cheap nowadays, just be sure outputs you use are HDMI for video. For audio, optical outputs are best to the receiver. My media center PC has optical out and this is what I use.

I hope this has been interesting and may give you some ideas for your own home theater.


Angel Garcia said...

My family and I used to go to movies together. But then, I realized that it can be costly and a little inconvenient for us. That's why I decided to buy a home theater, and I never regret the day I had it. We enjoy watching movies in our convenience. Your set-up looks great too! Having those sound devices scattered in every corner of your room is a big factor to maximize the sound output. One more thing, I like the way you redecorated that lamp, and have one of your surround on it.

Louisa Hemstreet said...

I totally agree with Angel Garcia! Instead of going to the cinema, we invested on a high-quality home entertainment system with an amazing surround sound system. Watching at home is very relaxing, thus cheap. Haha! Incorporating the speaker with the sound made it look and industrial, the speakers won't look cluttered on one space. Great looking setup! :)