If you really want to do it well and make the right choices, you’re going to need to have a plan and follow that plan as closely as possible to the end.

Have a Home Theater Plan

Scott Ceretti | Sencore

Have a Home Theater Plan
By Scott Ceretti

If you really want to do it well and make the right choices, you're going to need to have a plan and follow that plan as closely as possible to the end.

So, you have decided it's time to get that new home theater? Excellent decision! Now, for the fun part.deciding on how much to spend, what to get, where to get it, who's going to install it and so much more.

You probably did not realize that there is much to consider these days when buying a home theater. If you really want to do it well and make the right choices. You're going to need to have a plan and follow that plan as closely as possible to the end.

Let's get started. Understanding first and maybe most importantly, we need to decide on a budget. Just how much are you willing to invest in a new home theater system? Invest? Yes, this is an investment. The budget that you set is going to help you in the rest of the process of deciding on what products you're going to get, how the products will compliment each other and work together, where you are going to get them, how will it be installed, who will install it and so on.

Another thing to keep in mind within this process is, once it's all installed in your homehow do you "fine tune" the audio and video to perform at the level you expect it to after having spent the time and money in getting it all into your home. Your home theater system is much like the vehicle you drive everyday. Your car needs to be serviced when it breaks down and you need to perform regular maintenance on it to ensure that you are able to enjoy it for years to come. Your home theater products, regardless of the name brand on the front, all need service, repair and maintenance from time to time to keep them operating at their peak level of performance. We'll discuss this part of the process later. For now, let's focus on getting the ball rolling and decide on a budget.

When deciding just exactly how much to spend on your new home theater, take into consideration that your budget should be realistic and you should do your very best to stay within this budget once you have decided on how much you will invest. I say "invest" because frankly, today, it is an investment. If you are going to purchase the kind of home theater that will be more of a permanent installation in your home, as an example, this will add equity and value to your home.

Deciding on a realistic budget will show you where you are going to fall in the range of home theater systems. Today's systems can range anywhere from $1,000 all the way up into the hundreds of thousands, literally. Just be sure you are not over extending yourself with this project, but still figure out a way to get the system you want, or at least can live with for a while until you can get your dream system.

Ok, we've got a budget that you're comfortable with. You've written it down and now you're almost ready to decide on what you want. Almost? Yep, almost. The next step is going to be figuring out where you are going to put your new system. Is it going into the family room, living room, bedroom, office area? Or do you have a special room set aside that is just for a custom home theater? When deciding where your new system is going to go in your home, some things to consider will be. What is going to be the focus of this space? Is this room going to be a place where family and friends come together to watch movies only? Or will this be a multi-purpose room where you'll not only watch movies, but listen to music, play games, entertain guests? Is it going into your bedroom? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will give you some insight on what products to get, where in the room it's all going to go and will help you decide on how much of the room you want to take up with electronics. Obviously, if it's going into a bedroom, it's going to have a completely different look, feel and function than if it's going into a dedicated room just for a theater to view movies.

When you have decided which room the new system is going into, you'll need to decide on exactly what kinds of products you want to be included in this new home theater. It's not just a matter of choosing a television, a stereo and a couple of speakers anymore. Now, we have to consider much more. Not only are we deciding on the television or display device. We have to think of things such as lighting control, remote control functions, complete audio systems including surround sound speakers and subwoofers, additional rooms with audio that are controlled from the main system, types of video displays such as plasma, LCD, front and rear projection, DVD players, cable or satellite systems. Do you want to integrate your Media Center PC into the system? Do you want wireless access to movies from a video management device? Will there be Video game systems in the room? The list can go on and on here. Just be sure to consider all of the components that you'd like to have in this system.

Before deciding on the biggest plasma TV you can get your hands on or the coolest audio system you can imagine. Do some research. Spend some time educating yourself on the various available technologies. Learn about the differences between plasma TV and LCD TV. Understand how a front projector operates and that the room requirements for a projector vary by model and brand. Learn about the different types of surround sound. Get a solid base of knowledge to help you make better decisions on which components to include in your system today and what components you want to wait on. If you choose to incorporate products later down the road, keep that in mind when the installation begins and plan for it, so that when it's time to add the new gear later on, you're not stuck with a major remodel just to get a new DVD player in the same place as the other electronics. Make sure you have dedicated the space and e all the wiring you may need for updating or adding to the system later. This will not only save you a lot of money, but will make it much easier and less time consuming to install these products at a later date.

If you are building a new home or remodeling a room that will be the new home for the system, make sure you are pre-wiring (if new construction) or wiring for everything that will be in the system today and in the future too. Doing this can make your life easier later on when you decide you want the newest video display that requires some special connection or the newest DVD player/video game system/popcorn maker that gets introduced two years from now. I am clearly exaggerating a little on that last one, but you get the point. Make sure your room is ready for changes. If you don't, you could find yourself with a very large bill from your installer or contractor to add that new piece because you don't have the space for it. Plan smart and you'll be much happier, now and in the future.

When you feel that you have a solid knowledge base on the various products that you want to include in your new home theater, it's time to start shopping around for a place to get it all. In most areas throughout the country, it's hard to go anywhere that you can't find a big box electronics retailer such as a Best Buy or Circuit City or even a Wal Mart for that matter (yes, they are selling home theater products these days too, very low end products but still selling them just the same). For every area that you can find any of these big box retailers, you can also find smaller local custom installers. Generally speaking, you will pay a bit more when going to a custom installer than you will at Wal-Mart. Just be sure that wherever you are shopping that you know the business is a solid and reputable one. The last thing you want to do is give someone who claims to be a "custom installer" your hard earned money, only to get products installed that you don't like or for it to be installed incorrectly and then he can't be found again to come back and fix it. So be careful when selecting the place that you will ultimately purchase your new home theater.

When you go to many of the big box retailers, it can seem intimidating at times and can seem like there is just so much coming at you all at once. That's not to say that at these big box retailers you can't get quality people to help you and to answer your questions correctly. Sometimes it's just a little harder to do than at smaller custom dealers. The bad news is, that even some of the custom dealers aren't any more educated about their business than some of the big box places. With this in mind, shop around. Shop not only for the "best deal", but shop for the most helpful and knowledgeable sales and support staff. Make sure that you can get help after the sale when you have questions or service issues. Finding a reputable place to purchase your new system will help to make you happy and feel good about the purchase long after the day you write the check for it all.

The next thing to figure out is, how will the new system be installed? Are you a do-it-yourselfer? Or do you already know that installing all of this stuff is beyond you and it would be easier to have someone else do it?

If you are thinking that you can do it yourself, tread carefully here, this is shaky ground to be on. I say this because depending on the type of system you are going to purchase, installing it yourself, even if "it's only a couple of things and I know where that cable goes", you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed and spend hours and hours of your very important time trying to figure out where that one cable goes so you can get a picture. Today's electronics aren't for the non-tech savvy folks. So my advice here is to have your system professionally installed. If you still decide you can handle, that is ok, just keep in mind the scale of what you're about to tackle and decide if you can realistically do it right and within a reasonable time frame. You'll be surprised doing it yourself, to still a week later still fishing wire through walls and trying to find the right connection for something.

Most of the big box retailers; Best Buy, Circuit City, Tweeter all have installation available for fairly reasonable prices. Companies like Best Buy (www.bestbuy.com) are making great strides to educate and train their installation staff and get certifications in various disciplines so that they can guarantee their work for you is done correctly and professionally. Ask for references. Many custom installers, who have a solid reputation in your area, should be able to give you the names of some of their customers so that you can contact them yourself to find out what they thought of the total experience they had with that custom installer. What you are purchasing isn't just a bunch of electronics, but rather a total experience. Make sure that you are going to enjoy that experience and get the most for your money.

Earlier in this article I mentioned "fine tuning" your new audio and video equipment. I equated doing this to keeping your vehicle serviced regularly so you that you don't find yourself driving down the expressway in peak rush hour traffic and your car breaks down, all because you didn't take it into the shop for your regular maintenance. Your new home theater system also needs regular "fine tuning" so that you don't find yourself expecting important guests one evening only to find out that the system isn't working properlyor worse yet not at all.

Once everything is installed, you need to have both the audio system and video display calibrated or "tuned" professionally. Every room and every environment is acoustically different. Just pointing speakers towards the "sweet spot" in the room does not necessarily mean that it will sound good. Every audio system should be calibrated by a professional so that you are hearing everything you Expect to hear from your new equipment.

Many new stereo receivers have "auto calibrating" tools built right in or come included in the box. This fact alone should tell you one very important thing, even the manufacturer knows that something has to be done to their own equipment to make it perform at an optimum level, when it is installed. However, using only the internal or provided "automatic" system does not mean that it is doing a complete and accurate job. You still need a professional, someone with the right tools, experience, knowledge and certification to come in and properly calibrate your audio system. The same holds true for your video display.

Whether you've chosen a plasma TV, LCD TV or a projector (front or rear), or any other kind of video display, they ALL need to be calibrated properly to ensure that the images you see on the screen are the right images with the correct color and brightness, contrast and so on. When a movie or television show is filmed or taped, the production/broadcast level equipment is all professionally calibrated on a regular schedule to produce correct images based on set industry standards. These industry standards are set by organizations like SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture Television Engineers) www.smpte.org and by organizations such as the ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) www.imagingscience.com. These organizations have determined what a correct film or video image is and should be.

Video display manufacturers discovered many years ago that their products sell better if the brightness and color of the display are set at extremely high levels at the factory so that their display looks the "best" and brightest among all the rest in the area surrounding it. This is bad for several reasons, but the most important reasons are; these settings can and do damage the display and shorten the life of it (meaning that the display you just spent several thousand dollars on won't last as long and you'll have to buy another one sooner) and these settings do not represent the image that was intended by the film maker or television producer. Knowing that now, and understanding that you are about to make an investment in your new home theater system.

You will, just as you do with your car, need to have it tuned and regularly serviced. If the person or company that you choose to purchase your new system from is/are not certified to calibrate your audio and video system, find someone that is certified and has the right tools (the right tools - www.sencore.com) to do the job once it's all installed. You will truly appreciate the difference it will make in your system and it will also make you feel much better about the investment you made in the products. You can locate certified and qualified people in your area by visiting www.imagingscience.com and www.homeacoustics.net.  You will be able to search your area to find someone qualified to perform the work with the right knowledge and tools.

If your installer tells you that they can "adjust it by ear" or "I can do it by eye". GET A NEW INSTALLER! They can not truly or accurately calibrate either your audio or video by ear or eye, it is simply not possible, regardless of how long they've been in business or how much experience they say they have. So don't let them try and fool you with that kind of response and don't let them just use some CD or DVD to get it done. These are not the right tools to get the job done correctly or accurately. Keep in mind, that if an installer has only a DVD to use to calibrate your video displayDVD's are not in HD today, so he/she will not honestly or accurately be able to calibrate every part of your display with just a disc.

Here is a short list of what we've covered. Write it down and use it when you and your family sit down to begin the process of planning your new home theater.

Step 1: Decide on a budget
Step 2: Decide on the location/room for the new system
Step 3: Figure out what components will be in the system (now and later)
Step 4: Decide where to get it all
Step 5: Find a qualified and reputable professional installer
Step 6: Find a certified professional calibrator
Step 7: ENJOY IT

Enjoy your new well thought, well planned for home theater for years to come and get the most for your money. And be sure to invite me to your first showing, I'll bring the popcorn and candy.

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