How to build a Home Theatre System; Buy, Build, Renovate : part 3

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It’s easier entertaining the family with the array of technology we have these days. But to get the best out of your systems, some careful planning will set you on the right track.

Stroll through an average Aussie home and you’re bound to stumble upon at least a couple of TVs. TV watching has become an obsession of the young and old alike. It seems that finding the best TV screens for a new home is on its way to becoming one of our favourite national pastimes.

Given the enormous variety of displays, it’s a job that’s tougher than picking up a set at the local department store. In addition to standard analogue TV sets, there are now wide-screen TVs, HDTVs, rear-projection TVs, plasma screens, LCD screens and various types of video displays. No one type of TV is better than the rest. Rather, each offers certain performance advantages in different types of viewing environments.

The size of a room, the amount of natural light that washes into the room, the viewing preferences of your family, how you want the TV integrated into the home theatre (built into a wall or special wall unit, for example) and, of course, your budget, are all factors to consider before buying a TV. Consult an audio/video specialist for the best advice.

Planning Issues

What You Need to Consider: Do you watch mainly DVD movies or network programs? Maybe most of your TV watching is dedicated to news and sports. And when you watch, are the lights on or off? Finally, how big are the rooms in which a TV will reside? You don’t want a screen that’s too small to see; nor do you want one that overpowers the room.

Here are a few pointers: DVD movies look best when presented on a wide-screen TV. Network programs come in sharpest on HDTVs (if your TV station transmits in HDTV).

Standard picture-tube TVs, plasma screens, LCD screens and rear-projection TVs all remain sharp and bright when the lights of a room are on. Video projectors require dark rooms.

Find the best size of TV by dividing thedistance from the planned location of the couch to the planned location of the TV by 2 or 2.5. This dimension is the appropriate screen width. If space is tight, flat screens (a plasma screen or an LCD screen) are ideal.

Windows: Sunlight is notorious for washing out a picture. It’s an idea to build a dedicated home theatre in the basement or another room that has no windows. Otherwise, make sure that you install draperies that are easy to close over the windows and that will successfully block out the light.

Built-ins: Despite the attempts by furniture manufacturers to design technology-friendly entertainment cabinets, the only way to truly achieve the perfect fit between a cabinet and a TV is to buy the TV first and have the furniture custom-built to fit around it.

Alternatively, request that your builder leave enough room within the wall cavity so that a TV can be mounted inside, leaving only the screen visible. No matter where the TV resides, make sure you and your audio/video installer can easily access the back of the TV and other video equipment (ask your builder to construct a closet behind the entertainment centre).

 

Add-ons

Video Distribution System: There’s no reason every single TV needs its own DVD player and VCR. If you don’t mind sharing the main players with your kids or houseguests, hire an audio/video specialist to install a video distribution system. He’ll need to route wiring between the main viewing location and the ancillary TV sets, so be sure to get this done while your home is being built.

Acoustic Treatments: Although they don’t impact on the video quality of a TV, acoustic treatments can dramatically improve the overall presentation by helping a room sound its best. An audio/video specialist can help you select and install acoustical wall panels for your home theatre.

Motorised Drapery Track: If you can’t give up huge family-room windows for a pictureperfect TV, then install motorised drapery tracks at each and every window. You can easily close every drape by pressing a button on a remote control.

Installation issues

The Builder, the Audio/Video Specialist, the Cabinet Maker: TVs, video projectors, DVD players, VCRs and surround-sound receivers don’t have to make a room look like a high-tech laboratory. No matter how big the display or how large your assortment of audio/video gear, they can virtually disappear into the woodwork. For a TV video projector, all an audio/video specialist (he’ll probably need help from an electrician) needs to do is attach a motorised lift to the TV housing or the screen that draws the display into the ceiling or into a piece of furniture. Depending on the size of the display, your builder may need to add extra space in the attic; likewise for a cabinet maker who may be designing or retrofitting a piece of furniture to conceal the display.

Entertainment systems draw a lot of power. Request that your electrician install several extra 20-amp circuits dedicated to each serious entertainment system.

A modification in the construction of a home theatre can soundproof it so that no external noises distract from the movie action, and none of the movie soundtrack seeps out into other rooms of the house.

With the help of an audio/video specialist, decide on the type and size of display for each room, and ask him to note the dimensions. Your builder can use these measurements to construct a floor-to-ceiling wall unit, or to make the inside of the wall large enough to house the backside of a TV so that only the screen is visible.

 

What kind of TV to buy?

Choosing the Right Home Theatre Display Within a Budget: Will a cheaper picture tube suffice, or should you invest much more for a bigger rear-projection set? Should your display support high-def? The best advice is to choose what looks best to your eyes. For example, some people may admire the 3-D quality of a plasma presentation; others may prefer to watch movies on a huge rearprojection set.

While visual preference is the most important element to consider when shopping for a new TV, it never hurts to know a little about the technology behind the display. By understanding the key differences between display types, you can pare your choices to those that suit your budget and viewing environment.

Budget $3000-$8000 (approximation only): Most displays that fall into this price range are designed to reproduce old-fashioned analogue signals to create pictures.

Within this category you’ll find conventional CRT (cathode ray tube) direct-view TVs, rearprojection CRT TVs, and a handful of LCD monitors.

CRT is a very mature display technology, known for creating bright pictures with high contrast. Consequently, a CRT display is an ideal choice for a family room or any other room where programs are typically viewed with the lights on (the picture looks great when the room lights are off, too).

Direct-view TVs (referring to standard TV tubes) are the smallest type of CRT display, with screen sizes ranging from 9 to 40 inches. The cathode ray tubes contained inside the TV housing fire electronic beams onto the back of the screen. These beams excite the phosphors contained on the screen to render a picture. No tricky calibration of the monitor is required (unlike pricier displays). The TV is ready to go as soon as you lift it out of the box.

If 30-or-so inches is simply too small for you, jump up to a rear-projection CRT display. A rear-projection TV (known as RPJ or RPTV) looks like a super-sized direct-view TV, but utilises a projector rather than picture tubes to create images. Because the projector is housed inside the TV cabinet, an RPJ is large (around 61cm deep) and heavy (around 136kg). The sheer size and weight of an RPTV makes it a more difficult display to integrate into a room than a direct-view monitor, but with screen sizes reaching 60 inches, and always flat and wide, the presentation of movies is much more theatrical and appropriate for viewing high-definition broadcasts.

An alternative display technology in the $3000 to $8000 range, LCD (liquid crystal display) technology, creates pictures as bright as those presented by CRT displays, but because LCD monitors utilise slender panels rather than large picture tubes or video projectors to produce images, the entire monitor can be manufactured to measure just a couple of inches deep. As a result, an LCD monitor can fit into places a conventional CRT TV cannot – on the desk of a home office or on the counter of a kitchen, for example.

Most displays priced between $3000 and $8000 are designed to reproduce video from analogue sources. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying an analogue display now, but you may kick yourself later, although it will be some time yet before analogue broadcasts will completely converted to HD (highdefinition) television.

So, even though the analogue display you purchased four years before the HD switch will still be in good working condition (most TVs are built to last between eight and 12 years), it simply won’t be able to display the program in all its HD glory. That’s why most A/V professionals recommend investing in a digital display now.

 

Unfortunately, displays capable of presenting a full high-definition signal are just out of reach in this $3000 to $8000 price range.

Budget $5999-$19990 (approximation only): A variety of true high-definition displays (576p, 720p and 1080i) are available in this price range, including larger (36 inches) CRT TVs, larger LCD monitors and CRT rear-projection TVs (between 43 inches and 57 inches). Within this category, you can find an ample assortment of 16:9 TVs, which are sized just right for HD broadcasts.

If you can spare the space, opt for a rearprojection HD-capable TV rather than a direct-view HD-capable TV, says Bob Perry, Mitsubishi director of marketing. Most directview HD-capable TVs can display only half the horizontal resolution of an HD signal; rearprojection ones, however, can display nearly the entire HD signal. In a nutshell, this means you see a better, higher-resolution picture.

Within the digital category, an HD tuner/ receiver may or may not be integrated into the display. HD displays that come with a tuner built in are ready to display HD signals out of the box. In Australia, HD tuner/receivers are not yet integrated; you’ll need a separate settop box.

In this price range, you can also think “out of the box”, so to speak. For around $4000 you can purchase an entry-level video projector that beams images onto a separate 100-inch (diagonal) screen. These ‘affordable’projectors typically use LCD technology to create images. The LCD technology used by video projectors creates images by shining light though glass LCD panels made up of thousands of little dots called pixels. Each pixel either blocks the light or allows it to pass through. Depending on the projector and how closely you sit to the screen, these pixels can appear quite noticeable. However, because each colour is transmitted individually through a panel and then regrouped to form the image, colour accuracy is exceptional. Contrast is where LCD projectors fall short.

While the larger-than-life picture that’s produced by a projector is truly awesome, it can be a difficult technology to integrate into a home. First, because ambient light can wash out the picture as it travels from the projector to the screen, the room must be completely dark. Also, depending on your expectations (do you want the projector and screen to remain visible at all times or not?), a projector and screen can clash with the architecture and design of a room. Be sure to give your rear-projection TV’s dimensions to your homebuilder so that it won’t compete with a fireplace or picture window for space

Budget $7000-$15,000: Now you’re in the plasma ballpark. These hang-on-the-wall displays are the coolest thing going. Still, they can be tough to install, and create pictures that to an untrained eye look no better than those presented by a CRT TV set. One advantage they do offer in terms of performance is a wide viewing angle. This means the picture looks just as good from the side of the display as it would if you were to sit directly in front of it.

A plasma monitor is composed of an array of cells called pixels. Within each pixel are three subpixels. Gas reacts with phosphors contained inside each subpixel to produce a picture. The components of this technology not only produce bright, vivid pictures, but take up so little space that a plasma monitor measures less than six inches deep.

Many plasma screens are wide (16:9), but unfortunately, in order to maintain a thin profile, a plasma monitor is usually built without a TV tuner inside. This must be purchased as an external component. And don’t forget, the monitor needs power. If you don’t mind the eyesore, you can let the power cord dangle down from the monitor to reach an outlet below. Or you can hire an A/V professional to design a system where no cords or cables are visible.

 

Then there’s the size-for-the-money issue. The biggest plasma that sells for less than around $14,000 measures 42 inches – quite a bit smaller than a 57-inch RPJ you can get for around $11,000.

In the front-projection category, at around $4000 to $6000, you can move up to a higherquality (higher resolution) LCD projector, or perhaps an entry-level DLP (digital light processing) projector. A DLP projector creates images by reflecting light off a chip that contains a million microscopic mirrors. These mirrors tilt to let the right amount of red, green and blue through to form a picture. Any minor mis-tilt by any of those 1 million mirrors can render an inaccurate reproduction of color, which is the DLP projector’s biggest weakness. On the upside, a DLP projector produces images with greater contrast and less pixelation than an LCD projector.

Budget: $6000-$15,000 (approximation only): With this budget you can afford nearly any display technology available. This includes RPTVs that use LCD or DLP (digital light processing) technologies. LCD and DLP are ‘fixed pixel’ (also called ‘single-gun’) technologies, which gives them the ability to produce pictures with higher resolution for compatibility with both HD broadcasts and computers. Think of these high-end TVs not as TVs but as display devices. In order to display computer images, the native resolution of the display should be as close to the resolution of the computer as possible. For example, if your computer is rated XGA (1024 x 768 lines of resolution), look for an XGA-compatible display.

Another advantage is because LCD and DLP display engines utilise panels rather than bulky picture tubes, manufacturers are able to produce TVs that are significantly slimmer than CRT RPJs. A 60-inch CRT RPJ might measure 24 inches deep; an LCD RPJ of the same screen size, just 17 inches deep.

In the flat category, you can upgrade to the latest 50- or 60-inch plasma monitor, or a 40- to 50-inch LCD monitor. If a 100-inch screen is more your style, you can now afford every type of projector technology, including LCD, DLP and CRT.

CRT may be the oldest display technology, but it is still noted as producing the absolute best picture. That’s partially because CRT projectors can be precisely calibrated by a professional installer according to the viewing environment and your preferences. Plus, they are unbeatable when it comes to contrast. Quality is good, yes. But it comes at a price. CRT projectors are more expensive than single-gun projectors and must be recalibrated about once a year.

LCoS, the newest display engine, uses a combination of LCD and DLP technologies to deliver the best imaging qualities of both – the excellent colour control of LCD and the minimal pixel structure of DLP.

It’s an up and coming technology and although it is available in Australia, at this stage the grey scale doesn’t lend itself to creating ‘black blacks’ that true home cinema enthusiasts expect.

A TV is not a one-size-fits-all type of purchase any more. You can still get your tried and true picture-tube TV in a variety of sizes. But that’s only scratching the surface of what’s available in video displays.

You can now find a respectable assortment of plasma screens and flat LCD monitors, as well as a variety of solid-state rear-projection TVs and video projectors. Sony plasmas have an anti-reflective screen coating that inhibits light reflection.

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