The Ultimate Home Theater

Home theater
Photo credit: Runco

Like most cinephiles--and most PCWorld readers--I've found that the quality of my HDTV, sound system, and Blu-ray player are constrained by my budget. If I have to choose between the best possible home theater and my daughter’s college education, the home theater loses.

But wouldn’t it be nice not to live under such constraints? I can dream, can’t I? So can you.

The high end of home theater is very high indeed. Folks who can afford it might spend $100,000 or more on equipment, consultants, furniture, and remodeling. In this article I’ll explain what they get for all that money, and I'll tell you a bit about some of the products they buy.

I should note right off, however, that people acquiring a first-class home theater don’t generally make their buying decisions based on reviews on PCWorld. They hire local consultants--specialists who inspect their homes, consider their budgets, and recommend HDTVs, Blu-ray players, amplifiers, and speakers from companies that you may have never heard of.

Front Projector

Nothing says "movie theater"--as opposed to "television"--like a projector in the back (or middle) of the room, throwing the image onto a screen in front. All you’d need is popcorn, and you could charge your friends admission.

Runco VX-2000d projector
Photo: Runco

Front-projection systems make more sense from a price perspective (even the rich don’t want to waste money) if you want a screen larger than about 60 inches. At really large sizes, a flat panel can’t compete, costwise. Samsung’s 102-inch plasma set, for instance, sells for $45,000.

Of course, a real home theater needs more than the portable projector you take on the road for PowerPoint presentations and then use to watch DVDs at home on the weekend. You need something that can reproduce colors accurately, doesn’t cause a rainbow effect, and throws enough light to fill your screen from the appropriate distance.

One brand name kept popping up as I interviewed home theater consultants: Runco.

The Runco VX-2000d isn’t the company’s most expensive projector by a long shot--but at $17,000, it’s still a significant investment. For that amount you get an advanced single-chip DLP system (still not as good as a three-chip system) and a lamp that can light up a good home-size screen.

If you’re willing to pay an additional $5000 (more or less, depending on the dealer), you can get the VX-2000d with the CineWide option. CineWide allows you to view CinemaScope (2.35:1 aspect ratio) films the way they were meant to be seen: on a wider screen rather than a letterboxed one.

Flat-Panel HDTV

If you don’t have room for a massive screen, or if you don’t want the complications of a rear projector, you should probably go with a plasma HDTV.

Why plasma? Such models generally display more-accurate colors and have better contrast than LCDs--especially in expensive sets. And their wide viewing angles allow more friends to enjoy the show.

There are exceptions, though. Plasma screens reflect more ambient light than LCDs do, making them problematic for daytime viewing in rooms where you can’t completely block out the sunlight. In those cases many consultants will recommend LCDs.

Most plasma HDTVs are reasonably priced consumer items, but the best can cost more than $15,000. What do you get for that price? A level of color accuracy that simply can’t be bought at consumer prices.

Once again, the consultants I spoke with showed a preference for Runco displays. When it comes to plasma, that company “makes the absolute best of the best,” says Alex Brinkman of Music Lovers. Runco’s highest-end plasma model, the XP-65DHD 3, has a 65-inch screen and sells for about $18,000. As Jerry Del Colliano says in a HomeTheaterReview.com review: “If you are looking for the best, blackest, highest-contrast, longest-lasting and most feature-laden 65-inch plasma HDTV, then this uber-plasma is something worth paying for.”

Blu-ray Player

You can spend thousands of dollars on a Blu-ray player. But even if you can afford it, is that a wise way to spend your money?

Image and audio quality can vary greatly from one player to another--especially with DVDs, on which the player has more to do (players typically upscale DVDs to display them at HD resolution), but there are differences with Blu-ray discs, as well. And the more-expensive players generally output better pictures than the cheaper ones do.

The player can impact audio quality, too, especially if you’re using analog outputs or converting your soundtracks to PCM.

Yet the one company that kept popping up when I asked for expert advice was OPPO, and its most expensive player, the BDP-83SE, lists for only $900. That’s a lot more than I would pay for a Blu-ray player, but compared with a $22,000 projector or an $18,000 plasma, it’s a bargain.

In fact, rumors on the Web suggest that one $10,000 player is little more than a repackaged OPPO. I have not been able to confirm this.

OPPO BDP-83 Blu-ray Disc player

OPPO based the BDP-83SE on an earlier model, the BDP-83, which is still available for $500. With its Anchor Bay VRS video decoding chip, bookmarking features, and support for multiple audio formats, the BDP-83 made quite a splash when it first appeared last year. In a High-Def Digest review, Joshua Zyber called it “the best standalone Blu-ray player I've yet used.”

What makes the 83SE special beyond the 83? Significantly improved audio decoding for analog output. According to John E. Johnson Jr.’s Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity review, “analog audio performance is improved significantly, and in fact, performs like players costing much, much more.”

And yet, if you don’t intend to use your Blu-ray player’s analog audio output, you can save $400 and get the same quality with the BDP-83.

Even in high-end equipment, you occasionally get a bargain.

Next: Preamp and Amplifier, Speakers, and Room Acoustics

Preamp and Amplifier

Anthem AVM 50v preamp
Those of us with modest means get our surround sound through an amplifier, also called a receiver. You plug all of your audio sources, including your DVD or Blu-ray player, into the amplifier, which receives the sound, processes it, and sends it to your speakers.

Home-theater-oriented surround amplifiers can also receive and process video signals, sending them to the television.

But hardcore audiophiles prefer to separate this one box into (at least) two: a preamp (pronounced pre-amp) or processor, and an amplifier. The first accepts and processes the signals, and then sends them to the second, which amplifies them.

Why two separate devices? Powerful amplifiers put out a lot of heat. Processors work best when they’re cool. When you put them in the same box, something has to be compromised--either the preamp loses precision from the heat, or the amplifier is underpowered.

In theory, your preamp and amplifier don’t have to be from the same company. But things may be simpler if they are.

Anthem MCA 50 amplifier

One might, for instance, consider matching Anthem’s $5500 AVM 50v preamp with that company’s $2000 MCA 50 amplifier. The preamp, which has eight HDMI inputs, has circuitry to clean up noisy source material. In his Home Theater Sound review, Anthony Di Marco says that the “MCA 50’s low noise specification proved to be the real thing... Even the highly revealing tweeters of my Canton Ergos revealed nothing other than what was on the soundtrack.”

Speakers

Wilson Audio subwoofer
A Wilson Audio subwoofer. Photo: Wilson Audio
If you’re going to spend $7500 on a preamp and amplifier, you’re going to need some awesome speakers, as well. After all, that’s where the sound actually gets reproduced.

And you’ll need a lot of them. In addition to the great, big subwoofer sitting on the floor, you’ll need five to seven satellites--one center, two sides, and two to four surrounds. You could easily spend $30,000 or more on speakers.

What do expensive speakers have that others lack? Dynamics. A great speaker can be played very quiet or very loud without loss or distortion, and can move quickly between the two extremes. Today’s movie soundtracks have a wide dynamic range. Music Lovers’ Brinkman describes it as a “visceral response.”

Sergey Rekutin of AV-Setup, discussing speakers made by the very high-end company Escalante Design, describes the difference in musical terms: “Any kind of music comes out like it was written for this equipment.”

Because speakers vary so much, and since the requirements for what you buy have almost as much to do with visual aesthetics as sound quality, I won't recommend any particular models. Along with Escalante Design, Wilson Audio is also well regarded for its high-end, high-quality speakers.

Room Acoustics

“You can spend a lot of money on equipment, but if the room isn't right, you'll never hear that difference.” That’s what Joe Kane of Digital Video Essentials, one of the home theater industry’s major gurus, told me. Fixing the room’s acoustics was the “most expensive part of my home theater, by far,” he says.

And no, simply slapping acoustic tiles over your walls won’t do. Overuse of anything designed to absorb sound will leave the room sounding dead. There may be places in your room where the sound needs to be absorbed, and others where it should be reflected and diffused.

Simply put, you need a professional to figure it all out.

According to one such professional, Nyal Mellor of Acoustic Frontiers, going through the process isn't even worthwhile if you’re not investing at least $20,000 in equipment. Mellor finds that analyzing and improving a room's acoustics usually costs $4000 to $10,000.

An acoustics expert will generally come out and run some tests to determine where the problems are. Is the sound clear? Can you properly tell where a given sound is coming from? (It’s not necessarily one of your speakers.) Do echoes take too long to die down?

The professional can also take the appearance of the room into consideration, figuring out what they can hang where without disturbing the visual design. Eventually, they formulate fixes, placing absorbing acoustic tiles here, diffusers there, and perhaps adding rugs.

It’s a lot of work, and a lot of money. If it's done right, you’ll be left with a truly awesome home theater.

On the other hand, you probably can’t afford it. Maybe it’s best to be satisfied with what’s within your budget--or with what you already own.

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