The Basics of Home Theater:

Last updated 3/30/2006


This section of my home theater guide is meant just to get the reader up to speed on what home theater is and what sort of options are available. We'll begin with a very brief history of home theater, and look at what we'll cover in the other sections.


Over the course of the last couple decades, innovations in home audio and video equipment have provided consumers with the opportunity to create theaters in their own homes. Faced with the rising cost of movie tickets, expensive snacks and drinks, crowds, and common problems with audio and video quality in huge multi-screen theaters, many people have chosen to create their own theaters at home. VHS was the first format available, with people renting tapes or even buying tapes of movies they liked. LaserDisc offered much better audio and video quality, but the high equipment and software costs kept it restricted to a small market. At the same time, Dolby Labs developed ways to provide surround sound at home, using the stereo signal from a VCR or LaserDisc player to bring the benefits of theater sound into the home. George Lucas's THX company (founded in the early 1980's to deal with the difficulty in insuring that theaters show movies the way the creators intended, both relating to video quality and audio quality) also expanded their rating system to include home equipment, and began to provide guidelines for the best way to create a home theater; they also began to evaluate and certify equipment as THX compliant. By the mid-90's, Dolby had upped the ante by producing what is now called "Dolby Digital" (originally called AC-3). Originally restricted to LaserDisc, this digital audio format contains up to five discreet full-range audio tracks (front left, front right, center, surround left, and surround right) as well as a LFE (low frequency effects) channel that could be directed to a subwoofer. LaserDisc remained a niche product, however, so few people were able to enjoy the benefits of Dolby Digital at home. Then, in March 1997, DVD arrived. DVD improved on the video quality of LaserDisc, and offered the benefit of a consumer-friendly format – a 5" silver disc (identical in appearance to a CD) that could store an entire movie on one side, a great improvement over LaserDisc's 12" platters and mid-movie side changes and disc changes. In the decade or so since 1997, DVD has rapidly left behind its "early adopter" niche market status and become a mainstream product, with player prices falling below $100.

The rapid and widespread adoption of the DVD format came almost hand-in-hand with the growing adoption of digital television, primarily high definition in the form of HDTV's. HDTV's helped further the growth of home theaters by providing those theaters a number of alternatives for having large and vivid "screens" (in the case of front projectors, literal screens). The first years of the 21st century have seen a steady trend of lower prices for HDTV's, better quality displays, and more source components capable of exploiting the HD displays (ranging from HD cable and satellite receivers to upconverting DVD players to next generation game consoles). The growth of HDTV has been reinforced by the government's plans to discontinue analog television broadcast in April 2009 (allowing them to sell off most of that bandwidth), after which point analog TV's will cease to be made and existing analog sets will be forced to rely on digital converter boxes to get broadcast TV. Unfortunately for consumers who were looking for ways to get full benefit from their new HDTV's, 2006 ushered in a new format war eerily reminiscient of the VHS/Beta disaster of a quarter century ago: Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD, two similar 5" blue-laser optical disc formats that function almost identically to DVD while offering true high definition resolution. I'll touch on that format war in the section on DVD and HD Disc players.


A home theater can be simple (a shelf system or "Home Theater in a Box" - HTiB - with DVD/CD player, radio tuner, digital processing, and amplifier all built in and bundled with speakers) or extremely complex (a separates-based system with separate DVD player, surround sound processor, amplifiers, speakers, subwoofer, and even a front projection display with a special screen, a projector, and a line doubler). Most home theaters fall somewhere in between. This guide will touch on some of the typical components people are likely to want to use to build a home theater.

Intro | Terms and Tech | Receivers | Speakers | Displays | DVD and HD | Other Audio/Video Gear | Cables | Sample Wiring Diagrams | Links

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