The Basics of Home Theater:
Other Audio and Video Gear

Last updated 4/2/2006


With a receiver, speakers, a display, and a DVD player (or HD disc player), you've got most everything you need for a home theater. There are other components that you may want, though, such as a VCR, LaserDisc player, CD player or changer, tape deck, game console, cable or satellite TV, turntable, or even a fancy universal remote control. These are just some suggestions of what else might show up in a home theater system. We're not going to spend a lot of time on these various options, but we'll at least touch on them and how they relate to the rest of the system. For quick access to the different devices, I've got some links:

Video Cassette Recorder (VCR): Most people already have a VCR sitting around somewhere, and many of those VCR's are "Hi-Fi" (meaning that they have a stereo signal output). If you are getting a new one to have in a home theater, you should look for at least a 4-head hi-fi unit. Four heads will provide good video quality, and the hi-fi audio output will allow you to make use of Dolby Pro-Logic decoding on your receiver. Super-VHS VCR's offer an S-video output and the ability to use Super-VHS tapes for better video quality when recording material, but for most people that is probably overkill.

DVD Recorder: There are several recordable DVD formats available. DVD-R is a recordable but not rewriteable media (similar to CD-R's) that can be played back on most DVD players currently on the market. DVD+R is similar, but it (along with its re-writeable comrade DVD+RW) is not supported by the DVD Forum. Other rewriteable formats include DVD-RAM and DVD-RW, both of which are included in the official format defined by the DVD Forum. The lack of a single standard format has slowed adoption of DVD recorders, but price drops beginning in 2002 and the appearance of products from several manufacturers began to significantly accelerate the spread DVD recorders. Philips' players typically remain more expensive than Panasonic's models, but both have dropped well below $500 (Panasonic's entry level recorders can be had for around $250) and similar products have become available from Toshiba, Pioneer, Sony, and others. For more information on DVD recorders, check out my review of the Panasonic DMR-E80H recorder; the review includes a lot of background on recordable DVD in general as well as some specific feedback on the Panasonic recorders.

Personal Video Recorder/Digital Video Recorder: The TiVo and its brethren are hard drive-based video recorders that have become extremely popular. Many are integrated into satellite or cable decoder boxes, but others are designed as stand-alone products. Panasonic has even integrated a PVR into a DVD recorder (the DMR-HS2 was the first to do this, followed by the DMR-E80 and DMR-E100). For a good summary at what a PVR offers, check out this article by Cæsar at Ars Technica.

LaserDisc Player: I've never really dealt much with LaserDisc, and support for the format as a home entertainment medium is fading fast. The decline of LaserDisc does offer some opportunities to expand existing LaserDisc movie collections, as in many cases prices have dropped as LaserDisc's market of early-adopters and videophiles have migrated to DVD. Players are still available, as well. One thing to watch for, however, in buying a LaserDisc player is the format of the digital output. Many LaserDisc players used an RF digital output, which most receivers and mid-level pre/pros do not support. If your player uses this digital output, you will need a separate device to convert the signal to a standard coaxial digital input.

CD Players and Changers: With all of the investment in a receiver and speakers, you may want to be able to enjoy CD's on your new home theater. You can use most DVD players to play CD's, but you may find yourself wanting a purpose-built CD player to get the best audio playback possible (although recent generations of DVD players have proven to be very good CD transports and typically include good DACs) or the convenience of a 5-disc or 6-disc CD changer. In some cases, you may even want to load your entire CD collection into a CD "jukebox" and forget about it, using the 200-disc and 400-disc jukeboxes available from several manufacturers.

Historically, the best CD transports are single-disc players (it is easier to provide a truly stabilized playback platform if it doesn't have to interact with a magazine or carousel). In some cases, CD carousel changers can be found that can rival comparable single-disc players (Onkyo, Rotel, and Yamaha make CD changers that fall into this category). Large CD jukeboxes generally aren't intended to compete with such players, and as such there are compromises on performance in these giant players. If you do some close comparisons and can't hear a difference or don't find the difference enough to cancel out the convenience of a jukebox, then a big changer like that may be just what you need. On the other hand, you may be looking to get the most you can out of your CD collection, in which case a good CD player (single disc or carousel) may be what you want. When shopping around, keep in mind that where the D/A conversion takes place is important; many CD players today include an optical or coaxial digital output, allowing you to choose between using the player's built-in DAC or your receiver's DAC. In many cases, your receiver's DAC may do a better job than the player's internal hardware, but on some higher-end players you may find that one the player's strengths is a particularly good two-channel DAC, in which case you may be better off with an analog connection between CD and receiver. In my personal experience, I used a Harman/Kardon FL-8300 5-disc carousel changer for several years, and for almost a year had it connected to an Outlaw Model 1050 receiver using the coaxial digital output because the Outlaw's DAC provided a sound that was more pleasing to my ears. When I replaced the FL-8300 with a Yamaha CDC-775 (Yamaha's flagship CD changer, a step up from their lower models mainly because of the D/A hardware), the Yamaha's DAC sounded better than the optical digital connection and the Outlaw's DAC. Since then, however, I've phased out a dedicated CD player entirely, electing to instead use my DVD player as a CD transport.

Cable and Satellite TV: Want to watch some TV on this big fancy theater you've built? You can connect an antenna to your VCR or TV and run the audio through your receiver, or connect a cable signal to your VCR or TV. If you have some of the newer cable services available to you (including digital cable) or have abandoned cable for DSS satellite, you will have a set-top cable box of some sort. These can be connected to your receiver (passing through the VCR if you want to record shows). Check out the sample wiring diagrams for ideas on how to integrate a cable box or satellite receiver into your system.

Game Console: Back in the early 1980's, the Atari 2600 hit the market, and people could connect the game console to their TV and play Pong and Space Invaders. Today, the old 2600 has been replaced by new generations of game consoles. Around the time that DVD was seeing tremendous growth, three new consoles appeared: the Sony Playstation 2, Microsoft X-Box, and Nintendo GameCube. Late 2005 saw the launch of the in another generation of consoles – the XBox360. It will be joined in November 2006 by the Playstation 3, and Nintendo will also launch their Revolution console at some point in the near future. Connecting any of these to a home theater is little different from connecting a DVD player (most include optical digital outputs and can output Dolby Digital audio; the GameCube has analog outputs only, but does support Dolby Pro Logic II). The sample wiring diagrams offer some ways to include a game console in your home theater. Or go dig out an old Atari 2600 and hook the RF output up to a VCR or TV antenna input for some real fun!

Media Servers: Companies have been proclaiming the merger of computers and entertainment centers for many years now, but it has been a very slow process. The "original" network audio player was a PC with the sound card's output connected to a receiver, allowing the user to play back files through the stereo. While functional, this arrangement was cumbersome to operate and typically unsightly (not a big deal for the dorm room or college apartment that likely spawned the idea, of course). The first product to offer a refinement to the approach was the Turtle Beach Audiotron, which appeared in 2000 or 2001. It could be connected to a home network and access files stored on the network's PC's using a two-line front panel display. Playlists, support for MP3's ID3 tags, and the company's energetic support for the product (which had produced numerous software upgrades during its long production life that improved the interface and added features, including the ability to act as an Internet tuner) created a loyal user base. Now discontinued, the Audiotron has passed the mantle on to other players. One of the most popular is the SlimDevices Squeezebox, now in its third iteration and sporting a much dressier chassis. Others include the PRISMIQ MediaPlayer (a Linux-based platform available for $200 with built-in networking, support for a wireless network card, and the ability to handle for audio and video data), Apple's AirPort Express Base Station with AirTunes (a $130 receiver for audio played by iTunes on either a Mac or PC that is compatible with any 802.11 wireless network), and Roku Labs' Soundbridge and Photobridge HD products. Windows PC users with XBox game consoles have also gained some media server capability, which the XBox360 expands upon significantly. There have even been a few self-contained media servers, merging the hard drive of a PVR (such as TiVo) with the concept of a network audio player and eliminating the need for a computer for file storage. At the most basic are units such as Yamaha's hard drive-equipped CD recorders (CDR-HD1000 and CDR-HD1300), which combine a CD-RW drive and 20GB or 80GB hard drive but lack a network interface or support for MP3, WMA, or other lossy compression schemes for storing audio on the hard drive. More sophisticated approaches are appearing from companies such as Integra (the NAS-2.3) and Yamaha (the MusicCast system). There's even the massive and costly Kaleidescape DVD server, which has recently expanded from being solely a DVD-based product to also offering support for CD's. Much of the interest in these devices can be traced back to the rapid and ongoing drops in hard drive cost and the development of very efficient audio compression formats (particularly lossless ones like FLAC), which makes it possible for people to store entire music libraries on disc. As drive costs fall, it is likely that people will begin to try to archive both music libraries and movie libraries in a manner similar to the Kaleidescape approach.

Satellite Radio and HD Radio: Tired of the corporate-run junk on the FM dial these days? Two competing services – Sirius and XM Radio – offer satellite radio feeds with a wide range of stations to chose from. They do charge a monthly subscription fee, though.

HD Radio is a newer development. It allows existing AM and FM radio stations to broadcast digitally (similar to digital television broadcasting). Like XM and Sirius, you need a new radio tuner to pick these stations up, but unlike the satellite services there is no subscription fee.

Cassette Deck: Yes, you may want one of these. I had one for years, initially because my car didn't have a CD player. Once I put a CD changer in my car, it seldom saw use. Pick one up if you have a use for one, or hook up an old one. Personally, mine's been moved to the office, where it is connected to the computer for the occasional cassette that needs to be transferred to CD.

D-VHS: Also referred to as "D-Theater," the digital video tape format was launched in 2001. The main intention is to act as a distribution channel for high definition movies (720p or 1080i resolution). The players remain close to $1000, the available movie library remains very small, and the format retains all of the drawbacks of VHS: lack of direct access (along with the need to remember to "be kind - rewind") and susceptibility to deterioration of the magnetic media. They also lack the bonus features that have become such a big selling point for DVD. In spite of these limitations, D-VHS does reportedly offer some very impressive video performance. It will likely remain a niche market product for a couple more years, but it is unlikely to be able to survive once an HD-DVD format is available.

Turntable: Many audiophile two-channel stereo systems include a high-end turntable. If you have a collection of old vinyl recordings, you can get anything from a basic turntable to a very expensive turntable. If you are going to connect a turntable, you will need to make sure that you either have a phono input on your receiver or have a phono pre-amp to provide a line-level input to your receiver. Phono pre-amps are a little hard to find these days, but they are available for as little as $25 from Radio Shack or from Audio Advisor starting at $120. Make sure that the phono pre-amp you get will work with the cartridge your turntable uses; some will work with both MM (moving magnet) and MC (moving coil) cartridges, but others will work only with one or the other.

Universal Remote Control: Since we've just added several more devices to your system that probably came with their own remote controls, you now have a pile of remotes large enough to make actually operating anything in the system almost impossible. The solution? Look into a good universal remote. Universal remotes can be programmed to operate as many as seven or eight different devices; this is done by telling the remote which device you want to control before using the controls. So the same numeric keypad would be for channels on the TV, VCR, and cable box, track numbers on the CD player, and chapters on the DVD player. Many of these remotes can be programmed to "punch through" certain buttons, allowing you to tell the remote that the volume controls should always control the receiver, no matter what device is currently active. Also available on some universal remotes is support for macros. A macro is basically a series of commands assigned to a single button, such as a "watch DVD" button that would turn on the receiver, DVD player, and TV, set the receiver input to "DVD," make sure the TV is on the correct input if necessary, and set the remote to control the DVD player.

For a while, I used the remote that came with my Outlaw Model 1050 receiver; it lacks support for macros but is otherwise a very flexible and easy-to-use universal remote. This remote is related to several other remotes on the market, including the popular Radio Shack 15-1994 remote (discontinued now and replaced with the 15-2104). It you are looking for a good, flexible remote at a nice price, this may be the way to go. It supports most equipment on the market, has a large user base with plenty of online documentation, offers some limited macro support, and offers the capability to program in "punch-through" modes for the volume and channel buttons. These remotes (all manufactured by UEI) offer an undocumented feature called the JP1 interface, and with a $15 cable and some research online you can make one of these remotes to a great deal. More exotic universal remotes include the Philips Pronto touch-screen remote and a number of similar devices (including the Sony RM-AV2100 that I used prior to getting my Outlaw Audio Model 950 pre/pro). These often offer an LCD touch screen for some or all of the controls, a computer interface for programming the equipment codes and button assignments, and advanced macro functions. Expect to spend several hundred dollars on a Pronto or similar remote. A company called Home Theater Master offers a line of universal remotes priced below the Pronto that are widely regarded as very good. The MX-500 offers 10 buttons with LCD display labels that can be set to say anything the user wants, as well as the standard assortment of buttons. The MX-700 uses a similar design but offers twice as much memory and a computer interface for programming. A brand that is often offered as being comparable to HTM is Harmony, which was bought by Logitech a few years ago. Harmony's remotes all use a computer interface and are structured around the concept of "tasks" rather than "devices." They aren't as customizable as the HTM's MX-series, but they are just as user-friendly once set up. For information on the 15-1994, Pronto, and other universal remotes, Remote Central is a valuable resource. The site offers reviews of most of the universal remotes currently on the market, as well as reference material and forums. HiFi Remote is another source of information that looks specifically at the Radio Shack 15-1994 and remotes similar to it. I started using a Home Theater Master MX-500 in the summer of 2003, and have been extremely satisfied with it. Its big brother the MX-700 (which I moved to in 2005 and have a review of here) offers more flexibility and a built-in PC interface for those interested in serious customization, but it is more expensive. I also maintain a page of users' universal remote control setup files (both Pronto and Home Theater Master) for Outlaw Audio products.

Multichannel Bass Management: DVD-Audio and SACD players are required to output an analog 5.1 channel signal. Unlike receivers that decode a digital signal into those analog channels, most of these players do not provide bass management -- in other words, the user has no control over what crossover point is used between the subwoofer and speakers. In an effort to address this problem, Outlaw Audio came out with a product they call the ICBM-1, which stands for Integrated Controlled Bass Manager. Here is the full run-down on the ICBM-1. Connected in-line between a DVD-Audio or SACD player and a receiver, it allows extensive control and management of the bass signal (it can also be used between a pre-amp and amp if the pre-amp does not provide satisfactory bass management). The ICBM-1 was discontinued in early 2006, but they can still be found on the used market.

IR Remote Control Distribution: This is something that I had contemplated for several years prior to installing in April 2004, mainly because of the finicky nature of my Mitsubishi TV's IR sensor window. Several companies produce equipment to allow you to build a distribution network for IR remote control signals, with a single conveniently located receiver and a combination of small IR emitters and signal wires at the components being controlled. When is this useful? Any time the equipment is located some distance away from the display (such as on a side or back wall, or in an equipment closet in another room) or when cabinet doors or other obstacles make it difficult to get a signal from your remote to your equipment. My installation is closely related to the one described in this Secrets article from August 2003, and I've summarized what I did and how it worked in a brief review. It is possible to go far beyond what I've done, however, including small receivers that can be installed in furniture, wired remote controls that can be mounted in wall boxes just like a light switch for control of multi-room systems, integration with lighting control, and much larger distribution systems.

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