I wrote this for a few friends of mine who are considering installing a home theater and thought it might be helpful as a basic primer for other who are considering the same.
The world of home theater has undergone some dramatic changes in a very short period of time. For the cost of a large, flat screen TV, you can put together a home theater system that will blow your traditional living room setup out of the water. Are there disadvantages? Sure, but the idea is to examine what works best for you.
Because I have children who have friends over, my home theater is set up more like a family room than the home theaters you see with the reclining leather seats. A comfy convertible couch with a chaise serves us better. If people have questions about how to set up a home theater, feel free to ask me for advice. Maybe I can help.
Below is the equipment I use and some photos of my home theater:
Acer H9500BD 3D Projector; Elite 120″ 16:9 Screen; Sony BDPS5200 3D Blu-ray player; Logitech Z-5500 THX-Certified 5.1 Surround System
Projector prices have dropped pretty dramatically over the past 5 years. I was able to pick up my Acer for about $1,100. Initially, it didn’t have a true color management system (CMS) and the ability to tweak the colors was limited. About 8 months after I bought it, Acer came out with a firmware update that fixed this and I was able to get the settings from someone who frequented the Acer 9500 thread on the AVS Forum. These technical forums are a good place to learn about how things work and the strengths and weaknesses of a particular device. There are a lot of sharp people on them. I’m very happy with the projector as it suits my purposes. If it dies, I’ll look into getting another projector. If it doesn’t die, I’ll probably wait until we start getting 4K (resolution) source material and prices come down on the 4K projectors. 4K resolution, in case you don’t know, is cinema quality resolution for a projector (and better than in some cinemas).
Let’s get started on some details.
First, let’s start with Projectors and 3D Glasses
There are several different types of projectors. Mine is a Digital Light Processing (DLP) projector. DLP apostles (of whom I am one) like it because the DLP image is sharp and has a lot of “pop”. The picture really jumps out at you and the blacks are very good. Most of the theaters you go to that use a projection system use DLP projectors.
If you watch 3D movies at the theater, you have probably noticed that you will occasionally get a dual image or “ghosting” in the picture on the screen. This is because in order to get the image to look like it’s in 3D, two images are projected on the screen from slightly different angles. The light from one image is blocked in one eye and the light from the other image is blocked in the other eye. The result is a stereoscopic effect and your brain interprets this to be a 3 dimensional image. Ghosting happens when some of the light gets past the filter that’s supposed to stop it. Those glasses you get at the theater don’t block 100% of the image meant to be blocked and so you get ghosting. These types of glasses are referred to as “passive” 3D glasses because they have no electronic components and just block the light coming in at a particular angle. They are therefore very inexpensive.
In my home setup, I have “active” 3D glasses which use what is called “DLP Link”. The projector sends an embedded signal to the glasses on a frame by frame basis. Because the glass to each eye is blacked out electronically back and forth from eye to eye, no light gets through that isn’t supposed to and you get virtually no ghosting. You don’t see the flicker because it happens so fast that your brain can’t process the delay. Think of a deck of cards with a drawing on each of a person walking that moves little by little. When you look at each card, you can probably see each picture is a little bit different and each card appears to be a discrete picture. Now, if you take that deck, look at the first picture, bend the deck back from the top, and let each card flip quickly forward, your brain sees a picture of a person walking and not individual pictures. The motion is smooth. Same with active 3D glasses and, in fact, your projector itself. It’s throwing up a sequence of static images that we see as motion.
If projectors, and DLP projectors in particular, are so great, why doesn’t everyone have one? Why don’t people spend less to get a bigger picture? Well, there are some disadvantages to home projectors. The main disadvantage is that a bright room washes out the picture much more than it does a regular flat screen plasma, LED, or LCD screen. In order to overcome this, you need a brighter light source. That means you pay more money. There have been strides made in this area and people are experimenting with alternative light sources that use less energy and don’t burn as hot. I think we’ll continue to see progress in this area. Another problem is since a projector shoots light on to the front of a screen, the image will be blocked if someone or some thing gets inbetween the projector and the screen.
One disadvantage that DLP projectors have is what is called the “Rainbow Effect” (commonly referred to as “RBE”). DLP projectors use a color wheel. If the color wheel isn’t rotating fast enough, some people will see flashes of green, red, and blue when a light colored object is moving across a dark area on the screen. Not everyone is sensitive to it or can see it. I’ve never seen it (and don’t want to). The slower the color wheel spins, the more likely RBE will be seen.
Projectors are an ideal solution if you have a light controlled room and don’t have a lot of people coming into, leaving, and walking across the room. If not, a big screen TV is probably your best bet. They do have some projectors that put out a LOT of light these days and, for these, you don’t have to worry as much about blocking light.
Next up is the Screen
My screen is 10′ (measured diagonally), is a white screen, has a 16:9 aspect ratio, and a gain of 1.0. I’ll go into each of these characteristics individually, but when you’re sitting about 16′ or so away, a 10′ screen is a pretty dramatic upgrade from the TV in your house. You can pay a LOT of money for a screen or you can do like I did and pick one up for about $100. Screens are not measured just by size. Here are some other characteristics.
Generally speaking, there are white screens and grey screens. The advantage of a grey screen is that it absorbs the ambient or reflected light better and maintains blacks better than a white screen. This aspect has probably become a “little” less important over the last few years as “high contrast” projectors have hit the market that can produce a bright picture AND good blacks. Still, some people want those deep blacks and prefer both a grey screen AND a high contrast projector. A white screen reflects light better than a grey screen so you will get a brighter picture. What will work best for you depends on you and your setup. If you have a dedicated room that has good light control, a white screen may be best for you. If not, you may prefer a grey screen. It’s really up to the taste of the individual.
Aspect ratio is the ratio between the width and height of the screen. As I have a 16:9 aspect ratio screen, for every 16″ of width on my screen, there is 9″ of height. This is the native aspect ration of standard high definition televisions. There are other aspect ratios. 1:1 screens are square and you often see those in a conference room. A 4:3 aspect ratio screen is the ratio of a traditional standard definition screen. A “Widescreen” screen has an aspect ratio of 21:9. Most movies use this aspect ratio.
Screens also have what is called “Gain”. Most home theater screens have a gain of 1.0 to maybe 1.3. A screen with a gain of 1.3 will reflect 30% more light perpendicular to the middle of the screen. Some higher end screens have even higher “gains” which means they reflect even more light at at this angle. So, why not just get a high gain screen as it reflects more light? Well, remember I said they reflect “more light perpendicular to the middle of the screen”? Low gain screens reflect light more evenly from side to side and up and down and, therefore, you get a brighter picture when you are looking at the screen from an angle. If you will have people looking at the screen from a side angle, a high gain screen may not be for you. Grey screens generally have lower gain, typically around .8. Remember I said that grey screens absorb the ambient light better than a white screen? Light absorption translates to a lower gain.
Next, I’ll talk about Video Source Material and the devices we use to play this material. Here I will focus on Cable boxes and Blu ray players.
What’s the point of having a home theater with a big screen if you don’t have good quality video and sound? My hi definition cable box has a resolution called 1080i. This stands for 1080 interleaved. Essentially the odd and even horizontal lines are drawn alternately. A 2D Blu ray projection has a resolution of 1080p. This stands for 1080 progressive scan. All lines in the scan are drawn in sequence so you get the odd and even image lines drawn closer together in a given time frame than you get with 1080i. Both can produce a very good quality picture. A Blu ray projection will be the smoother image of the two.
What about 3D Blu ray? Do you lose resolution when you have a 3D disk? Remember, 3D splits the image between each eye so you would think you would either get less light or lower resolution. A 3D Blu ray disk solves this problem by using what is called “frame packing”. Frame packing crams two images (the left and right) into one frame. This packed frame is split into a left eye and right eye image and is displayed sequentially on the screen. Therefore there is no loss of resolution. The frame packing is supported the the HDMI 1.4 standard (click here for an explanation of the standard).
While I focused on cable boxes and Blu ray players just about any video source can be used. For example, I often create a video connection from my Mac laptop to the big screen TV in my living room and use a blue tooth keyboard and mouse to use my computer.
Finally, let’s talk about a Sound System.
In my opinion a sound system is the most subjective part of a home theater system. What sounds good to someone may not sound good to someone else. For my home use, I prefer a 5.1 sound system. It consists of left and right front channels, left and right surround channels, a center channel, and a sub-woofer. Some people prefer a 7.1 sound system. This also has 2 rear surround channels. I’ve heard people say they prefer 7.1 and I’ve heard people say they don’t like them and have gone back to a more traditional 5.1 system. The bottom line is “Get something that is right for you.”
I hope this has been helpful. There is a lot of information out there on technical forums if you want to dig a little bit deeper. You can click on the following links for a couple of my favorites.
If you have any questions, please feel to ask. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll bet we can find it.