Advice Articles

Home Theater System Overview

If you're currently watching movies on your television, congratulations! You're already enjoying home theater! You see, home theater is nothing more than the marriage of sight and sound, a blending of audio and video. Of course, by comparison to the local cinema, your television's small screen, and dinky speaker will deliver a grossly inferior experience. The goal of home theater systems is to bridge this quality gap; by employing a surround sound processor, amplifier, and appropriate speakers. Your system will approach and in some ways surpass the sound and image of a good commercial theater.

Bits and Pieces

What you need. The essential parts of a home theater system are a display device and an audio/video source. Sound complicated? Relax. Those are just fancy terms for a television (display), and satellite TV, digital cable, or DVD player (sources). Add a receiver and speakers, and you?re done! Since the subject of video could fill a book of its own, we?ll focus our discussion on audio gear.

Components or Systems

What's best for you? There are two ways to get a home theater audio system, separate components or all-in-one integrated systems. Here's a brief comparison to help you choose what's best for you.

Integrated Systems

These all-in-one systems are often called home theater in a box or home theater shelf systems. Like their names imply most, if not all, of the audio components you need for home theater are included in the package: speakers, preamp/processor, amplification, and sometimes sources such as radio, CD player, and even DVD player. Polk offers such a package. The SurroundBar 360 DVD Theater System though it should not be considered a home theater in a box because of its unique design. Polk speakers have also been paired with quality electronics to give you a high end/high performance home theater in a box.

Advantages
This type of system is very easy to choose and buy. Just listen to the various models on display, compare features and price and buy the one that's best for you. These systems are usually very easy to hook up and use. They are generally offered by some of the biggest brand names in the business. Some of them are very inexpensive for the amount of product you get.
Disadvantages
Their simple hook up is a trade off. As these systems by their nature are not as modular as separate components. Performance ranges from mediocre to excellent. Polk has brought to market an integrated home theater audio system that combines high end performance and simplicity. Polk all-in-one home theater systems that use audiophile grade speakers and electronics to deliver high performance sound that rivals, and in many cases exceeds, component systems.

Separate Components

This type of system includes a preamp/processor, amplifiers (or receiver), speakers, and whatever source components you may like such as CD player, DVD player, video game system, etc. Each component is chosen separately and often come from different manufacturers.

Advantages
This type of system offers tremendous flexibility, choice and performance. You can mix and match components from various manufacturers to get the best of each category and exactly meet you unique needs. This approach also allows you to add or upgrade one component at a time to build your ultimate system.
Disadvantages
Component systems are harder to choose, set up, and use than integrated systems. They will also take up more room because of the additional components needed. They typically also cost more.

Consider the Source

A source is anything. Music, movies, sports, etc.-that you watch and hear in your home theater. These can be divided into two groups: broadcast sources and software sources. The quality of your source will determine the performance of your system.

Broadcast Sources are transmitted to your home from a remote destination by one of the following methods: Almost everything is digital broadcast with the exception of basic cable and standard over the air broadcasting.

Cable:
This is how most Americans receive their sports and movies. Cable is popular, convenient, and offers a wide range of options, its quality is inconsistent. Digital cable systems are widely available now and compete with other digital services mentioned below. This medium can offer HDTV and offer digital surround sound. Usually, no equipment is needed to buy or maintain and on-demand services are common. On the downside digital cable still can suffer from going out like the analog counterpart.
Satellite:
These inexpensive 18" dishes mount almost anywhere, receiving hundreds of digitally broadcasted satellite channels whose quality is unsurpassed. This medium can offer HDTV and offer digital surround sound.
Fiber Optic:
Like cable TV, except over fiber optic lines provided by the telephone company. Unfortunately, it is not widely available like cable TV or satellite is right now. This medium can offer HDTV and offer digital surround sound.
Antenna:
Also known as Over The Air (OTA). If you have a functional antenna on your rooftop, use it to receive not only HDTV but HD Radio- with the proper receiver. You'll only get a limited number of stations in most areas, but they can be received with superb quality, and at no cost. The number of HDTV stations continues to grow. In 2009, analog transmission of OTA TV will stop and only digital will be broadcast. Thus, if you do not have a digital tuner on your TV, or use satellite, cable or fiber optic an external decoder box will be needed. Digital either works or it does not, so no more ghosts and shadows from days past with the rabbit ears. For more information on the digital TV change go to the FCC's site.

Software Source components read data, in this case, audio and video information stored on disc or hard drive, and feed it to your system. Some popular software choices for home theater include:

DVD:
The size of a CD, these do it all discs are the video equivalent of the CD. DVDs deliver amazing picture resolution and digital surround sound on a convenient little disc. Both the discs and players are reasonably priced, software availability increases daily and video rental stores offer DVDs for rental in addition to certain fast food restaurants. Mail order video rentals also exist. Other formats such as HD DVD and Blu-Ray for HDTV have emerged. However their prices are higher for the players and the discs and some titles are available for one format, but not the other.
Media Server/DVR or other Hard Drive Based Source:
These are the latest hardware in media storage. Downside is cost and complex setup. They tend to be expensive.
VCR:
Out of date. The downside? Audio/video quality is mediocre and, thanks to tape wear, only gets worse with time. What's more, videotapes can't handle multi-channel digital soundtracks.

This article was last modified Jul 24, 2014

← Return to Audio Advice Articles