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Wired West: Home theater on a budget

Sunsetmagazine July, 2000, by Michael Goldstein

The essential components and what they cost

* You no longer need to be a movie mogul to afford a home theater. For about $1,000 ($600 for the audio equipment, $400 for a TV), you can enjoy a rich film experience at home. And today's home theater components are discreet--usually around 1 foot tall and compact enough to be evenly distributed around the room--so you need not surrender your living space to skyscraper-size speakers.

What it's all about

A home theater is a combination of video and audio components that achieves a theaterlike experience. "It's important to balance the investment between the video and the sound," says Jon Edwards of L.A.'s Sunset Studios Media Systems, a leading home theater seller and installer. Although you can spend big money on a giant television, experts say you don't have to: You can create a home theater with a set as small as 27 inches, measured diagonally. (Screens smaller than that don't create enough visual power.) So you may only need to add new audio to your existing television.

If you haven't shopped for a television in a while, you'll be surprised how far your dollar goes. For example, this spring one retailer offered a 32-inch stereo color TV with remote for just $399. The set featured front audio/video inputs, which make plugging in your VCR, DYD player, video games, and speakers much easier.

The audio side

The object of home theater audio is to surround you with multichannel sound like a movie palace does. Home systems incorporating the popular 5.1 Dolby Digital standard use five full-range channels--left, right, left surround, right surround, and a center channel for dialogue. These systems also include a sixth low-frequency effect channel for ambience and special effects, like the rumble of an on-screen earthquake. Most videos created after 1992 were made with these channels in mind, and even if you are playing an older video, it will sound better on a home theater setup.

To reproduce all this sound, home theater systems include a receiver that also "decodes" digital effects, plus five small "satellite" speakers and a subwoofer, a larger speaker that provides the bass and special-effects sounds. The idea is to create a sort of temple of sound by placing the five smaller speakers at least 2 feet away from the wall and putting the subwoofer in a corner.

Buying home theater audio components is like buying a stereo. Purchasing an audio package can make the components more affordable--one major electronics store recently offered a complete 475-watt Dolby Digital package, including a receiver, five surround speakers, and a 75-watt subwoofer, for $600.

You can also buy the receiver and speakers separately You could start with Sony's 5.1 Dolby Digital receiver (less than $500), which not only offers 550 watts of power but can also create some 27 different acoustic environments, from soft and muffled to loud and clear. Its remote control even has an LCD panel that shows radio station names or CD titles. Add a speaker package for about $200, and you're cooking.

The video side

The most popular ways to watch movies are with a VCR (video cassette recorder) or DVD player (digital versatile disc). VCR prices have fallen through the floor. One electronics megastore offers a four-head, hi-fl model with convenient front A/V jacks, as well as VCR Plus+ for easy recording, for just $120.

But the VCR's 20-year run as the playback mechanism of choice is ending. The DVD aisle at your video store is getting longer. DVD has many advantages over VHS tape, including higher resolution for better images, instant access to any point in the film, and a more compact design. Movies look better on DVD. According to one media research company worldwide spending on DVDs will surpass spending on videos by 2003, and there will be DVD players in 625 million homes by 2010. Not coincidentally the price of DVD players has dropped substantially For example, one model, which plays both DVDs and audio CDs and includes a built-in Dolby Digital decoder to faithfully reproduce movie sound effects, costs about $350.

You'll find additional advice for setting up a home theater in Home Theater magazine (or visit www. hometheatermag.com) and at websites such as www.dvd.com and www.dolby.com. Whether your taste runs to Terminator or to Titanic, it's time to set up the plush seats, pop the popcorn, and turn up the volume. Your private screening room is ready.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Sunset Publishing Corp.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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