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Basic Home Theater Setup Guide

A home theater system will bring magic and excitement to all your video entertainment. Our guide will help you plan the right system for your room, with tips on choosing the type of system you want, speakers, audio electronics, and a display. We'll also cover the many entertainment sources and what you can expect from each.

To create an immersive home theater environment, we recommend the following setup:

  • A surround sound system (5 to 11 channels)
  • The biggest 4K Ultra HD display you can manage
  • A media player (Blu-ray, Android/Apple TV, HTPC)
  • A/V Receiver
  • Adequate viewing distance and room space


Home Theater Sound Systems

Audio accounts for 50 percent of the cinema experience. That's why your sound system and room acoustics are every bit as important as your TV.

Good two-channel stereo can create a holographic space—but with all the sound in front of you. Conventional 5.1- and 7.1-channel surround sound can involve you more deeply in the onscreen action. Dolby Atmos® is a revolutionary new technology that uses "objects" and overhead sound to create moving audio that flows all around you.

Traditional Surround Sound Setups 

Typical surround sound setups have either 5.1 or 7.1 channels. A 5.1 system has left, right, and center speakers in front, with left and right surround speakers. 

A 7.1 system adds left and right rear surround speakers. The ".1" in these designations is for a subwoofer (sometimes called the low-frequency effects, or LFE, speaker) for the lowest bass.   

Dolby Atmos Setups

Dolby Atmos layouts parallel the traditional 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound setups and add height speakers. Adding two height channels creates a 5.1.2 or a 7.1.2 system. Dolby Atmos systems with four height channels are designated 5.1.4 or 7.1.4. 

There are two basic ways to add the height channels. One is to use two or four in-ceiling speakers. The second way is to use special Dolby Atmos enabled speakers that can be floor or stand mounted. From a placement perspective, these replace the left and right speakers and the left and right surround speakers. 


Display

Essentially, your choices start with a flat-panel set or a front projector. Flat-panel displays come in four basic types: liquid crystal display (LCD), plasma, organic light-emitting diode (OLED), and quantum dot. LCDs dominate, although there are still some great plasma choices. OLED and quantum-dot TVs are very new and only available in a few models—at the moment. All of these technologies will give you great picture quality.

The only real alternative to a flat-panel display is a front projector.

  • Provides the biggest picture
  • Is best suited for a larger room that you can make nearly totally dark
  • Absolutely requires a separate screen; don't project onto a wall

Resolution

Until recently, the "gold standard" for resolution has been 1080p, generally called Full HD. Now, however, there is increasing emphasis on Ultra HD 4K sets (UHD, UHD 4K, or 4K in shorthand), which offer four times the resolution.

A 1080p display has a resolution of 1920 × 1080 pixels. An Ultra HD 4K display has a resolution of 3840 × 2160 pixels (and would be called a 2160p display using that nomenclature). The minimum resolution considered HD (high definition) is 720p, corresponding to 1280 × 720 pixels.

Display Size

Take your room dimensions into account, and then get the biggest set you're comfortable watching. Popular home theater flat-panel sizes go from 37 inches to as large as 85 inches or so. For anything larger, you'll need a front projector. Many experts recommend an ideal viewing distance of about 2-1/2 times the screen measurement. For example, with a 60-inch screen, you should sit about 12-1/2 feet away. Don't sit too close. If you can see the individual pixels, you're too close.


The Center of Your Home Entertainment System

If your home entertainment system is easy on the eyes but leaves your ears less than impressed, you need an audio/video receiver (A/V receiver) to create a stellar sound performance every time you watch a movie or enjoy home videos.

An A/V receiver is the hub of your home entertainment content, unleashing the audio capabilities of all your devices. It also connect's and amplifies all your speakers system.

Dolby® technologies in your A/V receiver, with flexible speaker configurations and autocalibration, let you experience the thrill of every action scene and the emotion of every poignant moment in movies and TV shows.

  • Dolby Atmos supports up to 128 simultaneous audio objects in a cinematic mix, offering an extremely powerful experience.
  • Dolby Audio is a set of technologies that use advanced audio formatting and signal processing to deliver enhanced sound.
  • Dolby TrueHD gives you high-definition audio support and 100 percent lossless audio that improves top-tier Blu-ray™ movies with sound that's identical to the studio master.
  • Dolby Digital Plus provides a surround sound experience with up to 7.1 channels of high-fidelity audio.
  • Dolby Pro Logic technologies fill any room with an enhanced sense of dimension, even with two-channel source content.
  • Dolby Volume ensures that your content stays at the same volume level from channel to channel.

Room Acoustics and Your Home Theater

Room acoustics can affect your sound almost as much as your component choices can, and the decor of the room you choose for a home theater affects the acoustics.

Optimizing the Room

A quick acoustical test: clap your hands. Do you hear "ringing" afterward? That means your room is "live," reflecting too much sound, which can spoil the surround effects.

You can do a few things to help:

  • If you have hardwood floors, try placing some area rugs directly in front of the speakers.
  • Close the drapes when you're watching or listening.
  • Use bookshelves—with books—to help tame reflections.
  • Set up a clear line of sight from speakers to listening seats.
  • Have some people over. Physically speaking, we're great absorbers.

If you're lucky enough to have a room dedicated to your home theater, you have a lot more control:

  • Balance hard and soft surfaces; for example, compensate for a hard ceiling with a carpeted floor.
  • Pull your front speakers further into the room than your TV.
  • Experiment further with speaker placement.

Consider specialized room-tuning components, such as wall diffusers and bass absorbers. Although most are not visually attractive, they can work wonders for your sound.