Home theaters winning raves

February 27, 2005

Movie theaters traditionally mean a night out to see a big screen with big sound, but new products can bring a bit of that experience into dens and living rooms.

A home theater mixes a television, DVD player, stereo receiver and speakers into a compelling whole. And an entry-level system doesn’t have to break the bank, said Steve Koenig, of the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va.

Buying a high-quality traditional 32-inch television and pairing it with a home-theater-in-a-box, complete with a DVD player and five speakers, can cost less than $1,000, Koenig said. While the starting point might bring less than a four-figure price, home theater systems are often far more expensive. Flat-panel televisions, higher-end sound systems and installations that hide speakers and wires represent expensive investments that can cost thousands of dollars.

While a home theater can begin with as little as a television attached to two external speakers, the price of sophisticated systems can climb as high as $50,000 or even $500,000, said Mark Richardson, chief brand officer of Tweeter, an electronics company based in Canton, Mass.

Fans of home theater systems can thank the rise of the DVD in the late 1990s, Koenig said. DVDs allowed high-quality video and audio, which can make older televisions and stereos sound better. Newer gear, meant to take advantage of every nuance, only broadens the experience, often dramatically.

The key to a successful system is planning, Richardson said. First, decide on the type of experience that’s desired for a guide to price and components. One person might want a system to double as a home stereo, putting the emphasis on sound. Someone else might desire a system to watch the big game with friends, putting the emphasis on a big, bold television screen, Richardson said. Deciphering the various components and standards can be confusing. Koenig suggested visiting a retailer specializing in home theaters and quality audio for a primer.

“Go to stores and talk to sales representatives. Most of them have been trained specifically in answering questions and educating consumers,” Koenig said. Also, many Web sites of companies such as Circuit City and Best Buy offer explanations of home theater standards. High Definition Television, for example, is one option to consider. These sets offer the picture quality channels. Sets capable of showing HDTV are a bit pricier, but the cost is dropping, said Greg Belloni, a Sony spokesman.

“With what we see on the market now, why not buy an HDTV?” he said. “The prices are really down, often under $1,000.” Deciding to opt for HDTV is only one choice for home-theater shoppers, though. They have to decide whether they want the slim lines of a flat-panel television, for instance.” What we’re seeing in terms of consumer trends is that they’re fascinated by flat panel,” Koenig said. “It conveys status and fits into the design of the home.” LCD, or Liquid Crystal Display, is common in televisions with screen sizes up to about 36 inches. LCDs rely on a layer of liquid crystals placed between two plates of polarized glass. Larger flat-panels usually use the technology of a plasma display. In these televisions, an electric current activates gas contained in a glass tube.

Prices are falling, even for larger sets, Koenig said. A 42-inch plasma television, one not capable of HDTV but able to reproduce DVD-quality video, costs less than $2,000, a 50-percent drop from the previous year, he said. But when it comes to home theater, a good image is only a beginning. “When most people first decided to put together a home theater, they gravitated to the new TV,” Koenig said. “Now, they want to balance the equation because audio matters as much as the video. Home theater works best when the two are in harmony with each other.”

Buying the audio components for a home theater system is relatively straightforward, said Belloni of Sony, based in San Diego.

Most stereo receivers can handle Dolby Digital 5.1, which splits sound from a movie into five separate channels and a sub-woofer to allow each speaker to emit a distinct part of the whole. If a helicopter flies in a circle on screen, the sound moves from speaker to speaker to follow the aircraft’s actions, Belloni said. Newer standards increase the number of speakers available for use. There are two options, beginning with home-theater-in-a-box. These systems include all basic home theater components except the television. Offerings range from $200 to $2,000, Belloni said. A consumer can also select individual components and design a custom system, choosing the type of DVD player, speakers, stereo receiver and even the wiring.

With installation, as with other home theater features, consumers have a number of options. Once systems featured speakers standing on the floor and then in-wall speakers. Now, speakers can be hidden within walls, without even a grill exposed and with no drop in sound quality, Richardson said.

For those who want a less sophisticated setup, most can manage setting up a home-theater-in-a-box, which typically has color-coded wires to demystify the process, Belloni said. Many retail outlets provide installation options, and most cities have local companies that specialize in installing and customizing home theater systems, Koenig said.

Everyone has a different threshold for what they’re willing to tackle themselves, he said.