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How-To Setup A Basic Home Theater Print E-mail
Monday, 01 January 2007

AV Education on RHT

How-To Setup A Basic Home Theater

By Jerry Del Colliano

Despite the increasing complexity of audio/video systems these days, not all people require (or have the budge to afford) a professional installation. Many performance-oriented readers who are on a tight budget prefer to do system installation themselves and invest their installation budget into better gear. While there is a point in every big-dollar AV system where you need the pros, the do-it-yourselfer can still have sweet success when setting up a receiver, a DVD player and other associated gear. I have compiled some ideas to think about and some tips from my recent installation of a bedroom theater. Hopefully they will give you some guidance for when you install your system.
Before You Start
Here are a few ideas to think about before you start setting up your system:

1. Consider where your gear is going to go. Is there enough room? You can make estimates from dimensions found on the manufacturer’s websites. Do you have room for additional components (HD receivers, game machines, TiVos, DVD-R) in the future?

2. Do you have enough AC power coming in? Should you call an electrician first to run a dedicated line from your breaker? Normally, this costs no more than a few hundred dollars and can help your system run better (fewer hums and noise for starters) and makes connecting your system easier too.

3. How much heat are you going to be generating? If your gear is going to be making a lot of heat, you will want to deal with this concept first. Having a handyman or installing a whisper fan connected to a vent is a worthy idea before you start your install.

4. Do you have a phone connection and a high-speed data connection ready at your rack? Your satellite receivers and TiVos will need at least a telephone connection. If you are buying a new Tivo2 or will be connecting a PlayStation2 or Xbox, you will want to have a high-speed connection terminated with an Ethernet connection. Such a connection will allow you to program your TiVo2 from your computer (not just the remote) and a high-speed connection will allow you to connect your new game machine so that you can have interactive play with other gamers all over the world. Even if you don’t plan on using the features, it might be worthwhile considering running the high-speed connection so that you do not have to disconnect the entire system in order to make an upgrade.

5. How far will you be sitting from your TV? A salesperson will sell you the biggest TV he or she can, often despite your needs. What you don't want is a set that is sized so that the width of the screen is at least 1.5 to 2.5 times the distance you sit from the set. Otherwise, even a great TV will look less than its best.

6. How heavy is your gear? Bryan Dailey and I recently installed a home theater in my bedroom. The shelf in my custom cabinet (which was specially braced with metal bars) sagged dramatically within hours of installation. A/V gear gets heavy and you need to consider this before you do all of the work to install your system. A big 34-inch Sony XBR HDTV, like the one I used, weighs 210 pounds. You need a strong stand to make this work without ruining any custom cabinetry.

7. Never order or buy a cable that is less than two meters long. It seems like you are saving money, but you are just making your system inflexible. You need the flexibility to move and adjust the placement of your gear. Too many times, short cables get in the way of making your system go together the way you want it to work.

Buy enough miscellaneous parts. You might want to make sure that you have things like:
• BNC to RCA adaptors
• Y adaptors
• Connectors (spades, banana, pins)
• an SPL meter (Radio Shack)
• BlueTac
• extra batteries (AA, AAA and nine-volt)
• long phone chords
• Ethernet cables
You ALWAYS need this stuff and keeping it on-hand saves you potential grief.

Make sure you have the right tools on hand. Things you might need include:
• a good power screw driver
• a drywall saw
• small tools such as screw drivers (flathead and Philips)
• a full set of Allen keys including metric
• a good flash light
• a good wire cutter and/or stripper (Klein is a recommended brand)
• a really nice wire stripper
• a solder pot (if you are getting really serious)

Consider the Cables
It is always a good idea to draw out your entire system on paper and project the cables you will need. Then buy extra because you always need them. My bedroom system is a basic yet modern setup that includes a 34-inch Sony XBR TV, a Denon receiver, a Denon DVD-Audio/SACD player, a Sony HD TV receiver, a Sony TiVo, a Mitsubishi VCR and a 5.1 Gallo Acoustics speaker system. Here is the list of the cables I needed – it may help you select the ones you might need:

• Three speaker cables (2 meters) for the front and center speakers. The length was more than sufficient, because the speakers were installed directly above the place where the receiver was to be installed

• Over 200 feet of in-wall speaker cable (Transparent’s Music Link) was used during construction for the rear speakers. I had the speaker wires pulled to the location of the equipment.

• Three pairs of RCA interconnects for the 5.1 audio output of the DVD-Audio and SACD. You need these to be pretty good interconnects and will want them all the same length and variety. You don’t want to get cheap on this connection. It is really important to the sound of your movies and music.

• Three two-meter component video cables were used to connect video from the HD Receiver to the TV (direct), the DVD player to the receiver and the receiver to the TV. If you are using a receiver, make sure that your cables have RCA connections on them or that you have enough BNC to RCA adaptors.

• DVI cables rock. If you have a set like mine and can connect a source via DVI, I highly recommend you do it. The cables are easy to use and easy to connect. Get a long one (or two). Ultra Link makes a nice DVI cable that is pretty affordable.

• S-Video cables are unfortunately a necessity for almost every system. The problem is that the cables inherently suck because the pins inside the connector need to be aligned perfectly when connecting the cable. If not, they bend or break off. If they do, consider yourself screwed. You might need S-Video cables for connecting a VCR, TiVo or a basic satellite receiver.

• Composite video cables look just like RCA audio cables but they are designed to pass video signal. They are useful for connecting VCRs, game machines and other components.

• TosLink digital cables are useful for connecting the audio out of an HDTV receiver and many receivers have inputs for them. You want a digital out of your satellite receiver so that you can listen to movies from the movie channels in surround (when available).

• COAX digital cables are also like RCA cables but they are formulated for passing digital information. You will likely want to connect one of these bad boys from your DVD-Audio player to your receiver, thus setting up movie input as an additional input for your system. Advantages to this include allowing you to be able to rip MP3s from CDs and playing DTS CDs in surround sound.

• Cable companies make specific subwoofer cables. I have never tried one, but they are an interesting option. If you opt for a traditional cable, make sure you leave yourself plenty of room for moving your subwoofer around the room. RCA to RCA connectors, needed to extend a subwoofer cable, work sometimes but not always. Sometimes they are the cause of hum and noise, which will drive you insane.

Installing The System
Knowing a few tricks ahead of time is like learning lessons when building Ikea bookcases. It takes a little while to get the hang of the first one. After the third one, you can build them in your sleep. Here are a few ideas to help you have more fun and fewer headaches installing your system.

1. Sucker a buddy to come over and help you. Buy him or her plenty of Red Stripe (don’t forget limes) or open a nice Au Bon Climat XX Anniversary Chardonnay. Having a helper makes things go much faster. Imagine if a surgeon had to go looking for a scalpel every time her or she needed one.

2. Open all of the boxes, remove the manuals, remove the remotes and then remove the gear. Figure out how things are going to be stacked and confirm with a tape measure that they will fit.

3. Power up all remotes with batteries.

4. Find all warranty cards and save them in a big envelope. Fill them out the next day. Do not forget to fill them out or you may be sorry if anything ever breaks.

5. Open all of your cables and arrange them in a staging area near your tools. Be sure to cover your floor with a tarp or blanket to protect your carpet or hardwood floors.

6. Open and un-box your speakers, but don’t sweat their positions too much. The first night you will want to just make them play. Fine-tuning them is for another time after your preliminary set-up.

7. Start loading up your rack or cabinet with the gear positioned such that you can install it easily. This is where you’ll be glad you bought two-meter cables, because the slack you have now can be used to make your system slide together easily.

8. Start attaching all of your speaker cables first, especially if you are working with a receiver. If you have a pin or banana plug connector on the receiver end of the speaker cable, then you are in good shape. Most receivers do not leave enough room for connection of speaker cables and it is the single most frustrating part of the installation project. I recommend, especially if you are using bare wire, that you take your time during this part. Make sure you have the wire stripped far enough down the cable. Twist the cable very well and then twist it again around your binding post of your receiver. Having to do this twice is a pain in the ass you can live without. Also, installing other inputs first make installing the speaker connectors on the back of the receivers even harder to successfully complete.

9. Once the speakers are connected solidly, start connecting inputs. For example, you might connect your TV with a component cable. You might start with sources after that. Arrange the cables you need for each source one at a time. In the case of a DVD-Audio/SACD player connect the 6 RCA cables first – being careful to connect the correct corresponding interconnect from the player to the receiver. They are not always labeled the same. Sometimes Left Surround is labeled “left rear” or “LR.” Connect the digital audio cable and the component video cable. Once done with plugging in cables, program the input(s) on your receiver for the source. Test with any DVD-Audio disc from 5.1 Entertainment (they have Bob Marley, Astrud Gilberto and many others) with their test tones. A lady’s voice will read off your speakers (assuming your speakers are already connected at the speaker side). If the connections are crossed up, you’ll know it now and can fix it. Trust me, it is easier now than a few hours (and a few Red Stripes) later.

10. Move on to other inputs, systematically installing each and adding up your successes with each source component.

11. Install a direct connection from your traditional satellite receiver or cable box right to your TV. You will want to have that so you can just turn your TV on and watch without getting involved with your entire system.

Programming your system has a lot to do with what brand gear you have purchased and will likely require a glance at your manuals.

1. One of the most important steps for any modern theater is setting up the speakers in your receiver. Be sure to measure off the distances of all of your speakers and subs. Write them down on a legal pad and then hunt down this menu in your receiver so you can program it in. This speaker set-up is elemental to good sound from your system in your room. It cannot be skipped.

2. In the speaker set-up section, look for the bass management tools. This is where you tell your receiver what kind of speakers you have. For example, if you have floor-standing speakers for fronts, you will need to let your receiver know this. The same holds true if you have small rear speakers. You might also want to consider where to cross your speakers over with your subwoofer. Figure out where your speakers start rolling off in the low frequencies and then consider setting your receiver’s crossover to bring your sub in there. If that isn’t enough punch for you, you can try to run your subwoofer full-range as well. Bass management is a huge issue specifically for getting great performance from your DVD-Audio and DVD-Video sources.

3. If you are using satellite receivers, you might need to have them go to the satellite and find all of the channels. This can be completed in the set-up menu.

4. If you are using TiVo or another PVR, you will want to have it dial into their servers and download the channels and programming. This can take as long as an hour. If your PVR needs a software update, then the download can take even longer.

5. Your TV is guaranteed to be set up poorly out of the box, even if you bought a brand new one. I highly recommend you invest $24 in the new Digital Video Essentials DVD and use its set-up modes for your TV. You will find that you can get blacker blacks, more contrast, more vibrant colors and more three-dimensionality from your TV than you thought possible. The DVE disc has the tools and setup menus for you that can help you through the process.

6. Universal remotes could be an entirely separate how-to article. If you invested in one, I recommend you take some time with your system to figure out how you use your system before you invest hours programming your remote. Otherwise, you will want to make changes.

Try to create a situation where the installation of your theater is fun. Take pride in each success you have in the process. Don’t be in a rush and don’t be afraid to call in for help. One of the best reasons to buy gear from a good local dealer is to have someone on the other end of the telephone who will answer quick questions. Trust me, it is worth 10 percent more than some gray market dealer who advertises in the New York Times.

In the end, you will be glad that you installed your own theater and you will likely get more out of it than someone who gets a 20-minute lesson from the installer from the local mega-dealer. You will own the knowledge of how your system is connected, how it is programmed and what it can do. Even after the initial installation, you can have fun learning more and more about how to take your system to the next level of performance and ease of use. You might install a remote repeater system. You might automate your drapes. You might add another zone to your system for outdoor speakers or a den. The possibilities are vast and the results will leave you loving your system more than you thought possible.

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