Components of a Home Theater System – How A Home Theater Works

In Home Theater Design by Jonah Matthes

There are many different pieces to a home theater system and it can be a little overwhelming at first glance, but that’s why we’re here! There’s the display, receiver, speakers, media devices, lighting, and many more things to take into consideration. This article will explain, in general, about each component of a Home Theater system.

Display

Choosing a means of displaying a great viewing experience can be very difficult. Televisions are great! They are convenient, easy to install, somewhat inexpensive (depending on the size and brand you choose), and all around easy. Projectors are even better but can be inconvenient, difficult to install, and can only be installed in certain areas. However, if done right; a projector will outperform a television 100% of the time. Any television bigger than 65″-70″ will cost upwards of $1200. This is more than what it would cost to get a projector*, mount, and a screen.

Note: When speaking about displays, the normal standard is to measure diagonally, using inches as the unit of measurement.

There are few things to consider when searching for the best display, whether it’s a projector or television:

  1. Technology – Televisions and projectors both use varies types of technology to produce astounding images.
  2. Resolution – The number of pixels that can be displayed/projected. For example, 1920×1080 or 1080p = 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels tall. You want the display to have a high resolution, this will allow the image produced to have a crisp and sharp image.
  3.  Brightness – For televisions, this is dependent on the technology it uses. For projectors, the brightness is measured in “ANSI” lumens. The higher the lumens, the more bright the picture.
  4. Contrast Ratio – The ratio of brightest white and darkest black colors that can be produced by the display. A higher contrast ratio is typically desired in most displays.
  5.  Price – The price is obviously a big factor in finding the display of your dreams. Set a budget and search for something that will fit your needs.

Televisions

Most televisions today will be a LED LCD (Light Emitting Diode Liquid-Crystal Display). Note: There is a difference between LCD and LED LCD, do not get confused between the two. I would not suggest a regular LCD TV for any Home Theater. LED LCD’s are some the cheapest TV’s out there that provide a very clear image, great sizes for the price, and longevity. Somewhat newer displays that are becoming increasingly popular are the OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) televisions. OLED televisions produce a self-emissive light behind each pixel, meaning each pixel supplies its own light, unlike any other tv technology. If the color black needs to be produced then the pixel (dot) will simply not receive power and not produce light. This allows OLED televisions to have a very high contrast ratio labeled “infinite contrast.”  Currently they are very expensive when compared to LED TV’s; however, OLED’s will both outperform a LED TV in almost every aspect! Especially when placed in a dim environment, the OLED television would be the best choice but will cost a pretty penny. The price of these displays are expected to drop the longer they are produced and manufactured, this has been the case for all types of televisions.  For a Home Theater on a very small budget with limited room space, I would suggest a standard LED LCD television or wait a few years for the price of a larger OLED to drop. In the end, most people will not be able to see a very large or noticeable difference between fairly nice televisions.

Note: There are many technical differences between these types of TV’s, but there is no reason to go into detail about how each works. It would be entirely too much to explain and I am no expert on the inner-workings of these newer televisions. Also, I did not mention QLED televisions, as they are currently still considered LED LCD because the technology has not changed much. Expect to see more QLED televisions over time though.

LED LCD: Pros and Cons List for a Home Theater

OLED: Pros and Cons List for a Home Theater

 

Projectors

Receiver Icon for a Home Theater

There are four main types of projectors in the market today. There are DLP (Digital Light Processing, LCoS (Liquid-Crystal on Silicon), LCD (Liquid-Crystal Display), LED (Light Emitting Diode), and Laser. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, but we will go more in-depth on this in a different article. In general, a projector is a device that “projects” an image onto a screen/wall. The viewing area can be extremely large when compared to televisions. When looking at projectors, there are a few specifications to consider. First, check the brightness of the projector (this is measured in “ANSI lumens”). This number will usually start around 1000 and go upwards of 3000+. Rooms with less ambient light will require less “lumens” for a brighter picture, thus you can afford to buy a better performing projector with less “lumens”. If your home theater is based in a living room where a lot of ambient light is present then you will need a projector with higher “lumens” to adequately display a sharp and bright image.  The second thing to consider is the resolution. Almost all modern projectors will be at least 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels), if a projector is not at least 1080p, then do NOT buy it. Resolution is extremely important, especially when displaying on a bigger screen. If you are attempting to display a 1080p image on a 130″ screen, then you will definitely be able to see the pixels and the image will not be very crisp. I definitely suggest a 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels) over a 1080p projector. There really is a large difference between the two.  Some lower-end projectors will claim to be 4K but aren’t actually outputting that high of a resolution. A “true 4K” projector will run at the least $1500 and up to more money than you would ever think about spending on a projector (basically the price of a new car)! Next, the contrast ratio is very important. We went over this a little in discussing televisions, but a high contrast ratio is highly desired for a projector! Next, the inputs available can also be really important. Most projectors today will have an HDMI and DVI input. If you plan on using a receiver (which will have many inputs available), the number of ports really doesn’t matter, you will just need a single HDMI input. But if you do not plan on using a receiver then I highly suggest that the projector have various inputs. Lastly, the price is probably what most people are worried about! You can find a really cheap projector that “fits” these recommendations but beware, you get what you pay for in anything! I would suggest a projector no cheaper than $700. Anything less than that and you are risking the performance, authenticity, and longevity.

Projector Screen

Just like everything else in a home theater, there are many various types of projector screens out there! Permanent, motorized, pull down, etc. Some people will want to just project the image onto a blank white wall, and yes this is a viable option, but it can cause many imperfections in the viewing experience, and all around will not look near as good as having a screen there.

There are two main types of projector screens – stationary/fixed and retractable. A stationary/fixed screen is as it sounds…it’s stationary. It does not move and is meant for the room it is located in. There are two types of retractable screens – motorized and manual. A motorized screen will have a remote/wall control to move the screen down and up. And with a manual screen, you have to of course manually pull it down. These options should purely be dependent upon the room in which the Home Theater will be located.

Next comes the size of the screen itself. Projector screens are made in many different sizes ranging anywhere from 60″-150″. Don’t just buy the biggest screen you can find! You need to keep in mind the actual size of the room and how the seating is arranged. You don’t want the screen to reach from floor to ceiling, especially if there are multiple rows of seating (this would definitely cause some issues). Here is a handy calculator to help determine viewing distances and angles for your Home Theater!

Then there is Gain and Material of the screen. Gain is the measurement of the reflectivity of a projector screen. To keep it simple, dark room = low gain around “1.0”, brighter room = higher gain. For material, I would almost always choose a white screen. There should be no need for a silver, gray, or black screen unless you absolutely cannot control the amount of light in the room, and in almost all cases, you can. So your best bet is to stick with plain ole white.

If you would like to read more on selecting the perfect projector screen, check out this article by Digital Trends. (We are in no way affiliated with Digital Trends, I just believe this is an outstanding article that explains projector screens very well).

Receiver – The brains of any home theater.

Receiver Icon for a Home TheaterThe receiver is the mastermind of a home theater. Basically, everything inputs into the receiver and the receiver then outputs those signals to the display and speakers. You can have many devices connected to the receiver such as a Fire TV, Roku, Cable box, Blu-Ray player, Gaming system, etc. Receivers include a built-in amplifier. An amplifier takes the incoming audio signal then “amplifies” that signal and outputs both power and audio to the speakers. Individually the connected devices will both be displayed to the television/projector and sound outputted through the speaker system. The receiver is what kind of ties everything together, it is a central control unit for the entire home theater system. They will have various inputs for HDMI, component video, digital optical (TOSLINK), RCA audio, and sometimes digital coaxial audio. Most newer devices will simply use HDMI and digital optical for the inputs, and usually, have two HDMI outputs and a varied number of speaker outputs.

Speakers

There are a few different types of speaker setups we will discuss.

Integrated

Televisions will have built-in speakers, but they do not have a lot of power behind them. They are sub-par compared to all other types but are better than nothing at all. Speakers are not included on almost all projectors. With today’s televisions being so thin the speakers contained inside of them have to be smaller as well. It is physically impossible for slim televisions to produce very deep sounds similar to what a sub-woofer can produce.

Sound Bar

A soundbar is quite literally a long bar full of speakers that sits or is mounted directly above or below a TV. Multiple small speakers are contained inside of it, this can create a feeling of surround sound in the room, even though the sound is only coming from speakers located in front of you.  This can be much cheaper than a full speaker system and still provide great quality sound for the entire room. They are usually capable of wirelessly pairing sub-woofers or other surround speakers that will provide a nice fullness to the room. Almost all sound bars contain a built-in amplifier that supplies the speakers with power, this means that the soundbar will only need power and an audio source to work. This tends to be a much simpler setup than a receiver with many speaker cables running to it. In a room where running cables to all speakers may be difficult, using a soundbar with wireless surround speakers is an outstanding option; however, it probably ends up being more expensive than a traditional surround system.

Surround System

I’m sure many of you have heard of 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. The first number is the number of channels available for speakers and the second number is the number of sub-woofer outputs available. So 5.1 = 5 Speakers and 1 sub-woofer, 7.2 = 7 Speakers and 2 sub-woofers, etc. A typical 5.1 surround system contains a center, front-left, front-right, surround-left, surround-right, and a sub-woofer. Depending on how the room is shaped and where the seating is located, there are many different ways that the speakers can be placed or setup. Typically you will want to have the speakers rotated towards the main seating area. There are also various types of speakers that can be used in this type of setup such as floor-standing, in-wall, on-wall, in-ceiling, and bookshelf speakers. A full surround system (setup correctly), will sound outstanding! It is a whole new level of movie experience in your very own home! Downsides of a full surround system are cost and setup but are totally worth it in my opinion.

Media Devices

Media devices can refer to many different things, basically anything that outputs a unique video and audio signal. For example, this can be a cable box, gaming system, fire tv, apple tv, roku, Blu-ray/DVD player, computer, etc. These devices will connect to either the receiver or television/projector  (depending on the setup). If using a receiver, most all media devices will connect by an HDMI for video/audio and sometimes a digital optic (TOSLINK) cable for higher quality audio. Audio streamers will connect by a digital optic, digital coaxial, or 3.5mm/aux cable. Some great audio streamers are the sonos connect, chromecast audio, audiocast, and there are plenty of others out there. Media Devices are kind of important because without them you might just be staring at a blank screen.

Lighting

The overall lighting of a room is extremely important. A projector’s image can be completely washed out by the wrong type of light entering a room. The ideal location for a Home Theater is in a completely enclosed room with no windows. But if this is not an option then some things will need to be done as far as lighting. For example, my home theater is in the living room, so there are plenty of windows and lights throughout the room. We had to install many blackout windows shades and dimmable lighting. At night, this wasn’t an issue, but if you wanted to watch something during the day, a lot of the image was washed out due to the excess light. Installing these two things drastically increased the performance of our projector and screen!

In general, consider these two things when designing/building your Home Theater:

  1. Block excess sunlight from entering the room by using blackout shades/curtains if necessary. Nobody wants to watch the game when half of the screen is washed out!
  2. Dimmable lighting with high-quality lights. You never want the room completely dark, a little bit of ambient light is a nice touch (especially if you don’t want to smash your foot into anything).

Remote Control Methods

Nowadays, there are so many different ways to go about controlling all of the devices in a Home Theater system.
Most devices are controlled by one or more of the following methods:

  1. IR (infrared) – Direct line of sight control. Must point the remote in the general direction of the IR receiver of the device. These IR signals cannot pass through walls or usually go around corners, so IR emitters, receivers, and hubs will need to be installed.
  2. RF (radio-frequency) – Uses the same technology as Wi-Fi. The remote needs to be in the same vicinity as the device it’s controlling. RF signals can easily pass through walls and multiple floors of a house.
  3. IP (internet protocol) – Uses the existing local area network (connected via Wi-Fi or by ethernet cable).
  4. RS-232. – A cable connects directly to the device. (Note: not all devices will support this method, as it is quite out-dated).

IR

Currently, IR is probably the most common means of controlling a home theater. A whole system can be controlled by using IR emitters (blasters), a single IR receiver, and an IR hub. IR emitters are small devices that affix to the IR receivers of each device. A separate IR receiver is a device that receives IR commands from a certain remote control, then sends the commands to the IR hub. The IR hub then forwards the commands to all of the IR emitters. Almost all devices, including receivers, televisions, projectors, motorized screens, media players, soundbars, etc will have an IR receiver somewhere on the front of the unit. Realistically, this can be used with almost any home entertainment setup.

RF

The industry is slowly moving to RF (radio-frequency) control, but this may take some time. Most devices that use RF control also have an IR receiver. Some newer systems will use an RF hub that receives commands from a specific remote control, even a mobile phone, then forwards the commands to all of the IR emitters. Some “smart-hubs” will connect to the home network via WiFi, then can receive RF commands from various mobile devices. They can also connect to different media devices through Bluetooth (also RF).

IP

From my experience, IP control isn’t too common yet, but it will prove to be very useful. Almost all new devices now connect to the internet/home network by either an Ethernet cable or WiFi. Over time, more and more manufacturers will provide a way for these devices to be controlled by IP commands. IP will be the most dominant means of control in the near future!

RS-232

Back in the ole-days, home theaters and many devices allowed for RS-232 control. This was done in a very similar manner to how IR control is done now. There would be a receiver, an RS-232 hub, then RS-232 cables running to each device. This actually works very well because there is a secure and permanent connection to each device! However, most newer devices no longer allow RS-232 controls or even have an RS-232 port.

 

Conclusion

In all, there are many different components to a complete home theater system, but it is actually pretty simple to understand! Once you have learned about all of the separate components, you will have a better vision of how everything works together. What other questions do you have about how a home theater works?