How To Set Up Your Home Theater

Now that you have all the equipment, you need to know how to set it up to get the best movie watching experience.
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Home Theater Buying Guide

You’ve got the big TV, more speakers than you know what to do with and a frightening amount of wire. All of the parts for setting up your new home theater system are here, but how do you get started? Where does it all go? How do you make all this stuff work?  Don't worry; we've got you covered.

Television

Illustration showing optimal distance between couch and TV Your TV should be placed so that the middle of the screen sits at your natural eye level when seated. If you're wall mounting the TV, you may be tempted to mount it a bit higher, maybe even picture frame height. However, unless your seating area is significantly far away from the television, you'll be a lot more comfortable with a lower position. To figure out how far the TV should be from the seating area, just double the width of the TV screen. For example, if your TV is about 50 inches wide, set your couch or easy chair about 100 inches from the front of the screen. There are a few other formulas for TV distance and the only reason this is something to geek out over is if you care about the "optimal" viewing experience. THX, which most of us probably associate with earth-rattling surround sound promos from the 90s, suggests dividing the screen size in inches by 0.84 to get the ideal distance for your TV. However, that would put a 50-inch screen about 5 feet away, which sounds awfully close.

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Soundbar

If all you’re doing is adding a soundbar to your television, your setup should be fairly simple depending on the soundbar you’re using.  In most cases it’s easiest, and best, to plug all of your devices directly into the television and then run an audio cable from the audio output on your TV into the soundbar. Note that while you'll likely use an optical audio cable, also called toslink, it may also just be an ⅛ inch connection, like a headphone cable. The one exception to the typical setup is if your soundbar has multiple HDMI inputs, rather than just audio inputs, along with an HDMI output. In that case, you’ll want to plug all your devices into the soundbar, then run the HDMI output into one of the inputs on your TV. In the former case, you’ll switch between sources on your TV, in the latter, you’ll use the soundbar to do the switching.

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Speakers

Speaker placement is crucial for achieving the best sound experience. If you’re setting up a surround sound system, your front stage speakers (left, center, and right channels) should be in a straight line across the front of your room. Place your center channel in the middle of the TV, above or below the screen. Place the left and right speakers on either side of the screen so that they are as far from each other as they are from you. If your room layout doesn’t allow for this, just make sure the speakers are an equal distance away from you, and that they are the both the same distance from the screen.

Your surround left and surround right speakers should technically be placed on either side of the seating area at a height even with your ears while seated. This isn’t always feasible, which is fine. If they need to be placed higher, or slightly behind the listening position, that will work, but they should still be to the side of the listening position. Rear left and right speakers, used only if you’re putting together a 7.1 system, should be placed directly behind the seating area, one on each side.

Subwoofer placement is actually the most tricky, as the best location depends heavily on the shape of your room. If you want to find the best place in your room for a subwoofer, try this slightly silly, but 100 percent effective, trick. Place your subwoofer in the primary listening position and then have your receiver send a test tone to the subwoofer. Now, crawl around your room. When you find the spot on the floor where the bass sounds the best, you’ve found the best spot to put your subwoofer. While you’ll likely be inclined to put your sub in the corner, that is usually not the best place for it. Proximity to a flat wall will make your bass louder, but not necessarily better.

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Receiver

Your receiver is the hub for all your devices, your speakers, your AV sources, etc. Unless you’re connecting a lot of legacy devices (legacy is AV speak for “old”), connecting your cable box, blu-ray player, game system and other devices will only require a single HDMI cable running from the device to the receiver. Often the receiver will already have inputs labeled for each device. If you find you need to plug your game console into a connection labeled DVR, that’s fine, you’ll just have to remember that when switching between devices.

Back of AV receiver There are a number of different ends you can put on your speaker wire to make the connections easier. Often the speaker terminals on the receiver are close together and trying to cram multiple connections of bare speaker wire together into a finite space can be tough. A banana jack or similar connection gives you a sturdier connection and one much easier to plug in. However, depending on the style of banana jack, attaching the wire to a jack can also be a pain.

One final decision to make when you set up your receiver is the length of the wires and cables. If your receiver is going to sit on a shelf in a cabinet where you won’t have easy access to the back or a clear view from the top, you can go with cables long enough for you to wire up the receiver outside of the cabinet, knowing you'll end up with excess cable to deal with when you set the receiver on the shelf. Alternatively, you can go with cables just long enough to reach the receiver when it’s placed on the shelf, but then you’ll have to wire all the cables without a clear view of what you’re doing.  We recommend using the longer wires assuming, of course, that you can easily hide the excess. Zip ties are your friend.

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Audio Settings

Your receiver allows you to modify the output on all your speakers for the best performance. Luckily, this is a lot easier than it used to be. Most receivers come with the ability to auto-calibrate themselves with a microphone that comes in the box. Just place the microphone in the primary listening position, turn on the calibration mode in the receiver menu and it does the rest for you.

If your receiver doesn’t have this ability, go through the menu and make sure all the speakers settings are accurate. This part may get a little technical but don’t worry, you don’t actually need to understand what all this means. If you can follow the steps outlined here, it will improve your system’s performance.

  • First, set your crossover point, which is the audio frequency where your receiver sends the audio to your subwoofer instead of the speakers. Most receivers will just ask if the speaker is small or large. You will almost always want to go with small, unless you’re using tower speakers with built in subwoofers, or you’re not using a subwoofer at all.
  • If the receiver gives you a variety of options based on hertz (Hz), refer to your speaker specifications for the frequency range, and set the number as close to the first (lower) number as possible.
  • The other settings you want to pay attention to are speaker distance, literally the distance between each speaker and the listening position, and speaker level calibration, where you can slightly raise or lower the speaker output in relation to each other, based on your preference.

Setup Complete

Now you have a fully functional home theater system. Your TV looks great. Your speakers are all wired up and sound their best. Time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

 

Images courtesy of ©iStock.com/Kirby Hamilton, Amazon.com, Blu-Ray.com, Pioneerelectronics.com


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About the Author
Stephen Libbey Contributor

Stephen is a veteran of the consumer electronics industry where he was a sales manager for numerous products, everything from basic stereos to whole home automation systems.  Most of the people he knows in that industry call him Dirk, but that’s not important.  He is an avid gamer, occasional podcaster, coffee snob, and watches much more TV than is probably healthy.  Today he is a freelance writer specializing in his various geek obsessions.  You can join his obsessions on Twitter, @childe_dirk

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