WHERE SHOULD YOU SPEND YOUR MONEY?
You shouldn't have to take out a second mortgage just to oufit your home with home theater. Here is a quick explanation of the key components in home theater along with our thoughts on how much you should budget:
Big Screen Television (or projector and screen)- We recommend spending the majority of your home theater budget on the Television. While the signal source- cable, DVD, VHS, etc.- will have an effect on your video enjoyment, the resolution, functionality, and size of the TV will have by far the greatest impact. HDTV (High Definition Television) capable sets are now very affordable as rear projection technology has gotten much better. "Regular" analog big screen TV's now only offer a slightly better bang for the buck. We go into more detail about HDTV at the bottom of this page.
Speakers- Every article you read seems to agree that the most significant impact on audio is the speakers- not the receiver, not the amplifier, and not the signal source. Choose wisely. With HTD speakers, you get the quality and fidelity of speakers costing twice as much at retail by buying direct. 1/4 of your budget can be applied toward speakers instead of 1/2. Put your savings toward a bigger TV or new DVD player.
HiFi VCR- The VCR is a relatively old technology and as a result, even the most feature-packed units are now very affordable. Your VCR must include HiFi stereo outputs in order to enjoy surround sound from a VHS tape. If you are buying a new VCR, you should also make sure it includes 4 video heads. 4-head VCR's provide cleaner looking slow motion play and freeze frames. Super VHS (S-VHS) is a nice-to-have feature that provides 60% better picture quality than regular VHS. Super VHS is great for recording from digital sources. The only downside to Super VHS is the cost. This feature typically adds another $200-$300. We recommend VCR's with and without this feature.
The versatility of the HiFi VCR for playing old movies and home recordings makes it a must-have for any home theater. A high quality, highly functional, HiFi VCR can be purchased for around $150.
DVD Player- To date, this is the greatest movie machine for the home. DVD's offer 345,000 video pixels per frame. By comparison, S-VHS provides 250,000 and regular VHS 150,000. DVD's also offer as many as 8 tracks of audio. Don't confuse audio "tracks" with "channels". One audio track can contain the entire digital bitstream of Dolby Digital or DTS which includes six audio channels.
DVD Players also play CD's, so if you're still in the market for a CD player, consolidate your money for a better DVD player. A good DVD player costs about twice as much as a VCR. If you've got an HDTV, be sure to get a DVD player with progressive scan capability in order take advantage of the extra resolution.
Laser Disc (LD)- The first real high end video source. If you don't have one currently, we don't recommend buying one. With the advent of DVD, the Laser Disc is on the verge of extinction. Some manufacturers offer a combo DVD/Laser Disc player for those of you who own Laser Discs and are looking to add DVD but don't want two players, but these players are getting more and more difficult to find.
Satellite and Cable Broadcasts- Offer the most programming choices. With satellite, like cable, you subscribe to a service of your choice for a monthly fee. Unlike cable, a satellite dish and receiver are not usually free of charge. You buy and keep the equipment. Local TV stations are not always available and when they are, there is usually an extra fee to get them.
For satellite broadcasts, we recommend DSS which is a standardized system. This means you can mix and match DSS dishes and receivers made by different manufacturers- although if you are starting from scratch it is best to select a dish and receiver from the same manufacturer. DSS systems allow you to subscribe to the popular DIRECTV and USSB programs. These programs offer the most popular movie channels like HBO and Cinemax as well as special sports packages and pay-per-view movies and specials.
DSS systems are fairly easy to install (some easier than others, so check out the "install" features provided with your satellite dish and receiver). It is estimated that 80% of DSS users install their own systems. Custom installation will usually cost you between $50 and $100 dollars although packaged deals with equipment, installation, and a year's subscription are often available for a smaller up-front charge. All satellite dishes require a clear view of the sky although bad weather, clouds, etc. rarely interfere with your reception.
For the moment, we do not make manufacturer recommendations for DSS products. This is primarily because "deals" are always being offered, by region of the country, for combinations of systems and subscriptions. We recommend checking your local paper for current specials.
Home Theater Receiver- Think of the Home Theater Receiver as the hub which determines which source (CD player, Radio, DVD player, VCR, Tape Deck, etc.) will send the audio (and often video) signal to the speakers and Television. By definition, a receiver includes a tuner for listening to AM and FM stations. "Home theater" receivers include an audio processor and decoder for reproducing the surround sound experience. Most AV receivers now include the ability to decode both Dolby Digital and DTS encoded material. (see PROCESSORS below). While you can buy decoders and amplifiers separately (conveniently called "separates"), the best value comes from receivers that have the amplifiers built in. Most include five ord six channels of amplification to cover the five full range channels in 5.1 and 6.l recordings, some even offer enough power for 7.1. The quality of these amplifiers will make a significant impact in the overall performance of your speakers. We discuss this in a little more detail in the Product Recommendations section. A good digital receiver/processor will cost you anywhere from $300 to $1000 depending on the extra functionality and quality of the amplifiers and processing components.