Nothing says Hollywood quite like the dramatic music that introduces the Universal and 20th Century Fox films. In fact, it's hard to hear the notes for a 20th Century Fox movie without expecting to be transported to a "galaxy far, far away" by John Williams' opening score to "Star Wars." There is something that plays a close second to those powerful intros, though -- actually sitting in a cozy seat in a dark room, watching movies on a giant projector screen while the fanfare plays out all around you.
For a long time, the only way to experience that was to drive to a movie theater and buy a ticket and a bucket of overpriced popcorn. But now, thanks to the steady march of technology and the advent of HD, home theaters are more affordable than ever. Digital movie projectors aren't exactly cheap, and you could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars building the ultimate home theater in your house. But a home theater doesn't have to break the bank, and these 10 tips, some inexpensive and some pricey, will help transform your home theater into a room that captures the movie magic of the real thing. And yes, popcorn is included.
Plush Stadium Seating
A home theater is all about comfort. Without good seating, you'll never match the theater experience. And if you're willing to spend some money, you can snag some seats that are every bit as comfortable as those padded chairs we love to lean back in at the theater.
There's good news and bad news when it comes to picking out home theater seating. The good news is that there are tons of choices on the market. The bad news is they don't come cheap. You can go with chairs that are spot-on replicas of those in the theater, complete with flip-up rocker bottoms and thick padding, such as Alessandria Convention Seats. But this is your private theater -- you can make it better than a movie theater, with luxurious leather chairs like the power-reclining Berkline 45002. And there are plenty of other choices, too. You could even consider home theater couches.
Finally, consider installing some seat risers. The only way to please big crowds is to make sure your theater room supports stadium seating so everyone has an unobstructed view of the screen.
A Projector and Screen
Let's face it: As big as they are, 60-inch plasma televisions just can't compare to the majesty of movie theater screens. If you're building a small home theater, perhaps a conventional HDTV is the right choice for you. But to make your home theater feel like a real movie theater, a projector and screen combination is probably the best choice. In general, you want a projector with a high contrast ratio for accurate colors, a bright bulb for a vibrant image and 1080p support for high-resolution video. Mount your home theater projector from the ceiling and pick out a screen suited to your room.
With a projector, you should be able to fill a screen that measures at least 8.3 feet (2.5 meters) diagonally. That's a huge jump over a big plasma or LCD HDTV and brings your home theater setup within the realm of the real theater. While you could shine a projector onto a blank wall, nothing beats the color reproduction or theater experience of a giant white screen hanging on your wall [source: CarltonBale.com]. The downside to a projector and screen combination is the challenge of lighting; keeping the room dark is key to preserving picture quality. We'll discuss how to perfect the home theater atmosphere and attain the perfect lighting conditions later.
Install 7.1 Surround Sound
Movie surround sound is meant to draw viewers into the experience -- to add a richer, deeper interaction between the movie and our minds. And sometimes it's designed to be a loud, rumbling and powerful noise that surprises us or gets our hearts pumping. No matter what music or effects are tumbling out of the speakers, surround sound is an integral part of the movie experience, and a must for a home theater.
The best is 7.1 surround sound, which uses eight channels of audio to envelop you in a bubble of sound. The left, right and center speakers attack from the front, while four extra surround speakers are positioned to your sides and rear. The eighth channel is solely dedicated to bass from the subwoofer. As of 2010, home theater actually had an advantage over real theaters when it comes to sound. "Toy Story 3" was the first film to ship to theaters with 7.1 audio support [source: Flynn]. But more than 200 high-definition Blu-ray movies, by contrast, are available with 7.1 audio [source: Blu-ray Stats].
Surround sound systems come in a number of forms. You can buy a home theater in a box, which comes with an entire speaker system and a receiver, or you can opt to purchase more expensive speakers as a set (or individually) and handpick a receiver to tie the entire system together. The speakers are important -- they pump out the sound, after all -- but our next component, the home entertainment system, is responsible for handling all the high-definition audio and video we need our home theater to process.
Beef Up the Home Entertainment System
Speakers are nothing without a home entertainment system. The most crucial component of the entertainment system, the receiver, is responsible for taking sound data -- from a Blu-ray movie disc or a computer streaming a movie from Netflix -- and piping it out to the speakers. A good receiver supports a large number of inputs and outputs, from high-def digital HDMI and optical connectors for video and audio to analog component ports to individual speaker channels for a 7.1 setup. There are tons of elements that go into picking out the perfect receiver, so do your research before you buy anything. Online guides like Crutchfield's "Receivers: How to Choose" are great places to start.
Unfortunately, our work's not done yet -- there's more to building a home entertainment system than picking out a receiver. The receiver takes the audio and video you want to play and routes it to the proper place, but you still need a way to play those DVDs, Blu-ray discs or Web videos. A vital element of any current home theater is a Blu-ray player, which will allow you to watch 1080p HD movies with Dolby Digital surround sound audio. Another excellent addition to a home theater is a media center PC, which is a computer built expressly for storing and playing back multimedia content on a big-screen TV. Today, software like Boxee is designed to aggregate Web video content and the video stored on your own computer into an easy-to-use interface designed for large screens rather than computer monitors.
Soundproof the Room
Soundproofing your home theater is important for a few reasons. For one, you'll improve the sound quality of your theater with proper acoustics. Two, you'll keep sound from the rest of the house out -- no interruptions from the washing machine, dishwasher or the blender [source: SoundproofFoam]. Those kinds of intrusive noises always seem to pop up during the quietest, most dramatic scenes, don't they? The third reason to soundproof your room -- and probably the most important -- is to keep the movie's soundtrack in.
If you live in a giant house out in the middle of nowhere, this probably isn't as important. But without proper soundproofing, loud movie scenes could disturb other people in the house, or worse, your neighbors, who might call and complain about your infernal racket. So covering your home theater walls with acoustic panels can improve sound quality, while padding and insulation can cut down on noise transmitted through walls and floors [source: SoundproofFoam]. Properly insulating the room should effectively isolate the home theater from the outside world, leaving us one major intruder to contend with: light.
Setting the Mood
Image quality from a projector is best in a dark room. When there's light to interfere with the projector's image, it takes a brighter output from the projector to retain a vibrant picture [source: Projector Central]. Besides, what kind of movie theater shows films in a half-lit room? Your home theater should be as dark as you can make it, and that might involve putting in some work with the windows and doors in the room. Ideally, the room would be entirely devoid of windows, but curtains can solve the issue of light coming in from the outdoors.
Buy some thick, heavy curtains that will block out all incoming light and establish a color scheme for your home theater. Forget boring white walls -- if you purchased acoustic paneling, paint the walls a color that matches the soft acoustic material. Your primary concern with painting the room is to use a flat, neutral color. This will limit the amount of light reflected by the walls and ceiling, and dark colors will help the room fade away and allow you to see nothing but the screen [source: Boylan]. While you're buying window curtains, consider adding one more luxury: a velvet curtain for the movie screen to lend the room a little theatrical flair.
Yeah, we just spent the last step doing away with pesky light peeking into our theater from the outside. Light is the enemy, right? Yes -- but we still need to be able to see, so consider installing your own controlled lighting to add some style to the room -- and to prevent tripping or other incidents that could occur in complete darkness.
In the vein of a real theater, LED rope lighting is an awesome pick for illuminating the floor. You can wind it along a set path to guide people from the door to their seats. If long strings of lights sound like too much hassle, install lights under the seats where they'll offer just enough illumination once you sit down. Of course, those subtle lights won't be enough to light up the entire room; when you're not watching movies, you'll want some overhead lighting. Use dimmers so you can slowly bring the lights down low when it's show time. To really class up the room, use wall sconces instead of boring regular lights -- they'll be the perfect complement to our next home theater must-have [source: HTMarket].
What's the No. 1 absolute-must-have decorative item for a home theater? Movie posters. At the theater, posters are actually relegated to the lobbies and hallways, but in a home theater you can customize as much as you please with posters that pay homage to the very best of cinema.
Inexpensive reproduction prints of movie posters are easy to find online at sites like Amazon and AllPosters.com. But if you want to take an extra step, hunt around for original posters on eBay. Original posters can be classic works of art and cost far more than $15 reproduction prints; they're printed on higher quality paper and in limited numbers. Whether you're buying inexpensive posters or rare originals, make sure to frame them -- even simple black frames will dramatically improve the presentation.
With a gigantic screen, atmospheric lighting, incredible sound and even artwork filling your home theater, you've crafted a room that you may never want to leave. It's the perfect dark cave for diving into galaxies far, far away. Well, almost. Now all you need is some movie popcorn. And you can fill the air with the aroma of popcorn with a genuine popcorn machine -- it will add a tasty snack and a whole lot of personality to your theater.
Though a popcorn machine is the traditional snack machine choice, there's nothing stopping you from taking things a step further. Why not build your own snack bar to complement the popcorn? If you favor alcohol over popcorn, build a real bar into a corner of your theater, complete with drinks and a mini-fridge for anything that needs to stay ice cold.
Control It All
This is it -- the final step to making a home theater every bit as good as the real thing. All you need to do now is implement a practical way to take control of everything without juggling five remote controls and 10 light switches. That means you need a universal remote that will help you control your projector and home entertainment system. Remotes such as Logitech's Harmony universal model are compatible with more than 225,000 devices and one remote can control up to 15 pieces of equipment, so they're extremely programmable and easy to use [source: Logitech].
Controlling absolutely everything in the home theater is tricky. You can buy automated curtains and lights that come with remote controls, but tying all of that into a single unit is beyond the capability of the average universal remote like those from Logitech. For a more complete solution, there are products like the Philips Pronto line: A device called an extender connects to automated systems for lights and blinds in addition to entertainment devices like stereo systems [source: Philips]. With all of those connected, a wall panel or portable control panel can connect to the extender via Wi-Fi and grant you remote control over every bit of functionality in the room [source: Philips]. Uniting total control into one device won't be easy, but pull it off and you'll undoubtedly have the coolest (and most convenient) home theater on the block.
Susan Bennett never knew she would become one of the world's most famous voices until Siri debuted on iPhones in 2011. HowStuffWorks tells her story.
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