If you’re considering upgrading your home stereo to a surround sound / home theater system, it’s important to shop around. And perhaps “upgrading” isn’t the right word; though there are a great number of “theater-in-a-box” packages offered these days, many are catered toward the casual home listener and don’t provide the fidelity or sound quality that serious audiophiles demand. Let’s assume you’re not shopping for the highest-end equipment. There’s still plenty to choose from, and knowing what to look for will help you be sure you haven’t committed a two-, three-, or four-hundred dollar mistake.
The most common variety of stereo package set offered these days is the “home theater” setup. It typically includes a receiver, a CD/DVD player or changer (often combined in one unit with the receiver), five speakers (a center channel, right and left stereo channels, and right and left “surround” channels”), and a subwoofer. These systems are designed to give you everything you need to watch DVDs in Dolby 5.1 surround sound (audio programmed for five speaker channels and one subwoofer channel) and listen to music. Typically, the receivers allow for digital inputs from a variety of devices, via RCA stereo cables, such as turntables, televisions / cable boxes, cassette decks, and other auxiliary inputs. They feature the same sort of outputs for sending your audio signals to other devices. Most systems also offer a couple of different options for outputting video to your TV or playback device. The most common is the standard video-in cable, which works the same way as the red and white audio cables you use to output audio; your television probably has a yellow “video” plug on the back, and this is typically how modern DVD players and VCRs are connected to the TV. The better systems (and the majority, by now) will also feature S-Video connectors. S-Video separates the color information (chrominance) and light information (luminance) in the video signal and transmits them separately to the viewing device. On the TV end of the equation, this information is reassembled into a picture. S-Video prevents signal distortion and color bleeding and produces an overall clearer picture. Again, most systems these days have this feature, so avoid buying one without it.
Now that you know the must-haves for your system, let’s look at some variations as well as some numbers. As mentioned above, most systems come complete with a built-in DVD/CD player and receiver combo. This is not always the case, and it’s not necessarily a bad idea to buy the receiver/speaker set and the DVD player separately. The Yamaha YHT-150 system, for example, does not include a DVD player. It checks in at around $270, and what it lacks in a video device it makes up for in power: this system delivers 100 watts to each of its six channels (five plus subwoofer) for a total output of 600 watts. By comparison, the similarly-priced Toshiba SD-V55HT, which comes with a built-in DVD player, delivers 60 watts to each channel plus 100 watts to the subwoofer, for a total output of 400 watts. At 33% less than the Yamaha system, the power difference is noticeable particularly at higher volumes; not only will you recognize more volume potential with the Yamaha, the Toshiba will begin to distort at a lower threshold. It’s important here to consider what kind of use your system will be getting. If you want to watch your movies on high volume or listen to loud music, you would be disappointed to discover your system’s performance lacking, and it would be better to go with the receiver-only system and add a DVD player (which have dramatically reduced in price) for a small additional investment. If, however, you tend to keep your movies and music on the quiet side, you’d do fine to save the extra dollars and put them toward the purchase of a few extra DVDs.
Many of the other differentiating features in these “home theater” systems are superficial: the color, the design of the speakers, the overall appearance of the system. Though these aspects might be important to you, they should take lower priority. Do look out for certain other specifics, though. Some systems, for example, distribute output power unevenly across their surround speakers. A system, for example, that delivers 50 watts to its four peripheral channels and to its subwoofer while delivering 150 watts to the center channel, will be center-heavy, and the listening experience may not be as enjoyable as with a system that delivers the same total wattage (400) evenly across its channels.
These are just some main points; regardless of what you’ll be using it for, a home theater system can be a rewarding purchase. As a gift to the family, it can provide hours of fun watching movies together. For the music lover, it can give them the best listening experience they’ve ever had. Either way, keep in mind the reason you’re looking for one of these systems, and look for the key pieces to be intact. Follow these guidelines and be confident, even if you’re not an audiophile, that you’re getting the best home theater experience for your money.