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Big Sounds, Big Pictures

A novice takes the plunge into the latest high-tech home theaters.

Pioneer's new PDP-5040HD high-definition plasma TV promises to take your television viewing to new heights.

I am sitting in a black leather chair watching Finding Nemo, staring at Marlin, Nemo’s dad, and Crush, the surfer dude sea turtle, on a giant 110-inch screen. Marlin’s brilliant orange scales, detailed enough to count individually, glow against hundreds of shades of blue. The music swells magnificently through seven speakers as the creatures shoot through the bubbles and waves of the eastern Australian current. It’s so all-encompassing that it’s almost hard to tell where thought ends and the music begins. This is not just watching a movie; it’s an experience, and what’s more, it’s a HOME theater experience.

Panasonic's line of home theater systems come with everything needed and feature slim design speakers and available features such as built in DVD and hard disk recorders.

My usual TV-viewing involves a 15-year-old Sony hooked up to a VCR. This little "home entertainment system" worked just fine until we moved to our new house and were told by no fewer than three different cable guys that it was impossible to hook up a cable unless we completely rearranged the living room and put the TV against an exterior wall of the house.

I still don’t understand exactly why, in the 21st century, I cannot put my TV wherever I want and connect it to cable, but it did motivate us to explore whether it might be time to upgrade our system. And that’s why I’m in the showroom at electronics retailer MyerEmco in Mclean, Va., experiencing Finding Nemo on a $30,000-plus home entertainment system. (I figure as long as we’re looking, why not check out the state of the art?)

Thirty-two percent of American households now have a home theater system, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Seventy percent have a stand-alone DVD player. Americans will buy seven million digital television sets in 2004 compared with four million in 2003. Clearly, there’s a revolution going on, but how do you get on board if "plasma" makes you think of blood instead of a high-tech TV?

Samsung's third generation of DLP TV's combine high-definition performance in a lighter, more compact design.

The bottom line is that home entertainment doesn’t have to be complicated. A home theater system consists of five basic components:

  1. Audio sources: CD player or AM/FM radio tuner, ($100 and up)

  2. Video sources: DVD players, VCRs, or HDTV (high definition television) boxes that go on top of your TV ($50 and up)

  3. Speakers: at least 5 for surround sound ($150 and more) and maybe subwoofer speakers, which handle rumbling bass sounds (another $150 or more)

  4. Video display: which now can mean a TV with a picture tube or projectors and plasma and liquid crystal displays (which are "monitors," not TVs, because they don’t have built-in TV tuners), say Danny Briere and Pat Hurley, authors of Home Theater for Dummies (Wiley, 2003). TVs can either be analog, meaning they receive signals broadcast via TV stations and satellites, or digital, meaning they receive special digital signals. "High definition TV" is a subset of digital TV. "High definition" refers to the resolution of the TV signal as measured in how many pixels it can display, like a computer screen. If it displays 720 or more vertical pixels (counted from the top to bottom of the screen), then it’s high definition. A 30- inch (measured diagonally across the screen) HDTV with a built-in tuner to receiver high definition digital signals will start at $699 or so, says Robert Harley, author of Home Theater for Everyone (Acapella, 2004).

  5. A/V system: the processing center or brains of your home theater. This typically is a receiver, which receives audio and video signals from sources such as your DVD or CD player and chooses which signal to send where. At the high end of the market, the receiver is often broken down into separate components, such as a controller/decoder and power amplifier.

When the amplifier (the A/V system), speakers and a subwoofer are all housed together in one box it’s called, logically enough, "home theater in a box," a booming segment of the market. These all-in-one systems may include a built-in DVD player and can range from $99 to $2,000 or more.

"Most people don’t go into a store and buy all the pieces at once," says Tom Norton, editor of Ultimate AV magazine ( Here’s how to figure out what you may need:

  • Decide on your own personal definition of home entertainment. "If you spend most of your viewing time watching the news and the MSNBC stock ticker, high definition television may not be for you," says Pat Hurley. But if you’re a movie or sports fanatic, you may be blown away by experiencing your favorites in high definition surround-sound.

  • Look at the space where you’ll do your home theater viewing. As a general rule, the screen size of your display should be determined by how far away you sit from the screen. The ideal is to view at a distance of 3-5 times the picture height, says Robert Harley. So if your heart’s desire is a giant 4-foot tall screen, you better have a big room to put it in. Room size will also suggest the size of the loudspeaker system. "If you have too much bass it will sound boom-y in a small room so you can get by with a much smaller system," Harley says. And details such as hardwood floors vs. carpet can make a difference in the sound too, says Cannon Grace, assistant manager at MyerEmco. (Sound will echo more with hardwood so certain audio frequencies will have to be bumped up or down to compensate.)

  • Read books and specialty magazines and pore over websites so you can understand what a salesperson is talking about before you walk into a store. "The old saw is true that you get better information if you already know something," says Tom Norton. You’re also less likely to "be sucked into buying something that’s high on the inventory list," says Pat Hurley.

  • Prioritize. "If you just love huge screens, spend on the TV and keep your budget on the other components lower," says Danny Briere. "You don’t need to spend a fortune right up front and you don’t have to throw away everything you already own and start from scratch."

  • More expensive isn’t always better. "Price is not necessarily a good indicator of quality," says Briere. Most people will find that they don’t need a big system to provide the loudness and bass they want from a home theater.

  • Shop for a dealer, not equipment. Look for specialty retailers that deal only in home entertainment systems, says Robert Harley, "not the places that sell washing machines and microwaves." In the smaller specialty shops, "you’ll get people who know what they’re talking about," says Pat Hurley.

Finally, simply enjoy discovering the amazing possibilities of home entertainment that, for a neophyte like me, seem just unbelievable. Cannon Grace, the salesman who helps me at MyerEmco, tells me he has 37-inch liquid crystal display set in his bedroom that has sensors to determine the amount of light in the room. When his wife switches off the lights, the set automatically bumps down the brightness of the picture so she can sleep while he watches TV. Danny Briere tells me he has a 10x20 foot screen in his California backyard and that he can hook it up to his kids’ PlayStation 2 so they can play Karaoke Revolutions in a giant format.

I’m still shopping. But I’m never going to look at my cable-less 15-year old TV in quite the same light again.

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