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Building a High-Performance Home Entertainment System

What once was relegated to big Hollywood mogul-types, is now available to anyone with a dedicated room, and a decent tax refund. We’re talking, of course, about a Screening Room. Digital technology has allowed the mass reproduction of images so clear and sound so real, that perhaps 35-millimeter film will fall by the wayside. Consumer electronics-either audio/video systems or computers-are probably the best value of all consumable goods. For $300 you can buy a sports jacket from an off-price boutique, or a DVD player that delivers a picture, sound, and conveniences thought unattainable just five years ago.

A home entertainment system consists of components that deliver sound and picture. And some of these components can distribute sound throughout the house-indoors and out. Let’s build a system from the ground up and carefully consider many of the features and their uses.

Televisions

Unless you live in a studio apartment (and maybe even if you do), owning a big screen TV is one of the finer pleasures in life. There are three basic types from which to choose: A tube-type of TV, which produces an exemplary picture but only goes up to about 36-inches; a rear-projection TV which can stretch to 80-inches; and a front-projection TV; which can pretty much get as large as you can stand.

Your decision will be primarily based upon the size of your designated A/V room. It should not be based upon picture quality since all three formats deliver comparable excellence. There was a time when projection-type sets produced poor off-axis viewing-if you sat too far to the left or the right, the picture became noticeably dimmer. And there was a time even further back, when front-projection sets displayed an inaccurate hue-delivering faces with an all-encompassing green tint. The good news is that none of these issues are still pervasive. The other good factor is that rear-projection sets are much thinner and easier to place in a smaller room, and front-projection sets feature small gun housings that can be bolted to the ceiling.

You can pick up a high-quality tube television starting at about $500 for a 27-inch set and $900 for a 36-inch set. 50-inch rear-projection TVs can go from as little as $1,500, and as much as $4,000 or more. And front-projection sets start at around $4,000 and go up from there depending if you want high-end features such as line-quadrupelers.

The wrench in the spokes is, of course, the eventual advent of High Definition Digital Television. It is looming on the horizon and many have been sold already. The average price of a fully functional HDTV is about $8,000 right now. But that figure is sure to come down dramatically over the next few years. It’s a question of the net present worth of your entertainment desire and your current equipment. Are you willing to watch that 20″ TV for another five years until you can afford HDTV? Perhaps not. Remember that all existing TVs will not become obsolete in your lifetime, just like black & white TVs still operate in the world of color. And consider the fact that a mere fraction of existing programming is currently available in High Definition. Also remember that DIRECTV and DVD deliver a picture that is dramatically better than cable and off-air broadcasting. And there is a chance that broadcasters may not opt for the significantly better picture of HDTV, and instead vie for the multi-channel capability of Standard Definition instead. If so, current standards are not that much worse than SD.

One alternative strategy is to purchase a “digital-ready TV” that is not much more costly than an analog set, and opt to buy the digital tuner as an outboard component later when the price comes down. This system is future-proof and is a very popular method to buy more time. Digital tuners presently cost about $3,000, and will probably cost 1/10th of that in a couple of years.

Whether you decide to go digital or analog, make sure that your TV has the right features to give you all of the connectivity and convenience that you require. Some features to consider are dual-tuner picture-in-picture, which allows you to watch two channels at once. S-Video or component video inputs so you can connect a DVD player (component video is better), and a universal remote control so you don’t have to have a bevy of remotes on the coffee table. Another popular feature is front-panel inputs on either the TV or the VCR so you can easily connect an 8mm or digital camcorder for playback. Finally, many folks like to have A/B antenna inputs so they can shift between DIRECTV and cable or a roof antenna for local channels. (However DIRECTV recently announced the plan to offer local channels on their service-more on that later).

DIRECTV Satellite Systems

There are a few types of satellite dish systems from which to choose. But the one with the most funding and momentum behind them is DIRECTV. This 18-inch dish delivers 200 channels including 65 pay-per-view channels. And the picture is akin to a DVD player-400+ lines of resolutions with no imperfections such as ghosting or snow. Many big TVs have the receiver built in so, all you have to do is install the dish on your roof. The birds hover around Kansas, so you need to have a clear line-of-sight to that part of the world (e.g. if you live in New England, you need a clear southwestern view). Dishes can be acquired for as little as $150, and professional installation for as little as $100 (we strongly recommend professional installation). A Dual LNB dish will allow you to watch different channels on TVs in different rooms if you purchase a secondary receiver and a multiplexing unit (necessary for a third room).

Recently DIRECTV has made some important announcements. The first is that they have begun transmitting in top-of-the-line Dolby Digital surround sound, which is great for any home theater system. The next is that they will begin offering programs in HDTV, scheduled to begin imminently. And finally, they will offer a Triple LNB dish that will also deliver local broadcasts in many major markets. They will be transmitted via an additional satellite, which is scheduled to start in Fall 1999.

They also have a separate dish that offers fast internet access to compete with cable modems, but that is a separate dish currently and it is unclear as whether they plan on consolidating TV and PC technology onto one dish.

DVD Players

If you haven’t yet experienced one, Digital Versatile Discs are, as the young folks would say, “the bomb!” They deliver a picture that is better than 400 lines of resolution. A VHS VCR delivers just over 200. And they have no imperfections in the picture whatsoever-no lines, snow, color impurities. It’s like watching a movie in the theater. You can choose between standard 4:3, and 16:9 letterbox, if you want to get the action in the corners of the screen that is cut off by standard, anamorphic TV. The sound is Dolby Digital. And it’s got the same random access as a CD player-you can instantly jump to a scene sans rewinding or fast-forwarding.

Another wonderful thing about the DVD format is that it accommodates a lot of information, so film buffs can glory in watching the director’s cut, outtakes, theatrical trailers, stars’ bios, etc.

Prices for DVD players vary depending upon features. All can also play a CD, but some can play multiple DVDs-there are 5-disc DVD changers currently available from Sony for under $600. And Sony is even coming out with a 200-disc DVD changer for under $1,000. Standard DVD players go for around $300. But you should consider getting one with an ultra-high-quality component video output for another $100.

VCRs

DVD players do not record. And there are no immediate plans to produce one for the consumer market. So if you’re a “time-shifter,” you’ll need a VCR. Sony currently has a recording management system called SmartFile that uses a special tape sensor. You no longer have to scribble on blank tapes because it encodes them automatically. You just pull out a tape you want to watch and/or record on and wave it in front of the VCR. It then displays the name of the program and when it was recorded on your TV screen, as well as how much blank recording time the tape has left and when the blank part starts. VCRs with SmartFile start at just $250.

Surround Sound

The standard for all digital sources including DIRECTV, DVD, and HDTV is Dolby Digital (or as it’s sometimes referred to as 5.1). Dolby Digital is the cleanest, most captivating surround sound available, and delivers different full-range sounds to five different speakers: front left, front right, front center, rear left, and rear right. And it delivers low base sounds to a subwoofer. The low bass sounds are only below 150 Hz, which it’s called 5.1-channel sound, as opposed to 6-channel sound.

There are a couple of ways to incorporate Dolby Digital into your home theater setup. One is to go the traditional route: to purchase a Dolby Digital receiver, five surround sound speakers, and a powered subwoofer. The other is to purchase a speaker system with a Dolby Digital decoder, amplifier, and A/V inputs built in. Such systems can be acquired for as little as $600. The more traditional systems cost $1,000 and over. If you are just going to watch TV, the all-inclusive speaker package is fine. But if you also want to listen and record music, than we recommend going the full receiver/speakers route. The speaker package offers limited inputs, and certainly none for a CD player, cassette deck, or MiniDisc player/recorder. The other drawback to the speaker package is its limited amplification. If you like to listen loud, you will be much better off spending some extra cash on a receiver with a high-power output, and a stand-alone powered subwoofer.

Also, you may want to use your receiver as the center of a whole-house system. In that case, you’ll need one with multi-zone capability-this allows you to watch a DVD with surround sound in your A/V room, while your spouse listens to a CD or the radio in another. Multi-zone receivers usually run about $1,000 and higher.

Speakers

Many speakers now come with built-in powered subwoofers. This allows you to get the impact of low bass without having to mess with placing an additional powered subwoofer. Surround sound systems also offer very small cube-type speakers that can be discreetly mounted on the front and rear walls (they come in white or black).

But another new trend in speakers is more “lifestyle” applications. You can now purchase speakers that will flush-mount in your walls or ceiling so you can enjoy music throughout the house without pesky wires and unsightly black-box speakers. Flush-mounting speakers are either of the square design that go in the wall, or of the round design to install in a recessed ceiling light fixture. They sell for around $300 per pair, and installation runs anywhere from $150 on up. You can also get in-wall volume controls and remote sensors to control your music selection and ambiance.

But the music doesn’t stop at your front door. There are now a host of weatherproof indoor/outdoor speakers that mount under you eaves or by the pool. They start at around $200 per pair.

CD Players

With the introduction of Mega Storage CD Changers, you can now store 200 CDs and access them every which way. This is great for those who have found that CDs scratch just as easily as LPs. This system allows you stick your collection in one unit and forget about them. Many allow you to label the CDs so the titles and tracks appear on the unit’s LED display or on your TV screen for easy recall. Some allow you to type in the information on your PC for quick labeling. Others allow true music maniacs to daisy chain them together to store massive collections. Mega Store CD changers start at around $200.

All the Essentials Inside and Out

A. The Sony SAS-BD3 DIRECTV dish/receiver system features a dual LNB dish so you can hook up a second receiver for multiple channels on multiple sets. It sells for under $300.

B. The Panasonic CT-36G23 36-inch big tube television features a universal remote and S-video inputs. Its digital comb filter maintains color purity. It sells for about $900.

C. The Sony DVP-C600D holds five CDs or DVDs in any combination. It has built-in Dolby Digital surround sound to use with a Dolby Digital-ready receiver. It also has component video output for a superior picture. You can find one for under $800.

D. The Boston Acoustics DT-6000 is a complete Dolby Digital surround sound system in a single box! It features four speakers for front and rear surround sound, as well as center channel dialogue speaker. The powered subwoofer contains the amplifiers and the Dolby Digital decoder. And the system accommodates inputs from a DVD or VCR. Its universal remote controls 376 different models of TVs, VCRs, and cable boxes. Pick one up for under $600.

E. The Mirage Oasis Indoor/Outdoor speakers will last for years while it delivers beautiful music in your pool or patio area. The injection-molded water-resistant enclosures keep the weather out while the high-quality Ω-inch tweeter and 5.25-inch woofer keeps your picnic hopping. They sell for about $200 per pair including mounting brackets.

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