How to: Buying and setting up your first home theater system

A home theater system can totally change the way you and your family watch movies or play video games. How do you choose the right audio system? There are a number of considerations.

Logically, the most important is your budget. Many people spend the largest share of their home theater budget on a big screen video monitor, only to be disappointed by the sound. At first glance it makes sense. The flat screen technology makes them more attractive and versatile in terms of placement. However, their design leaves little room for suitable audio speakers.

A good rule of thumb is to devote at least half of your budget to audio. Once you’ve established this baseline, you have a number of options from which to choose: everything from a simple, cost-effective soundbar system or home theater in a box (HTIB), to a full-blown system assembled with individual components. The advantages of the two former categories include matched components, good-to-excellent performance, depending on the product, and a generally reasonable price. With separate components, the sky’s the limit—both in terms of performance and cost.

For most people, home theater audio consists of a 5.1 system—that is, two front speakers (left and right), a center channel (which is primarily responsible for dialogue), left and right side speakers to create surround sound, and a subwoofer which handles low frequencies.

For smaller budgets, there are economy-priced 5.1 receivers, which could be paired with reasonably-priced bookshelf speakers for front and surround placement, a dedicated center channel speaker and a subwoofer.

Once you’ve selected your components, the right setup will enhance your viewing experience. If you’ve not set up a home theater audio system before, here are some tips:

Place the center channel speaker immediately above or below the screen, directly facing the listening area. If the speaker is being set on a shelf or stand, be sure that the leading edge of the speaker is flush with the edge of the stand, to maintain dialogue clarity.

The left and right front speakers should be placed at an equal distance from the screen and at least six feet apart; these should form an equilateral triangle with the primary viewing position. To further enhance the experience, some toe-in might be desirable. If so, be sure to identically angle each speaker and maintain the equal distance from the viewing position.

Left and right surround speakers should also be about three feet above (and slightly behind) the seated listeners’ heads.

The three most common subwoofer locations include corners, placement along a wall, away from the corner, or beside a front speaker (which can create a better blend with the front speaker, at the cost of possibly sacrificing overall volume). Experimentation with subwoofer placement is highly encouraged; slight adjustments can create big differences in bass reproduction.

For a 7.1 system, all the speakers mentioned above would be placed in the same positions. Then add two rear speakers on the back wall located an equal distance from the two side surrounds, and at the same height.