Hooking Up a Home Theater System

So today I’ll be discussing some of the basics of hooking up a Home Theater system, and why it’s important to various aspects of your viewing experience. Depending on your price range, a Home Theater (HT) system can consist of 3-4 components in one room at it’s most basic, to having a room in the house dedicated to housing AV equipment on a rack in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. For purposes of this article I’ll be talking about a more basic system, containing a Blu-Ray player, Satellite Receiver/Cable Box, HDTV, and the Audio-Visual Receiver (AVR).

We’ll start with a little background, and discussion of cable types.

  • Coax cable, the old all-around cable, shouldn’t really be in your system anymore. It’s not HD capable (except for between a satellite dish and receiver, and then only if it’s RG-6), and I’ve found that when hooking equipment up to HDTV’s that it can have issues with the audio coming through properly.
  • Composite cables, also known as RCA’s, have the Yellow, Red and White tips on them. These are what I recommend when watching standard definition programming these days. The composite cables carry video on the yellows, and allow you have two channel sound, one side carried on the white, the other on the red cable.
  • Component Video Cables are the first cables that will carry what we consider to be High Definition video. They have Red, Green and Blue tips, and carry video only. In order to get sound with Component cables, you’ll have to have the Red and White from the Composite cables mentioned above, Toslink, or Digital coax which I’ll talk about in a moment. Component video will carry all resolutions currently used commercially up to 1080i.
  • HDMI cable is the newest, latest, greatest, snazziest cable out there. As a single cable, it will still transmit Hi-Def Audio and Video, and version 1.3 will support up to 1080p resolution. Version 1.4, available on the newest of equipment, is capable of transmitting the new 3d standards to your TV.
  • Toslink and/or Digital Coax are both Audio only cables, but rather than carrying only two channels, these cables are capable of carrying Dolby Digital 5.1. That means that there are 5 discrete, separate channels of sound, plus the subwoofer. This provides a much more enveloping experience, placing you in a sound “field” as opposed to a sound “stage”, increasing directionality of the sounds from the movie. Toslink is a fiber-optic cable that if bent too sharply WILL break, so be careful with this particular cable as you plug it in.

On to the hookup, then. I recommend one of two scenarios, and what you choose depends on your personal preferences:

  • Using HDMI cables, you can hook up the Blu-Ray and Satellite/Cable Box up to the AVR (thereby routing full sound functionality to the AVR, which the speakers are hooked to), and one HDMI from AVR to your TV. When using either of these two methods, by the way, you want to enure that you have turned the sound on the TV off, using only sound from the speakers hooked to the AVR. Potential drawbacks to hooking up this way are a slight decrease in video quality as it is passed through the AVR, and potentially there will be an offset in synchronization between the audio feed and the video feed (the sound will not be QUITE right and accurate with what is currently on screen).
  • Using HDMI cables, you can hook your Blu-Ray and Satellite/Cable Box directly to the TV, and then run Toslink or Digital coax from the Blu-Ray and Satellite/Cable Box to the AVR. This will prevent the loss in video quality mentioned above, and will still get full audio functionality to the AVR, however, drawbacks include having more, varied cables, a somewhat more complex setup (especially if you have more equipment than listed in this article). It’s also necessary to have several HDMI hookups on your TV, which can be problematic on older TV’s, especially.

Depending upon how seriously you take your HT experience, you may want to have your surround and video set up/calibrated by a professional. The human eye and ear are extremely adaptable, and without being trained to recognize a good system, it is very easy for someone to think that just because they spent a lot of money and the new system is louder that it is better. This is not the case, and many do not realize the difference until they have had their own theaters set up by professionals. The difference is truly nothing short of amazing.

One last thing to note is that AVR’s are like snowflakes. No two are the same. Manufacturer’s put various functions and features into their equipment, and will call the same thing by different names, which can make them difficult to work with out of the box. Even a pro will most likely go to the manual, unless he’s dealt with a particular model often enough to be familiar with it by sight.

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