A home theater is one of those home renovations that sits on many people’s wish lists for years. Every time you watch your favorite sports, movies, TV, and videogames, you are reminded of how much better it could be. But doing it right isn’t cheap, and doing it cheap may hardly be worth it. And a home theater is definitely a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. So it sits on the back burner of your home improvement wish list, always waiting until the time is right. If this sounds like you, then we’re here to tell you that 2021 may just be the year when the time is right. With incredibly high-quality gear becoming increasingly affordable, you can build a home theater you will be proud of on a budget you can manage. And with new releases now coming directly to streaming, the content is there to make this a worthwhile investment.
Why Now Is the Time for a Home Theater
There are two main reasons people put off a home theater project. First, it’s expensive. Second, you can’t get the newest movies without actually going to a theater. But all that is changing.
A/V technology is just getting better and better, and truly high-quality picture and sound are no longer cost-prohibitive. With the introduction of larger OLED TVs, 8k visuals, and stunning short-throw laser projectors, theater-quality visuals are within reach of the average consumer. Meanwhile, bone-rattling sound is getting cheaper and more accessible, with 5.1 and 7.1 systems well within-budget for many homeowners.
When it comes to content and catching the latest releases, the landscape is shifting quickly. The streaming wars are heating up, and high-quality content is flooding the small screen like never before. Services like Disney+ are bringing back huge vaults of classic films. Netflix has pledged to release at least one new movie every week of 2021. And with COVID concerns shutting down many theaters, more studios are sending new releases straight to streaming. That means that there’s more and better content now than ever before.
And to top it all off, movie theater ticket prices have skyrocketed with additional service and convenience fees bringing some tickets close to $20 a person! So 2021 may just be the year of the home theater. Why pay for overpriced concessions and crowded fold-down seating when you could enjoy the same quality experience in the comfort of your home?
Getting Started: The Room
Before you start to get into the weeds of choosing the best equipment for your home theater, you need to figure out where you will put it. There are really two ways to go: a shared space or a dedicated space.
If you’re going the route of the shared space, you may not be replicating the theater experience so much as upgrading the TV watching experience. You can add theater-style picture and sound quality to your living room setup, but there are certainly limitations. In terms of visuals, you are limited to a TV. You simply can’t get it dark enough in a shared space for a projector. And that, in turn, limits your screen size. Sharing a space also means some sacrifices in the audio department. First of all, volume is an issue. You may want ear-shattering sound effects and floor-rumbling bass. But if someone is working in the kitchen just a few feet away, they might not be on board with that. Second, and this is more technical, a high-quality sound system is calibrated to your room so that the sound you hear is the sound the director intended. In a shared space, you probably can’t do that kind of calibration.
If you plan to have a dedicated theater room, you are well on your way toward a genuinely theater-style experience. But not just any room will suffice. You need a room that is well soundproofed, or you need to add soundproofing. You don’t want to hear someone in the next room over during the quiet parts, and you don’t want to wake your neighbors every time there’s an explosion on screen. You also need a space that can get dark. Really dark. The best way to achieve theater-style darkness is with a windowless room. For these reasons, a basement is often the ideal location for a dedicated theater room.
For a long time, home theaters were synonymous with overhead projectors. After all, that’s how movies are shown in theaters. But as extra-large screen televisions become better and cheaper, many home theaters now center around a great TV.
If you plan to use a TV, you should invest in a screen that is at least 65-inches for a theater feel. Any smaller and you’re just watching TV. In 2021, there is no excuse to buy a 1080p HD TV. Even low-end TVs now feature 4K, and there’s no comparison when it comes to picture quality. Streaming services offer many of their movies in 4K, especially newer releases. And if you like sports or video games, 4K is now the standard.
8K vs. OLED
If you want to future-proof your TV purchase and have some money to spend, 8K is here, but you won’t find any native 8K content in 2021. High-end 8k TVs—and that’s really the only kind there is—have technology to artificially upgrade a 4K signal to 8K. However, unless you like to sit very close to a very large screen, there isn’t much point in 8K just yet.
If you want to spend more for a better picture, your best value is to invest in an OLED TV. While high-end LCDs produce stunning images, OLED is where the best picture technology is in 2021. It is an entirely different technology than LCD that provides darker blacks, true to life colors, and a smoother, less-jittery picture. If it comes down to 8K versus OLED, at least for now, OLED is the place to lay out the benjamins.
When most people think of a theater, they think of a projector. If you have a dedicated room that can get really dark, a good projector can produce a picture to rival a high-end TV and at a much larger size. There are 4K projectors on the market and projectors that can produce images for 3D. Projectors are not as bright as TVs, so any ambient light will reduce your viewing pleasure. Also, an overhead projector requires some work to install—it’s not like slapping a TV set on the wall. In addition to a good projector, you’ll need an excellent screen to produce theater-quality visuals. Don’t skimp on the screen. It’s an unassuming feature of your home theater—no high-tech wizardry here—but it makes all the difference. Shining a high-end projector at a bargain-bin screen is pointless. Your projector is only as good as the surface you provide for the image.
If you don’t have a lot of overhead space or light is an issue, you could try a short-throw laser projector. The picture is brighter, and you can place the projector on a low stand just a few feet from the screen. However, laser projectors are still a newer technology, and that is reflected in the prices. There is no question that you can get a better picture with a laser projector, but your budget can help you decide if it’s worth it.
One of the most significant differences between watching movies at home and in the theater is the audio. While large screen 4K televisions can bring bright, crisp images right into your living room, cinematic audio is not as easily reproduced. Depending on your budget and your setup, you could invest in a high-end soundbar or sink some cash into a 7.1 surround system.
Audio is a specialized technology replete with technical jargon and a broad array of technologies. To simplify things, think about what you want most for movie sound. Unlike music, which is almost always mixed in stereo, movies are mixed in surround sound. A 5.1 surround system has five speakers and one subwoofer. A 7.1 surround system has seven speakers and a subwoofer. But more isn’t always better. A TrustDALE certified home theater professional can help you understand and even test out different sound systems.
Surprisingly, the most important feature of your theater-style sound system isn’t the speakers. It’s the receiver. The receiver is the guts of your sound system. It takes in a signal from your TV, streaming stick, Bluray player, or other input devices and sends it to your speakers. But before it passes on the signal, it does some heavy footwork. First, it amplifies the signal. More watts doesn’t always mean higher volume, but too few watts will leave you with sound that isn’t what you’d hoped for.
The receiver also processes the surround sound signal and sends it to the appropriate speakers. You can get a perfectly suitable receiver for $400 - $1,000. Spend more, and you’ll get some nifty features, such as built-in streaming services and extra input and output connections. Spend less, and you will lose some sound quality, but not as much as you might imagine. Lower-priced receivers usually only accommodate a 5.1 system and may not have any additional input or output connections.
Making the Right Choices
Building a home theater means making lots and lots of choices. At every step of the way, there are high, mid, and low-budget options. But you don’t have to go high-budget on every ticket item to get an excellent home theater. It’s all about how you choose to spend your money and which features you value most. A TrustDALE certified home theater expert can help guide you to build the home theater you crave.