How Home Theater Systems Work – The Definitive Guide

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how do home theater systems work

The term “home theater” can include so many different things that it can be difficult to offer a definition for how they work. However, I’ve found that you can boil it down to a reasonably clear and basic description.

How Do Home Theater Systems Work?

For a home theater system to work, at least 4 components: a watching device (TV), a media device (DVD player, games console), speakers, and an AV receiver are required. These are the basic parts for a home theater to function but it can be as complex as you want. 

Pretty much everyone will have at least a TV and a media device in their homes, but does this mean they already have a home theater? Nearly, but not quite. To transform it into a home theater you need to expand on what can be considered “basic” technology: the general components you’d expect to find in almost any household.

The major component that makes the move towards a home theater system is the inclusion of an external speaker system. This refers to speakers that aren’t the ones fitted in your TV. Obviously the purpose of extra speakers is to improve audio quality, and the field is basically limitless.

The main thing that really defines a home theater is the AV receiver. I will explain about AV receivers in detail here. However, I HIGHLY recommend you read my article on home theater receivers which answers important questions including how to choose the right one.

AV stands for Audio Visual, and is basically the control hub of your home theater system. The AV receiver usually controls the sound, and is the connection between your speakers and viewing device. You can also connect a wide range of devices, from VHS players to computers, projectors, record players, and much more.

If you’ve got these things, then you’ve basically got yourself a home theater. However, I’ve found that once you start getting involved in the world of home theater systems it can become a bit of an obsession. You may very well find yourself expanding massively from your original basic components.

The main purpose of a home theater is to improve your viewing experience compared to standard technology, and ultimately to emulate a cinema experience as much as possible. This means that to get the most from a home theater, you often have to look beyond the essential elements.

Having a great home theater system means that you don’t stop at a DVD player and a big TV. For example, many users go on to add extra soundproofing and light exclusion devices, which further add to the viewing experience. Some even replace their TV with a projector and screen for a truly cinematic experience.

What I particularly like about home theater systems is that they can basically work however you want them to. Providing you’ve got a bit of knowledge of sound systems and technology you can even enjoy the experience of building your on unique viewing and listening space. And really, what could be better than that?

What Are The Components Of A Home Theater System?

So I’ve mentioned a few of the basic components for a home theater system, but to appreciate the flexibility of what this includes, it’s worth knowing some others. Here is a list of some of the best components to include in a home theater system.

AV Receiver

best home theater receiver

As I mentioned above, this is the control hub of your home theater system. It receives signals from your input devices (games console, DVD player, streaming device), separates them into the relevant parts, and sends them to your output devices (TV, speakers, projector).

AV receivers have a preamp fitted, which allows them to amplify signals for speaker systems. It also decodes audio signals and processes them into either stereo or surround format. This allows you a great level of flexibility in what devices you include in your home theater system, and a good AV receiver should have fittings for all major devices.

Most importantly, it gives you a user interface for your home theater system. This can include master audio control, EQ settings, channel switching, and some level of control over all devices connected. Once you start adding multiple input devices, the AV receiver becomes the most important part of your home theater.

AV receivers start at a pretty low price range, but obviously the more money you pay, the better your technology will be. If you’re splashing out on a good TV and speaker system, don’t hinder them by buying a cheap AV receiver. It’s worth researching the devices first to make sure you buy one that suits your needs.

Check out my top recommendations for home theater receivers (with reviews). I have come up with this list after testing them in ‘imperfect rooms’ and that is why, I’m confident that it is a solid list.

Input Devices

Essentially, home theater systems can be split into two halves: input devices and output devices. Input devices are the ones that you view the media from, and include:

  • DVD player
  • Blu-Ray player
  • Games console
  • Apple TV or Google Chromecast
  • Computer or laptop
  • VHS player
  • Record player
  • CD player

There are plenty of other things that could be considered an input device, but these are the main ones you’ll probably be looking into for your home theater system. A standard AV receiver will have ports for these, such as HDMI, SCART, or VGA, but only higher end models will usually have ports for things like record players. This is why it’s important to do your research first.

These devices all send information to the AV receiver, which then passes it to your output devices. Having such a wide range of input devices can get frustrating to use, and can begin to look messy. Here are some tips on how to get the most from your input devices:

  1. Think strategically about what you really need. For example, if you’re a gamer, you’re covered for pretty much every other kind of input devices. This allows you to greatly streamline your system.
  2. Don’t scrimp on cables. In this article, I have listed all the cables you would require for home theater. All input devices need to be connected to the AV receiver, making cables an integral part. Don’t lose the amazing picture quality you splashed out for by using cheap cables.
  3. Build the rest of your system around your favorite input devices. For example, if you love listening to music as well as watching TV, get a surround sound speaker system that also provides good stereo audio.
  4. Plan for the future whenever possible. If you want to get the most from your home theater system, consider investing in technology that’s considered future proof, as this could save you money in the long run.

Output Devices

Output devices can be defined as the things that give out your media, and will generally fall under these major categories:

  • TVs
  • Speakers
  • Projectors and screens

I will speak about TVs and speakers in detail. As far as projectors and screens are concerned, you need to be careful. In case you need help with deciding on which projector to buy, you can check out my unbiased top recommendations.

For projector screens, there are many options available and prices can really go up. As an alternative, you may consider using the wall in your room as a screen. For best results, you would require screen paint. Read my guide on this which will help you choose the type and color of paint that will give you fantastic image quality.

A “basic” home theater system can make do with a mid-range TV and something like a soundbar (Check out my top picks compiled after testing the top 11 in the market) if you’re unsure about investing in a surround sound system. However, if you’re truly committed to an excellent viewing experience, then it can pay to invest in a good TV and speaker system.

Speakers

Speakers are an important part of any home theater system, as they provide your audio output. Although a TV has speakers, they’re nothing compared to a good set of surround sound. However, your speaker system can really be as complicated as you want.

Speakers come in 2 broad categories: stereo and surround. Stereo speakers put out audio in what’s called 2 channels (2 speakers). This is the most standard format for audio, and is used for all music, and generally for DVD and TV shows. A stereo system might be categorized as 2.1 channels, which means there’s also a subwoofer included.

Surround sound systems basically cover anything more than stereo, but usually come as either 5.1 or 7.1 channel systems. This means that they have either 5 or satellite speakers and 1 subwoofer included. The size of the room and the level of immersion you want will ultimately dictate how many channels you want in your speaker system.

Arguably one of the most important parts of the speaker system is the subwoofer. The difference one makes is incredible, and it makes you really appreciate what you were missing before.

Much of a film or song’s audio quality is lost because of the lack of decent bass output, so having a subwoofer really is important. Subwoofers are included in the speaker system, but may be wired or powered separately.

Check out my top recommendations for subwoofers for every budget based on actual testing in realistic home environments.

One further difference in speaker systems is whether they’re passive or active. Active speakers have their own amplifier and power source included, so will usually also have volume control and can be plugged into a TV directly using an AUX cable.

Passive speakers don’t have their own power source or amplifier, and so need to be plugged into a preamp. Luckily, AV receivers often have a preamp fitted, and can provide power to even complex speaker systems. Which you choose will largely depend on the type of system you’re building.

Here are my tips for getting the most from your speakers:

  1. Make sure you place them correctly. Map out a plan for your speakers before setting up, particularly if they’re wall mounted. The sound quality should be as even as possible in your main viewing spot.
  2. Don’t neglect your subwoofer. Some people think it’s fine to put it in a cabinet or hidden in the corner, but this can have a big impact on bass quality. This is generally more noticeable, so plan wisely.
  3. Surround sound speakers usually need wiring; so again don’t scrimp on this. You want your audio quality to be as crisp and “true” as possible.
  4. If you listen to music, make sure you choose a system that has good stereo output. This will also be affected by placement, as the system should have 2 main speakers just for this purpose.

These are essentially the basic components of a home theater system, and how you make yours work will depend on what input devices you favor. My system is built to prioritize gaming and music, but much of the fun comes from building your system around your needs. Knowing the basics allows you to expand and modify your home theater in whatever direction you want.

What Do You Need For A Home Theater System?

As I mentioned above, a home theater system can realistically be defined by its 4 main components: a viewing device, a media device, speakers, and an AV receiver. However, aside from these things, there’s plenty more you need to get a decent home theater set up.

In this video, the basic requirement and set ups is covered nicely in less that 7 minutes.

A Good Room

What sort of room is best for a home theater? Well, there are actually certain shapes that are the best in terms of acoustics, but not everyone has the option to custom-build an entire room for their home theater. If you don’t have this option, consider the following tips when choosing the best room for your home theater:

  • Make sure the room is big enough for the TV you have in mind. You should be able to sit comfortably in front of the TV without straining your eyes to see (either from it being too big or too far away).
  • If your home theater room is also your home’s main living space, make sure it functions well as both, but also that you don’t sacrifice the important things for a home theater.
  • Do everything possible to keep wires neat and out of the way. Not only do all those wires create a potential trip hazard, but accidentally pulling on them can damage connections and devices.
  • Plan a couple of layouts before you commit to one. The original location you’d picked for your TV might not be the best once you factor in speakers and other devices. Draw up some bird’s eye view plans of the room, or simply move things about.
  • Regardless of what many people might say, size doesn’t really matter for your home theater room. If you’ve only got a small box room, then just choose the right equipment to suit the space. Providing you’re comfortable, that’s the most important thing.

When I was building my home theater I had to play around with the placement of everything for quite a while before I had it how I wanted it. This space is going to be for your benefit, so make sure you get everything how it suits you. The room, and what it contains, is easily one of the most important parts of the whole home theater. And unfortunately, it’s often overlooked by many.

Soundproofing

Realistically, soundproofing isn’t a necessary part of a home theater system, but can be useful if you plan on having your speakers loud. It’s particularly important if you live in an apartment complex, as sound carries much easier and has more potential to cause disruptions for your neighbors.

If you’re able to add some soundproofing to your home theater room, then it’s definitely worth it. Not only does it make things better for everyone outside of the room, but it can also be a good way of hiding all of those wires you’re about to install. After all, if you’re putting up more drywall, why not hide the wires behind it?

Soundproofing is expensive and any mistake can lead to financial losses. Read my guide on soundproofing to understand how to do it the right way. I also recommend you go to The Soundproofing Company and Soundproof Central which are two of the few genuine soundproofing websites I have come across.

Although technically not soundproofing, home theaters can also benefit from acoustic conditioning. This is where you use reasonably simple, but very effective, methods of controlling which direction sound waves travel in. This is particularly helpful if you have a large room, or you’ve found that your subwoofer produces muddy bass tones.

Both soundproofing and acoustic conditioning can become expensive, and as I said, aren’t completely necessary for a home theater system. However, if you’re looking to both improve your viewing experience and emulate a cinema, then it can really help. Plus, it means you can turn your speakers up much louder.

Proper Lighting

Suggesting you have the right lighting in your home theater might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s just as important as anything else. After all, you don’t want unnecessary glare on your TV while you’re watching, but you also need to be able to see when setting everything up.

Along with this, if there are windows in your home theater room, which is quite likely, you’ll also want to invest in some blackout curtains or blinds. You should do everything possible to exclude all natural light from the room when you need to, as this will greatly improve your viewing experience. Blackout curtains really aren’t that expensive, and are easy to buy online.

For my home theater, I installed soft, ambient lighting because the room still gets used as a family living space. I swapped the ceiling-mounted spotlight for some wall-mounted lamps because these greatly reduce glare, and produce much softer lighting in general. I believe the right lighting can help create the right mood, so don’t overlook this key factor when building your home theater.

A Good Seating Area

home theater seating

If you’re investing plenty of money in a home theater system, you need somewhere comfortable to sit and enjoy it. This might seem obvious, but good seating is important both for your comfort, and also for your health at some levels. Check out my 10 best home theater seating ideas.

I’d recommend your main viewing seat to be directly in front of your viewing device, as you should avoid straining or turning your neck when watching TV. Having your seat at an angle will also affect the sound quality you receive, so make sure you find the best location for your seat before setting up the rest of your system.

Straining your neck can lead to headaches and problems with your eyes; so try to keep your TV at head height so you’re not constantly looking up. Similarly, make sure your distance from the TV is acceptable for its size, otherwise this can lead to headaches. All this might seem like day 1 stuff, but you need to be comfortable if you’re about to sit and enjoy that Marvel move marathon on your new home theater setup.

Plenty Of Wires And Cables

Each input and output device will need cables to connect them all together. Many of these will be easy enough to get, such as HDMI leads for your TV and such, but some will be slightly more specialized pieces of equipment.

For example, if you buy a surround sound speaker system, they’ll all need wiring together, and this is something you need to buy separately. While speaker wires aren’t difficult to get hold of, choosing the right one can be a challenge if you’re unsure what to look for.

At the most basic level, wires come in several gauges and are usually made from 1 of 3 materials: gold, silver, and copper. Each has a different level of conductivity, but as this increases, so does the price. I generally use copper wires for my speaker systems, as these do a pretty good job in the situations I need them for. However, do a bit of research before buying to make sure you get the right wires for your needs.

Wiring speakers together isn’t that difficult; you just need to ensure you wire them in sequence and everything is connected in a circuit. Most systems should come with wiring instructions, but if not, you should be able to find plenty of tutorials online. I’d recommend buying at least 10% more wire than you think you need, both to cover wire slack and stripping needs.

I know I’ve mentioned it several times already, but DO NOT scrimp on your wires. They send information between your devices and are one of the main culprits for loss of quality. After all, why invest in 4K technology if you’re then going to connect it all with cheap wires. Although I use copper wiring for my speakers, for connecting cables such as HDMI I always choose gold plated.

Considering the importance of cabling, I recommend you read my article on how to do wiring for home theater. It is a comprehensive guide and you will not require to go anywhere else for any information related to wiring a home theater.

A Good TV

If you haven’t decided to make the jump to a projector just yet, then make sure you at least buy a good quality TV. I probably don’t need to go into too much detail about what this involves, because most of us have probably owned at least one TV in our lives, but here are some general tips:

  1. I’d recommend at least a 40” TV if you have the space. Anything less and you lose much of the immersive experience you’re looking for from a home theater.
  2. That said, bigger isn’t always better. If you buy an 80” TV for a tiny room then you’re going to struggle to take in the whole picture. Make sure it’s suitable for your room size.
  3. If you’ve got the money, then definitely make the jump to 4K. Although there might not be loads of technology for it now, it’s definitely the next step and you’ll be equipping yourself for the future.
  4. 3D viewing, on the other hand, is a different matter. I was never that impressed by it, and consider it to be a bit of a waste of money. It’s mostly fallen into the depths of failed technology, so I wouldn’t bother investing in it if you haven’t already.

How To Set Up Your Home Theater

Your home theater should work for your needs, so make sure you take the time to get everything set up properly. I spent days planning my very first home theater, but any since then haven’t taken as long. Rather than provide you with instructions on how to build your system (because we’re probably all using different components), here are some tips on how to get the most from it:

  1. Make sure your AV receiver is accessible, and that it’s the first thing you find a home for. As your home theater’s central hub, everything else should be built around it.
  2. Don’t underestimate the benefit of drawing up a plan first. Seeing it on paper, including speaker placement, can help you to identify any flaws in your ideas, which is particularly helpful if things are being permanently fitted.
  3. Get your speaker angles correct. Your front center channel needs to be directly in front of your viewing seat, and then the main speakers should be at 30 degree angles either side, with the remaining speakers positioned at a 90 degree angle from the center channel.
  4. That said, the best way to test them is to place them and then listen to an audio track. If your ears are good enough you’ll be able to hear any holes or flaws in the sound.
  5. If you’re not sure what you’re doing yet, then don’t invest in the most expensive tech. You can always upgrade at a later date, and it’s best to learn with more entry-level equipment.

Conclusion

My favorite thing about home theater systems is that they work differently for every person, and their layout and components says something about the individual.

Other than important information about setting the devices up, I’ve found the best way to make your home theater work is a bit of trial and error. Simply play around with everything until you’re happy with the look, sound, and feel. After all, you’ll probably be spending plenty of time in your new home theater, so it might as well be the best it can be.

Thanks for reading! Before you go, check out my recommended equipment for home theater.