Are you popcorn ready?

blue fabric sofa and television in the modern living room in the mansard

How to replicate that theatre going experience on a budget.

First, a word on the best systems money can buy. If you’re building new, home automation is an ideal solution as it works off a centralised platform for movies, music, radio and anything from lighting controls to security systems. There’s no boxes or cables (a huge benefit!), speakers are often integrated into the building fabric and you can control it all from your phone; in one word: seamless.

Considering the amount of work involved and the wiring, it could be a significant outlay. In the case of a retrofit, wireless home automation systems are available too but remember that some amount of cabling is always required.

If having a really good cinema experience is high on your ‘wish list’ then you will have the budget to go to a specialist company to see what’s on offer. Even if you don’t, do visit one to test the sound and get a feel for the controls. The live audio and tactile experience will beat any review you can read of it! Bring along music you know well to gauge the quality.

Image
The budget conscious and environmental option is to use your existing TV. In that case check it’s HD ready (that it has an HDMI port for streaming or for Blu-Ray, see below). If not you can use a simple DVD player and settle for the kind of image quality we’ve lived with over the past decade. You can always invest in a new TV, or projector, at a later time.

Buying new, television sets nowadays are High Definition: from simple HD, which is now standard, to 4K Ultra HD, which is four times crisper (four times as many pixels) than HD. Projectors and TVs can be bought at this higher resolution but at roughly double the price. The UHD set should be able to upscale your cable satellite or digital TV content to this higher quality but it won’t be able to provide it on streamed content that’s not specifically 4K UHD.

Three dimensional viewing (3D) is an option for both television sets and projectors and the extra cost isn’t as high as investing in 4K UHD. You can even buy a TV that converts regular 2D content into 3D and allows you to specify how much depth to give the image. There’s also a model that allows two video game players to use the same screen (instead of split screens), technology which enables two persons to watch different programmes or movies at the same time; it’s all done with the help of special glasses.

An important consideration is screen size, the minimum set nowadays in 32’’ but that will be too small for a home theatre. And believe it or not, there is also such a thing as too big (see table above right).
Also make sure the seating isn’t too low when compared to the image – home cinema manufacturer THX says that for a pleasurable experience you shouldn’t have to look up any more than 15 degrees.
Shape apparently doesn’t matter much; according to television manufacturers curved screens allow you to have the best seat regardless of where you are in the room, however reviews seem to suggest it doesn’t add much to the image quality but it does to the price.

If you can afford it, there’s little doubt that the most cinematic way to go is with a projector. The size of the image will depend on the distance between the screen and the device so this can easily be adjusted with the above table for distances.

Sound
Drums rolling… a lion roaring. How do you recapture that feeling? While your TV probably already has decent speakers, investing in a sound system is the key to turning your living room into a home cinema. The important thing to consider is the bass, on the technical side look for a good woofer and subwoofer for an electrifying effect. If you buy surround sound or standalone speakers, as a rule of thumb, the bigger the better. Unfortunately it’s not possible to connect these speakers directly to your television, you will need an audio-visual receiver, also known as an amplifier, as a link.

The common surround sound options are 5.1 (five speakers, one subwoofer) or 7.1 (seven speakers, one subwoofer). The size of the room will play an important role in determining how good a system you need to achieve the cinematic effect, and how many subwoofers you require. Generally one subwoofer is enough for an average sized room in a typical house, especially if you’re not going for a high end system.

Ideally, for surround sound you should place a speaker at each side of the screen and at either side of where you’ll be sitting. In the 7.1 configuration you add two speakers at the back of the room. If you have two subwoofers, put them in the middle of opposing walls and if you have one, place it in the middle of the front wall. This is only a guide, you will have to play around with their positioning to get the optimal effect.

Then there’s the cabling… the better the sound system the more significant the amount of wires. To decrease the numbers, wireless options are available but remember that means each speaker will require a power point.

Most manufacturers supply bundles, including speakers and DVD player, but check that the receiver or amp is part of the package as it may not always be. Sound bars are an in-between option which connect directly to the TV (no need for a receiver or amp and therefore increasingly popular); there’s even a model that adjusts to the room’s acoustic environment.

The low budget option is to reuse what you may already have in your home: a stereo! Remember those? You can connect it to your television via an HDMI cable, as long as both the TV and the stereo have a port. If not you’ll have to use a lot more wires (coaxial and digital cables). The reason it works is the stereo has an amp.

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About Astrid Madsen

Astrid Madsen is the editor of SelfBuild & Improve Your Home magazine. She previously held the same role in an Irish trade publication, before that she worked at the National Standards Authority of Ireland. She graduated with a BA in Urban Studies from Columbia University in New York and holds an MBA from the Instituto de Estudios Bursatiles in Madrid. France of origin, she now lives in Portarlington, County Laois, where she's taken on the task of renovating a listed building! Email astrid.madsen@selfbuild.ie

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