How to Upgrade Your Home Theater System

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You settled into the couch. The popcorn's popped, the lights are out, and the movie studio logo starts doing its thing. Maybe it's an MGM roaring lion, maybe a Universal rotating earth, maybe 20th Century fanfare and searchlights, or a Disney castle or a Paramount mountain ringed by stars. You should be feeling that "I'm about to watch a great movie" feeling.

But the experience is… underwhelming. 

You're squinting at a small screen with poor image resolution. You're straining to hear dialogue through tinny-sounding speakers. You're fiddling with the captions settings.

If this sounds like a familiar scenario, you probably need a home theater gear upgrade. But the idea of shopping for all the latest gadgets can be enough to induce a stress migraine.

Don't worry, Optimum has you covered. Here's everything you need to know about home theater components.


Home theater screen upgrades - TVs and projectors

Not that long ago, TVs only had the same standard-image definition capability they'd been relying on since the days of Bonanza. High-definition image resolution first became widely available for home viewing by movie fans in the late 2000's. 

Each advance since then has come with its own set of technical jargon that can make buying a new TV or projector screen into a research project. 

Let’s boil it down to an essence.

What is the best TV to buy?

If you’re shopping for a new TV for the purposes of upgrading your home entertainment hookup to a home theater, all you really need to know are the following considerations:

  1. How much should a TV cost? Do a little research online and see what’s the best you can get at your ideal price point in terms of size, image resolution, and features.
  2. What TV screen size should I get?  If you want to go big, measure your living room and plan out where it’ll go. If your ideal screen is too big for your current furniture, this could represent an additional cost.
  3. What image resolution do I need? TV screens with the highest possible image resolution tend to also handle signals from lower resolutions, giving your TV a longer shelf life. Levels increase from 720p, to 1080p, to Ultra 4K HD, and all the way up to 8K. Price point is a consideration, as is available bandwidth if you’re looking to stream super high resolution movies.
  4. How can I watch movies? If you plan on streaming your movies, you may want to invest in a smart TV with internet connectivity. This can reduce the number of steps in your installation process (and cut down on the number of remotes you need to keep handy). Separate streaming hardware devices are also available, but should be factored as an additional cost along with higher-speed internet for those ultra high definition streaming downloads.

What about projectors?

Projector technology is advancing just as rapidly as TV screens, and projectors are becoming an increasingly popular option for indoor and outdoor home theaters.

Before you consider projector options, or wonder about how to set up a home theater system with a projector, consider the following: 

  1. Ideal price point
  2. Placement and measurements - You’ll need a clean (recently painted brilliant white is best) wall or a projection screen and enough room to move the projector around for the right size viewing window. You might need to look into shelving for the right placement indoors. 
  3. Connection, cords and power supply - The projector will need to be plugged in, and unless it’s a smart device with its own internet connectivity, it will also need to connect to a streaming device. Factor these needs into your setup placement and costing.


Home theater audio and surround sound

A crystal clear picture on as big a screen as possible is key to a great home theater experience. But what about the auditory component that really makes movies feel like movies - with helicopters that sound like they're flying overhead, or a faint rustling in the bushes that feel like there's somebody (or something) sneaking up behind you?

Your sound system can put the exclamation point on movie night, but with price tags for premium home theater audio equipment running up to the thousands, you might want to take a phased approach to your audio upgrade.

Try the following:

  1. Phase 1 - relying on TV audio
  2. Phase 2 - upgrading to a 2.1 external speaker 
  3. Phase 3 - installing full 5.1 surround sound

Details on each phase are outlined below...

Phase 1 - relying on TV audio

It’s a dirty little secret in the TV manufacturing industry that impressive image quality sells TV sets more than the built-in speakers do, and this is often reflected in the sound quality you get from TV speakers.

But not always!

Home theater audio upgrades can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars, so it's understandable if the average home theater hobbyist may want to upgrade in stages, with the TV first and the sound system later. Audio available through built-in TV speakers can be a perfectly good "phase 1" option for a home theater overhaul. Just make sure you research which TV models have the best audio quality.

Skip Phase 1 if you're leaning in the direction of a projector system for your screen. Many great projector options don't even have a built-in speaker, and those that do can often be underwhelming.

Phase 2 - upgrading to a 2.1 external speaker system

If you're in no position to drop thousands of dollars on a full surround-sound home theater experience, there are some nice options for a relatively inexpensive audio upgrade over built-in TV speakers. External speakers tend to deliver higher fidelity audio in a broader range of volume outputs, even at the lower end of the market.

After all, it’s usually best to combine a picture that’s been built to look good with audio that’s been built to sound good. 

For a cheap upgrade to your home theater audio, look into a standalone "sound bar" option. These are usually long single-unit speaker devices that can be connected to your TV through either a regular audio jack or Bluetooth. There are some models available for less than $100 that can give your home theater audio an easy boost and can be used as music speakers.

Sound bar audio output is offers 2:1 stereo audio output, meaning that audio is broken up into two channels - left and right. 

For a further upgrade, there are also higher-end 2:1 external speaker systems which include a soundbar and two additional Bluetooth speakers that can be placed around the viewing area. These are available in the $100 - $500 price range, and can add a layer of immersion and quality to your home theater audio.

Phase 3 - installing full 5.1 surround sound

The highest-end home theater audio option is a 5:1 external speaker system that breaks the audio signal up into five channels.

There is a center signal, usually a sound bar and/or subwoofers, a left speaker, a right speaker, and two additional “surround” audio speakers for the left and the right. 5:1 audio signals are built into most modern movie and TV formats (that’s what the familiar “5:1 audio where available” logo means).

How to set up audio for your home theater

Setting up your home theater to get the best possible audio experience out of your 5:1 surround sound system can be tricky. There are multiple considerations that can affect audio quality, from size and shape of the room you're in, to available furniture, to the sound absorption qualities of the materials around you.

While a 5:1 system is the best available for producing high-quality immersive sound, the added components do increase the likelihood that your system will need a few adjustments before it sounds the way you want it to. Don't despair if it doesn't sound perfect right away.

Consult the manufacturer’s manual for specific advice on speaker placement and room setup for an ideal 5:1 surround sound home theater experience, and be ready to fiddle a bit until you get everything right.

Home theater streaming and bandwidth

While many movie buffs prefer to keep a home library of physical media, the runaway pace of image quality improvements can make upgrades expensive. Think of every VHS tape you bought on DVD, every DVD you bought on Blu-Ray, and every Blu-Ray you may now be considering purchasing in a 4K Ultra HD format.

Streaming is the way to go to get the largest variety of movie titles available in the highest-possible image quality format, with upgrades as they become available.

However, streaming movies at the high end of available image quality puts a heavier burden on your home internet bandwidth.

Figure out how much bandwidth you need 

If you expect to be streaming movies in 4K HD on your new home theater setup, make sure you have the home internet speed to handle the need of this larger file-size format. You wouldn't want to go to all the trouble and expense of installing a full home theater system just to sit and watch a loading screen.


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