5 Things to Do BEFORE You Build Your Home Theater

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Know what you want.

Before you throw the credit card down on a wad of gear, think about what you really want to get out of your entertainment center. Yeah, sounds obvious. But you’re making an investment potentially costing a few thousand dollars on technology that all needs to work together. The variety of technologies available for Bubbas that do it yourself really needs to interface well, or you will be forever patching a bundle of wires together.

If you are looking to create your own in-home sports bar for your buddies, then go ahead and bring home the neon signs. However, if your wife has other plans, you will have drilled a lot of holes in your wall for nothing. Interested in a big projector to show movies on? It might be difficult if your home theater room is encircled by bright windows. Do you want to spend a fortune on a really intense sound system for your favorite action movies? If granny’s room is next to your movie palace, she’s not going to like her ceramic figurines tumbling off the wall.

These are problems that can be solved, of course, if money is no object. Upholstery can be put put in place to block light. Rooms can be isolated in terms of sound and light, (very complicated and expensive), wives can be talked into having your own kegerator by the TV, (good luck), but it might be easier to keep your plan workable to begin with.

A homebuilder once told me that the number one priority when looking for a home or planning to build one: floorplan. When you put styling, color, accessories, details ahead of how you will live, then it will all be a disappointment later. Projectors work better in darker rooms. Single use entertainment centers (sports bar, home theaters, kids game room) cannot be used at Thanksgiving for family gathering; can you afford the space?
Some folks can, but others will be disappointed when the darkened, custom, realistic theater they built is not appropriate for family lounging, homework, or informal entertaining.

Take a good long look down the road.

When planning your entertainment domain, look ahead. Saving money on a cheap receiver for example, may prove to be a false saving. Just like buying a laptop computer with a tiny hard drive, it doesn’t take long to find out that you might have an obsolete machine on your hands.

Leave room for expansion. Make sure your projector or flat screen has multiple inputs, in a variety of connectors. Or if you design your system to be connected through a receiver, make sure it has extra inputs for later expansion.

Once you get your room up and running, you will find something that you will want to add on. One of the kids will find a new video game that would be perfect to play on your system. Someone will show up with an ipod at your Christmas party that needs to be hooked up.

By doing your best to future proof your setup, you will avoid another dead end. You will be able to add new technology as it comes along. Streaming technologies are beginning to mature, you will probably want to hook up more computer device somehow, perhaps wirelessly. If you begin with a normal DVD player, you may want to upgrade to blu-ray with a digital connection.

Start with a plan.

Again, obvious. Again, often ignored. If you’re only shopping on price point, you are going to miss thinking through your technical setup. You might buy a receiver with too few digital hookups and not be able to use the optimum connections available. Pushing a good blu-ray DVD player through a standard definition composite wire will render useless the premium you’re paying for blu-ray discs.

Draw it up, on a big chief tablet if you have to. Good cabling and wire management gear adds to your budget. You can’t double up on speaker outputs without losing performance, (and possibly damaging your system.) A bigger flat screen or more advanced screen needs to be supported by good hardware carefully mounted. Again, save a few bucks on an inadequate mount and watch the whole thing crash to the floor. It’s a pretty high stupid tax to pay.

If you want to construct an entire home control sytem, you are really going to have to research before you start to buy. Those types of systems can be expensive and need a lot of in-wall wiring.

Take some time. Remember, if it takes a little longer to decide, most technology in the home theater world is constantly dropping in price. Don’t rush to be an early adopter.

Give it Some Juice.

Most modern homes are pretty generous with electric power. But is it available in your room where you need it? Will you be running a few pieces of off the shelf components? Or do you plan to make this a gadget room with lots of games, lighting, computers, or even an electronic hub for the whole house?

Once you add up the power needs for the gear you plan on, make sure to factor in the possibility of add-ons. There will be table lamp or two. Will you be adding track lighting or other electric decorations?

If you are adding more than a simple plasma screen with a good sound system, it wouldn’t hurt to consult with a good electrician. Not just an industrial guy, maybe one that has a little understanding of residential installation, someone familiar with the special needs of home theater. It might be worth running a couple dedicated circuits, instead of piggybacking off of the same breaker feeding half the kitchen. Poorly grounded or badly wired systems introduce hum and interference in both audio and video signals. It is usually a bad idea to run AC power and audio cables bundled together.

You might not need an uninterruptible power supply, but don’t scrimp on good power surge protection. Some installations even start with power distribution systems that feed protected, steady, unspiked power – always a plus for sensitive electronics. It’s the cheapest insurance you can buy.

Comparison Shop

Not just at the retail level. Most sales folks in the high end retail electronic field are paid on commission, and often they make bonuses for selling certain lines of gear, models, etc. We have absolutely nothing against a good custom theater installer. But our focus is on do-it-yourselfers. If you DO find a retailer that you like and feel that you can trust, it might be worthwhile to shop with them. If you have problems, it is a lot easier to deal with them (if they are reputable dealers) to return defective merchandise, let you “try” some things in the store, compare similar brands, etc.

Discount chains and mail order are a good way to go for price and variety, but can be a real pain if something gets lost in shipping or needs to be returned. (Some outlets are much better than others.) The bigger stores will have good websites with information, manuals, and reviews on what they sell.

The BEST comparison that you can find is from folks that have already done a project, they’ve made your mistakes for you. What do they like? More importantly, what does their family like and how does it fit in with the rest of their home? What did it REALLY cost? In our minds, the biggest trap is the practical use of the space. Is your neighbor (and his family) really happy with turning their family room into a darkened, isolated theater that only gets used on Friday nights? Did the wife get PO’ed because she can no longer serve Thanksgiving dinner on the sports bar where her dining room table used to be? How much maintenance and programming skill does it to use that remote that was supposed to control everything from the dvd player to the washing machine?

Get it Right the First Time

I like to say, we never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over. When it comes to a good home theater setup, doing it over not only takes a great deal of time, but more than a few Benjamins, in most cases. Plan your build, and build your plan.




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