Technological advances have made giant flat-panel TV screens with intensely detailed pictures more affordable than ever. But which one to choose?
The projection option
Home theater enthusiasts say you can get the best bang for your buck with a system that uses a digital projector. They can easily be hooked up to your computer, video game system or DVD player or cable signal and display images at a variety of sizes.
High-quality home theater projectors made by makers like Mitsubishi and Samsung sell for as little as $850. If you're on a tight budget, you can direct the projector toward the wall. Or you can buy a screen of 70 to 200 inches diagonally. Made by companies such as Elite Screens and Da-Lite, they range from $225 to more than $3,000 for deluxe models that have a motor to retract the screen into an aluminum casing.
But projection systems use a specialized bulb that needs to be replaced every few years for around $350. Also, if you don't have a windowless home theater, or at least a room with dark shades, you're probably better off with a plasma or LCD (liquid crystal display).
Plasma or LCD?
Plasma TVs and LCD sets look alike but use different technology. Plasma screens use a gas that's charged by electricity, while LCD screens create images by charging a different material: liquid crystal.
Plasma screens display better black hues, have sharper images and can be viewed from all angles, but the shiny screen makes it harder to see the picture if there's a lot of light in the room. They also are big energy hogs: Consumer Reports says they use about twice as much energy as comparable LCD screens.
LCD technology is better for a bright room, though fast-moving images can blur a bit and the image often doesn't look great if viewed from an angle.
Prices of flat-panel TVs — made by dozens of companies like Samsung, Sony, Sharp, Panasonic, LG, Olevia and Vizio — dropped dramatically in recent years. LCD sets, now usually $600 to $700 for a 32-inch, could drop to as low as $350 in stores by the end of 2009, analysts say.
Whichever option you choose, inspect the picture carefully for brightness and color. Bring your favorite DVD to the store and test it out on a new set.
Serve it up
There's also a lot you can do to make it easier to choose a movie from your collection. Massive media servers — basically giant computer disc drives — make it easy to sort through hundreds of movies, sorting by actor, genre and the like.
Apple Inc.'s Apple TV starts at $229. A competing Internet set-top box from Vudu that launched last fall has roughly 5,000 movies available and sells for $295.
Pump up the volume
Home theater audio comes with a confusing set of technical terms like DTS, SDDS, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, to name a few. But all the lingo boils down to something basic — the number of speakers that surround the viewer, providing an immersive, enveloping experience.
The main goal "is to feel like you're actually sucked into a movie," said Dave Pedigo, senior director of technology at the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association.
And newer technology, such as high-definition Blu-Ray players, can deliver an even more impressive effect. You can even get rich surround sound from game systems such as the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
The most popular surround sound system is known as a 5.1 channel system, which uses five speakers to create three-dimensional whooshing sound effects. The next level up is a six-speaker, 6.1 channel system, and then there's the maximum 7.1 channel system with seven speakers.
Included in all three varieties is a subwoofer for thumping bass and other low-frequency sounds. A 5.1 channel system includes three speakers in front of the viewer and two rear speakers, while 6.1 channel and 7.1 channel systems add more rear speakers.
Box it up?
One easy option is to buy a "home theater in a box" system that — for $200 to $1,000 — includes a receiver, speakers and sometimes a DVD player. Consumer Reports gives top ratings to systems made by Onkyo, Sony and Yamaha.
For the true audiophile, putting together your own stereo component system is the best option. Speakers made by Infinity, Bose, Polk Audio and Sony all get good ratings from Consumer Reports. Basic bookshelf speakers sell for as little as $95, but high-end speakers can sell for thousands.
Picking which one is best for you really depends on the size of your room, experts say. If you have a relatively small space and your couch is backed up against the wall, a 5.1 channel system works just fine.
"A lot of times people will say 'I want the biggest and the best,' rather than finding what's appropriate for them," said John Wanderscheid, vice president of marketing at Aperion Audio, a Portland, Ore., designer of speaker systems.
In rooms where there is more than 15 feet of space between the rear speakers, Wanderscheid recommends a six- or seven-speaker system. But to have the best surround sound experience, they should be at least 3 feet behind your couch. Otherwise, he said, "in a small room it doesn't really add to the performance."
Another issue to consider is what kind of cables to use on your system. The latest and greatest audio and video equipment comes with a new kind of cable that is designed to simplify the process.
High-Definition Multimedia Interface, or HDMI, cables can transmit digital high-definition video and surround sound audio signals over a single cable. That's far simpler than the older analog standard, which required three video cables (usually colored red, green and blue) to transmit high-definition signals and separate audio cables.
HDMI, however, doesn't work with older televisions sets and DVD players. Most of the time, HDMI works pretty well, experts say, especially if your setup is relatively simple.
But home theater installers say they sometimes run into problems with repeated images using HDMI cables over long distances. And HDMI comes with a built-in copy protection so you might not be able to record some programming.