With the kit available today, it's possible to recreate the thrill of the cinema in the comfort of your own home. It'll cost a little more than a trip to the multiplex, though.
If you're a true movie lover, there's no more lofty aspiration than to build a cinema of your own, right in your living room. Of course, you'd probably love to design a theatre that rivals your local multiplex - but that would only be possible if you had the budget of a film star at your disposal. Luckily, you can get closer to that big-screen experience with a more affordable home theatre setup.
Whatever your design entails, you'll need at least three components to build a home cinema system - a TV or digital projector, a DVD player, and a home cinema speaker system.
So what are your options for these components? And how do you recreate that authentic cinema experience? Read on.
HD sets offer a much sharper picture when viewing DVD movies (a significant part of the home cinema experience) - and of course, they present a fantastically good picture when tuned to an HD channel. US TV is starting to broadcast stuff in HD already, but over here it's yet to really kick in.
CRT TVs use the same CRT (cathode ray tube) technology that TVs have used since the dawn of time. Since they use a well-established technology, they're pretty affordable. But the size of this type of TV is limited - even the biggest CRTs generally reach only 36 inches (40 inches in a few rare cases), which doesn't gives you the true, big-screen experience.
Plasma screens are the ultimate home cinema TVs. They come in jumbo sizes - up to 60 inches diagonally, and bigger ones are on the way - and yet are only a few inches thick, so you can hang one on the wall like a high-tech masterpiece. What's more, an image displayed on a plasma screen - as with a CRT TV - can easily be seen from extremely wide viewing angles. Of course, all these perks come at a steep price - an entry-level plasma set, like the 32-inch Sony KE-32TS2, sells for about £2,000, and bigger models can cost 10 times that figure.
Built with technology found in flat-screen computer monitors, LCDs are only a few inches thick, so you can hang them on a wall or elsewhere in a room without using up much space. LCD sets don't offer the jumbo screen sizes that plasma TVs do - for instance, the biggest LCD sets these days are 40 inches, which is definitely on the scrawny side.
In terms of price, you can get more plasma screen for your money, inch for inch, compared to an LCD, and LCDs have narrower fields of view.
Rear-Projection CRT TVs are your best bet for getting a big HD picture without breaking the bank. Deep inside the set is something akin to an old-fashioned CRT TV tube that projects images onto the back of the screen. It's not the sexiest technology, but that's why it's relatively affordable. The drawback is that images on a projection TV can be hard to see in a sunny or brightly lit room, or when you're watching from anywhere wider than a 45-degree angle to the screen.
DLP and LCD Rear-Projection TVs are a newer kind of projection TV forgoes CRT tubes for LCD and digital light-processing technologies, which are identical to those used by data projectors. These projection sets still don't look great in bright daylight, but they have better viewing angles than CRT projectors (though not nearly as good as a plasma set), and they have a thinner form factor. For instance, the 42-inch Sony Grand Wega LCD TV is only 18 inches thick. But expect all these improvements over CRT-based sets to add a hefty chunk to the final cost.
If you truly want that cinema experience, your best option isn't a TV set at all, but a digital HD projector. These projectors can typically be installed on your ceiling or some elevated spot behind the sofa, and they can project images onto a white screen or nearby blank wall. A projector is your best bet if you're looking for the ultimate big-screen experience (and you have the room to use it).
You'll have to replace the lamp inside the projector every 1,000 to 4,000 hours, depending on the projector. As a lamp reaches its life expectancy, it will get dimmer and dimmer, and need replacing. Expect to pay anything from £200 to £500 for a new lamp.
The DVD player
Once you've chosen a TV or projector, your next move in setting up a home cinema system is selecting a DVD player. All DVD players strive for superior image quality, and some advertise unique technologies that add a little oomph. For instance, a player like the Denon DVD-1200 sport a Faroudja chip, which gives DVD video a more film-like frame rate and sharper imagery. Other players, such as V's Bravo D2 and Samsung's DVD-HD841, feature technology that scales a standard-definition DVD's picture up to higher resolutions offered by HD sets and projectors. All commercial DVDs today are encoded at the lower resolution of standard-definition TVs.
More often then not, the differences between one player and another are not readily apparent in everyday movie watching. Get one that looks cool.
Having said that, the one technology you do want to see in any home cinema DVD player is progressive scan. While progressive scan can't make images look any better on an older, analog CRT TV set, it can create a sharper picture on digital HD sets, which might be worth looking into for the future.
The last component you'll need for a home cinema setup is a multi-speaker sound system, which is what delivers jaw-dropping, cinema-quality sound to your living room - and often to your neighbour's living room. With surround sound, you'll not only hear explosions and other loud audio effects, you'll feel them in your bones. Plus, you'll experience directional audio - if someone is yelling off screen, you'll hear that audio from a speaker behind you, so you'll feel immersed in the movie's environment.
The most popular and affordable surround sound setups use Dolby 5.1 audio technology. The "5" stands for the number of speakers in the setup, and the ".1" refers to the presence of a subwoofer or speaker-like device that produces low-frequency audio. Finally, an audio receiver accompanies the system's speakers and subwoofer, which is like the brain of the audio system. When you play a movie, your DVD player passes the DVD's audio signal to the speaker system's audio receiver, and the receiver decides how to split all the audio information to the various speakers.
One of the most surprising things about surround-sound setups is how expensive they can be. You might figure that after shelling out potentially thousands of dollars for an HD-compatible TV set, a handful of speakers couldn't be too cost-prohibitive. But surround-sound systems based on professional-tier speakers can easily cost thousands of pounds themselves.
Two factors distinguish entry-level systems from more costly options. Firstly, there's the receiver's wattage output, which dictates how loud your system can play (realistically, most surround-sound systems are likely to be loud enough for most ears). More important is speaker quality - that is, the speaker's ability to reproduce subtle sounds that enhance your movie-viewing experience. Of course, this is half the fun of home cinema sound, and while entry-level systems can deliver sufficient volume and directional audio, they won't give you the sound sophistication found in a cinema. As usual, finding the happy middle ground between price and performance will be up to you.
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