How to Build an HD Home Theatre on a Shoestring

With prices dropping and new technologies pushing out the old, it’s now possible to put together a great home theater system for relatively cheap.

Take a large TV, add a set of speakers, and there you have it: a home theater. It’s that simple, yes?

Not if you want to recreate the experience of a real movie theater within your home. Many would say that home theater set-ups begin when you combine a large HDTV screen (42″ and larger) with a 7.1 (or better – more on what that number means later) sound system. Until a few years ago, that was an option only the very wealthy could afford. High-end systems still require professional installation and even house additions and sound engineers.

But prices on mid- and low-range systems are now within reach of more modest budgets. OK, maybe it will cost more than a shoestring. But if you’re a careful shopper, you can still put together something for under $1,000 (plus tax) that will make your buddies want to come to your house for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Really, you can. Here’s how.

The choice of equipment can be quite confusing and continues to change rapidly — but don’t let that bother you. There are two main components to consider: video and audio.

HDTV video display

The price of large screen TV sets has dropped dramatically. A fairly large set (30 inches and bigger) can be found for as little as $600. Note that a 30-inch screen is not 30 inches wide. That’s the diagonal measure from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. For reasons best left to history, that’s how both TV and computer screens are measured to this day.

Biggest is not necessarily best. You have to consider the size of your room: the larger the screen, the farther you need to sit from it. An often quoted measure is that you need to be at a distance that is one and a half times the diagonal measure of the screen. For example, you want to be able to sit at least 63 inches – just a little more than five feet – away from a 42-inch screen.

There are three basic ways to display HDTV signals, using:
Plasma screens
LCD (liquid crystal display) screens

An inexpensive projector will cost at least $1,000, quite often more. So, if you’re on a budget, move quickly past that option. They’re very hard to find in Canada, in any case.

That leaves plasma and LCD, both of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Size and weight constitute the main differences, although plasma fans will defend them for superior image quality. Plasma is only available in the largest display sizes and costs and weighs the most.

When looking at either plasma or LCD screens, what you need to remember is that you want them to be able to display the 1080p format. That number tells you how many lines your new TV will display, and the more lines you have, the better the picture. The “p” stands for progressive scan, which means it displays every line instead of every other one, as regular interlaced screens do.

The cheapest HDTV sets may display only 720p format. If you like how that looks in the store and don’t care if you have the best image possible, you can save some money here. Just check the specifications to make sure that the set can take a 1080p signal as input. If so, it will simply display the 1080p signal in 720p quality.

Home theater audio

Although everyone goes ga-ga over the big screens, the audio component is what truly turns a home set-up into a theater experience.

A Sony employee displays a golf-ball sized speaker system called the ‘Home theater system HT-IS100’, a 5.1 channel audio system composed of five tiny speakers and a subwoofer (not pictured). (Getty)

Leaving aside the quality of different types of speakers, the more speakers you have, the better the sound.

If you’re really picky about sound, you’ll need a 7.1 channel home theater sound system for the best experience. No, that number is not the version of software it runs. It refers to the number of sound channels; the .1 refers to the number of low frequency effects channels – commonly, but not always, a subwoofer.

The 7.1 systems start at around $1,000, but the sky’s the limit. Many people find that a 5.1 speaker system (five speakers including a subwoofer) is more than sufficient. These start in the $300 range.

So, what do you do if you live in a small apartment where space is at a premium? You don’t have room for all those speakers. And you already blew most of your budget spending $600 on your screen.

Don’t worry. There are systems marketed as “Home Theater in a Box” (screen not included) that will include at least 3 speakers, sometimes more. They may also include a DVD or Blu-Ray player and can be found for as low as $200, but can range much higher.