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Home Theatre

A True Home Theatre Experience

Today’s HDTVs offer an impressive high-def picture in incredibly thin, compact cabinets. But as TVs have gotten thinner, there’s less room for the speakers. The result? The sound you get from your TV’s small speakers just can’t do the picture justice. There are a number of options for getting better sound, but if you want to get as close to that “movie theater experience” in your home as you can, a full surround sound system is the way to go.

You’ve got two options for surround sound: building your own system or choosing a pre-packaged one. There are pros and cons to each. For example, building your own system will often offer higher-quality construction and performance, and give you the power needed for medium-large size rooms. But a pre-packaged system might save you some money and be easier to set up. You can also find some cool features in pre-packaged systems, like wireless rear speakers, that might be harder to get with separate components.

In this article, we’ll help you decide if a pre-packaged system is right for you, and go over some features to look for. Or, if you’d like to create a customized setup, check out our article about putting together your own home theater system.

Is a pre-packaged system for you?

Pre-packaged systems are great choices for people who:

  • Want a full surround sound experience
  • Want cool features, like iPod® docks and built-in Blu-ray players
  • Have a smaller viewing room
  • Prefer sleek, compact speakers
  • Want an ultra-easy setup

Choosing a home theater system

All pre-packaged home theater systems come with at least five to seven speakers, a subwoofer, and an A/V receiver — beyond that, there are lots of additional features to choose from. So to help you figure out which ones you want in your system, we’ve put together the list below.

Video options

Disc player — Some systems build a CD/DVD player directly into the receiver to create a single media console. A lot of the newer home theater receiver/players even offer Blu-ray playback, so you can continue watching your DVD collection while enjoying today’s high-def movies. Nearly all DVD or Blu-ray players connect to your HDTV via HDMI, and can “upconvert” your regular DVDs to a higher video resolution that will match your TV’s high-def screen.

HDMI connectivity — Most newer home theater systems offer an HDMI output to make a high-def video connection to your HDTV. Some also feature extra HDMI inputs, allowing you to switch between your high-def components.

Internet connectivity — Some newer pre-packaged systems also allow you to connect the receiver to your existing home network and stream web content from services like YouTube™, Netflix® (subscription required), and Pandora® Internet Radio (subscription required).

Sound quality

Power specs — Always check the power specs, and pay attention to how the system was rated (if that information is given). For example, a receiver that pumps out 130W of power to each speaker but has a total harmonic distortion (THD) of 10% won’t sound as good as one that delivers 50W of power to each speaker at .08% THD. You can learn more about power ratings in our article on choosing a home theater receiver.

Powered subwoofer — “Powered” subs have their own built-in amplification, and can deliver deeper, more accurate bass. “Passive” subs get their power from the receiver, like the rest of the speakers, and won’t pack as much of a punch.

A few of the newer systems, like the ones that offer Blu-ray Disc™ playback, also offer built-in decoding for Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD™ Master Audio. These two new surround sound formats give you exceptionally detailed sound to go with the high-def picture on your TV.


Inputs — If you want to connect additional gear to your system, like a cable box or a gaming console, then you should check to make sure it has the type and number of audio and video inputs you’ll need. For example, if you plan on hooking up high-def sources to your receiver, then make sure that it has some HDMI or component video inputs. Pre-packaged systems that offer a dedicated home theater receiver generally come with more inputs for additional gear.

Automatic speaker calibration — With automatic calibration, you simply place the speakers following these basic guidelines, and plug an included mic into the receiver. The receiver plays test tones and “listens” to your speakers, adjusting their settings to best suit your room and setup. You can check out our video to learn more about how automatic speaker calibration works.

Wireless rear speakers — Some home theater systems come with a second, smaller rear amplifier that you can connect to your rear speakers. It saves you the hassle of running long wires from the front of your viewing room to the back. If it’s not included with a system, you may be able to get it as an optional add-on.

Music sources

iPod® dock — Many pre-packaged home theater systems now come with iPod docks in the box. If the one you’re looking at doesn’t, then check to see if the manufacturer makes one to match that system. Be sure to check the compatibility of the home theater’s receiver with your generation iPod, and read closely to find out exactly what kind of playback you get. For example, some systems will only play music from your iPod through the speakers; others will also give you video playback, onscreen menus, and full control of your iPod with the system’s remote.

Satellite radio — Some home theater receivers come “satellite radio ready.” This means that you just need to purchase a separate satellite radio tuner — and a Sirius or XM subscription — to enjoy hundreds of commercial-free music, talk, and sports broadcasts through your home theater system.

PC networking — If you have a lot of music stored on your computer, then you might want to look for a system that offers some kind of PC networking device. Usually a small, separate unit that’s available as an optional add-on, it will let you stream music from your PC to your receiver and listen to your music through the system’s speakers.

Multi-room audio — Some manufacturers are branching out from the main home theater room by adding separate speakers that you can place in other rooms in your house. These speakers can play the same sound or music as the home theater system, or let you enjoy music in another room while your friends or family enjoy a movie on the main home theater system.

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