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 Installing your new Home Theater

This page is mostly from years of personal experience but I would like to invite all of you reading this page to please contribute.

The best system in the world is only as good as how it is set up. The excitement most of us feel opening up those boxes containing our new system components often turns to despair as we anticipate the task of assembly.  There are a few things you can do to get your home theater up and running sooner and better than you thought was possible. Installation is as much art as it is science. Remember that it's you that paid for your home theater and it's you and your family that has to enjoy it. Go with what looks and sounds right to you.


A few hours of planning can save a lot of time and trouble down the road. There are many programs around that let you map out your room and electronically move around the furniture. This saves not only time but often a trip to the ER for a pulled muscle. For those more prone to a low-tech approach draw a floor plan of your room on a piece of paper and cut out smaller pieces to represent the furniture and your equipment.  Know the limitations of your room and plan accordingly. For example, a bright, sunny room with many windows may not be the best place for a projection TV. If it is the only room that is feasible, perhaps drapes, blinds or shutters can be used.

How are the wires to the surround system going to be placed? Under carpets and across open areas is foolish at best. Plan the placement of your system so as to permit the surround wires to be placed along the baseboard of your walls. Wireless systems are nice in theory but not yet up to the standards most of us expect.  Will you need stands for the speakers? If so, will they be in an area that leaves them prone to being knocked over? If so, consider wall mounts. If this is the approach know the weight of the speakers. Make sure the mounts can handle more than the speakers weigh by at least 15%. Also make sure the mounts are secure in the walls. Don't place a 50 pound speaker on dry wall unless you want to find out what is behind the wall. 

Do you have something to place all the equipment on that is safe and accessible? Wall units are nice, my wife loves them, but they often limit access to the back of the equipment. Movable stands are also nice, they roll out for rear access but make sure they are strong enough for your system. Get the specs and add up the weight before you hear a crash one night and come into your entertainment room to see a pile of wood, wires and equipment on the floor.

Above all else, take your time. Do not rush any stage of setting up your home theater. A few additional moments now will save you a lot of time undoing a mistake. It's like the old carpenter's saying, measure twice and cut once. You are going to have many, many hours of enjoyment from your system, take some extra time to make sure you do it right. This goes especially for measuring and running the speaker wires, sitting up the cables behind the equipment and placing heavy pieces like the TV. Each extra few minutes spent in proper setup will save you hours fixing something later on.

Power Outlets

With the increased number of components comes an increased need for power outlets. Most rooms are not designed for so many devices. During operation, your home theater is going to pull a lot more power than a typical TV or stereo. This will have to be taken into account during the planning of the room's layout. Check your circuit breakers to make sure that the power lines in your home or apartment will take the load. Most will. You should also try to place your home theater in a position that will provide outlets controlled by a single circuit breaker. In this way, if you do cause an overload it will not affect the rest of your home. Since most wall outlets will only provide two sockets you will need to add more. The best way to do this is to purchase a power strip from a computer outlet store. These also have the added advantage of preventing power drop outs that may harm your equipment. Some home theater equipment come with power socket in the rear. Typically, these come in two varieties, switched and unswitched. The switched type will such off when the power strip is off. The unswitched retain power regardless of the state of the power switch. While this is a matter of concern with computer equipment but of little concern for home theater use.  You should carefully plan what device is plugged into what other device. For example, it is best for your VCRs, or for the more modern users, your DVRs to be plugged directly into the power switch rather than chained to another component. In this way, you can record programs while the bulk of the system is off. If your cable box requires external power (and most do), provide a separate outlet socket for them as well. The TV will usually use the receiver for all of it's sound. Once you hear the difference between the native sound of even the best TV and the augmented sound you get from the receiver you will not want to listen to the TV by itself. It may be best, though, to provide the TV and receiver with their own socket just to prevent an overload. The decoder and DVD can be chained through the receiver since they have to be on together for use. One last thing here, make sure the main outlet for your system is not controlled by a wall switch. One little flick and all the power goes off. If you are waiting to tape a special program this can be a problem. One last thing, label the plugs near the outlet. You will find this very important if your DVD freezes up and you have to unplug it you will know exactly which plug to disconnect. 

Light Sources

Also plan for where the light sources are going to reside. It is best for home theaters to use indirect lighting, placed behind the TV screen. In many cases this is not possible. The next best is soft lights off to the side. Total darkness is almost as bad as too much light. While too much light will wash out the pictures, too little light can result in eye strain. In lighting your home theater try to achieve a balance between what is best for you and what is best for the system. Consider dimmer switches. They can adjust the ambient level of light and are relatively cheap and easy to install. There are even models that can be controlled by a remote control. Now that will really impress your friends! Another perk is it makes for a nice romantic setting. 


You can do a lot more than sitting waiting for the delivery of your equipment. Lay out the wires ahead of time. Always get more wire than you think you need. Measure the distances from the place the receiver or amp will be and add ten percent. This will give you enough wire to run the connections through the stand or wall unit and not place tension on the wire and terminals. Don't secure the wire until everything else is in place. This permits last minute changes for the unexpected. As noted elsewhere on this site, don't try to save a few dollars on your cables, go for a higher end cable like Monster cables, you will see and hear the difference. You can get the same equality for less with the high end cables from places like Radio Shack. They are usually thicker than the regular cables and have gold tips.

Prepare a work surface to lay out the components and the manual. I know most people think the manual is something to read after everything is set up but it is best to read it before and during the actual installation.  Long gone are the days of just hooking up a set of wires to the back and listening to the music. Again, label the wires. This will help not only during initial installation but you will thank this tip when you have to move the system or make changes.

Wire Organization

Get wire holders. They can be either little plastic ties that hold the wire together or flat tubes that run along the walls. These prevent the back of your system from looking like a nest of snakes. This may not seem important now but you will thank this little hint the next time you have to troubleshoot a problem or choose to upgrade your system. You can even use twist ties from garbage bags just keep the wires together. It looks neater and it is easier to follow when you have to trace the wires.

Color code your wires. Most stationary stores sell little colored stickers or labels. The labels are best wrapped around both ends of the wire.  Write down something to identify the wire like R/L for rear left. When you get the manual place the colored labels in the inside cover with what wire each color corresponds to for later reference. You should also do this for connectors to the VCRs, DVD and TV. A little documentation at this early stage will save a lot of grief later on. Also, in the modern system there are a LOT of connections to the power (AC here in the USA). Don't forget to document these as well. This will come in handy if you have to reset a device. For example, a dirty DVD disc can freeze up a DVD player. The best way to reset it and permit the disc to be ejected is to unplug it. This is a lot easier if the plugs are labeled. The back of most home theater systems are a tangle of wires. Don't expect to make sense of it when you need to change something. Document and label ahead of time and all during installation.


Make a diagram of the setup and keep it safe. What seems like a brilliant solution to your wiring dilemma will seem like a plate of spaghetti in only a few short weeks. Take a look a my diagram for idea if you like. Make a separate diagram for the video and audio connection so the diagram does not become too cluttered.  Get an envelope and keep your documentation with the manuals. Remember to update the documentation when you make changes. 

Here is a simple formula to set the delay times for your surround speakers.

d1:     distance from listening position to  front speakers.
d2:    distance from listening position to rear speakers.
If d1 is equal to or less than d2 set to 15ms.
If d2 is less than d1 start at 15ms and increase by 5ms for every 1.5 meters of difference between d1 and d2.


Okay, you have the system up and running. There are still a few more things to be done before you sit back to watch that first movie.

Test your system. For DVD surround sound systems chose a DVD that really uses the technology. 'Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith' or any of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy are favorites of many for showing off Dolby 5.1, DTS, EX and ES. Watch the whole movie later, right now go right to one of the battle scenes and listen for the effects. Are they clear and crisp? Do they follow the action? Do they go smoothly from one speaker to the next. If not check the wiring and connections. 

Reference Films   

There are many tapes and DVDs out there that can be used to test your new system and, lets be realistic, to impress your friends. For Dolby Prologic tapes use something like 'Independence Day' or 'Men in Black'. (Yes, many people still have legacy collections and have VCRs around.) Any modern Sci-Fi with the Dolby Prologic or surround sound logo will do. Make sure the sound is realistic and balanced.  Dolby Prologic receivers and amps have a test tone. Use it to balance your speakers.

For DVDs several discs are outstanding in putting your system to the paces and testing its limits. Right now, the best disc is still The Abyss. This disc shows off every aspect of your system form full Dolby 5.1 surround sound, DVD-ROM applications, special additional information and picture clarity. This DVD while older than most offers a good test of seamless branching. Another great demo disc is Terminator 2 or Pink Floyd's The Wall.  There is also a Dolby 5.1 test tone present on the decoders. Set them to how you feel is best. After all, it is your system. Consider a good calibration disc if you have a laser disc or DVD system. I have reviewed the best I have found with links above and to the left. Either one will walk you through the steps of getting the most out of your TV and sound system. Currently, DVD International's Digital Video Essentials is about the best around but it may be difficult to find. It is well worth the effort though. You might also try Avia Guide to Home Theater. These discs  will test a wider range of system functions including ProLogic, Dolby 5.1 and DTS providing head to head comparisons. They will also allow you to optimize the video settings for your systems. For DTS systems the test tone usually will not function, its part of the Dolby standards. Still, you can use a couple of great DTS DVDs. Sin City (Extended Cut) has both DTS and Dolby 5.1 so you can easily compare the two formats. Also try Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind which is also in both formats.

Get an envelope and store the manuals. You will need them later. Write down the serial number and date of purchase in the manual. Also any notes on problems you had during installation and (very important here) what you did to solve the problem. Store your new diagrams and calculations for speaker placement in the envelope.

Read through the manual carefully. Not only will you find many features you may not have been aware of but, believe it or not, a lot of time and money went into the manual to optimize your enjoyment. Look for and read any care procedures and safety measures you should take.

Now, set up is almost done. The last thing is while you are using the test tapes or DVD play with the controls to make sure you like the sound and picture. The default settings are usually midline for all dials but you own the equipment and you should set things up for how YOU like things. Experiment, be creative but first write down the factory settings in the back of your manual.

Now for the most important part of Home Theater, enjoy your new system!!


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