? Home Theater 101
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Home Theater 101: The Whats-What Of Home Theater

Home theater has been the new buzzword in the consumer entertainment industry for a few years now, but what the heck is it? Home theater is basically the duplication of the movie theater experience in your own home. With ever larger televisions being sold, people have been more interested in watching movies at home. Why put up with rude cell phone users, loud teenagers, or overpriced popcorn when you can just as easily enjoy the same movie in your own living room without the usual movie theater annoyances?

There were three main developments in consumer electronics that jump started the home theater craze: high-definition televisions, affordable surround sound, and the DVD.

Go Big or Go Home!

High-definition TV's (HDTV) are the hot item right now. So much so that most electronics firms have thrown their hat in the ring to build and market their own HDTVs. All this competition for your viewing dollar has resulted in several different approaches to building HDTVs. The five major technologies used in HDTVs can be divided into two different categories; flat-panel and rear projection.

Rear-projection televisions use a very bright light source to light up the screen.

  • LCD: Rear-projection LCD screens shine the light through three LCD small panels. The three separate colors mix to create the image.
  • DLP: DLP televisions use a special microchip called a DMD built by Texas Instruments. The DMD has millions of microscopic mirrors attached to its surface. The light source shines on the DMD chip and its tiny mirrors reflect the light toward or away from a spinning, multi-colored disc. The colored light then shines on the screen producing an image.
  • LCOS: LCOS televisions use a combination of both LCD and DLP. Here, light is reflected off of a microchip with an LCD panel attached to its surface. The light is then reflected to the screen to produce an image.
  • CRT>: Rounding out the category is the CRT rear-projection. These have been around for years. They contain three CRT tubes similar to those in standard televisions. The light from each tube mixes to produce an image on screen. Manufacturers are scaling back production of these sets because they're large, heavy, and the image produced isn't as bright as the other technologies.

Flat-panel televisions are arguably sexier than their rear projection cousins. LCD and plasma make up the two competing technologies in this camp.

  • Flat-screen LCD: These are similar to the screens found in laptop computers, but are much larger. Between 4 and 6 inches thick, these sets can be hung on the wall. A long-life bulb illuminated a large LCD panel that displays an image.
  • Plasma: Plasma screens are made of thousands of tiny cells that contain a gas mixture. When electricity is applied, the gas glows and the cell emits a color. The cells are lit up in tandem to form an image.

Confused? I don't blame you. :) The race to corner the HDTV market has led manufactures to develop a bunch of different technologies. Many have advantages over the other and all suffer from one disadvantage or another and consumers have to decide for themselves which one they prefer.

Just Like Being There

Surround sound is used to describe the technique of enveloping the audience in the movie's soundtrack and sound effects. A number of speakers arranged around the viewing audience give the impression of being in the middle of the action.

The first major surround sound technology was developed in the late 70's for movie theaters and was called Dolby Surround. In the 80's as costs came down, Dolby Surround was reborn as Dolby Pro Logic and was targeted for use in the home. Dolby Pro Logic is an analog encoding scheme that was supported by VHS and Betamax tapes and helped jump-start the early home theater craze. Today, most home theater gear you can buy supports either or both Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound technologies, a pair of competing digital formats.

The basic surround sound setup consists of 5 speakers plus a subwoofer, known as 5.1 surround. The center speaker, called the center channel, is positioned just above or below the television and is intended to handle dialog. A pair of left and right speakers are placed to the sides of the television about 6 to 8 feet apart; wider if you have a very large screen. The left and right speakers handle the heavy lifting of the soundtrack like music and sound effects. A pair of satellite speakers are placed on each side of the viewing audience to add atmospheric sound effects like the sound of a crowd or bullets whizzing by. The "point one" in 5.1 is for the subwoofer. The sub handles low frequency sound and adds emphasis to explosions or to a dramatic music score.

More advanced 6.1, 7.1, and even 8.1 surround systems are available for the home market as well.

Rise of the DVD

The last piece to the home theater puzzle is the DVD disc. DVD's can store a full-length wide-screen movie, one or more 5.1 surround sound soundtracks, several languages, and fun bonus features like behind-the-scene footage. Its enhanced quality over VHS tapes and small size over the Laserdisc helped it become the new movie standard in living rooms everywhere.

Final Thoughts

So that's home theater in a nutshell. Don't let the new terms and acronyms spook you because it's really not rocket science. In fact, it can cost you as little as $500 to get on the home theater bandwagon.

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