Home cinema system buying guide
With the necessary technology more affordable than ever, home cinemas are now an achievable reality rather than an outlandish audio-visual dream. If you’ve ever wanted the full cinematic experience from the comfort of your own living room, then it’s definitely something to look into. There’s plenty of choice out there, whether you want a simple budget-friendly system or a sophisticated set-up worthy of a movie star’s mansion.
What exactly is a home cinema system?
While a large television or projector screen is one necessary component of a home cinema, what really makes the experience is the surround sound. This isn’t just great for immersing yourself in your favourite blockbusters, but also for gaming and watching major sports broadcasts too.
The systems come in a variety of different configurations, but usually include multiple speakers, a subwoofer, a receiver, and sometimes (but not always) a Blu-ray DVD player too.
The most common components are as follows:
- Soundbars: These all-in-one units provide a simpler and much more affordable alternative to multi-speaker systems. A bar-shaped device contains a number of different speakers placed together, which when in use, projects the sound out in such a way that you’ll hear it around you. They usually sit beneath your television, and require very little in the way of wires.
- 2.1 surround sound: These systems are ideal for smaller spaces, since they utilize only two speakers and a subwoofer, which sit neatly either side of your television. They work in a similar way to soundbars, using psychoacoustics to fool your ears into thinking the sound is all around you. Some include built-in Blu-ray players, but some don’t.
- 5.1 surround sound: Comprising an array of 5 speakers and a subwoofer, a 5.1 surround system is the crème de la crème of home cinema systems (if you don’t count the limited number of 7.1 and 9.1 systems that is). Suitable for larger living rooms or dedicated home cinema spaces, they deliver the same kind of sound experience as professional movie theatres. These too sometimes come equipped with a Blu-ray DVD player. Most have the benefit of thin cabling, which makes it easy to conceal along skirting boards or under carpets, so there’s no risk of tripping over things.
Things to consider for your set-up
If you only have a small living room, a large multi-speaker set-up probably won’t be necessary. The opposite is true if you have a particularly large space to work with. A room’s size dictates every component of a home cinema, from the size of your television or projector screen, to the number of speakers you’ll need. If you’re putting together a cinema room from scratch, then make sure you take the dimensions into account along the way.
If you’re buying additional speakers alongside what your system supplies, then it’s always a safer bet to match models from the same brand. This eradicates any potential compatibility issues, and makes the overall listening experience better balanced. A subwoofer is also a worthwhile purchase if your set-up doesn’t include one, since they reproduce very low bass frequency sounds that you may otherwise miss. Alternatively, if you buy a high quality pair of studio monitors, you can get accurate bass down to levels of approx 40 Hz and shouldn't need a subwoofer, unless you're after a boomy sound, that is. Bear in mind that cheap subwoofers tend to resonate at a fixed frequency rather than accurately reproduce the lower notes.
If your home cinema system doesn’t come with a Blu-ray DVD player, then it’s worth buying one separately. Unlike standard DVD players, Blu-ray players and Blu-ray DVDs provide a much higher quality picture, which will perfectly complement your high quality sound.
Universal remote control
These are hugely beneficial for home entertainment in general, let alone a home cinema with multiple components. Universal remote controls allow you to conveniently manage everything from a single device, as opposed to dealing with several remotes every time you want to watch a film.
Power surges can cause costly damage to electrical equipment – and when you’ve got a lot going on in one room, it’s always a potential risk. Surge protectors are a very affordable solution to help protect your kit.
Voltage regulators are another option, but usually more costly: not only do they act as surge protectors, they increase the voltage when it gets too low. Believe it or not, in areas where electricity is mediocre, more appliances get fried from low voltage than from high voltage.
Finally, brands such as Furman offer power conditioners, which not only do the above but "clean" out any interferences that could cause buzzes: if you want the best, look for a power conditioner.
Installing your system
If you’re not technologically minded, connecting up your home cinema system can seem like an intimidating task. Fortunately most manufactures make it easy, with clear instructions and colour-coded connectors.
How expensive is a home cinema system?
While simple sound bars can cost as little as £50 and greatly add to your audio experience, you’ll have to spend a bit more money for all the bells and whistles. A decent multi-speaker set-up will cost into the hundreds, and there are many affordable 5.1 systems from the likes of LG, Samsung, and Panasonic out there. The more premium home cinema systems can easily run into the thousands, with brands like Bose producing some of the most desirable models.