What You’re Doing Wrong in Your Home Theater

A web site called televisions.com has compiled an interesting list of The 20 Most Common Mistakes in the Home Cinema. The article has a lot of worthwhile tips and advice, and points out many errors in home theater design that I see all the time.

I’m not going to repost the entire list here. You can visit the original article for that. What I will do is look over some of the highlights.

Some of the more obvious tips include buying a TV that’s large enough for the intended viewing angle, and making sure to calibrate it. Seating distance is also important. If you sit too far from the screen, you won’t be able to make out a lot of that important fine object detail in a high definition picture.

Another big mistake is mounting the TV too high. I bet we all know someone who’s bought an expensive HDTV and then placed it above a fireplace, practically flush with the ceiling. That’s only going to serve to give you neck pain. Ideally, the center of the screen should be at eye level or slightly below.

Light-colored walls and furniture are very bad for home theater purposes. They cause reflections on the screen, which will wash out the image.

I’m a big believer in having a general “Off” switch. All of my home theater gear is plugged into a power strip that I can switch off when not in use. Many pieces of HT gear suck up an unexpected amount of electricity even when in Standby mode. That’s going to run up your electric bill, and may put unnecessary wear on the electronics.

I have a feeling that a lot of home theater owners expect their surround speakers to produce localized sound effects. Back in the day, when I installed my first surround sound package, I kept the back speakers too close to my head, because I thought that I wanted to hear sound effects ping-ponging between them. In fact, the surround channels should produce a very diffuse soundfield that fills the entire back of the room and is difficult to localize.

There is one item on the list that I don’t necessarily agree with, or at least don’t understand what the site is getting at. It’s listed as “Mistake No. 17: Converting the video signal.” On the one hand, the text of the article advises, “Don’t use playback devices to tailor the video to the display device. This should only happen later in the chain, at the point where it becomes impossible to avoid.” And yet, the graphic to go with this item promotes the DVDO Edge video processor as a good tool to “convert video signals.” I assume that when they refer to converting the video signal, they mean deinterlacing and scaling. I don’t believe that there are really hard-and-fast rules for this. You should use the device that does the best job of it. In some cases, that may be the DVD or Blu-ray player. In others, it may be an A/V receiver, a video processor, or the TV itself. This will entirely depend on the specifics of the equipment in the signal chain.

Regardless, overall this is a very useful list of suggestions. Although some of our hardcore home theater fanatics may find many of the items obvious, I’m sure others will learn something interesting. Give it a read.


  1. Jane Morgan

    I have a 50″ plasma. When I sit 5-6 feet back it kills my eyes. It feels too wide. Like sitting to close to a game of ping pong. When I sit at 8-9 feet back it feels too far, like I’m missing some of the details. I can’t find the sweet spot, so I keep the couch at 8, and pout.

    What kind of screen size / seating distance do you guy use for your personal home theater?

    Is it easier to sit closer with a projector?

    • Josh Zyber

      The general rule of thumb for seating distance is 1.5x the screen width. For a 50″ diagonal 16:9 HDTV, that would be roughly 6 feet. But that’s just a guideline, not an absolute. The specifics of your room environment may dictate something different.

      Typically, it is easier to sit closer with a projected image. One of the problems with sitting too close to a TV is that the light is being projected in your direction, which can be hard on the eyes. With a projector, you’re shining the light past you from behind. It will have some reflection back your way, but isn’t as hard on the eyes.

  2. I have a small issue with speaker placement. First, I definately agree the cneter should be below or above the television, and mine is. My issue is with the placement of the FL, FR, RL and RR speakers. Idealy, yes, I understand what they are saying about the speaker placements, but this is not always the best scenario. For their suggestions, this would only be practical with a long rectangular room. Having your front speakers within half-the-television-width from your screen is really only practical with extreamely large screens. I have a 42 inch screen. If my speakers were in that sweet spot, than only one person can really enjoy it.

    Properly setting your speaker levels does, in my opinion, more than speaker placement alone does. I space my speakers out – in fact, have them on the far sides of the room – probably about 3x the television width away from the screen. For those sitting in front of the television, the sound really does not seem to be coming from far away, because the screen feels their vision, and speakers are properly leveled and phased, so the surround sounds natual. People sitting at the rear sides of the room still get directional sound, its just off balanced, but sounds way better to them than everything sounding like its coming from the center of the room.

    I also am going to fight with them on positioning of rear speakers. No, you do not want them right by your head, but I do disagree that you want them BEHIND you. This is impractical for many living rooms (may be fine for an actual “Home theater”), and creates a wiring nightmare. I have found the sweet spot is to have them on the SIDE walls, pointed toward my ears in my favorite viewing area. Properly leveled, these speakers seem to produce the best surround experience – at least in a 5.1 setup. Why? Mainly, rears are used to add depth to sound. When it is used for directional sound effects, the phasing and inverse phasing encoded in the signal will make these effects sound like they are coming from somewhere other than where the speakers are actually placed. Behind Enemy Lines is a great example of movies like this – explosions and gunfire sound like its coming a good 5-20 feet BEHIND my speakers, and certainly do feel like, at times, the sound is coming from behind me, even though the speakers are not placed there.

    Now, if I can just get the landlord to let me paint my living room Black or Dark Red. Their argument is those colors are hard to paint over, and adds low resale value to the house. 🙁

    • Josh Zyber

      You make fair points. The rules about speaker placement are not set in stone. Each room environment will dictate the specifics of what is needed.

      Regarding painting, what I did is cover the walls and ceiling around my screen with dark fabric to reduce reflections. It’s easily removable if I move. This may be a good compromise that won’t upset your landlord.

  3. EM

    Articles like the one Josh points to—and, for that matter, like Josh’s own—are useful reality checks, but one must also apply one’s own reality check. As Josh points out regarding speaker placement and wall paint, one must season according to taste or at least circumstance.

    My TV isn’t terribly high, but it is a tiny bit higher than suggested, vis-à-vis the seating usually available in the room. I happen to like it that way. I think some of my guests have disagreed, but you can’t please everyone. Actually, the TV frequently ends up being very high relative to my eye level since I most often lie on a pad on the floor while watching. My neck may end up craning, but that’s what pillows are for. And if my neck still feels too strained, I can put on my prismatic 90° glasses that allow my head to face the ceiling while I watch images from the direction of my feet. I’m not going to change my TV height on the basis of these articles—I’m doing OK as things are.

    On the other hand, I really appreciated the tip about the general off switch. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it on my own—I’ve done the same for my house-current–powered Halloween decorations. After reading the article, I plugged the theater components’ strip into an on/off doohickey that operates by remote control (I can also use the same remote for independently turning off and on the “mood lighting” and the regular lights). I’m really happy with the revised setup.

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