A Cost-Conscious Renters Guide For Building Your High-Def Home Theater

Posted Tue Jun 30, 2009 at 01:30 PM PDT by Mike Attebery

High-Def Digest walks you through a series of tips and tricks for putting together an impressive high-def home theater setup that won't break the bank or cost you your deposit!

By Michael S. Palmer

“I live in apartments. Two story town homes. Condos. Even houses. I live alone. I have roommates. I am single. I am married. I live in the top floor. I live in the basement. I have neighbors above, below, and next-door.

Hello, my name is Renter. And I am an HD-junkie.”

Hello Renter,

It starts so innocently. I know. You see an HDTV for the first time -- maybe in a store, maybe at a friend’s home -- and you know you want it. No… you can’t possibly live without it. Bright and clear and seemingly perfect.

So you pick up a new HDTV, bring in an HD-DVR from your cable or satellite provider, and bam, you’re up and running. Only not. The truth of the matter is that TV speakers are lifeless, and high-def from your cable company isn't always as top notch as you might like it to be (think 720p). Oh, and now that you have a big screen you notice that DVDs aren’t quite as sharp as they used to be. Yep. It’s time for Blu-ray. And dynamic speakers.

In a utopian paradise, this is where you would draw up blueprints, rip out walls, build a soundproof, acoustically magnificent, room-within-a-room, and come home every night to a dedicated home theatre. A 1080p projector shines on a 150-inch screen. Audio and video cables hide in your walls. And your seats are those D-Box Motion Code recliners where you literally sit ON the subwoofer.

But sadly, Renters, you don’t have free reign. You live in an apartment directly over the building managers (an aging couple who need to shout their conversations because they’re both deaf, yet somehow, you tip-toeing across your floor they can hear). You put down expensive deposits and you hope to get most of it back. And you’re not even ready for the ultimate system, because who has many thousands of extra dollars sitting around, collecting dust?

Hello, real world.

But Renter, this shouldn’t stop you from having an amazing home theatre. When you’re ready to dip your toe in the HD waters, try these steps and cost-saving tips. Done right, and with a wee bit of luck, you’ll do this under budget and without forfeiting your deposit.


RESEARCH: Scour the internet. There are tons of forums, blogs, and audio/visual recources to help you out. All online. Available for free. Peak around, find the ones you like, then read product reviews, ratings, and recommendations. Learn prices, technical specs, and what you might want (Satellite, bookshelf, or floor-standing speakers? How many HDMI inputs do you need? What about audio? 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound?).

SET AN ACHIEVABLE GOAL FOR YOUR BUDGET: As an example, let’s say we want to watch 1080p HD video on Blu-ray, play video games, and experience the sonic firepower of uncompressed digital audio in surround sound. But shopping for HD home theatre gear can be like house hunting -- never fall in love with something you can’t afford. And the great news is there’s a system for just about every budget. So, find a comfortable number, and stick to it. That’s your ceiling. End of discussion.

TV TIP: To truly enjoy 1080p video, you need two things: a capable TV, and a screen large enough for your viewing distance. The home theatre gods over at THX have some great advice. For a cinema feel, avoid smaller than 50 or 60 inches, if possible.

A/V RECEIVER TIP: Research receivers’ THD (Total Harmonic Distortion), which is noise/static caused as volume increases. You want a rating between .01% - .08%.

DEMO BEFORE YOU BUY: Speakers aren’t universally appealing to everyone’s ears. Certain receivers are more for music reproduction, others are more geared towards cinephiles. You need to test everything in person. Decide for yourself what sounds best to you. This is a big purchase. And you need to live with it and hopefully love it for a very long time.

DEMO TIP: Bring your own media, both music and movies that you know and love, which have wide dynamic ranges (low, midrange, and high notes), and active surround sound effects. And don’t be disappointed if you can’t get a multi-channel surround test of every system. If you find a front pair that you love, you’ll probably enjoy the center and surrounds from that same brand/model line.

WHERE TO DEMO: You have THREE options. Harass friends who already have gear in your price range, walk into a Big Box Store (Best Buy etc.), or find a home theatre specialist/custom installer.

BIG BOX STORES vs. HOME THEATRE SPECIALIST: Renter, can you walk into Best Buy, find a sales associate, give him or her a budget, and walk out with a middle to high end surround sound set up? Definitely. I’ve met many Best Buy/Magnolia employees who are passionate and knowledgeable (also, they do not work for commission), but you still need to walk in knowing your stuff.

For my hard-earned dollar, after one great experience with a smaller, boutique, professional installer, you’ll never go back. Not only can they match and beat prices in the big box stores, but you’re often dealing directly with the owner who can actually make deals. And, in our troubling times, it feels pretty damned good helping out Main Street over a mega-corporation.

Specialists and installers live for home theatre. They have to, or they go out of business. They’ll introduce you to brands you didn’t see in your research, and they often know more about what you actually need, than what you think you need, which saves you money. Big box stores seem driven to push you up into better more expensive models, where a specialist wants to give you exactly what you need for the money and space you have.

HOW TO FIND A REPUTABLE HOME THEATRE SPECIALIST: Fire up one or more of those audio/visual forum you found during research. Reach out to enthusiasts in your community for personal recommendations. Remember to always search for any question you have before posting a new one. And don’t worry if some specialty places are snobby when you’re not spending mega-bucks. You’ll just leave. The smart ones know a young renter purchasing his first system will want to come back to buy the bigger system someday if he’s satisfied.


RECYCLE GEAR: What do you have that can be used in the new system? Maybe you have a receiver that’s a couple years old, or some leftover bookshelf speakers suitable for your rear surround sounds.

KNOW YOUR COSTS: Find the cheapest price online, and use that as your starting line for haggling. If a retailer won’t beat the price, walk away.

BUY THE WHOLE SYSTEM AT ONCE: The more you buy, the more a retailer can toss in free accessories, or overall discounts. When you’re ready to have a complete surround sound system. Take the plunge.

CASH: Credit Cards charge companies for their services. If you pay by cash or check, some retailers are willing to pass the savings onto you.

LAST YEAR’S GEAR: Retailers are always getting in newer models. If you play it right, or just happen to be lucky, a retailer will give you a discount on last year’s gear to clear out their storerooms.

FLOOR MODELS: Wouldn’t recommend this for HDTVs, given the amount of in-store abusage, but definitely check out available demo speakers. They’re probably the exact system you just evaluated and loved. The trick here is to see how the store maintains and cares for its equipment. If everything looks up to par, take them home (they usually come with a full manufacturers warranty).

WHERE NOT TO CHEAP OUT: Put money into your center channel. In movies especially, so much information is delivered from that one speaker.

NECESSARY POWER WATTAGE: Do you really need 130 or 140watts per channel? Speaking from a personal experience, a home theatre specialist recommended a receiver with 100watts/channel for my apartment. So I dropped down to a less powerful unit, and saved hundreds of dollars. And believe me, I haven’t even begun to turn my system up to full strength, yet it’s deafeningly loud and showing no signs of strain or distortion.

SUBWOOFER OPTIONAL?: This one goes out to my cousin, Apartment Building Renter. If you live above someone, they probably won’t enjoy thundering bass exploding over their heads and shaking their walls. Save a few hundred bucks by finding floor-standing front speakers that have BUILT-IN subwoofers (Definitive Technology is one company that does this). They won’t be quite as powerful as a stand-alone sub, but they come pretty close.

5.1 IS STILL AWESOME: 7.1 is all the rage in Blu-ray capabilities, but let’s be clear here. Stay at a very immersive 5.1 set up, and you just saved on the cost of two speakers, and the hassle of running two more speaker lines. Further, 7.1 is not a consistent feature on Blu-rays, and if you run a 5.1-mixed movie on your 7.1 system, no sound will come out of the two rear speakers (unless you activate you’re a/v receiver’s artificial signal processing to do so. But why would you want to alter a professional, uncompressed mix? An amazing team of artists worked long hours to make the 5.1 perfect.).

ACCESSORY MARK UP: Do not buy Monster Cables, or any brand for that matter in a big box store (even Radio Shack). It’s literally like burning money. Truck on over to Monoprice.com. They have everything from HDTV wall mounts, speaker wire, HDMI cables, and surge protectors, at wholesale prices.

MORE INTERNET SHOPPING: Renters, we need to share our love for Amazon.com. Nine times out of ten, their prices are significantly lower than brick and mortar big box stores (Blu-rays especially). If you can’t find a deal for the gear that you loved, order it online. Many items have free shipping, and (in California at least) it’s TAX FREE. The only trouble is being able to hold back that “I want it now” temptation of going to a store.

PS3: Want Blu-ray (with every HD Audio codec supported including DTS-MA, Dolby TrueHD, and Linear PCM), DVD playback, media server / internet capabilities, and access to truly life-like games? It’s all in one system. The PS3. Hands down the fastest, most capable Blu-ray player on the market for its price. One drawback, however, is that it doesn’t have streaming capabilities for things like Hulu or Netflix (without 3rd party software), but hopefully this is only temporary.

HD AUDIO TIP: If you do get a PS3, to experience uncompressed audio, you need an a/v receiver that has at the very least 1 HDMI input, and 1 HDMI output. But you’ll probably want more inputs for other/future devices.


FAMILY FRIENDLY (AKA, GIRLFRIEND PROOF): Sorry ladies, but let’s be honest, pure terror ran across my mother’s or girlfriend’s faces when they saw 8 remotes on a coffee table. Take a bit of that money you saved, and get a computer programmable universal remote. The Logitech Harmony series is cheap for beginners, and easy to program/use on a daily basis. Problem solved (marriage saved).

PS3 REMOTE TIP: Logitech now has an accessory to run the PS3 with their Harmony remotes. You’ll need this because the PS3 game controllers and remote (sold separately) use Bluetooth.

CALIBRATION: It’s running. It looks and sounds good, but Renter, time to make your system hit peak performance, for which you have two options. Hire a professional (best results, but expensive), or do it yourself (cheap, but might not be perfect). If you can live with ‘good enough’, you can pick up a calibration disc like DVE HD Basics for under $20, or if you happen to have a Blu-ray with the THX logo, one of the menu options will be a calibration process called the “THX Optimizer.” Another good choice is Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark. Simple and easy to achieve great picture and perfect sound.


SPEAKER WIRE TIP: Since you can’t run wires through walls, your best bet is to hide audio wires under a rug, along the floorboard, or behind bookshelves/furniture. Another (more expensive) option is to get wireless system for the surrounds, so there aren’t any rear wires. There are drilling and other installation options as well, but again the costs are high, and you have to fix it all before you leave. You can always have whatever you want. It’s just never free.

SETTING THE CROSSOVER TIP: It’s important when you have a subwoofer to tell the receiver, even if you have floor-standing speakers, that you have small speakers. This ensures that the subwoofer will handle the lower frequencies (usually below 80Hz).

NEIGHBOR FRIENDLY: There are certainly an infinite number of tiny tweaks you can make, but we’re renting, and living in the real world. This is just about getting you started. But, it’s very important as you are testing out and enjoying your cinematic wunderkind (side tangent: in addition to rolling out the red carpet for Blu-rays, try watching sports or playing your favorite video game in surround sound. You’ve been missing half the experience) to turn it up and talk to your neighbors. Is the sound or the bass bleeding through a little or a lot? Learn your limitations and be respectful, because some day you could live next to someone who never sleeps, and spent more money than you on speakers.

Good luck, and enjoy. I never knew how much of the music or movies I was missing until I purchased my first surround system that included floor-standing front speakers. And as for the best review my system ever received? My girlfriend lost 50% of the hearing in her right ear a few years ago, but these speakers are so clear she can actually hear in both ears.

Remember, Renter, you are not alone in your addictions, and this is only the first step in your home theatre journey.

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Tags: Michael S. Palmer, High-Def Retailing, Home Theater Setup, HD Gear (all tags)