5 Lessons Learned from Building a Home Theater

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Recently, my wife and I decided to finish off our basement. She new exactly what she wanted, a yoga room. I knew I wanted a home theater again. We had one in a previous home when we lived up north complete with a 100 inch projection screen and and 7.1 surround sound system.  

That was 8 years ago and I had learned some lessons from that project. However, I learned many more lessons this time around. There were a few that carried over from the first time around, but a few more that came up during this build. I'm going to share five of them.

Lesson 1- Buy from a Local Store If You Can

After the initial completion of the project, I hated my home theater and didn’t want to even use it.

This is a lesson that I learned the first time around, but it was infinitely more important in my most recent home theater experience. We used Suess Electronics of Appleton, WI. The advantage of using a local dealer is that they really care about your happiness and need to make sure that customers are happy with their purchases and services provided. 

A local company also can generally provide better advice about it's products and make recommendations that something like Best Buy cannot. For example, I wanted to use my M&K THX-150 speaker setup that I have owned since around 2000. When I was looking at Best Buy none of the employees knew what those were. At Suess, the owner knew exactly what they were and why I wanted to use them. 

Beyond that, they helped recommend a Dolby Atmos setup for my space and helped design and order Kinetics Sound Absorption Panels, theater chairs and a display for our theater. 

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As Lesson 2 will expand upon, even experts at your local dealer cannot know everything about every product and how it will interface with the products you have and want to use. After a few months of deliberation (it takes a while to finish a basement) and my wife advocating for a bigger screen we decided upon the Sony XBR-75X940E. I'll be writing a more in depth review/experience with this TV, but I was unhappy with it. In fact, after the initial completion of the project, I hated my home theater and didn't want to even use it because of the TVs issues. 

Once the new TV was delivered, I couldn’t have been happier with my setup and now love it!

This is where that local dealer came into play. It had been about 2 months since I first purchased the TV from them when I reported problems with it and they helped to get Sony to replace it. Unfortunately, the problems persisted and after trying everything I could I was fed up and went back to Suess. They switched it out to a different model, an LG C7 OLED. Once the TV was delivered, I couldn't have been happier with my setup and now love it!

If I had gone to Best Buy, I would have been out of luck and left very unsatisfied. While my wife was unhappy because the TV was 10 inches smaller and that we lost money in the deal as prices had vastly changed and the Sony had to be sold as used, she quickly forgot about it once we started watching and we both enjoyed our new theater.

Lesson 2: Get Advice, But Do Your Homework

As I stated above, even experts know everything about every product and how you plan to use it. That problem is made even worse by today's technologies. When I purchased the Sony TV, Sony had promised an update to add the Dolby Vision HDR (High Dynamic Range) standard in the future. Also, my wife and I stream all of our content. We used to purchase DVDs and Blu Ray discs, but with streaming offering 4K and HDR I felt we were set.

I always like to have all of my bases covered with standards if possible. In January, Sony updated their 2017 models to support Dolby Vision and that's when things go even worse.

HDR is still kind of the Wild West

What I learned after purchasing the TV was that HDR is still kind of the Wild West. I'll be enumerating my struggles with this in a future post, but essentially certain every TV, streaming box, and application on those boxes support different standards and resolutions. This was exacerbated on the Sony 940e and they way Sony chose to implement their own set of standards. 

I had to scour forums like AVSForum, YouTube, and a few others to learn more about the issues I was encountering with the Sony. Had I done more homework earlier in the process I might have made a different decision in the beginning, save us money and frustration. 

My point is that you need to make sure you do your research. Check the forums, post questions about what your setup will be and see if people have any thoughts/recommendations about it. 

Lesson 3- Bigger Isn't Always Better

When we lived up North and Built our first home theater, we put in a front projection system. At the time that was the least expensive way to get a large screen theater like atmosphere. We had a 100 inch screen and while it was pretty awesome, one lesson I learned was that projection systems had one flaw that I just didn't like very much and that was black level. For me inky blacks are what my eye prefers and I had decided some time ago that I really wanted dark blacks over a really large screen. In fact, I don't really enjoy going to the movie theater much because of how washed out the images are. For you deep blacks may not be your thing, but a bigger TV still isn't always better.

To get the best black levels there is really only one choice, OLED. We have an OLED TV at work and after seeing it, I had fallen love with the picture and knew that was the route I wanted to go. As I said above my wife surprised me by wanting a larger screen and with 77 inch OLED TVs being over $12,000, I knew that wasn't an option so I got a larger screen, but with and LED/LCD TV from Sony. The blacks were nearly as good as the OLEDs, but the screen was larger and I thought I had hit the jackpot. 

Obviously there were issues with the Sony TV and once I had exchanged it for the smaller OLED, my wife and I quickly learned that the screen size isn't the most important issue. She doesn't even notice the size difference and neither do I. Even if deep blacks are not your thing something to remember about a larger screen is that flaws will be that much more obvious as well. Bigger can be better, but as I mentioned above, do your research.

Lesson 4- Pick The Right Components For You

Even though I just said bigger isn't always better, it might be for you! If you care about deep blacks get an OLED, if you really prefer super bright colorful images, look at a Samsung or Sony TV. If you don't care about 4K HDR save money and get a really good TV without some or all of those features. 

If I had gone with my initial instinct, know how much I enjoyed black levels being black, I would have spared myself, my wife and my dealer some time, money and effort. I highly recommend going to a store where you can bring your own material with you. If stream, bring your Chromecast or AppleTV box with you. Bring your favorite movies on Bluray or buy a copy of a new 4K HDR movie that you really love to bring with you. Bring your favorite music or movie along to test out speakers and receivers. 

If you go to a local store they will help you setup a demo for the models you are interested in to compare models. This will help to make sure what you see and hear matches up with your research.

Lesson 5: Sound Panels......Get Them!

I mentioned above that we got sound absorption panels for our theater. This is something we didn't do in our last build. I cannot stress enough on how much this impacts the experience of the room. It makes the room look like a theater, but more importantly it feels and sounds like one too. We we enter our theater, it's immediately apparent that this room is for watching movies or TV shows. 

In our theater up north sounds bounced everywhere and it was sometimes hard to hear dialog especially at lower volumes. That is no longer an issue in the new theater and while this does add cost to your build, it is made more difference than I had imagined it would. It also helps to work with you dealer to get the right products for your room in the right places. You don't want to cover your entire walls in panels, some bouncing is a good thing. 

 

Well those are my five lessons from building a home theater. I'll be adding some thoughts on that Sony TV and the other components we use in our theater. 

Please feel free to leave comments and questions below!