The Custom Installer: The Rules of Home Theater

Few sports hold as fast to their traditions as golf. In fact, one of the sport's ruling bodies is known as the Royal and Ancient. Before i was a custom installer, i was a golf pro at a swanky club in northern California. One of my responsibilities was officiating at tournaments, and believe me, it was important to have a deep knowledge of the rules before handing out an unpopular ruling to a member.

One thing I learned about the rules early on was the difference between "should" and "shall." While "should" refers to things a player doesn't have to do, but ought to, "shall" leaves little room for interpretation. Violating a "shall" can earn you a two-stroke penalty (or loss of the hole in match play).

Setting up a home theater isn't very different. While there's no rulebook, there are definite guidelines for correctly hooking up your TV, DVD player, surround sound components, and speakers to bring the theater experience home. And there are some things you should do to get the most out of your system, and other things you shall do to make it work at all.

Having pioneered surround sound, Dolby Labs is probably the closest thing the A/V world has to a governing body. Since speaker placement is one of the most important steps in installing a system, Dolby.com shows where your speakers should be placed for proper surround imaging (click on "Room Layout and Speaker Setup"). Follow these guidelines as closely as your room permits.

While your surround system should have speakers that can handle the kind of deep bass that shakes the floor, to fully enjoy the cinematic impact you shall use a decent subwoofer to convey a movie soundtrack's low-frequency effects (LFE) channel.

When connecting your TV, you should use the best possible video connector. You'll get a much better picture with a component- or S-video cable than with a composite-video cable. If you plan to watch HDTV shows, you shall use at least component-video cabling because composite- and S-video cables can't carry these signals. If possible, you should use DVI or HDMI cables because they keep the signal in the digital domain, bypassing a potentially degrading round of digital-to-analog-to-digital conversion.

To get the best possible surround experience, you should take the time to properly adjust your system. Using the setup facilities in your receiver to balance channel levels and compensate for the varying distances from each speaker to the listening position lets you hear the soundtrack the way the filmmakers intended.

To get the best possible sound from your DVD player or digital cable box, you shall use a digital audio cable, either optical or coaxial. This is necessary because Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks are sent to your receiver in digital form. If you use the analog connections, you'll miss out on a lot of the performance you've paid for.

Golf's Rule 6-1 says, "The player and his caddie are responsible for knowing the Rules." The same goes for your A/V system. If you don't know the rules, consider hiring an installer who does.

The difference between a system that's merely installed and one that's installed right is often a matter of details. But those details separate systems that look and sound good from the ones that look and sound great.

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