What Defines a Home Theater?

The other day I was fiddling with my car radio in an attempt to find an interesting station, not an easy exercise in my end of the woods. I landed on a real estate broadcast. I’m not in the market to buy or sell property, but I stayed with it rather than dial while driving. My car doesn’t have one of those all-singing, all dancing, voice activated in-car entertainment systems—”Alexa, play soft jazz.”

The subject being discussed was what sort of home improvements homeowners were investing in these days. In the current environment it may seem odd that some folks are putting in swimming pools, adding bedrooms, and remodeling here and there. But if it keeps contractors in business and their workers employed I’m happy for them. One question asked of the commentator was if these upgrades included an uptick in home theater installations. Given the current (non) status of commercial movie theaters, this seemed logical. The answer given, however, was a definite no. With the ability to now watch and listen on portable devices such as smartphones and tablets, the responder claimed that some current home theater owners are even converting their entertainment spaces to home offices or other more pressing needs. Yuck.

With all due respect to those happy to cuddle up with their iPhone and a pair of earbuds to watch the latest Avengers movie, or something newer that hasn’t yet shown up in their local, still shuttered movie theaters, I beg to disagree. But that raises the question of what, exactly, constitutes a “home theater.”

For some, it’s the sort of thing the commentator here was talking about: a dedicated room set aside strictly for movie watching. It’s typically either highly decorated in an AV Interiors style ranging from an Egyptian crypt to the command deck of the USS Enterprise, or a nondescript black hole for wringing the most from a separate projector and screen. These specialized installations have spawned an entire home theater industry since the '90s. They can range from reasonably affordable but hardly cheap (often with a lot of DIY as sweat equity), to contracted work at prices that would make a Ferrari dealer blush.

There’s something to be said for having a dedicated space for watching movies with family and friends, one that can also serve as a comfortable retreat for just listening to music when the full A/V experience isn’t the on the schedule. For most of us, however, a home theater is part of a larger living space, often in a living room, den, or family room that can also be used for purposes other than just watching movies. Some call it a media room. It’s also often a larger and more open-concept space than that dedicated spare room, a plus for those Super Bowl parties but also a negative for your budget (the bigger the space, the more grunt the system must have to fill it with the big sound that home theater fans crave).

For many folks their home theater is simply a TV and a decent soundbar. While many of us might turn up our noses at this concept, don’t judge. Many of the TV + soundbar brigade will one day expand out into something closer to a true home theater. It isn’t a big stretch of the imagination (though it can be a stretch of the wallet) to see them later acquiring an AV receiver and a full set of surround speakers, including a subwoofer or two, and passing that soundbar off to cousin Sam. Having a living space that also doubles as a home theater isn’t the sort of home upgrade that registers with a real estate professional. It is one, however, that often requires the approval of the decorating committee — the biggest obstacle of all. “Suggestions” to avoid if at all possible include mounting all of the speakers in the ceiling (apart from Atmos speakers that thrive there), and speakers mounted in the walls (in-wall speaker vendors are reaching for their torches and pitchforks even as I write). In-wall speakers can work, but you only have one shot at getting their location right, a 50-50 chance at best. If you get it wrong you’re stuck with it, unless you like patching holes in the walls. In-wall subs are an even worse bet; subwoofer positioning is critical for achieving the best result and no one can tell you the best locations in your room without first trying them out. You can’t just "fix it in the mix."

There’s also the ever-popular, ever regrettable, TV over the fireplace. Decorators hate TVs, and putting one above the fireplace is often considered the only workable compromise. But unless you watch from a recliner you’ll get a nasty crick in your neck from that Lord of the Rings marathon. And be sure that all the chairs are positioned to look straight at the screen, or can be easily moved into that position and later returned to where they were for more routine activities. A couple of accent chairs or even recliners are easier to move around than a heavy sofa. We’ve all seen ads showing smiling folks watching a TV positioned at 90-degrees to them. Time for a neck brace.

But I digress — a lot. I could add dozens of similar observations, but not today. A home theater is what you make it. I’d never call it an iPad and a set of headphones, but that real estate commentator obviously knew little about what a home theater could actually be. He was thinking, as realtors often do, of dedicated spaces rather than a more generalized concept for a better home entertainment experience. And with many of us spending more time at home these days, either by choice or not, that’s even more important now than in more normal times.

Traveler's picture

My "home theater" consists of my Sony tv (which has excellent sound), xfinity box, roku box and BluRay; it doubles as the living room. If Roku TVs stay around and disks continue dying the next iteration may just be the tv and cable box.

prerich45's picture

Bravo Zulu Mr.Norton!!!

MatthewWeflen's picture

I would say that a home theater is any setup that someone improves because they want to watch movies on it. So a TV on a shelf isn't a home theater. But once the user makes a purchase (e.g. sound bar, AV receiver, bias lighting, movie recliner) to improve the movie watching experience, then it's a "Home theater."

This obviously includes dedicated projector setups. Clearly that person is interested in watching movies at a higher level than just a bare TV.

alchav21's picture

My Home Theater is 65" Sony UHD 4KTV, Hardwired to a Fiber Feed Switch. This way I can access Amazon Prime, MA, Netflix, Vudu or any other Streaming Provider. I have a 700+ Movie and TV Show Collection, and IPTV with a Network DVR at my ISP. So I can watch regular TV or switch to my Android Apps to access my Streaming Providers. Home Theater is what you make it, and I'm very happy with this one!

drny's picture

A True HT/Home Cinema must consist of a dedicated room with no natural light, a large screen (100" or above), a home cinema projector, and at minimum 5.1 Surround system consisting of actual separate speakers. A surround A/V receiver or separate Processor and amp units. Your source component might include a Bluray player (UHD preferably), a Streamer, and or a PC based media storage server. If your system does not meet these requirements, you have a MEDIA room. That is a room in your home in which Audio and Video based media is enjoyed, and that's ok. But is not a Home Theater.

Chris Teeh's picture

I don't believe that you have to have an actual THEATER-like setting. That is - something set up with professional cinema seating, screens (optional) or decor. Do you need that in order to watch a movie as it should be watched? Give me (what I have) one of the best TV's, 4K, surround sound with Atmos and correct calibration - and i'm good! I don't need cinema seating. When i'm not watching movies, I watch sports. There are no crowds now, so surround sound is not needed.

audio-addict's picture

I've always been stunned by the placement of the TV over the fireplace in all those HG TV home shows. Never mind where the speakers and other equipment might go. Until I can afford a larger place, my "home theater room" with 5.1 sound doubles as my living room.

barfle's picture

In my long-ago youth, I cobbed up an audio connection between my tiny GE color TV and my stereo. Many of my friends were wowed, and I thought it was cool, too.

When I could afford it (1977), I bought a Sont CVM2150, a 21” receiver/monitor that had direct audio out, so I didn’t have to rig that, and when a TV show was simulcast in stereo on an FM station (Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth,” as well as LAPO doing a Beethoven’s 9th come to mind), it was truly a special event.

A few iterations later, and I have a pretty good HT setup in a bonus room over the garage. I won’t stop working on it until I stop breathing.

3ddavey13's picture

I help an electrician friend of mine doing mainly home renovations and occasional new construction. Over the past year, three of the four homes we worked on were adding basement home theaters. While only one was equipped with theater seating, two were having projectors installed and all were dedicated. Two of the three use in-wall speakers.

Awsander7's picture

I am by no means well-heeled, but I love movies and good, big sound. I've been putting together home theater systems for my personal enjoyment since the early 80's.
I currently have three separate home theater setups, each with its own personality and purpose. The most used of the three is in what the home's floor plan describes as the "Great Room". What makes this room great, in my opinion, is the wall-mounted 70" LG TV whose audio is pushed through a Sony AV receiver driving a Definitive Technology 5.1 speaker system anchored by two DT towers with built in subwoofers.
The second system is upstairs in the Game Room and features a wall-mounted 55" LG TV coupled with an old Sony Receiver that has survived only because it has a tape loop circuitry necessary to handle the two Bose 901 Series III front speakers. Two Bose surrounds and a Pioneer center channel speaker round out the speaker set, quite admirably I will admit. It is the least used of the three systems, but not the least impressive.
The smallest of the three systems is in my modest sized home office and is still being upgraded. A 45" wall-mounted (do I have to keep repeating that?) LG TV which sends its audio signals to a Pioneer AV receiver, which in turn delivers them to a Klipsch Heritage 5.1 speaker system that is currently awaiting the arrival of a subwoofer to complete the compliment.

krell789's picture

Back in the 80s I subscribed to a couple of audio video magazines. One magazine, video review had a review of a gentleman that was putting in a audio system in his basement. His designer was Theo Kalomirakis now I don’t know if he coined the phrase Home Theater but it was the first time I heard it. He describes it as a properly designed dedicated space for movie watching. Custom installers said at the time the walls, ceiling, floor, need to be isolated from the rest of house. Preventing unwanted noise from entering the space in other words lowering the noise floor and affecting other parts of the house. Treatments need to be placed in room where needed to help dial in the sound . Lighting needs to be placed in room properly so that it does not cause a reflection on screen. Choosing proper colors to help with the ambiance to make it feel special and also improve with visual performance. When it came to your electronics that was the last equation to the room. Back in the 80s where it all began custom installers were saying put the majority of your money in your room not in your audio gear. Home Theatre was about the room . Well that all changed by the mid 90s when HTIB ( Home Theater In Box) showed up it changed everything now it means audio gear, actually it evolved beyond audio like someone said earlier Home Theater can mean anything. The word Home Theater does not have the same meaning anymore it’s been completely watered down. People attached it to a wide variety of things. Like HD meant video, then they attached it to audio, glasses, Binoculars, telescopes, and they probably wont stop there either.