How To Build The Ultimate Home Theater During The Pandemic

With the world shut down and movie theatres feeling like a distant memory for many, the time spent watching things at home has skyrocketed. We've never been in a better position to be able to have a home theatre setup that allows almost any film in the world to be viewed via streaming, disc or any other media in your library. Gone are the days of sub-20" tube sets and flaky VHS recordings, we've now got with the touch of a button hundreds of thousands of hours of content broadcast in 4K resolution on massive, thin sets.If you've been spending lockdown staring at your screens, watching documentaries about tiger royalty or delving into whatever British crime thriller amuses, you may be itching for an upgrade. The financial situation is obviously precarious for many, and even the logistical operations of bringing in new models has been hampered by COVID-19. Still, what better time to ponder your dream system than during a time many of us are stuck waiting out this modern plague.While it's easy enough to go and plop a few hundred down on a simple set, there are a myriad competing technologies that one needs to navigate. It's easy to get lost in the marketing jargon, and even easier to take your equipment home and not get the best of it. While by no means exhaustive, here's a list of the things you should know when you're planning to make your home A/V equipment live up as close as it can to the theatrical experience.

Leveling up: The Basics

On a general basis, there are really three ways to go – the budget setup, the moderate system, and the dream scenario. For the budget conscious, make sure you get the biggest set you can afford, and if you can invest after the fact in a moderate soundbar, perhaps in a package with a dedicated subwoofer, do it. I can't stress this enough – even for those without a lot to spend, get the largest set you can, as with increased resolution we're meant to be in closer proximity to a larger screen.If you've in a middle ground with a bit more to spend, look at least at the 65" models of sets, OLED or QLED based on placement/preference, and invest in a surround receiver with a surround speaker package or higher end soundbar solution.For the dreamers out there, you can pick up everything from 77"-plus sets or 130"-plus projection screens combined with surround processors and power amplification, 12 or more speakers arrayed around the room pumping out Dolby ATMOS and DTS:X soundtracks with enough power to piss off any neighbor. For purchases at any level, look into investing into a media box (Apple TV, Shield, Roku, etc) that plugs into HDMI port instead of worrying about purchasing a television based on its built-in VOD capabilities. The easiest way to think about this is to treat your set as a monitor, and have the boxes (which can be upgraded far more easily) do some of the heavy lifting, allowing you to get a better experience, especially on lower end sets.Finally, when you bring your set home, set it to cinema mode, ISF, Filmmaker mode, etc., and make sure that most of the processing capabilities are disabled. A good rule of thumb is to buy the biggest and best set you can find that has all the bells and whistles and then disable the vast majority of the functions, resulting in a top-line presentation without any interference. The cheat sheet: if on a budget, buy whatever low-cost 50-55" LCD you can afford (they're almost all pretty much the same, and getting bogged down in deciding between competing $500 sets will drive you nuts.) For those with a bit more to spend, look at the higher end 65" LCDs sets (they'll have more illumination zones for a better picture), or jump up to OLED. For those with a small fortune to spend, look at 77" OLEDs or top line LCDs, and wait a few years for the 8K set you're inevitably going to pick up and move the current monster to another room in your house.To better understand the myriad choices out there, here are some of the key features, confusing options, and pitfalls that you may encounter when trying to replicate the cinema at home.

Going to Need a Bigger Boat: Choosing a TV Size

Deciding on the size of your screen, like every other portion of your build, is a balance between what the space will allow with the budget you're working with. Deciding between 55" and 65" doesn't sound like much, but since that measurement is diagonal across the screen, the difference in picture area is actually quite substantial, somewhere in the region of 40% for the 10" jump. On some models, the smaller sets use reduced chipsets, making the picture quality notably worse. With 4K resolution, you want to be closer to the set than you normally would think in order to benefit from the increased clarity. There are dozens of calculators out there, but 7 feet away for a 55" isn't unreasonable, and way closer than most intuit. Think about how far away you are from your phone or laptop, and the corresponding way the frame fills your vision – this is the ideal, and to watch a 32" from 12 feet away really does make the argument that your tablet is giving a better experience. Some argue that you should consider size above everything – with price equal, go big before all considerations – and there's merit to that argument. The immersion that you experience with a larger image is one of the things that truly makes films feel "cinematic". Measure your space, find the biggest set that can fit there, move the seating as close as you can, and you're on the right track.

The Big Question: LCD vs OLED

Is this the Coke versus Pepsi of the TV world? Well, it's more like wine versus scotch – both are booze, both have their fans, both allow you to spend fortunes with diminishing returns the higher you go. There are certainly cheaper, crappier wines than cheap, crappy scotch, which correlates as well, with pretty much every OLED already being a premium product. The short version is this – the vast majority of TVs use a form of LCD, where a panel with multicolored cells is back-illuminated. On cheaper sets, this illumination is uniform (think of it like those industrial fluorescent lights you saw in high school), while more advanced sets have individually controlled illumination zones that only brighten the portion of the screen with picture information, allowing for better blacks. The more zones, the better the picture, and the more expensive the set.LCD screens can blast out light and newer technologies such as what Samsung uses with their very popular QLED sets do a remarkable job with picture quality. But don't be confused by their clever nomenclature that looks like another technology from a distance. Triggering those illumination zones does affect the (very small) delay of picture information, so for gamers the lag is substantial when making the thing look good. Turn off all that processing and the lag is minimal, but the picture quality is worse, making a trade-off that is less than ideal. Since LCDs panels are manufactured in far higher numbers, and the process allows for larger pieces of glass, you can get some massive screens for prices that were unheard of just a few years ago. OLEDs are more expensive, but the price gap is diminishing every year, and with brands like Vizio releasing extremely competitive pricing on their 2020/2021 models, the decision to go OLED is increasingly reach for many. OLED works in a fundamentally different way than backlit LCD – essentially each pixel is its own TV set, able to produce a given amount of light in a microscopic fashion. When part of the image is black, the pixel is completely turned off, meaning you get absolutely pure blacks. For cinema lovers this is a boon, and it's an image that can be startling to those that haven't witnessed a properly calibrated set and what it can do with the likes of starfields or dark, moody images. The tradeoff comes in the form of lamination – there's a brightness limiter baked into the sets to avoid you melting the unit. That means that an LCD will definitely look brighter in a bright lit room, and if you're having sets in public spaces or even in your kitchen the choice is obvious.Put into a batcave and the OLED truly shines. It's yet another complicated conversation, but our perception of contrast (the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the image) is directly affected by ambient light, making the OLED's ideal environment be a dark, dedicated theatre. Side by side in a blacked-out room the difference between even the top-line LCD and OLED is dramatic, and if you've got the space for such a setup, it's the perfect set for you.Horror stories about burn-in are overblown, but the pixels, or cells, on an OLED do age and reduce in brightness at different rates, so in rare cases you can get some logo retention. I've had a set for six years with thousands of hours of viewing on it and no issues, but it's fair to say that if you're just pumping out kids programmes with static logos, OLED may be overkill even at the lower prices.For me, a cinema guy, OLED in a dark room is the ultimate, beating everything up to $50,000 laser projection, and even then doing a better job with some content. I trade massive, 85"-plus size for a smaller OLED to get the best image I can, while dreaming of a semi-affordable giant OLED in the near future. For now, it really comes down not only to personal preference but the type of content you prioritize and the location you're placing the set in the first place.

The Other Big Question: Projector vs TV

There are many advantages of going with a projector in a dedicated space – the size can be truly huge, with jawdropping 130"-plus widescreen presentations doable with units costing just a few thousand dollars. Like TVs, there are competing underlying technologies – LCD vs DLP, conventional lumination vs laser – that each have certain aspects that work better with different source material. There are short throw projectors where the unit sits right in front of the screen, and more traditional ones that are placed or mounted behind the viewer, making placement an even more major consideration. There are dozens of screen materials available. Some screens are perforated to allow you to have speakers behind the image, exactly what happens at most local multiplexes. That said, even the most diehard projector fan will note that it's sometimes a pain in the butt to get an image that really shines. Prices have dropped dramatically, but you're still looking at many thousands of dollars to get a unit that can truly compete with even mid-level LCD/OLED. Even on top models there's some lag when switching signals, so TV channel flipping is a bit of a pain (obviated, of course, by the emergence of streaming, where the app is a consistent signal). If you've got the room for a dedicated setup, it's certainly a way to go, but you don't want to skimp – a low cost TV will clobber a low-cost projector, and the bigger the image being spat out the more the issues of color fidelity, upscaling and clarity are magnified. Add in issues like HDR tone mapping and you're opening a can of worms that most people simply don't wish to deal with. That said, projectors are now the last bastion for 3D playback, so that's something to consider for lunatics like me that know the wonders of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road in its preferred stereoscopic presentation.

4K, 8K and the Future

Let's be clear: resolution matters. Let's be clearer: resolution with modern sets is about the 50th thing you should be worried about. For most purposes, for example, a 4K OLED will have significantly higher real-world clarity and sharpness, especially with moving images, than an 8K LCD. Additionally, there isn't a heck of a lot of 8K content out there, and the vast majority of it is demo material shot specifically to show off your fancy new set. The penetration of 4K (AKA "ultra-high definition") discs is still nowhere near where 2k-ish Blu-ray discs have occupied, and while 4K streaming has been a boon, the broadcast options for that content remain dire.Remember this: if you put anything into your set, it'll be presented in the resolution of the screen. Play VHS on your lovely new TV? Hey, look, it's been "upscaled", to use the jargon, to the native resolution of your set. It's this upconversion that sets apart the good TVs and projectors from the great, and allows everything, from the lowliest analog signal to the highest bitrate disc, to look as good as it can. The advantage of a current 8K is that it will have the highest-end upconversion capabilities of that particular brand. Additionally, some of the largest sets from manufacturers only appear in 8k (take the $30,000-plus 85" OLED from LG for a drool-worthy example). There are definite advantages to "future proof", and if you're throwing gaming into the equation, that massive number of pixels can matter.But even for the money-no-object crowd, for now, in 2020, the 4K top end models still not only do the job, but do so even on the exorbitant side within a budget that only a few years ago would have been many times as expensive. In future sets, 8Ks will be the only ones with the higher end processing (Samsung has started on this path), which of course will push more and more customers into picking up an 8K set. If  you're going down that road, the need for the biggest set you can is even greater, and considerations about seating location even more critical – there's nothing more silly than to blow tens of thousands of dollars on an 8K 65" set and then sit back 12 or more feet – you're simply not going to be able to see any resolvable difference between that and even a standard HD set.Things are changing, and rapidly, but the transition from 4K to 8K really has much more to with future content such as sports and special events more than it does for the likes of movies and shows. Your money is, as of now, better spent on better sound setups, seating, maybe even a fancier popcorn maker rather than chasing the resolution dragon. 

It Goes Up to 1: The Best Sound Option for You

Sound is a major component of the cinema experience, and I've spent decades building a home theatre setup that started with a 20" TV paired with substantial speakers and worked up from there. There are really three ways to go – use the built in speakers on your set, use a soundbar, or invest in a full sound system. Some sets have premium sound built in – some Sony units are using the front glass as a driver, using this acoustic surface as a large transducer. It's a very clever idea, and certainly makes the center channel focus right where the picture is emanating. But for most, the best plan is to disable the built-in speakers and look at an external solution. The middle ground is increasingly popular, with soundbars delivering clear, directional audio with a bit of punch, particularly if paired with a companion subwoofer. Cable management is minimal, and some new models even include Atmos-compatible up-firing speakers along with side directed and EQ'd drivers that mimic a dedicated surround system. Soundbars will often far outlive your TV set, meaning that an investment in sound can last for many generations of your visual setup. That factor is certainly true with dedicated speaker systems, though that in itself is an even bigger pit to fall into. It's feasible now to build up a true Atmos system – with speakers in front, side, back and above – to truly mimic if not surpass the audio experience at your local theatre. There are hundreds more choices to make, from the brand of speakers, to deciding between a receiver or a processor with dedicated amplification, etc. You can get silly and quickly – I'm running 7.1.4 Atmos driven by B&Ws Diamonds for 7 channel surrounds, an SVS 16" sub in the rear, and some SVS Elevations for heights, driven by a Marantz processor feeding four power amps – and you can quickly and easily spend tens of thousands on this nonsense. The audio result is worth the effort and expense, of course, but it only makes sense if you're truly dedicated to having that home theatre room in place.You don't have to go nuts, however, to do better than a soundbar. Even an inexpensive 5.1 setup with speakers mounted in front, center and behind will do a better job than just about any virtualized solution. Even a simple 2.1 setup, with decent stereo speakers and a musical sub will often trump a mid-level soundbar. Finally, there's always the option to go with headphones – it's not sociable, to be sure, but buying a better pair of cans as you save up for your dream system might do the trick, and will certainly be better than the tinny, thin sound many settle with. 

Shinydisc vs streaming: Physical Media in a Streaming World

This is, of course, a bit of a misleading divide, as almost everyone who plays UHD/Blu-ray/DVD discs also has streaming services set up for their system. There are still significant advantages to playing movies on discs, from much higher bitrates (which almost always result in better audio/video presentation on revealing setups), to having access to a cherished title without ever fearing it will be tampered with or dropped by the given platform. Still, even for this diehard disc fan (owner of hundreds of Laserdiscs and HD-DVDs to prove it), it's clear the future is streaming. Owning the 4K (and 3D Blu-ray) of Frozen II doesn't get me the exceptional making-of documentary on Disney+, and there are still hundreds of titles in my collection that have supplementary materials or alternate versions absent from VOD. These are early days, of course, and it's easy to see a time when the bitrate/bandwidth will allow for quality surpassing even the 100gb discs at home in our collection. Until that happens, having a hybrid setup that allows for both disc playback and streaming seems a wise choice.Every 4K/UHD player will also play Blu-ray and DVD, so you're really investing in what's likely one of the last disc players (save game systems) you're likely to snag. For streaming, there's the ubiquitous Apple TV, which allows you to playback competing services but is the only one that allows for its own channel. There are also exceptional streaming boxes from companies like nVidia and Roku that allow you much more flexibility, including storing your films on a home server as well as accessing the dozens of platforms. Whatever you choose, the best option is to wire these boxes with Ethernet, and to ensure you've got the best internet you can afford. During these times, streamers like Netflix have actually downgraded their bitrate, and while the difference is negligible and only noted by the purists and obsessives, there's still a case to be made for playing off disc rather than slurping the film down over the internet.

Presentation: Cables and Mounts

Often decisions about your TV setup are constrained by factors that have nothing to do with picture quality or presentation. There are worries about where you can put the damn thing, whether your kid or your pet will knock it over, or how it will affect the neighbours when you are blasting out John Wick at two in the morning. Maybe you want to go with 5.1 but don't want to deal with running cables – there are wireless solutions for that! However, the best, most stable way of getting most of this stuff to work is to actually have cables run to the appropriate equipment. If you can, you'd run a bunch of the wires in the wall, though this does lock you in to a specific placement. TVs can be easily wallmounted, and OLEDs in particular with their sci-fi levels of thinness can look spectacular hanging in mid-air. You're going to ideally run cables – HDMI, power, Ethernet – hidden behind the set and terminating where you're placing the rest of the equipment. That said, I'm not one afraid of a little clutter, and would much rather have the best sound and picture over some minimalist vision of a cableless world. It's up to you (and likely your partner) about what kind of balance should be set.

Setting the Mood: Turn Off Most Settings

The symptom of terrible-looking TVs is usually due to people leaving it on its default mode, usually labelled "vivid" or "dynamic". The point of these picture modes is to look good under the harsh lighting conditions of your local box store, where often people will snag a set that they think is the "brightest". Without going too far down the rabbit hole, we perceive colors in sometimes strange ways, where an overly-blue image appears more "white" to our eyes. If you've gotten used to that "torch" mode as it's often called due to its retina-burning intensity, the proper picture that's closer to the artistic intent of the filmmakers sometimes looks dark, soft and more red than expected.For those willing to invest even more, and when social distancing will allow, an ISF calibrator can come into your home and tweak your set to be as accurate as possible in comparison to the professional grading monitors the studios use to make their content look a certain way. The conflagration that occurred during that infamous Game of Thrones battle episode provides a good example of not only the swatch of improperly set-up sets, but how bit-starved streaming can do horrific things to imagery that would be fantastic with a proper setup.  "Filmmaker mode" is a new initiative that basically takes the guesswork out of much of this, and some modern sets even register movie-style content and automatically switch, allowing you to watch your nonsense reality shows in whatever picture mode you wish while something like Lawrence Arabia in 4K doesn't look like a video game. Even without that automatic setup, there some simple steps can be taken to get the picture quality as high as possible.First, remember that each input often has its own picture settings, meaning if you make your Blu-ray look great, your cable/satellite box or streaming box may still be a mess, as might whatever streaming service you've selected from the built-in apps on the TV. Second, be patient – once you've made corrections to the mode, things will look weird, and you'll think you've gone too far – it's too dark and too red – and feel an itch to move back. Don't do this. As crazy as it is, your eyes will adjust in time to this more accurate mode, and, more importantly, by properly setting things up, what you're doing is providing more picture information, allowing you to see the images without huge chunks of that data being stripped off to emphasise a certain part of the palate.For anything you watch that you care about, make sure that you disable almost all the post-processing, especially motion interpolation often called "smoothing". This is the most dreaded addition to TVs in years, meant to replicate a video game-like look by artificially creating frames-between-frames for movie content. The end result is a plastic, horrid mess that gets derided as a "soap opera effect", and while it has its defenders for sports programming or the like, it's truly anathema for any other purpose. There are things you can do to help remove the inherent flaws in 24 frame film presentations, but as always, these should be done without ruining the original look. A good starting point is to simply disable almost everything on a mode such as cinema, ISF, custom, technicolor or the like, and add in only those elements meant to assist rather than completely rework the image presentation. 

The Final Cut

Rule one: watch stuff. All the equipment in the world is useless without actually taking the time to gorge on cinema's greatest treats. Even the biggest and best home theatre can't replicate the supreme joy of attending a theatrical screening where the whole audience is taken along for an emotional ride, so this whole thing is inevitably a compromise. That said, it's a golden age to be able to see almost anything you've ever wanted to see if you're willing to invest in the setup and tracking down the titles. Nothing you pick up will be forever, and your streaming box and perhaps your TV is likely to be the first to be replaced in relatively short order. But by investing in something that gives you an opportunity at home to turn off the lights, turn off your phone (!), and fall into the world of the movie, we can all feel a little bit more connected to what we are watching. There are innumerable places you can check online about given models and reviews, and delving into the AV forums is a scary place for the uninitiated. Decide on some fundamental things – how big a set can fit, where it's going to be placed, can you get away with a dedicated space, how much can you really afford – and go from there. Don't get lost in the weeds, and don't for a moment think you can buy a "forever" set, as they simply don't exist anymore.Yet above all, find stuff to love. Explore stories that challenge and inspire. Dedicate time to watching, so that at home it's not just background noise but treated like you treat an outing to the theater. Go bask in the glow of a magical movie, and once things get back to whatever the new normal will be, go support your local cinemas, for there's so much more to see.