Building a bargain basement home theater

Popular new surround-sound systems notwithstanding, video lovers on a budget can vastly improve the cinematic experience and existing stereo to a regular VCR.

The Globe and Mail, October 12, 1996  

Comedian Rob Schneider jokes that the cheapest way to replicate the movie theater experience at home is to pour Coke all over your floor, invite tall strangers to sit in front of you discussing the picture while it’s playing and charge yourself $8 for a bag of popcorn.


It’s a cynical take on the home-theater craze that’s sweeping the nation, to be sure. But he raises a good point. As the hype mounts, it’s easy to lose perspective of the basics. A smart consumer who can’t afford a large screen TV, crisp laserdisc movie player and eight or more speakers — let alone a separate room to contain them — can, in many cases, vastly improve the home-video experience with little effort or expense. Fast is, people who own a good-sounding stereo may already be better equipped sonically than the local Bijou.

Beware of all-in-one systemsThere are relatively inexpensive home theater systems offering everything in a single carton, but they’re not considered the best means of improving your TV sound. “It’s not necessarily a good deal for the consumer, “ said Mark Mandlsohn, managing director of Bay Bloor Radio. “You’re better to put it together yourself rather than getting it from one manufacturer.” Price makes the all-in-one systems attractive. Some retailers discount them to as low as $699 to lure customers into the store. Paying that little for five speakers and an amplifier should make anyone suspicious, though. “There’s no reason why an all-in-one system can’t be good,” said Gerard Rejskind, editor of Ultra High Fidelity magazine. “Theoretically, you could make a good one. But nobody does.”

“Someone suggested that fixing up your living room to sounds like a movie theater is like fixing up dining room so it resembles Burger King,” said Gerard Rejskind, editor of Montreal-based Ultra High Fidelity magazine, which caters to audiophiles.


Before you overload your credit card purchasing an elaborate array of speakers and hiring electricians to rewire the house, it’s wise to consider a few fundamentals. Namely, do you have a stereo VCR? A stereo television?


If your stereo and TV-VCR setup are in the same room, try connecting the VCR’s audio channels to your stereo’s main amplifier component using standard cords (known as RCA cables). Almost any stereo system will have a pair of inputs marked as “A/V” (for audio-video) or “Aux” (for anything that isn’t a CD player, turntable or tape-deck). Separate stereo speakers will in almost all cases provide richer sound than built-in TV speakers. Even a basic mono VCR — as opposed to a hi-fi model that delivers stereo sound — can be plugged through a stereo amplifier with a $5-to-$15 bit of cable called a Y-splitter, available from almost any electronics retailer. You’ll get mono audio, of course, but it’ll probably sound better coming through your two well-separated stereo speakers than out of the TV’s weak built-in cones.


Many amplifiers nowadays come with some kind of signal-processing circuitry — Dolby Pro Logic, most commonly — that splits the audio signal into separate channels and offers the listener a variety of ambiences; it’s possible to make the TV audio sounds as though it’s happening in a church or a stadium. However, such processors are also sold as separate units, and Rejskind says consumers are better off buying a regular stereo amplifier and adding the Pro Logic later.


While most packaged home-theater setups come with at least five speakers (two in front, one for the middle of the room and two for the back), it’s important to keep in mind that quantity doesn’t equal quality. Most audio experts agree that two good speakers are better than five bad ones. This might not be apparent after a 10-minute home-theater audition in a store, but poor speakers can sound less than pleasing after hours of continuous listening.


“If there’s a limited amount of money available — which is the case with most people — the rear channels don’t do as much for you as good quality in the front channels does, Rejskind said. “One of the things that we demonstrate for people is that if your have top-grade equipment with properly placed speakers, it’s possible to have the illusion of sound coming from the rear even with no rear loudspeakers.”


If you’re looking to upgrade, it’s better to add a subwoofer first. These retail for as little as $300, although you won’t get much for that price. A subwoofer’s job is to add punch to the sound, specifically by reproducing the low-frequency sounds at the bottom end of the audio spectrum.


But beware: many cheaper subwoofers can’t reproduce certain bass sounds on most movie soundtracks — things like car engines, thunder or gunshots. Instead, they fake it by reproducing the higher frequency imitations of those sounds, known as harmonics. “That’s known as distortion, of course,” Rejskind said. “After a while they just sound annoying and things actually sound better with them turned off.”


When adding components, “go slow” might be a good mantra. It’s better to spend more money on a couple of well-chosen initial purchases rather than laying out a wad of cash for a “compromise” system you’ll want to junk in six months.