One of the great benefits of modern technology is the ability to bring experiences that previously were only available in specialized environments into your home. Probably the most exciting development in this regard is the home theater phenomenon, which allows you to bring a movie theater-like experience into your living room. Home theater systems, which range from simple add-ons for your existing TVs to elaborate setups housed in dedicated theater "rooms", are all about putting together a system that will let you enjoy television programs (both standard definition and high-definition), videotapes, DVDs, CDs and any other audio or video signals in a satisfying way. Think of them as the modern version of the stereo or entertainment system. And, just as different types of foods satisfy different types of people, so too, are there many ranges of quality (and cost!) in home theaters to meet differing desires and different budgets.

So, What is It?

While it's difficult to precisely define a home theater system in a way that satisfies everyone, it's usually considered to be collection of the following:

  • 30" or larger display (usually a TV, but sometimes just a video monitor)
  • DVD player and/or VCR
  • Cable or satellite TV service
  • Amplifier/audio receiver
  • Set of five (or more) speakers

In some instances, these are all separate devices attached together with a variety of different cables, while in others, some of these components are integrated together in various combinations. For example, with many "home theater in a box" systems, the DVD player and amplifier/receiver are combined in a single unit. In very sophisticated home theater systems, on the other hand, even some of the basic devices are sub-divided into even more components. For example, some systems have power amplifiers that are separate from the video switching and audio processing components (more on these in a bit) typically found in an audio receiver.

You can take this concept even further if you'd like. In some instances, there are dedicated, specialized devices that perform a single function usually performed within other devices. For example, while many televisions have built-in circuitry to convert standard definition interlaced video signals into a higher quality progressive scan signal, some people prefer to buy dedicated external video processing components that perform this function and bypass the TV's own circuits.

While many people would consider this overkill, the quest for video (or audio) perfection can lead product designers and customers to try and optimize every step in the chain. This ranges from the source material, such as a DVD or satellite TV signal, to the screen on which that material is played and the speakers on which it sounds. Everything from the cables connecting the components to the quality of the individual devices (and even so far as the "cleanliness" of the AC power coming from your outlets) can and often is upgraded to a quality or capability level that matches the demands of you the buyer. In fact, one of the joys—or challenges, depending on your perspective—of putting together a home theater system is figuring which combination of products best meets your needs. One potentially confusing point with component-based home theater systems is that often times the same function or process can be performed by one of several devices. So, part of the challenge is figuring out which functions should be performed by which devices. But, I'm getting ahead of myself…

The first thing to realize with any type of home theater system is that there are varying levels of audio and video quality and those quality levels are determined by many different factors, some of which are inter-related and some of which are not. The most important factors impacting the final results that you see and hear from your home theater system are:

• The quality of the original source material

• The type of outputs/cabling used to connect devices together, and

• The quality of the components that make up the system.

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