I am attempting to write a brief guide to help anyone make a sensible home theater purchase.
I will not go into details or confuse you with all sorts of specifications and technical jargon.
Home theater systems come in many formats, from 2.1 to 8.1 or more. Simply put, these numbers tell you the following.
The first number tells you how many front and/or surround speakers are included. For instance, 2.1 means just 2 front speakers and no surround speakers. The larger the number, the more speakers are involved.
The 0.1 number just denotes a separate channel dedicated to just bass output. That's pretty much expected in most home theater systems.
Which format is better?
It really depends on how it fits your lifestyle. A 2.1 system is easiest to set-up. It will not clutter the room. You will not have speakers hanging from all the walls and ceilings.
However, a more elaborate system, such as a 7.1 for example, will have 7 speakers consisting of 3 front speakers (left,center,right) and 4 surround speakers. Obviously, this is a much more complicated system. It can create surround sound effects similar to that of a movie theater, which the 2.1 system simply cannot match, no matter what the manufacturer may claim, in my opinion.
The more complex the system, the more difficult to install. More speaker wires need to be run across rooms, up walls, etc. More speakers to be seen, which may affect aesthetics, and so on. There are also many more possible settings with complex systems, which you are expected to do, in order to balance the sound output to match your room acoustics. Some owner's manuals explain these settings better than others. It can get quite confusing.
Proclaimed output power is a big issue. There are systems that claim 1,000 watts or more of total power. What does that really mean? Not a whole lot.
Audio manufacturers have moved away from all the high fidelity standards which were so prominent in the '80's. Therefore, specifications such as power outputs are less meaningful.
It is not unusual to find a huge home theater component such as a "receiver" with a mid or high price tag that claims such high output. This unit may or may not deliver this much power.
Then again, you may also find another entire system, in the same store, for very little money, which claims the same exact power output. It is doubtful the latter can actually deliver any real useable output at the claimed power rating.
So, it is my advice to simply "listen" to the systems. If the system is loud to you in the showroom, you can bet it will be louder at home. Your living space is smaller, the walls are much closer together and the reflections of sound in your home will dramatically increase the loudness of the system. Most of the sound we hear is reflected.
How loud do you need?
For years, salespeople demanded that you buy a huge system with high output. Why? Because DVDs have such a wide dynamic range. It was thought that a low powered system cannot deliver the output and loud passages would become severely distorted.
I don't agree. Loud to you is not loud to someone else, and vice versa. A teenager who is accustomed to headache levels will want a much louder system than an elderly couple who've only listened to a TV's internal speaker all their lives.
Let's be realistic. The elderly couple that I used as an example has never heard anything but the sound of a TV's built-in little speaker. To them, even the cheapest home theater system will sound amazing.
On the other hand, the teenager example wants ear-deafening sound. The same inexpensive home theater system may just get horribly distorted at loud volumes, and may ultimately not get loud enough.
Speaker size is important for many reasons. If you desire the speakers to be out-of-sight, then you want the small "micro" type speakers. Larger speakers generally sound better, but cause more clutter and are more difficult to hide.
Micro speakers generally are very small. They usually incorporate a single tiny full-range driver of only a couple inches in diameter. They are easy to hide and are less likely to ruin the room's decor. But, they may sound "tinny" due to their size. They may not get as loud as larger speakers.
Larger speakers can be anything from a bookshelf size to an outright floor standing full sized speaker. They usually consist of multiple drivers specifically designed for bass, voice or treble output. However, they are definitely noticable. They tend to make the room look like a "bachelor's pad". They usually can play much louder as compared to their smaller counterparts.
Wireless speakers are a little misleading. Manufacturers will lead you to believe they are truely wireless. That is really not the case.
First of all, wireless speakers need their own amplifier and power supply. So, their built-in amplifier may be small and poor by comparison to the main system.
The wireless speakers' receiver needs to be plugged into a wall outlet. If you want the wireless speakers up on the wall, then the AC cords will be visible.
If the wireless speakers come with individual left and right speakers, then you will still have to run wires to the speakers from the wireless receiver. The buyer is led to believe the wireless speaker will simply be hung on a wall and miraculously work by itself. Unfortunately, that is not so.
Since the wireless speakers use a receiver to receive the signal from the main system, it is possible that electric appliances, phones, etc, may interfere with their output and/or cause distortion.
Some systems come with built-in DVD players. That makes them easier to set-up. Some even come with DVD players and VCRs.
There are all sorts of playback formats out there. Such as Dolby Surround Sound, Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Digital EX, etc, etc.
If you buy any system which includes Dolby Digital 5.1, then you are OK. That is the system most used, in my opinion.
Many home theater systems with built-in DVD players are not compatible with DTS. What that means is, if you try to play a DTS DVD in such a system, you will not get any sound. I have yet to run across a DVD that is only recorded in DTS. Usually, if they are recorded in DTS, they are also recorded in Dolby Digital. So, I don't see that as a real issue. It's more of a preference. If you like the DTS sound, then you need a DTS compatible system.
If the system claims DTS OUT, then it is most likely not compatible as is. DTS OUT means your system will not play the DTS sound but can send it out to another system or component that is DTS compatible. I think of such claims as misleading.
Your best bet is to look around and compare the sound as you hear it. If you are considering one of several systems, and one of them stands out in some way, such as bass output or the sound quality as you hear it, then that should be your deciding factor. Not the specifications or claims on the package. And certainly not the price.
If you are concerned about how your room will look with the system installed, then you need to consider a system with smaller speakers and perhaps a slimmer component. Don't let the salesperson talk you into buying a huge system that you will dislike every time you see the large speakers and huge subwoofer.
A home theater system is much more invasive as compared to the old stereo systems of the past. You may have to buy other accessories such as a new TV stand that will accomodate the system's components and/or some of their speakers.
Speakers all around the room may interfere with furniture placement. Big black wood speaker cabinets may just not look right on your newly painted living room walls. Exposed speaker wires also do little to help the room's appearance. Many elaborate systems can sound fantastic but can also be a real eye sore. Not everyone likes the "hi-tech" look.
In review, consider the size and placement of the system in your home. Then listen to it and see if you like it. If you like how it will look in your living space and you are happy with the sound, then you are done. All the claims and specifications are of no importance to you. Buy the system and enjoy it.