Movie-Going at Home

My husband has been eyeing the room above our garage with a dreamy look on his face. It has served as a playroom, sleepover room, homework room, and get-me-away-from-my-parents room for as long as I can remember. But now that two of our kids are in college and the third will soon follow, he is imagining a new purpose: a home theater.

Because I’ve been warned that a man investigating electronics is like a fox guarding the henhouse, I decided to do the research. What I uncovered is a host of cool ways to enjoy movies, music, and TV—and, since enhancements can be incremental, we can start small and build in features over time.

Say you’re like me, with a nice, flat-panel TV in your family room and a hankering to spice things up. Experts say a great first step is to add a surround sound audio system. Surround sound helps immerse you in the onscreen action, and it improves dialogue clarity. It also enhances low-frequency bass sounds, so you really feel the power of, say, a jet taking off.

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A 5.1 system—with five speakers and one subwoofer, all controlled by a receiver—is the most common configuration (a subwoofer reproduces bass sounds). Typically, three speakers go in the front of the room, in a right-center-left arrangement, and two go at either side in the back. An option that can save money is a sound bar, which combines the front speakers in one thin strip mounted to the wall or TV. 

Stores like Best Buy and Sears sell basic 5.1 “home theater in a box” systems for as little as $200 to $300. But if you have a larger or unusually shaped room, want your speakers mounted on or in the wall or ceiling, or prefer better sound quality, an electronics installer is essential. Installers can design an optimal system for your space, and they sell, install, and service premium audio components not available at mainstream retail outlets. They largely sell the same video brands you find in stores, but often match the best price and provide service.

An installer can also program your media sources—including, cable, Blu-ray, video-game consoles, CD players, and iPod docks—onto one universal remote. “The biggest concern with home theater is how to keep it simple,” says Peter Giles, president of Giles Communications, a Purchase-based marketing firm that represents a number of electronics clients. “If the technology becomes so complex that you don’t know which remote to pick up or how to turn the system on, it defeats the whole purpose.” Giles adds that Bluetooth technology can also be a helpful tool in creating an easy-to-use system. “It enables the streaming of high-fidelity, full-range stereo music wirelessly from your mobile phone and tablet to compatible Bluetooth-enabled equipment such as AV receivers and a growing field of small, powered speakers,” he says. “While the range is somewhat limited–about 30 feet–it gives the user ultimate flexibility with very little set-up or cost.”

A premium, custom-installed 5.1 system costs $1,200 to $2,500, including installation. If you have a larger room or more discerning audio tastes, a 7.1 or 7.2 system with better speakers, more bass, and a more sophisticated receiver and remote can double the price.

For music lovers who want to hear their songs everywhere, another (typically more expensive) option is to install audio in multiple rooms, or even outside. “Adding music and TV to outdoor spaces has become very popular,” comments Bill Butler, vice president with AV Design & Integration in Elmsford. 

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Says Robert Zohn, president of Value Electronics in Scarsdale, “With distributed audio, you can play Pandora in the kitchen, Rhapsody outside, and Spotify in the master bath, all at the same time.” Moreover, the audio can be controlled wirelessly through a smartphone or iPad. An installed, three-zone system costs between $1,000 and $5,000, Zohn says. 

Of course, the ultimate in luxury is a complete home theater, which usually goes in a dedicated media room, often in a basement. Components include a high-performance projector, projection screen, surround-sound system, and Blu-ray player, with a starting price of about $10,000 for equipment and installation. Add on theater-style seating, motorized window treatments, and automatic lighting, and you’re looking at $30,000 or more.

Now that I know what’s possible, that extra room is starting to capture my imagination as well. I can almost smell the popcorn. Milk Duds, anyone? 

Type The Bargain Matinee
A “home theater in a box” system from a big-box retailer


The Family Feature
A good-quality, one-room home-theater installation
Sophisticated Fare
A whole-house audio system
The Mega-Hit
A complete movie auditorium in your home
As low as $200 to $300 $1,200 to $2,500 $1,000 to $5,000 $10,000 to more than $30,000
Common brands include Yamaha, Sony, and Samsung; sold at stores like Best Buy, Walmart, and Sears. Makers of premium components include Yamaha, Crestron, ELAN, Russound, Logitech, and Universal Remote Control, Inc. Sonos is currently the hot supplier in distributed audio systems. Makers of premium audio and projection components include Yamaha, Crestron, Elan, Russound, Stewart Filmscreen, Elite Audio, Da-Lite, Mitsubishi, Epson, JVC, BenQ, and Sony.
The Hook Low-cost surround sound for do-it-yourselfers High-quality sound with excellent bass and user-friendly controls Play Pandora in the kitchen, Rhapsody on the patio, and Spotify in your master bath—all at the same time. A real theater at home, with projector, screen, surround-sound audio, theater-style chairs, and motorized window blinds and lighting controls
The Critics
At $500 or less, home theater in a box is economical, but you’ll sacrifice professional installation and may be disappointed with sound quality. A dramatic, exciting, and relatively affordable upgrade for those accustomed to basic TV viewing Extremely popular, especially for installations that include master-bath and outdoor audio Very expensive…but what a feeling!

Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a Scarsdale-based freelance writer who reports frequently on home furnishings and consumer goods. She is looking forward to movie nights in the room over the garage.

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