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Your guide to setting up a Home Cinema system

There is no doubt that TV is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Whether you are into short bursts of story over a couple of hours (that means films, fact fans), or if you prefer recurring serials and series made specifically for the medium… Or whether you’re into watching sports or historical event documentaries, there’s nothing quite like kicking back for a while and being entertained.

These days, with films and shows investing colossal amounts of money into looking as good as possible, immersion is key. Getting right into the heart of what you’re watching – in effect ‘disappearing into it’ for a couple of hours so that you can switch off from the outside world, and all of life’s worries… Well, it’s a blessing – but to fully get that effect you need the gear!

So you’re going to need to upgrade your entertainment space into something worthy of the content. Gone are the days of tiny little portable TV sets or family screens no bigger than a microwave oven stuffed over there in the corner. The TV is now the focal point of your living room. Your entertainment space doesn’t have to be the biggest room in the house – in terms of TV tech, there is so much you can do to maximise your pleasure wherever you decide to watch.

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When the thing you’re watching was designed to be seen at the local multiplex, does your home set-up really do it justice? Are there things you can do to make your living room into a home cinema? Yes, there are! You definitely can make your chill-out space into a pretty special viewing set-up, and in this article we’ll be explaining the bits of tech you need to get the most from it so that you can fully enjoy those big-screen moments from the comfort of your own sofa…

So it’ll be like cinema, but not cinema! No longer will you have to try to cope with the bloke further along rustling his sweet wrappers. Or someone in front standing up and blocking the screen as they shuffle off for a toilet break. Or those no-marks behind you talking all the way through a crucial bit of dialogue. Well, hmmm. Actually you might – but let’s not get into domestics!

So what tech do you need? Bear with as we answer the question…

What is a home cinema system?

It usually comprises some of the following:

• A TV
• A media player (or streaming device, eg. PC)
• A sound bar (or other form of amplification and speakers)
• A good headset
• A projector and screen

Though the bits of tech which combine to make a home cinema system can vary from set-up to set-up, we’ll look at all of these items and give you the lowdown.

Another thing you’ll need – and it’s pretty important! – is a room in which to set everything up. It doesn’t have to be a massive room, you don’t need to replicate the dimensions of a cinema to get the cinema effect. But what you do need to do is make sure you buy the appropriate-sized TV for the space you’ll be watching in. We’ll cover this in a little more detail, now…

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The size of the room…

It’s unlikely that you’ll have absolutely enormous cinema-sized rooms in your house (well, if you’re very rich you might have!) and space at home is probably at a little bit of a premium. So which is the best-sized room?

When you’re intent on setting up a cinema-style living room and thinking about the television you need to buy, you might think that it’s only size that counts. Your brain might be telling you that cinema screens are massive so when you’re after a new TV, the bigger the screen the better the experience?

Well (surprisingly but logically), that’s not actually the case. You don’t want to put a massive screen in a small room as you’ll be sitting right up against the screen, and there’s not that many films designed for IMAX-style viewing!

The interesting thing is that you can actually set up a home cinema in a relatively small room. What you actually need is something appropriate to the size of room that you are setting up in, and your main concern should be comfort over size. It’s all about distance and size and there is actually a mathematical formula for optimum TV size. It is:

Don’t sit too far away…

Similar to the giant screen / small room thing, don’t sit too far away and don’t opt for a small screen if you’re lucky enough to have a massive room. For a start you’ll miss all of that wonderful HD or 4K quality. Plus, if the TV screen is only a small part of your frame of vision, you will end up being distracted by the things around the TV –a bookshelf, lamp or record player, for example. This irrelevant stuff your eyes see becomes extra info your brain has to process and will subconsciously distract you from that bit when Uma Thurman and John Travolta really show the Strictly wannabes what’s what!

… and don’t sit too close!

So, flipping the coin on this, sitting too close to your set will also wreck the experience. You’ll be able to see individual pixels or horizontal bars where pixels align. If you’re too close to a big screen you won’t be able to see the whole image, so you’ll miss things, and it could even be disorienting. It’d be akin to sitting in the front row at the cinema, and if you’ve ever done that then you’ll realise it’s really uncomfortable.

So what sort of TV should I go for?

Now we’ve got the screen size / room size conundrum out of the way, let’s briefly talk about the important technical features of the TV sets you’ll be able to choose from.

You probably want to go for a 4K TV as this is just about the best that the consumer market currently has to offer. Once it is set up correctly it is a guaranteed brilliant picture. More and more content is filmed in 4K – even some TV shows – so you’ll be getting ‘the best’ on most things you decide to watch. If you’re not sure exactly what 4K is and what benefit it will have for your viewing experience, you’re going to love this next bit…

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What exactly does 4K mean?

‘Regular’ HD TV has a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, but 4K has four times as many pixels. With 4K TV there are 8 million active pixels on screen. In the amount of space that a HD TV holds a pixel, a same-sized 4K TV can hold four. So that’s four times the number of pixels than on the ‘regular’ HD we just mentioned.

This massive improvement in the number of pixels means that 4K is much sharper than HD. When you’re watching the shark coming in on Quint, you’re going to see so much more exciting detail. 4K becomes more obvious on TVs of about 36” and above, but here’s something else handy to think about…

What about films and TV not made, or available, in 4K?

Even if you don’t yet have a stack of 4K Blu-rays at hand, some TV manufacturers integrate upscaling technology into their new sets. This means that 1080p and lower resolution content is artificially upgraded to 4K. Obviously the results not as good as actual 4K content (you can’t simply force additional detail where there isn’t any) but upscaling does offer a significant improvement.

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Is 4K actually enough? I’ve heard there’s 8K…

There is, with technology, always an element of thinking about whether you should ‘futureproof’ as much as you possibly can. Although 4K is an incredible picture quality experience for the viewer, there is also such a thing as 8K… and as you will have guessed from the name, it’s an improvement!

For a display to be classed as 8K it has to have a total pixel count of 7680 wide by 4320 pixels tall (7680×4320). To put that into perspective, an 8K display sports four times the pixels of 4K display. So that’s an incredible sixteen times more than Full HD screens. All of a sudden HD seems so 2018 doesn’t it?!

One advantage of higher definition screens is the indistinguishable nature of each pixel from the next, even when you are sitting close to the screen. We wouldn’t recommend it, but as a brief experiment, if you sit close to a mighty 8K display it will unveil an eye meltingly dense pixel count. This amount of information offers a crisp and sharp picture that even 4K can’t really compete with.

Here’s the thing, though. With no less than 33 million pixels, the advantage you could gain from an 8K screen would only be apparent in ridiculously large screens. And, obviously, this is home cinema we’re talking about – so you almost certainly won’t have a room large enough to take a large TV with 8K. You could always sell up and buy a mansion?!

A further thought about 8K. There is some, but not much, content currently being produced at this resolution. It’s almost as if content creators are aware of the ‘limitations’ of their market and are tailoring their output accordingly. Obviously when that output is at 4K they’re not exactly ‘doing you over’, are they?!

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Streaming and smart TVs…

A smart TV is an internet-connected TV. If you have access to the internet (Wi-Fi or ethernet), your TV can stream content or access the internet. Smart TVs, ideally, come with a built-in web browser which makes things way easier. It’s possible to watch content (a film, say) and also quickly flick to your social media to post about it, and then back again. Why you would want to do this is beyond us (we love immersing ourselves in what we’re watching) but it’s become a bit of a ‘thing’ and, of course, there are ‘watch along’ parties online which are very social. A smart TV is handy for this kind of thing.

If you don’t have a smart TV but still want to access streaming channels or on-demand TV within your home cinema set-up, then it could be possible to route your PC through your TV (or projector – see below). If you do this, you should make sure you account for the space your PC will physically take up in your set-up. No good providing somewhere for everything but, and then struggling to find a neat and tidy position to put your PC!

Does it have to be TV? What about using a projector?

A great idea. A projector – like in the cinema! Projectors mean you can watch your shows and films on a screen of around 100-inches and larger. Now That’s What I Call Home Cinema! You will, of course, need a room big enough so that you can position your projector the right distance from the wall you’ll be projecting onto.

Projectors have HDMI sockets for high-definition video equipment (Blu-ray players, games consoles or a digital TV box). You can view photos from USB sticks via the projector’s USB ports, or you can hook up a PC or laptop using the VGA monitor sockets. Basically, you can watch anything.

Don’t forget that to get the most out of your projector in a home cinema set-up, you’ll need to draw the curtains and switch the lights off. Any bits of light squeezing through gaps can be annoying and make your viewing experience less pleasurable. You might have to buy thicker curtains to block the light.

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Are projectors expensive?

In general, projectors are not as expensive as comparable HD TVs (for confirmation of this, it’s worth checking out how much a 100-inch TV would cost you, for example). You can get a good quality projector for a home cinema set-up for less than £1,000. Every now and again you might have to pay out to replace the projector’s lamp or bulb, so there is an additional cost there – but it’s worth it.

Space to project

We talked about appropriate screen size to match the size of your room a little earlier, in relation to TVs. But with projectors it is also something to be considered. An important point to remember is that the room you’ll be using your projector in will need to be big enough so that you can position your projector at the right distance from the wall you’ll be projecting onto. If you’re going to project on to a wall – which is obviously the cheapest method – you’ll need a smooth surface, ideally with a reflective paint, although standard white paint on your wall will still look great.

What about sound?

You know when people have been to the cinema and then talk about the films they love? It’s a given that they’ll mention the cinematography. They’ll say things like “it looked incredible” or “the special effects were amazing”. Obviously because our eyes tend to be the most immediate method of receiving information, and because cinemas are sumptuously visual, and also because films aren’t radio, of course, then the audio part of the cinema experience is sometimes taken for granted.

But the audio element in films, particularly very well-made films, is a massive part of your enjoyment. A cinema wouldn’t be a cinema without amazing sound quality which submerges you into a film and delivers clear and realistic audio. Think about watching JAWS without that incredible menacing music bubbling up around you. Think about the T-Rex / Jeep chase in Jurassic Park without those initial deep thuds of the dino’s Dr Marten boots! And so on and so on…

The history of cinema is littered with incredible moments of audio – so in a home cinema set-up you’ll need to make sure you can cater for this. Any speaker system that is additional to your standard TV speaker will make a noticeable difference but there are few other options to choose from…

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2.1 and 3.1 systems

Each of these systems is, relatively speaking, quite basic – though both are going to offer you never less than decent sound. 2.1 and 3.1 come with simply two or three speakers that you can place wherever you want in the room you are using for your home cinema. Available wirelessly, they are the standard systems for a home set-up and are ideal if you want a step up from the sound that your TV speakers offer. Plus, you can always buy an amplifier or subwoofer separately to add to the system.

What exactly is surround sound?

To paraphrase, it does exactly what it says on the tin! Surround sound is a system of speakers set up to surround you, and give you a truly immersive audio experience. Rather than, as is traditional, having stereo speakers somewhere in front of you, surround sound places speakers at different points around you.

The audio of a great number of films, these days, has been designed and engineered for more than just stereo speakers. If you’ve ever heard the terms ‘5.1’ and ‘7.1’ but not been sure what they mean, here’s the explanation. These systems feature five or seven speakers which should be positioned to give an ‘all around you’ sound bed. A 5.1 surround-sound set-up is the minimum required for speakers to provide true surround-sound effects. It is suited to small and medium sized rooms for ‘realistic’ surround-sound effects.

All of a sudden you’ll hear that the monster racing towards your hero comes from behind and then right past you… or that line of dialogue from the person off screen to the left, who (on screen reactions tell you) should be standing right about just behind your left ear, will actually sound like they’re exactly there because the audio has been engineered to come from the speaker positioned over in that direction… and so on.

If it’s possible, you could get an expert to set the system up. More likely you’ll need to do it yourself, so take some time to read the instructions, which will almost certainly offer you some sort of diagram showing where the individual speakers should be in relation to each other. With a system like this you really do need to get everything positioned correctly.

In a 5.1 system, for example, it’s usual for two speakers to be placed on either side of the screen (so that when you are sitting and facing the screen, these two speakers are in front of you), with two further speakers behind you, and a larger ‘sub’ speaker underneath the screen. The sound design of the film you are watching (if it is a 5.1 soundtrack) will have been specifically created to make the most of this set-up. Similarly 7.1 – there are optimum positions for each speaker so that the effect is maximised.

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What is a soundbar?

It’s an external speaker which amplifies the audio from your TV. It bypasses the TV’s built-in speakers and offers improved audio quality. Although the speakers integrated into TV sets these days are of very good quality, you will still get a more well-rounded sound from a soundbar – particularly if it comes with a larger ‘woofer’ (that’s a bass speaker, all-important for accurately delivering all those rumbles and thuds).

Soundbars which create a virtual surround sound are a more ‘condensed’ way of having surround sound. A soundbar means just having one long bar rather than having several speakers dotted around your room. However this does mean the sound will be concentrated in one area (and therefore there will be less stereoscopic separation because there will be no rear speaker).

Soundbars have different settings which can be tweaked to deliver what the film or TV show’s audio designers intended. They can be ‘attached’ to your TV via the traditional ‘wired’ method or even via Wi-Fi. Check the individual specs of the soundbar you are interested in to see exactly how it could fit into your home cinema set-up.

Headsets

For those who wish to indulge in the home cinema experience but don’t want to share it, or are considerate enough to think about everyone else who lives in the household (ie. the poor souls who doen’t want to watch JAWS for the fiftieth time, the fools), it’s worth investing in a headset.
Receiving cinematic audio through a headset is a real… erm… eye-opener! It’s not only a brilliant way to focus the attention but a smart way to pick up on subtle detail. A great deal of effort goes into the audio production on films these days, with every small detail obsessed over.

There are headsets available which are ‘wired’ in – meaning you would plug them directly into the audio jack socket on your TV. And there are headsets available which are designed to be much more convenient, utilising Wi-Fi or even Bluetooth. Most headsets are also designed with comfort a real consideration – the designers having kept in mind that these units will be worn for, potentially, hours at a time (during mammoth viewing or gaming sessions). It’s worth browsing the Ebuyer stock of headsets to see which are appropriate for the use you have in mind, but also which are likely to be the most comfortable.

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Which is the best room to use as a home cinema?

If you’re lucky enough to have a ‘garden room’ – a space to the rear of your property, perhaps a separate building, in which you tend to entertain guests at your home in the evenings, then this could be the ideal space for setting up your home cinema system. You could even charge visitors for a ticket at the door (no, not really – you can’t do this as it would be illegal).

Elsewhere in your property, in the main house, your home cinema room is likely to be either the living room, a spare bedroom, the loft conversion or an extension. It’s worth thinking about exactly which room will best serve your purpose, here. Most of your consideration should be concentrated on the idea of setting up so that you can stay totally focused on and immersed in what you’re watching. Things to think about are as follows…

• Flooring

Things to consider are the shape and size of the room, and also details such as what the floor coverings are, whether the floor is carpet or tile. This detail will have a bearing on the success of setting up, due to ‘reflection’ – of both sound and light. It’s better to go for something which absorbs the sound rather than bounces it around. Carpet is ideal, though if you have a tiled floor, consider a large rug to absorb at least some of the audio.

• Windows

Consider the position of windows in the room you will be using. Obviously the ideal would be to have no windows at all in your home cinema, but in a domestic household that’s highly unlikely. If you do have windows in the room you will be using, think about how they can be covered. Heavy curtains or thick blinds is the way to go. You don’t want light curtains and the streetlight outside shining through and ruining the ambience. Blackout curtains (or blackout blinds) are easily available from home stores and they’re not too expensive. An investment worth making.

• Wall colour

Also, will you be setting up in a room in which you are able to paint the walls? Although it would be okay to set up in a room which has light coloured walls (most homes in the UK are predominantly white or magnolia) you will find that the light from the screen illuminates parts of the room. This is not ideal as it would impinge on your focus on the film or TV show you’re watching – though it is something you could learn to live with and, perhaps, ignore.

Really, it’s worth thinking about setting up in a room in which you can paint the walls a darker colour. Not necessarily black, like an actual cinema, but certainly a colour which is dark enough to soak up the light thrown at it, rather than reflect it back at you, the viewer.

• Furniture

When making the decision about which room you will be setting up as your home cinema, you should definitely also think about the furniture which will be in that room. For instance, if you intend to do most of your viewing from the comfort of a sofa, then the living room is obviously the space you should set up in. If you think you’re going to set up with more upright formal chairs, arranged in rows like in a ‘proper’ cinema, then perhaps your dining room is a more appropriate space as you can move the furniture about more easily.

If, as we said at the start of this section, you are lucky enough to have a garden room or something similar, you might be the kind of person who wants to maximise the experience by scouring Ebay or other sale sites to find old cinema chairs. There’s nothing quite like that moment of folding a cinema chair down and taking your seat ready for the big film! You may be surprised to learn that as cinemas have been upgraded or rebuilt over the last few decades, there is a relatively frequent supply of old cinema chairs – either singles or in rows of a few at a time. This brilliant touch would certainly be a talking point for visitors to your home cinema set-up, and it would certainly make it feel authentic!

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Okay, I’m in! I want a home cinema set-up, but what’s the easy way to do it?

You could go for an ‘all-in-one’. Full home cinema systems are perhaps the easiest options to think about as they contain everything you need to bring home the cinema feel, all in one package. Each all-in-one should come with the amplifier, speakers and cables, and most also contain a DVD or Blu-ray player (some even have both). All you have to add is the TV.

So that’s just about it. A whole host of things to think about when you are considering setting up some sort of home cinema system, whether it be a modest one in your living room, or an ‘all guns blazing’ type affair in a room specially created and devoted to your viewing pleasures.

As ever, Ebuyer stocks a vast amount of tech which can help you in the setting up of your home cinema, so take a browse…

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