Nice Home Theater! We’ll Help You Set it Up

Welcome to our annual Setting Up Your Awesome New Home Theater guide. You've just obtained the final component for your ideal home theater set-up. Now it's time to hook everything up and turn your living room into that badass entertainment zone you've always envisioned. We'll guide you through the basics.

Getting Started (The Basics)

You have the gear, you've made measurements, and big screen bliss is just hours away. Before you break out the popcorn, let's lay the groundwork. For the purposes of this walk-through, we'll assume you're already up to speed on what cables you'll need, as well as how to hook everything up. If you want a refresher course, check out our comprehensive cable guide. It's doesn't hurt revisit our epic HDMI Battlemodo either, you know, if you're worried about getting ripped off.

With the basics out of the way, here are some practical guidelines for getting your new movie den in shape. Now get to work!

HDTV Wall Mounting
Perhaps Santa delivered a new LED TV. Or maybe you just want to free up a little space for the Kinect and center channel. Either way, mounting that flatscreen on a wall is never a bad idea—provided you have the space. Before you begin though, there are a few tools you'll want to pick up from the hardware store (if you don't already have them):

• wall-mounting bracket
• stud finder
• carpenter's level
• power drill
• measuring tape
• screwdriver
• pencil
• wire cutter/stripper.

Believe us, they'll make the mounting process go a lot faster. Of all of these the bracket is most important. Duh.

CHOOSING A BRACKET

- Consult your owner's manual to see which brackets are compatible with your HDTV.
- Make sure your mounting bracket matches the VESA number on your TV. (VESA stands for "Video Electronics Standards Association." Serious business.)
- Make sure your mount can hold the specific screen size of your TV. This should be stated on the box. So there's no ambiguity, note both the size and weight of your TV before you head to the store.
- Choose the bracket you want.
• Flat mounts let you mount the TV almost flush with the wall.
• Tilting mounts let you to angle your TV up or down (usually 15 - 20 degrees), but make your set stick out a bit.
• Articulating mounts tend to be the most versatile of the bunch, letting you tilt, swivel or rotate your TV anyway you want.

Hey there. This is a pretty basic guide to mounting a flat screen, which should help guide a reasonably handy installer. If you need a little more detailed instruction—you know, like, you need to be reminded of things like using a level to make sure everything is straight—Popular Mechanics has a really nice, detailed step-by-step.

A note on wall placement. If possible, you'll want to mount your HDTV at a 90-degree angle from the main windows in the room... if there are any. This will help others watching the screen have a clearer view. It'll also cut down on nasty glare. OK, back to the heavy lifting.

1. Break out that stud-finder and make sure the spot you've selected for your TV has enough support and no hidden obstacles. Remember, plasmas are usually much heavier than LCDs and LEDs so you'll probably want to spread the weight out over two studs.
2. Use that drill to make a hole big enough for the wall anchors that came with your mount.
3. Attach the mount to the wall. Most have two parts: the one that hooks up to the TV and the one that attaches to the wall. Once the TV portion has been assembled, you can attach it to the wall portion. During this process, make sure your TV will be at the correct height for comfortable viewing. In general, you want to position it so that the center of the screen is at eye level (when you're seated). You can cheat with bigger TVs, but not much.
4. Now mount away. Just be careful. Some HDTVs can be spine-shatteringly heavy or at least bulky because of the screen size. Don't be afraid to recruit some help lifting the TV onto the actual wall mount. Guiding that newly railed beast onto the bracket can be tricky and you don't want to throw out your back (Or maybe you do. More TV watching!). It's also a good idea to attach all of the cables directly to the TV before mounting. Make sure that any and all safety locks or tabs on the mounting bracket are secure. If you're interested in hiding the cables in the dry wall, Wired's How To Wiki has a nice tutorial. Alternately, you can pick up cord covers from Crutchfield to simply hide your shame.

Nice Home Theater! We’ll Help You Set it Up

Calibration Station

Sure, you can hire a professional to come over with some fancy equipment. He'll charge a lot, and probably want to use you bathroom. The easier solution is to calibrate your HDTV yourself using THX's wonderful Opitimizer. Trust us: It's easy. The Optimizer comes on the Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Skynet Edition) Blu-ray.

Why calibrate? In a good viewing environment—especially in a dark room where the eye is most sensitive—a properly calibrated picture will match what the director and cinematographer intended during the mastering process in the studio. We went through the whole process a few years back, but here are the basic steps:

1. Insert your THX Blu-ray or DVD and go into your setup menu. Don't worry: The Optimizer will automatically go through each of the settings in the proper order. (Ex: You can't adjust color until contrast and brightness have been taken care of).
2. Be sure that any auto-contrast or auto-backlight settings-including any settings with the words "dynamic" or "ambient"-are turned off.
3. Make sure to run the Optimizer in lighting conditions that best match your usual TV-watching state.
4. Go through each of the test patterns and signals step-by-step to fine-tune your video settings (this is also available for audio).

Nice Home Theater! We’ll Help You Set it Up

Speaker Set-up

Positioning your speakers correctly can make a huge difference in your home theater experience. Here are a few basic rules for a 5.1 setup from Dolby. Don't worry, 2.1 and 7.1 configurations can also be found on the site.

1. First and foremost, take note of the place where you always sit. This will be the focus point of your sound system and will dictate the position of all your other speakers. Yes, that means one person will have better sound than anyone else. No, you shouldn't mention that to your significant other. Yes that will cause a fight. No, we are not going to make you a cute video that you can use to apologize.
2. At a viewing distance of 6 to 8 ft (you're measuring from your head, not the couch), you'll want to place the two front speakers about 3 feet away from the TV on either side. Make sure they are at ear level when you're seated. They should be at a 22-30 degree angle from you too.
3. The center speaker should be centered with your TV and seating position. You can place it above or below your HDTV, but remember to keep it ear level.
4. You have the most leeway with placement of your subwoofer. Angle generally isn't that important since bass is omni-directional. The one rule of thumb is to never put it in a corner. Not only will your neighbors hate this, it'll produce an overly muddy and boomy bass.
5. The left and right surround speakers should be placed to the sides of your seating position. A 90-100 degree angle will suffice. Adjust them to be slightly above ear level to maximize ambiance.

If you don't want to run wires all over your home and your short on space, sound bars are an option. If you decide to go the sound bar route, there are a few things you should keep in mind while shopping.
1. Make sure the sound bar promises 5.1 or virtual "surround sound."
2. Make sure the subwoofer is a separate speaker. Cramming the bass into the sound bar creates a muddy bass experience.
3. Make sure the connections work with your current setup. Pretty much all modern HDTVs have TOSLINK. If you can find a sound bar with HDMI, you're golden.

Additional Odds and Ends

Nice Home Theater! We’ll Help You Set it Up

Stacking Your Gear
You probably have a fleet of components ready to do your bidding. That means some stacking will be in order. Gaming machines, Blu-ray players, amps, receivers, a streaming system or two, and possibly even a voltage regulator—each of these components of made of different materials and need some degree of space to perform safely and properly.

Two things you need to think about when stacking: structural integrity and heat dissipation. You can determine the former by yourself. Just lift up a given component to get a sense of whether you can get away with laying other components on top of it. Remember, stacking even a few of them can add more than 50 pounds, so use common sense about your specific stacking order. Yes, putting your super-slim Blu-ray player on the bottom probably isn't the best idea.

The other concern is heat dissipation. Here's what you should consider: First, vents are a dead give away that your gear needs to breathe. In other words, they are there for a reason. Your component generates heat—probably a lot of it. Even if some of your components have raised legs, you won't get the necessary clearance. In these cases, get some spacers—we use gold coins and spare gemstones, but wooden shims, spent tape rolls, or even shot glasses are great ways to space out components from each other. Note: Some components have vents on the back, so it's important not to crowd the back either—give some space from behind. If you choose, you can invest in something like the Cool Components CP-CC-2FN, a handy gadget that houses up to four fans and slips right into your stack to properly ventilate your components. A cheaper solution is Antec's low profile AV component cooler.

As for your amplifiers and receivers, they are extremely temperature sensitive so never place anything on top of a receiver. Amps also radiate a lot of heat, so its best to keep the tops of them clear as well. As a general rule, try to keep about an inch between components for proper heat dissipation.

Nice Home Theater! We’ll Help You Set it Up

Speaker Wiring
This part is a pain in the ass, particularly when you're dealing with a many-speakered setup. Here are a few tips and tricks to curb headaches and the smashing of expensive things.

Half the battle is choosing the right kind of wires. There are several different types available, all of which vary in size (or gauges) and termination types. Crutchfield offers a splendid overview of these, as well as how to hook them up to your speakers. Obviously, you have to connect each speaker to the right terminal on the receiver, making sure the black hits the black and red hits the red [or red = (+), black = (-)]. We like to use masking tape on either end so there's no screwing this up. Keep in mind too that if your cable isn't shielded, you'll want to keep it away from other big power-carrying wires streaking across your living room.

Images courtesy of Kipnis Studios, Dolby, and rick (Flickr).