The big picture

Tracer fire carves up the air around you and your pulse quickens. An explosion roars over your left shoulder, a scream rips open the sky and the whirl of helicopter blades fills your ears. Relax - you tell yourself. This isn’t real. This is real home cinema.

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  December 24, 2000

Tracer fire carves up the air around you and your pulse quickens. An explosion roars over your left shoulder, a scream rips open the sky and the whirl of helicopter blades fills your ears. Relax - you tell yourself. This isn't real. This is real home cinema.

How many times have you eagerly sat in the cinema, only for an incessantly ringing mobile phone to ruin your evening?

On the flipside, how often have you sat down to a film at home and toyed with the volume all night, in a futile attempt to create the right atmosphere?

Recent strides in cinematic technology mean that home cinema is no longer just possible but it is affordable too. You really can build a cinema in your own home, and yes, it really will be expensive.

But a host of components are available today; all you have to do is decide how far you want to take it.

Home theatre is built around two, and only two, signals: sound and vision. Though the range of media on hand to bring Hollywood blockbusters into your home is vast, and a little overwhelming, remember that sound and vision will always underpin your needs.

And there are concrete steps to take.

For starters, forget Nicam VCR.

It is true that pairing a Nicam VCR with your hifi will breathe new life into your TV set. However, that isn’t home cinema.

For the full cinematic experience, you need the best digital entertainment that your money can buy.

You need to come home to an auditorium. You need Dolby digital software.

Dolby surround sound has earned its success by understanding the human ear. In conventional stereo, just two channels are recorded. As sounds arrive at one ear later than the other, the human brain registers the delay and estimates where the sound is coming from, be it right, left, above or below.

Dolby stereo, however, provides extra channels of information in a "5:1" configuration: left, right, and centre screen channels, separate left and right sounds, and a subwoofer channel.

The result is one of total immersion and the ‘illusion’ of surround sound. It’s the new standard for high-quality digital audio.

Think of surround sound as the heartbeat of a successful installation. The special effects inherent in quality movies will only come to life with a quality sound system.

Buying a suitable set of speakers represents a key investment. This does not mean, however, that you will have to fill your house with large, unsightly boxes.

Many AV loudspeakers are built for maximum visual impact, but others have been designed precisely for their subtle aesthetics.

What's important is to find a set of speakers that just look right but also suit your specific audio needs. The danger is that home cinema has taken off with such momentum that retailers are stocking an ever-increasing selection of brands.

This is great news in terms of choice, but more choice means a greater variation in performance. Two sets of speakers will not sound the same when back in your study, just because the showroom salesman assured you that they would.

For instance, you may opt to build your system on the analogue Dolby Pro-Logic. The surround channel here has a limited response of 125Hz to 8KHz, so there really is no use in buying speakers with extended treble.

In addition, Pro-Logic shifts low frequencies to the main speakers, so an enormous centre channel speaker, with bass to die for, may prove a costly case of overkill.

Dolby Digital and DTS, on the other hand, are full bandwidth technologies. Despite what the neighbours might tell you, these channels deserve a system that can deliver both deep bass and beautiful treble.

Finally, consider adding a subwoofer to your setup. This unique technology is referred to by the '.1' of Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 systems.

A subwoofer handles the very deepest frequencies, from 20Hz to 100Hz, and is vital to reproduce the full range of bass encoded in your Dolby audio.

Subwoofers exist in two guises: active and passive. Active subwoofers include built-in amplifiers and filter networks. This removes higher frequencies and allows the subwoofer to get on with producing bass - and only bass.

Passive subwoofers have no internal amplification and, therefore, only a limited ability to separate low frequencies. In practice, they must be matched with an external amplifier or bass management processor.

Ultimately, active subwoofers are the smarter buy. In our humble opinion, no home cinema is complete without one.

There is a temptation to splurge elsewhere and save money by using small, cheap speakers for surround effects. It is a temptation that is best avoided.

Today's movies, never mind tomorrow's, are increasingly carrying music on rear channels and it is worth investing in surround speakers that can field a wide frequency response.

Excellent dipolar surround speakers, capable of firing sound in two directions, are now emerging in the Middle East that can do just that. Just remember to position them at 90 degrees to your seating area to enjoy the full effects.

If you’ve made it this far, then the only thing now missing from the auditorium of your dreams is an amplifier.

In essence, an AV amp boosts low-level audio signals in order to drive your loudspeakers. In practice, such a description doesn't do a separate amplifier justice. You do not hear stereo sound in a cinema.

No, what you hear is a wealth of audio layers washing over you.

When you watch that same movie at home, on DVD, the extra sound channels are carried with you and need to be decoded back to their original form, a procedure typically carried out by an integrated amplifier.

But an alternative exists that can take audio to the next level: separates. A stand-alone controller can supply five separate amplifiers with the audio signal, seriously boosting your speakers.

Separates cost much more than an integrated solution — but exponentially enhance performance.

Top of the range amplifiers also offer several audio features. Many are useful, but should be seen as a secondary consideration in your purchasing decision.

For instance, digital soundfield processing (DSP) recreates the feel of an arena, such as a concert hall or jazz club, in your house. It causes sound to reverberate, particularly enhancing non-Dolby sound. In some cases, DSP can even enhance Dolby itself.

Other features to watch for include tools to ease setup, such as onscreen prompts displaying surround and centre volume settings. The more intuitive the amplifier menu, the faster you can select the likes of program source and decoding mode — and get on with the business of enjoying the film.

OK, so surround sound beats at the heart of home cinema. But let's not kid ourselves. When your guests go weak at the knees in anticipation of the movie experience that you are about to unleash on them, they'll be looking at the screen.

This is home cinema, after all.

The choice in visual technology has never been so great. Large screen TVs no longer offer inferior pictures — especially with a quality programme source like DVD.

Essentially, two technologies compete for pride of place on your wall: direct view and projection.

Direct view describes the family of conventional TV sets. Cathode ray tube (CRT) technology fires three electron guns at a screen, causing red, green and blue images to overlap and form a picture.

CRT is nothing new, and probably forms the majority of screens and monitors that you see on a daily basis. However, the TVs of tomorrow are monsters built to a bigger scale than anything before.

Largescreen today refers to TVs with a diagonal screen greater than 24" and most on the way break the 33" mark. Some go so far as to form the basis of a home theatre system themselves, offering built-in Dolby decoders and additional amplification: ideal for the entry-level home cinema enthusiast.

Many conventional 4:3 screens are available today, but a new rival, the 16:9 TV, has also emerged. Typical TV sets offer a picture of four units by three (4:3).

The widescreen version boasts a screen with sixteen units along the bottom and nine down the side. Designed to host widescreen images perfectly, genuine 16:9 film produces outstanding pictures. But the image is less than ideal if using 4:3 software, often resulting in blank bars on either side of the picture.

The alternative to direct view is projection technology, and it is here that true home cinema is born. Unconstrained by conventional TV tubes, video projectors can easily fill an entire wall with the image you've been dreaming about.

Video projectors fall into two further categories: tubed and liquid crystal projection (LCP).

Tubed projectors use three lenses to focus separate red, blue and green images onto a screen. The result is quite simply the best home cinema experience that money can buy — but cheap it is not, and setup is a complicated procedure.

Each lens is on a unique axis, which makes picture alignment a task for the professionals. The operation must be repeated if the projector is moved, so typical mounts consist of fixed ceiling positions and floor mountings.

The other projection option, LCP, is far more user-friendly, and still capable of impressive performance. A series of filters splits a ray of white light into red, blue and green beams, which then illuminate three liquid crystal panels respectively. The resulting image is projected via a single lens.

LCPs are portable while packing a mean punch. But one word of caution: projectors can involve high running costs, particularly if you do not take care of your investment. Lamp life is often earmarked at around 2,000 hours, much less than a TV tube. Replacements can cost around US$300, and may demand a fitting charge.

CRT projectors boast a tube life closer to 10,000 hours, but cost twice as much to replace. LCP projectors may be miniature wonders, but always allow them to cool before transportation.

Above all, be a smart buyer. Make a list of separate components that would seem to fit your needs, and then demand demonstrations. The Middle East poses unique challenges in this respect.

Bluntly, any serious research put into your ideal set up may leave you more qualified than the show room assistant. Is the model that you're looking at truly equipped with DTS? Are those connections S-video or composite? Is the DVD player really that lifeless, or is the demonstration TV set to the worst possible display?

Several dealers in this region can offer expert advice and installation with a minimum of fuss. Your home cinema won't be any less impressive if you don't put it together yourself — perhaps far from it.

If you do go your own way, however, upgrade the front of your system first, and the surrounds second. Match new additions to the feel of your system. If your loudspeakers are comfortably mellow, for instance, then too much treble, or too much bass, emitting from a new centre, may leave you sobbing into your black leather sofa — and a steaming hole in your wallet.

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