How All-In-One Home Theaters Work

Home theaters sound like a luxury, but is there a way to make them more affordable? Home theater designer Theo Kalomirakis offers advice in this video from Discovery's "Digital Home."
Discovery

Technology makes our lives easier and richer ... except when it becomes overwhelming and confusing. With the transition to digital cable signals over the last decade, we've seen a lot of technological changes in the entertainment devices we bring into our homes. Flat-panel TV screens, wireless networks, Blu-ray readers and always-on connectivity have become the standard. But with those advances comes a whole slew of new information as we learn to use our devices to the fullest.

For those of us who never dipped our toes in the equipment one-upmanship that began with hi-fi stereos in the 1970s, it can be a little dizzying. So many people put a premium on the individual components of their audio and video equipment that a simple trip to the store for a TV upgrade can become a nightmare of acronyms, add-ons, gold-tipped connectors and a sea of numerical specs.

Flat-panel LCD and LED screens have become the center of every home entertainment system, but it's the home theater aficionados that have driven technological development. The confusing array of products for sale is satisfying prey for the armchair gadget hunter, but what about the rest of us?

If you just want an easy, no-hassle way to listen to the sounds that accompany your television, there's the all-in-one home theater setup, which combines surround-sound speakers with a central receiver that you can easily plug into your TV, collapsing all those options into one simple purchase.

All-in-one Home Theater Devices

For a long time, the home theater conversation was dominated by technophiles sneering at this simple, cheap solution. But now that flat-panels are the norm, manufacturers are responding to everyday users with systems that can suit your every need, in an easy-to-understand -- and easy to afford -- one-box answer. And, increasingly, their claims about the ease of setup are justified: Most systems now are almost entirely plug-and-play.

Most HTIAB ("Home Theater in a Box," a once-derogatory and now accepted term for all-in-one systems) devices include a receiver and a number of speakers. The receiver itself acts as a way-station for all the signals your digital devices can supply: radio and CD audio, cable signals for your TV, onboard DVD or Blu-ray player, and even A/V input from your laptop or other computer media station. With the touch of a button to choose your source, audio input goes out through the speakers, and video displays on the TV screen.

While most systems do include an onboard DVD or Blu-ray reader built into the receiver, these pieces can also be bought separately. By looking at your library of physical discs, you can determine which of these options is most useful for your life at the time you're buying a system. After all, for some of us, the majority of our entertainment streams or downloads from online, so an onboard disc reader may not be a priority.

The Question of Speakers

A setup like this one may be more than you need if your home theater space is small.
A setup like this one may be more than you need if your home theater space is small.
©iStockphoto.com/Baris Simsek

Another choice -- probably the most complex one in the simple systems we're discussing -- is that of speaker setup. A 5.1 system includes five speakers to create surround sound (plus a subwoofer for the bass channel), while a 7.2 system uses seven smaller speakers and two subwoofers, and so forth.

The signal itself doesn't care how many speakers you have -- the receiver will just combine signals, if necessary, to match your system's output -- so the choice of speakers is up to you. Think about the size and shape of the room that houses your home theater -- as well as your budget -- and let those factors dictate the the sound setup you'll be creating.

For example, a five-speaker (5.1) setup includes one central front speaker (think of this as the regular channel, or what would be coming out of your TV), as well as two front and two rear speakers (left and right for each). A seven-speaker (7.2) setup further divides the channels, sending audio at you from even more directions. The newest systems can use a "sound bar" speaker that replaces several of the front-facing speakers to handle a wider variety of sound sources, but may narrow the total output.

A small den or living room, however, doesn't need that much surround-sound, and more than likely you'll end up combining the speakers' locations due to limited space. Larger spaces, on the other hand, might actually require the larger number of speakers so that you don't end up with dead spaces in your soundscape.

Benefits of All-in-one Home Theaters

The central benefit to finding and buying a HTIAB is the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of staying with a single manufacturer brand and overall ease of setup. A separate receiver, speakers, DVD or Blu-ray player can add up to a fairly expensive shopping list, and putting all those things together can be a hassle when it's time to figure out which inputs and switches connect to which functions. By limiting the number of combinations, an all-in-one makes finding the correct signal easy -- and by limiting the amount of hardware involved, it can take the pressure off your wallet, too.

On the other hand, you may find yourself yearning for a greater, more complete sound than the HTIAB offers. Every living room is different -- and when you upgrade to a larger TV or Blu-ray player down the road, you may find that your old HTIAB system is lacking in sheer power. A sound bar system is a great, cost-effective alternative to more complex systems, but moving that home theater into a new home or larger area in your house could turn that benefit into a drawback.

And then, too, there's the risk of wear to any lower-priced technology, which, when combined with the centralized nature of your system, means that you could be throwing the whole thing out later. A damaged onboard DVD can easily be replaced with a separate player, for example, but a damaged receiver -- or even one of the speakers -- can invalidate the entire system.

The risk isn't so much that the technology will become obsolete -- speakers don't work that much differently now than they did 100 years ago -- but that the system will keel over of its own accord. Buying replacement speakers or individual components is sometimes possible, but at some point, the cost of replacements may invalidate your entire reasoning for getting the system in the first place.

Remember: The industry thrives on your purchases and your purchases alone, which means that it's in their best interest to keep you buying upgrades. Just because you're satisfied with the quality of what you bought doesn't mean it won't break somewhere down the line. Take these future possibilities, and your current needs, into consideration -- as when making any entertainment purchase -- and you won't be disappointed later.

Author's Note

As a long-term flat-panel TV owner, I've always been a little bit worried about the quality of my all-in-one setup: wondering if I'd wasted money on an easy solution, rather than throwing a little homework and elbow grease at the problem. But in researching this article and comparing my setup to even the newest systems available and in development, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I'd made a perfectly reasonable choice when buying my last HTIAB. Once again, we learn that early adopters and technophiles have perfectly reasonable expectations ... that may just not apply to the rest of us!

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