Sorting Through Home Theater Gear
A glossary of the A/V components that fuel and fill your TVs, screens and speakers with high performance and endless content choices.
November 06, 2008 by EH Staff

They don’t call it an entertainment system for nothing: There’s much more to putting together your ultimate media haven than getting a big-screen TV. Where will your content come from? How will you power your surround-sound speakers? What will you use to control everything?

You may find it intimidating to shop for a rack of electronics equipment. It can be be a challenge to figure out what all the components do and what all of the specifications mean. Even a simple setup will generally include a cable or satellite box, CD/DVD player, A/V receiver and separate remotes for each unit. More robust systems may also include separate speaker amplifiers, A/V processors, power management components, digital video recorders, media servers and high-definition Blu-ray disc players—and you’d better make sure you’ve got a remote control that multitasks well.

With all that’s available, you’ll want to keep some key features in mind. To max out your Full HD 1080p flat-panel and surround-sound system, look for processors and receivers that include video upconversion to that resolution, along with the ability to output uncompressed lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio from your Blu-ray player. Accessing your computer’s audio, video and photo files is becoming more convenient, too, so look for networking capabilities and multiroom solutions to let the entire house (or at least a couple of extra rooms) partake in the media immersion.

Audio and Video Components
A/V receivers, also known as home theater and surround receivers, bring your audio and video to life. Today’s receivers have back panels that look like city grids, with connections for your speakers and every component under the sun—even your old turntable. Depending on what you’re connecting, you’ll use the slew of HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface), component, composite, optical and coaxial inputs and outputs at your disposal. A/V receivers will also have an AM/FM tuner, and many also incorporate readiness for XM or Sirius satellite radio, HD radio and docking for your iPod or other portable device.

Receivers have amplification built in to power up your loudspeakers. Some differences to look for among receivers are the amount of power they send to the speaker channels (identified as 100 watts per channel, for example), the number of speaker channels available to create your surround-sound setup, extra zone capabilities, audio decoding for the latest high-resolution formats, advanced video processing and upscaling, and networking ability. Perks such as THX certification and auto room correction equalization further enhance your system’s prowess.

Preamplifier/processors and amplifiers are commonly referred to as a “separates” system. They provide greater and more controlled function and power within your setup. These components take the place of the single A/V receiver, generally in higher-end, larger theaters as well as audiophile dedicated listening areas. With separate amplification, you can send more juice to more power-hungry speakers. Multichannel amplifiers may suffice in a 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 setup, while some larger front-channel speakers may even need single “monoblock” amplifiers to drive them full throttle. Because the amplification is in its own chassis, the preamplifier/processor, or pre/pro, can be stuffed with requisite and advanced processing circuitry to ramp up the quality of your audio and video.

CD, DVD and Blu-ray players still feed your systems the majority of media content, aside from what you watch on cable or satellite TV. Most of today’s DVD players boast the ability to upconvert standard DVD discs to near high-definition quality: You can set them to have the image match the resolution on your 720p or 1080p HDTV, but the native content is only 480 lines, so don’t expect the true HD of 1080p Blu-ray. Because Blu-ray is still relatively new, and prices start at around $400, less-expensive, solid upscaling DVD players remain a viable option for many people, especially those with enormous disc libraries that can be stored in megachanger DVD machines. Blu-ray and DVD players will accommodate your CDs as well.

Media servers have brought the hard drive into your entertainment world, allowing you to enjoy a vast amount of content at your fingertips. If TiVo handles your ever-growing TV addictions, and the iPod similarly transforms your entire music collection, the media server can tie the two together.

There are stand-alone audio servers that store and deliver audio anywhere the system is connected around the home, and there are some servers that deal with the video side. When shopping for a media server, the first thing to look at is the unit’s hard drive. Regardless of the number of gigabytes (or terabytes) that a server or the external drive can hold, you can squeeze plenty onto almost any machine if the files are compressed enough. Uncompressed audio files take up a ton of space but deliver better, fuller sound quality, while compression can pack much more in. Compressed files can be lossless or lossy. Lossless audio preserves the track’s original signal; FLAC, TIFF and AVC are examples of audio, image and video formats that are considered to be lossless. The popular MP3 format is lossy compression, delivering a fraction of the original audio file’s information.

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