Technology

Product overview

Welcome to New Zealand's trusted, independent source of practical information. We provide recommendations on products and trusted businesses, exclusive deals and consumer advice. 

Home theatre

13nov home theatre systems hero default

Bring the cinema experience to your home.

With the price of movie tickets climbing you might want a cinema in your home instead. We've tested home-theatre systems and audio-visual (AV) receivers.

On this page

From our test

What's included in a "home-theatre system"?

Home-theatre systems include a set of speakers designed to reproduce the full range of sound you hear at the movies, plus a unit consisting of a signal receiver and amplifier.

A blu-ray player is usually part of the deal, and may be built into the receiver unit. An integrated blu-ray player reduces the clutter (and the number of remote controls), but gives less flexibility. A non-integrated player means you can select the blu-ray player that best suits you.

The home-theatre systems we tested could all either directly play CDs or have inputs for a CD player (or an MP3 player – with a suitable connector-cable). So they can replace your stereo system for playing music.

Although you can buy some quite cheap home theatre systems, our tests have shown their quality will leave you unsatisfied. This is because home theatre isn't just about connecting more speakers to a blu-ray player. You need a good amplifier that produces good sound through quality speakers. You also need a good television - preferably an HDTV - with the right video connectors.

Speakers

You'll often see home-theatre systems described with a number like "7.1".

This refers to the number of speakers the system has – for example, 7.1 means 7 surround speakers with the .1 referring to a subwoofer.

The typical home theatre system has more than 5 speakers, each of which plays a particular role. As with any stereo, speaker-quality is the key. Look for a bit of weight. In general, solid-feeling speakers sound better.

Standard speaker connections make it easier for you to upgrade your speakers if you decide you want a better sound than the home theatre system’s speakers can deliver.

  • Satellite speakers
    There are 2 pairs of surround speakers (left and right, front and back) for localised sound effects. It's best not to have them on the floor. Front speakers should be on the same level as the TV. Rear speakers should be screwed to the wall or put on stands, slightly above and behind the viewers. Some systems allow you to tune the speakers to their location.

    "Wireless" rear speakers could be useful, though they need at least one wire – to a power point.

  • Centre speaker
    This handles most dialogue and sounds from the central focus of the picture. It's aligned with the centre of the TV.

  • Subwoofer
    For enhanced bass effects. Bass sound is usually non-directional – you'll hear (and feel) the T-rex in Jurassic Park coming, but you won't know from which direction. This means the location of the subwoofer is not critical.

    Active subwoofers have their own built-in amplifier. It doesn't seem to improve the sound significantly, but does take some of the load away from the receiver unit.

  • Watch that interference
    The signal between wireless surround speakers and the main unit can cause issues with your home WiFi signal. Phones and tablets may not be able to pick up the WiFi signal if you’re using them in the area between the main unit and the speakers.

Getting the best sound

To hear decent sound effects, you need to connect each speaker correctly to the proper terminals and place them for the best effect (on stands or walls). Fail to do this and your sound will probably be inconsistent and move in the opposite direction to the action on screen.

Take the time to get the speakers correctly balanced – it makes a huge difference. Some systems have a useful auto-calibration feature, using a special microphone that plugs into the unit. The microphone is placed at your listening position and the auto-calibration automatically adjusts the relative channel volumes and (slight) delays to get the best possible sound.

Specifications and features

If you're thinking of buying a home theatre system, here's what you need to know about specifications.

  • Power: At least 30 watts per channel is needed for a smallish lounge, but a really big room might need 100 watts. A more powerful subwoofer channel could help boost explosive sound effects on a lower-powered unit.
  • Connecting up: Having the blu-ray player, receiver and tuner in one unit cuts back on cable clutter. Using HDMI cables also helps as they carry both HD video and digital audio signals (though digital audio signal can also be carried by coaxial digital output or optical digital cables). Make sure the speaker wires are long enough. You'll want to tuck them discreetly out of the way (along the skirting, say) and still be able put the speakers where you want. "Wireless" rear speakers cut some of the clutter, but they need a convenient power point. Check the handbook has clear wiring guidelines.
  • Picture outputs: The video signal from your home theatre system can get to your TV using several formats. HDMI, as mentioned above, is currently the best for HD video (which is what you should get from blu-ray). Older composite video (usually a yellow RCA plug) is available on all models and gives the lowest quality. S-video is a little better than composite, and component video (which splits the video signal into 3 colour components) is better still. For more information see "Connections" below.
  • Remote control: There are many features to operate, but user-friendly design is still possible! Look for a logical layout with well-grouped buttons (sound in one group; play controls like play, skip, stop in another). Button size, colour contrast and shape are also important.
  • Receiver: Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital and DTS are proprietary systems that organise the sound into its appropriate speakers. Most receivers can handle all these, at least.
  • Upscaling: While it's not perfect, this feature attempts to upgrade a lesser-resolution video format to one of a higher resolution – for example, the standard 576i picture of a DVD movie to 1080p. A point to note is that some cheaper blu-ray discs of previously released films have not been upscaled to full HD perfectly and may not have a crisp 1080p image.

AV receiver features

Here's what you need to know about features of AV receivers.

  • A/B speakers: A/B speakers allow you to play audio from a single source on 1 set of speakers (in the study) or another set of speakers (in the lounge) – or both at the same time.
  • AirPlay: This lets you stream music wirelessly from your iTunes library.
  • Automatic calibration: Receivers come with calibration microphones, which create an acoustic map of your room. Most receivers take the readings from your microphone and automatically adjust your speakers for perfect surround sound.
  • Audio delay: Audio delay or "AV lip-sync" lets you manually sync up the sound and picture if they're out of step.
  • 2.0, 2.1, and 5.1 stereo: Describes the number of channels being used. The first number is the surround-speaker channels, and the second number (after the decimal point) is the sub-woofer channels. So 5.1 stereo is five surround speakers and one sub-woofer. Generally music is just 2.1 while good home-theatre sound can get up to 9.2.
  • Dolby: DolbyDigital, Dolby TrueHD, dts-HD, DolbyProLogic are surround-sound formats used for movies.
  • HDMI: An input or output connection for HD video and audio.
  • LAN (local area network): Your home network, either wired or wireless (WiFi).
  • SD and HD: Standard definition and high definition.
  • Two-zone: With two-zone, some of your speakers can output different audio sources. For example, you can watch a DVD in the lounge while your teenager listens to a CD in another room.
  • Up-scaling: Up-scaling technology takes signals from a low-resolution video format – like a DVD – and makes them look good on a high-resolution screen.
  • On-board controls: Allow you to perform all the basic functions necessary to set up and use your receiver.
  • On-screen menus:(Accessed via your TV) allow you to perform some of the finer tuning functions from the comfort of your couch, rather than on your knees in front of the receiver itself.
  • Programmable remotes: Can be set-up to control other audio visual gadgets as well as your receiver. You don't have to keep track of separate remotes for your DVD and CD players.

AV receiver connections

The back of an AV receiver looks like a switchboard. We'll guide you through the most important connectors.

PDF version
You can download a PDF copy of the connections diagram for printing or reference.

Download now (85 KB)

1A = Digital optical (TOSLINK)

Carries a digital audio stream from external components such as blu-ray, CD, and DVD players and game consoles.

1B = Digital coaxial

A digital audio plug. Digital Coaxial Connections use RCA-style connection plugs (see 4).

1C = HDMI

Standard HD plugs for connecting to a blu-ray or DVD player, game console, or HD set-top box. Video and sound are outputted to an HDTV.

2 = Control jacks

For connecting external components such as IR blasters.

3 = DM port

This is a proprietary Sony plug for media player connection. Other systems often have different plugs, such as 3.5mm or USB.

4 = Composite video and audio

Sometimes called AV connections – the actual plugs are called RCA plugs(and also used for audio and component video). The video plug is yellow and the stereo audio is red (right channel) and white (left channel).

5 = LAN port

For connecting your system to your local network. Some systems are compatible with WiFi dongles; others will require a direct connection to your router.

6 = Component video and audio

The audio jacks (lower panel) are the same left and right channels as for composite, but the video is separated into 3 red, blue and green plugs.

There are 2 component options: RGB; and Y, Pb, Pr. RGB is the type of signal generated by a professional video camera. The Y, Pb and Pr system is encoded so that it uses less signal bandwidth. The one you use may be determined by the connections on your equipment. (You can’t send an RGB output to a Y, Pb, PR input or vice-versa.)

7 = Radio antenna

These plugs are for AM and FM radio antennae.

8 = Maintenance port

Many systems have plugs like this or USB plugs that are used for maintenance only. Check the manual before plugging anything into them.

9 = Audio multi-channel inputs and pre-outs

The pre-outs are for connecting to external powered amplifiers and subwoofers. The other audio inputs are for connecting to other multichannel players, such as blu-ray, CD, and DVD players.

10 = Speaker plugs

For connecting to your surround sound speakers.

Projector features

If you're considering a home-theatre projector, here's what to think about.

Lamp life

Lamp life for the models we tested ranged from 3900-6000 hours depending on the product and setting used. 6000 hours is 250 days of viewing. But as the bulbs can cost up to $650 to replace, you'll want to keep those marathons of The Wire to a minimum.

The projector lamp needs time to heat up before it can display a picture. For the sake of lamp life it's a good idea to let your projector heat up and cool down according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

There's nothing worse than external noise (other people) in a cinema – the same goes for a noisy projector fan at home. The sound produced by the projector varies depending on the settings chosen. Higher speeds (to prolong bulb life) are usually noisier. The fans in our test ranged from 30dBA (whispered conversation) to 38dBA on the normal setting. See the [test results] for details on how each projector performed.

After an hour playing footage on its default settings the projector temperature can become toasty, so keep children and clutter away from the exhaust outlet. The projector should also be used in a well-ventilated room, or viewing could become uncomfortable.

Resolution

The physical size of the projector doesn't necessarily have any impact on the resolution it can display. Native resolution is the resolution at which the projector can display images without having to scale the picture up or down. The ideal is when the video signal matches the native resolution, but in reality you'll be watching video from different sources at different resolutions. All the models in our test have a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels.

Keystone / lens shift correction

The keystone effect usually occurs when the image is projected onto the screen at an angle. If projected upwards, it results in a picture that is wider at the top and looks like a wedge or 'keystone'. All the projectors had controls to overcome this problem (though some did not state their parameters).

Keystone correction can create jagged edges at the edge of the screen, as it effectively cuts out some of the pixels to make the image rectangle. All the projectors in our test have manual control, but the Epson and Viewsonic have an auto function as well.

Lens shift (left/right or up/down) is necessary when the projector is positioned off-centre. If the projector doesn’t have this feature you’ll have to move the whole device to make a correction.

Sound

Naturally the projector only takes care of your picture needs. For sound you'll need a good AV receiver or home-theatre system.

×