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Planning Your System

Most home theater systems are built around a core group of components, with some optional equipment available, depending on your specific situation. Use the following lists to determine which particular components you need or want.

These are the essential components of any home theater system:

  • Audio/video receiver. This is the core of your home theater system. The A/V receiver not only provides power to all your speakers; it also functions as a central switching unit for all your components. (Note that hardcore audiophiles subscribe to an even further definition of "separates," insisting on a separate amplifier and preamplifier combo, rather than a single receiver.)

  • DVD/CD player. DVDs are the programming source for your system. All DVD players also play audio CDs, so you can have a single component do the work of two units.

  • Speakers. No serious home theater enthusiast relies on the speakers built into his television set. To get true surround sound, you need a minimum of five main speakers (three in front and two in back), plus a subwoofer.

  • Video monitor. We used to call this a television set, but times have changed. It doesn't matter whether you want a traditional direct-view CRT set, a CRT or micro-display rear projection TV, a front projector with separate screen, or a flat LCD or plasma display—you need something on which you can watch all those DVDs.

Beyond these essentials, you can add or upgrade to any of the following optional components:

  • Separate CD player or changer. True audiophiles demand a CD player separate from the system's DVD player. Separate CD players often provide better performance than combo DVD/CD players, especially if you opt for a model that can play back the new ultra-high fidelity Super Audio CD (SACD) or DVD-Audio discs.

  • DVD changer. Instead of a single-disc DVD player, consider a unit that lets you shuffle between multiple DVDs. Most low-priced DVD changers use the five-disc carousel approach; more expensive jukebox units can store up to 400 discs.

  • DVD recorder. When you find a television or cable program you want to keep, burn it to disc with a DVD recorder. Most DVD recorders also offer FireWire inputs, so you can burn disc copies of DV movies from your digital camcorder. Some even come with integrated HDD recorders, so you can record a program to hard disk first, and then burn it to DVD if you decide to keep it.

  • Hard disc drive (HDD) recorder. TiVo established the category, and now there are lots of different units that let you throw away your VCR and record television programs direct to hard disk. Onscreen program guides make it easy to schedule a recording; "chase" playback from the hard disk lets you pause and rewind "live" programming. And remember—the bigger the hard disk, the more programs you can store.

  • VHS video cassette recorder. No true videophile will use a VCR for recording anymore, but if you still have a closet full of old VHS tapes, you'll need to keep a VCR in your system for the foreseeable future.

  • Digital VCR. When your system goes high-definition, consider a state-of-the-art digital VCR to record your HDTV programming to tape.

  • HDTV tuner. Speaking of high-definition television (HDTV), if you want to receive HDTV broadcasts on an HDTV-ready monitor, you'll need to add an HDTV tuner. Some HDTV tuners receive only terrestrial (broadcast) signals; others combine an HDTV terrestrial tuner with an HDTV satellite receiver.

  • Digital satellite receiver. The programming source for most home theater systems is the digital satellite system (DSS), typified by DIRECTV and the DISH Network.

  • Cable set-top box. You can also get digital and HDTV programming via cable; if you're a cable subscriber, you'll need to find room for that cable box somewhere in your system rack.

  • Digital music hub. This moniker encompasses two different but similar devices. The hard disk music hub lets you "rip" your entire CD collection to a single hard drive, and then listen to your albums and playlists digitally. The network music hub lets you "stream" (via Ethernet or WiFi) all the MP3 and WMA files you have stored on your computer, over your home theater system.

  • Universal remote control. The more components you have in your system, the more remote controls you have on your coffee table. Invest in a universal remote control to operate everything in your system from a single source.

That's not all. If you're an old-time videophile, you may have a substantial collection of pre–DVD laserdiscs, for which you'll need to keep a vintage laserdisc player in your system. Audiophiles might want to include a cassette deck, maybe a MiniDisc player, even a turntable, depending on what you have in your music collection.

And don't forget a cabinet or rack to hold all those components!

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