Home Sweet Movie Palace

You've got the night off, and you'd love to escape into a good movie. You want that big-screen experience and those special effects that make you feel like you're surrounded by the action. But when you consult the local movie guide, nothing fits the bill, or the times don't work. Or maybe you just don't want to share the same space with a bunch of noisy teenagers.

This is the moment when a home theater starts making sense. The amount of entertainment available to you in the home is staggering. There's cable and broadcast TV as well as the entire inventory of your local video store. If you want to invest about $700 for a dish, you can obtain your programming directly from space via one of the new digital satellite systems--getting the best picture and sound available. Couple any of those choices with modern video and audio technology, and you can reproduce the sensations of a real theater without breaking the bank.

TRIPLE PLAY. The idea of building a home theater may seem daunting at first. After all, some video fanatics have even tacked on media rooms to their houses. But nobody is asking you to replicate Radio City. Generally speaking, you should be able to fit all the components required into an average living room or den.

While true believers can watch costs soar into five figures, you can assemble a decent system for a fraction of that. You already may have some of the necessary equipment, such as a TV or stereo receiver. If so, then it may only be a matter of adding one or two elements, such as extra speakers--which can be done for as little as $1,000. If you need a larger-screen TV plus some other pieces, expect to spend $1,500 to $5,000.

The best way to approach the idea of a home theater is to break it down into three parts: source, screen, and sound. Consider the source. Nearly everyone has a videocassette recorder. But for home theater, you'll need a hi-fi VCR, which by definition has separate outputs for the video and left and right audio channels for stereophonic sound.

Another video source is a laser-disk player. Prices vary, depending on features, but expect to pay around $400 for an auto-reverse model that plays both sides of the disk automatically. These machines offer a better picture than a VCR--roughly 400 vs. 240 lines of horizontal resolution--as well as CD-quality sound. The downside is that few video stores rent laser disks, they're expensive to buy, and they don't allow recording. Also, the 12-in. laser disk is likely to be eclipsed late next year by a 5-in. video CD with an even better picture.

A third choice of source material is the digital satellite system currently offered by RCA and Sony for about $700, not including installation. The high-quality digital signal is received by an 18-in. dish that is less obtrusive than a typical outdoor TV antenna. Direct-broadcast satellite systems are also available from Primestar. Its dish is larger, but Primestar will lease the gear, rolling the cost into a monthly bill comparable to cable TV rates. Competing systems are due from Alphastar and Echosphere next year.

TUBES AND MIRRORS. While you can get by with a 27-in. TV, moving up to a larger screen size is worth it. Direct-view TVs use the traditional CRT display and top out at 35 in., the one exception being a 40-in. model from Mitsubishi. Of course, the bigger the screen, the greater the cost: An RCA 32-in. model, the G32750AT, lists for $1,649, while RCA's 35-in. G35851LA lists for $2,499.

Screen sizes over 40 in. come exclusively on projection TVs--you just can't make a glass tube any bigger. Projection TVs use separate color tubes and a variety of mirrors to enlarge the picture. While projection TVs are physically wider than direct-view TVs, space is not as big an issue as you might think. Most new projection TVs measure the same front-to-back as direct-view models, so they don't eat up additional floor space. Toshiba's 61-in., $4,495 TP61E90 is only 27 in. deep. Projection TVs also lend themselves to discreet in-wall installations. Of course, some are practically walls themselves, the biggest being an 80-in., $8,000 monster from RCA.

Historically, direct-view TVs have delivered a better picture than projection TVs, although the gap between the two is closing quickly. Still, brightness levels, resolution, and off-axis viewing tend to be better on direct-view models.

Perhaps the most complicated bit of business is the sound system. To duplicate the movie theater experience, you must be surrounded by speakers. The key ingredient is a circuit called Dolby Pro Logic, which directs the sound to the appropriate speaker. When you hear that helicopter coming in from behind you, that's Dolby Pro Logic at work.

Dolby can be incorporated into a TV or as part of a stand-alone audio receiver. If a TV includes Dolby Pro Logic circuitry, it generally means there are built-in amplifiers and speakers. The TV will also have some provision for connecting rear speakers. While convenient, the built-in arrangement usually comes at the cost of amplifier power and speaker performance. More power--whose purpose is better fidelity at lower volume levels--and improved sound reproduction generally require separate components.

You'll need five speakers for a superior system--three up front and two in the rear. In addition to the standard left- and right-channel speakers up front, you'll be well-served by a center channel speaker that anchors the onscreen dialogue. Otherwise, the spoken word can be overwhelmed by competing sounds or may appear to be coming from somewhere other than the actor's mouth. Sometimes, you may be able to use a built-in TV speaker as the center-channel speaker.

Behind you are a pair of rear speakers. These need not be expensive, as they will only be called on to reproduce sound at the lower portions of the audio spectrum. While five speakers will get you started, you may want to consider a sixth in a supporting role. A subwoofer, which reproduces low bass frequencies, will put thunder into the system.

SAY "WHEN." Where once you had to cobble together elements from a variety of brands, some companies now offer all the needed extras in one neat package. 3M markets its STV Digital 6 system that includes a Dolby Pro Logic processor with subwoofer and five speakers for a list price of $599. If Dolby Pro Logic is built into your TV or audio receiver, you may want to opt for Kenwood's KSS-500 package. The list price of $699 gets you five speakers and a subwoofer.

While Dolby Pro Logic is the dominant surround-sound technology, other types exist. RCA and Sony TVs employ an SRS circuit designed to produce a surround effect with non-Dolby encoded video material. At the higher end, THX and AC-3 enhance the surround sensation but call for even more speakers. It's a truism in audio that incremental increases in performance cost a great deal. The same applies to home theater in general. It's up to you to say when enough is enough.

Casting Call


BASIC VIDEO A hi-fi videocassette recorder with left- and right-channel audio outputs ($250-$600)

THE STEP-UP Laser-disk players offer better picture and sound than videotape ($400 for auto-reverse model)

THE ULTIMATE Satellite TV's digital signal, featuring the best picture and sound available (monthly bill is comparable to cable-TV rates)


BARE MINIMUM A 27-in. (diagonal) TV ($400-$900)

THE MIDDLE GROUND Big-screen, direct-view TV, primarily 32-in. and 35-in. feature-laden models ($1,200-$2,700)

THE WOW-YOUR-FRIENDS SETUP Projection-screen TV, ranging from 45 in. to 80 in. ($2,400-$8,000)


MUST-HAVE The Dolby Pro Logic circuit, which directs sound to the appropriate speaker

STARTING FIVE Three speakers up front and two in the rear, the basic surround-sound configuration ($600-$700 including Dolby Pro Logic)

RAISE THE ROOF A subwoofer to reproduce those deep bass frequencies ($200-$1,000)


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