Building A Bijou In Your Basement

Ah, the movies. There's nothing quite like the magic of larger-than-life actors on the silver screen or the dozens of speakers that envelop the auditorium with sound to put you in the middle of the action. Or that couple behind you determined to beat the actors to their punch lines. Or the woman whose big hair blocks your view of half the screen. Or the child using the back of your head for popcorn target practice.

Kind of makes you want to set up a home theater, doesn't it? Well, you no longer have to be a movie mogul to have your very own screening room. Chances are, if you've bought a decent stereo receiver in the past few years, you already have most of the components of a home theater. That's what I discovered three years ago when my 20-inch TV went on the blink. I replaced it with a 32-inch Toshiba model, dragged my stereo receiver into the same room, and hooked them together. The stereo had Dolby Pro Logic surround sound, which I had never used, so I salvaged a couple of speakers from an old boom box and put them behind the sofa. I've hardly been to the movies since.

"A STATUS THING." Home theaters have become surprisingly affordable (table, page 122E6). You can now assemble an impromptu setup with a large-screen TV like mine for a couple thousand dollars. For $15,000 or less, you can step up to a setup like Carrie Greene's. When she moved into her new home in Orange, Calif., she put together a home theater from scratch in her family room around a 57-inch RCA Proscan rear-projection TV and digital versatile disk (DVD) player, and a Yamaha surround-sound system with speakers built into the walls. All told, the equipment cost around $7,000, plus another $8,000 for cabinetry.

If you want to go whole hog and build a Hollywood-style screening room, a hundred grand or more will get you a home theater that can outperform your local megaplex. For projects like this, many people turn to an architect or designer who works with an audio-video retailer or custom installer. New York architect Pietro Cicognani, who specializes in luxury residences, says as many as 40% of his clients request that a theater be included in his plans. "It's becoming a status thing, like a private jet," he says.

Indeed, if money is no object, there's no limit to how much ornamentation you can buy for your home theater--off the shelf. A neon entrance marquee, an inner lobby with popcorn machine, theater seats with cupholders, a fiber-optic ceiling with twinkling stars--it's all available. Ten years ago, as a hobby, Theo Kalomirakis built a tiny movie palace in the basement of his Brooklyn brownstone. Today, he runs a thriving business designing theater interiors for homes. Using standardized designs, Kalomirakis & Associates (212 924-9669) can build one for as little as $40,000, excluding the electronics.

Let's say you're not quite ready to make that kind of an outlay. At the most basic level, you'll need a device to play movies in addition to a big-screen TV and a surround-sound stereo. Even the biggest conventional TVs, with 35-inch screens, now sell for under $1,000, and 40-inch to 60-inch rear-projection models start at $2,500. Most likely you already have a VCR. But you should consider adding a DVD player--and the key word is digital: Movies recorded on the compact-disk format are startlingly better than those on videotape. A good choice is the Panasonic DVD-A110, which typically sells for $350 or $400 but has been discounted to as low as $299.

WILD CARD. A word about sound, the wild card in the cost of home theaters. The new standard for surround sound is Dolby Digital, which has six discrete channels: left and right, a center channel for dialogue, two full-range surround channels for room-filling special effects, and a bass channel for a subwoofer. Newer stereo receivers, such as Yamaha's R-V1103 ($599) or the RX-V992 ($999), come with a Dolby Digital decoder built in. If you don't feel like replacing your receiver, you can buy a separate Dolby processor for around $350 or a step-up DVD player that incorporates the processor for about $200 extra.

Unlike earlier Dolby systems, this one requires full-range surround speakers, so you won't be able to use castoffs from some other system like I did. It's best to buy all speakers except the subwoofer from the same manufacturer and preferably with the same drive components. Otherwise, such special effects as a helicopter flying over your head may not sound seamless: You'll be able to detect the point where the front speakers hand off the sound to the rear speakers. And, strictly speaking, these are not rear speakers, they are surround speakers. They should be mounted on the side walls of the room, no more than a couple of feet behind the listener, and should be aimed to diffuse the sound, not directly at the audience.

If you're going to use your system for music as well as movies, make sure you audition the speakers with your favorite CDs. In the store, listen only to stereo--the left and right speakers--before you choose a speaker system. Many people have spent tens of thousands of dollars to install a home theater only to find that music CDs sound tinny and hollow. That's because the speakers in theaters use horns for the treble range, as opposed to conventional tweeters. JBL has gotten around that with its Synthesis series. Each speaker enclosure has both a horn and a tweeter and can be switched between movie and music modes. But that innovation will cost you $25,000 to $55,000 for seven speakers and a Dolby processor.

If you're buying anything new, make sure you keep an eye toward future-proofing your system. The TV broadcast standard in the U.S. is changing from analog to digital over the next eight years, which means that today's TV sets will be obsolete and require a signal converter in 2006. The most obvious change will be in the aspect ratio, or shape of the picture. The new sets will have much wider screens, more like those in movie theaters. But you'll probably want to wait a few years for prices to come down and to see what kind of digital programming broadcasters make available. So-called high-definition TVs just coming to market now run $5,000 to $10,000.

You can spend big bucks integrating all of this gear into your home. While most furniture companies offer entertainment centers that have a space for a big-screen TV, shelves for components, and cutouts to hide the cables, many people prefer a more finished, built-in look. Hiring a cabinetmaker to build a wall of cabinets and shelves to store and mask components can cost a few thousand dollars--or well over $10,000.

If you want a two-piece projection system, you'll likely have to dedicate an entire room to movie viewing. And probably you won't be able to use the so-called great room featured in many new houses. These rooms have plenty of windows and space that flows uninterrupted by walls to an informal dining area and kitchen. Because projection screens reflect ambient light, you'll need a room that can be darkened, like a theater. So you're better off putting your theater in a windowless interior room or basement.

The advent of liquid crystal display (LCD) projectors, similar to the ones that businesspeople carry around for presentations, has made projection systems more affordable. They can be had for $3,000 to $5,000, are easy to set up, and don't require the constant maintenance that the earlier three-tube CRT projectors need. A good choice is the Sony VPL-W400Q, at $4,990. It will display the new wide-screen standard image. The downside of LCD projectors is that you can see their pixels on the screen, which can be distracting. Current models also can't handle the resolution that HDTV will bring.

The other choice is the classic CRT projector, which gets you the best image possible in a home theater. If you buy the "graphics grade," you can use it with the highest levels of future HDTV formats. Those such as the Zenith PRO 900X or the Sony VPH-D50Q go for $10,000 to $15,000. Purists couple them with a line doubler for watching conventional TV, so that the TV scan lines disappear. The standard here has long been set by Faroudja, and they cost from $5,200 to $15,000. That's a small price, some would say, for a Roxy or Paramount of your very own. Best of all, you'll always have the finest seat in the house.