How to Set Up a Home Theater System

Four Methods:Choosing Your TVBuying the Speaker SystemPlacing Your Home Theater SystemConnecting the System Together

Home theater systems have exploded in popularity in the last 5 years, mostly because the costs of High Definition TVs has dropped to the point where most people can afford them. But a great home theater system requires more than just great visuals -- it needs to be comfortable, loud, and connected to deliver the best quality movies, TV shows, and music right to your living room.

Method 1
Choosing Your TV

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    Choose the right size TV for your room. While it is often tempting to get the very biggest screen you can, choosing a TV is more of a science than “bigger is better.” You should choose your TV based on the size of the room and how far away people are from the screen to get the maximum enjoyment for the maximum amount of people. In general, you should be sitting 1 ½ - 2 ½ times the screen size away from the TV. That means if you want a 70” TV screen you should have at least 9–15ft of room between the TV and your closest couch.[1]
    • TV sizes are measured diagonally, from the top left corner of the screen to the bottom right corner of the screen.
    • Projectors allow you to adjust the size of the screen as long as you have a large blank wall on which to project the video. You generally need 12-15 feet between the projector and the wall to get the best results.[2]
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    Pick the right type of TV for your room’s lighting. One of the biggest considerations when buying a TV is the type of lighting in the room around it. When properly matched, the right lighting will lower the strain on your eyes as you watch TV and make your picture quality even better. Cost and general picture quality are also considerations, of course.
    Screen Types:[3][4]
    Plasma: Often cost-effective at large sizes. Best in dark rooms. Superior contrast and wider viewing angle to LCD screens.
    LCD: Brighter screens make this a good choice for bright rooms. LED LCD (LCD screens lit by LEDs) are higher quality and have lower power consumption.
    OLED: Highest quality picture, but expensive and untested in long-term use.
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    Know that higher resolutions have better picture quality. Resolution is one of the key factors when trying to improve your TV’s picture. The more pixels, the higher the resolution. This is why 2160p, also known as “4K Ultra HD,” is more expensive than 1080p, “Full HD,” or 720p. The “p” stands for the number of pixels on the vertical edge (going downward) of the screen. More pixels give the picture better clarity and color.
    • Some systems are labeled with an “i.” such as 1080i. This stands for “interlaced” pixels, which broadcast slightly differently. While most TV manufacturers have moved past 1080i, you should know that the picture quality is roughly the same, though 1080p has “won” the battle with consumers.[5]
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    Purchase a video source. Your home theater system won’t do much if you can’t play anything from it. The most common video sources are DVD and Blu-Ray players. “Smart players” like AppleTV, Roku, and Google’s Chromecast, however, have surged in the home theater market because they can stream any internet video, from Youtube and Pandora to Netflix or HBO Go.
    DVD/Blu-Ray player: DVD players can only play DVDs, while Blu-Ray players can play both Blu-Ray discs and DVDs at higher quality.[6]
    Smart Players: AppleTV, Chromecast, and other streaming devices stream online videos and may include other apps and websites. They cannot play discs.
    Smart DVD/Blu-Ray: A disc player and streaming device in one.

Method 2
Buying the Speaker System

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    Consider whether you prefer watching movies, listening to music, or a bit of both. All home theater systems can handle both movies and music, but if you exclusively watch movies then you might want to pass on 4 high-end speaker boxes. Ask yourself if you spend more time with your iPod or plopped in front of the TV.[7]
    • ’’’Movies and TV:’’’ Most movies are multitrack (sounds come from many different speakers), meaning 5 or 7 smaller speakers will create a more immersive movie watching experience than 2-3 expensive, large speakers. This helps you create realistic surround sound.
    • ’’’Music:’’’ Speaker quality is more important than quantity. Invest in a good receiver and purchase 2 hi-fi speakers to get the best quality sound you can.[8]
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    Know that many companies sell complete home theater packages. The popularity of home theater systems has led many companies to bundle all of the necessary equipment together for one price. Ranging from several hundred dollars to several thousand, many large retailers have a variety of sound system packages depending on your needs. Some considerations to consider include:
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    ’’’Wireless:’’’ Though usually more expensive, wireless systems are a breeze to set up and adjust since you don’t have to deal with any cabling.
    • ’’’Number of speakers.’’’ Base your decision on the size of your room – small rooms (200 sq. ft) might only need a sound bar while large rooms (700+ sq. ft) might need a large 5 or 7 piece speaker set.[9]
    • ’’’Receiver:’’’ Receivers allow you to run your entire home theater system, TV and audio, through one box and one remote. While many complete packages come with a receiver, some smaller and cheaper sets may connect right into the TV.
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    Understand the notation for bundled sound systems. You will often see phrases like 5.1-channel surround sound, but there are few explanations for what this means. The first number, 5, tells you how many speakers are included in the package and the second number, .1, indicates how many subwoofers are included. So a 5.1-channel system has 5 speakers and 1 subwoofer.
    • 5.1-channel and 7.1-channel are the two most popular speaker packages, offering a subwoofer, two speakers in front of you, two behind you, one in the center, and one on either side (for 7.1).[10]
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    Buy a sound bar for simple set-up in small rooms. Sound bars are long, thin speakers that fit right under your TV to deliver decent surround sound on a budget. They connect right into your TV without a receiver and can be installed and used in minutes.
    • Sound bars attempt to bounce sound off of the walls and into the room evenly, effectively creating the illusion of surround sound.[11]
    • Some sound bars can be paired wirelessly with a subwoofer, bringing deep, room-rumbling bass to your system for a fraction of the cost of a full speaker system.
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    Place two stereo speakers on either side of the TV for simple but high-quality sound. This option is best for small rooms that want a fuller sound than a sound bar with minimal set-up. You’ll need a receiver tucked near the TV. You can then connect each speaker to the receiver, connect the receiver to the TV, and start enjoying high-quality sound.
    • This is a good option for someone who wants to build their own system. If you already have a nice pair of speakers or a receiver you can quickly convert them into a nice home theater system.[12]
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    Purchase a component surround sound system for movie-theater style sound. Often sold as 5, 6, and 7 speaker sets, pre-matched surround sound systems are perfect for people who want great audio but don’t know enough about sound to buy the parts separately. The set-up is more intensive than a sound bar or stereo system but mostly consists of running wires to each speaker from an included “control center” or receiver.
    • High-end systems often come with built-in music apps, iPod connections, and the ability to add more speakers over time.
    • Some systems are wireless, making set-up even easier.[13]
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    Build your own surround sound system with 5 speakers, a receiver, and a subwoofer. If you want to take full control of your home theater system and get the best sound you should consider building your own system. This is best for people who already have a few pieces, like a nice TV, speakers, or Blu-Ray player, but want to expand. To do so you’ll need the following components, or parts:
    • Two raised, front facing speakers.
    • Two rear speakers at the back of the room.
    • One subwoofer, usually tucked in the corner.
    • One multichannel receiver, capable of accepting 5-7 audio inputs.
    • One small center speaker (optional)
    • Two side speakers (optional)
    • High-definition TV
    • Media Player (DVD, Blu-Ray, Apple TV, cable box, etc).[14]
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    Recognize that audio is as important as, if not more important than, the TV. A Home-Theater company recently did a test on its employees to illustrate how important sound is. They showed the same movie twice on identical TVs, once with average sound equipment and once with a high-end system. The employees not only noticed the sound; 95% of them even thought that the TV itself had a higher quality picture because of the sound. The moral of the story: don't spend your whole budget on the best TV and forget about your speakers.[15]

Method 3
Placing Your Home Theater System

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    Place the TV and couches first. Design how you want to experience the room before wiring anything or putting down speakers. Place a TV along the wall or in the corner, somewhere where there will not be a lot of glare or light. Place couches or chairs in comfortable watching position.
    • Make a note of your "main" couch. Where is the place you will watch TV the most often? This will help you place speakers later on.
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    Draft a floor plan for your room to find the center. Once you’ve bought the speakers and receiver, you need to figure out where to put them. Make a simple drawing of your room highlighting where you are sitting and where your TV is placed. Make notes of your furniture, doors, and windows so that you can accurately plan out your system. You want the speakers to “meet” at your "main couch" to deliver the most realistic surround sound.
    • Plan the speaker placement before you begin running wires to make set-up as easy as possible.
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    Place your two front speakers at ear height, angled towards your seating location. One speaker goes on either side of the TV and they both point inwards. If you are looking at the speakers from your couch they’ll be at a roughly 45-degree angle to you.[16]
    • If you were to draw lines coming from the speakers, they would meet at ear level in the center of the room.
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    Place your center channel speaker above or below the TV. This speaker is usually smaller and is designed to deliver crisp dialog right to the viewers. It should be front and center so that it clearly broadcasts to the entire room.[17]
    • Many people mount this speaker just above the TV if they have room.
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    Place side speakers in-line and above the viewers. Side facing speakers should be parallel to the viewer, offering sound from the right and left. If you cannot fit them in line with the couch, place them slightly behind the viewer and angle them towards the couch. They should always be 2 feet or more above the viewer, pointing downward.[18]
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    Place the rear speakers side by side along the center of the back wall. This allows them to work together to grab your attention. There are also alternate set-up ideas, such as separating the back speakers and pointing them inward, that help provide the feel of surround sound if you don't have dedicated side speakers.
    • If you are using only 5-speakers, prioritize side-facing speakers before rear speakers.
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    Put your subwoofer along the front wall, preferably in the middle. The subwoofer brings the big, gut-trembling bass notes and works best up against a wall. Try to fit it near the middle of the wall if you can, but it can be to the side if the TV is in the way.[19]
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    Add any additional speakers up high, in the front. Very complex systems, like 9.1 surround sound, come with extra speakers meant to add sound from up top, like in a movie theater. Mount these above your two front speakers, angled in and pointing down at the viewer.
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    Clear the path to the speakers. If you can’t see the speakers from where you are sitting, the sound is being blocked off. Reorganize your furniture and speaker position to get the maximum sound possible.
    • Bare walls and floors cause sound to bounce around, so you can improve your acoustics with rugs or furniture along the walls.[20]
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    Alternatively, install in-ceiling speakers. Four speakers, two in front of your viewing area and two behind it, will provide high-quality surround sound, but at a price. They often come with auto-calibration as well, meaning the speakers will shift and change volumes to get the best possible surround sound.
    • Dolby Atmos speakers come in both ceiling and floor models, allowing you to mix and match them to make high-quality surround sound from top to bottom instead of from side to side.
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    Once you’ve planned out your speaker location, install them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Most pre-packaged home theater sets come with the right mountings, casings, and stands, which makes installation easy. Once you’ve got your speakers where you want them, feel free to tweak them a bit to get the sound you love. Every room is different, so every room will have an optimal angle and placement for your speakers.

Method 4
Connecting the System Together

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    Understand signal flow. The signal is the movie on your Blu-ray, the TV show from Netflix, or the music from Pandora. Following the flow of the signal will help you figure out the right inputs and outputs on your gear. Everything starts at your media source (Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, etc.) because this is where you movie is located. On some TV’s this is known as the “source components.” Think of your movie as a physical object: it “moves” from your media player to the receiver, which sends half of it to the speakers (sound) and the other half to your TV (picture). In general, your signal flow is simple:
    • Media player (source output) connects to the receiver (source input).
    • Receiver (audio output) connects to the speakers (audio input).
    • Receiver (signal/source output) connects to the TV (signal/source input).[21]
    • If you are not using a receiver, connect directly to the TV. You will then send the TV audio (audio output) to the speakers (audio input) if you have a sound bar or speakers.
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    Turn everything off. Reduce the risk of electric shock by turning everything off and unplugging the TV and receiver. Make sure your speakers are off.
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    Use HDMI cables to connect your receiver, TV, and media players. HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is the industry-standard cable for home theater, and for good reason: it can send audio and video signals through one cable. This will not only save you time, but massive headaches. Every modern TV and sound system will have HDMI inputs. The cable is the same on both ends, which resemble flat, two-tiered USB cable ends.
    • All HDMI cables are built identically, so do not be fooled into buying a $50 cable when a $5 HDMI will work exactly the same way.[22]
    • If you cannot use HDMI for some reason, consider buying a converter. Bring your old cable into a local electronics store and ask them if they can help you change your connection.
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    Plug an HDMI cable from your media player’s output to the receiver input. If you don’t have and HDMI cable you can also use RCA cables, which is a collection of a Red, Yellow, and White input. Attach one end of the cable to the output of the media player and into the receiver’s matching “source input” port.
    • If your receiver does not handle video (ie. it is an audio receiver, not a home theater receiver), then you should plug your media player directly into the TV’s “input” port.[23]
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    Connect your receiver to your television. This is almost always accomplished with an HDMI cable, but some advanced systems may connect wirelessly. Simply attach your receiver’s “source output” or “video output” into one of the inputs on your TV. Remember the input you chose – this will help you select the right input on your remote to see your movies.
    • If your receiver does not handle video, you need to reverse this connection. Think of the source flow again. If the information is coming from Blu-Ray player to the TV, and you want the sound to come out of your speakers, you need to send sound from the TV “audio output” to the receiver’s “audio input.”
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    Test and troubleshoot your video connection before moving on to the speakers. At this point, you should have everything you need to test the video. Turn on the TV, receiver, and media player and switch to the correct input number on your TV (this corresponds to the input you connected everything to, it's labeled on the back of the TV as HDMI 1, Component 2, etc.). You should see a picture from your DVD player or smart device. For troubleshooting:
    • Check all of the inputs. Are any connections loose?
    • Attach the media player (output) directly to the TV (input), skipping the receiver, to make sure that the media player works.
    • Check that you have the right signal flow. Things should go “out” from the media player and “in” to the TV.
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    Connect your speakers to the receiver with speaker wire. This is often the most complex part of any home-theater installation because every room has different needs and challenges. While the basic wiring is easy, hiding the wires professionally takes time and forethought. Speaker wire is actually two attached wires, a red and a black. The wire runs from the back of the speaker to the receiver’s “Audio Output” ports. Connect one wire to the red “input” on your speaker and the red “output” on the receiver and do the same with the black end to connect your speaker.
    • Some modern speakers have plugs instead of speaker wiring. In this case, the wires are color coded for easy access.
    • Most speaker wire is covered in a wax sheath to protect it. You must use scissors or wire cutters to trim this sheath and pull it off, exposing the bright copper wire inside. This wire makes the connection, not the sheath, so you must remove the wax to get your speakers working.
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    Connect your two front speakers first, then test them out by playing a movie. Once you can get them to work, move on to the rest of the speakers.
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    Connect the right speakers to the right inputs on the receiver. Surround sound works because the DVD tells the receiver where to send the information. If there is a stalker creeping up in the movie, you want your rear speakers to sound like leaves are crunching behind you, not the front ones. Make sure you attach each speaker to its appropriate channel, which is usually labeled ("rear audio," "front speaker," etc.).
    • Some pre-packaged systems have label ports while high-end systems can automatically detect which speaker goes where, allowing you to plug them all in anywhere. If there are no labels on the back of the receiver, simply plug them all into the “audio output.”
    • The subwoofer is usually labeled as a “sub out” or “sub pre-out,” and may need a specific subwoofer cable.[24]
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    Hide your wires. This not only looks professional, it prevents people from tripping and ripping cables or pulling down speakers accidentally. Run cables under rugs, staple them to the baseboards along the sides of the walls, or run them through the walls if you are comfortable with carpentry.
    • There are a variety of services, including teams at Best Buy or Geek Squad, that will run your wires for you for a fee.
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    Troubleshoot your speaker system if you can’t hear any sound. Speakers are generally easy to attach, but that doesn’t mean problems won’t arise.
    • Check the channel on your receiver. When you plug in your speakers to the receiver, you’ll often see them categorized as “audio output, channel 1.” This means your receiver can handle multiple speaker formats. Make sure the channel on the front of the receiver matches the channel you plugged yours speakers into.
    • Check the inputs. They should be firmly attached. Make sure that the same wire connects the red end of the speaker to the red end of the receiver or they won’t work.
    • Test your speaker by plugging in an iPod or music player and testing that before trying a DVD.


  • Make sure the location that you choose for your equipment is well ventilated, as overheating is a big problem with powerful amplifiers and A/V receivers.
  • Consider purchasing a universal remote to consolidate your home theater system into one remote..


  • You should always use caution when doing any type of construction. Make sure that when you work with electricity you cut the breaker at the panel before touching any wires. If you aren't skilled handling construction with electricity, call an electrician to do any electrical upgrades for you.

Things You'll Need

  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Circular saw
  • Wire strippers
  • Level
  • Screw drivers
  • Nail gun
  • Liquid nails
  • Wire nuts
  • Romex 14-2
  • Speaker wire 16-2 or 14-2
  • Coaxial cable
  • Cat5
  • Miscellaneous connectors, hardware, screws, nails, etc

Sources and Citations

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