DVD and Home Theater

by Bob Seidel

This column is about setting up a home theater system, or at least connecting a DVD player to your TV. This is now more of an area of interest to me because I have decided to add Home Theater installations to my consulting business. I am doing this because, in my travels, I am seeing that people are hesitating to put in better TV systems because they frankly just don't know how. It is actually more complicated to set up a Home Theater system than a PC in some cases.

To start off with, what will you get if you invest the time and money? The central piece of equipment is a DVD player. At one time, DVD players were fairly exotic and expensive, and so were the DVD disks themselves. That has all changed now. You can get good DVD players for as low as $70 in local stores, and the cost of the disks is very reasonable. You can often find a DVD holding two hours of entertainment for far less than a music CD that only holds 40 minutes or so. The local Wal-Mart sells bargain DVDs for $7.

DVD disks give you far better quality than VHS tapes, are more durable, and add lots more options such as alternate languages, subtitles, and extra features or commentary.

Besides the better signal quality and the extras, the primary feature of a DVD is that they incorporate full surround sound capability - either Dolby Digital sound or DTS (Digital Theater Sound). These are competing offerings, but to you are essentially the same. Both give you full 5.1 surround sound - this means five speakers (front center, left, right, and rear left and right) plus subwoofer output. When you are done setting one of these systems up, your living room will sound just like a movie theater.

One other reason to add DVD capability is that the video rental business will be switching to this format exclusively soon. VHS tapes are going to disappear.

So, how do you do it? Probably the easiest way would be to buy a TV with a built-in DVD player. These are fairly common in the smaller sets, but there is one drawback: You will not get the full 5.1 sound, because most TVs only have stereo sound (i.e. two speakers).

In general, you have to purchase a DVD player. These look and operate a lot like a VHS deck, but the resemblance is only skin deep. The primary issue is that you cannot connect the output of a DVD player directly to a TV with a TV cable, and even if you could you would again not get the 5.1 sound.

What you need to get is a home theater receiver. This is like a stereo receiver, but it supports the additional speakers and also has the appropriate connections for the DVD player and other equipment. You can buy these as a kit with all the components (some kits even include the DVD player) or you can select your own components and speakers.

When it comes to cables and connections, here is where it becomes complicated. You can have subwoofer cables, regular audio cables, digital coaxial cables, digital optical cables, regular video cables, S-video cables, or component video cables! Whew! Picking the right connection and setting up the various devices to use them can be daunting. For example, your DVD player may have component video output (which is the best quality), but your TV may not have component video input!

If you are going to buy a DVD player, you will find that the key features are now in almost all units, at any price. This includes digital audio output, component video output, and progressive scan. You might want a unit that features both optical and coaxial digital sound output, and a unit that plays all the current DVD and CD recordable formats that is CD-R, CD-RW, DVD+R and DVD-R. Another nice feature is the ability to play CDs with MP3 sound tracks, so you can record MP3 files to CD rather than convert to CD audio.

But when it's done, you will have picture and sound quality far better than from your old VHS tapes. Believe me, it's worth it to upgrade.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail him at bsc@bobseidel.com)