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Home Theater Wishy-Washyness

For the first time in three or four years I am on the cusp of a home theater upgrade decision. Since the middle of college, and arguably since high school, I have been on a quest to provide myself with excellent media environments. I learned the beauty of credit card debt by slowly accruing speakers, an A/V receiver, a DVD player, and 200-disc CD changer. Post-college additions included a Marantz programmable remote and a dealer stock Plus Piano DLP front projector.

The MB Quart speakers were purchased on an 18-month zero interest plan. The Kenwood VR2080 receiver was found online. A JVC DVD player was in an open box at Best Buy. The matching Kenwood 200-disc CD changer was an easy choice at Vann's, “Montana’s value leader.” The Marantz touchscreen remote was a “must have” as I built spools and spools of wiring into my new home. The front projector would be a great fit in the planned home theater room in our basement.

After moving into the house, the “do it myself” attitude subsided. I placed all of my A/V equipment in a closet off the family room. An infrared receiver in the wall allowed me to remotely control all of the devices, and some devices were even shared with our bedroom. Wires flowed from a newly cut hole in the closet wall. My goals seemed to start and end with keeping said equipment functional. The bare essential macros were programmed into the remote. My wife could activate cable, a DVD, and even the projector when pressed. She could even write detailed instructions for a guest. Things like programming a newb friendly remote; completing the design, wiring, and walls of a home theater room; listening to music; and finishing a functional whole-house audio system all seemed to be far off pipe dreams.

The luster of my equipment began to fade. I desired the Kenwood A/V receiver for a long time, but, as with many purchases, the most enticing feature (joystick LCD remote) became the least used and most frustrating aspect of the product. My 200-disc changer was rendered useless, both in form and function. The changer beautifully matches my A/V receiver, both of which are hidden in a closet. In-depth music listening has become nearly a lost art, with most of my tunes being heard in my office over my computer speakers. The Marantz remote has endless potential, but am I really going to program a unique and friendly navigation system along with shortcuts to all 200 CD’s in the changer? Tons of music resides on my server, but how do I easily make it accessible to all my home’s residents? And finally that front projector sits inappropriately on a table in our family room; right in front of the couch. Shining on a bright white wall, it gets less-and-less use as our daughter grows older. The projector’s poor ambient light performance makes for a small ideal viewing window. It’s crying for a home theater room even without sporting a basic feature like HDTV functionality.

The home theater room would be in a far off nook of the house - inconvenient to almost any activity save being isolated and alone. For ideal viewing and listening, its a great situation. With any luck the noise can be isolated with the room. A media consumer could enjoy his/her content in peace without creating undo stress to the other residents’ ears, eyes and throats. The closed off room would vastly improve the music and soundtrack performance of my more than adequate speakers. The completely light-controlled space would make projection viewing available all day every day. Additional benefits would include storage of media, relocation of floor-standing speakers, and the chance to finally paint that white wall in the family room.

Reality began to hit a couple weeks ago. Am I really going to build this home theater room anytime soon? Would we use it now that we have a child? It seems that shutting oneself in an isolated room is not going to be an option for several years. Our family’s use will likely be limited to a couple hours each week. I myself would probably use it two or four more hours as well. So we’d be building a somewhat customized room to provide modest storage and perhaps 260 hours of entertainment annually. Naturally there would be several equipment purchases necessary for this room both immediately and going forward. Likely a new A/V receiver, a second subwoofer, a screen, seating, and two additional surround sound speakers for starters.

A second option would be to scrap the theater room. Staying with what got us here, we could purchase a pull down screen and retroactively mount the projector to the family room ceiling. Unfortunately, while building my house I did not plan for a front projector in the family room. Wiring a finished room always sucks, wiring a finished room that you witnessed as an exposed room has to suck several times worse. At least that is my initial response. The sonic quality of the family room is also suspect, being it is an open-ended space. I may be nuts, but I don’t feel my speakers have performed very well since moving into the new house. Finally, money used to purchase a screen and a new bulb (the projector’s bulb is about to die) would get me at least halfway to an HDTV.

A third option, and the one I am most comfortable with if things like money are forgotten, is to scrap the front projection idea and purchase a new HDTV for the family room. While a distance from any decision, the most likely choice would be a flat panel LCD television. Specifically, the Syntax Olevia 37“ flat panel TV, which has received excellent feedback for its pricepoint. This would allow us to mount the TV on the wall. We would have the benefit of HDTV through Charter Cable, solid DVD picture, and easy computer hookup for some high resolution gaming. Mid-day viewing would be a breeze, though the ideal nighttime lighting conditions wouldn’t result in a perfect picture due to the LCD’s deficiency in creating “true blacks” onscreen.

The 37“ choice is a price versus performance decision. The advantage of hanging the television on the wall is a good one. But much higher than 37” and the cost climbs quickly. Viewing angles on the Syntax TV appear to be quite good. Perhaps in the end a rear projection television will be a better option, but I hesitate to buy another piece of furniture. The idea would ultimately be to view the 37“ in the family room for two or three years and move it to the bedroom as the flat panel prices continue to drop and a larger unit becomes feasible.

The 37“ size is the biggest detractor for this television. For movie viewing, I would be dropping from a 72-80” front projection system to a 37“ television. Given ideal environments and current DVD technology, my non-HD front projector should still outpace the television in terms of DVD picture quality. If I chose to sell my projector, I would probably receive about 25-30% of what I paid for it. Even though I paid a very reasonable price, that loss is hard to stomach. The projector needs a new bulb soon, which could also be a difficult hurdle to jump.

One final option would perhaps be the best, again if money were no object. Maybe the HDTV should be purchased and placed in the family room while the projector is returned to its box until a home theater room is completed. After all, the projector’s resale value is little to nil. If DVD were the movie format for the next ten years, I would actually feel comfortable with this decision. My projector is not HD, but it does provide the full resolution need for today’s DVD’s. Unfortunately, today’s DVD’s will likely be replaced with the last phsycial media format, HD DVD or Blu-Ray.

So where do I go from here? I’m quite unsure. An HDTV purchase will necessitate some other purchases, at the least a new A/V receiver, some proper cabling, and perhaps some computer upgrades (remote keyboard/mouse?). Obviously a theater room will require some major spending. With other household goals in mind (deck, fence, patio, etc), is this really the best use of my dollar or is the status quo a solid option? Feel free to make your own comments, whether speculative or based on experience. Expect some updates throughout the winter on this all-important topic.