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Building a Home Theater on a Budget: Part 1 Selecting the Components

My God! It's full of stars! picture from Sound and Vision

My God! It’s full of stars! No, this isn’t my home theater. At least, not yet! My budget was and is significantly lower.
picture from Sound and Vision

I just installed a home theater with a huge screen and a full high definition projector. With 3D no less.

I’m 50 years old and my eyes are beginning to go. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

When my son moved out, he took with him the pool table that has dominated the downstairs game room for the last 6 years or so. The game room is an awkward shape and size, almost three times as long as it is wide, making it almost impossible to furnish as a regular room. But that unusual size made it perfect for a pool table and card table. The only problem was I don’t play pool, so when my son left, it only made sense that the pool table went with him.

So I was left with a gaping hole in my game room, a hole that was begging to be filled. I knew that if I didn’t act quickly, it would be filled with my wife’s stuff because nature abhors a vacuum, and we all know that Nature is a Mother.

Knowing that I had to work quickly, and having dreamed for years of having a home theater, I started shopping around to see how quickly, and cheaply, I could pull something together. One site, Sound and Vision, brought dreams of opulent splendor, a home theater filled with plush seating, engineered lighting, and all the bells and whistles.

Unfortunately, my budget could barely support the bells, and forget about any whistles.

Some of the theaters on that site have equipment budgets that exceed the cost of my house, and that doesn’t even begin to get into furnishings, and decorations. My budget for the whole project was $2500.

Building a home theater on a budget meant that I would have to be patient, realistic, do all of the work myself, and build my theater is stages. Being on a tight budget, I also knew I needed to reuse as much existing equipment as I could. I decided that my approach would be to research well and buy good quality budget components. My thought pattern was fairly simple. I’m not the kind of guy who is going to notice that the color sequence of Mark Hamill’s light saber is shifted 40 degrees to the red, so why pay thousands of dollars I didn’t have for something I wouldn’t notice? The same goes for audio.

The second thing I decided was that decoration would be Phase 2. Other than basic coverups for cables and making it look as neat as possible, there would not be a lot of flair to the room. My theater room is ugly, but since I usually watch my movies in the dark anyway, who cares?

The third thing was that comfort was hugely important. The seating had to be comfortable enough for my wife and I to sit through all 19 hours of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies with two meal breaks and three potty breaks. (Thank goodness for intermissions!)

And so my adventure in a budget home theater research began.

I started with the screen. There are two basic choices as far as screens go, retractable and fixed. Fixed screens are more expensive, and are rigid, meaning that they are very flat, which is important for maintaining good focus. Retractable screens are flexible, and get out of your way when you don’t need them, but they have no rigidity, and are not as flat as rigid screens, which can cause some focus issues, particularly if your projector is not lined up squarely with your screen. To get the most bang for my buck, I went with a 125″ retractable screen. ($259) The model I chose had an electric motor to extend and retract the screen, and came with a wall switch, a remote, and a connector to automatically raise and lower the screen when the projector was turned off and on.

I have an old business projector, standard definition and not meant for use in a home theater, but I set it up anyway, temporarily hung the screen, and watched Tombstone on DVD, using the projector’s speakers. It wasn’t quite a home theater experience, more like watching a movie in grade school back in the ’80s. But the size alone made the image commanding, and I knew I was off to a good start.

Next, I researched projectors. I looked online, read hundreds of reviews, went to the local big box store and the local home theater store to audition different units, and I found out that while you do get what you pay for, you can wind up paying an awful lot for a marginal improvement. Yes, a $10,000 projector will look better than a $1,000 projector. Just not $9,000 worth.

I found a projector with 2000 ANSI lumens (How bright it is. The higher the number, the better.), full HD (1080p), 144Hz refresh (How quickly the picture changes. The higher the better.), with a contrast ratio of 10,000:1(Lightest part of the screen compared to darkest. Again, a higher number is better.).  These numbers place this projector’s specifications among those costing 3 or 4 times as much as the $880 I paid for it. The fact that it is a 3D projector as well was just icing on the cake. I paid $65 for a ceiling mount and two 25′ HDMI cables (If you buy HDMI cables anywhere other than online, you are wasting a ton of money. The two cables together cost less than what you would pay at a big box store for one 6′ cable.

I already had a Blu-ray player with internet apps, and I repurposed the sound system from my bedroom to act as my surround sound system.  It’s about 8 years old, but still works well with Dolby Pro logic for surround sound. It doesn’t have a lot of power, but it has enough for me right now. For seating, I went to a furniture wholesaler and got a two person rocking love seat recliner for $900. I could have gone cheaper, but like I said, I wanted to be comfortable. 2 pairs of $30 3D glasses, plus $45 in hardware to hide the cables and I was set.

Total cost out of pocket, $2209. I could have cut my cost by $300 if I had settled for a 720p projector, and eliminated the $900 couch entirely by repurposing an old couch, but my budget going in was $2500, so I splurged. A 70″ TV goes anywhere from $1600 to $6000. And up.

So now that I had all the components, it was time to put them together.

Which is the subject for the next post.

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