For years, it seemed like home cinema had hit a bit of a fallow period. Full-HD TV had become a ubiquitous standard and, for a while, it seemed as though Blu-Ray could well be the last home video standard to gain any real traction.
The only real innovations came from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, but even then, those were innovations which embraced current standards, rather than prompting customers to build or upgrade to a new home cinema set up.
Today, however, it’s all change once again in the home cinema landscape. After the failed 3D TV ‘revolution’, TV manufacturers have marshalled around 4K. With new models coming at a steady clip, along with the launch of 4K Blu-Ray, new 4K capable consoles from Microsoft and Sony and HDR standards, along with innovations in home cinema audio – all of which offers a compelling reason to invest in an all new home cinema set up.
In this guide, we’re going to break down every aspect of building the ultimate home cinema set up. From how to choose a TV or screen and TV speakers; whether expensive wiring really makes a difference to your home cinema experience,.. we’ve got you covered. Let’s dig in.
A home cinema without a screen is nothing more than a hi-fi with a Blu-Ray player, so in this section we’re going to focus on breaking down your best screen options.
The first choice you have to make is between a projector and a traditional TV. Recent years have seen some strong advances in projector technology, with brighter images and sharper focus available on all modern full-size projectors. Indeed, we’ve also seen vast improvements in short throw projectors, which allow you to create a large image without having a large room or complicated set-up.
However, it’s the TV which we believe makes the smarter choice for most home cinema set ups.
Although projectors will always trump TV’s in pure image size, when it comes to quality, there’s no competition between a projector and a TV. In every area, a quality TV comes out ahead of a projector. Brightness, contrast, resolution, colour accuracy, convenience, running costs and installation are all better with a TV.
For the majority of home cinema setups, we’d recommend a good TV over a great projector. However, if you’re looking for that true cinema screen experience, a projector could be the right option for you.
With the choice made between a projector and a TV, your first job is to decide between a Full-HD (1080p) screen or an Ultra-HD (4K) compatible unit.
It’s been over a decade since the first Full-HD TV screens hit the market, and during that period there have been some truly stunning 1080p TVs hit the market. Today, you can find a range of excellent Full-HD screens, but investing in one for your home cinema set up does somewhat limit the future proofing of your system.
4K, on the other hand, is a relatively new entrant to the home cinema world. With 4x the resolution of a 1800p display, 4K screens present an unparalleled level of detail for your home cinema experience. That means you can access all the 4K content that’s available from Sky, BT, Amazon, Netflix and available on Ultra-HD Blu-Ray disks – as well as any future 4K releases.
On the downside, 4K screens are more expensive than their 1080p counterparts and may be unnecessary if you’re planning on purchasing a smaller screen. Though some manufacturers have moved away from 1080p panels in high-end televisions, it’s worth making use of Reference Home Cinema’s excellent 4K v 1080p calculator to determine whether a 4K screen is necessary for your home cinema set up.
Outside of 4K, you’re going to want to pay attention to a couple of other standards. HDR (high dynamic range) has been touted as a potential game-changer for the way we see content on our screens, thanks to its ability to display a greater range of colours than non-HDR sets. If you’re shopping for a new 4K display, you’ll find that the majority offer HDR image support of some kind.
Netflix have been vocal about their support for HDR, calling it the “next big thing” and The recent console launches of the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro have brought HDR support to the home console market. Confusingly, there are no less than four competing HDR standards at present; HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG and Advanced HDR.
Whilst this might bring to mind the old format wars of the past, it’s worth noting that these standards are designed to be cross-compatible, so you shouldn’t worry too much about backing the wrong horse.
If HDR support is important to your purchase, you might want to consider whether you purchase an LED or OLED screen.
Ever since the demise of Plasma TV screens, LED has become the dominant technology behind our TV screens. Meanwhile OLED, which was once touted as the future of TV technology, has remained an expensive but gorgeous option. Most importantly though, it would appear that LED is better suited to HDR image reproduction that OLED, thanks to its ability to produce brighter images. LG have spearheaded the OLED HDR 4K screen charge with their UHD Premium Certified (4K & UHD certified) OLED displays over the last 12 months, but they remain the exception rather than the rule as other manufacturers bet on LED improvements.
Finally, we come to the issue of screen size. Is bigger better? Well, in our ultimate home cinema set up, we’d say yes. Of course, it’s a matter of what your budget and room can take, but we’d advocate getting the largest screen you can. 4K content is only truly impressive when spread across a big screen, and in terms of immersion, there’s nothing like a big screen to draw you in. When you’ve picked your TV, use Rtings TV size to distance calculator to work out the perfect distance for viewing your content.
So, you’ve got that big, 4K HDR TV set up, now what? Well, you need something to watch on it, luckily, there are no shortage of options available to you, but we’re going to focus on the ones which offer 4K content for your home cinema.
We’ll start by looking at the big cable/satellite TV providers in the UK; Sky, Virgin Media and BT.
All three have either announced or launched 4K content to their services, but it was BT who get there first. Through their BT TV service they not only launched the first 4K capable streaming box, but the UK’s first 4K TV channel too – BT Sport Ultra-HD. It’s based on streaming technology, so you’ll need a fast internet connection to enjoy it. However, it’s currently the only way to watch live 4K BT sports. Disappointingly, that’s the only 4K content BT offer at the moment, putting them behind some key rivals.
For Sky’s part, their fantastic Sky Q box supports UHD and boasts a 4K TV service which is completely free for those on their £34 per month TV subscription. With that, you’ll get 4K Sky Cinema, Sky Sports and new series in 4K like The Young Pope. That’s an awful lot of content, and currently the most any UK TV provider offers.
Best of all, because Sky’s 4K content is beamed from their satellites it means no annoying web-based 4K streaming (unlike BT) as well as a superior image, making for an extremely exciting home cinema option.
Finally, we have Virgin Media. Virgin Media’s new TV V6 TiVo box supports both 4K and HDR, but it’s limited to streaming services like Netflix and YouTube at present. Virgin declined to state when 4K broadcasts would begin.
On to the streaming options and, well, you’re not short of them. Looking through the list of streaming services can be a little daunting, with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV, Mubi and countless others to choose from.
So, what would make it into our ultimate home cinema set up? Our pick would be a subscription to both Netflix and Amazon. Both companies offer a range of 4K content, have promised greater HDR support down the line and both produce some incredible, unmissable TV programmes and films.
The cinema experience is about more than just pretty pictures, it’s about ultra-realistic, bone shaking sound too. In this regard, you’re not short of options; but when it comes to audio, there’s no one size fits all approach. So, we’re going to break down the advantages of various home cinema audio setups, so you can figure out what’s best for you:
+ Soundbars – A soundbar is the simplest, and often cheapest, way to improve the sound that comes from your TV. Comprising of a bar which sits in front of your TV, these systems make a significant improvement to the weak, tinny audio that comes out of your TV. Depending on your choice of soundbar, you can really get ‘room-filling sound’. Look out for those that include a subwoofer and BMR (Balanced Mode Radiator) technology which ensure ultimate wide dispersion of sound. Q Acoustics’ Media 4 soundbar was the What HiFi 2016 Product of the Year, thanks to its BMR support and built-in subwoofer, making it fantastic for space-challenged properties. However, their pseudo-surround sound output isn’t close to what you get with more comprehensive audio options.
+ Soundbases – Often confused with soundbars, soundbases provide an alternative all-in-one audio solution. Instead of sitting in front of your TV like a soundbar, a soundbase sits underneath your TV stand, with the screen sat atop the speaker. These have the advantage of taking up less space than soundbars and often don’t require a separate subwoofer. However, cannot be hung on a wall, making them less than ideal for those looking to wall-mount their television.
+ 1 – 2.1 systems like Q Acoustics 7000i or M4 system make use of a dedicated amplifier, a subwoofer and two satellite speakers. This provides much improved audio quality over a soundbase or soundbar, which make do with integrated speaker and amplifier units, and creates a true stereo sound.
+ 1 – Comprised of a central speaker for dialog, a pair of speakers to the left and right of your screen and a pair just behind and to the left and right of your seating position, this is the basic surround sound system. When paired with a dedicated amplifier and properly configured, a 5.1 system like the Q Acoustics 3000i 5.1 can provide an incredibly immersive and deeply realistic sound for your home cinema, akin to that which you’d get at a cinema.
+ 1 – 7.1 systems came into being with the launch of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, but they’ve since been widely adopted by home cinema enthusiasts that crave nothing but the most realistic sound profile. With 7 speakers positioned to the front, side and rear of your seating position, you’ll be treated to an incredibly immersive sound profile that really draws you into your content.
Which of these you opt for will decide on the size and shape of your room, along with your budget. Naturally, the more speakers in your system, the greater the cinematic effect will be. However, there are superb options across the range. If you can, book an appointment to listen to your sound system before you invest – that way you’ll know what you’re getting.
Of course, with the 2.1 systems or above, you’re going to need an amplifier too. Taking your time to research which amplifier is best for your system. Each amplifier will have its own benefits, and output a certain amount of power. Once you’ve selected your speakers, consider what kind of amplifier you need to power your system.
When doing this, consider whether your amplifier supports Dolby Atmos. As a new standard, Atmos is just finding its feet, but it presents a league above surround systems as we’ve come to know and love. Atmos can process 128 simultaneous channels of sound (compared to 8 for Dolby Digital 7.1) that can be sent to up to 64 speakers. For a filmmaker, that means that certain sounds can be targeted for specific speakers. For you at home, it means incredibly realistic audio. Atmos might well be in its infancy at home, but with support from all the major studios, it’s quickly becoming an integral part of all serious home cinema set ups.
You can find out more about surround sound audio via Digital Trends excellent guide.
A home cinema set up is nothing without comfortable seating from which to take it all in from. You might be able to stomach an uncomfortable seat for a couple of hours down at your local multiplex, but in your home? No way. When it comes to seating though, it’s all about personal preference. Our ultimate home cinema set up, however, would have seats which didn’t sit high enough to block the sound coming from your speakers and could recline for increased comfort.
There’s plenty of options out there for the dedicated home cinema fan, so whether you want soft-style recliners, custom multiplex style seating or even old-school theatre style fold up seats, there’s something for you. One fine option is La-Z Boy’s range of sectional sofas. They let you add extra seating, corner units, tables, cup holders and things like mini-fridges embedded in the arms on your chair.
At the high end, check our FrontRow’s incredible bespoke cinema seating options. They work with you to design ultra-luxurious group or individual reclining cinema seats which would push your cinema room up to the next level.
One thing to keep in mind is the positioning of your seating in regards to your screen and sound system. Cramming a huge sofa unit between your speakers and screen will only diminish your viewing and listening pleasure. You can find out more about correct speaker position by clicking here.
The Physical Media.
Physical media might not be as fashionable as it once was, but for our ultimate home cinema set up, we wouldn’t be without it. Streaming services are often more convenient, but when put side by side with physical media, they often can’t hold a candle.
That was true for Full-HD, and it’s true for Ultra-HD too now, with the launch of 4K Blu-Ray disks. Reviews for early 4K Blu-Ray’s have been overwhelmingly positive, as has the early 4K Blu-Ray hardware.
In their review of the Panasonic DMP-UB900 Ultra-HD Blu-Ray player, What Hi-Fi declared that upon watching Mad Max on 4K Blu-Ray they were forced to “wonder about the health and safety precautions on the film’s set” thanks to astonishing levels of detail that not even regular Blu-Ray disks can get close to.
Although we’d never ditch our streaming services, it’s just as inadvisable to leave physical media behind. In our ultimate home cinema set up, there’ll always be a place for UHD Blu-Ray disks and their vastly superior audio and visual performance.
The Games Console
An ultimate home cinema set up wouldn’t be the same without a class leading video games console for those times when we want to interact with our media. We’ve all got our favourites when it comes to a next-gen console, but as things stand, it’s a toss-up between the Xbox One S and the PS4 Pro when it comes to providing the most comprehensive solution for home video enthusiasts. Why? Well, let us explain.
The original Xbox One came under fire for having a large external power brick, a big, clumsy design and a high price. With the One S, that all changes. It’s 40% lighter, can be vertically mounted, has an internal power brick and starts at a reasonable £199.
Additionally, the Xbox One S supports Ultra-HD Blu-Ray playback, making it the cheapest UHD Blu-Ray player on the market. It also supports HDR video on those Blu-Rays as well as in games and on streaming services.
The PS4 Pro, on the other hand, isn’t a mere mid-gen refresh – it’s almost a new console. More than twice as powerful as the PS4, the PS4 Pro is capable of running games either at a native 4K or at 2K with advanced upscaling. That makes it a much more adept 4K video gaming machine than the Xbox One S, which maxes out at 1080p.
However, Sony made the strange decision of omitting a 4K Blu-Ray drive from the upgraded console, ensuring that it can only play standard 1080p Blu-Ray disks, putting it behind the Xbox in classic home cinema terms. It’s an especially strange decision given the PS4 Pro’s higher price, which comes in at around £350.
If you’re willing to wait until the end of 2017 though, the mid-gen upgrade (think: Xbox Pro) of the Xbox is slated to launch in time for the holidays. Significantly more powerful than either the Xbox One S, PS4 or PS4 Pro, the Xbox Scorpio boasts a processing unit which offers 6 TFLOPS of gaming power, 326GB/s of memory throughput and 12GB of GDDR5 RAM.
Those are huge numbers, and it should mean the console is capable of playing games at a native 4K at 60fps. However, we don’t yet know the pricing.
In home cinema, good quality cabling is an often-overlooked aspect. Which is odd, since it makes such a huge difference to the audio-visual fidelity of your system. It’s always worth investing in a high-quality HDMI cable.
Ensuring your HDMI cable conforms to the latest High-Speed HDMI 2.0 standard, which is designed to support things like 4K at 60fps and HDR video, is essential, as it can unlock the best of your home cinema’s potential.
You should also pay keen attention to your speaker cable. The speaker cables that come pre-packaged with your speakers will do the job in a pinch, but you’ll be selling your equipment short with cheap cable. Instead, invest in a higher quality cable and reveal the detail in your sound system. We’d recommend something like QED’s XT40i speaker cable which is a multi-award winning pre-terminated cable that’s available in 3 lengths. What Hi-Fi gave it a five-star review, calling it an “exceptional performer” back in 2014, and nothing’s changed since – it’s still a superb cable.
Finally, our ultimate home cinema set up wouldn’t ignore the little details that help to deliver a truly incredible experience. In particular, our system would have a mains conditioning unit. Mains conditioning is essentially the process of cleaning up the ‘dirty’ electrical signal that comes from the main. It cuts out much of the signal noise which cause blur and background noise in your home cinema set up.