Having already covered the specs that separate average home theatre amps from AV greats and home theatre speaker configurations, this instalment looks at all the other bits you'll need to deliver music and movies to round off a quality home cinema set-up.
AV amps and speakers may deliver the ear candy, but a good HD capable TV is required for peeper-pleasing video. Choosing the right HD capable telly, however, can be bit of a process and further adding to confusion is the multitude of HDTV specifications and choices.
When shopping for a TV, look out for brightness levels and contrast ratio specifications as these tend to have a big impact on overall picture quality.
Brightness is measured in candelas (which most spec-sheets show as CD/M2). More candelas equal brighter images, more vivid colours. Contrast ratios measure the difference between the TVs deepest black and to the whitest whites. Higher contrast ratios will give you crisper looking pictures.
Equally important is the TV's screen resolution, which is the number of horizontal and vertical pixels the screen can display. The more pixels a TV can display, the more information you're able to see on-screen picture.
The highest HD broadcast resolution currently available is 1080 lines of pixels, which translates to a screen resolution of 1920x1080. Most channels however broadcast HD content in 720p (which is a 1280x720 screen resolution).
If you're on a budget, buying a 720p capable telly makes a lot of sense as 1080 capable screens still command a slight price premium whilst most people are hard pressed to tell the difference between 1080 and 720 from a normal viewing distance.
Another key consideration for LCD TVs is the pixel response time, which refers to the time in milliseconds it takes for LCD pixels to brighten or dim. A faster response time means less blurring in fast-moving scenes. Equally important is screen refresh time.
Cheaper LCD TVs tend to have 50hz refresh rates which can create a distracting juddering or blur effect in scenes with lots of motion. Most manufacturers use image processing techniques to take refresh rates up to and beyond 100Hz for a smoother picture.
Getting the right combination of video inputs is also a biggie, and doing so will help future proof your TV investment.
Look for at least 2-4 HDMI video inputs as these can take digital audio and video signals from devices such as MySky HDi or My Freeview HD and display them at the maximum quality that the screen is capable of.
Component or S-video inputs are also important as they will also allow you to use older AV components (e.g. game consoles and older DVD players) with your screen. If you have a large collection of digital video or music content, check to see if the TV has a network and/or USB port that can allow it to play video or music.
Having splashed out on an HD TV and a decent AV amp, being able to watch movies in the best HD possible is likely to be the next big thing on most AV buyers' list.
Not so long ago choosing a next generation successor to DVD was a fraught process with HD-DVD slugging it out with Blu-ray. Thankfully the great digital video format war is long over and Blu-ray won.
This should mean that you are now able to get a Blu-ray player knowing that you're buying the post millennium equivalent of Betamax. Unfortunately a multitude of Blu-ray specifications still leaves ample room for buyer confusion.
There are currently four official Blu-ray standards (1.0 BD-Video, 1.1 Bonus View, 2 BD-Live and 3 BD-Audio, which no players currently support). Most of the different standards revolve around different storage and playback features, with BD-Video being the simplest whilst BD-Live capable players have at least 1GB of inbuilt data storage and a network connection.
BD-Live players can download the latest previews or live content as extras to a movie whilst the same disc inserted into a BD-Video player will still play the movie but won't give you all the interactive goodies available to BD-Live players. Making matters worse, finding out which standard a Blu-ray player supports isn't always easy, so looking for a network port on the player is likely to ensure it either supports BD-Live or can be upgraded with a firmware update.
Where the HD-DVD spec didn't incorporate zone protection similar to that used with DVDs, Blu-ray does. While multi-region DVD players are easily found, no multi-zone Blu-ray players are yet easily available. If shopping overseas (or relocating overseas), make sure your Blu-ray player supports the right region code (at the moment there are three Blu-ray regions: Region A: The Americas and south-east Asia, Region B: Africa, Europe, The Middle East Australia and NZ, Region C: China, Russia, India and former Soviet nations).
If you're considering using your HD TV as your main source of audio, nearly any Blu-ray player will fit the bill. If getting ear pleasing surround sound audio is a must, take a closer look at what digital audio formats your Blu-ray player supports and what your AV amp is capable of decoding.
Whilst all Blu-ray players are required to support Dolby Digital, DTS and PCM digital audio, support for TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus is still optional in Blu-ray players. In a nutshell this means that if your AV amp cannot decode True HD or Dolby Digital Plus, you'll need a Blu-ray player that can decode it and feed it to your AV amp as digital audio.
Last but by no means least, also consider format support. Whilst most Blu-ray players will play DVD movies, audio CDs in addition to Blu-ray titles, some players struggle to support recordable DVD or CD formats.
If you've got lots of shows recorded on DVD-R or RW media from a DVD recorder for instance, checking that these will play in any Blu-ray player you're considering buying makes a lot of sense.
Media playback devices
Last but by no means least is a media playback device. If you've got a large collection of digital music, photos or video, a media playback gizmo can make content that was traditionally only available on your PC viewable/listenable on your home theatre setup, which can really bring it to life.
Sonos I've been a huge fan of Sonos for ages and have a bunch Sonos zone players strategically placed throughout my home. As a wireless multi-room music system, the Sonos just works, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to set them up or use them. Most importantly they sound fantastic.
Sonos isn't the cheapest digital music solution around, and you'll need to buy a compatible network attached hard drive (or leave your PC running), but when it comes to playing digital audio formats such as MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, or internet radio, Sonos simply can't be beat.
Up to 32 discrete Sonos ZonePlayers can be networked to play music around your house, with each zone player able to play different music (you can also set all zone players to play the same tunes in what Sonos calls "party mode"). Two different types of zone players are available, the ZP90, which connects to an amp, or the ZP120 which has its own amp and only needs speakers connected to do its thing.
The third Sonos component, is the CR200 wireless controller. Resembling a sexed up iPod Touch, the CR200 is essentially a wireless touch-screen remote controller that incorporates a crisp and highly intuitive touch sensitive LCD screen that allows you to play music, create playlists or listen to internet radio on any of the zone players installed.
When initially launched, the Apple TV got mixed reviews ranging from disappointment through to gushing praise. Having bought my own Apple TV, I'm pleased to say that while it was okay to start with, it's stunning now I've modified it.
One of the big challenges standing in the way of accessing digital music, videos and photos has been the lack of an easy to use and affordable means of storing and watching video or listening music. With flat screen TVs sporting digital video inputs such as HDMI, and/or dedicated PC inputs, a growing number of gadget makers have made dedicated media playback boxes that can stream video and music from PCs or network hard disks to big screen TVs and AV amps.
Not all of these widgets are created equal, and many look like they've been hit by an ugly stick or can be horrible to set up and/or use. Apple's eventually remedied this with the rather spiffing Apple TV. Resembling the love child of a shrunken Mac mini and biscuit tin, the Apple TV is a stylish wee beastie. Its remote is also small and its minimalist design makes it simple to use. Sporting a play/pause button, a menu button and a four way control, the remote is about the same size as a Bic lighter.
The big downside with the Apple TV, however, is its lack of supported video formats out of the box. Designing the Apple TV to support iTunes video formats might sensible for Apple, but leaving out support for digital video formats like MPEG-2, XviD or DivX is just silly. Audio and photo support is thankfully better and my entire Mp3/AAC music collection plays perfectly.
This crappy video format support was easily fixed thanks to an easy to install third party hack. Some websites detail on how to format and install Xbox Media Centre and Boxee on the Apple TV using a pre-prepared USB memory stick. Doing this allows my Apple TV to play a greater range of audio and video formats and untethered it from iTunes. This is, of course, done at your own risk and will void your Apple warranty.