A new era in home movies

By David Maida

The rise in the quality and affordability of home theatre systems is one of the reasons given for the decline of box office attendance. If you can watch what you want in the privacy of your own home, then there's not much point braving the crowds only to find yourself sitting behind someone with a Marge Simpson hairdo.

In selecting your own private screen, there are a few options.

Plasma screens are considered better quality than LCD screens, depending on the brand, once you start getting into the larger sizes. LCD pixels can also die or become locked up. And the price of plasmas has been plummeting. You can buy a 42-inch Hundai for around $3000. Even a 42-inch Sony is just $4500.

But as the prices have been dropping, the technology has been evolving. Rear-projection televisions have improved in leaps and bounds. And they are not as expensive as the traditional bulkier screens. A Samsung 43-inch is around $2000.

If you're looking for real home theatre, you'll probably want a larger screen. A 62-inch rear projection Toshiba is about $8000.

Kevin Andreassend, managing director of Ice AV, says that if you want better value for money, choose a frontal projection unit.

Projectors have traditionally not been the best quality. But Adreassend says that has now changed.

"If you use a projector and you want to get an image that you cannot criticise or fault, you have to put it into a dark room.

"Use that same projector with one of our screens and you can actually use that projector in a fully lit room and you'll get an image that you cannot fault."

The screens are concave, so they reject light from the centre of the curvature. There is no reflection or glare.

The screens range from 40 inches diagonal up to 103 inches diagonal (2.3m). With the larger screens, you would probably need a dedicated room because they need to be a reasonable distance from the projector.

But Andreassend says this is not the trend.

"People want to have entertainment, no matter what it is, but they want to have it in a normal type of environment, rather than having a dedicated room. Of course those who have the budget or the spare room and those sorts of things can obviously afford the luxury of I guess what you'd call a dedicated home theatre room."

To put content on that big screen requires a powerful projector. They vary in quality and price from $1500 to $48,000 with most less than $6000. As with most products, there is less difference in quality once the price reaches a certain point. The more expensive projectors may provide a larger image with better quality, but you will need extra depth of space to create that larger image.

Most input devices for home theatres are DVDs with the humble video recorder on its last leg.

"Phillips have dispensed with them. They don't manufacture them anymore. It's a technology that's pretty much on its way out."

But not gone forever.

"It will be a legacy piece of equipment because we've all got videotapes that we need to play."

The big drop in price for a DVD player has seen them spreading everywhere. But for home theatre you will want to have a good one and have it connected properly.

"Ideally you should use composite video because it is a step up and it's the next less expensive format to use. It's a step up from RF and it's a bit better quality. But it's by no means the best you could do. The best you could do is actually put it on a network and, in terms of video, running it all in terms of a XGA signal. It's substantially improved-upon composite video."

With audio, home theatre enthusiasts strive for that perfect surround sound. This generally consists of the 5.1 system which includes speakers in each corner of the room and a subwoofer.

"People have to decide in their mind, 'are we making a 5.1 room?' and then 'do we have to distribute audio around the place?"'

A 5.1 system with full audio immersion is one of the things which makes a television room into a home theatre.

"Some people are still quite happy just having a stereo to watch a movie on, but for a home theatre you really do want to have that surround-sound experience."

And to keep your great movies, you can either store them on DVDs or use a hard-drive recorder. Hard-drive recorders have been are dropping in price. They offer a limited amount of storage capacity with instant access and Adreassend doubts they will be as popular as DVD recorders.

"The thing I would always think about is how much are you going to record on to in any media?

"If you are going to do a lot of recording on to a hard drive - eventually it will get full. So, you're going to have to spend the same amount of time, capacity-wise, in either dumping [the stored programmes] on to disks that you can remove and store on a shelf, or deleting them. I guess human nature is that we like to collect things."

As our home entertainment system expands, so does the collection of remote controls. Adreassend says a lot of remote controls can beconfusing.

"It can be quite intimidating for people. People don't want to feel like they don't know what they're doing."

Advanced universal remotes are on the market now which can handle multiple functions through the push of one button.

"They can be programmed so that they have a macro. So you might press a button that's labelled DVD for example, and you know that when you press that button it might also turn the television on or the projector on.

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