Home Theater: Make the Right Connections
March 20, 2022
As I’ve written in the past, my approach to smart home includes a mixture of both wired and wireless solutions, depending on the technology. And to drill down deeper, I prefer to wire everything possible in order to maximize bandwidth, security and wifi. This applies to more than just smart home as it also enhances other home technologies like home theater — though it involves a different type of wiring.
One of the first steps people take into their smart home journey is enhancing their entertainment environment. This was certainly the case for our family as I described in a previous post about our first home build in San Antonio — Our Smart Home Roots. Unfortunately, wiring our new home for network or audio wasn’t an option with our builder so that was our responsibility after we moved in.
As our kids were using computers in school and at home for homework and video games (more video games than homework I’m pretty sure) it became apparent I needed a better way to provide internet access than simply relying on wifi. So I came up with a plan to run Cat5e cable throughout the house and speaker wire in the game room to connect everything including Xboxes, wifi access points, home theater and computers. Coax cable was already present for cable and antenna TV content. Not exactly smart home but certainly the foundation of what would become a passion of mine. With the help of our oldest son Chris we knocked out the wiring over a few weekends and we were off and running.
Now roll the clock ahead to today with much better technology and so much fantastic digital content to enjoy. There are so many great streaming options to consider. Wifi can do the trick to provide that content if necessary but I’d still recommend wiring everything you can to maximize the bandwidth you pay for and receive the highest quality video possible. I’ve posted in the past in my piece Is it time to Cut the Cord? as Debbie and I will be saying good bye to cable TV in favor of a combination of streaming and over the air HD TV broadcast. You can learn more about HD TV antenna options at Cutting the Cord Part 2 — TV Antennas.
I highly recommend doing the wiring work for your home theater or other smart home during the framing stage of a home build. This is our plan this time around as there’s nowhere you can’t get wire — within distance limitations, depending on wire type.
We went especially heavy with the network in our game room in anticipation of devices like smart TVs, connected Blu-Ray players and voice assistants. Additionally we wired up the room with 5.1 surround sound for a theater quality audio experience. There was a lesson here I only realize now which I’ll apply to our build in Canyon — wire for everything and consider redundancy if there’s any question as new technologies have become enablers and content sources — TVs, projectors, smart components, appliances, wifi, thermostat, doorbell, cameras, audio, sensors, whatever.
I’m going to focus specifically on home theater here. The first thing to consider is what you want the experience to be. That will give you an idea of the infrastructure and components necessary to bring your vision to life. Then you work backwards from placement of the different elements and that determines where wiring needs to run.
A simple floor plan will help you. As I mentioned above, Chris and I ran the wire for our home theater in San Antonio by figuring out the paths possible through the attic and down into the walls and ceiling. We mounted plates on the walls and ceiling and terminated the wiring then added the components.
There are many different elements to a home theater system to bring your cinematic experience into reality so a modern system can be one of any number of things. Soundbars are single units that may have an external subwoofer and satellite speakers. These are easier to set up and often affordable, but they’re not going to have the same performance as a more traditional home theater system.
A full system generally includes an AV receiver or amplifier and two or more speakers, plus a subwoofer. This number can grow significantly depending on how many audio channels you need for your home theater. Channels are simply the number of speakers in the solution. Larger systems can have a center channel speaker, two stereo speakers, two surround speakers, two rear surround speakers and a pair of subwoofers.
Setting up a home theater system used to be far more difficult than it is these days. Thanks to the development of the HDMI connection, a typical home theater system has been greatly simplified. HDMI stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface and has quickly become the standard for connecting most home theater components. Unlike many cables typically used in home theater, HDMI can carry video, audio and data, all on one cable. This makes plugging in devices like Blu-ray players simple. Before HDMI, you’d need a video cable and a pair of audio cables — now you only need a single HDMI cable to accomplish the same. HDMI can also make more complex connections much easier than they would be otherwise.
HDMI has a special feature known as Audio Return Channel (ARC). This lets a connection from your TV also send back audio to the device on the other end of that connection. Most often this is used for connecting an AV receiver or soundbar. I’ll be using this in rooms in the house that include TVs in order to route TV audio to the in-ceiling speakers connected to amplifiers. For more on this, see my post Let’s Hear It For Home Audio!
Connect everything else to your TV or projector, connect your receiver to the HDMI ARC port (this is typically the HDMI 1 connection), and audio will automatically play through the receiver. Then, when you need to use the menu on your receiver, switch to that HDMI input.
The only thing that makes HDMI cables slightly complex is different versions. A game console might require HDMI 2.0a to support the increased bandwidth requirements of 4K Ultra HD displays. If you’ve only got an HDMI 1.4 cable, it doesn’t have the bandwidth for everything, so some features won’t work. The easiest fix for this is to make sure that whenever you buy an HDMI cable, you get the latest version available. These cables are backward compatible, so you don’t need to worry about having a cable that is too new to work with any older components.
HDMI has mostly taken over duties for video connections these days, so it’s rare you’ll need another connection to plug your streaming box into your TV, for example. Still, if you’re connecting an older component or using an older TV, you’ll still run into these types of connections.
Many, but not all, of the cables use a standard RCA connector on the end. This is a single pin in the middle, with a circular metal cup on the outside.
If you’re looking to connect a high-definition video signal without using an HDMI cable, component is your best bet. This cable has three RCA connectors, colored red, green, and blue. This cable is increasingly uncommon, but you may need it if you’re looking to hook up an older player capable of high definition, like a game console or Blu-ray player, to your TV.
Though the name is easy to confuse with component, composite is much simpler. This combines the entire video signal into one cable with a yellow RCA connection.
Though this was once the most common way to hook up video, it’s not used in most newer home theater components. If you’re using composite video, it’s likely to hook up an old DVD player, VCR or game console.
S-Video was a superior option to composite video until it was eclipsed by component, then HDMI. S-Video has historically been used in some VHS players and DVD players, but the most common use case for it these days is to hook up older game consoles with superior video quality to composite.
Similar to video, HDMI has mostly taken over typical audio connections, combining them with video. HDMI ARC makes connecting AV receivers, soundbars and amplifiers via a single connection much easier than it used to be. However, sometimes you’ll need to use a special analog or digital audio connection.
As with video, many of these cables use standard RCA-style connectors.
A coaxial digital audio connection uses a standard RCA cable with an orange connector on the input jack, but the signal is purely digital. These used to be more common than fiber optic connectors but are now equally popular.
For home theater use, analog audio connections use a pair of RCA connectors, colored white and red. The white connector carries the left (or mono) signal, while the red connector carries the right signal.
While HDMI has taken over for analog audio in most cases, you’ll still see analog RCA audio cables fairly often. If you’re setting up a CD player or high-resolution audio player, these will most often connect via RCA.
Unlike the relatively complex nature of audio and video cables, the cables you use to connect speakers are simple. For each speaker, you connect one cable which has two connections: a black wire and a red wire. The black wire is the ground or negative wire and the red wire is the positive wire, but you don’t even need to know that. Just connect the respective black and red ends to the similarly colored connectors on your AV receiver or amplifier, then connect them to the same connectors on your speakers.
Speaker wires can connect in a few ways, but typically, it’s either a bare wire on the end or a banana plug. A banana plug plugs into a circular connector on a speaker. These connectors will often unscrew to work as a clamp with a bare wire as well.
I’ve used spring-loaded terminations for my wall/ceiling plates, much like you find on the speakers themselves, as they tend to be less expensive and don’t require a special connector like a banana plug. You can also easily create custom cable lengths and all you need to do is insert the bare wire in to make the connection. Bare wires are slightly trickier to use, but this simple connection is almost guaranteed to work regardless of what kind of connectors your AV receiver and speaker may have.
Additionally, I tinned the bare wires with solder to prevent them from fraying. Tinning is the simple process of coating the bare copper wire with solder using a soldering iron.
Subwoofers are a unique case, as they frequently have integrated amplifiers. These often don’t use standard speaker wire, using instead the standard RCA audio cable I mentioned above.
This may look complicated but it really isn’t if you understand what part each element plays. And as in our case, this can be a project you complete in stages. But the result can be a real game changer in regards to your entertainment experience.
I can’t emphasize enough the planning phase of this however. Do your homework, consider any options you will or may incorporate into the final layout and make sure you plan for those. And by planning, I’m specifically referring to infrastructure or cabling connectivity. The components will come and go as technology advances but you’ll appreciate the work you do up front to connect everything.
If you’re fortunate enough to get the wiring in the walls during the framing stage of a new build then great. But don’t be afraid to get up in your attic and into your walls with wire like we did. With some basic DIY skills and a little practice you may just surprise yourself. As a final note however, I would recommend leaving doing any electrical work to a professional.
Connecting the rest of the elements can be as simple or complex as you choose. I’d suggest starting small, something you’re comfortable or familiar with and then add equipment from there. The other considerations are space, physical location of the equipment and power.
As far as the house build project, we did a little more work with our architect this past week. We made some minor tweaks to interior design around an entryway and a built-in wine rack in the Dining Room. Other than that we could finalize the plans most any time and move forward with ground breaking. Our hesitation at this point is that materials (wood, brick, drywall, etc.) is still experiencing supply chain issues.
The architect also shared that in conversations with builders is that they expect the price of construction to be about $15-$20 higher per square foot by early 2023. This is due in part to rising labor costs because finding workers is becoming a major problem along with the fact that interest rates will go up this year. There are a few codes that are changing that will raise the cost as well. So, it may get to the point soon where, instead of things getting better, we’ll have to bit the bullet and move forward.
For our smart home enthusiast friends out there we’d love to hear your thoughts on home theater. Which of the solutions above do you currently use to enhance your entertainment experience? What equipment do you see yourself adding in the future? What are you using that I didn’t cover above?
Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails as we really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’ Until next week …
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