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How To Set Up A Home Theater System (A Simple Guide)

Miles of wires, acres of poorly-labeled connections, inputs, outputs, it can all be quite daunting. Setting up a home theater system doesn’t have to be, though.

In fact, it can be quite easy. No matter what gear you have, this guide should help you get everything set up correctly. Even if your system is already connected, it’s probably worth skimming this article to make sure it’s connected right. You may not be getting the most out of your system and not even know it.

Follow the signal

The first thing to understand is something called signal flow. Wait, don’t click away! It’s not as techy as it sounds.

The flow of the signal. If you can get this part, the rest is easy. The signal is the movie on your Blu-ray, the TV show from Netflix NFLX +1.97%, or the music from Pandora. Following the flow of the signal will help you figure out the right inputs and outputs on your gear.

For example, let’s say you have a Blu-ray player and a TV. The signal starts in the Blu-ray player (the signal’s source, which is why they’re called “source components”). So if the signal is starting in the Blu-ray player, it needs to get out through an output. It needs to get in to the TV, through an input.

Now this is the easiest scenario, since most Blu-ray players only have outputs, and TVs generally only have inputs, but the basics scale up quite easily.

Let’s make it more complex, so you see what I mean. Now let’s say you have a Blu-ray player, a receiver (with speakers), and a TV. Follow the signal:

Blu-ray>receiver>TV

Out from the Blu-ray player, in to the receiver, out of the receiver, in to the TV.

The speakers come out of the receiver too, but since they have their own cables (discussed later), that’s hard to confuse.

Now, why connect the Blu-ray player to the receiver, and not the TV directly? Well, this setup can be easier. Connecting this way will let you use just one remote to change sources (the receiver’s), and also, it’s the simplest way to get audio to the receiver (and your speakers).

Not using a receiver? No problem. Connect directly to the TV.

If you’ve got a soundbar, you’ve got a few options, depending on the soundbar. Some have HDMI, in which case they’ll work like a receiver (Blu-ray>soundbar>TV).

If your soundbar has just optical (or analog) inputs, you’ll want a different flow.

HDMI Cables

For the most part, the cable type you want to use to connect near everything is HDMI. DON’T spend a lot of money on these. Cheap HDMI cables work just as well as expensive ones.

Speaker Cable

If you’re connecting speakers, you’ll need some speaker cable. Unlike HDMI (which is digital), speaker cables can make a difference… but it’s extraordinarily slight. Literally anything else you can do to your system (even something as slight as just moving the speakers, or your chair) will have a greater effect on the sound.

Settings

OK, this is a big one. It’s hard to cover everything, since each product is going to have their own setup quirks. If you’ve connected with the right cables, on the right inputs, then you should be most of the way there. Most products will auto-set the correct basic settings.

Check that your Blu-ray player (or other source) is outputting surround sound. You’ll need to check the menus. It should auto-detect, but the BD player should be outputting 16×9 and 1080p.

Make sure the receiver (or soundbar) isn’t in one of its faux surround modes (like “Stadium” or “Hall”), unless you really, really want all that extra reverb.

Programming the remote

I’ll be honest, I don’t even do this. But then, I don’t mind having three remotes. I wish I could offer advice here, but every receiver and TV (and Blu-ray player, etc) is different. I hate to say it, but you’re gonna have to crack the owner’s manual. I’ve been reviewing A/V gear for nearly a decade and a half, and I sold this stuff before that, and even I find owner’s manuals confusing and hard to follow. So if you get frustrated, take solace in the fact that everyone finds owner’s manuals annoying. I bet even the people who write them.