The term 'Home Entertainment System' is synonymous with large-screen televisions, a host of speakers, multiple and often confusing remote controls, and, above all, seemingly miles of intrusive cabling, running everywhere. While this may have been true a few years ago, nowadays however, manufacturers have listened to their customers, and a new breed of home entertainment is on offer. Many home entertainment systems offer a simple setup, easy-to-understand remote controls, and, while the cabling is still present, it has, for the most part, been replaced with thinner, less obtrusive wiring, whilst wiring to the rear speakers, for some manufacturers, has been replaced by wireless radio systems.
Before buying a home entertainment system, the potential buyer must identify just what the main uses of this system is to be. Some users may view a home entertainment system as more oriented towards the audio side, with high quality CD and Internet radio systems, whereas other users may view home entertainment systems as bringing the cinema into their front room. Some users want a mixture of both – high quality sound with a large enough screen to be able to get the full movie experience. Others may want the extra sound and visual definition a home entertainment system may bring to playing their games consoles.
The more well informed the buyer is before purchasing, the more likely it is that they select a suitable system that generates long-term enjoyability to suit their particular needs.
To the majority of users, the most important component of their home entertainment system is the television. Thankfully, the days of having to watch a widescreen movie in the classic TV aspect ratio of 4:3, with the sides of the picture cut off, are now long gone. With the recent, huge advances in screen display technology, the television is no longer seen as the huge box that must take up an entire corner of the room. Whereas the old ‘CRT’ (cathode ray tube) televisions required large boxes, their depth in direct proportion to the size of the screen, newer flat-screen televisions may only be a few centimetres thick, making hanging on the wall, out of the way but exceedingly visible, an increasingly attractive option.
Currently, there are three basic types of flat-screen televisions available. The first and most common is the LCD (liquid crystal display) television. Working in much the same way as a flat screen computer monitor, these displays require a white backlight – normally consisting of fluorescent tubes – set behind a very thin LCD screen that colours the light as it passes through. Each pixel of colour is actually a mixture of light’s three primary colours, red, green and blue, so differing levels of each combine to form white.
While these displays are now very cheap to produce, they do suffer the drawback of a comparatively slow refresh rate. This can mean that, in fast-action sequences, particularly in sporting events, images can sometimes appear blurred or out of focus.
The other main type of display currently on offer is the ‘OLED’ (organic light emitting diode) display. These are considerably more expensive than LCD displays, but offer a noticeably superior colour balance and do not suffer from problems with the refresh rate. OLED type displays are often only seen in the more expensive home entertainment systems.
The third type of display currently available is the projector-style display. This type of display is only really suitable for the user who has a large room in which to view the screen, as this projector is often ceiling mounted, designed to project onto a large portion of a blank, light-coloured wall opposite.
Interlaced (i) or Progressive (p) Scanning
Before the advent of modern displays, televisions were primarily of the ‘interlaced’ type. This meant that, to scan a whole frame of picture, the picture would first be scanned for the odd numbers of lines, then the cathode ray would be set to scan the even numbers of lines. This meant that, at a 50 Hz refresh rate – the UK standard for years – the actual picture would only be totally refreshed at a speed of 25 Hz. This explains why, for those people whose sets were more susceptible to flicker, watching a television under fluorescent lighting, which itself flickers at 50 Hz, could be very distracting. On a progressive scan set, the lines are simply scanned once.
With the modern advances in digital display technology, users can now choose between interlaced (i) or progressive (p). This is why modern televisions are now advertised as 1080p, or 640i, for example.
Traditionally, televisions had an aspect ratio of 4:3; that is, four units wide by three units high. This meant that, in order to display movies, which were classically aspected at a ratio of 3:2, the sides of the picture would be lost. Failing that, a band of black, ‘dead’ screen would appear at the top and bottom of the screen. Several high-end TV manufacturers, towards the end of their time making traditional CRT TVs, did sell a few models with different aspect ratios, but the electronic circuitry for these screens was considered by many to be cost prohibitive.
The advent of much cheaper LCD screens means that manufacturers are no longer tied to the the old 4:3 ratio, so many modern TV manufacturers have expanded their ranges to include TVs with aspect ratios of 5:3 (common European widescreen standard), 16:9 (HD video standard) or even, in some cases, the current widescreen cinema standard of 2.40:1. For these ‘true’ cinema standards, when watching conventional TV programs, black, ‘dead’ screen now appears to the left and right of the display. Before choosing one of these cinema formats for their television, the user ideally intends to use the TV mainly for watching cinema films.
Back in the early 1980s, television sound was often considered by TV designers to be a minor feature of a set’s design. While great advances were being made in achieving displays that were markedly flatter and squarer, with reduced picture distortion around the edges, TV speakers were decidedly low-fidelity affairs, consisting sometimes of two, but more often a single, monophonic (‘mono’) speaker. When television channels started to produce their programs in stereo, TV manufacturers began making TVs with stereo sound capability.
With the advent of high-quality VHS and DVD design, film distributors were able to offer their films in multiple audio formats. After stereo came ‘2.1’. The ‘2’ referred to the number of main sound channels, with the ‘1’ referring to a general, or bass extending, channel. Then came 5.1 and even 7.1, which gave users a truer cinema experience. In 1986, the film ‘Top Gun’, starring Tom Cruise, was one of the first true ‘surround sound’ movie experiences that could be recreated at home, if the user had the right setup, with a sufficiently large screen and the required number of correctly placed speakers.
With the advent of flat screen, wall-mounted televisions, the demand for true cinema sound developed, and manufacturers were quick to fill the hole in the market.
Many manufacturers developed whole, high-cost systems that neatly slotted together, but, increasingly, specialist manufacturers, particularly those of speakers, have sprung up, offering their sound systems as 'add-ons' to existing large-screen televisions. These systems plug into the rear of a modern set and decodes into whatever format the user requires. Often, these systems only require a stereo connection, but high-end systems can interface with the television via digital means, or, in some cases, even optically.
A popular way to increase the fidelity of often wall-mounted televisions has been the advent of the sound bar. This is normally a slim and discreet black bar that runs along the base of the TV and may feature an added sub-woofer that can be unobtrusively placed somewhere out of the way. A sound bar greatly enhances the viewing experience, and some even have 'docks' for iPhones or iPads to give the user the choice of listening to their favourite iTunes on a much better speaker system.
Home Entertainment Systems and Games
With the advent of high-quality video games and consoles, users are increasingly looking to connect games consoles to their TVs. Many of the top games now feature 3D sound, and playing such a game on a high definition television with surround sound capabilities greatly enhances the experience.
Buying the Right Home Entertainment System on eBay
Before buying a home entertainment system from eBay, you should know which features are most important to you, that is, whether you want a system mainly to watch videos and DVDs, one for sound, or one to enhance your video gaming system – or a combination of the three. When you have decided, then take plenty of time to peruse the many types and styles on offer.
Before finalising your choice, check again that your TV has the right kind of outputs for the inputs of the box you are thinking of buying or whether you can purchase cable adapters. If you plan to plug in your games console, check that the new unit has the required input sockets. Also, you should check to see if the new unit comes with its own cabling, or whether you need to purchase these separately. Some brands are very good at supplying the most commonly sought connector cables while you might be surprised to find out others do not. Finally, check with your current TV’s user manual to see whether the remote control it uses can be programmed to operate the new unit, or whether you have to use the remote supplied with the new sound unit as well.
While the sheer choice of home entertainment systems may seem baffling to the uninitiated, with a little careful consideration, it should be fairly easy to whittle down the choices. If the user does not want to upgrade their television set, but merely the sound system for it, the most important thing is to first check the back of the TV for its various input and output sockets to make sure it allows the connection of additional amplifiers, decoders, or speakers. If not, check the availability of adapter cables before assuming that ideal system can not communicate with the monitor.
Once the connectivity has been assured, the buyer should focus on the precise activities that comprises the unit’s primary use. If it is mainly for watching movies, then a full-blown 5.1 or even 7.1 sound system may be the ideal choice. If, however, the added benefits of a superior sound system is only appreciated for the occasional film, then a sound bar or even a free-standing subwoofer may be adequate. If the user is unsure as to whether all the extra cabling that a five speaker setup entails is worth it, it might merit investigating the number of wireless speaker systems manufacturers have begun to offer as a cable-free, easy-to-set-up alternative.