Setting up a home cinema: what you need for a good picture and good sound

Arne Schätzle

Streaming services, Blu-ray discs, media libraries – there are endless ways to watch films on all kinds of channels in a relaxed atmosphere at home whenever you like. A rich, clear sound and a large, high-resolution image will ensure a perfect viewing experience. We explain which components you need to bring that cinema feeling into your own four walls.

In a room set up as a home cinema, a screen hangs on the wall with two sofas in front of it.
© Getty Images / Frank Herfort

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These are the components you need for your home cinema

Whether you decide on the most sophisticated high-end devices or opt for basic, functional equipment – the following are always part of a fully-fledged home cinema:

  • Projector
  • Screen
  • Sound system (AV receiver and speakers)
  • Picture source: satellite or cable receiver, DVD or Blu-ray player, computer or streaming media adapter

Finding the right room for your home cinema

The first step is to decide which room you want to make into a home cinema. Usually there are only two options here: either you install your home cinema in a separate room, or you upgrade the living room. Technically it makes no big difference which solution you choose. A separate room can be converted into a home cinema for movie evenings on a permanent basis: with armchairs, a reclining area, popcorn machine, bar, etc. But with the right equipment, you can even experience the cinema feeling in your living room.

In this room, a screen has been set up for a home cinema evening and a projector has been mounted on the ceiling. There is a football table on the left, and a couch can be seen at the front of the picture.

Almost like old times: a screen on a three-legged tripod is perfect for a movie evening at home – there’s no comparison with modern home cinema systems.

A major decision: projector or TV?

The next basic question is: projector or TV? It’s true that the average screen diagonal has increased with the introduction of flat screens, so that sizes of 85 inches, i.e. over two meters, are not unusual. But for many movie fans, the original home cinema feeling is still associated with the screen – and it’s a projector that should show the film, not a television.

How to optimize screen and lighting conditions

If you decide on a projector, the lighting conditions in the room are essential. Quite obviously: the darker the room, the better the picture. Since the cinema screen on which the image is projected reflects all the light sources in the room, it’s important to darken the room as much as possible. You will get better results in terms of image if you base a permanent movie theater in a windowless room in the basement, for example, whereas you can’t prevent every single light source from penetrating a darkened living room. But even there, you can achieve a very good image display with high-quality components

In summer in particular, you will need to darken your cinema even more. Venetian blinds, blackout blinds or light-tight curtains can help to block out daylight. However, they will not guarantee pitch black. In these cases, a high-gain screen can help you to add a few extra percentage points: this is a screen with a special silver coating that shows an acceptable, high-contrast image even if the room is not completely dark.

And what happens to the screen when it is not in use? Outside movie theater hours, you can probably do without a 2.5 x 1.5 meters rectangle on the wall. You can solve this problem simply and elegantly with a retractable screen, which you can hide away as necessary. This type of screen is available as a low-cost fully mechanical version, or as an electrical model controlled by remote control. If possible, the image format of the screen should correspond to the projection format of the projector, which is generally the film format 16:9.

A home cinema: how big does the room have to be?

Anyone who takes the trouble to set up a home cinema usually prefers a large screen. To reproduce a real cinema feeling in the living room, a screen width of at least two meters is required. 2.5 meters is even better. Will a 4-meter wide screen fit into your living room? If so, go ahead and opt for this size. However, the projector will need to be placed at a certain distance to produce a large enough image.

A screen is hanging in front of a wall in a living room. There is a blackout curtain next to the window and in the foreground a living area can be seen, comprising a sofa and a living room table.

You can even create a cozy home cinema in your living room. However, you need the room to be darkened properly to ensure maximum movie enjoyment.

To calculate how far away to place the projector, you need to work out the projection ratio, which represents the relationship between the image size and the distance between the projector and the screen. Projectors with a projection ratio of 1.5:1 can therefore display an image with a diagonal of 1.0 meters on a screen that is 1.5 meters away.

Which projector is right for my home cinema?

There are two types of projector: LCD and DLP projectors. Their difference lies in the image creation technique. But the most interesting factor for the user is the image quality. Compared to an LCD projector, a DLP projector scores points above all for its rich black colors and excellent contrasts, although it has difficulty showing fast movements. LCD technology, on the other hand, displays finely graduated dark and light color tones, even with fast movements. However, the contrast is lower than with DLP technology. Nevertheless, LCD projectors are still more suitable for the projection of films.

The projector should be flexible to set up, as well as being perfectly integrated into the room and the existing interior. Projectors that are optimized for the home have a wide zoom range and ventilation that is as quiet as it is efficient. Good living room projectors also offer special TV modes, for example consisting of a contrast and color-optimized cinema mode for film playback, as well as special brightness modes that provide extra light.

High-quality optics for the perfect picture

When it comes to optics, you should choose a high-quality finish – it’s worth it: good lenses are usually equipped with an optical lens shift function. This function ensures that the image is not distorted even if the unit is not facing the screen. Without correction, placing the projector under the living room table, to the side of the screen or under the ceiling lead to so-called trapezium distortion. To prevent this effect, devices with a lens shift function allow the lens to be shifted vertically and usually also laterally.

As far as the possible maximum resolution is concerned, a Full-HD projector with a maximum resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels is usually recommended. This resolution is also used for a standard Blu-ray disc.

4K projectors with 4,096 × 2,160 pixels are available too. Movies in suitable resolution can be found on Ultra HD Blu-rays with 3,840 × 2,160 pixels, for example. However, you will then need an Ultra HD Blu-ray player to play them, because conventional Blu-ray players cannot handle this new format. Streaming services such as Apple TV Plus or Netflix now increasingly rely on 4K content, as are YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

For smaller movie theaters: short-distance and ultra-distance projectors

If the room is small, a short-distance projector is the best choice. Projectors of this type have an extremely curved lens and a different projection ratio than conventional projectors. This works with either wide-angle lenses or a mirror. This kind of device can produce an image of 100 inches (2.54 meters) from a distance of just under one meter.

Short-distance projectors are particularly suitable in very small rooms due to the short distance to the screen. Unlike conventional projectors, they have a projection ratio of less than one meter. A device with a factor of 0.8 can project a picture with a diagonal of 1.0 meter onto the screen from a distance of 0.8 meters. With an ultra-short distance projector, a distance of well under one meter from the projection surface is sufficient to project even a 2.5-meter image onto the screen.

Pay attention to the quality of the projector here as well: simple models under 1,000 francs often come with cheap lenses or mirrors. This leads to blurring, distortion and darkened corners. It’s best to have the device demonstrated on site.

How to position the screen and projector

When organizing a slide evening with friends and family in the good old days, a screen used to be placed on a three-legged tripod. Nowadays, you can simply fit a roll-up screen on the ceiling that you can lower by remote control whenever necessary. You don’t need to keep an entire wall free either, because if the screen is far enough away, you can even place it in front of pictures, shelves or cupboards.

When positioning the projector, all models generally offer the choice between ceiling or table installation. Fixed ceiling mounting with a bracket is particularly common. In this way, the projector will remain permanently well aligned, although this means that it will stay visible at all times. However, many home cinema projectors are available in attractive designs and colors. If having a projector on the ceiling still bothers you, you can place it on a shelf, in a cupboard or under the table.

A large sofa is visible in the foreground. A big screen can be seen on the right in front of the sofa, and there is a hidden projector on the ceiling.

You need a large screen for a real cinema feeling in the living room. A short-distance projector can produce a large image even if the projector is close to the screen.

A home cinema: where does the picture come from?

Unlike conventional TVs, projectors do not have internal TV tuners. They obtain their picture via digital or analog picture inputs (HDMI, VGA, composite, etc.). A projector is therefore basically dependent on external image sources such as satellite or cable receivers, DVD or Blu-ray players, computers, tablets or game consoles. Films and videos can also be transmitted via the existing smart TV or a set-top box.

Since streaming services cannot be received via satellite or cable receivers, an Internet connection is required. One extremely practical solution is to use a TV stick for laptops – like Amazon’s FireTV stick – which turns the projector into a smart TV with very little effort. There are now even projectors that are smart themselves, i.e. they can use apps. These projectors offer the possibility to directly access streaming apps, which saves you having to use an external component.

Your ears are important too: the optimal sound in a home cinema

In fact, the sound and tone of home cinema systems deserve a chapter of their own – if not a whole book. Even if the projector comes with a built-in speaker, the acoustic output is not suitable for a high-quality home cinema system; that’s why most models don’t have internal speakers. You therefore need external amplifiers and speakers for the sound.

A large flat screen TV is mounted on the wall of a living room with speakers underneath.

The right sound for the perfect cinema evening: it’s not just the picture that has to be right, loudspeakers will also make a lasting contribution to your cinema experience.

You can of course connect your projector to your existing stereo system speakers. To achieve surround sound, however, it is advisable to have your own sound system, made up of a combination of multi-room speakers. After all, veritable cinema sound is above all characterized by spatial sound.

The more components a sound system has, the more differentiated the sound will be, due to the larger number of soundtracks that can be processed. These home cinema systems are identified by two digits separated by a dot. The first digit corresponds to the number of speakers responsible for the surround sound, the second to the number of subwoofers. For example, if a home cinema system has five speakers and a subwoofer, it is called a 5.1 home cinema system.

The following home cinema systems are available:

  • 2.1 home cinema system: 2 front speakers + 1 subwoofer
  • 5.1 home cinema system: 2 front speakers + 2 rear speakers + 1 center speaker + 1 subwoofer
  • 7.1 home cinema system: 2 front speakers + 2 side speakers + 2 rear speakers + 1 center speaker + 1 subwoofer
  • 9.1 home cinema system: 2 front speakers + 4 side speakers + 2 rear speakers + 1 center speaker + 1 subwoofer

Home cinema sound without cables

For surround sound you need at least a 5.1 home cinema system with six speakers, which should preferably be wireless. The system sends the acoustic signals to the loudspeakers via Bluetooth. This gives you maximum freedom in positioning the boxes and avoids leaving unsightly cables lying around in the room or having to be laid professionally. The rear loudspeakers are placed laterally behind the viewer, while the front loudspeakers are positioned to the left and right of the screen or television set. A central loudspeaker in the middle outputs speech. You need a subwoofer for voluminous lows and basses. Since the human ear cannot locate low frequencies, the subwoofer can be positioned wherever you like.

As a rule, a 5.1 home cinema system is sufficient for rooms of up to 20 square meters. The entry-level category – a 2.1 home cinema system – is suitable for supporting television sound in very small rooms. However, in the same way as with a sound bar, you will not get a full spatial sound experience. For larger rooms it is worth considering a 7.1 home cinema system. However, not all movies support 7.1 or even 9.1 soundtracks. As a result, the system often cannot be fully exploited. A 9.1 home cinema system is in most cases oversized and unnecessary.

Whether they are bookshelf speakers or free-standing floor speakers, speakers should not be hidden, because placing objects in front of them dampens the sound and impairs the listening experience. There is another element that is part of the standard interior in all cinemas that needs to be reproduced at home: a plush carpet not only creates a cozy atmosphere, it also dampens the reverberation. And the larger the room, the greater the effect.

Conclusion: now you have all the information you need, take your time planning your own home cinema. The final challenge is to find the right popcorn machine for your home cinema. But perhaps you want to use the old-fashioned method for preparing snacks: heat the oil in a pot on the stove and let the corn grains pop. We hope you will have lots of fun, and above all enjoy your movie!

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