Setting up your HDMI system – Part 2

Part 2 – How To setup a basic HDMI Theater Room

So, we’ve established the Analog sunset is well under way, so you may as well start the process.  Simply purchasing a new TV (most have only HDMI inputs with one analog input for your older stuff) will update your display to digital, but what if most of your sources are still analog.  Most new TVs come with at most 2, and primarily one analog input.  All the other inputs are now HDMI.    For most cable and satellite subscribers, most of those receivers have both outputs on the boxes (digital – HDMI and analog – composite and component video inputs).  What typically occurs is you cannot use both the HDMI and analog outputs.  If you plug something into the HDMI output, the analog outputs cease to function (no longer output a picture).  So you really have to make a decision on which way to go.  As you can see from the above rant, that decision has pretty much been made for you.  You are going digital, within a few years, no matter what we all want.

The new lineup of  Smart TVs from most manufacturers have almost all HDMI inputs now.  Some have a single slot you can use for either composite or component and a few models have 1 of each.  This still only gives you 1 of each.  So, if you have your Wii (which only has composite video)  and an older DVD player/VCR whatever, that is composite as well, you’ve got to choose which one to plug into the TV.  A “pro” side of most of these TVs is they have built in WiFi or wired networking and thousands of “apps” already available from manufacturers like Samsung.   Simply get your TV connected to your internet and start watching Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Pandora and more.     However, you are limited to listening to this on the TV in the one room, which can tax your home network with only a single download stream, much less 2 or more TVs or BluRay’s downloading videos.  This also limits you somewhat, but there are solutions, as you will see below.

HDMI has limitations as mentioned above.  First, it ONLY works with HDMI compliant, digital signals from compatible devices (which will be anything produced pretty much from here on out).  Next, there is a 50 foot limitation on how far the signal can go.  This is 50 linear feet, not as the crow flies, so how far up the wall, along the floor, up the cabinet and to the source is the complete distance that needs to be measured.    Some cables are made longer and occasionally you can “get away with” pushing it a little longer, but most often not.   This limits where you can place the sources and how far from the display they can be.   Another things is the cables themselves.  They cannot be “field” made, so they must be purchased in select lengths, which limits where you can place them and when.   They are typically more costly than analog cables were, but are dropping in price, quickly.   It is not necessary to buy the most expensive HDMI cables, as the technology itself prevents most problems, but I would not purchase the cheapest cables either, as quality simply cannot be trusted then.   You must plan things more efficiently than with older analog cables.  Also, HDMI devices include a “key” feature, mentioned above, meaning you can’t simply plug it into any switcher and watch it on more than one TV, as this is implicitly deterred.  You can use video balluns (small devices that convert HDMI to transmit over Cat5) to push the distance, but this doesn’t solve the other problems and can produce something called “sparkling” where you lose pixels and basically see “sparkles” or spots all over your picture.  These are pixels that are missing data or information, as it was somehow dropped along the way.

For your basic do it yourself system, to start with, unless doing a distributed A/V system (more on that next time) place your sources close to your TV set.  Typically just below it is the best place (within 50′ again).  Most flat screens these days are hung on a wall or are on a low stand of some type.    You’ll need to plan on running a few cables.  Typically an HDMI  or two to the TV.    If you only have 1 source, say your cable or satellite box, then simply plug it in, and you are good to go, as both audio and video signals are sent to the TV on the one HDMI cable.  For more than 1 source (say a satellite box and a BluRay player), you’ll need to either run multiple HDMI cables to the TV and plug each source into one and switch the TV to each source via the built TV inputs (HMDI 1, HDMI 2, etc) or get an HDMI switcher or AV Surround processor to handle the source/input switching.  More on that below.

There is an oft overlook consideration here, though.  If you are getting the best picture you can get (1080p HD) don’t you also want the best sound you can get.   You aren’t going to get that with the TV speakers.  So now you have a few options.   First off, you can go with a simple sound bar speaker system.  These are LCR (left, center and right) speakers into a single speaker bar, about as wide as a 42″ flat screen.  They use the TV’s audio output and get the sound directly from the TV via an optical or digital coaxial connection (thin single wire).   The easiest thing is to plug your TV’s audio output directly into the speakers input and hang/place the speaker directly under your TV.  This provides pretty good sound and most of these include a wireless subwoofer for your bass sounds, which really makes your system sing.

A quality 3 channel (actual left, center and right speakers) sound bar will run from $500-750 (Dec 2012) and up at present, but there are cheaper solutions available.    These are typically powered/amplified/switching sound bar speakers.  These provide a little more oomph to the sound, allow for switching inputs on the speaker itself and also have a subwoofer.  These require 110 power typically, in addition to an audio feed from the TV (optical or coaxial, usually).

The final and best sounding, most expandable, yet more complex method, is to install a surround AV processor.   This gives you an actual 5.1 (5 speakers, front left, center and right and rear right and left,  and a subwoofer) or 7.2 (add 2 mid surround speakers and another sub-woofer) and multiple audio settings from equalization to various sound technologies such as Dobly, DD, THX and more.   This significantly enhances your audio and video experience.   You then plug all of your sources, video (cable, satellite, BluRay, etc) and audio (Sono’s, iPod, etc) into the surround system and then a single HDMI cables goes from there to your TV/display and handles all the switching internally.  This also splits the audio out of the HDMI and out into the appropriate speakers to produce that true surround experience of the plane flying around your head and the crash shaking your viewing room.

Next time we’ll consider how an integrated,  distributed Audio and digital video system will significantly improve your experience and availability to use sources on more TVs and much easier control,  as technology companies pump out even more sources of digital entertainment and 4k/Ultra HD content and sources.

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