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Home Theater: What Is It Now, Anyway?


By David Bott, 10/02/12


Okay, I need to ask something here. It is something that has been bugging me for some time now. The question is, what is currently considered to be a “home theater"?


What I mean is, “home theater” use to be just that: a personal theater in someone’s home.  But lately, it seems that people are using the term “home theater” to talk about anything to do with audio and video in their home. I have even heard people say, “I now have a home theater!” because they had hooked up something that did 5.1 for the first time. Now don’t get me wrong: it is great that people are doing this.  For as you may know, I am all for the home theater experience and love to see it spread.  But where do we draw the line on how to use the term?  I personally feel that you really can't draw a line,as the term is just too loosely used at this point.



Today you can buy something in stores called a “home-theater-in-a-box.” More or less, this is a complete package which includes a single unit that acts as a DVD or Blu-ray Player, 5.1 decoder, and AMP, and it comes with a 5.1 speaker package for Left, Right, Center, Left Rear, Right Rear and Sub.  I have seen these units for as little as $149 in stores such as Wal-Mart, Sears, and Sam’s Club. What happens is, someone buys a unit like this and poof, they now think they can say that they have a “home theater.” This is great, as the people who buy these packages are just starting their systems, and I hope it does not stop there for them. But it just makes people like myself cringe, as the term “home theater” simply does not mean the same thing as it did in the past, back when it meant, quite literally, a theater in your home. What I mean by that is, if you have a true home theater setup, it will actually make people remark upon entering, “Wow…you have a theater!” be it done with a video display or film projector. (Yes, I know a few people who have actually installed 35MM theaters.) I personally have a dedicated theater in our home.  Now, I know that this is above the norm for most, and that it puts me in the minority. But when someone comes over and sees the room, I have actually heard some say, ”Now THIS is a home theater.” Note the added word of “this.” As in, different then what you usually hear or see when the term is used.  This is what has made me think about the use of the term.


So you may be asking, “David, what’s your thought about what we may do about it? Where can we draw the line as to how the term 'home theater' should be used?” Well, as I had mentioned before, I feel like use of the term in general can't be stopped at this time --  this is the way it is now being marketed and thus widely used. But what we can maybe do is change one word to help offset the difference for actual “home theaters.” I propose using the term “home cinema” instead of the now general term of “home theater” when talking about such systems that are well above normal.


Again, I feel I must say (because my wife reminds me that I should), that I am not trying to come off as pompous or exclusive. I am just saying that the term is not the same as it used to be with all the new “in a box” items that are out there. You see, it does not mean that you need to spend $50,000 or more to have a “home cinema.” But you have to admit that there is a difference between buying a $149 “theater in box” and actually picking out components for a system.


I am all for home theater in any way, shape, or form. Maybe I am 100% wrong with my thoughts on this matter, and it is actually not an issue at all. Maybe it's just me thinking that what I own is more than a theater in a box (it really is). But when someone tells me they just bought a $149 “theater-in-a-box” and a 40" flat panel at a warehouse store and call it a home theater, I can't help but think that it is clearly not the same as my custom-built theater. That is all I am saying. 


So let the term run as it is and bring more people into the wonderful world of home theater.  But there is a difference -- right? Sure there is. “Home theater” is what we have all come to love. However the term “home cinema” seems more like what a lot of us strive for when we work on our systems, or decide to dedicate an entire room to this passion. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Comments (121)

I think a true home theater is any which replicates what a cinema was originally designed to do. Make you forget your surroundings and be totally engulfed by the film. It should also be able to deliver an experience the way the filmmakers intended and be able do so with at least 4 people at a time.

When I hear home theater I immediately think of a cheap walmart 5.1 system with small TV. Which I hate to admit was what I thought was a good theater experience in the home. now after discovering avsform I've gotten closer to a dedicated Home Cinema system which I've been adding to for years. First I learned what an AVR was and how much better the sound was especially with HD audio and put together a 7.2 setup. Then I looked at pull up screens and got a 100 in 1.3 gain elite screen and the Optoma HD33 projector along with a needed IR setup. now at this point I'm building an HTPC to add to my collection. Also the way I look at it If i keep adding to what I have my wife is going to end up giving me the basement to turn into a dedicated HC to get all the stuff out of the living room plus I want good seating and she really likes the coutch.
personally i feel that a home theater is any home a/v setup with surround sound speakers a "real" receiver/processor capable of decoding modern audio formats and a display with a screen size of 72" or more, those of us with smaller tvs(myself included as i only have a 37" tv) and real surround setups have "true starter systems", the simple HTIB systems you find at walmart and bestbuy are, IMO, "get your feet wet" systems
I would think if you are going to use the term 'cinema' it would have to be limited to any kind of projection on a screen. This would leave the TV people out. Home theater could be the all encompassing term and home cinema would denote a dedicated space for the design and projection elements of a cinema in the home.
The audio/video industry in general is to blame for the liberal use of the term "home theater" and it is exactly for the reason you mention - a person can buy a "home theater in a box" with 5.1 surround sound. So I think over time, people (myself included) accept the idea that anyone with a TV with an audio system to go with it can call it a "home theater" even if the setup does not remotely look like an actual theater.
I could really care less what it is called, but what you're trying to describe would be, to me, a dedicated home theater room.

If you really want to get technical, then perhaps you need a different term alltogether. After all, a theater (or home theater) actually doesn't need to have any screen (or TV), and it certainly doesn't need to have any speakers. in general, when I think of a "theater", I think of something with a stage...

Then again, I'm don't really consider myself someone who keeps up with this stuff. I usually only come to this site when I'm researching an upgrade for some AV stuff in my house.
"Home Theater" always a relative point depending on who's speaking, but the important thing is to have a system that can be used to entertain an audience in the immersive way that the audience is wrapped up in whatever you have playing. If you or your audience feel at some point it's like the movies, it counts. The HTIB systems are a good introduction to this (that first 5.1 system should always be a game changer for this experience), and more power to the people who decide to move up to bigger and better.

As the display goes - going from a Walmart 35" LCD to a top tier 65" Plasma and then 120" (or more) off a projection screen all fit this bill in the same way that "theatre" can mean your children doing a small play for family at home vs a production at the local high school vs going to Broadway to watch a play. All these count as theatre, though nobody will confuse one for the other.

The exchange when people see your setup sounds rather fun in the sense of people being amazed at just how far the hobby can go. Here's a similar situation from an 80's movie - Crocodile Dundee - he didn't feel threatened when a street thug pulled a knife on him. He just smiled stating "that's not a knife", pulled a near machete out of his pants, and held it up stating "that's a knife". Everyone agreed on that point, and all smiled and laughed.
Home theater ? to be or not to be, that is the question.
A visual and audio experience apart from the regular box 2 plain speaker TV experience ?
What comes to people's mind when they think of Home Theater ?
The first thing that comes to mind is a big screen experience that is not the normal experience from watching a regular TV.
However that was back in the day when having a 32 Inch TV was keeping up with the Jones and a 55 Inch was going hog wild Home Theater.
For me a Home Theater is either a projector & screen with a huge picture on the wall and a nice set of speakers.
The Big flat screen TVs that are coming to market is challenging that once held idea, so it's a evolving term as to what is Home Theater.
No doubt that if you have a projector & screen with a nice set of speakers that can crank out the sound , then that's Home Theater.
How about this new terminology ?
The $ 149.00 WalMart Specials ? Eco-Home Theater, non-dedicated Home Theater, Mini-Home Theater.
The more expensive Home Theater, Dedicated Home Theater because you dedicate more money to that project.
Graylight your right, Home Theater is a place, Home Cinema is a experience....
So we can narrow it down to that a Home Theater can be a generic term meaning a place that could or can be also a Home Cinema, or a place to watch TV, play games and a Home Cinema is strictly for film on the big screen.
A Home Cinema would basically mean that more thought, time, and money was invested into the project.
Using the term "home cinema" with my friends would make me sound like more of a movie snob than I already am. I agree there is definitely a differentiation between a dedicated theater with all the bells and whistles vs a HTIB, but I'm not going to change my terminology because someone wants to call his humble setup a home theater. I say good for him/her for being passionate about movies like me, but perhaps not having the means to have what some would call a "home cinema."
I use the terms Media Room/Center, Home Theater, Cinema Room, and Dedicated Home Theater. Someone having a "Home Theater" to me is anyone that has invested money in an attempt to have the closest cinema experience they can within their means. Not all of us can have a decked-out dedicated room, so I don't fault anyone for picking up their first HTiB and calling it a " Home Theater. " That is how I started this little game and have upgraded to the point where I have about $30k invested. My room looks nowhere close to a dedicated setup as I put most of it into gear, not treatments, while still maintaining more of a living room setting.
I always refer to my room as a media room. I have a 55" plasma and some really good sound. A theater should have a projector and screen, and a cinema adds theater type seating and treatments. But the ultimate goal is a place to enjoy being with the family for a couple of hours, and not worry about little things.
"Home Theater" to me is quite simple.

It's a dedicated space in your home where you attempt to replicate the visual/audio experience of the cinemas/theaters.

This means:

1) Projector/screen, or 100" plus TVs
2) Capable surround sound system that could easily hit reference
3) Proper seatings, I don't mean sofas and loveseats
4) Proper room lighting

Now, you can build a "Home Theater" for $5k or $50k. "Home Theater" is NOT defined by the amount of cash invested in it. It is defined by the applications of its design.

Likewise, you can spend $150, $1500, or $5,000 in an "HTIB" package and put that system in your living room, lounge, bedroom, etc. and I would still call it a "Surround Sound System".

Wow... some of the elitist attitude around here

While I tend to agree with some of the sentiment we have to remember that Home Theater has become a generic term. Personally I don't care. I have a fairly nice setup that I am sure puts me in the minority of the general populace, but I am sure there are many 'elitists' here that would point out all the inadequate portions of my room and setup. I don't care I still get a ton of enjoyment out of it.
There was an excellent thread on this very topic a some time ago started by The Bland. It unfortunately turned into haves vs have-nots in the minds of some but his point was made. The term "screening room" was suggested to be a bit more descriptive of a dedicated room. Home cinema works as well and differentiates itself from "media room" which could be anything.
IMO " home theater " means a projector, surround sound and at least a 100" diagonal screen. Even if it's in a room used for other purposes ( " media room " ), if you are trying to replicate a movie theater experience, and you've done the best you can with your space and available cash, you have a home theater.

Smokarz - I much prefer my Laz E Boy sectional sofa in our home theater to individual theater type seats, so I don't agree there. And I have a dedicated theater room. Sectional sofas are just more comfy - especially for couples !!
What would you call a comercial cinema that had a large flat screen tv to show movies?
Home theater to me means dedicated space, large image and enough sound to be imersive.
Projector in the living room just seems to be too much of a compromise.
I totally agree! There should be a line between a dedicated theater, and a conventional HTIB or similar setup. I have dreamed of the time for over 15 years when I would be able to have a house that I could build my own legit home theater, and luckily, for me, that time is now, and I am well into the construction of my dedicated theater in my new house. My buddy also built a new house at the same time mine was being built. He saw my plans for my theater, and I had been helping him to design his own too.. But now, he has decided to go a different direction with his unfinished bonus room. He wants to make it a family room/ office/ “home theater”. So now, his “theater” will only be half the room and its common to the rest of the space with no separation. Instead of a projector and screen, he will be getting a TV. And instead of individual components, and a decent 7.1 speaker setup, he is looking at 5.1 HTIB systems now. He is constantly asking for my help on deciding which components to get, and every time I help him find a budget receiver, he scoffs and says he can get “the whole setup including receiver/ BD combo unit, and all 5 speakers and sub for the price of that $250 so-called-bargain receiver.” And the receiver I showed him “doesn’t even have the blu-ray player built in”.. I tried to put together a budget system for the guy, but he just doesn’t get it. I wish I was done with my dedicated theater with 11.2 and projector with 135” screen so I could show him the light, but building a dedicated theater takes lots of time and effort, as everyone who has built one knows. I just cant wait for the day when he does see a movie in my room then kicks himself for not taking my advise in the first place. I know he won’t want to go back home and watch a movie on his makeshift “home theater” after that haha
at the risk of invoking a hackneyed jeff foxworthy routine, "you might have a home theater if..."

- you've ever installed in-wall speaker wire in 'old construction' walls
- you've made an effort to select the components that deliver a movie-watching experience based on research, peer review, and personal experience (as opposed to picking up the cheap box at wal mart and saying "this'll do!")
- you've ever invited someone to watch a movie at your house, and the first thing you hear after the opening sequence of a movie is "DAMN!", followed by bewildered expressions as they try to figure out just what they're seeing/hearing, and how
- you own, and know how to use, a sound level meter
- you have NO idea what the speakers on your TV sound like, nor even if they work, because you've never used them

i don't have a dedicated theater room, but i have what i consider a nice, affordable, enjoyable setup. i do sometimes refer to it as a 'home theater', because it's several orders of magnitude beyond what the majority of people use to enjoy music, gaming, or movies.

i have a friend with a bose-in-a-box system and a 40" TV, and she constantly refers to it as her 'home theater'. i can't say that i would call it that, but i suppose if it makes her happy, then i don't really care what she calls it. for me, it's more of a tiered term, with different points of entry based on investment of capital and time. so, it's not that it's a generic term, it's just a term that needs extra adjectives added to specify the LEVEL of its home theater-ness.
Obiviously you have more passion for home theater than your friend. To each their own. Did you ever think your friend is going to watch you spend the thousands on your system so he can watch big events over at your place and he will be content watching his system at home for the everyday content.
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