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Home Theater Budget Basics

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How do I build a home theater or media room?  We’ll discuss all facets of building a home theater here—from construction, to equipment selection, to room tuning. Our first column is devoted to budgeting. How much can I spend, and how do I allocate my budget? Building a theater is a personal experience, so how far you want to go and the design of your system and room will determine your budget. This overview will help you start to think about how to spend your hard-earned cash.

Dollars and Sense
Whether you use a custom installer for your room or you build it yourself, you’re almost always going to end up spending more than you expected. Home theaters can be expensive. If you’re trying to save money by doing it on your own, you need to ask yourself if you know what you are doing. Certainly not everyone who has ever successfully built a home theater was an expert on the subject, and learning on the job can happen here, as it could on any other project. But, as with other construction projects, learning on the job can lead to mistakes, which can be more expensive to have someone fix than if you hired an expert in the first place. If your budget will allow for a custom installer, this is certainly a good route to take. In fact, they’ll do most of the budget work for you, though it’s still a good idea to research and know what you are paying for. In terms of the cost of their services, it will vary from installer to installer, but a good rule of thumb is to expect to devote 15 to 22 percent of your overall budget to their services.

You could get professional help in some areas and handle other parts of the theater on your own. For example, you may be capable of doing room construction but not have any experience assembling an A/V system. In this case, you could save money by doing the construction work. Your custom installer, however, needs to be in on the initial plans.

Getting Started
Determining your final budget number is quite a different thing than allocating your budget. Figuring out how much you can afford is the easy part. You got a $10,000 bonus at work? There’s your budget. It’s a simple question of how much you can afford to spend.

Unfortunately, however, there’s no set formula for distributing your budget or any golden ratio that says how much you should spend on video versus audio, and so on. Before you sit down to outline your budget, start by asking yourself several questions. First of all, what is the most important aspect of your theater? Are you going to use it primarily to watch blockbusters and are therefore looking for intense audio? Or are you more interested in a stunning high-def visual display? Do you have a room awash in sunlight during the day that will require extensive blackout drapes? Do you want to listen to CDs? LPs? Time-shift TV on a DVR? These lifestyle decisions will directly affect your purchasing decisions and the bottom line. If you have an installer, it’s his job to help you answer these questions.

It is helpful, when you first hit the drawing board, to make a list of priorities—the things you must have in your theater, followed by the things you’d like to have in your theater, and even things you will add to your theater down the road.

For example, a family that is designing a multipurpose media room with a budget of $10,000 might have the following items on their must-have priority list: a 42-inch flat-panel display ($2,500); an Xbox 360 console for the kids ($300); a 5.1 speaker system ($2,000); a receiver ($1,000); and the necessary A/V cables ($200), for a total of $6,000. While that may not seem like a lot of items, it’s a huge start and can help you figure how much money is left over for other aspects of your theater, in this case, $4,000. You could allocate the family’s leftover budget to the “would like to have” list, which might include: a media server that will aggregate CDs and media files ($1,000); a DVD player ($250); a nice but basic remote ($200); and a prefab acoustic treatment kit ($2,500), for a total of $3,950, leaving $50 in the budget. The “things to add to the theater down the line” list could include items like theater seating or custom plasma cabinetry with a motorized lift.

Eventually, when you get a rough idea of where you want to allocate your resources, you can go back over the budget and make compromises. In the previous example, the family forgot to add on some sort of rack to put the plasma on until they can afford their dream motorized plasma cabinetry. This might come, say, at the sacrifice of the Xbox. Remember, you can continually upgrade and add to your system as time goes on. Home theater is not a one-shot deal—that’s why it’s a hobby for a lot of people. A great resource when planning your budget is our own Home Theater Buyer’s Guide, which breaks down almost every type of A/V component you could need by size, price, dimensions, and more.

In order for your system to be effective, you don’t want anything less than a 32-inch diagonal screen and a 5.1 surround system. A good place to start planning your budget is the room itself. Determine along which wall your video display will go, then extrapolate from there the maximum size your screen can be at the viewing position. Once you figure out how big your screen can possibly be, everything will fall in to place. At that point, you can comparison shop for TVs, projectors, plasmas, or front-projection screens and find a good fit for your needs and your room.

After you determine the screen wall, you can determine how many speakers to put in your room. A 7.4 system is going to be more expensive, logically, than a 5.1 system and will also determine what kind of receiver, processor, and amp you need. Are the extra speakers and subwoofers something you feel are important? Consider the amount of people you want to be able to enjoy the room at once. If you have a dedicated space that seats eight, you might need four subwoofers for uniform bass. If that’s something you value, it might be worth including in your budget and holding off on something that is less of a priority. If you know the amount of people you’d like to seat, you can determine how much you’re willing to spend on comfortable theater seating or casual couches. It’s a snowball effect. Once you get rolling, it’s not as difficult as it might seem.