By Charles Wardell. What do you tell a client who wants a home theater but doesn't have megabucks? We asked Dennis MacLeod of Home Systems Design, a Pembroke, Mass., company that specializes in high-end home theaters. He offers these tips:


A good conventional TV will cost $800 to $1,000 and have a 4:3 image aspect. (A 40-inches-high screen will be 30 inches wide.) A hybrid digital TV has the same aspect but you can sit close to the screen without seeing lines. Cost is $1,250 to $2,000. A wide-screen, high-definition TV (HDTV) is the choice for a satellite or cable system that offers high-definition programming.

HDTVs come in four types. Tube-style models are up to 38 or 40 inches wide and cost $2,500 to $6,000. A rear projection model will be clear even with the room lights turned up. Price is $2,000 to $14,000. A good front projection model will cost at least $15,000, a flat panel or plasma display $5,000 to $30,000.


You can buy components separately or bundled in a receiver; either way, you need a signal processor, a preamplifier, and an amplifier. Receivers range from $1,200 to $5,000. The amp should send equal output to each speaker. The processor should be capable of Dolby ProLogic, Dolby Digital, and DTS, with upgrade paths for a 7.1 system and a rear-center channel. It should be capable of switching video and preferably S-video (a high-quality, multi-part signal.) Expect to pay $500 to $1,500 for a good DVD player.


Figure on five full-range speakers to fill a room with sound. Speakers are the most critical piece of the system, so MacLeod recommends spending half the budget on them--with a $10,000 budget, you might spend $5,000 on speakers, $2,000 on processors and amps, $2,000 on the screen, and $1,000 on a DVD player.

Home theater rules: The secret to great sound and video is putting the right equipment in the right spots.

Photo: John Hansel

1) The ideal room will have a ratio between the side and front walls of 10:7.

2) Rugs and other soft surfaces absorb sound.

3) Window shades will prevent sun from washing out the screen.

4) Distance from screen to seating: 2 times screen width for HDTV; 2 1/2 times screen width for conventional TV.

5) Speakers all the same size and placed at seated head or ear level.

6) Left and right speakers 8 feet apart on either side of the screen.

7) Center channel directly above or below the screen.

8) Left and right surrounds on the side walls behind the seating and mounted on breackets than can be pointed toward the back of the seating.

9) With one subwoofer, place it in the front third of the room. With two, place one in the front and back thirds. Move them around until you don't have any dead spots.