Walk through each room of your home and make notes about the digital equipment you already have, what needs to be upgraded, and what you wish you had. Do you want a flat-screen television in the family room? In the kitchen? Do you want surround sound? A wireless Internet connection? An Internet-enabled refrigerator? How about motorized draperies? Zoned heating and cooling? Go nuts. Next, underline your must-haves and rank the top five. Start your research here.
Home Theater vs. Family Room
In general, a multipurpose family room is not a home theater. The distinction is important if you're craving a room that immerses you in the movie-watching experience. A multipurpose family room, sometimes called a media room, has the basics: a relatively large television, a DVD player and maybe even surround sound. But it probably also has a stereo, a computer and a video game system. A home theater, on the other hand, is dedicated solely to watching movies. It will have a large-screen television, perhaps a projector. The room may be windowless and built to enhance sound. It may contain specialty lighting and soundproof walls. And the seating may be arranged theater style to accommodate rows of viewers. You can enjoy watching movies in both rooms, but commit to one or the other before you invest the time and money on upgrades.
Spread out the budget.
Sure, you need a budget. But you also want to spend what you have wisely. A few good components are better than one high-end piece. If you dump all of your money on a plasma screen and don't set enough aside for quality speakers, you might as well be buying a Rolls-Royce without wheels.
Don't overlook extra costs.
The sticker price of an electronic device is rarely the bottom line. If you want more memory on your computer or digital camera, you will pay extra. If you want to network your computer, you'll need to buy a router. Other costs, such as an extended warranty, can add several hundred dollars to your purchase price. And what about delivery? Will you be loading that 60-inch television into the back of your minivan or having it delivered? Last, don't leave out subscriptions, such as those for satellite television, Internet, or digital video recording services.
Surround Sound Speakers
Most DVD soundtracks are recorded with either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS (Digital Theater Systems) 5.1. Don't let your eyes glaze over at the sight of that number. The "5" refers to five channels, one for each speaker in your surround sound system, and the "1" refers to the subwoofer. This means you don't need more than five speakers and one subwoofer to get that three-dimensional sound experience. In fact, instead of buying seven speakers, buy five and spend the extra money on quality. Your ears will thank you.
Don't skimp on wiring.
For the digital home to work smoothly, you're going to need substantial wiring and cabling. Whether you're installing it or hiring a professional, plot out where you'll need the wires. Create a simple sketch of the room's layout and the placement of every piece of electronic equipment. When installing, don't skimp on the length or quality of wires that connect the components. And think about installing extra wires in rooms or hallways currently without electronics. There's no telling when you might want speakers in the kitchen or an intercom system throughout your home.
If you're going to invest in digital equipment for your home, also think about spending some money on proper cabinetry to store it in. Electronic components get hot, so look for cabinets that have ventilation holes and shelving that is at least 3 or 4 inches deeper than the component so that air can circulate. Wider shelves will also make it easier to access cable connections. Err on the side of too much shelving, rather than too little. The extra space is good for airflow and can accommodate additional electronics in the future.
A plethora of electronic components can either help or hinder your home enjoyment. Get one mega remote that controls all of the digital equipment you can see from where you stand. Place security and temperature control panels in high-traffic areas so that they are easily accessible. Install intercom systems in the center of a high-traffic path or within arm's reach of locations you find yourself frequently sitting in (such as the family room) or standing in (such as the kitchen).
Get expert advice.
Even do-it-yourselfers can use some advice. Most major retail stores that sell home electronics offer installation services. Or you can search the Internet or the phone book under "audio/video installation services." Even if you don't need help with installation, you may want some advice planning the placement of your electronics and where you need to run wires and cable.
The digital home is modular.
You don't have to buy everything at once. As long as you have a good foundation, you can build on it and upgrade when time, money and opportunity presents itself.