Home Theater – You get what you pay for

Let’s say you’re not quite satisfied with the 37-inch flat-screen TV you bought a few years back. You’re looking for something a little bit more impressive, a system to give you that gasp-inducing, jaw-dropping, toe-curling movie theater experience. Maybe it’s time for your own home theater.

What kind of equipment to buy depends on your budget, how much time you have on your hands, your technical prowess and – of course – how much you tend to drool over the latest high-tech gizmos. Those inclined toward do-it-yourself projects can buy a high-definition set or projector, hook it up to a DVD player and surround-sound system for $3,000 or less.

But if money is no object, you can get your home cinema professionally designed, acoustically engineered, installed and tricked out to look like a real movie theater … for $25,000 and up. Like luxury cars or motorboats, there’s practically no upper limit for those with money to spend.

Sal Alfano, a retired Wall Street executive, had a $9,000 home theater system built in his Pennsylvania home last fall as part of a $50,000 basement renovation project.

It features theater-style seats, a 103-inch screen (measured diagonally) with a high-definition projector, a popcorn machine and soundproofing to preserve neighborly harmony.

Having the system professionally installed made sense for Alfano. “I’m not a technician. Let them do it,” he said.

Since then, he has enjoyed having his three grandchildren over to the basement to watch DVDs, and friends to watch sports games. “Even my doctor came over one night,” he said.

Home theater aficionados say a digital projector, which can display a high-definition image on a screen mounted on your wall is the best way to get a movie-theater experience. But flat-screen televisions remain far more popular among U.S. households than the projectors favored by home-theater purists.

Shipments of flat-panel TVs of 40 inches or larger are projected to rise to more than 11 million this year, from 9.3 million last year, according to market research firm Pacific Media Associates. By comparison, shipments of projectors are far lower: about 150,000 units last year.

Possible reasons include the immense marketing behind flat-screen TVs and the fact that projection systems don’t carry quite the same bling factor for most consumers. While projection systems are able to deliver a larger picture at a lower price, “the projector itself is not showy,” said William Coggshall, president of Pacific Media Associates.

Among those who are able to afford new home theaters despite the tough economic times, some are trying to make their theaters a more active space for their families.

They are installing small stages where kids can set up their musical instruments, or play virtual tennis on a Nintendo Wii. “They don’t want to have it be a space … where their kids are just brain-dead, watching TV,” said John Baumeister, president of Illinois-based Baumeister Electronic Architects, which specializes in custom-designed, high-end systems ranging from $50,000 to $1 million.

Clients can get such features as a curved screen that gives you that wide-screen “Lawrence of Arabia” look, or a remote control that scrolls through a list of movies stored on a computer server.

Another plus: moving curtains that replicate a movie theater’s look. “You want the lights to dim, you want the curtains to open up,” Baumeister says, just like in the movies.

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