A step-by-step guide to creating your own movie house Recreating the magic of the silver screen in your home can be daunting. If the techno babble doesn't put you off, the bewildering array of choices will. Tony Ng, chief consultant at custom home cinema installations firm Excel Home Theatre, offers a guide to audio-visual nirvana. Stage one All-in-one systems: good entry point into home theatre. High-end separates: building a house theatre system using separates is challenging but more rewarding.A satellite speaker package: quality sound at a reasonable price. Decide what you need and how much you are willing to spend on it. The equipment you end up with should be determined by three factors, says Mr Ng: how much you want to spend, where you will install your system and what you want it to do. How much you want to spend will to a large extent determine your choices of equipment. But you also need to bear in mind the dimensions of the room in which your system will be installed. The larger the room, the larger the speakers and screen will need to be. Bigger, however, does not necessarily mean better. Splashing out on large floor-standing speakers that blew your hair back in a shop's big demo room may not be the best idea if your own room is only half the size. You will also need to do decide what you want the system to do. Most people will be happy with just good DVD playback, but you may want built-in karaoke functionality, or a set-up that maximises your computer or console gaming experience too. Multi-channel home theatre systems come in two varieties - all-in-one packages and separate equipment. Home theatre in a box The good: Cheap, convenient, widely available and usually equipped with a wide range of features. The bad: The speakers and amplifier may not have enough power for bigger rooms; zero or limited upgrade path; usually poor at music playback. The verdict: A sensible place to start if your requirements are basic and you are on a limited budget. Home theatre separates The good: High quality audio and vision, upgradeable over time and according to budget. The bad: Takes up more space, higher initial outlay, not as easy to set up. The verdict: Requires more effort and money to get right, but the results are more rewarding and the system should stand the test of time. Stage two Decide what kind of screen you want and how large it needs to be. You may be perfectly happy with your existing TV and that would trim your home theatre budget considerably. However, a bigger, better picture could lift your home theatre experience to a new level, and prices of display panels and projectors have been falling fast. A plasma panel could replace your ageing TV set as a display for both home theatre and TV viewing. Or you could keep the TV and buy a projector to recreate a more authentic theatre experience. CRT television The good: High quality image, excellent value compared with plasma and LCD screens. The bad: Conventional TVs are bulky. The bigger the screen, the more it intrudes into the room. The verdict: Offers the most bang for your buck, but space may be an issue. Plasma television The good: Big screens, slim profiles, great for DVD playback. The bad: Not the cheapest option, the picture quality on budget models can be suspect. The verdict: The image quality on plasma screens has improved immensely, prices have fallen, ideal for buyers who are space-conscious. LCD television The good: Light, slim profile, works well with computers. The bad: Larger screen sizes are expensive, not all models offer decent image quality. The verdict: A good option for those who need small slimline screens. Projector The good: Nothing else can throw a bigger picture, excellent for DVD playback. The bad: Requires a dark room for best results, can be tricky to set up. The verdict: Good value, the closest you can get to going to the movies. Stage three When shopping, be prepared to put in some legwork. Before you hit the streets with your credit card, decide what you want and spend time researching the options. Hi-fi magazines can point you in the right direction, but do not take their recommendations as gospel. Similarly don't just go for the set-up you saw at your friend's house. What works for him may not work for you. In the end, the only way to choose equipment is through a proper demonstration. Research Don't rely on spec sheets. Read magazines and talk to knowledgeable friends to find out what is available. There is also a wealth of information on the internet on hobbyist websites and online forums. Proper research can help you get the best quality system for your money. Plan what you need Unless you have an unlimited budget, putting together a home theatre system is about making compromises and prioritising what you feel is most important. Perhaps you want a system that can play music as well as it plays DVDs. Perhaps you want speakers that have clarity at low volumes so you don't disturb the baby. Knowing what you want gives you a better chance of coming home happy after your shopping trip. Trust your ears Don't buy anything without testing it first. And test the equipment in a system that closely matches your targeted configuration. Insist on a test in a listening room rather than on the shop floor. Above all, trust your ears. Do not make your choices on the merit of a brand or a recommendation in a magazine. If two sets of speakers sound the same to you, go for the cheaper set. Bring your favourite DVDs A few DVDs with familiar scenes can help you better judge the quality of any equipment you are testing. Compare prices Shop around, compare prices and haggle. Some dealers will knock off 15 per cent from the ticket price of a piece of gear before you can say 'discount'. It doesn't always pay, however, to jump at the cheapest option. A reputable dealer with excellent after-sales support may be worth the slight premium. Stage four Get properly connected. The lengths of wire that connect your various components can make a big difference to the performance of your system. You will notice a difference between cheap 'hardware store' wires and the better manufactured premium varieties. A pair of fancy interconnects could cost as much as a used car. They need not be that expensive, but don't skimp on them either. DVD player to screen If you have a choice of connecting the DVD player to the screen or projector using either SCART or component video cables, go for the latter. DVD player to amplifier or receiver A digital connection is required between the DVD player and the amplifier or receiver. This can be either a toslink optical cable or a coaxial cable. The optical cable sounds fancier, but the coaxial cable delivers better sound. Amplifier or receiver to speakers Connecting your three front and two rear speakers will require lots of cable and measuring before you buy. For best results use the same type of wire for all speakers. Flat speaker cables are available for those concerned about unsightly wires or tripping over them. Amplifier or receiver to subwoofer An analogue cable connects the amplifier to the subwoofer. One usually comes supplied and that should suffice. As an active or self-powered speaker the subwoofer has a main cable that should be kept away from the interconnect cable to avoid interference. Stage five Install your equipment properly. Seating position Custom home theatre installation experts, such as those at Excel Home Theatre, start by identifying what they call the money seat - the best place to be seated for listening - according to the analysis of room acoustics. For those who do not have a dedicated room for a home theatre and would rather not move the furniture around, there are still some basic steps that can help improve the sound and image of your set-up. Screens The height of the screen depends on the viewing distance. The screen can be positioned slightly above eye level at longer viewing distances, but kept close to eye level at shorter viewing distances. Amplifiers and receivers These components can get hot. Making sure ventilation holes are unobstructed will help prevent the equipment from overheating and also extend their life. Source player Place your DVD players on a solid and level surface. Some people use purpose-built equipment racks. This will help you extract the best possible picture and sound out of your machine. Do not stack your DVD player on top of other gear, especially amplifiers that give off a lot of heat. Speakers 1) Front speakers: The front speakers, or more precisely the tweeters of the front speakers, should be at ear level and 'toed in' towards your seated position seat. 2) Centre speaker: The centre speakers should be as closely aligned as possible horizontally with the other two front speakers. Ideally all three front speakers should be on the same plane at eye level, but this is only possible when the centre speaker is placed behind a sound transparent projection screen, as is the case in movie theatres. 3) Rear speakers: Rear speakers are ideally mounted on the wall three feet above your head to provide subtle ambient noise. 4) Subwoofer: The nature of low frequency sound means a subwoofer can be placed anywhere in the room. The corner of a room where there are more reflective surfaces will get you more bass.