Ed Driscoll

Home Theater For Dummies

Note: I wrote this review a couple of years ago for Blogcritics. While consumer electronics technology advances so rapidly these days, much of the book holds up well, particularly for those seeking a primer on building their first home theater.–Ed

Having written one of the best, easiest to read books on home automation with Smart Homes For Dummies (written in 1999, but revised earlier this year), Danny Briere and Pat Hurley have an obvious sequel in this year’s Home Theater For Dummies.

As I wrote in my review of the revised version of Smart Homes:

Perhaps one reason for their emphasis of home telecommunication networks, is that unlike many home automation experts who come at home automation through their mastery of home-based technologies, it was in the telecommunication industry that Danny and Pat have made their careers, prior to writing Smart Homes For Dummies. Briere is CEO of TeleChoice, Inc., which he started in 1985. “Today, just about every major telecom player in the world is our client,” he says. And Pat Hurley is a consultant and DSL analyst for Telechoice.

This background has helped them to come up with a number of ideas that are “outside of the box” of the traditional home automation industry.

It also grew out of a practical need to expand their own knowledge base. In the mid-1990s, Briere began to renovate his then recently purchased house in Maine, to convert it into what he calls a “‘vacation home for the next sixty years’ type of place”. Briere often spends a month at a time both working out of there, and spending time with his family. (His primary residence is near the University of Connecticut, where Briere’s wife is an assistant research professor.)

When Briere began to ask his contractor about what would be needed for a sophisticated home office in his vacation home, Briere says, “he didn’t know anything. And we started talking to all sorts of people, and we went to various stereo stores, and other people, and couldn’t really find anybody who knew anything.”

That same outside-the box thinking drives Home Theater For Dummies.

Home Theater Versus Media Room

Part of the problem is that in the 1990s, home theater became a term that’s so nebulous to be almost meaningless. In the late 1980s, when Audio/Video Interiors magazine debuted, home theater meant just that-a recreation of a movie theater in your home. The term was created when people such as Theo Kalimarakis began to convert their basements into recreations of the classic movie theaters of the 1930s. (Kalimarakis, one of the first, got so good at it, that he went from working at a magazine, to making his living designing and installing ultra-high-end theaters in others’ homes.)

What the vast majority of home owners desired however, were media rooms, multi-purpose rooms with some sort of large TV, a laser disc (later DVD) player, a VCR, some set-top boxes, and a surround sound system. Whereas the home theater is purpose-built and pretty much dedicated to watching movies, in a media room, music can also be listened to, regular TV shows can be viewed, and even video games can be played.

For whatever reason, the public glommed onto the term “home theater”, so that just about any electronic component larger than a 13-inch black and white TV is slapped with a label that reads “home theater ready!”

So at this stage of the game, home theater is ubiquitous, and us old-timers are left fighting a rear-guard linguistic battle. I guess I can’t blame the authors or their publishers. To paraphrase the line from Jaws, it’s psychological: you write a book called Media Rooms For Dummies, and people go “huh?!”. You call it Home Theater For Dummies, and you’ll sell some copies.

The Home Theater PC

One very interesting concept in HTFD is the home theater PC. (I’ve written a few articles about these myself, incidentally). There are all sorts of reasons why a PC in the media room makes perfect sense. (Of course, they’re also arriving there in pieces: component size MP3 players and PVRs like ReplayTV and TiVO are essientially simple computers dedicated to singe functions.) But in the past, getting a PC’s display to look good on a fuzzy NTSC screen has been difficult. Fortunately, the growing number of HDTVs, DTVs, computer-grade projection systems, plasma screens, et al, in media rooms have made this easier to accomplish, as Briere and Hurley explain in their book.

The media room PC reflects one of the goals of HTFD: have a home theater that’s capable of anything, that can be used to surf the net, play videogames, listen to music (whether it’s CD, MP3, SACD, DVD-A, etc.), and with a little help from the advice in Smart Homes For Dummies, be accessible by TVs and speakers in other rooms in the house.

If you’re new to the idea of media rooms, err home theater, and like the idea, Home Theater For Dummies is a great place to start. If your media room is starting to look a little long in the tooth (no PVR, no MP3 player, a first-generation DVD player, etc.), and you’d like to bring it into the 21st century, Briere and Hurley’s book is equally recommended.