This section gives you a quick tour of all of the possible video connections. The quality level of each video connection follows a pecking order. The options at the top of the list are the best.
The rear panel of a Sony Bravia shows a typical array of video input options.
HDMI is the best way to get a digital video signal from any source to your HDTV. It can also carry sound, with video and audio united in a single convenient cable. But if you have an older receiver you're most likely to use it just for video. The bad news about HDMI is that there are multiple versions and much confusion surrounding them.
HDMI is the video port which provides the highest possible resolution.
HDMI originated as a Hollywood-approved video interface and an alternative to the less secure IEEE 1394. Unlike 1394, HDMI cannot be used for recording. Studios and TV makers were both heavily involved in the creation of HDMI and the HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) scheme to protect their content.
All versions of HDMI, starting with 1.0, carry video to feed a display and stereo audio to feed TV speakers. Version 1.1 adds support for the nearly defunct DVD-Audio format. Version 1.2 supports the Super Audio CD. Version 1.2a brings the convenience of CEC (Consumer Electronic Control) which simplifies an A/V system's operation by allowing components to talk to one another. Version 1.3 — a very big deal — supports superior colour palettes and lossless surround formats delivered via Blu-ray or HD DVD. Let's discuss the latter in more depth.
Surround via HDMI
The following is an extreme but necessary oversimplification. Only HDMI 1.3 carries all known surround formats between a disc player and receiver at full resolution. That includes new lossless formats supported by Blu-ray and HD DVD, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. So if you're buying a surround receiver, make sure it's got HDMI 1.3. But there is a workaround. Most Blu-ray and HD DVD players have built-in surround decoders. Connect their multi-channel analog outputs to your receiver's multi-channel analog inputs and you're in business.
HDMI and some DVI devices both support HDCP copy protection. The set and sources perform a handshake, and if a device is not HDCP-compliant, the TV will not display a picture. This is a problem with some DVI equipment.
This round multi-pin plug carries analog video signals — not DTV. However, it does a fine job of it by separating the brightness and colour parts of the signal. It's fine for legacy components.
Some receivers route incoming signals from all jacks to the HDMI output, allowing a convenient one-wire connection to the video display.
Beyond the obvious need for speaker cables, audio signal sources have a pecking order of their own.
A typical wiring diagram for a 7.1 surround sound system.
As discussed previously, HDMI can carry audio as well as video signals — but you'll need to get the latest version, 1.3, to be fully up to date.
This audio/video interface is occasionally used for the high-res audio formats, Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio.
Digital, optical and coaxial
These digital interfaces support lower-resolution audio signals. Their main use is to carry Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 plus CD audio from regular DVD and CD players.
Analog 5.1 and 7.1 channel
An older receiver without HDMI can accept surround signals in any format through these analog multi-channel inputs, as long as the source component feeding it has a full set of analog outputs.
Colour-coded white and red, old-style audio jacks are useful mainly for connecting analog components such as stereo VCRs and phono preamps. To make a tape deck fully functional, you'll need stereo ins and outs, sometimes labelled "tape loop". A CD player can work through either digital or analog outputs.
If you plan to play vinyl records through your system, your receiver needs a special input to accept the low-voltage signal from a turntable. A receiver's phono input may be solely for moving-magnet cartridges, or may be switchable for both moving-coil and moving-magnet types. A ground terminal may be provided to defeat turntable hum. If you don't have a phono input, you'll need a separate phono preamp.
Docking devices offer better sound quality because they bypass the iPod's volume-control circuit. They also charge the player, and some offer an on-screen interface via the receiver. But you can connect an iPod directly to your receiver with a simple adaptor cable having a 3mm mini-plug at one end and two RCA plugs at the other.
Some non-iPod music players output to a receiver through the USB interface.
Analog radio requires different antennas for AM and FM. That's why the receiver has separate inputs for each of them.
Use 12- to 16-gauge speaker cable. Better speakers and receivers have binding posts which screw down securely on the cable tip. Cheaper ones have wire clips, which are fragile and don't provide as secure a connection. To prevent cables from corroding, you may have them terminated in gold-plated banana plugs, spade lugs, or pins. However, new slim speakers are often designed to work only with bare wire snaking down their slender columns. See tutorial on connecting speakers.
This section covers miscellaneous components and issues related to your home theatre's connections.
Are premium cables worth it?
Find the happy medium between flimsy generic wire and the mind-bogglingly expensive stuff. You want your cables to be sturdy, well-insulated, but no more than 10 percent of the price of the components they're connecting.
A generic surge protector won't do. Your system needs high-current outlets for the power-sucking display and receiver. It also needs isolation transformers to defeat ground-loop-induced hum. So consider buying a high-quality power-line conditioner. Don't even think of using a cheap power strip — it will only hobble your system, and leave your system vulnerable to potentially damaging power surges.
A power-line conditioner filters out noise and hum that can detract from your system's sound quality.
Does that equipment rack have room for all your components? Do those speaker stands position tweeters at ear level? Does that flat-panel TV mount allow tilting to the ideal viewing angle? And is that TV stand rated for more than the weight of your set?
A busy rack needs a way to keep cables under control. One simple idea is a hole in the back of each shelf, funnelling cables up or down as needed.
If style concerns make you leery of rear-surround speaker cables, or you want your elegant flat-panel TV to float free on the wall, a capable custom installer (or even an electrician) can make that ugly wiring disappear. Unless you're handy with things like stud finders and fish tapes, let a pro do it.