It’s time to buckle down and concentrate. This can get complicated so take your time and work through this guide slowly. We need to cover some basics before we can really dig in.
Audio and video: It is CRUCIAL that you understand the basic principle that audio and video are two completely separate entities. They don’t have anything to do with one another, and they require different cables to carry them (most of the time). They don’t work together even though it may seem like they do. They live separate lives, and we merely manipulate them into merging together for our enjoyment.
Analog and digital audio: We are only going to focus on the difference between digital and analog audio since knowing what digital video is won’t affect the wiring scheme. Analog audio is what we have been listening to our whole lives. It’s simply a left and right audio signal. If you have 200 speakers hooked up with analog cables, you will get 100 speakers playing the left audio signal and 100 speakers playing the right audio signal. Surround sound is more than just adding a bunch of speakers. It’s making each speaker play a completely unique sound which differs from all the other speakers in the group. That is how we can create the effect that someone is shooting behind you to the left. If you want true surround sound, you must use digital cables. If you’re not using digital cables now, but think you’re getting true surround sound, I’m sorry but you’re not. Your receiver has technology in it to synthesize surround sound from an analog source. Not only will it be weak, but it’s not accurate to what the director wanted you to get. To sum this up, analog sends two signals (left and right) and digital sends surround sound.
Inputs and outputs: This is a simple concept, but can be confusing for first-timers. The signal leaves the device through the output and comes into the device through the input. For example, the video signal leaves the DVD player through the video output and enters the receiver through the video input. To get to the TV from there, it goes through the receiver’s video output and into the TV through the video input. From now on, outputs will be called “outs” and inputs will be called “ins.”
Type of cable vs. quality of cable: It’s important to know that the TYPE of cable used, will have more to do with the end product than the QUALITY of cable used. Each device can be hooked up several different ways, and all of them will allow the system to work. You must choose the right cables so your system doesn’t just “work” but produces the best picture and sound possible. That part is heavily dependent on using the right cables. The quality of cable is also very important. Once you know which cables to use, you have to make sure the sensitive ones are high-quality. We will go over which ones are sensitive to quality in the next section.
RCA: RCA is a type of connector, not a cable. It’s the type of connector that you can find on the end of the old red, white, and yellow cords laying all over the back of your TV. We like to call any cable with an RCA connector an “RCA cable” but it is in fact, just the connector. We will still call them RCA cables here. Want to know a secret? ALL RCA CABLES ARE INTERCHANGEABLE! What? Did I just say that? Call the cable police, I think I’ve just committed a felony- at least to your neighborhood big box store employees. Yes, it’s true and not a joke. Mix and match all you want. Some RCA cables need to be high-quality or the outcome is garbage, but you can interchange any RCA cable and it will work.
Now you know the basics, it’s time to learn the application.
Types of audio cables:
Choosing an HDMI cable: HDMI is always upgrading its capabilities. At first it only sent audio and video, then it sent commands to other devices (like power off). Now it sends 4K, and soon it will allow devices to share a network connection. The HDMI cable that you have now will probably (no guarantees) do everything you need it to in the future except for sharing a network connection. That needs a special HDMI cable with extra wires in it. If your cable is from 2009 or earlier, there is a good chance it won’t have the extra ethernet wires. That doesn’t mean your equipment won’t work. It just means they won’t share an ethernet connection. Make sure you get the latest and greatest (which is HDMI 1.4a with ethernet as I write this) so you’re not sorry down the road.
HDMI is a wire where quality really matters. The version (1.3 or 1.4) is one thing and the actual quality is another. HDMI is very sensitive. It works or doesn’t work and just because it works for your cable box doesn’t mean it will work for your Blu-ray player. Just because it works for your Blu-ray player doesn’t mean it will work for your TV. Don’t go cheap on this cable, but you don’t have to go crazy either. If you’re going to install it in a wall and won’t be able to get access to it again, BUY A HIGH QUALITY CABLE! Plan on spending $25-$35 for a 6′ cable and $50 to $75 for a 12′ cable at a minimum. Longer lengths will be more susceptible to problems. When you’re installing really long lengths or when you won’t be able to replace it, don’t take chances. Your best bet would be to stick with solid brands like Vanco or Wyrestorm. A high-quality 50′ length might cost you $250 or more, but if your cheap HDMI cable doesn’t work, a new installation will be much more than that. I have to plug the business here. There is even an option to upgrade an older receiver using HDMI and a Sonos adapter- You can get digital signals on zones 2 and 3 thru HDMI.
We guarantee any cable we sell. If it fails, we will re-install a new one at our expense..
Types of video cables:
How to wire your home theater: Now you know what the wires are and what they do. It’s time to put that knowledge to work. The first thing you want to do is pick your equipment. It all starts with the right equipment. If you haven’t done that, check out our buyer’s guide. Please contact us with any questions.
Making a Diagram
If you’re still following along, I’m assuming you have your system all picked out and you’re ready to fire that baby up. Our example will be semi-complicated so we can be sure to touch every aspect of the wiring process. Start by drawing a diagram. Here is a quick one I threw together (see image on the right). In this system, we are using a new 3D TV, 3D Blu-ray, 3D receiver, a generic iPod dock, a Wii video game console, and an old cable box. I’m streaming Netflix and Pandora Radio through my Blu-ray player. The receiver is also a 2 zone receiver that I want to use to power a pair of speakers in the kitchen.
Choosing video cables: The first thing we need to do is find the highest quality video output on each device. For the Blu-ray player and the receiver, that’s an HDMI cable. For the old cable box, it’s component video. The kids don’t care about the quality of the Wii system, so we’ll stick with what came in the box (a composite video cable). The iPod dock doesn’t have any video output (some do, but this one doesn’t). Once I have the video cables selected for each device, I need to make sure the receiver can accept all these cables. I asked So Cal Home Theater for a recommendation and they told me to get this receiver, so I’m all good. It can accept all the different types of video cables.
Choosing audio cables: Now, I need to choose the best audio output on each device. The best quality audio from my Blu-ray player is HDMI so we’ll use that. Since it carries audio and video, I only need the one HDMI cable. The old cable box only has an optical audio out for digital sound. I prefer HDMI, but since this old box doesn’t have it, we’ll use the optical audio out. I’m still only using the analog RCAs for any Wii audio. The iPod dock only has a set of analog RCA outputs so we will use those. The receiver will keep all the audio to itself, so we won’t be passing on audio to the TV.
We can’t forget that we are using Zone 2 to power the speakers in the kitchen. Zone 2 only sees analog audio inputs. This is very important and will save you a lot of troubleshooting and frustration if you can remember it. This goes for every receiver with Zone 2 or Zone 3 features. That means you will double connect the audio when you are using a digital audio connection. The Blu-ray and old cable box have to be double connected for audio: a digital connection for surround sound in the living room and an analog connection for music in the kitchen.
Making the connections: Now that I have all my cables picked out, it’s time to plug them in. It’s impossible for me to explain how to do that through a website since every receiver is different with different labeling schemes. For example: one receiver might use input labels like “DVD, Blu-ray, Cable/Sat, etc” while another brand uses labels like “HDMI1, HDMI2, Video1, Video2, etc.” All I can say is take your time and try your best to match up the device with the description. It doesn’t matter where you plug them in as long as you take note of it. You won’t have an input labeled “Wii” so you might use the “DVR” input, for example. Try to plug the audio and video cables from a single device into the same input label on the receiver. You can’t plug the component video cables from the cable box into “Video1” then plug the audio into “Video3” unless you can “assign” the inputs. If you get stuck or run out of the inputs you need on the receiver, you’re going to have to “assign” the inputs.
Assigning inputs: This is the last step of the connection part of the job. Manufacturers know that you might have trouble matching video inputs to audio inputs. For that reason, they make several inputs assignable. This means you can take the audio input labeled “DVD” and assign it to the video input labeled “Cable box” for example. It sounds complicated, but it only takes a minute or two. You will have to read the receiver’s owner’s manual to find out how to do that, but it’s usually (not always) done through the internal setup menus. The manual will tell you exactly how it’s done. You might end up plugging the component video cables from the cable box into “Video1” and the optical audio cable into “Audio6.” Once they are assigned to each other, it’s fine.
Summary: I know this seems confusing, but once you get it, you’ll have a lot of fun experimenting with different things. Don’t be scared to try. Anything you do can be undone, and you can always call out a professional (preferably us) if you get stuck. We might be able to walk you through the problems over the phone. GOOD LUCK and please let us know if our guide helped you.
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