Home theater wiring can be a confusing business. Understanding all the cables you need for your audio-visual equipment these days can be difficult.
There seem to be so many connectors on the back of a new flat screen TV that it can be hard to know where to start. And that's saying nothing about the back of that AV receiver you've just taken out of the box!
Well, you're right, it can be a bit complicated - but that doesn't mean you can't do it yourself.
Of course, if you're planning a large system that involves structural alterations then you may want to consider hiring a professional home theater installer.
However, for many of us, we just need to spend some time planning how we are going to connect our system together and we are good to go.
The best place to start is to learn to identify the different home theater cables and connections that you will come across.
After that, you can begin to understand what they are for - and which are the best ones to use.
So, how do we go about wiring a home theater?
First things first, what connections might you come across?
Here are images of the most common video and audio cables. Follow the links for more detailed information on each type.
Even the terminology used when connecting a system together can be puzzling.
Technically speaking, anything that joins two AV devices is usually called an interconnect. For example, from the DVD player to the amplifier.
Then the connection that sends the audio from the amplifier to the speaker is called a wire or cable.
However, in home theater wiring discussions these terms are often used quite loosely and the term cable, lead or wire is used for all types of connections.
It's all very well identifying all the different cables and connections that you will come across, but you still must decide which one to use.
Even though this sounds like an easy process, it's common to have a choice of different connections for sending the sound and picture between our devices.
And some will give better results than others.
So, which are the best ones to use, and why should we choose one connection type over another?
First, it's useful to be clear what each type does.
You will find a range of connections on the back of your HDTV, Blu-ray player and AV receiver, etc.
Your first task is to identify what they are for.
We can break down the connection types into three broad areas:
Therefore, some connections can be used to send the picture and the sound between your devices. While others are purely for the picture or sound.
This is important.
For example, let's say you are connecting your Blu-ray player to your TV.
If you use a connection that only sends the picture, then you know that you are going to have to use another cable to send the sound. Or you won't hear anything!
Here is a list of the major home theater cable connections and what they are used for.
So, once you know the connections that you have on your devices, you can work out if you can use just one for the picture and sound – or different ones.
For instance, if your DVD player has an HDMI output, but your TV doesn't have an HDMI input, then you won't be able to connect via HDMI.
So, you will have to see which connection types they have in common and use those instead
Having said that, if you are really stuck, then there are a wide range of adapters available that may enable you to connect from one connection type to another.
However, there are limitations to this approach, and so this may not always be possible.
For example, you cannot connect directly from an analog connection to a digital one. Because the two signal types are incompatible.
There might ways of doing this by using a converter, but this can sometimes prove to be an expensive option. So, you would often use this as a last resort.
We've now established that you might have a few different home theater connections in common between your devices.
So which ones do you use?
There might not be an exact answer to this question. It may be that you can use any number of these to connect your system together.
But let's make a rough order of preference to give you a start.
For video connections, the order of preference is related to the quality of the video signal that each type produces. The better the quality of the signal, then the sharper and clearer the picture should be.
Also, because many products are now digital rather than analog, we would usually favor a digital connection over an analog connection.
Bear in mind, your choice may well be limited by the connection types you have available on your equipment.
Therefore, for the picture, I would use the video connections in the following order of preference:
For the audio connections, the order is more based on the capabilities of the connection type.
For example, a connector that allowed the transfer of surround sound audio as well as stereo audio would be placed above one that only allowed stereo signals.
Again, we would normally favor a digital connection over an analog connection. However, you may be limited by the actual connections present on your devices.
Therefore, for the sound, I would use the audio connections in the following order of preference:
This isn't an exact science.
For example, the optical and coaxial digital audio connections are similar in their benefits and limitations.
But there may be specific reasons for choosing one type over another.
However, if you use this as a general guideline then you won't be far off.
Notice that the HDMI connection appears at the top of each list. This reflects the fact that HDMI is probably the first connection you should try and use for connecting your audio-visual devices.
HDMI has the advantage of being digital, it supports all the latest types of video/audio and we only need one cable to send both the sound and picture.
It can be useful to get a picture in your head of how you are going to connect your system together.
If you are new to this, the following is a simple home theater wiring diagram that summarizes the general cable flow in your room.
The above scenario is a common wiring solution for a modern home theater. The AV receiver is the center of everything.
In very basic terms, you need to:
This layout may be different for you depending on what devices you have in your system.
For example, if you don't have an AV receiver, you can connect your playback devices directly to your TV.
If you then want to use an external sound system, you could send the audio from your TV to an amplifier or a soundbar system.
Everything is possible. It's just using an AV receiver can make the process simpler – and, often, with fewer cables.
I have gone into this in more detail in my guide on how to install surround sound.
There is a range of things to consider when you are wiring your home theater system.
Once you have decided on the best connection type and cables to use, then you still have to tackle the potentially tricky task of actually plugging everything in.
You can find yourself in a right tangle - literally! - if you start frantically connecting your system together without giving it proper consideration.
However, with some thought and a clear plan, it doesn't have to be like that.
If you have a large project, then you may want to consider hiring professional cabling installers to do the tricky stuff for you, but on a smaller scale, there is no reason not to have a go yourself.
Once you understand all the connection types listed above, there are a few other points to bear in mind when you are faced with installing home theater wiring.
So, here is a list of things to think about. These tips are relevant to installing all types of cables - both video and audio interconnects - as well as speaker wire.
You can make your life much easier if you give some thought to this matter before you buy your equipment.
If you understand how you are going to connect your devices together, you can use this as a consideration when you are buying your hardware.
This can save you the problem of getting a piece of equipment home and then finding out that it doesn't have the right connection types for your existing devices.
Or it means that you can at least add that special connection cable into your budget and buy everything at the same time.
Also, take some time to make sure if the cables you need are male or female connection types.
The connections on devices are usually female. Therefore, most cables will need to have a male connector. However, it's always best to double-check before you buy the cable.
And, what is the input connection type on the other device? Male or female? By checking this first you can make sure that you buy the correct cable.
It can save you the trouble of replacing the new cable - or buying adapters to correct your original mistake.
The price of a cable doesn't necessarily provide a good benchmark to the picture/sound quality you will get.
A well-made no-frills cable will perform just as well as most super-expensive cables and interconnects you may see in the shops - especially for shorter cable lengths - say up to 3-4 meters.
Long cable runs may benefit from spending a bit more - but even then, you don't need to go overboard.
Any benefit you get will be fairly small - and most people won't have the high-quality hardware to benefit from any improvement anyway.
Most casual listeners/viewers just won't notice any difference in quality between cheap and expensive cables. And that is if there is a difference to be seen or heard anyway.
The main improvement you get with more expensive cables is better shielding to avoid electrical interference to the signal. This interference can affect the picture or sound quality.
In most home environments you don't need this extra shielding and so you will get very little benefit from expensive cables.
Having said that, a cheap and poorly made cable could degrade the picture or sound on your system - or more likely will just prove to be unreliable.
So just be sensible and use your common-sense. Buy something well-made – but you don't need to break the bank.
This is true for both interconnects and speaker wire.
Shorter cables can help you to get the best from your equipment. There are a few reasons why you should try to keep the length of your cables down.
Long cables can:
When you are buying cables, try to estimate the distance you need for each one and buy the appropriate lengths.
For example, if your DVD player is positioned near to your AV receiver, then you won't need a long HDMI or coaxial digital audio cable. One meter may be enough.
However, the HDMI cable that is needed to run from your AV receiver to the TV or projector is likely to be longer. So, you can get a 3 or 5-meter cable for this.
Having said that, don't cut it too fine. Give yourself a bit of slack to enable you to pull the device forward from your unit/rack without pulling out all the cables. This will make routine maintenance and cleaning much easier.
If you do need to have a long cable run, then it becomes more important to buy better quality cables - but you still don't need to pay the earth - see point 2.
In the case of speaker wire, then thicker wire (lower gauge in the US) will be better for long runs as this reduces the resistance, and in theory, you will lose less signal.
Take a look at my in-depth guide if you want to know how to choose the best gauge speaker wire.
In most cases, you will have the same connectors on each device to connect between.
For example, you will connect from HDMI to HDMI. Or from optical audio to optical audio.
This is nice and easy as you just use a standard interconnect for the connection.
However, depending on the equipment you have, you sometimes need to connect devices that have different connections.
For instance, one device may have an optical digital audio output, but the other device has a coaxial digital audio input.
Don't despair. In this situation there are a wide range of converters and adapters that you can buy to enable you to connect between different connection types.
In the case of an optical to coaxial connection, you can buy an optical to coaxial converter:
Or you may just be able to buy a specially made cable with different connections on each end. It depends on exactly what you need to convert.
For example, if your digital projector has a DVI output and your TV only has an HDMI input, then you can get a DVI-HDMI cable to connect these devices together:
The biggest problem often occurs if you need to connect an analog connection to a digital one - e.g. component video to HDMI.
This is more difficult as converting a signal from analog to digital usually requires some sort of electrical device that can prove expensive.
Here is an example of a component video to HDMI converter at Amazon:
This device will accept an RGB component video signal - plus stereo left and right audio. It will then output all this via HDMI.
Another thing is to make sure that the converter cable or box will work in the right direction.
For instance, a DVI to HDMI cable may only work if you are sending from a DVI output to an HDMI input. If you need to send from an HDMI output to a DVI input, then you may need a different cable.
Be clear what you are sending from – and to – and check the description of the converter cable or box to make sure it will do what you want.
There are also solutions if you don't have enough inputs or outputs on your devices.
For example, if your TV only has three HDMI inputs - and you have five video sources that you want to connect.
In this case, you can buy an HDMI switch. This will allow you to connect more devices to your TV.
Power cables produce an electrical and magnetic field which can affect the signal quality in audio and video cables.
In audio cables, this may result in an audible 'hum' over the speakers. With video cables, you may get lines across the image.
It is often difficult to keep these cables apart completely when you are doing your home theater wiring installation. But just try to make sure they don't run alongside each other for long distances.
If they need to cross each other, run them at 90 degrees so they have little contact.
If this is a problem in your system, then you may need to buy better quality audio/video cables with greater insulation.
Sometimes buying the right stand or cabinet can also help. Many of these have cable management sections which allow you to easily separate the different cables.
When you are connecting your system together, you can make it easier when you think clearly about what you are trying to achieve and plan what you are going to do.
If you get confused by all these connections and cables, try to think about the direction of the signals in your system.
There are some connections which are 'outputs', and some which are 'inputs'.
Hopefully, this will be clearly written on the device. If not, it is often because it is obvious what the connection does i.e. an HDMI port on a TV is obviously an 'input' as it receives the picture for the TV to display.
Therefore, you will always connect the 'output' of the source device to the 'input' of the receiving device.
For example, if you are connecting a Blu-ray player to an HDTV and a surround sound amplifier then:
Note: if the surround sound amplifier has HDMI inputs, you will probably connect everything via HDMI. However, this is an example of how you might connect it.
If you break down your whole home theater system into individual connections, then you can easily connect a quite complicated setup just by thinking about each connection one at a time.
It might help to get out a pen and paper (remember those?) and write it down. Or, draw some squiggles in your favorite note-taking app.
And, if you have a record of how your system is connected, it can help in the future if you need to replace something - or troubleshoot a problem.
Trust me, if you're anything like me, you'll have forgotten how you wired it all together in a week or two!
Home theater wiring is a part of the installation process that is easy to take for granted.
However, it is not as simple as it may seem. There are such a wide variety of cables and connections that you need to consider.
It is important that you don't just take the first cable that you find and use this to connect your devices. By doing so, you may stop your equipment from performing at its best.
The best thing is to just take a little time to plan how you are going to connect your system. You can then make sure you won't hold back on the performance of your home theater setup.
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.