Upgrading Your Home Theater System

Three weeks ago I made a New Year's resolution that I'm looking forward to actually keeping. Lose weight? Get back to me when I'm done with this pizza. Exercise more? Sure, until March, tops. Catch up with everything on my TiVo? Unlikely. (OK, probably 30 Rock and Big Bang Theory.)

Instead, the resolution I'm most eager to jump on is this movie-lover's ideal project -- upgrading my home theater system.

It's been four years since its original installation, and although since then I've added a Blu-ray player (and therefore yet another remote to the collection on the coffee table), lately I've been itching to simplify the whole mess. Replacing my 52" HDTV with a wall-mounted screen sure would open a lot of space currently occupied by the massive TV stand. Even sexier are the recent advances in wireless technologies. When I look at the nest of audio-video cables that's a real pain to hide, I hear the word "wireless" sung by a choir of angels. And then there's my 10 years building a DVD and Blu-ray library that has maxed out my shelf space, so I'm streaming movies and TV shows on my laptop more and more these days.

So I'm also looking at all those Web-enabled and WiFi-equipped products hitting the market. It's not only that Playstation 3 is a Blu-ray player and has a full Web browser, or that I can now stream video through a Wii or an Xbox. You mean I can also link -- wirelessly -- my laptop and home WiFi network, including my desktop games and apps, my iPod, my Pandora and iTunes, and my streaming news, Hulu, Netflix and Vudu hi-def video straight to my new wall-mounted HDTV and theater-surround speakers? My Facebook, Skype, and (heaven help me) my Twitter and smartphone as well? Add a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse so that I suddenly have a 52" HDTV computer monitor to boot?

Oh, yes, please.

It's clear that simplification and integrated connectivity are the new baseline standards for home entertainment. And if cable companies are noticing this with fear and loathing -- well, I can't say I'd lose sleep if I said goodbye forever to my rapidly increasing cable bill.

But I'm no tech expert, just a guy on a budget and whose eyes are starting to spin in opposite directions looking at all this. So to clear up my confusion and get my 2010 home theater setup off to a good start, I went to the experts who have never steered me wrong in the past -- the Blue Shirts at Best Buy, the electronics superstore.

A Blue Shirt to the rescue

I spoke with Nicholas DeVita, one of Best Buy's Geek Squad Home Entertainment Advisors. His job is to provide me with expertise and experience, guide me toward the best components given what I want (or don't) to spend, and -- this is crucial -- explain the value of the hardware and software options I'm about to choose. (Blue Shirts are not a commission-based sales force, so I feel confident that they're committed to making me happy rather than just snagging a sale. As Nick put it, once I decide what I want, he's happy if he doesn't see me again because that means I had no difficulties with it.)

Earlier this month, Nick attended the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world's largest technology trade show. He observed that one of this year's biggest trends is sleek, wireless home entertainment that's affordable to budget-minded consumers. Because the technology is becoming more available, versatile, and interconnected, he says, we get a reduction of clutter and "boxes" as "components are morphing into each other. Things are getting easier, coming together more."

What's vanishing are the days of single-function electronics, and we're already seeing our home entertainment, computer use, media, and social networking supported and integrated in ways less cumbersome and "boxy" than what we've had up until now. Your typical new notebook outputs hi-def 1080p and lossless audio via an HDMI port you can link to an HDTV. As I wander around my local Best Buy's home theater and computer departments, I wonder how much longer those two departments will be distinguishable from each other.

Riding the new wave

This trend is irreversible, and the next generation of technology will bring even greater advances in media integration and wireless capability. You can't now, for example, send 1080p Blu-ray video wirelessly, and the ideal wireless Dolby TrueHD home theater audio system isn't here yet. But they're working on it, Nick says, and such things are inevitable and imminent. Thinking about this, I asked Nick if it's better to wait for that next generation to come along before I buy. He noted sagely that there's no better time than now to jump on that wave; otherwise I risk watching it pass me by altogether as I stand annoyed on the shore surrounded by my old cables and boxes. Besides, he said, there are hi-def audio systems there on his shelves that "will blow you away." As someone who has invested a lot in my sound system, I came away impressed.

It's not just the cool, new-tech shine that appeals to me here. The biggest relief I got from talking to Nick is the reminder that my local Blue Shirts can help me understand, select, and install what I need. They can show me how to hook it all up myself or, as Nick often does, they can come to my home and do it for me, consulting with me to optimize my own ideas for the setup while they're at it. Sweet.

The future wears a blue shirt

As Nick and I talked, our conversation wandered toward other possibilities I hadn't considered. Take Sonos, for instance, a wireless music system that I can set up in every room of my house and that has apps for Pandora, Sirius, iTunes, and Napster, plus access to thousands of worldwide radio stations. I could control it with my iPod Touch or iPhone. "All in the palm of your hand," Nick pointed out. Or Slingbox, with which I could stream my home TV or DVR programming remotely wherever I have a broadband Internet connection, even to my mobile phone.

At this point my eyes started to spin again. All the same, it's exciting stuff. Forget flying cars and robot maids -- this futuristic new decade is about simultaneously expanding and simplifying our media possibilities. Being able to watch 30 Rock or Big Bang Theory, or the Oscars or my favorite movies or the latest game or whatever, either in my newly de-cluttered Temple of Dude or on a device in my pocket … that's a future nobody was talking about back when basic cable was the cool new thing.

But what about all those remote controls on my coffee table? "The Harmony 900 universal remote," Nick said instantly yet casually.

Yep, this is one New Year's resolution that I won't feel guilty about.

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