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Tips For a Low-Cost 'Media Room'

FANCY home theaters with huge projection TVs can cost well over $15,000, industry experts say. But with television-set penetration of American households at 98 percent, VRCs at 77 percent, and stereo systems at 94 percent, many people are in a position to install a more modest setup, called a "media room."

The Monitor asked Glenn Kenny, a senior editor at Sound & Image magazine, to share his suggestions for what a media room costing under $5,000 would include:

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* Television. "For real home theater, you need one that's got a screen size of at least 27 inches," says Mr. Kenny. Decent ones cost as little as $400 to $500, he says. A 31-inch is even better, but those run $1,500 and up. Don't despair if you currently have a good 25-inch TV. You can stick with that for now and upgrade later. Avoid projection TVs; there's not much available under $2,000.

* Videocassette recorder. "A hi-fi [stereo] VCR is a must" for superior sound, Kenny says. They run about $300 to $400.

* Laserdisc player. This component does for video images what a compact disc player does for sound. Laserdisc images are about 60 percent better than typical VHS screen images, Kenny says, and also have digital sound. Basic models start at $300; ones with special features (such as slow motion and freeze frames) cost more. Many are "combi" players, meaning that they will also play compact discs.

* Audio/video receiver. "Now you need something that will put all these components together," he says. An AV receiver includes an AM/FM radio and hook-ups for a laserdisc, VCR, and stereo components like a tape deck or speakers. These range from $700 to fancier models for $1,200. Look for the "Dolby Surround Sound" or "Dolby Pro Logic" feature, which "decodes" or lifts the soundtrack off videocassettes and steers the sound to speakers.

* Speakers. It's best to have five: three in front (left, center, and right channels) and two in back. If you already have two good speakers, use them as the front left and right speakers and buy a center speaker ($200 and up) that matches them acoustically. Rear speakers need not be fancy, because "the rear channel in Dolby sound doesn't receive as strong a signal as the front and center channels do," Kenny says. Rear speakers will cost about $100.

* Subwoofer. "This is the cherry on top," he adds. It's a big black speaker that handles low-frequency sounds. A subwoofer can be placed most anywhere in a room and costs $200 and up. "If you're watching 'Terminator II' or an Indiana Jones movie, those have a lot of low rumbles in them and scary sound effects, and this adds a lot to the realism."

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