You know the routine. Mention that you’re looking for an audio system, and that pesky neighbor or self-described audiophile friend suddenly offers to accompany you on your shopping excursions to help “guide” your decision. If you want to experience a major headache in surround sound, then bring him along.
Home theater audio system rule number one (and #1 on our list): Leave Audio Phil at home. Chances are, he will steer you toward the kind of system he wants and not the one that’s right for you. There’s also a pretty good chance that he doesn’t know nearly as much about audio systems as he claims. And by the time you’re done, you may want to choke him with your new speaker cables. (Advice on what cables to choose appears further on.) In fact, leaving Audio Phil at home may be the most important decision you make in your quest to have a great home theater.
People like Audio Phil cause stress, which is exactly the opposite of what a good audio system should do. So breathe deeply. Feel the power flowing through you. Repeat a soothing mantra like “I’ll never have to choke anyone with my speaker cables.” And meditate on the following thoughts. We promise you won’t have to do anything like place your foot behind your ear—unless you want to, of course.
2. Go halfsies. Figure on spending about half of your equipment budget on the audio. It’s tempting to lay out a bundle on the bigger-than-budgeted-for TV screen and then scrimp on the audio, but the result may be a sound system you won’t use often.
3. Be receptive to receivers. For most family rooms, recreation rooms and other small home theaters, using a surround-sound receiver with a built-in multichannel amplifier is just fine. A separate surround-sound controller and power amplifier are generally used in higher-end rooms and audiophile-grade systems.
4. Go digital—in surround. At a minimum, get a receiver that can decode soundtracks in Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround. These will allow you enjoy at least five full channels of surround sound, plus a subwoofer (a setup called 5.1). But don’t settle for something that just says 5.1. Look for the brands Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround on the front of the unit. (Also see “Soundtrack Soup,” page 76.)
5. Don’t scrimp on speakers. You need good speakers to have good sound, period. No matter what kind of fancy electronics you have, you hear only the sounds your speakers are capable of reproducing. And some units can reproduce much fuller sounds than others. This is not the place to be cheap.
6. Aim for a full range. Seek full-range speakers that play audio from the 30-Hz to the 20-kHz range. This means they can reproduce virtually any sound we can hear except the low bass stuff (16 Hz to 30 Hz), which is usually handled by a subwoofer. Some home-theater-in-a-box and packaged surround-sound systems will consist of center speaker and surround-sound channels that don’t quite deliver the full range. You probably won’t notice this much, as the center-channel speaker specializes in dialogue while the surround-sound speakers reproduce more ambient sounds. But if you can, buy all full-range speakers, and you’ll get more out of your surround-sound system.
7. Be a matchmaker. Ideally, all the speakers in your surround-sound system will be identical—meaning of the same brand, model and size. This creates a uniform and smooth sound, as all the speakers share the same sonic characteristics. However, space requirements and other practical concerns often dictate that the center-channel and surround speakers be smaller than the left and right front speakers. But this doesn’t mean they can’t still complement each other in their sound. This is where the term “timbre (pronounced tamber) matching” comes in. Speakers with matched timbres have the same tonal quality. In other words, their sound matches or complements the other speakers being used. When you can’t use all identical speakers, timbre matching can be accomplished by using different model speakers from the same speaker brand or line, as the models in a manufacturer’s line are usually built to achieve a certain signature sound.
8. Be centered. The center channel may be one of the smaller units in your home theater setup, but believe it or not, it is the single most important speaker in your surround-sound system. It reproduces a great majority of all the audio in a soundtrack, including all of the dialogue. And if you don’t think dialogue is important, wait until you rewind about a dozen times to hear a plot-turning mumble, mumble, something incoherent. See what we mean?
9. Match the power. Check the power ratings of both your speakers to your amplifier (even in a receiver) to be sure they match or fall within the same basic range. Most speakers will have a minimum and maximum amount of power they can accept from an amplifier. You probably don’t need 100 watts per channel of power in the family room surround-sound system. Thirty to 50 watts per channel may do just fine. It’s also important to match impedance, a measurement of electrical resistance, usually measured at 4, 6 or 8 ohms.
10. Opt for the sensitive one. In this day and age, sensitivity is more important than power—even in speakers. A sensitivity rating indicates how efficiently the speaker handles power and responds. This is expressed as being between 87 dB and 93 dB (decibels)—the higher the better. A difference of just 3 dB in sensitivity is equal to about twice as much power.
11. Get better cables. You probably won’t need super high-end speaker cables that resemble something that transverses the ocean floor, but crappy speaker cables will always produce crappy sound. And crappy speaker cables are usually what you get with home-theater-in-a-box and packaged speaker systems. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to conquering this little problem. First, immediately discard those cables. Second, go to a specialty audio store and ask for 14-gauge audio cables. The lower the gauge, the better, so don’t get talked into 18-gauge. If you need the wire to stretch great distances, you even may want 12-gauge. We would only use the crappy cables to choke Audio Phil. (This is an optional step for which we assume no responsibility.)
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