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Which Home Theatre Is Right For Your Room?

HISTORY

About 15 years ago Dolby revolutionized movie watching at home by bringing affordable surround sound processing to the masses. It was the first time theatre quality surround sound could be reproduced in the home.

With the promise of not having to endure cinema crowds, there was a boom in home theatre sales as people rushed to be part of the latest craze. The advent of flat panel TVs further pushed adoption so that it seemed like everyone had some sort of "home theatre" system in their house.

A shameful example of speaker technologyWhat most people didn't pay much attention to when they were gobbling up these mass market sound systems was quality. The industry didn't help much either by continually striving for lower cost. In their quest, they paid very little attention to actually making the gear sound better and the horrible demonstration rooms in most mass-market chains were next to useless in auditioning the speakers used in the systems. 

In the end, a lot of people were sold terrible sounding home theatre "packages" which were "amped up" with piercing treble and booming one note bass in the quest to sound "exciting". Worse, so many of the receivers over the last 10 years were so complicated that even if speakers were good and physically set up properly, the receiver would often be in the wrong sound mode and sound levels could vary widely between speakers.

As a result, after living with these systems for so long, many customers realized that what they bought sounds irritating, disconnected or plain wrong. And, when it comes to listening to music on these chintzy receivers and speakers, it's plain depressing. Many home theatre systems play music no better than a cheap mini system. In short, the "big bang" excitement of home theatre has for many turned into the "big bust".

A MOVE BACK TO 2-CHANNEL

Presently, we are seeing a large backlash against home theatre with many people going back to 2-channel, even for movie watching. This has many merits, the largest of which is that it is easier to get higher quality when you're only dealing with 2 speakers and 2-channels of amplification. Think about it. If you have $1000 to spend on your amp, what is going to be better quality - an amp that has to spread its cost over 5 channels ($200 each), or one that can spread it across only 2 ($500 each). In every case, the best $500 amp can be built with better quality than the best $200 amp. Generally, home theatre amps tend to sound brash and unrefined compared to stereo counterparts.

The same drawback of spreading your investment around 5-channel amps magnified with speakers. If you put $3000 into 5 speakers and a subwoofer, what quality of speakers are each of those going to be? Divided by 6, that's $500 per speaker and by most accounts, $500 speakers are not the be all and end all in quality. Consider then spending $3000 on a pair of speakers. The quality then is $1500 each and the sound difference is huge! 

Also, factor in the difficulty of setting up 5 to 7 speakers in a room properly. The human brain is so sensitive to spatial information from mismatched or misplaced speakers that it is paramount in getting the speakers at the same height and in symmetry in the room. Forget about going with different brands of speakers too. Setting up only 2 speakers is always going to be easier (and you don't have to run wires around the room for 5 speakers).

If you have decided that more than 2 speakers is what you want, add them in this order: centre channel, subwoofer, rears. The reason for this is both practicality and value. A centre channel effectively locks the voice to the screen which if your room is setup unconventionally, or you sit in a variety of places, can be helpful in tying the sound and picture together. Secondly, with a surround receiver, there is dedicated steering of bass away from the main left and right speakers to the subwoofer. If you do go surround, you can often get better, or at least louder sound if you have a dedicated sound because soundtracks and receivers are designed around the assumption you have a sub. Most inexpensive subs are terrible and designed only to play one or two notes at maximum volume. You can get away with this if you generally only watch movies, but anything with music or even voice from television will quickly show up a bad sub's faults. It is so easy to tell when the bass is wrong when we are familiar with the source material. Movies often escape that because an explosion is not a common occurrence in our lives and we don't know what it should sound like! 

Finally, if you must have sound from behind, add the rears. The reason we are so adamant against rears is that with the screen in front of you, there is a logical disconnect for sound to be coming from behind you. In the vast majority of cases the brain simply gets confused and loses focus on the action on the screen in front. It can't pay attention to both areas at once. Thankfully, in the last 10 years, engineers have moved on from childhood tendencies to include jet fly-bys and flying arrows, but in their absence, 95% of the time the rears are silent. It further begs the question of why you'd pay money for 5% effects that add little. Put that saved money into any other speaker and you will enjoy better quality for the vastly more important 95% of sound.

It begs the question, do I want 2 high quality speakers, am I going to settle for 5 low quality ones, or am I going to break the bank and go for 5 high quality ones so I don't have to make any sacrifices. As always, we recommend listening first! 

REALITY OR HYPER-REALITY?

Any of our recommended systems will give you a superb starting point for 2-channel movies and music. For surround sound, it's a battle to find something that spreads your investment around 5 speakers and doesn't fall completely flat on sound. When you demo a home theatre system, even for 5 speakers, listen to it for music first. Music is more based in real life, especially natural classical or jazz recordings. If a system sounds good with music it will be more accurate and natural with movies. If you start the other way around, it is really hard to compare to a reference point because 90% of the sound in movies is fake or at least heavily processed. A high quality home theatre system does just what a high quality music system does - it recreates exactly what is on the soundtrack, nothing more and nothing less. If it sounds more exciting than the director intended, or is more "detailed", it will probably become grating over time and your quiet art film will sound more like an action film when it shouldn't.

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

Lastly, consider the size of your room seriously in relation to the type of speakers you get. Most of us have small rooms yet stores try to sell big speakers for home theatre. Why? All this does is overload the room and increase boominess and listener fatigue. An average room of 14 x 18 ft. can be adequately filled by small bookshelf speakers and a good 8" or 10" subwoofer. The clarity and naturalness of the sound is paramount in small spaces because you sit close to the speakers and it is easy to get dynamics sitting close. Towers are almost always wasted in small rooms as the bass is redirected to the subwoofer anyway and they are almost always inferior in midrange clarity than smaller bookshelves with the same drivers. In rooms that are smaller than 14 ft. x 16 ft. It may be impossible to even get rear surround since you can't sit far enough from the rear speakers to make them useful! Fewer (2) or smaller speakers with more of an investment in a sub can really pay dividends in smaller rooms.

In larger rooms, subs are very important for home theatre. Consider spending half your budget on a subwoofer if your room is larger than 14 ft. x 16 ft. If you must run full size speakers in the front, make sure that they really are full-range and have robust power handling, otherwise you will over stress them and you risk distortion. There is nothing worse than a bad sounding mid-priced tower speaker because it does nothing well! No midrange purity or imaging and no true bass depth or dynamics. You may end up spending a lot more to get that dream of a tower speaker than you should. Think hard about a sub (or 2) and bookshelves instead, even in bigger rooms.

Lastly, if you go the surround route, be wary about changing audio and video formats. Technology becomes cheaper in receivers at a similar rate as computers. Consider buying the minimum power and features you need today as you may have to upgrade in a year or two anyway. This is a final reason to stick with 2-channel analog amplification. It's old fashioned but it's proven and future-proof. It sounds great and it will last long past the latest digital format.

SETUP, SETUP, SETUP!

When you finally get it all into your room, consult a professional room setup guide such as the one from Dolby. Placing the speakers determines 90% of the quality of a home theatre. An amazing set of speakers in the wrong place will never compete with a competent budget pair in the right place. Use your receiver's built-in calibration microphone as a start but don't rely on it for fine adjustments. The computers often screw up tonal balance, especially from the sub. Use your ears as well. Always double check your setup with music playback paying special attention to bass. Home theatre subwoofers should sound invisible! They should mesh perfectly with the rest of the speakers and never call attention to themselves. This is also true of each individual speaker. No single speaker should "stand-out" amongst the rest. 

What if I have absolutely no space?

If you are in a tiny room or condo where it is impossible to have exposed wires or even bookshelf sized speakers, seriously consider buying a TV with decent in-built sound and then adding a good subwoofer. Although flat panel TVs have largely terrible sound, it is more from a lack of frequency range than of errors in reproduction. The TVs nowadays are simply too thin to have large enough speakers to make any real bass. Adding a subwoofer to the analog outputs of the TV (with variable out turned on in the menus) can offer a dramatic filling in of the missing frequencies. All that is required is one cable from the TV to the subwoofer. Compared to buying an extra terrible sounding soundbar and a matching terrible sub, you can eliminate a box and increase your sound quality for the same or less money...

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