Home theater is more than just an HDTV. Sound quality is half the equation. Formerly the domain of movie buffs and audiophiles, the electronics makers are now trying to meet the needs of customers who are not necessarily willing to spend loads of money and/or remodel the living room in the pursuit of the best home movie experience. Couch potatoes of all stripes now want movie-theater-quality audio from a simple, affordable, and easy package.
SPECS SPECS SPECS
Home theater system shoppers are inundated by specs. Some of these specs are relevant and some are grossly misrepresented to the point of becoming meaningless. Here is the breakdown on what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
600 Watts! 1,000 Watts! 2,000 Watts! Watts are an excellent example of the pliable truth found in marketing. More watts do in fact equal more volume, but the number of watts can be manipulated by allowing for more distortion in the signal. Buyers should ignore the number of watts and just judge by their own ears.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) indicates as a percentage how much distortion is created by the amp. Inexpensive systems with high power ratings are generally misleading as they have a listed THD as high as 20 or even 30%. That is bad. Like bus station PA system bad. Because of its role in manipulating the wattage rating, this spec is usually buried in the back of the manual. Look for a THD of 1% or lower.
Configuration (2.0, 2.1, 3.0, 3.1, 5.1, 7.1, 7.2, 9.1, 9.2)
Don’t be overwhelmed! These numbers simply refer to the configuration of home theater systems. The first number represents how many full-range channels are in the system. The number after the decimal represents how many low-frequency channels (i.e. subwoofers) are in the system.
A 2.0 system has front left & right channels. A 2.1 system adds a sub. A full 5.1 system consists of 3 channels for the front (left, center, and right) and 2 channels for the rear (left and right) and a “.1” meaning one subwoofer and so on.
For soundbars (see below), at a minimum, grab one that at least uses the digitally encoded surround sound signal rather than the analog signal as its source. Look on the spec sheet for Dolby Digital and DTS processing. If it’s not listed, then it probably just uses the old analog Left/Right signal.
For all other systems, at a minimum a 5.1 system works. Blockbuster action films spend almost a third of their multi-million dollar budgets on the soundtrack. To unlock the value of that spending, you have to go through the hassle of running wires across the room for those rear surrounds and finding a place to put that big box of a subwoofer. It’s a pain, but pop in a Blu-Ray movie once setup is complete and the difference will be clear.
HDMI is the standard of cable used to connect most modern audio and video equipment. This single cable contains all the necessary audio channels as well as the HD video signal. Most users will need at least three: one for the cable/satellite box, one for a Blu-ray player, and one extra. Also look for compatibility with HDMI version 1.4 to support 3D and upcoming 4K signals.
Don’t get suckered on the hard sales pitch for expensive HDMI cables. HDMI cables convey an all-digital signal, meaning just zeros and ones, and the HDMI standard uses some amazingly complex error correction methods to ensure those zeroes and ones make it through the cable just fine (retailers only push them because cables carry a high profit margin). As long as the cable is certified to the latest specs (Version 1.4 – HDMI High Speed Cable) and you keep the length below 50 ft. or so, then you are all set.
There are several patented ways to encode all the channels of sound required for a movie soundtrack. DTS and Dolby Digital are the two main standards. Both have several sub-versions although most people will seldom have systems that can effectively use these standards.
Home theater systems now come in a few common design types. Which type works best for someone depends on their own personal balance of price, aesthetics, sound quality, and expandability.
Soundbars (2.0, 2.1 & 5.1)
The simplest, easiest, and sleekest way to get into home theater is a soundbar. These are all-in-one unit that can be wall mounted or placed on the TV stand in front of the screen. They are self-amplified so they do not need to be hooked up to an external receiver or amplifier. Some models also include a subwoofer for the low frequency booms and explosions that the small speakers in the soundbar simply cannot make. Others emulate true 5.1 surround sound with a center speaker in the soundbar, and come with two rear channel speakers as well as a sub.
There are many models at all price levels from very basic sub-$100 models like the Vizio VSB207, to mid-range systems like the $400 JBL Cinema SB200.
The prices can keep going up. $1,500 will get you the very nice Yamaha YSP-4100 and $2,000 will bring the Bose CineMate 1 SR into your life. Even audiophile focused companies are getting in on the game with their own models of soundbars like the Martin Logan Motion Vision at $1,500.
Most soundbars offer some sort of Digital Sound Processing (DSP) effects that simulate surround sound, but unless it comes with two dedicated rear speakers then the DSP will fall short of a full 5.1 surround system. Also, expandability through extra inputs is limited until you get into mid-range or higher models.
Soundbars are ideal for those with limited space or who value an integrated appearance. They are also an easy solution for enhancing the sound on that extra TV in the bedroom or the kid’s playroom.
These are a relatively new but niche design. Similar to soundbars in that they are wide and vertically slim, but are instead very deep and are designed to be placed under a television that is not wall-mounted. One example of this new design is the $500 ZVOX ZBASE580.
Blu-Ray or DVD Home Theater Systems
Marrying a typical home theater receiver with a Blu-ray or DVD player and including a set of matched speakers, this is a one stop solution for those who want full 5.1 surround. These systems also tend towards sleeker space saving designs and some even have a main unit designed for wall mounting. Generally they offer more flexibility then a soundbar as even entry-level models will have a couple of extra inputs.
Unfortunately the space saving design leads to the common use of proprietary speaker connections which can be difficult to deal with if the speaker wire becomes frayed or gets a short. There is also the inherent risk of combo devices as invariably one device will require replacing before the other has reached its full lifespan. In this case it is usually the disc player.
The Pioneer HTZ-BD51 listing for $700 is a solid combo system that does the courtesy of using standard spring clips for the speaker connections and the Sony BDV-N790W at $430 is super slick with a slot loading Blu-Ray player, unique design, and wireless rear speakers.
Home Theater In a Box (HTIB) or Receiver Systems
Some of these systems are just like the small and sleek disc player combo systems but avoid the risk of suffering a broken device glued to a functional one. However they may still make use of proprietary speaker connections.
The majority of HTIB’s, however, are receiver based systems. These systems forgo descriptors like “sleek” or “compact.” We are talking big boxy electronics with lots of switches and buttons on the front and a rear panel with an intimidating array of connectors.
The Onkyo HT-S5500 is a good full 7.1 Surround System at $650 that offers great sound and flexibility but isn’t trying to win any beauty pageants. Some brands do their best to give some attention to the design of the components. The Harmon/Kardon Home Theater 1500 at $800 shoots for unique speaker design and a minimalist design for the receiver.
A recent trend is combo-brand HITBs. The Denon DHT-1513BA at $500 contains Denon’s capable AVR-1513 receiver packaged with a Boston Acoustics MCS 160 5.1 speaker system. This package is put together by Denon directly. Some retailers do the packaging themselves. BestBuy offers the Yamaha RX-A720BL receiver packaged with some very nice high-end speakers from Energy. The price is up there at $1,400 but the system will crank.
DIY or Separate Components
Beyond the all-in-one systems is the world of completely separate components which would require a lot more explaining then this space allows. Going this route does require more planning and decision making (as well as some extra funding) and will confront people with a more complex system setup.
Compact or aesthetic designs are also usually more difficult to achieve with separate components. In exchange though, separate AV Receivers offer the most flexibility and the latest in new features. Choosing separate speakers allows people to design a system with the tone and design best suited to their ear and their physical space.