Holiday 2012: Home Entertainment Audio

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So, you’re ready to turn that spare room in your house into a multimedia hub. You’ve read our B&H InDepth article about HDTVs and projectors, and now you want to make sure that your sound matches your screen. It’s not as easy as you think. A great TV is certainly a centerpiece to a great multimedia home theater experience, but if you’re relying on the television’s integrated speakers to provide full, rich cinematic sound, you’re going to need this primer.

Forget what the manufacturers says—integrated full-range down-firing speakers on a 55” 1080p sidelit LED TV are still not going to help you out where the sound is concerned. Most television manufacturers assume you are going to invest almost as much in your sound system as you do in your television—and you should. Nothing brings home the experience of entertainment better than a great screen and a great sound system.

But first, a few basic things you should know. What is 5.1 channel surround sound? How important is a good receiver? What is the deal with subwoofers? Are wireless speakers as good as they seem?

5.1 Channel Sound: A Primer

Surround sound is now the standard for home theater. 5.1 refers to the five full-bandwidth channels and one low-frequency channel (also known as the “.1” in 5.1). In a typical surround sound system, there are five speakers: center, front right, front left, rear right and rear left. Some systems include a subwoofer, which is used for that booming bass effect that action-movie lovers love. The center speaker handles most dialogue, and the right and left speakers handle sound movement—when an actor or action moves from the left or right of the screen, the left or right speakers will kick in, giving you the enveloping feeling that the sound is “surrounding” you. Dolby and DTS technology were the first to implement the now familiar five-channel system. There is also 7.1 channel surround sound, which adds two speakers to the side and back of the traditional 5.1 setup. New DVDs and Blu-rays may incorporate newer 7.1 technology, but you must be sure that your receiver includes 7.1 channel technology in order for you to experience its full effect.

Receivers

A receiver is the keystone of a dedicated home theater sound system. A good receiver not only does the job of channeling sound to the appropriate speakers in your system, it is also the hub for all your connected devices. Your television, DVD, Blu-ray disc player, satellite, cable receiver or any other component you wish to hear through your system plugs into the receiver. The receiver outputs that sound through the speakers.

When buying a receiver, always check for HDMI inputs. Many receivers today have HDMI, but the more the better. Since your DVD/Blu-ray player and cable box may also have HDMI outputs, you want to connect as many HDMI-enabled devices to your receiver as you can.

Also disregard the watts-per-channel rating (WPC). Just because a home-theater-in-a-box lists 1000W for power doesn’t mean that you’re going to get 200W per channel. Wattage is no indicator of sound quality. The wattage of a speaker only indicates the power it can handle without distortion, and does not indicate total power output over a continuous length of time, so even a 50WPC receiver should be able to handle all of your home theater needs. If you’re a true audiophile who has to decipher every nuance in sound when watching movies, it’s more worth your while to invest in better speakers.

Subwoofers: Passive versus Active versus Powered

If you’re buying a system with no subwoofer and decide to add one on, remember these terms: Active, Passive and Powered. The difference is this: Active means it has its own internal amplifier, Passive means it requires an external amplifier (and draws power from your receiver) and Powered means it’s a Passive subwoofer with its own power supply. For the beginner, if you’re setting up in a small space, a passive subwoofer is best. They’re smaller and more compact, although they do produce a less powerful low-frequency bass. Powered passive subwoofers are great for intermediate users, because they produce a richer bass and fill larger rooms with sound much better than non-powered passive subwoofers. Active subwoofers will create an immense booming so loud you’ll think the space shuttle has landed, and because of that, it is the preferred subwoofer of home-entertainment enthusiasts.

Room Layout

When dedicating space to a home entertainment system, you should always consider your room size and layout. Many factors affect the sound quality in a room; the amount of furniture, the wall structure, ambient noise and even interference from other electronics. This is why people don’t set up home theaters in their laundry room. A sparsely decorated room with minimal furniture will conduct sound more freely. A carpeted room will deliver deeper bass with less distortion (put your subwoofer on a hardwood floor as opposed to a carpeted floor and you’ll see what we mean). A room with decorative half-walls will throw sound out of the listening area, while a fully enclosed room could benefit from a Sound Bar as opposed to a full surround sound system (more on that later). Large rooms will affect speaker placement, while small rooms mean less wiring. Oh, yeah, wiring is also a factor. The receiver will usually have to be hardwired to each of the five speakers. Wireless speakers can amplify distortion from other RF frequencies in the room (wireless telephones, computers and even handheld devices).

Buying an HTiB (home-theater-in-a-box) seems like the right choice for most people who are just getting into the home theater arena. It usually includes a receiver, five speakers and a subwoofer. Some models also include extras like DVD or Blu-ray players, 7.1 channel sound or mobile device connectivity.

Beginner Sets

Beginners should consider the LG Electronics BH6720S 3D Blu-ray Home Theater System. It has front- and rear-tilting speakers, a 3D Blu-ray/DVD player and built-in Wi-Fi. Each speaker is rated at 167W, and it includes a passive subwoofer. It can handle 5.1 and 7.1 channels and includes Full HD upscaling of your DVD content. You could also look at the Onkyo HT-S3500 Home Theater Package, which also includes 5 speakers and a passive subwoofer, along with 110W per channel. It also features 4 HDMI inputs and 1 HDMI output, along with direct digital connection for an iPod/iPhone via a front-panel USB port.

The Panasonic SC-BTT190 Full HD 3D Blu-ray Disc Home Theater System also features full 3D capabilities, and includes a 2D-to-3D converter so you an enjoy your old 2D content in 3D. It also features Panasonic’s proprietary Anti-Jitter Digital Amplifier which reduces jitter and distortion to produce clearer, high-quality sound. It can also play VOD content in 24 fps just like at the movies, if you have a 24p-capable television and an HDMI cord. Newbies may also want to check out the Sony BDV-E390 5.1 Channel 3D Blu-ray Home Theater System, which features five speakers and subwoofer at 165W, and includes a Blu-ray player with media streaming output, so you can watch (and hear) your favorites from Netflix and Hulu.

Intermediate Sets

If you’re thinking of moving up a sound grade, the LG Electronics BH6820SW 3D Blu-ray Home Theater System features silk dome speaker technology (speaker construction uses silk suffused with polymer resin as the covering, as opposed to hard-cover aluminum or aluminum-magnesium alloy domes), a 3D Blu-ray player with 2D upscaling and integrated Wi-Fi. It also features something that will appeal to your aesthetic sensibilities—wireless rear speakers. Anyone who’s constructed a home theater from scratch knows the agony of errant wires, in-wall wiring, base housing and other wire-hiding schemes. Wireless speakers are a joy, but they do catch a lot of interference, so if you’re a sound purist, you may want hardwired speakers throughout.

What charm does the Panasonic SC-XH155GA Multi Zone Home Theater System hold for the intermediate enthusiast? This 5.1 channel Dolby Digital system features a down-firing subwoofer, a Clear Sound Digital Amplifier and a digital synthesizer tuner. It also features wicked-looking front tower speakers and ARC (Audio Return Channel) capability. ARC allows whatever sound source (such as a USB drive) from the television to be routed back to the receiver through the TV's HDMI cable. So if your TV supports ARC and has a USB port, watching movies through a connected USB device should deliver a similar sound experience as the DVD player does.

Advanced Sets

Some of the features that advanced sets, like the Panasonic - SC-BTT490 Full HD 3D Blu-ray Disc Home Theater System, offer over other sets are advanced chroma processing for superior color output when watching Blu-ray content (2D and 3D) and 3D cinema sound with up to 25 virtual speakers (bouncing signals from walls and aiming the sound output in different directions reproduces “virtual” speakers that deliver sound from the front, side, rear and even above you). The Samsung HT-E5500 3D Blu-ray 5.1 Home Entertainment System has full 3D capability, a 2D to 3D converter, FM tuner and iOS device connectivity. It also has ARC capability, Wi-Fi Direct, which allows wireless streaming of digital media to your home entertainment system and BD Wise Web, a web optimizer which clarifies text and video from the Internet for big-screen viewing.

The Sony BDVN790W 3D Blu-ray Home Theater System has many of the same features of other 1000W systems, but adds an IP sound enhancer to clarify Internet audio (similar to the Dolby Digital Pulse feature on newer laptops) and a Throw feature, which allows you to “throw” media from a Sony device directly to the television. If you’re listening to music on a Sony laptop or tablet, and you want to share it, you “throw” it to this home entertainment system and it shows up on your big screen. Also in the big-boy and big-girl category for home entertainment is the Yamaha BDX-610BL 5.1-Channel Blu-ray Home Theater System, which features front-panel USB connections, a 3D Blu-ray player with conversion and upscaling capabilities, Internet radio vTuner support and ARC support.

Sound Bars

So when is buying an HTiB not the right choice? Usually when space is a factor. Let’s put it this way: if you lived in a treehouse, a boombox would be all you need for adequate sound. If you lived in the Taj Mahal, not so much. Now consider where you live. Is it the equivalent of a treehouse? Are there four solid walls and a door? Or are there half-walls and multiple archways leading into and out of the room? Are you in a small apartment or a stately mansion? If space is a consideration, or you just don’t want to deal with the hassle of wiring, consider a Soundbar.

Basically, a Soundbar can be mounted below a wall-mounted flat panel TV screen or can rest on a horizontal surface in front of the television. It’s usually a 3-channel system (left, right and center speakers) that emulates multiple channels by reflecting sound off of the walls of an enclosed room. Although you will never achieve true surround sound, some of them come pretty close to tricking your ears into hearing five virtual channels of sound. Most soundbars don’t need an external receiver to set up either—they’re plug-and-play right into your HDTV. Different models of soundbars offer different advantages and disadvantages over true 5.1 channel five speaker systems.

The Bose CineMate 1 SR Home Theater Speaker System, for instance, features ADAPTiq audio calibration, which adjusts the acoustics of the system to the room it’s being placed in. It also features a wireless Acoustimass subwoofer and connects directly to the TV, with no receiver required. The Boston Acoustics TVee Model 30 Soundbar Speaker and Wireless Subwoofer also includes a wireless subwoofer, but adds Bluetooth connectivity and dedicated movie and music modes. Energy’s Power Bar Elite Soundbar stands out with its side-firing wireless subwoofer (instead of the traditional down-firing model and front-firing models, which aim low frequencies towards the front and at the floor of where they’re placed).

JBL has the SB 300 2.1-Channel Soundbar System with dual 2-inch (51mm) midrange transducers and a 1-inch (25mm) dome tweeter with 50 watts of amplification for each of the two front channels. The wireless ported subwoofer features an 8-inch (200mm) woofer cone driven by 100 Watts of amplification. Sharp also has a 2.1 Channel Home Theater System that features a 60W Sound Bar with exposed drivers for a more industrial/techno look and a 150W wireless subwoofer. With a large 54” wide footprint, it’s designed for 60" and larger displays.

The Klipsch Gallery G-42 Soundbar does not include a subwoofer – but it does feature three 1" titanium compression tweeters and four 3.5" long-throw injection-molded graphite woofers with Klipsch’s proprietary Tractrix Horns technology. Tractrix Horns creates a 90-degree x 90-degree dispersion pattern to expand the range of the listening experience. It offers power handling capabilities of 50 W RMS and 200 W peak. Polk Audio’s SurroundBar6000 Instant Home Theater features polycarbonate dome tweeters, a 120W wireless subwoofer and a compact frame (less than 2” deep) that complements your slim HDTV.

Samsung’s E550 and E551 Soundbar Home Theater Speaker System both feature wireless subwoofers, USB host support and Bluetooth connectivity. It also features ARC support on the HDMI signal. The E551 has a unique design—the speakers can be used as left and right tower speakers, or they can be connected to form a traditional horizontal soundbar.

Yamaha’s YSP-4100 and YSP-5100 Digital Sound Projectors offer True HD Surround Sound, 3D pass-through over HDMi and ARC, and a built-in FM tuner. It also features IntelliBeam technology that transmits your room dimensions and audio obstacles back to the unit to “read” the room's structure and apply its sound logistics to it. Both units are capable of decoding 5.1 and 7.1 audio with their 40 1 1/2"  beam drivers (the 5100 adds two 1" balanced-dome tweeters) and digital amplifiers. These units do not include a subwoofer. But they do include yAired technology, which lets you wirelessly connect a subwoofer or even an iPod and transmit lossless uncompressed data (linear PCM), which means you will hear audio in the full spectrum in which it was recorded. You won't lose the lows, highs and in-betweens when listening to uncompressed audio data.

There are so many other choices for you to make when choosing your home entertainment sound system, but you should look at these featured systems first. They offer everything you might want for your audio experience, with a few extras thrown in. Crank these up and tune the world out—for a while. If you have any further questions or concerns, please contact a B&H Sales Associate via live chat, over the phone or in the B&H SuperStore.