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How to buy a Home Theatre System: Part 2: Sound advice

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Part 2: Sound advice

How do you choose the right speakers for a home theatre system when the market is awash with options? Can you get away with the built-in speakers on your giant-screen TV? Is bigger also better? In the second part of our series on how to buy home theatre, audio-visual expert JOEL KOPPING advises.

For a true theatre-like audio experience, you’ll want the sound to match the on-screen images. The bigger the screen, the bigger – not necessarily louder – you’ll want the sound to be. Remember that the home theatre experience is, or should be, an all-encompassing one. And this means that, even though the system that was supplied for free when you bought your 60-inch TV called itself a ‚Home theatre surround sound system‚ , its tiny speakers and low powered amplifiers will never be able to match the scale of the on-screen action.

This doesn’t automatically mean that, if you have a huge TV, you have to buy the biggest speakers or the most powerful amplification around: it’s just meant to illustrate the point that some small home theatre systems are entertainment systems in name only.

Speakers in Space

After looking at your TV, have a look around your room. Look at how much space is actually available for placing speakers, players and A/V processors.

Do you have a fitted wall unit, and will the trio of front speakers have to fit onto the shelves of the unit?

If you don’t have a unit, will the front speakers be floor-standing, stand-mounted or on-wall models?

Where are the windows and doors of the room?

What is the decor like in the room and, while looking at this, will big speakers fit in with the theme of the room? (yes, a home entertainment room should look good too, especially if it’s the family room or lounge area by day)

Will you be placing the rear speakers on walls or on stands? When looking at either option, also consider where cables will have to run.

Numerous speaker manufacturers offer the option of wireless rear speakers that have the flexibility of not having to have speaker cables run to them. These, however have to be plugged into a plug socket, so you will have to check that there is one close by.

Position, Position, Position

Just as in real estate, home theatre systems are about positioning.

You can have the best equipment in the world, but if everything is in the wrong place, then the entertainment experience will be severely hampered.

The reason for this is that movie mixing studios are all designed and set up to specific standards, and these standards dictate where speakers have to be located. Movie scores and effects are recorded with these specific speaker locations (and you can find the THX guide for speaker placement here http://www.thx.com/consumer/home-entertainment/home-theater/surround-sound-speaker-set-up/ ). If the speakers in your room are placed in the incorrect locations, you wont be able to hear surround effects as they were intended to be heard.

Of course you can move away a little from the recommendations, but it’s worth noting that a 5.1 speaker system with all speaker placed in the correct, or close to, place in your room, will sound a whole lot better than a 7.1 speaker system with the speakers haphazardly placed.

About bass, the .1 channel

We mentioned earlier that the .1 speaker in both 5.1 and 7.1 speaker systems is a sub-woofer.

A sub-woofer is a specialised speaker that’s been specially designed to play only low bass frequencies. Sub-woofers came in two flavours: passive models and active models.

Passive models need to be connected to an amplifier, and typically these are supplied with modest all-in-one home theatre systems.

Active sub-woofers feature their own built in amplifiers, have their own level setting control and usually have a crossover setting – among others – and these controls make them easier to integrate sonically with your main speakers.

People will tell you that every home theatre needs at least one sub-woofer but, in reality, the need for a sub-woofer is related to your room size and speaker selection. If you use large speakers in a small room, you may be able to get away without using a sub.

Of course, if you decide to use small speakers, them a sub-woofer is mandatory if you really want to hear and feel the action in a movie.

We do however have a word or two of caution about sub-woofers: the term is applied to almost any speaker that is attached to the .1 (or LFE channel) on home theatre systems. Often this so-called sub-woofer does nothing more than add a rumble to movie soundtracks, and they don’t have the capacity to play real low frequency notes.

These sub-woofers usually initially sound impressive but become distracting when you realise that every effect sounds the same.

Speaker Quality Vs Quantity

Most males want the biggest speaker available but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Big speakers in small rooms simply don’t work and this is on a number of levels.

Firstly, if the speakers are too big, they take up more room than is necessary. Secondly, big speakers are hard to place correctly. Thirdly, if the speakers are too big for the room, they will sound bad.

Smaller yet higher quality speakers that are properly placed and used with a sub-woofer or two (for the most balanced bass in a room) will sound better and deliver a far more enjoyable and encompassing surround sound experience.

With such a variety of speakers available, it is difficult to decide which ones are perfect for you. A sound recommendation, if you’ll excuse the pun, is that you select speakers with matching timbre and tone. You don’t, after all, want the Terminator’s voice to change as it moves from left to right or from the front to rear of your room.

Fortunately, many retailers and manufacturers sell home theatre speaker packages that have matched speaker solutions.

Read the first part of this series here: How to buy a Home Theatre System: Part 1: What you need

· Next in this series: Getting practical with the A/V receiver

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THere are a couple great nuggets here. The THX link is nice, and the comment on matching timbre and tone on speakers is nice too, (although you left out efficiency).

I realize you only have a limited space here, but I think you omitted some key considerations like driver and tweeter material, speaker construction, frequency range, etc.

These drastically affect the sound in a room, and are more telling of a speakers performance than “size or look””.

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