December 1998

Putting Together a System

There are some fundamental things to consider when putting together a stereo/surround sound system from scratch.

When it’s time, you just know it. You visit a friend’s house and hear the superior clarity of his CDs. Or, you come home from a live performance, put in that artist’s disc, and it sounds nothing like the sounds you just experienced.

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The Bose LS-8 Lifestyle Music System
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Denon AVR-3200 A/V Receiver
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B&K AVR-202 Surround Sound Receiver

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You bite the bullet and decide that it’s time to get a whole new sound system. But where do you start? And how much do you pay? How do you know what’s available? What new brands are worth considering? When you last bought your system, it was a Sansui receiver, KLH speakers, and a BIC turntable. Are any of these brands still around? There are a lot of questions to be answered, and one good way to start is to find out what your friends have, and what they like and don’t like about their current system. The next thing to do is to go to your neighborhood “mid-fi” stereo store and ask a boatload of questions. This article should help you fundamentally understand what features are new and about how much they cost by profiling three systems at three different price-points. It also takes the following stuff for granted:

1) That you are serious about music and therefore are willing to spring for some decent cash. System examples start at $1300.

2) All systems include surround sound. You may not watch a lot of movies, but surround sound is definitely worth having and you can turn it off anytime you want. Also, with the way that the new audio DVD is going, music will eventually utilize the 5-channel surround sound format as well. 3) No systems have cassette decks or turntables, but you can add them on later.

The Bose LS-8 Lifestyle System

Your first decision is whether to go with a single-brand all-in-one system, or to mix and match brands of components. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, rack systems were very popular. They included a turntable, a double cassette deck, and eventually a CD player. They usually had a high-power (but low-quality) amplifier, as well as gigantic 3-way loudspeakers. In general, these systems were somewhat less than handsome, and most post-adolescents were quick to relinquish themselves of their rack system as soon as they got married (along with their lava lamp and framed poster of Farrah Fawcett). Now, what are commonly referred to as “mini systems” or “shelf systems” have become the latest stereo trend. The main problem is that with a couple of exceptions, mini systems are better for a second system or a dorm-room system rather than a main system. That’s because their power output is way too low to produce solid, distortion-free music in a larger room.

The new Bose Lifestyle systems are exceptions to this rule. Their systems, on the whole, deliver exceptional sonic performance. But these systems are not cheap. The one being profiled here is the least expensive full system Bose offers and it’s $1300. But with Bose, you get what you pay for: solid performance, and stuff that looks “way cool.” One of the reasons this line of systems is called Lifestyle is because the diminutive, sleek design fits into most decors better than the standard stack of black boxes indigenous to most other systems. And the speakers are tiny too. For the past decade, Bose has been at the forefront of manufacturing speakers that are small and that produce big sound.

Another nice thing about the Lifestyle system is that they are very easy to set up. Bose has obviously taken some time to make the process of unpacking and setting up their systems less of a challenge than one normally expects. The system arrives in one box, with wires and quick setup guide included. There’s even a demonstration CD. The sleek music center replaces the black-box electronics of conventional systems. It sports a CD, and an AM/FM tuner with 20 pre-sets. It does not have a cassette deck but does have a set of input/output jacks to hook one up. The Lifestyle system does not have a phono input, so if you have a turntable you’d like to continue using, you’ll have to get an in-line phono pre-amp before it will work. The remote control is cool too, because it operates on radio waves rather than infrared. This technique allows you to control the system without pointing the remote at the music center. This is handy if you decide to add another set of speakers in another room or outside, because you can control the system with remote from another room (up to 65 feet away!).

The music center itself if very small (slightly larger than a laptop computer, measuring only 2 1/2”H x 15”W x 7 3/4”D) because it has no internal amplification. Instead, the amps are built into the speaker system. It comes complete with a powered Acoustimass Module, which is Bose’s marketing slang for subwoofer. It is small (14”H x 20 1/4”W x 7 1/2”D) and can hide away behind a curtain or sofa. It sends a high-level signal to the cube arrays (another marketing term for satellite speakers). There are five of these: Left, center, right, as well as left and right surround speakers. These arrays are quite small, each measuring only 3 1/8”H x 3”W x 4 3/4”D.

The Bose Lifestyle system does not offer Dolby Surround Sound of any type. Instead, it uses Bose’s version of surround sound: their proprietary Videostage® steering logic, which decodes surround soundtracks and enhances overall performance. There are two inputs for video sources so that you can hook up your TV, DVD, or DSS for instant home theater. One tip: Look out for the national promotions Bose does a couple of times per year, because you may get a price break during those times.

Denon/Klipsch System

The next stop on our tour of killer surround sound systems is this classic “mid-fi” system. It features a Denon surround sound receiver along with a bevy of Klipsch main and surround sound speakers, and a powered subwoofer. You can get this exemplary system for around $3000, without a CD player (let’s discuss CD players at the end).

The Denon AVR-3200 A/V Receiver

Unlike Bose, who with the exception of Sony has the number one brand recognition in the audio business, Denon is a brand known by the cognoscenti only. But for many stereo enthusiasts, Denon has been solid, high-performing brand for decades. This particular model sports a built-in Dolby Digital decoder chip so you can watch movies encoded with the new Dolby Digital surround sound system.

This system, features a 5.1-channel format: Stereo main speakers, a center channel, stereo rear surround speakers, and a subwoofer. This system is the official audio standard for DVD, as well as the new Digital Television system. DirecTV has also begun broadcasting pay-per-view movies in the Dolby Digital format. This Denon receiver uses an advanced digital technology called DDSC, which also allows for standard Dolby Pro Logic processing in the digital domain. It also has the features to make it the true apex of your A/V system with eight analog inputs including phono, s-video inputs and outputs, and a dedicated subwoofer output for music and movies. If you need more than its built-in 85-watt x 5-channel amp, you can add external amplifiers for the front speakers and subwoofer. Its remote is readable in the dark, and it sends an on-screen display to your TV so you always know what you’re doing, even in the dark.

Klipsch 6-Speaker System

This system features a pair of Klipsch Synergy towers as the main stereo speakers. They are ample in size measuring 38” x 10.25” x 12.5” (HWD). They sport a 2-way system with tweeter in a Tractrix horn configuration along with a pair or 8-inch woofers. Horn-loaded drivers are Klipsch’s signature technique. The design is reminiscent of a megaphone—the horn makes the sound much bigger and more dynamic. It also causes the speaker to be more efficient thereby delivering a big sound from small power output. In fact, the 10.5’s sensitivity is 95 dB at 1-watt/1-meter, which is about twice as loud as most speakers. As you can imagine, horn designs kick butt for action movies.

The KSF-C5 center channel speaker sits atop your TV so that a movie’s dialogue sounds as if it is coming from the actor’s mouths. The speaker utilizes a similar design to the main speakers—a Tractrix tweeter, as well as a pair of 6.5-inch woofers. This makes the sensitivity 96 dB! The C5 measures 7.9” x 23.9” x 7.3” (HWD). The KSF-S5 surround sound speakers are a perfect compiement to the system. They also use a Tractrix tweeter and a single 6.5-inch woofer. Each speaker measures 8” x 18.25” x 7.3” (HWD). The KSW-200 powered subwoofer is the speaker the produces the low bass. A subwoofer is integral for the bone-chilling suspense in action movies, and it makes all types of music sound more realistic. It sports a 12-inch woofer along with a built-in 200 watt amplifier. Because low bass sounds are omni-directional, you can easily hide the subwoofer in a corner of the room.

The B&K/Sonus Faber Reference Surround Sound System

From the sublime to the ridiculous, this system is at the beginning of what’s considered to be a true audiophile system. Even though you might balk at its $9000 price tag, you can spend ten times that amount on a high-end system and still not have the best system in your Park Avenue apartment building.

The B&K AVR-202 Surround Sound Receiver

Believe it or not, this is the first Surround Sound receiver designed and built in the U.S.A.! It has pretty much everything you could want from an audio component, and is a good illustration of what’s available. For surround sound, the AVR-202 features both Dolby Digital and DTS. DTS, which stands for Digital Theater Systems, is a competitor to Dolby Digital. It is also a 5.1-channel system but claims to deliver far better quality for music reproduction as opposed to Dolby, which DTS claims is a format invented primarily for movie soundtracks. The AVR-202 also handles two zones. Zone One is for surround sound, so let’s designate Zone One as your family room. Your kids could be watching a movie in Zone One and they will be surrounded by 5.1-channel sound. Meanwhile, you and your “life partner” are quietly in Zone Two (we’ll designate it as the living room) listening to music. The Zone Two settings include an AM/FM tuner and 6 external independently selectable inputs, so you can listen to CD, cassette, whatever. The AR-202 has universal remote to operate any brand of component, as well as macros for one-touch complex operation. In other words, you can set it up so that with one touch, it will turn on your system’s power, hit the correct input functions on your components and push play on your DVD player. Quality is obviously very high. The AVR-202 Sports a 105 watt x 5-channel amp with Class A Pre Drivers for ultra-high-quality sound. As well, it has digital and analog inputs and outputs, as well as composite and S-Video.

The Sonus Faber Audiophile Surround Sound Speaker Package

Sonus Faber is fast becoming a household word among audiophiles. They are designed and manufactured in Italy and not only sound fantastic, but are made from the finest woods and leathers so they look more like furniture than speakers. They have also enjoyed s tremendous critical acclaim as they were voted the 1997 Loudspeaker Design of the year by the Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio, an award given by fellow designers.

The Concerto Grand Piano main speakers feature a 7-inch woofer, silk dome tweeter, and 7-inch passive radiator. The Solo Center Speaker is perfectly matched to the main speakers for effortless dialogue reproduction. The Concertino surround sound speakers sport a phase coherent design with a rear-sloping front baffle that puts all the drivers on the same vertical line for the most accurate surround sound money can buy. And believe it or not, at $6000 for these speakers alone, they are considered a bargain amongst the audiophile set.

The Mirage BPS-150I Powered Subwoofer

Also included in this system, is a powered subwoofer that delivers excellent low bass. It is by a Canadian company called Mirage who produces many types of loudspeakers including some of the best-sounding subwoofers in the world. This model features a combination of a discrete-powered amplifier design and dual bass drivers, paired in a unique Bipolar configuration, eliminating cabinet vibration and transfer of low frequency energy to the floor—a major source of distortion in single driver subwoofers. The BPS-150 packs 150 watts of power, two 8-inch woofers capable of producing bass down to 27 Hz with unwavering accuracy.

A Word about CD Players

If you feel as though you would like to upgrade your existing CD player, here are some suggestions:

1) Get a DVD Player. Movies look awesome on DVD and DVD is wave of the future. DVD players play standard CDs as well. There are even models now that are a combination 5-CD changer/DVD player.

2) Get a Mega Store CD Player. There are many 50, 100, 150, and 200-disc CD changers that allow you to store your entire collection in one place for quick and easy accessibility. They have single-disc drawers if you just bought a new disc and want to hear it without having to go through the whole loading process. You can enter in disc title and track names so you can remember what’s where. And if you’re a real collector, you can daisy-chain the players together to fit your entire CD library!

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