September 2001

Real World Home Theater

The state of today’s home theater technology reminds me of some of those wild, hair-raising late ’60s free-jazz improvisations: everyone going in their own seemingly independent direction, any melody almost impossible to follow, but somehow, everything heads for, and ends, at the right place.

If you start to digest the amazing variety of video and audio encoding formats being pushed for home video, you will certainly come away confused, and the indigestion problems will be long in curing, as will the ensuing headaches.

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Boston Acoustics 9000
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Infinity Systems HTS-20

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So, since we are primarily music lovers and not pining away for better reproduction of the sounds of planets exploding, let’s try to keep this all simple and hopefully in the process, affordable.

The easiest way to augment the sound of your video viewing experience is so obvious and easy it might not even occur to you. So, without meaning to be insulting, let’s try it: assuming your video equipment is in the same room as your sound equipment, simply run your VCR through your preamp or receiver and you will enjoy 70 to 80 percent of the benefits of home theater, or at least of the enhanced sound qualities, immediately. This is particularly true if you are primarily a consumer of VHS tapes, cable or satellite film viewing and other non-surround-sound program sources. Old-fashioned two-channel stereo will be just fine for the odd Star Wars film you sneak in between episodes of Jazz or the great reissues of Ralph J. Gleason’s Jazz Casual series.

I just enjoyed a wonderful live concert video of Brazilian superstar Gal Costa singing her guts out in a São Paulo acoustic setting, and the sensation of being there was quite believable running through my modest Sony VCR and the tube stereo setup in my office. Palpable bass, full-convincing midrange and honest-to-god high frequencies you’ll never get from a television’s built-in speakers, even those in my large 32-inch box, illuminated her performance in a most satisfying way. But even more than the additional frequency response achieved by this rig is the greatly increased dynamic range it provides, and greater than anything else, in my opinion, this single improvement brings the video picture to life with punchy attacks, more realistic crescendos and low-level passages—even her sung whispers and the subtle brush strokes on the snare drum come alive. Very cool.

Is it as simple as just connecting the video player to the stereo? Well, yes it is. But according to Gerard Alcala, owner of E-media in Austin, Texas, and an audio-video installer for nearly two decades, you might even be able to upgrade the video image. “Make sure you take advantage of S-video outputs, if you have them,” he says. “They will vastly improve your picture over any other connections to your television.” These Super-video connections bypass the comb filter in your TV and send components of the video signal (color and brightness) separately, vastly improving picture resolution. But he warns you should limit these interconnects to lengths of under six feet, or the extremely thin wires within could then degrade rather than upgrade your image. He offers one final video connection tip, “New high-end televisions will feature discrete component video inputs. Using these with a DVD player will make a notable improvement, even over S-video.”

Alcala also warns against trying to convert an existing two-channel system to a multichannel surround system. “The problems in trying to maintain proper levels of all the speakers in a mismatched system are difficult to overcome for most casual users,” he says.

You can, of course invest a large chunk of change in a dedicated high-end surround system that will also be capable of properly reproducing your favorite musical sides, but, because this area of home entertainment is still in such flux, I would recommend waiting a year or two to let things settle out a bit more. Pouring $10,000 or more into a high-quality system right now might be a bit premature. On the other hand, if you’ve got the jack, go for it because most of these components are designed with an easy upgrade path; converting a processor to accommodate new standards or systems should be relatively easy. If you’re gonna buy something that pricey, make sure you ask about upgradability down the line.

So, for the rest of us, what do we do? Well, if you, in fact, do watch DVDs, especially sonically sexy films and music videos, then a modest, dedicated home theater/surround-sound system is just what the doctor ordered.

“There are some great bargains out there in new audio-video receivers,” states Alcala. “But I would not recommend buying anything under the $500 to $700 range. You need the amplifier power a unit in this price range will provide (a minimum of 60 watts) for the five audio channels, plus they will also be easier to balance and to control the ultimate performance of the system. And that is of utmost importance when dealing with multichannel sound and the shifting, multiple encoding standards for audio and video.”

You also want to look for a receiver that offers Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital Surround and DTS sound if possible. The THX endorsement on a receiver is great, but not common at the price point we are talking about. Besides, Dolby can decode most of the THX coding. And don’t forget those S-video inputs. Beyond this, look for features that allow flexibility with input sources, perhaps multiroom setups—in case you want to have a small remote speaker and video system in your bedroom, for example. Generally speaking, the more you spend, the better off you are; more power is a good thing when trying to recreate the sound of a multi-car train pileup!

Here are some units to check out, but remember, model numbers and features seem to change on this stuff every other week, so it is best to set a price range and find something that works for you.

Harman/Kardon, a name to reckon with in the ’50s and ’60s has come back strong in the surround-sound era. Their gear is garnering rave reviews from critics and installers alike. The 70 watts per channel AVR 510 has everything you need and a bit more, including HDCD for decoding music CDs if you end up using this system for music from time to time. It lists for $999 and will serve as an excellent foundation for a pretty nifty theater system.

Yamaha’s RX-V800 Dolby Digital Home Theater Receiver at $799 has a phantom rear center to deliver the newest six-channel formats Dolby Digital Matrix 6.1 and DTS ES. With 100 watts per channel, this has enough gas for even a large video room. Like Harman/Kardon, Yamaha has enjoyed a new burst of critical acceptance with their new home theater products and this unit is a testament to the philosophy of great performance for the dollar. The heavy-duty speaker terminals are another plus.

From yet another reliable name comes the Denon AVR-3801 A/V Surround Receiver, which lists at $1,099 and sends 105 watts to each speaker. It is loaded with features including Dolby Digital Matrix 6.1 and DTS ES, two of the newest encoding schemes. It has a confusing, but powerful, remote and end-users are raving about this product on the Internet. It’s higher price can be offset with careful shopping and the sting lessened further with the knowledge that Denon’s build quality has always been touted as one of the best in this mass-market segment, so it’s sure to last. If you are not ready to spend this much, try Denon’s $700 AVR-2801. It lacks some of the features and other bells and whistles of its more mature sibling, yet the sound is remarkably similar. You will still benefit from Denon’s quality and solid engineering, and it still pumps out 90 watts per channel.

One of the new leaders in this hotly contested area of home theater receivers is Onkyo. They quietly built a reputation in two-channel systems and have recently come on like gang-busters in the world of surround sound. Their TX-DS676 sur-round receiver is full of features, but what it does best is reproduce sound and music with great accuracy and speed. For a very reasonable price, you get 110 watts into each speaker, an easy-to-use remote and superb reproduction. At $829, this Onkyo offers the real deal and can really make your favorite films (and musicians) jump off the screen, right into your living room.

When you are looking, don’t forget to check out some of the powerful new equipment from Marantz, another stal-wart showing renewed vigor in the surround field, and the ubiquitous Sony has several models in this price range that deserve a look.

Now, to make all this juice really work, you have to have speakers that are up to the task. And surprise, there is no shortage of small, unobtrusive five-channel systems that can certainly rock your sprockets! These systems typically consist of a pair of front speakers, a pair of rear or surround speakers, a center-channel speaker, which carries most of the dialogue duties, and a powered subwoofer to help provide those very important low frequencies that are always present when heavenly bodies are destroyed or buildings collapse. In the May 2001 column I wrote about affordable stereo speakers, and most of those same manufacturers produce a variety of multichannel packages at a variety of multithousand price points; in our present discussion we will hover around the single-thousand point. But don’t overlook PSB, Paradigm, Energy, NHT, Canton, Veritas and others, many Canadian, who offer a lot for the money.

And installer Gerard Alcala offers a reminder: “Many of these surround systems are absolutely fantastic for reproducing the sound found on film soundtracks, but they often fall short when it comes to delivering music in the same way a dedicated two-channel system can. When shopping, the thing to listen for is dialog. A lot of speakers can get the sound effects right, those are easy, but the most important aspect of a film soundtrack is the dialog, and that is much harder to get right. That is what to pay attention to when making a purchase.”

Here are a couple I heard recently that impressed me, either for surprising sound for their tiny size or surprising sound for their tiny price.

Infinity, long respected for their gigantic speakers capable of producing gigantic lifelike dynamics, has entered the home-theater field with a vast array of speakers. The package system (four satellites, center speaker and powered subwoofer) I auditioned recently, the HTS-20, just about knocked me out of my chair because, frankly, this collection of diminutive speakers seemed incapable of any sort of performance, much less such a dramatic one—they are so downright, well, tiny. Measuring only about eight by four inches, I assumed the front and rear speakers could only sputter and spit a few snaps, crackles and pops. Instead, the room was filled with a rich full sound that had me up checking to make sure these little Infinities were, indeed, the boxes I was hearing. The sound was sharp and clear, and the twelve-inch subwoofer threw some amazing bass. All in all, very impressive for only $879. Because of their size, these should be easy to blend into just about any room, regardless of space restrictions.

The other two systems I heard were even more impressive in their ability to offer a glimpse of the real excitement surround sound is generating across the country, though each possessed its own particular character. The Klipsch Synergy 6 and the Boston Acoustics 9000, each listing at $999, are both somewhat larger than the Infinity system, and as a result (of the size and the driver quality) were more convincing in their ability to recreate the sensation of being in a front-row seat for a class five tornado. They offer the standard complement of front, rear (surrounds), center and sub boxes. The Klipsch utilizes its legendary horn tweeters for the highs, while the Boston, at least of the rear speakers, utilizes a dipole (bidirectional) radiating array that helps distribute the sound of the surrounds more effectively than a unidirectionally firing box—nice touch for such a low-priced system. In general the Klipsch provides a thrill-ride experience while the Boston Acoustics provides a more poetic presentation, perhaps warmer and with more depth. Listen to both and certainly one will appeal to the style you most enjoy.

So, if you want to get on this fast-moving sensory roller coaster you can do it, and you can do it now. Just make sure you listen to several systems, listen for what is important to you (don’t forget the actors are there to convey language in addition to gun shots) and, at least at the modest level I am suggesting, don’t expect musical nirvana from these systems, though they are all certainly capable of providing years of enjoyment of music or cinema for under a couple grand.

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