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Bringing the Theater Home

My first taste of the emotional impact of film music in a surround-sound environment still reverberates in my memory. The movie was the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, the location was Hattiesburg, Miss., and the sensation was overwhelming. At least 200 four-inch speakers surrounded our 1961 eggshell-colored nine-passenger Country Squire Sedan parked in the middle of the Skyline Drive-In and flooded us with jolting Rickenbacker riffs and throbbing Ludwig backbeats. I was in the middle seat, the movie was brand new and the sound converged on our Ford wagon and then carried me away. From that very minute, I knew I would have a career in music. The fact that our garage was burning down when we returned home should have been an obvious sign to me, a warning. But that night’s multimedia experience overpowered any connection I might have had to rationality and sensible thinking.

Thirty-eight years later, the pleasures of 360-degree sound for movies and music have transformed the way many of us have equipped our living rooms. As a result, the market is flooded with surround equipment, much of it aimed at the lowest common denominator, designed to woo with bells, whistles and flash instead of real, honest sound. Just remember, it still boils down to what makes music sound “right” and what makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you hear a poignant phrase, say, from Chet Baker.

All that said, it is becoming harder and harder, even for those in the business, to digest the emerging alphabet soup growing out of the home-theater phenomenon.

THX Select, THX Surround EX, Dolby Digital, DTS ES (including Discrete 6.1, Matrix 6.1 and Neo: 6) and Dolby Pro-logic II are just a few of the audio decoding schemes the consumer is supposed to understand when shopping for a simple home theater receiver. Simple?

“This technology is so confusing, most dealers can’t even keep up,” says longtime industry consultant Len Schneider, who has worked with Sony, Adcom and Rotel. “All these competing technologies, the encoding and decoding systems, are battling each other and each insists, ‘We have a better way,'” Schneider says.

Dolby Digital is a mandated format, but DVD producers can, at their discretion, go all the way and take advantage of the six discrete audio channels available or simply add a Dolby Digital mono track to stay in compliance with industry regulations. When implemented properly, however, this true multichannel format kicks butt for movie soundtracks. Dolby’s Pro Logic formats consist of a two-channel track that is eventually decoded to produce front, rear, center and effects (subwoofer) audio channels.

DTS Discrete also provides six separate channels for sound, but it is not as common as Dolby Digital and many insist it doesn’t really sound as good. DTS also offers “matrixed” formats similar to Pro Logic.

The problem is that many discs contain several of these audio formats, which means the consumer must instruct all the components in the playback chain to select the desired format, otherwise a default format will be chosen and it might not be the optimum sound available. Typically, the default audio format on a DVD is set to be Pro Logic or one of the other two-channel matrixed formats.

“Once you put the disc in the DVD player,” Schneider says, “you have to remember to select the proper audio format from the disc’s on-screen menu. Then you have to make sure the player is set to play that format and then instruct your receiver to receive that format, though some processors can detect that automatically. If you don’t follow this procedure, you might not be getting all you could be getting. No matter, though, most people are pretty darn happy with what they are hearing from their receivers and their systems.”

And just what is an A/V receiver?

“The receiver is a single-box solution,” Schneider says, “which acts as a switching and decoding center as well as amplifier for an entire home-theater system. It includes a bunch of computer technology, basically software, contained on a number of different microprocessors which translate all the encoding schemes we’ve been talking about.”

So what’s out there?

Let’s start with a handy, no-nonsense box that includes the DVD/CD player. The Linn Classik Movie System ($2,995) lacks only a set of speakers to achieve a high-quality home-theater ensemble, free of much of the wiring headaches common to assembling the average system. Complete from the sturdy disc player to the predictably precise five-channel amplifier, the Linn takes the cake for ease of operation. And the very handsome face offers particularly user-friendly controls laid out in a unique and extremely helpful fashion.

I love the way this baby sings! Plug in some speakers, slide in the disc and you’re off-the sound is typical Linn: detailed, uncolored and very accurate, though its 40 watts per channel would be just a bit more powerful in an ideal world. However, for modest rooms, say an office, a bedroom or an apartment living room, this is the ideal home theater solution offering tremendous performance in a ridiculously small package. It really should not perform as well as it does, but it is a Linn, a company known for packing tiny boxes with some of the best sound available.

Rotel is another name familiar to regular readers of this column since I routinely extol the virtues of its lineup of very affordable yet very well engineered and extremely good-sounding components built like tanks. Well, its RSX-1055 surround-sound receiver ($1,299) is no exception. Though replete with all the most current decoding technology, the 1055 is still upgradeable to accommodate future encoding methods as they come down the pike. Decoding technology aside, it’s the analog circuits and the amplifiers that define the sound of any receiver. Thanks to a long-standing dedication to high-performance audio, Rotel, in the 1055, has produced a truly high-end component at a price point that is only slightly more than the usual mass-market names but which easily outperforms them in terms of sheer dynamics, punch and authority. And the looks are pretty hot also.

I have been using this unit for several weeks and can’t stop marveling over its generous sound, 75 watts per channel when using all five channels and the astounding features it offers, not the least of which is an easy-to-master “learning” remote that you can effortlessly program with the codes necessary to replace the five or six other remotes lying around the sofa. If you’re shopping the warehouses for a new A/V receiver, consider raising the bar a bit (it won’t cost much more) and check out this Rotel wonder at a bona-fide audio dealer. Your ears will thank you for many years to come.

Marantz, one of the legends of 1950s hi-fi, went into a slump during the 1970s but has been back in full force for several years, offering some of the most innovative products on the market, including several reference quality components, a couple of lauded SACD players and a handful of highly competitive A/V receivers. The SR8200 ($1,699) falls somewhere in the middle of the Marantz lineup, but it’s really aimed at consumers who value quality sound as much as the bells and whistles of home theater sound, most of which can be switched out in the SR8200 when just listening to music-this reduces any signal degradation they might otherwise add to the mix. But regardless, this is a particularly robust performer (120 watts per channel) capable of rockin’ and rollin’ your private screening room when called upon to do so while watching Gladiator, as well as delivering the wonderful nuances of an intimate solo instrument, say, while listening to Bill Evans’ piano recorded live at the Village Vanguard.

The SR8200 also features a great example of the remote design of the future: It is a learning remote, but most of the functions are accessed via a nifty touch screen that is a breeze to operate. I found this doohickey to be the most fun I’ve ever had with a remote control. The decoding schemes offered in this box are as current as they can be, and the unit is THX Select certified, which means it meets standards set by the George Lucas team-the folks who have been greatly responsible for the improvement in film sound, whether in theaters or at home. That translates as “certified to pack plenty of wallop,” making the Marantz another unit worth investigating.

The big bruiser of this group, however, and the only one built in the USA, comes from a town better known for chicken wings than quality audio, yet the B&K AVR507 ($3,998), weighing in at 67 pounds, delivers a spicy punch mightier than any of Buffalo’s hot-sauced poultry. And, unlike the other units here under consideration, this one includes seven channels of amplification, allowing it to take full advantage of the growing number of 6.1- and 7.1-encoded soundtracks that offer, in addition to the left and right surround channels, left and right back channels to further enhance the sensation of spatial ambience and dimensionality. Get ready, this is the future of home theater-for Luddites like me, this is a bit scary, but the effect is fantastic-as is the AVR507. The effortlessness it displays in handling powerful musical passages is beyond impressive, and I ran it through its paces, believe me-Pat Metheny, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, Patricia Barber-as well as some gut-twisting film scores.

The AVR507 is more of a pain to set up properly than most receivers, but the end result is far more flexibility in customizing the sound to fit your room and your listening habits. Bass management-how the processor directs bass information to the subwoofer, based on the size and nature of the other speakers-is an oft-discussed issue in home theater. Most receivers only let you specify “large” or “small” when describing the front, center and surround speakers-the size you choose determines how much low frequency juice those speakers are allowed to deliver before it is passed along to the subwoofer. The B&K goes beyond that so you can be much more specific about how bass information should be routed. This is a big deal.

The remote is, like most A/V remotes at this level, a learning remote that has code for more than 1,000 components already stored in its memory. A number of useful functions, like controlling individual speaker levels, are handled from the preset buttons, which make operating the AVR507 a snap once you familiarize yourself with the myriad of choices. If you don’t feel the need for those extra two channels, B&K also sells a five-channel version of this receiver, the AVR505, for $3,498. Either way, this is one of the best-built, best-performing surround-sound receivers I have ever heard, and I can recommend it unequivocally to anyone shopping in this price range.

One last word: Make sure you spend the money for proper cables to maximize performance. Don’t use those flimsy freebie audio cables for digital connections or high-quality component video connections. Both of these require a 75-ohm cable with matching 75-ohm connectors to properly transmit these very different electrical signals. Consult your dealer to ensure that the cabling you purchase is appropriate for the job and don’t be frightened by the somewhat daunting task of hooking up this tangle of wires. Go slow and follow the owner’s manual. When correctly set up, the enveloping waves of sound while watching films and listening to music will give you almost as much pleasure as messing around in the backseat of that ’61 Ford parked at the Skyline Drive-In.

Originally Published