You've heard about books like "The Secrets of Home Theater". Tells you everything you need to buy and how to hook it up. This article is what NOT to buy, and what you should do instead. This article is also about making spectacular movie experiences accessible to those of passionate, but modest means.
When Dolby Surround first came to the home, decoding VHS HI-FI movies into the front and rear channels, only 3 channels of speakers were used, or sold. Left, Right, and two surround speakers with the same signal. Sometimes with a subwoofer, sometimes not depending on the equipment.
Today we see receivers and equipment regularly having 7.1 channel outputs, and sometimes boasting up to 9.1 or 9.2 channel outputs. While equipment makers try to sell the well heeled the more is better solution, they keep leaving most true enthusiasts to sigh, and say "I can't afford Home Theater" and settling for using the Left and Right channels out of the DVD players, and hooking them up to their stereo, or even their TV speakers thinking to themselves that they will never be able to get "really good" home theater sound.
I'm going to show you how you can invest in "old school" equipment, and get something fantastically better than "really good" that will make you stop envying the pimped out theater rooms, and start enjoying yourself.
The Myth of the Center Channel
The first myth is that you need a center channel. You don't need it. It may not even do anything useful for you. "What, huh? But but but...."
Look, in movie theaters, Dolby Surround (pro-logic to you consumers) was designed so that no matter where you were sitting, looking at a 50' (that's fifty FEET, not inches) screen, your ears would hear the sound coming from the right location. In fact, Dolby Surround was tuned for effects in very large rooms. It was designed to go snap, crackle, pop, across the screen. It does do that, but the only reason for a center channel was the screens were soooo wide, and people often sat on the sides of the theater, that the only way to ensure dialogue stayed localized, and that the recording engineers could transmit the correct effect was with three channels behind the screen (sometimes 5 in mag 70mm) . Unless you have a screen that big, or are sitting too close, having 3 speakers is ridiculous.
Fortunately, most processors, and receivers let you set the center channel to "phantom" mode, redirecting it to the left and right speakers. So, save your money, skip the center channel. You'll need it elsewhere.
The Myth of the Subwoofer
The myth is that your theater will sound better with some oversized subwoofer than without it. Total myth, for most people. Look, here is what usually happens. You live in some apartment, or even a house, with a listening room 12' x 20' and you go looking for a subwoofer.
You go to the store, and they put a glass of water down next to you, then they demonstrate some ultra powerful 3,500 watt, Class A rated sub in a perfectly tuned room which does a Jurassic Park on the water glass next to you. Your hooked. You don't even pay attention to the sound of dialogue, or that every time an actor closes a door in the DVD it sounds like a T-Rex is eating your car, or that Meg Ryan's breath sounds like Darth Vader. The vibes got you. Maybe you can't afford this one for $12,000 with it's delta-sigma amplifier, built in equalizer, and ability to hack into the Death Star like R2D2, but there's it's smaller brother which has a few scuff marks and the dealer can just let it go for a dollar under $2,500.
You get hit home, but because you use your room for things like, I don't know, working, eating, playing Wii and entertaining, there's only one place to put it. And, it's probably the worst sounding place in the room. You turn it on, you find out that it is spectacularly loud for movies, but it colors everything and you can't stand it with music playing. Your girlfriend can't understand the words (like you were ever listening to them) and Conan O'Brien sounds much more Republican now than he used to. Truth is, chances are you bought a sub that's too big for your room, and you aren't going to be able to place it well, and even if you do, it's going to be very hard to integrate it with your speakers. It's like buying a Hummer to do 90 MPH in the narrow streets of Rome. Nice idea, but just not happening. The kid on his scooter will get through with less hassle and look like less of a dork.
So, my advice after living with an M&K sub for over 15 years, and doing all sorts of things to try to get it to get it to work not only with it's own satellites and in several living rooms, dump it. Instead, get some full range front speakers. Nice floor standers that will go no lower than 40 Hz and play loudly without distorting. Another point, is floor standing speakers are usually designed to sound good where people tend to put them, a few inches from the rear wall, and out from the sides. Having a 40 Hz cutoff is really the ideal response for the average TV watcher's living room.
The Myth of the Dipole Surrounds
If you've gone shopping for surround speakers lately you've probably encountered "dipole" surrounds. Surrounds which fire in different directions with different polarity. Basically the idea (was it some geek at THX who thought of this?) was to use tricks of speaker design to make up for you only having 2 rear speakers. What a terrible idea this was, if ever there was one. I've never heard a pair that sounded anywhere near as good as a theater. The reason is that even a small theater would often have 4 surround speakers, which would wrap around you, enveloping you in the rain, the firefight, or even the deep ocean through the oh so thin walls of a wounded submarine.
The Dipole speakers, then Bipolar and related ideas like tripolar speakers (this may be an MK Sound trademark) just were never anything but "odd" sounding. What's worse is that these speakers often cost 2x the cost of their front channel brethren. Instead of buying gadgety surround speakers which are nothing like what is used in motion picture studios or theaters, buy 2 pairs of "normal" (i.e. monopole) speakers for your surrounds. Buy two pairs even if they don't match your fronts or each other. Believe me, the experience with the extra pair of surrounds is so much better, you won't care if they match or not. Don't deny yourself this sheer pleasure. Really. Audio Advisor often has small closeout speakers which are ideal for under $60 a pair.
The Myth of the 7.1 Processor / Amplifier
I remember spending a lot of time reading posts from disgruntled Theta Casanova owners that they wouldn't be able to upgrade their processors from 5.1 to 7.1, and that Theta was not really going to provide an upgrade path for this great little processor. My goodness was there a lot of vitriol in Theta's direction for this decision. A year later Theta was sold to ATI (the amplifier company, not the video card company). I chuckled the entire time, and as soon as they were widely available for under $1,200 I bought one at Audiogon.
For those who are new, the extra 2.0 channels were two discrete (as in separate) rear surround channels. They were first introduced in movie theaters with Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES.
I've gone to theater's and listened to the extra two surround channels. What a load of huey. It's not that they aren't used, it's that engineers, and effects people are still not really sure about how to treat surround speakers. Are they for immersion, effects, or should they provide pinpoint sound location?
Honestly, in almost all movies engineers use the rear speakers for immersion, and then they realise at some point in the movie "oh, right, the producers insisted that I do something special with the surround tracks, I know, let me add wall to wall farts across the back wall....." Sorry, I just can't justify spending extra money, and electricity on having 4 discrete surround channels when I know this is not how the majority of movies are recorded or treated today.
So, if you've been paying attention, you've noticed the math doesn't add up. I've just told you to buy 2 front speakers, and 4 surround speakers, but only 5.1 capable processors/receivers/amplifiers. Huh? Shouldn't that be a 6.1, or 7.1?
Wire the speakers in parallel if your amp is kick-ass. Wire them in series if it has big warning labels like "This amplifier will explode like an al-quaeda dirty bomb if you hook up speakers less than 8 Ohms" By the way, this is how the pro's do it. If you aren't sure, ask for guidance.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is the ideal starter set up is a 6.0 channel system. With the following equipment:
- 1 pair of floor standing speakers for L and R
- No center channel speaker
- 2 pairs of direct radiating speakers for the two surround channels (4 surround speakers total)
- 5.1 channel processor or preamp that can redirect the subwoofer output to the L and R as well as handle surrounds which are "small" and fronts that are "large"
- No subwoofer unless you absolutely can't have large front speakers.
- If you are buying separate electronics, buy a pair of stereo amplifiers, with the front amp bigger than the rears. This is critical because the front L&R speakers are serving up the acoustic power needed by their normal signals plus the Center, Low Frequency Effects (the discrete 0.1 channel), and the bass for all the surrounds. This also lets you get really nice amplifier for the fronts, especially important if your an audiophile and love good music. In my HT I use 300 Watts for the front, 75 for the rears. The surround amp is a professional grade Yamaha amp with clipping indicators and it's NEVER come near clipping.
- Consider powered professional/studio speakers for the surrounds. They can be high quality but relatively cheap by comparison, and eliminate the need for yet another amplifier in the rack. In fact if you really want to be iconoclastic, do professional powered speakers all the way around. You'll do it for about 1/8 of what your local high-end dealer would have charged you for the 6 channel amplifier plus speakers. Alternatively, they are making some great powered wireless speakers, this let's you place your surrounds without stringing wires under carpet, in the basement, or through the attic.
- Timbrally matching the surrounds to your fronts is not nearly as important as sales people claim it is. You really are better off having the 4 surrounds, than having 2 which match your fronts. This timbral matching never existed in theaters, and is a complete fabrication of speaker makers who want you to buy 6 of their top of the line speakers all at once.