Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How to build an HD home theater that doesnt suck - Part one, The Sound and the Fury

Here's another one of those "We're eventually going to spend money on this" posts, except that the eventually is not very far from now, one because our TV and stereo are both kind of on their last legs, and two, because HD kicks ass, and we want to be using it as much as possible.

The wife has been pushing for a DVR ever since we moved in, and honestly I wanted one too; so last week I went down to the cable office and picked up a DVR. While I was there, I asked them about pricing. Basically, an added cable box is $7 more a month, switching to an HD is $10 more a month, a DVR box is $15 more per month ($7.99 more than jsut a plain cable box), and an HD DVR is $20 more per month ($10 more than a basic HD box). The box rental fee, includes the HD and DVR service charge.

So for $5 more a month, of course I picked up the HD DVR, even though we dont have an HDTV yet, because we WILL soon, and because I don't feel like going back down to the cable company to pick up a new box in two months when we DO get an HD tv.

Anyway, the title of this one is "How to build a home theater that doesnt suck", and that's precisely what I mean.

Now for those of you who aren't seriously into movies or music, one of those $499 all in one box home theaters probably sounds pretty damned good to you. Hell it's 10,000 times better than the TV speakers, or your old bookshelf system from college...

Yeah... honestly once you've had a decent home A/V (audio video) setuop, you'll never want to watch movies on anything else again. In fact it can be way better than the theater even for a lot of movies.

Also, good music sounds not so good, on bad stereos. Anything with a high dynamic range, very soft low level sounds, or a great deal of precise power (I said precise power, think Yngwie Malmsteen not Mos Def) just won't sound right on anything other than a decent system.

Ok then, so what exactly IS a decent system?

Well, the best way to think of it is in terms of number of components, overall quality, price, power, and interoperability.

Just some ground rules here:

First, never count the TV/Monitor/Projector in with the cost of the stereo and speakers. The TV is an entirely separate purchase, separate budget, and needs to be evaluated on it's own. You dont want to compromise and get a bad TV because you were worried about spending too much on audio, or vice versa. Thus, there will be two parts to this post, one for the TV, and one for the stereo. Actually I may do a part 3 covering computer home theater and the like (as a commenter points out, do you know how much video a terabyte array will hold?).

Second, pricing.

Expect to spend an absolute minimum of $1500 to get an acceptable setup, and a minimum of $2500 to get into the "good" range, with half or more of that going into the speakers.

I should mention , theres two “sweet spots” in street price on recievers.

For about $500-600 street you get a reciever that’s actually acceptable, has decent features, and a good remote. Anything less than that you’re just wasting your money, because you are going to want to upgrade before long.

For about $1000-1500 street, you get into some really decent mid range A/V recivers that have a good set of inputs, decent remotes, and really good sound quality; to the point where your next upgrade step is to spend $2500 on a reciever and another $2500 on an amp.

You can pair that with just about any DVD player with optical outputs, but really unless you’re super picky, any decent brands mid range DVD players will be just fine, and they run from $200 to at most about $500 for one of the big multidisc jukebox changers. Id stay with the same brand as your reciever just to simplify your remote issues.

Also for a basic rule of thumb, you should spend at least as much for your speakers, as you do for the rest of your system; or twice as much if you want to get into some quality.

For a decent home system you want 5.1 or 6.1. 7.1 is pointless, though you can’t find a high end consumer grade reciever without it these days. You dont need THX certification, but it’s fine if you’ve got it.

Third, Power - Tricky subject this one. All amplifiers (including integrated AV recievers like we're talking about here), and many other components (especially speakers) have power ratings. There's two numbers you'll be dealing with, peak power rating, and RMS power rating (it means root mean square, but you can just think of it as the "real" power rating), which is typically somewhere around half the peak power rating.

Peak power is for dealing with sudden pops and surges; and the best amplifier or speakers in the world will sound like shit when driven to their peak power. When you get near peak power you get things like clipping (where the top and, bottom end, or even entire signal just drops out for a second), and heavy distortion; so NEVER get near peak power; make your judgements based on RMS power.

Now, if RMS power (or sometimes "continuous" power) isn't quoted, just walk away and spend your money on something else.

Ok, so how much power do you need? Well that's a complicated question. First, you ned to understand that Amplifiers need headroom, which is the difference between the rated power of the amp, and the maximum driven power of the speakers. The more power you have available, the smaller percentage you have to use of it, and once you get out to about 25% of rated power (below 25% some amplifiers exhibit undesireable characteristics), the lower percentage of power you use, the better your signal will sound

Your speakers ALSO should never be driven to anywhere near their max rated power, or distortion, and even speaker damage can result. However, you also need enough power to drive the speakers properly, and the higher the peak power rating, usually the higher the power you need minimum. This means you need to be careful to match your speakers and amplifier.

A couple of general rules of thumb

1. You want your normal listening level to be well below 50% of your amps rated power, and 25% would be better. You NEVER want to turn your amp to 11 under any circumstances.

2. most speakers work best when driven at around 50% of their rated power, so your normal listening levels should work out around where both your amp, and your speakers are below 50% of their power, but above 25%.

3. For main driver power, assuming relatively efficient drivers and cabinet design, think around 5 watts per inch of driver size as the minimum power need to drive properly, and somewhere between 10 and 15 watts per inch as around the maximum depending on the speaker. Add together all the cone inches from all the drivers in each speaker to get your rule of thumb minimum power rating.

So, if your mains have three 5-1/4" drivers each cabinet, you need a minimum of about 80 watts delivered power to drive them properly to the "way too much" level, which means at least a 110 watt rms amplifier, and 120 to 150 would be preferred. Generally speaking this rule of thumb will work out to about half the rated peak power of the speakers. This isnt' to say that a lower powered reciever wont drive them, just that you won't see the potential out of them, nor will you get the expected volume out of them.

4. for subwoofer power, again assuming efficient driver and box design, think around 25 watts per inch of driver size minimum, and 50 watts maximum.

5. the bigger the room, the more air you need to move for good sound, which means more and/or bigger speakers and more power to drive them. A good rule of thumb is that 35-50 watts per main channel delivered power, with efficient and well matched drivers, will fill a small room (1000 cubic feet) with sound to the point of being "too loud". 70-100 watts delivered power will fill a medium sized room (1600 cubic feet) and 150-200 watts delivered power will fill a large living room (2400 cubic feet). Yes I said cubic feet, because the height of your cielings makes a big difference.

6. For subwoofers your power requirements go something like 100 watts minimum for a small room, 200-300 for a medium room, and 500-600 for a large room (with drivers sized appropriately), though you can get away with the 300-500 watt range depending on the design; and you wouldnt be overpowerd with anything up to about 2000 watts in a large room. Bass can absorb a lot of power very quickly, especially if your room construction and design is light and airy, and your furniture is heavy and solid

7. Generally speaking, you want your "way too much" volume level to be about 75% of your rated power, which will put your ideal listening level somewhere above 25% and below 50% rated power

8. This means that for a small room, you want a 50-75 watt rms per channel minimum, for a medium room you want about 100-150 watts per channel minimum, and a large room 200-250 watts per chanel ideal.

Now these sizings are assuming two channel stereo with a subwoofer; and standard CD music as your audio source. It doesn't take quite as much power to deliver a good movie experience, but the difference is maybe 25%; and really you should spec your system for the most challenging audio source, not the easiest (and yes, TV is really easy to make sound good, and movies arent all that more difficult unless they are special effects extravaganzas).

The only problem is that most decent AV recievers under $2500 top out around 120-150 watts per channel, so if you have a very big living/theater room, this is where you get into needing that expensive external amplifier I talked about.

Yes, you can get away with a 120-150 watt amp in a 12'x24' room with 8 foot ceilings, but anything bigger (especially with high cielings), and you aren't going to be happy with the results.

Well... scratch that; most people WILL be happy, but not if you're really picky about your sound quality.

Also note, your room construction, furniture construction, audio source, and listening positon relative to the walls, and the drivers, all make a difference as to how much power you'll need. Also remember, the bigger the TV you want, the further away from the main and center speakers you will be.

Fourth, Inputs and Outputs - Very simple, don't buy an A/V reciever today without at least one HDMI input and at least one HDMI output; along with the standard component and composite in and outs. In three years you wont be able to buy a TV without HDMI. Also, you want one optical input per switched video source, and preferably one per audio source as well.

Fifth, brands - If you want to get into decent quality without spending way too much money, you’re looking at Onkyo, Denon, the mid range of Yamaha, and the top end of Kenwood for recievers.

You USED to be able to count on the high end of Pioneer to be decent, but not anymore. Sony is overpriced, half decent, and they all work together so if you want to use one remote, and one wiring standard, it’s an easy way to go. Harmon Kardon is like Sony only snobbier, and it sounds a little better but doesnt work as well.

A little more money gets you into what’s left of Marantz (personally I’d rather have an Onkyo), Integra, Sherwood, high end Yamaha, high end JVC and similar (low end of those three are not worth the bucks).

One should note, Onkyo owns Integra; Harmon International owns Harmon Kardon, JBL, Mark Levinson (very high end consumer grade) and Infinity; and D&M holdings owns Denon, Marantz, Boston Acoustics, and the high end amplifier company McIntosh labs.

What you’re really looking for once you get above the top end consumer grade audio equipment is a good amplifier; and very solid speaker cabinets with decent drivers. You really want a separate amp and reciever (or even better, seperate power amp, preamp, tuner, equalizer, and A/V switching module) if you can afford them, but you’re talking about a minimum of $2500 (lowest price half decent amp and reciever) to get into decent discrete components there, and probably a minimum of $5000 for a complete system WITHOUT speakers, maybe more like $7500-$10,000 with speakers.

Sixth, Speakers - Now… heres the thing, spend some money on your speakers. Cheap speakers SUCK ASS, and will make the best system sound like crap. On the other hand, decent speakers will make a marginal system sound a lot better (though they’ll also highlight it’s flaws). You are better off upgrading your speakers before you upgrade your reciever in most cases.

Big speakers do not mean good speakers, but it IS easier for bigger speakers, to make bigger volume. Smaller speakers need to work harder to fill the same space. Also, the quality, strength, rigidity, and mass of a speakers enclosure (box) is as important as the driver size and quality. Oh and it's expensive to make very small, or very big, good speakers.

One major pet peeve for me, don't spend too much money on speaker wire; it’s a waste unless you live in a high RFI area (lots of electrical noise) in which case get some shielded wire. Otherwise, buy yourself some electrical power cord and tin the ends.

Where you DO want to spend a little money is in the interconnects between components. Not a LOT of money, but get decent quality or you'll get too much interference and crosstalk.

To review all that crap

So given all of that, you can pretty much break the market down to the under $1500 "all in one box" range, the $1500-$2500 integrated or integrated component setup, the $2500-$3500 integrated component with better speakers setup, and then $5000 and over for a discrete component setup with seperate amps etc...

Oh, and a word about formats. Technically DVD is more on the video side, but since I've said you should buy your dvd player and stereo from the same brand to simplify things, and most people do, we need to talk for a second about high definition DVD.

Stay as far away from it as you can for now.

There are two formats warring in the marketplace right now, HD-DVD and BluRay. BluRay is an exclusively Sony licensed technology, and Sony wants to make it their main audio/video profit center for the next 10 years, so they are charging way too much and restricting it way too much. How much is too much? Well an HD-DVD player can be had for $500 right now, and a BluRay payer for about twice that.

On the other hand, BlueRay has the potential to be technically better than HD-DVD. BluRay has 70% more data capacity than HD-DVD (25gb per layer vs 15gb per layer in the current revision actually 68%. Both types are capable of supporting 3 layers per side, double sided. Also both types are theoretically capable of storing more data; 33mb for BlueRay, and 23.5mb for HD; for a total theoretical capacity of about 200gb for BluRay and 140gb for HD), so in theory you could make BluRay moves look and sound better.

Unfortunately this doesnt appear to actually be the case at the moment, since all the titles so far released in both formats seem to look much better in HD-DVD, but thats an implementation issue more than anything else. Of course this jsut underscores the fact that these are immature technologies. THe bugs arent even close to having been worked out yet.

Anyway, the point is, this is a format war, and you really want to stay out of the way until it's been resolved. You really dont want to be the guy stuck with the betamax you payd $1200 for now do you.

Honestly, I think Sony is going to lose it's shirt on this one, and HD-DVD is the safer bet, but wait a year at least until the market settles out and we'll see.

HD-DVD has a huge market lead in terms of both vendors, and titles; as well as lower costs, and less restrictive licensing. Sony on the other hand, thinks they have an ace in the hole with the PS3, which includes a BluRay drive. They figure if they can get enough PS3s out there, then they can just overwhelm HD-DVD with sheer numbers, and then they will truly rule the HD world.

The problem with that strategy? Because they included a BluRay drive, the PS3 is going to cost $600, AND have very few good launch titles available, AND those titles will be $20 more expensive than competive games. this makes it twice as expensive as it's nearest competitor the X-Box 360; which will be re-released with a built in HD-DVD drive, as well as an add on accessory HD drive for people who already own one, in time for Christmas this year to compete.

We'll know how this whole thing will settle out by next summer. If Sony really does sell 15-20 million of these things world wide in the first six months, then BluRay will probably stick around, otherwise it's a dead end, at least for home video applications (I think it will be a winner for professional video and archive data storage IF Sony loosens the licensing requirements and costs).

Now getting a little more specific...

There are a few... tiers if you will, for component audio pricing. I'm going to leave out the audiophile systems with completely separate components as I listed above, and only talk about systems with integrated AV recivers:

1. Low grade consumer systems - all in one box setups: $500 - $1000 street price. Minimally acceptable sound on not very challenging sound tracks. Will sound great for general television use, and for chick flicks and romantic comedies, but don't even think about putting on Jurassic park. Typically you'll get a low powered 5.1 or 6.1 reciver with no certifications, few inputs or outputs, and minimal sound field effects. It will probably have a built in single disk DVD player, or at most a cheap 5 disk changer; and you'll get five small, identical (or nearly so) minicube speakers with a small subwoofer. They'll also usually rattle, buzz, and screech; and have no real power or volume.

2. Mid grade consumer systems - all in one box setups: $1000 - $2500 street price. These systems can provide decent home theater experience, and half decent music experience.

Typically speaking you'll get a half decent reciever with ok power, with a somewhat better than junk DVD player, possibly built in to the reciever; and a set of minicube 6.1 speakers that don't sound like crap, but really aren't very good; especially at high volume; usually because they are very small, and optimized for movie playback and dialogue (which is very midrange heavy, and compressed).

Bose plays mostly in this space, and they make a good run at it, with acceptable results that you pay too much for. This is also Sonys bread and butter, and again you get a decent system that you pay too much for, though not as much as Bose.

A note on Bose: The first time an average consumer hears a Bose system, they think "Oh my god this is amazing, they must be the best in the world". Those folks are completely and utterly wrong. Serious audio guys are always ripping on Bose; in their eyes, anyone who owns anything from Bose other than a noise cancelling headset is an idiot. Those serious audio guys are completely and utterly wrong.

Bose makes half decent stuff, that is well matched to their other half decent stuff, and that is marketed extremely effectively, at far too high a price for what you get. Bose specifically and heavily optimizes their stuff to sounds good where the average Joe on the street will notice it; the upper midrange, and upper bass range. They put components together that look and sound good together, and they make it easy for a guy who knows nothing about audio to get an acceptable system. You might have noticed they make a killing doing it.

3. Low end consumer systems - seperate components: under $1000 street price. For this amount of money you can do a bit better than the all in one boxes in the same price range, but not much. You're looking at about $400 for a jsut barely acceptable AV reciever, another $100 for a DVD player to match it, and that only leaves you $500 for speakers.

If you REALLY bargain hunt, you can get something acceptable, but it's going to be tough, because you just don't have any speaker budget here. If this is your total budget, and you are completely starting from scratch with no speakers etc... then you may be better off buying one of the better "home theater in a box" setups at the same price.

I don't really have much in the way of brand recommendations here excepting that Yamaha and Denon have some OK $400 recievers. Basically, you're just going to have to bargain hunt. The best advice I can give you is stay out of Wal Mart, Circuit City, and Ultimate Electronics. Look at the Crutchfield catalogue for ideas, and then go buy it come place else.

As to speakers... well realistically you won't get even slightly acceptable speakers here, so get a $500 "all in one box" speaker setup from Cambridge, Polk, Klipsch, or infinity which will still be 1,000 times better than you are probably used to; and plan on upgrading later.

4. Mid range consumer systems - seperate components: $1500 or so street price. Now we are getting into the range where you can get something for your money. With $5-600 to spend on a reciever, you can get something with a few inputs and half decent power, plus a remote that doesnt suck. That same $100 on a DVD player, leaves us with $800 for speakers, and with $800 you can actually get into something acceptable (though not great).

Now, let's talk about the players in this market space. This is where you start to get into Denon, Onkyo, and the acceptable Kenwood and Yamaha recievers (you can get into Kenwood and Yamaha cheaper, but you shouldn't).

On the speaker side, your options are still somewhat limited, but you can get into the mid range of Cambridge Soundworks (who still make OK stuff) as well as the low end of KLH, Boston, Klipsch, Polk, and Infinity here. You can also get a semi-reasonable quality all in one box speaker setup for that.

Were I to build something in this price range I would be thinking Denon, Onkyo, or Yamaha for the reciever, and the bottom end of Infinity (the upper half of the Primus Line), Polk, and Boston Acoustics, and the mid-range of Cambridge.

You can get a better quality bookshelf for less money than a full tower speaker, and it will provide a perfectly acceptable AV result, though not so much for good music (music has a broader dynamic range than movies). Also, even relatively cheap but high quality small bookshelf speakers will sound a lot better than most minicube speakers (even the ones you pay a lot more for like Bose), though there are exceptions.

If you go bookshelf, you can get into acceptable ones for $200 from Polk, Infinity, KLH, Boston, and Cambridge. For towers, you need to spend $300-$400 (from the same manufacturers) to get slightly better speakers in the same quality range (they'll sound a bit better on the lows, and have more acoustic headroom).

You can get into an acceptable center speaker for about $200, and minimally acceptable surrounds for just under $100 a pair, but I really recommend using a pair of half decent bookshelf speakers as your surrounds for not much more.

Actually, for exclusive AV use on a small budget, I LIKE having a balanced front and surround setup, using 4 (or 6 for 7.1) good quality bookshelf speakers; presuming you get a decent subwoofer and center channel speaker.

Speaking of a decent subwoofer, you are going to need to spend an absolute minimum of $300 to get an acceptable one. Anything below that and you are compromising on driver size, and internal power, as well as construction. What's important here isn't so much driver size as it is MASS, meaning quality driver, powerful amplifier, and quality heavy cabinet construction. An 8" subwoofer can sound great if it's got enough power behind it and it's well constructed. Again, the low end of infinity and polk, and the mid range of Cambridge will give you a good deal here.

When you're on a budget like this, don't even try for a 6.1 or 7.1 setup; spend more money on fewer better speakers in a 5.1 setup

So for our $800 budget we can get a full 5.1 set of Infinity Primus, or a full set of Polk (RS20 or RS30 range); and have it be perfectly acceptable.

5. Mid range "plus" consumer systems - seperate components: $2000 or so street price.

It's really simple, for the extra $500 you buy yourself better speakers. Put it ALL into the speakers. The difference between $800 and $1300 in speakers can be HUGE.

Just as an example, and keeping all of the speakers voice matched, you get into Polk Monitor 50 mains with a CS2 center, a psw12 subwoofer, and monitor 30 rears for a total of about $1100 and have some room left over to move to a 6.1 or 7.1 setup (by picking up another pair of monitor 30s for example), or to upgrade your fronts to monitor 70s, and your rears to FXi3 surrounds.

By the way, the reason I'm using Polk as an axample, is because they are about the best value for the money, in the low-mid range products, that have what I would consider a full well matched offering with reasonable quality across the major price points (all of the speakers in the example above cost $300 on the street, except the surrounds which are $200; the matching price points, have matching quality). This makes them easy to use as an example, but other brands will do jsut as well or better if you find the right pricing on them (infinitys mid range and high end are far better than Polk for example, but also far more expensive).

6. High end consumer systems - seperate components: $2500-$3500 or so street price.
Now is where we get the headroom to really spend some money on our speakers; and where we can hit that sweet spot I mentioned above in recivers.

For $1000-$1500 street price you can get into a really excellent all in one AV reciver. Multiple HDMI inputs, automatic calibration, multiple DSP soundfields that you actually want to use... inputs inputs inputs, and good remotes. Again, I personally like Onkyo, Denon, and Yamaha here, though you may want to consider Kenwood and JVC as well.

In this range, we can get a really nice DVD jukebox for $500, or a more basic but good quality 5 disk changer for $299. You generally get the best quality/value for your money with a single disk player, and unless you do something like supreaudio-dvd or superaudio-cd I wouldn't pay more than $200 for one.

Lets say we have $1000 for the reciver and $300 for the DVD changer; that leaves us with between $1200, and $2200 for speakers, and whoa boy we can do some nice things in that price range.

Look at the example above as your starting point for speakers. Keeping with Polk, we upgrade to the Monitor 60's (the 70s are overkill unles we're playing very loud music), a pair of monitor 40s for our surrounds, a pair of monitor 30s for our 7.1 speakers, a psw505 subwoofer, and keeping with a CS2 for our center (its voice matched to the other speakers), for a total of about $1800, or step up to about $2100 and go with those monitor 70s.

Honestly, other than upgrading the speakers further, theres really nothing we can do here that wouldnt be a waste of money, in between $3500 and $5000-$7500; and that price level is overkill for ecerything but the best of the best anyway, so why bother (unless you are a serious audiophile.

Now, when ou go to pick out gear, I HIGHLY recommend you go to a retailer with a listeing room; and take some good stuff with you to act as test media, so you can really see how the kit performas (especially the speakers).

The Test Media: These are the CD's and DVDs that you play to test out your systems range and quality. There are plenty of recordings that will test out your system, but these are my suggestions.

1. Jurassic Park
2. Saving Private Ryan
3. Star Wars special edition
4. Any Given Sunday
5. Le Mans

1. A very good recording of either Die Walkure (ride of the Valkyries), or Carl Orffs Carmina Burana
2. Joe Satrianis "Surfing with the Alien"
3. Trans Siberian Orchestra "Christmas Eve and Other Stories"
4. The Three Tenors in Concert conducted by Mehta
5. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones "Live Art"

What you are looking for here are those "live music" and "real life" sounds, that you dont hear on lower quality systems, but you do when you're listening to real conversations, or live music. Believe me, you'll never understand why you didnt notice these things before, but they are there with good systems, and they are gone, or distorted on not good systems.

Also, we are looking to get great BIG bass sounds, and mid range sounds, without inappropriate booms, rumbles, rattles, or buzzes (make sure it's not just your furniture), clear speach and singing with good dynamic range and openness/airiness, and very clear high ends like guitars and bells, without any twanginess, flanging, inappropriate echo, ring, or buzz.

Look, this is such a HUGE subject (5,000 words and I've barely scratched the surface), with so little in the way of objective standards... I'm sure left a bunch of stuff out. Remind me or itroduce me to something and Ill edit it up; but for now, go forth and sin no more with bad audio.