Home theatre audio picks?
May 25, 2005 11:47 PM   Subscribe

Say you're on a budget and you need a receiver and a surround sound speaker system...

So you just got one of these fancy dancy 42" plasma HDTVs, and for absolutely free no less! But the catch is there are no speakers included, and you wouldn't want to spoil the experience with shitty factory speakers anyway.

So you have $700-900 to spend on a receiver and surround sound speakers. The room is about 12' x 15', and you're more interested in the quality of the "surround" and general sound quality over sheer volume. You'd also like to use the system for general purposes other than TV/DVD viewing, basically meaning you want to run your mp3 player through the receiver. You'd like the system to last at least 5 years and hopefully much longer. In the future there may also be an Xbox 360 or Windows Media Center PC involved in the mix...

Well folks, what combo of receiver and speakers would you go for?
posted by drpynchon to Technology (14 answers total)
If you're really on a budget, get something that sounds nice from a local, reputable, pawnbrokers. As brands go, I enjoy Yamaha -- mine was secondhand when I bought it some 12 years ago, still going strong. Might not be Dolby Digital 5.1, but sounds good to me.
posted by krisjohn at 5:24 AM on May 26, 2005

You may like a harman/kardon digital surround surround receiver. For speakers, I'd suggest Crutchfield. Their prices are reasonable, and their sales staff is (usually) courteous.

In your price range, I also like the quality of Onkyo. Use Froogle to comparison shop.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:07 AM on May 26, 2005

Used is a good option. The going rate for used equipment in good condition and that is say three to five years old is somewhere just above 50% of its new street price. I would try to get a separate receiver and speaker set. Sometimes with the surround sound in a box sets the speakers are not designed to work well with regular receivers which can make upgrading more difficult. You probably also will get better sound with separates. Most cheap subwoofers are too slow and plodding to do justice to music, although they are fine for watching movies. To optimize your music listening you might try to work on getting a speaker system where the left and right channel speakers alone can provide full fidelity. This means providing some bass, down to about 60 hz, 40 hz being even better. Purists look for 20 hz, but a speaker that can really get that low and still sound good costs as much as your new TV. You can find user reviews at AudioReview.com and Stereophile Magazine has a good list of Audio/Visual links (I do not trust this cgi link but if it fails you can get to it from their homepage).
posted by caddis at 7:08 AM on May 26, 2005

Engineering minds greater than mind have told me that it's a complex job to mix and match speakers with receivers for maximum results, so much so that factory matched set of receivers and speakers is is likely to be as good as a better speaker and receiver set unless you really know what you're doing. YMMV.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:15 AM on May 26, 2005

While working at an electronics store, I frequently recommended a "Home Theatre in a Box" (HTIB) set-up for people on a budget. You can get a high quality, full-featured HTIB for less than your budgeted amount. I recommend this one. A friend bought it's predecessor and it is fantastic in his smaller living room.
posted by LouMac at 7:17 AM on May 26, 2005

That's a tough price range if you buy separate items: $200 receiver, 5x$100 speakers, $150 powered subwoofer, and you're up to $850 already (without cabling).

Home-theater-in-a-box would be a good short-term solution, if you choose well. Important part is to get one that has a decent receiver. Then you can upgrade the speakers as you wish. Avoid the ones that have a weird DVD/receiver combo, like Sony. They are very limited in terms of inputs (sometimes only 1 aux video), and is the opposite of futureproof.
posted by smackfu at 7:19 AM on May 26, 2005

For a room that small, you might be able to get away with a powered speaker setup intended for use with a computer. Logitech has a system that includes a Dolby Digital decoder for a retail of around $400. I personally am using the SoundAround "virtual surround" decoder with a set of 2.1 Monsoon computer speakers, with the audio switched through my TV. (I really don't have a good way to run wires for rear speakers, so 5.1 is pretty much out here anyway.) It is satisfactory, and I don't have to turn it up anywhere near its maximum volume to fill the room.
posted by kindall at 7:43 AM on May 26, 2005

I'll third the recommendation for the Home Theater In A Box. These days the bang for the buck is amazing, and even audiophiles will tell you that i'ts impressive what you can get sub-$1000USD.

ecoustics.com is a good site to find reviews of audio components on. They have a whole section filled with HTIB reviews that will cover the feature set, technical specs, and an opinion on the quality.

Some systems come with a DVD player, for people who want an all in one solution. There are boxed solutions without the DVD player component, though, which might be what you want.
posted by kableh at 7:49 AM on May 26, 2005

It depends on how much effort you are willing to put in. I agree with caddis, but his solution is aimed at people who have at least a passing interest in evaluating and improving their system over time. I assume this applies to you, because you are asking...

The advice of -harlequin-'s engineering friends is completely inappropriate. You will see reviewers talk about how easy it is to drive a pair of speakers, or how well an amp drives difficult speakers. This is really only significant in very exotic circumstances. Don't worry about it now, when you have learned a lot more about sound reproduction it might matter, but I doubt it.

One more thing... Despite the marketing hype, the state of the art in speaker design is still big, ugly and box-like, accept this and you will get better bang for your dollar.
posted by Chuckles at 9:18 AM on May 26, 2005

It is absurd that $700-$900 is now considered "on a budget" for home theater audio. When Dolby Prologic first came out, there were many affordable HTIB sets and standalone receivers. The manufacturers wised up, the low end ones cost the same or more than they did ten years ago. Every other audio-related consumer electronic item has been nosediving in price over the same period. Except of course the ne plus ultra in the consumer-fleecing audio product line - Monster Cable.

Dolby Digital v. Prologic as an extra manufacturing cost to be incurred is a red herring. Once DD became standard, it's just another mass-produced chip and a couple extra line drivers for the discrete speaker signal. Not to mention that a good music setup will play movie audio with aplomb, but those tiny little speakers + a subwoofer sound like shit for music.
posted by mzurer at 9:58 AM on May 26, 2005

I setup a system several months ago on a similar budget. For about $800-900 I decided on a Denon AVR-1705 amp, With Infinity speakers all the way around: Primus 150 Front and Surrounds, C25 Center, and PS12 Subwoofer. Couldn't be happier.

I based my decision on the amp as the 1705 was extremely flexible: 4 digital inputs, great sound and power, and most importantly: component video switching. I could route all my video sources to my TV through one set of component cables (and not have to select different video sources on the TV when watching HD broadcasts, etc.) which was something that H/K and Onkyo didn't support at the time. This also truly simplified my setup so houseguests and my girlfriend can easily operate the system.

The Infinity speakers truly rock for their size, and I cap off the subwoofer at about 1/3 it's capacity due to repeatedly annoying my nextdoor neighbor.

I'd recommend chosing your components and speakers from a store with a good return policy, and audition your speakers and AV system at home, where you'll truly hear the differences as opposed to the store. I went through two amps and sets of speakers before finally finding one I was happy with.
posted by FearTormento at 10:28 AM on May 26, 2005

Do you really need the entire system right away? From your post, I infer that you currently don't own a home theater (5.1 or greater) sound system. Buying used is a great way to go, but if you can't find a decent set of speakers used, you're going to end up with cheap plastic boxes that sound awful but fit your budget.

I heartily encourage you to go the piecemeal route. If I were you, I'd just focus on a receiver and the front left, right, and possibly center speakers now. Then, add the surrounds and subwoofer later as money allows.

And don't worry about matching your speakers to your receiver/amplifier. You only need to worry about that with tube amplifiers.
posted by pmbuko at 1:30 PM on May 26, 2005

I did this with a Sony 5.1 rec. and the rest - all 6 speakers set up with Paradigm (titan series) speakers for about this price. I have people come over who have sets that cost 3x as much $$, and they are amazed. Paradigm is unreal.
posted by BrodieShadeTree at 1:39 PM on May 26, 2005

Second the Denon 1705 - it's an excellent all-in-one box for the price.
posted by blag at 6:26 PM on May 26, 2005

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