Home theatre audio systems... Help!
May 7, 2012 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Home theatre audio systems... Help!

I am trying to get started with figuring out an audio setup for my "home theatre" in the basement.

The current setup is:

- Samsung 46 inch LCD tv, using the speakers for sound
- DIY HTPC build that is still lasting me, it may get upgraded or replaced with a set top box, or all-in-one pc in the future. Connected directly to tv via DVI cable, and seperate audio cable (3.5mm stereo to 2 x RCA)
- ps3 and xbox 360 both connected via HDMI
- PVR, also connected via HDMI
- for network, I have a single cat5e running to the stand, and a gigabit switch connecting the PC and the game consoles.
- the room is a square basement, with seating right up against the back wall. TV is about 10 - 12 feet from couch. Ceiling is drywall, walls are finished as well.

I am a gadget and PC guy, for sure, but know almost nothing about home audio gear. I've seen some of those "sound bars" that are 2.1 or 3.1 with a wireless sub and those seem appealing. But would I be better off going with a quality receiver and then adding components later? Does "virtual surround" actually get the job done? Do I even need/want surround?

I do like the idea of having a receiver that can act as a central point for hooking stuff up, and then running a single cable to the TV. However, I am also trying to not spend a ridiculous amount on a setup.

My goal is to watch movies, tv, play games, etc. with sound that will be an improvement over the built in speakers but which I won't regret in a few months (i.e. regret that I half-assed it).

Any help or even just links to resources for my research will be most appreciated.
posted by utsutsu to Technology (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you've got both steady income and patience, you're almost always better off investing in a good 5.1 receiver and a pair of good speakers (2) at the start, then adding a subwoofer (2.1), and then adding the center and satellite channels (5.1) as time goes on. Again, this takes patience, but if you wait for price drops on good equipment, you can assemble a really killer 5.1 that'll beat almost any all-in-one kit. However, this takes time and effort.

I've seen really good soundbar systems, I've seen really good quasi-2.0 systems where the speakers could pump out bass. What are you watching? If you're doing mostly talky-dramas, then the center/satellite speakers should be less a priority than quality forward speakers. If you're doing action films and so on, you might want to think about spending an equal amount on all five.
posted by griphus at 12:55 PM on May 7, 2012

As far as whether you want surround, or virtual surround or whatnot, only you can tell. Go to a decent consumer electronics store and demo some of their equipment to see what you like. Maybe it turns out that the benefit of 5.1 over 2.1 is totally moot for you. Maybe you can't live without it. Either way, go do some listening.
posted by griphus at 1:00 PM on May 7, 2012

I have a couple of TVs, one with a 9 year old fairly nice 5.1 setup (Infinity speakers driven by an Onkyo receiver) and another with a relatively inexpensive Samsung soundbar with wireless subwoofer. I don't know if a nicer soundbar would be different, but there is no comparison; the 5.1 setup is far better-sounding. Although the sound bar claims to provide some sort of fake surround sound, it really doesn't come close. It is better than the built in speakers, though. But as griphus says, you really need to listen for yourself.
posted by TedW at 1:27 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're considering a 7.x system (7 speakers, x number of subwoofers) you should be aware that you're gonna need the audio to come from an HDMI source (like your PS3). That means you won't get 7.1 surround from an optical audio connection for example. However, I don't think it's a technical limitation. Just more industry lockdown.

As far as using the receiver as the central point of your system:
I recently upgraded my receiver, and I now have the video switched through it. I've never done that before, but it's worked well. The output from the receiver to the TV is HDMI, and the inputs to the receiver are: network, iDevice, HDMI, component, etc.

Perhaps something else to consider is the HDMI audio return channel that was added to the latest HDMI specification (1.4). It allows audio that comes from the TV (perhaps the TV has a built-in DVD player) to get sent to the receiver via that one cable. Note: Your TV must support this feature.

I used the AVSForum for research & support - it can really be a great resource, but it can be a bit overwhelming.
posted by MustardTent at 1:32 PM on May 7, 2012

Figure out your budget then go dig in AVSforum on the best hardware at the price point to buy.
posted by wongcorgi at 3:26 PM on May 7, 2012

AVSForum is your friend, daunting though it is.

I started with a deep-discount direct-buy Onkyo 6.1 system that included a s/w and good speakers, for about $200. I blew the amp up in a fit of stupidity a couple of years later and bought another discounted amp direct from the Onkyo site again, for another $200, this time a 7.1 model. Each purchase was used-refurb-new and marked down from MSRPs of about $1k, presumably street priced at $6-700 new

The Onkyo clearance site is here.

After about two years a fuse or a capacitor on first the HDMI board and then the front LED display on the amp failed, without affecting sound quality or other functionality.

Most recently I spent a total of about $60 on craigslist for two sets of smaller 'satellite' speakers, a subwoofer, and a partially-dead Sony 5.1 amp. The amp was beyond my ability to repair, once I verified that the dead channels were not disabled due to a circuit-protection instance. This gear is now in use with an older 5.1 system and DVD player with a jailbroken Apple TV 2 hooked to an old projector in my basement.

I noticed when perusing CL that there were numerous non-HDCP 5.1 and 6.1 amps available for relatively low prices, but nearly no decent-quality speakers at what I was looking to pay.

Having both setups in hand, the better speakers make an ENORMOUS difference and it is not out of the question that I will begin another speaker quest. I'm not perfectly happy with aspects of the 5.1 amp from an audio perspective, but then again I'm pretty dissatisfied that Onkyo apparently shipped a large quantity of the high-end amp I bought with bad engineering for certain system components.

Finally, my basement system uses several pre-HDMI components (such as the projector) and is therefore non-HDCP compliant. Apple in particular has been enforcing HDCP compliance on their media chain and this has chapped my hide in the setup I am using (no native Apple TV MLB playback, no Airplay display to the ATV even of personal media such as video shot on my iphone). Perusing AVSForum will provide plenty of anecdotal evidence of HDCP enforcement policies being activated this year or so, and HDMI is one of the enforcement mechanisms. From my personal perspective, I have not found it necessary to use HDMI through my amps for the audio portion and am likely to view HDMI as something to be avoided in the future if at all possible as a result of its relationship to HDCP.

There are HDCP strippers available but it is hard to find them as HDCP is regarded as a technology covered by the DMCA, which prevents public discussion of circumvention methodologies.

Hope this helps.
posted by mwhybark at 1:12 AM on May 8, 2012

While I agree with other commenters that you really need to hear a good surround audio setup to judge for yourself, I also am of the mind that high-quality audio goes a long way to completing the home theatre experience. Having a good picture will take you a long way, but an immersive audio experience to accompany will really allow you to escape.

I'd recommend against soundbars. While the technology has come a long way, there's no way that an "approximation of surround" can compete with the real thing. More importantly, buying separate components (that is, a stand alone receiver and separate speakers) will allow the most flexibility within your system for years to come. Also note that a good receiver will give you YEARS of use. Our 15 year-old receiver isn't serving our theater anymore, but it's happily cranking out tunes from an Airtunes stream out in the garage. You can't feasibly do that with a 15 year old sound bar.

Like most people, when we upgraded we went with an Onkyo 7.1 receiver that was paired with a 7.1 speaker system.

Having your couch pushed against the back wall in your theatre prevents you from properly doing 7.1, so if it matters, I'd just do a 5.1 setup in your room.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 6:07 AM on May 8, 2012

Thanks for the responses folks... Sounds like I probably want to get a solid 5.1 receiver and build up from there. I am used to doing research before making tech purchases, but the amount that seems to be required so that I can be confident I am making a good decision is staggering.
posted by utsutsu at 11:40 AM on May 8, 2012

It's not you. I'm pretty confident in my ability to make well-informed choices when buying consumer electronics, and I have never, ever had as much frustration as I have with home audio. It doesn't help that (ripped-off) audiophiles will continue to attest that their hideously overpriced setup is so superior that everyone else may as well be listening to those Walkman headphones with the orange foam.
posted by griphus at 11:51 AM on May 8, 2012

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