Help me get the surround sound system from heaven.
May 22, 2006 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Help me get a surround sound system! Specific questions and products inside.

So I'm completely clueless. I've made some preliminary decisions based solely on rankings and reviews, and I need you to tell me if I'm making a mistake.

Right now, I'm looking at getting this HK receiver, and this set of speakers.

Are these what I'm looking for? Specific questions:
(1) Is that receiver far more than I'd ever want or need, or will it be worth the extra money?
(2) Are the speakers good? They're cheaper than the receiver, which makes me worry, but I didn't find anything particularly better. (If you tell me that I should get separate components rather than a boxed set, please tell me what exactly to buy. Switching from one big choice to seven little ones will make my head spin.)

Here are my criteria:
*Excellent sound quality
*Relatively loud, but not necessarily blow the house down. I'm in an apartment and won't be able to take it up to max capacity anyway, though I wouldn't mind the option for whenever I move.
*Easy hook up/calibration would be nice
*Anything else I'm forgetting?

Budget matters, but if a few hundred dollars will be the difference between "good" and "OMFG I WEEP WITH JOY", I'll pay it. I want to have this a while, and I don't want to cheap out. (That's how I talked myself into that receiver.)

Bonus questions: How do I deal with calibrating the speakers to get the most out of them? Any particular components I should get (e.g., brand of cd player/etc.)?

Please help me. I don't know what I'm doing here, and I'm about to spend a serious chunk of change.

Please don't just tell me to go listen to them in the store. I know that's the best way, but (a) Like I said, I'm clueless, and I want audiophile input, (b) I don't want to have to deal with the salesman who claims to be an audiophile but is really just pushing for a bigger commission, (c) the choice is overwhelming, and seeing 15 home theater systems in a store without any idea about what I'm looking for won't help much.
posted by kingjoeshmoe to Shopping (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I listened to an HK "theater-in-a-box" setup that included an incarnation of that receiver and I believe those exact speakers. The receiver was good but the speakers sucked. I think you can get by with perhaps a "cheaper" receiver (I went with Onkyo) and better speakers.

I know you want the opinion on what's best but you'll really have to go to the store and judge yourself. It's not about an audiophile opinion it's about yours. The results are often very nonlinear, as in you can pay several hundred dollars more for an increase that's mariginal if not totally psychological.

I recommend having a firm price with a +/- $150 band and find out if you're in mid-range or high-range, then gear towards that. It's hard to seek perfect optimization when the results are so subjective but you can get a pretty idea that "a,b,c,d" configurations are better than "e,f,g,h" configurations.

So you really need to look at (1) you're not totally being ripped off and if you're looking at reputable brand names such as HK, Denon or Canton you know not to go for simply price but reputation and (2) you're not overbuying on one component and sacrificing on the others. I would say that you are overbuying in that setup in that the receiver is of much better quality than the speakers. Might I suggest getting a very good quality center and front speakers then going cheap on the other 4 and the subwoofer? You could definitely save some money and under mostly any listening conditions you won't notice a difference.
posted by geoff. at 10:20 AM on May 22, 2006

I don't know much about audio equipment, but my partner got some Norh speakers 5 or 6 years ago and they are hands down the best speakers that he or I have had or heard (and he know a lot more about audio equipment than me). Regardless of whether you go for the actual speakers, there's a lot of useful information in his documents section.
posted by carmen at 10:20 AM on May 22, 2006

Geoff: Where does mid-range end and where does high-range start? The problem is, I can't get a firm price without knowing what I can get. I totally understand that several hundred dollars can only get me marginal improvements. That's why I'm so worried.

Is there a sweet-spot in price where you get the most bang for your buck?

And how do I decide what's a very good quality speaker? I trust my ears for most things, but I don't want to rely on them alone when I'll be spending a grand or more (or less!).

Carmen, thanks, I'll check out Norh.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 10:59 AM on May 22, 2006

Almost ALL speaker in a box sets will dissapoint. That reciever is an excellent choice (but then again i am a HK fanboy). I would recomend looking at a pair of Infinty reference bookshelf speakers, and then get the surrounds and center channel as a group. That should meet your quality/volume needs.
posted by I_am_jesus at 11:13 AM on May 22, 2006

And how do I decide what's a very good quality speaker?

this question is so complicated...But there are lots of things you can look for. First and foremost, turn the speakers UP and listen to them with a good source for a few songs, if you get any ear fatigue i would recomend moving on. Then listen to them on a moderate to low level, and see how much detail remains as the power drops, pay especially close attention to the vocals and snare drum, as midrange tends to be sluffed off first if the crossovers have a shallow slope.

DIfferent people like different things, i like my speakers ever so slightly tinnyer than some and do not tolerate more than slight inaccuracies. Some people like bass more, and some people prefer a softer high. Listen to a wide range of speakers...close your eyes and try to imagine the band you are listening to playing in front of you. Can you convince yourself of this or not? This tells you about imaging and accuracy.
posted by I_am_jesus at 11:25 AM on May 22, 2006

This isn't an answer to your question, but I agree that the home theatre audio market is really an enormous pain in the ass. Price and performance have only a loose correlation, there's a jillion different products to look at, and it's very dfificult to find credible reviews.

So not an answer, but a sympathetic "argh!"
posted by aubilenon at 11:43 AM on May 22, 2006

That receiver seems a bit feature-poor for the price. For $500, you can get an Onkyo w/ 90x7 wpc, dual-room/dual-source output, and composite/s-video-->component video conversion so you don't need to switch inputs on your tv. There are Sony, Denon, and Yamaha models that offer similar features and power for $500 or less.

As far as speakers go, what I would do in your shoes is just buy a pair of mains now from one of the standard good-for-the-money suppliers (Paradigm/Energy/B&W/etc) for $300--400. Then next year I'd buy a matching center and surrounds.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:17 PM on May 22, 2006

Geoff: Where does mid-range end and where does high-range start? The problem is, I can't get a firm price without knowing what I can get. I totally understand that several hundred dollars can only get me marginal improvements. That's why I'm so worried.

Jesus is correct. What I did when buying mine is found a good reproduction source, or one I knew I'd be using a lot (i.e. iPod). Sure reproduction on a high-end Denon CD player with a perfectly mastered CD might be good but 95% of what I'll be listening to will be iPod MP3s. What I did was pick a rather abitrary price-point and a good brand name (in this case HK) and a couple of speaker combinations. I turned everything all the way up to hear the distortions and also turned it to normal volume. Eventually there's a point where the iPod itself and the source quality becomes an issue and the receiver and setup are not the hinderence. I then kept the same receiver and went up in price with receivers until I couldn't tell a difference. I kind of combo'd this to find the best price-point within a band and then bought based on reputation (in the end even though I like HK, I've had an Onkyo receiver and liked that it had more options for the price). You're probably thinking there is some magical "best for the price" combination out there, and I would admit that there is but you probably don't want to spend 10 hours trying out different setups for minute differences.

Really the best advice I can give is to try as many receiver/speaker combos you can and try to find a best fit. Nebraska Furniture Mart does have a "low end, mid range, high end" speaker sections and it's an incredibly helpful starting point even if you'll find a few outliers within these designations. If you're going to a boutique store I've never seen anything underneath high-mid range at those stores and you won't have as many options.

You'll have to realize that HK, Onkyo, Polk, Denon and the like are very good brand names and you really can't lose. You're paying pretty much the same brandname premium across the board, none are really ripping you off to the point where you would be prudent to exclude them totally. Find what you like then google it to make sure there aren't manufacturing or design issues that frusterate users. Often I found that it's not the sound reproduction but little design features (or lack there of) that piss me off about audio equipment.

Oh and please, please don't buy Monster unless you're running wire across your entire mansion, or if you have sources of electrical intereference inside your house (which I doubt any average person would). I have to give Jarius credit on this one, but I saved a bundle by buying the cheapest Radio Shack optical cables and making my own from hardware store copper wire and insulation. You'll literally save hundreds if you do this yourself or at least buy the cheapest there is at the store. Don't believe gold-plated, superinsulated nonsense. A 0 is a 0 and a 1 is a 1.
posted by geoff. at 12:42 PM on May 22, 2006

I am very happy with the Onkyo HTS660, which has a big brother, the HTS770 now.

It won't blow the house apart, but it was a complete solution (receiver, all speakers) for a mere $400 at the time. As far as bang for the buck, I think it's an absolute steal.
posted by twiggy at 12:53 PM on May 22, 2006

thanks for the help guys, but I think you all think I know more than I do.

Ear fatigue?
90x7 wpc?

Whosits in the what now?

I was hoping there was a science to audio systems. When I say I want awesome sound quality, I mean "as close to the real thing as possible." You all are talking about finding the best fit, but shouldn't the most real sounding be the same for everyone? Why isn't it?

Oh, and don't worry, I'm not planning on buying any monster cables.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 3:21 PM on May 22, 2006

Ok, I'm going to give you rules of thumb that don't listening to the speakers. Each of these have counter-examples, but they are a good starting point.

- The heavier the better. Speakers are air-pushing engines. Building good ones will inevitably require lots of iron and a thick heavy rigid box to hold it in.

- Spend twice as much on the speakers than on the receiver.

- Find a friend with a sound system you envy and buy the same thing.

- Every two years, sell your old equipment on ebay and buy something twice the price you last paid. If you drop 1000$ on a sound system now, you will never know what you are getting for your money. By working your way up, you learn the landscape, and you will know when to stop. Perhaps you will discover that you don't care for anything beyond 200$

Then, if you do decide to go listen in the store (it is the best way), then:

- bring your own songs, and spend the entire time listening to things you are really familiar with. You will notice the bad speakers are missing things that should be there, and the good one will show you something new you never realized was there.

- Bring classical music or jazz. Classical instruments have a very rich sound that's difficult to reproduce accurately. Can you hear the fingers on the guitar strings? Can you feel the lips vibrating behind the trumpets?

You said you want "as close to the real thing as possible." I once read an interview with the owner of a 200'000$ sound system. The guy was saying, at 20'000$, you can listen to a recording of four clarinets, and not tell the difference from live. At 200'000$, it's four Harley Davidson.

The "real thing" sound you seek depends on how good of an ear you have. With an exceptionnaly good ear, you will still hear improvements far into the multi-thousand dollar range. The odds are, however, that you will meet your limit for much cheaper than that.
posted by gmarceau at 3:54 PM on May 22, 2006

Not trusting your own ears and taste is one road to expensive dissatisfaction; trusting your own ears beyond all other objective evidence will have you buying Monster cables at high prices, and calling yourself an audiophile. Take a middle ground, as follows.

First, listening to speakers in showroom settings is a poor way to evaluate them. For one thing, every other speaker in the showroom that is not playing is passively absorbing energy from the room (and therefore the speakers you are listening to at that point) and thus showrooms have absorption and reflection patterns quite unlike any other rooms on earth. Second, small differences in speaker efficiency will always make one set of speakers in an "A to B" comparion sound slightly louder, and the human ear generally percieves slight differences (1 to 3 db) in loudness as being "better." So, if you spend any time listening in showrooms, take what you think you learn as one set of data points in a larger choice space. You may be able to narrow the field to 2 or 3 candidates of speakers, and arrange to have a demo set of each for an evening at home, for a side by side comparison (high end audio stores sometimes will arrange this, to make a good sale), but even if you take this step, getting set up for a good, fair "A to B" comparison is a lot of work. You have to run a couple sets of wires, you have to pad the sources to compensate for efficiency differences, you have to select placements that are comparable, yet don't mask either set of speakers, etc.

Next, if you are doing listening comparison, pick a few peices of music with natural instrument sounds and human voices, with which you are familiar or can become familiar. Accurate recordings depend on great yet tasteful recording engineers to make good choices about microphones, mike placement, and equalization, but if you stick to natural instrument sounds and human voices, you can have a baseline for your "inner Platonic ear" that is useful as a comparison basis, because we all "know" what these sound sources are "supposed" to sound like. Music featuring a grand piano is a good choices, because good ways of recording piano are well known, and the instrument is capable of producing a wide dynamic range, fast attack, long decay sound that also has a very rich overtone series. In the same way, we're all very familiar with the spoken human voice; it's a sound we hear every day, and we can, without thought, easily discriminate between the sounds made by a person and that same person with just a minor head cold, or that person crying, and distinguish their emotional state or health, by sound alone. So, systems that do a great job of reproducing pianos and human voices will generally be capable of reproducing most recorded material very, very accurately. To this end, whether you routinely listen to it or not, if you are doing comparison listening, do so on simple acoustic recordings of artists you know.

As for your choices in equipment, let me say that I'm pretty much just a stereo guy. I listen to music, and for that, 2 channels with a center channel is the best way, I've found. If you feel that surround sound movie soundtracks are the ne plus ultra of sonic reproduction technology, we have little common ground. That said, here are my comments, with respect to your questions.

"(1) Is that receiver far more than I'd ever want or need, or will it be worth the extra money?"
The absolute sound pressure levels any system can achieve depend far more on the efficiency and linearity of the speakers than they do on the characteristics of an amplifier. That is because the human ear percieves sound pressure changes essentially logarithmically; that is, for a sound to appear to be only 3 db louder than another sound of the same characteristics, you need twice the amplifier power into a load of perfect efficiency and linearity. A 3 db difference in sound pressure is the smallest "step" in loudness the majority of listeners will reliably and immediately percieve as a difference. So, to get something that is 10 db louder, you need at least 3x 3 db "doublings" of power from the amp. If you have a listening level "floor" of something like 75 db in a quiet living room, and it takes 1 watt of output power to make sounds from your speakers that you can reliably hear, by the time you get to a 30 db higher level, you'd need at least 10 "doublings" of amplifier power to achieve a 105 db thundering orchestral crescendo. This amp will run out of power between the 6th and 7th "doubling" ( 1,2,4,8,16,32, 64.. but this amp produces only 40 watts per channel). So, beyond about 95 db, if it does take 1 watt per channel to make music over your quiet noise floor, this amp will be producing clipping distortion. More on this in a minute.

Good amplifiers will use good electronic components, be based on a good electronic design that needs little interstage feedback to be stable, and have reasonable power efficiency (to minimize heat creation, and prolong service life). The big challenge in multiple channel amplifiers is to provide a lot of power from the central power supply components to all those channels, without making a package that is too big, hot and heavy to be used in a home setting. So, generally, multi-channel amps have lots and lots of connectors (for all those inputs and outputs on all those channels) and lots of controls (for all those channel balance possibilities) and lots of decode and signal processing logic (for all those Dolby and THX decode possibilities). Whether all that adds up to much music, I can't say positively. Personally, I find it all terribly confusing. I prefer big two channel stereo amps, of a couple hundred watts per channel, driving speakers of good efficiency and linearity, and a seperate center channel mono amp, but as I've said, I'm old school. But I never have clipping distortion, and I don't get weird decoding artifacts.

Your amp puts out something like 240 watts (40 x 6 channels), but one of those isn't going to be used by your powered sub-woofer. Maybe, that gets you some additional headroom. Maybe, too, your HKTS 14 speakers are far more efficient than the example I've used above, and can start making music in your living room with only a 1/2 watt of power each. So, while I don't think this reciever is going to blow you away forever, if your apartment's living room is small and fairly quiet, and you don't expect to light up the place with realistic symphony hall level of reproduced sound, it will probably be adequate to avoid clipping distortion most of the time. And it certianly has all kinds of input and output jacks... Probably has a dynamite owners manual, too.

"(2) Are the speakers good? They're cheaper than the receiver, which makes me worry, but I didn't find anything particularly better. (If you tell me that I should get separate components rather than a boxed set, please tell me what exactly to buy. Switching from one big choice to seven little ones will make my head spin.)"

Surround sound speaker sets don't get a lot of my attention. Personally, I go more for the classic stuff in loudspeakers, and speakers that are behind me just confuse me, and make the furniture hard to arrange. Admittedly, I listen mostly to music and FM and shortwave radio programs, watch little TV, and few movies (I like to go to movies in theatres). My general rule of thumb for many years has been to hook up only one of whatever speaker I'm interested in, and listen to that for at least a few hours. If what I hear from that one speaker is neutral, and not tiring, it's a good design. Most multi-channel speakers put to this evaluation don't last an hour. They're just tinny, and too tiny to move enough air to be satisfactory at reasonable volumes. Add 5 more of them, and you can turn them each down considerably, but I suspect that all together even, the totality of the sound that they will produce will be not as good as better, bigger speakers in fewer channels. You've really got to answer the basic design choice question here, which is "stereo vs multi-channel." If, in your mind, multi-channel is the way to go, you head into one commercial universe where car chases that go around your head are really important, and if you go into the stereo universe, you're never going to be really happy in any room that doesn't have a couple of walnut cabinets the size of refrigerators in prominent and preferred positions.

Still, if you are moving in a few years, you may find that the system you are buying now becomes your TV/theatre system then, and you get some better music system in another room. That's how it works for a lot of people.
posted by paulsc at 4:14 PM on May 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

thanks for the help guys, but I think you all think I know more than I do.

Let me 'splain... no, there is too much. Let me sum up.

You do not seem to be a crazy audiophile, and given that I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with paulsc. He offers good advice for a budding audiophile, but you don't seem to be that person.

I'm assuming you want a receiver for tv/movies and for playing popular music. You will probably be happy with the sound from just about any $250+ big-brand home theater receiver. More money will get you the following:

More watts (wpc, watts per channel). This means that you can make it louder. The idea isn't to play it stupid loud, but so that when you're listening/watching to something at kinda-loud levels, there's enough oomph left over for when the Death Star explodes.

More channels. Basic home theater receivers will be 5-channel (left, center, right, L surround, R surround). Six-channel receivers add a center surround channel. 7-channel have a side-surround and back-surround on the L and R sides. You do not have to use all of the channels on a 7-channel receiver; it will work just fine with 2, 3, or 5 speakers.

More features. One feature you might like is video conversion. You have lots of things you'll want to plug into your receiver -- your tv/vcr, a dvd deck, a game machine, etc. If you have video conversion, you can just plug each of them into the receiver using whatever output it uses -- some will use composite (a single patch cord), others will use s-video (looks like a mouse cable kinda), and others will use component (3 cables, common w/ dvds). Then you run a single component connection from your receiver to the tv, and that's it. It saves you from having to switch your tv itself from game to tuner to dvd, and means that you can just put your tv remote in a drawer somewhere.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:50 PM on May 22, 2006

Also, crutchfield ( has a lot of useful guides to things like this. They're a good source of information even if you don't buy from them.

For speakers:

Is there a stereo store in your town? Not a BestBuy or Circuit City, but a proper stereo store? Look for one that sells at least a couple of the following brands: NHT, B&W, Energy, Paradigm... others can chime in.

Go there and explain to the dude that you want to set up a surround system over the next couple of years, starting with just the fronts for now, and that you want to spend $300 or so for the pair. He'll probably show you a couple of choices, listen to them both and pick the one you like best. Ask about whether the manufacturer will keep these or matching speakers in production for the next several years.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:01 PM on May 22, 2006

Definitive also appears on the usual lists of "makers of good inexpensive speakers"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:05 PM on May 22, 2006

ROU_Xenophobe, thanks. Letting me know that I can't go too wrong with a receiver is a relief. (And bonus points for a princess bride reference.)

Also, thanks to everyone else for giving me some idea about what I'm looking for. I'm listening, I promise.

As for speakers: I live in Los Angeles, so I'm sure there's got to be a good stereo store around here. Anyone want to make a recommendation for one which has good selection, does not have super-inflated prices, and has guys that know what they're talking about and are honest?
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 5:29 PM on May 22, 2006

I definitely sympathize with the frustration of buying a sound system. I know quite a bit about audio, including pro-audio, and I still had a hard time buying a system recently. There are tons of opinions and even more technobabble out there. Let me see if I can give you some helpful advice. Use it or not, makes me no never-mind.

First, take a good look at what you want. Do you like to listen music mainly? Or do you want a good cinema experience? Do the explosions and other effects of today's action movies get your ya-yas going?

If you mainly like music then concentrate on getting a good pair of main speakers. If you want a surround system, then I'd still start with a pair of good speakers and a good center speaker, then either buy lesser surround speakers or add them when you can afford better ones. If the effects are important then surrounds and a sub-woofer will be important.

For auditioning speakers, pick a few CDs for music and/or DVD's for movies, that you know well. I've got about 7 or 8 songs that I've been ringing out halls with for about 20 years. Good samples will have most of the audio range, from high synthesizers and drum cymbals to deep bass or Chapman stick. Good stereo separation is useful too. Also, vocals will be really important. The human brain is incredibly good at hearing the voice.

Listen to the speakers at different volumes. One mark of good speakers is you should be able to listen to music fairly loud for awhile, at least 10 or 20 minutes, without your ears feeling fatigued. It is hard to describe, but your ears will feel tired or pressured with so so speakers. Kind of like how you might feel with a slight head cold. With really great speakers, your ears will feel fresh.

Another thing to listen to is silence, or lack there of. With the CD or DVD player on but not playing anything, turn up the volume knob to at least 12 O’Clock and listen to how much noise you hear. Carefully turn the volume up to where you start to hear some noise. Then turn the volume back down and play something and turn up the volume until either the music is too loud or you reach the same level where you noticed the noise. This gives you a rough idea of the “signal-to-noise” ratio. This can be deceiving if the CD/DVD player is noisy. You might try the same thing with an input with nothing plugged into it to get an idea of the noise floor of the receiver. Be careful here. You can damage equipment if you do something stupid, and odds are that if you break it, you buy it.

Spend more (or most) of your money on the speakers. As the transducer, the device that converts the electrical energy from the amp into mechanical energy of the moving air, it will make the most difference. Amps/receivers from reliable manufacturers these days are all several orders of magnitude better than what anyone can hear.

Another aspect of speakers that can make a difference is their efficiency. How well do they turn the electrical energy into moving air. A more efficient speaker will give you the same loudness with a lesser amp then a less efficient speaker and bigger amp.

All of that said, I went with a pair of Klipsch RF-7 for the mains, a RC-35 for the center, and a pair of RS-35 for the surrounds. They are very efficient. Some people don’t like Klipsch because they can be fairly bright, but I like that. They are a well known and reliable company and will more than likely be around in 10 or 20 years if I need repair parts. I went with very good mains and medium grade center and surrounds. These may be out of your price range, but anything in the Reference series will be good. Here is a link to Klipsch:

I did not get a sub-woofer because the mains have two -10" woofers. I mainly like music, but wanted some surround ability, but don't really like all of the effects that Hollywood puts into all of the movies these days.

As for receivers, I went with a Yamaha HTR-5890. I have had really good luck with Yamaha on the professional level, both in terms of reliability and costumer service. I also liked the features it had. It has a mic you can plug in and it will set up all of the surround settings. You can override any of the settings so you can tweak them if you want, but the initial set up is easy. It also has a switch that will bypass all of the audio processors and send the stereo signal just to the mains, which gives the cleanest sound. It also has a "night" setting which lowers the bass settings. This is useful to me when I want to listen to something when my wife is sleeping. Here is a link to the Yamaha HTR series:

And here is a link to the HTR-5890:

I got mine from Bestbuy (yes yes, nasty, evil corporation, hiss, spit, boo, etc, etc,...) for about $700. May be more than you want to spend. Odds are the receiver will need to be replaced long before the speakers do.

As for an honest, reliable, knowledgeable stereo store, well, um, Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore. You might as well ask for same in a used car salesman.

Speaking of which, don’t buy lots of expensive cables. I have worked as local crew on dozens of main name rock concerts (U2, Genesis, peter gabriel, Janet Jackson, etc….) as well as have done many theatre sound system installs and have never seen gold on anything. The most important thing on speaker cables is sufficient size. 12 gage should be plenty. I just got a 250 foot reel of oxygen free 12 gage speaker cable from Home Depot. I did get medium grade audio/video cables, yes with gold (mainly for corrosion resistance), but nothing from Monster Cable.

Good luck. I will check back on this thread, so if you have any questions, let me know, and I will try to answer them.
posted by tbird at 2:11 AM on May 24, 2006

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