Home theater assistance
March 21, 2007 6:14 PM   Subscribe

What sort of speakers/setup should I go with for my home theater?

I am looking to purchase a decent audio system for my home. It will be going in a relatively small area but the area is open to the living room below (it is an open upstairs landing above the living room).

I've been looking at some reviews on CNET Reviews and found this set to be highly recommended. I'm trying to keep it under $500.

I will primarily be using this for movie watching, playing video games, listening to music. I'm more than willing to consider a non HTIB set but I feel that it would be less of a hassle to stay with this sort of bundle. I'm certainly not limiting my options to Onkyo either, but I have heard good things about them from multiple sources.

Am I on the right track here or are there better options in my price range? Should I go with an HTIB or buy individual components? Is Onkyo really as good as I've been hearing?
posted by Nihility to Technology (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
HTIBs get a bad rap because they are not very upgradeable and the quality runs the gamut from truly decent to deplorable. That looks like a good setup and as long as you don't plan on upgrading the individual components and don't have snotty audiophile friends to impress, you'll be fine.
posted by deadfather at 6:57 PM on March 21, 2007

Frankly, all these speaker in a box solutions are not so hot. This one looks pretty good, and Onkyo is a reputable company which doesn't make too much crap. They like to position themselves somewhere above Sony. This is at the low end of their offerings but you can always upgrade piece meal later on. Don't buy something like Bose which uses nonstandard stuff and makes upgrading less than the whole system difficult.
posted by caddis at 7:01 PM on March 21, 2007

I am looking to purchase a decent audio system

For certain definitions of "decent", you really have to spend a lot of time trying and learning. Get yourself a cheap receiver, use your current speakers as surrounds, buy a nice pair of stereo speakers for your fronts, and try playing with the speaker placement. Later, get a centre channel. Later, get a sub, or maybe find a nicer stereo pair, and bump the old ones to surrounds, and the old surrounds to freecycle. And etc.
posted by Chuckles at 8:10 PM on March 21, 2007

That's my system. My parents have a very nice Denon/Canton setup that cost easily $5000+ and I can definitely tell the difference. I'm somewhat of a snob and the only thing I'm disappointed about is the lack of optical connections, as everything takes those now and I believe produce a better quality sound. If I had to do it over I would definitely get a Denon/HK and some nice stereo speakers and forgo the entire home theater setup, as I think surround is somewhat gimmicky and find myself listening to music most of the time anyway.

That said, I'm happy with my system and it impresses my friends. I come from an audiophile family, so I can tell the difference, but most people can't. That and I am somewhat ashamed to say that my entire music collection is high bit rate MP3, which after a certain level is definitely my limiting factor.

Oh I did notice that the system does produce a bit of a "bright" noise, but it is to be expected on low-end setups. And if you have an older record player you'll need to buy a preamp (~$20, don't be fooled by the expensive ones, a preamp is a preamp is a preamp).
posted by geoff. at 9:07 PM on March 21, 2007

Best answer: In general, HTIBs are inferior to separates. And at $500, you're not going to get a very good setup, in absolute terms. That said, Onkyo is one of the best options in that market and pricepoint; for $500, you will not likely do much better, unless you go used.

If you want it now, you want it new, and you want to spend only $500, that's just about the best possible choice.

If we change your givens a bit, there are other options available:

A) If you can afford to save up for awhile and get into the $1k to $1200 bracket, you can get a really sweet setup that will last a long time. You can literally keep a system like that for a decade or more. You might upgrade electronics, but speakers last and last. If you go to $1500, you can get a better subwoofer, but that's probably overkill in an apartment. You can always add one later. If that dollar amount isn't completely scary to you, say so and I can point you at some options to consider.

B) You can buy used. If you're willing to do some research and multiple trips to local pawnshops and the like -- turning it into A Project instead of just a purchase, you can probably get stunningly better sound for a LOT less money. But you'll have to hunt pawnshops, write down brands and models, and do online research. It might take months to assemble a system that way, but if you're careful and shop smart, you can probably do incredibly well for not very much money. Audio gear doesn't degenerate much over time; 10-year-old speakers, if treated properly, will sound just as nice as they did when new. Maybe nicer. Electronics age in terms of features faster than speakers, but you can usually replace those fairly easily, particularly if you end up with the classic 'stack' of a pre-amp and a separate amplifier. You can just swap in a new pre-amp and get all the new features as they come out. But buying new, this kind of setup will cost thousands, so it's completely unreasonable.... unless you get lucky in the pawnshops.

C) Building your system a piece at a time as you can afford it will let you do a better setup. I tend to suggest buying in this order:
1) Your front L+R pair are the most important; 75% of the signal comes through them. I'd suggest at least half your budget here; these are the linchpin and matter the most. You use these for everything, all the time, no matter what, so most of your focus needs to be here. As your budget gets higher and you've got the basics covered, the percentage put here should climb. An excellent L+R pair can carry a weak system, but no amount of money and gear can fix bad front speakers.

2) Then you have to have a receiver to drive them. Your electronics don't need to be enormously expensive; the little Panasonic digital receivers (XR-series) are in the $200 to $250 range and are just fine for driving $2k speakers. Low-end Onkyo units like the 504 are also an excellent choice.

3) The sub is next most important, assuming you don't have full-range L/R. The sub will fill in the sound and give your system punch and power; it will improve the immersion a bunch, especially if you have a good one. If you can get up into the $300-$400 range, that's the sweet spot for performance. You can spend a lot more money and get a beast, but you'll usually get max boom-per-buck at around $400.

4) The center will enhance movies a lot; up until now, you've been spending on both music and movies, but now you're adding stuff just for movie-watching. Centers need to have very good dialogue reproduction and almost nothing else. Ideally, get something that's a reasonably close timbre match to your L+R pair. The center is the anchor for movies; you can use a 'phantom' center just fine with good left and right speakers, but an excellent center will improve realism a bunch.

5. Finally, add your satellites. These can be cheap and crappy, relatively speaking, unless you are doing a lot of multichannel music. For movies, they mostly just do ambient sound and aren't that important. They add space and air, but they don't actually do that much and don't need to be that great.
If you assemble your system in that order, you'll get the most immediate enjoyment, and can cherry pick components and steadily enhance/upgrade the system over time, so you get to enjoy the same stuff over and over as you add new pieces. :)
posted by Malor at 3:27 AM on March 22, 2007 [12 favorites]

Oh, I forgot something: geoff, there's no difference between optical and copper digital ins, in terms of performance. Some purists actually claim that the copper version is a little better. (I've seen the argument for why that is several times, but it never sticks, so I can't repeat it.)

As long as the receiver has enough digital inputs for your device outputs, you're fine. The physical type doesn't matter at all, and copper cables are much cheaper.

The only time you might need optical over copper is to isolate a ground loop problem. (subwoofer humming).
posted by Malor at 3:31 AM on March 22, 2007

If you go to $1500, you can get a better subwoofer, but that's probably overkill in an apartment.

The thing I love most about a really good subwoofer is that it can give clear tonal sound at all volumes, not just throw in a little "woomp woomp" when you turn it up.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:46 AM on March 22, 2007

I used to work at a Circuit City, and customers would come back to the store thanking me for recommending the Onkyo HTIB. For the price, it is a really good setup. I can't think of a better system for $500.
posted by LouMac at 7:10 AM on March 22, 2007

for the 500 price you could get into a nice set of Paradigm speakers. two (or four) of those will outperform any in the box setup.
posted by BrodieShadeTree at 3:43 PM on March 22, 2007

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