Thinking Outside the Home-Theater-in-a-Box
By Gary Warzin, Audiophile Systems, Ltd.
It's interesting to walk onto a busy retail floor on a Saturday afternoon and eavesdrop on customers agonizing over their HDTV selection. Flat panel, CRT or projector? Front projection or rear? Plasma, LCD or DLP? Big (42-inches), bigger (60-inches) or behemoth?
Now you'd think, after putting all that time and effort into selecting the display device, they'd put equal effort into getting the sound right. Instead, if left on their own, they typically spend just a few minutes deciding between the $199 and the $249 pre-packaged home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB).
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Somewhere along the line the importance of sound to the whole home theater/home concert hall experience has been lost.
The movie studios get it. They spend an enormous amount of money getting the sound right. There are actually more Academy Award categories devoted to sound than to cinematography. They know that the musical score forms the emotional underpinning for the entire movie. There might be two actors on the screen, but there's an entire symphony orchestra on the sound track.
To faithfully recreate the full emotional impact of that symphony orchestra in a living room, is no trivial matter. The decision on how to best accomplish that task deserves at least as much attention as the selection of the display device.
Just as there is a "right" display device for every customer and every situation, there also is a "right" audio solution for any individual client and room setting. Fortunately the variety of audio choices dramatically exceeds those on the video side of the equation. So it is almost always possible to configure a system that will satisfy both the performance and the aesthetic needs of the customer.
Sometimes finding that perfect audio solution requires thinking outside the box. We live in a prepackaged world. Salespeople like to fall back on prepackaged solutions – "Here an in-wall, there an in-wall, everywhere an in-wall." Customers come into the store with prepackage (mis)conceptions – "I need 7.1 speakers."
The first step in the process of blowing the sides out of that box of restrictive thinking is doing demonstrations. Salespeople need to set-up and listen to various systems and configurations so they can present the right solution based on real-world listening experiences, not theoretical solutions based on wishful thinking. Customers need to hear demonstrations to break through their fixation on the picture and to give them the goose bumps provided by the full HDTV experience.
When exploring higher-performance audio, the natural component to start with is the DVD player. This is the common link in the system between the video and the audio. With the norm being hundred dollar (or less) players, it's nice to know there's a demonstrable reason for customers to invest more in a DVD player – better sound. Once a better "source" component has been selected, it becomes that much easier to demonstrate the capabilities of today's better surround processors, amplifiers and speakers. And, for those customers still focused on video, up-market DVD players provide the bonus of better pictures as well!
Surround processing and amplification options range from sub-$500 receivers to separates ringing up at ten grand or more. Here, as with other audio components, the key is to select products that are comparable in quality and performance to that of the video display. In the case of amplification, this means looking beyond the power specification, which, depending on how it's measured, can be misleading at best. HTIBs that promise hundreds upon hundreds of watts (one channel driven at a time) rarely come close to the real-world performance of conservatively-rated receivers that deliver their rated power with all channels driven simultaneously.
On the speaker front, the choices become almost endless. In-walls, on-walls or free-standing. Utility finishes hidden in cabinets or behind the screen vs. furniture-quality finishes on free-standing speakers. One subwoofer or two. Five speakers or seven. The right solution can be different for each situation.
The assumption (sometimes incorrectly made) is that people don't want to see the speakers. Even if true, this doesn't mean the audio quality must suffer. In the early days an in-wall speaker may well have conjured up memories of your high-school PA system. Today there are hundreds of up-market in-wall solutions. There also are a number of attractive high-performance speaker systems designed to wall-mount beside a plasma. But never rule out the possibility of free-standing speakers. Because of the ability to fine tune their positioning to the room, and the sonic advantages provide by the open airspace surrounding the speaker, freestanding speakers will almost always provide superior results. And, for every person that wants to hide their speakers, there's another that would love to show them off like fine furniture, especially once exposed to the performance advantages.
Often the selection and placement of speakers requires a mix of solutions and more than a bit of creativity. Not enough room for a 7.1 channel system? Try 5.1. Frequently fewer, but higher quality, speakers can actually give a better result. No place to put a center channel speaker? A "phantom" center, where the front left and right speakers combine to do the job of the center, can provide surprisingly good results. I'd argue that great primary left and right speakers with a phantom center will actually outperform a system with three less-capable speakers across the front.
And, what about the surround speakers? When "big screen" meant a large TV used for watching the NFL on Sunday afternoon (and Sunday night, Monday night, and Thursday night, and college ball on Saturday, and… well, you get the idea), inexpensive in-wall or in-ceiling speakers might have been good enough. But, most big screens quickly become home theaters. And not just for DVDs. With the high-resolution video and 5.1 surround sound provided by HDTV, even a weekly TV series becomes a spectacular event. A key contributor to that spectacle is the rear channel information that envelops you and makes you feel like you are part of the action. Toss in today's emerging high-resolution audio formats that promise to upgrade your home theater into a home concert hall, and a significant investment in the rear channel amplification and speakers is clearly justified.
So, as you can see, or should I say "hear," the scope for improving the audio performance of any home theater system is staggering. Getting the audio right deserves just as much attention as selecting that big screen HDTV display.
This material has been adapted from HDTVGuide — a resource for information on the analog-to-digital transition, jointly produced by TWICE Magazine and CEA.