What to look for in a Home Theatre System

What to look for in a Home Theatre System

I’ve set myself to write this Home Theatre Setup Guide, as there is a lot of information on home theatre systems, however none of it is well compiled and to the point or it’s just a blatant advertisement for the manufacturer of the equipment. Most of the knowledge I’ve gathered is from my interest in audio engineering and good sound quality, reading books on the topic and speaking with sellers of audio equipment, so my understanding is down-to-earth.

So let’s get to it.

Debunking the myths

Firstly, let’s debunk the most popular myths that any newstarter hears.
1) A good quality system is very expensive
2) I need a large living room
3) I need a very powerful subwoofer
4) A soundbar is good enough

All of the above are FALSE, except the last one which is a half-truth, but we’ll discuss that one in just a bit.

I can’t stress enough that there are absolutely brilliant sound systems I’ve heard over time that are dirt cheap, either because they are second hand, as someone has moved to a higher tier of quality or because their wife forced them to sell their gear, due to space in the living room. There’s no point in me just listing specifications of audio systems, just go to an audio store and hear two audio systems with the same audio input and you’ll see for yourself. Price is not always quality, this couldn’t be truer in audio peripherals. The main reason, in my opinion, is that people perceive sound in different ways. Some prefer more soft and “colored” sound, others a more clear, a bit more “mechanical” sound. It’s up to the listeners preference.

The large living room. In reality it has to do more with the shape of the room, for the acoustic travel, rather than the size. Obviously, for a large living room, you’ll need a more powerful system to push more sound, but if anything, for a small space, you’ll be able to save more money, not needing a powerful one.

The powerful subwoofer need. I blame mainstream media for this. Every subwoofer ad just compares Watts without regard for any othe specs. “Unless your windows start shaking, you it’s not powerful enough” is the worst attitude to selection. Your neighbours will thank you for the change in mindset. A small subwoofer is perfectly fine, by small I don’t mean actual size, but actual wattage, as very few actually are unfortunately, but that’s the law of physics.

A soundbar is good enough, is a yes and a no. For me it’s a No, not because of manufacturing quality, there are many really good soundbars made by Sonos, Sony and others, but because it’s a compromise of speakers of different purpose crammed together on the same ear-level, despite meant for different frequency ranges and distance. None of the drivers inside can live up to their full potential due to size restriction. However, that’s me, it could be a Yes for you, if you don’t have enough space in your living room, for the entire setup or you are too close to the TV even then I’d somewhat recommend to get two great stereo speakers than a soundbar, however a soundbar is more aesthetically pleasing than large black boxes scattered around the room for many.

The main decision factors I’ve broken down in the following categories
1) Purpose of the sound system
2) Room size and picking the components
3) Wiring and cable management
4) Neighbours consideration

Purpose of the sound system

Are you going to only watch movies that offer surround sound, Netflix and Amazon Prime or are you going to use it as a sound system for a party. It feels like a natural choice to say both, right. It’s a multi-purpose thing. Right, but this will sway our choices on which speakers to put more focus on. I’m going to say both, because I can bet >80% of the average consumers would agree on the scenario.

Why does this matter? If you are going for a party setup, your main focus will be the two front speakers and a subwoofer. A centre speaker, which has its main purpose to produce the movie dialog, won’t matter as much, surround sound speakers are usually small and weak, with a wrong setup of the audio channels, you might not even hear them if you blast the front speakers maxed out. You can reallocate the budget accordingly.

Then we have the source, is it an AV receiver, is it a vynil player? As this can quickly become a bottomless pit, and I’ve assumed we are going for multi-purpose setup – Home Theatre and Party sound. We are going to go with an AV receiver.

Room size and picking the components

The room size as mentioned earlier is not as crucial, it’s more of a question of a form factor – is it a square, a circle, a trapezoid. The best one for acoustic reasoning is a circle, plenty of concert halls have this shape for this reason – Royal Albert Hall for example. However, I’ve never seen an apartment or a house that’s circle, yet :), so the closest you can get to is a square. The more square-like your room is, the better the acoustic travel and less effort needed to the exerted from your speakers to “fill” the room with sound and achieve a surround effect. Check the average local recording studio size and the soundproofing panels and you’ll see what I mean.

The first component we’ll start with is the AV Receiver, it’s the heart of the entire setup. Usually, when you start browsing such, you’ll see enourmous tables of specifications, even I don’t know what the manufacturers are talking about most of the time when they start throwing random abbreviations of proprietary technologies with questionable value. What matters first and foremost is power, followed by inputs, followed by outputs and finally any technology that’s added lately – Bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify-connected and so fort from convinience standpoint.

Power-wize, my rule of thumb is the following, if you intend to upgrade the components over time and they might require more power, invest in a powerful enough AVR now, at least 140W, unlikely you’ll be replacing it in the next 6-7 years at least, might as well future-proof it to a certain level.

Inputs, the sound you’ll get will be as good as the input source, so you want to be able to accept HDMI or Toslink, all digital formats. Nowadays, I believe HDMI has finally become “the standard” due to the high bandwidth that can be pushed through. Toslink is on its way out in my opinion. Support for the regular 3.5mm aux is also still a must, if you want to allow your friends to plug in their phone as a source at a party.

Outputs, HDMI and/or displayPORT are the minimum required, all TVs nowadays accept HDMI, so there’s a good chance your AV Receiver will be sending the video signal out via HDMI or displayPORT, check if it’s compatible with your TV. Again, try to future proof the stuff, not to buy an old AV Receiver, because your TV accepts only RCA input. Secondly, on outputs, make sure it supports at least 5.1 channel output – 2 Front, 1 Center, 2 Back, 1 Subwoofer. 7.2, etc is great too. Channels are the multiple levels supported by your source, that are redicrected to the proper speaker to achieve the surround effect. Your receiver also needs to support them for the whole thing to work. There are multiple standards for achieving the surround effect. If you are interested in the technologies, google them, George Lucas actually has played a large part in driving these forward.

Wireless connectivity technologies – as of this day of writing, none of them are just there yet, however Bluetooth 5.0 looks very promising, but it will pass sometime before we see its wide adoption for products for the average consumer. However, the convenience of playing a Spotify playlist or an Apple Music Song in a few taps from the phone during a party justifies them in my eyes. However, do not expect audiophile quality over wireless for the moment. A disclaimer here, I haven’t used a Tidal integrated AV Receiver, as supposedly they push buffered lossless music directly to the receiver over Wifi, so I might be a bit behind the curve on this one.

Which one to buy? You’ll see that price is proportional to the output power and the number of channels supported, less to the rest of the parameters. These are also the most easily comparable characteristics across manufacturers, as each takes different choices to achieve a certain performance ratio. I’m personally an Yamaha guy, due to past positive experience with them and good value for money, however, brands like Denon, Marantz, Pioneer and many others are top notch as well. Again compare based on the above 4 characteristics above to make your decision, speak with your sales person in the shop. They are such an overlooked resource, they are not your average sales person, they actually know their products quite in-depth. Don’t be afraid to ask to hear a few out, just make sure it’s the same source and the same speakers.

Before we start on the speakers, let me just emphasize that I’m a strong supporter of the same brand speakers for the entire system. The reason is most of them will be built supplementing each others’ sound. If you see their specs, you’ll notice that their frequency ranges are perfectly matched. You also avoid the risk of picking completely differently sounding speakers. If you can afford the whole solution upfront, go for it. Alternatively, it’s not critical to pick each individually, that’s the fun in it is after all, but there are risks associated with it.

Front speakers

Towers or bookshelves? Obviously tower speakers are better, larger drivers, larger range, closer to ear level. However, they can be quite big and expensive. If you are budget limited, my advice is to start with high quality tower speakers only. Save and purchase the individual components over time so in 2 years you end up with a premium quality sound system, rather than a mediocre one from day one. I started with high quality bookshelves, as my goal was when I save to purchase tower speakers, I’ll switch the bookshelves to back speakers, so it’s a win-win over time. It’s a viable strategy as well, however requires patience and that you actually save money.

What parameters to look for? Frequency range, wattage and sensitivity. The wider the range the better, as you’ll start to pick up sounds in your music you didn’t hear before. Wattage, is obvious – power and volume of the sound. DB sensitivity – higher is better, this represents the efficiency of converting power to sound. It’s the effort needed from the receiver to produce one Watt from the speaker. An example, a sensitivity Rating of 87 dB achieved with 1 watt/1 meter means the speaker will produce sound at the volume of 87 dB 1 meter away when it gets 1 watt of input power. Pick a speaker with a minimum of 87 dB, again this is not a metric of quality, but of efficiency. If you have an AV Reciever with a lot of power, this will matter less.

Another factor to consider here is if you don’t have a space for a subwoofer or have no intention of buying one, invest in tower speakers with larger drivers, for example 8 inch ones. This allow them to reproduce lower bass levels and mitigate the lack of subwoofer, if you intend to buy a sub, you can go with a smaller drivers, something like 6 inch ones.

Centre Speaker
Pick one that has strong mids, as this one will output the dialog in movies, to have it clear and not muffled. I’m not aware of a perfect frequency range, nor power. The drivers can be smaller than your front speakers, if they are towers. If bookshelves, try to match the driver size. Again, you don’t want one speaker to overpower the rest, most of these can be controlled via the AV Receiver, but the less “artifical” settings from the AV Receiver, the better. As it makes the sound more “processed”. That probably doesn’t make much sense at the moment, but play with the settings of your system, once you have it set up, you might agree with me.

Surround Speakers
At home, I don’t have surround speakers now, purely because of the wiring needs and it makes my living room look hideous. Yet the wireless solutions aren’t there yet. It doesn’t kill the atmosphere for me, but if you want to take advantage of technologies like DTS, Dolby Atmos and others, you’ll definitely need these. Bookshelf speakers do fine. Again, the accent should be on the front speakers, you can be a bit cheap on the surround ones, as they usually don’t have to exert as much effort, just beware not to buy them overly cheap and start hearing a metal noise at slightly higher volumes.

Subwoofer
When you go for a subwoofer, don’t overweight power in the decision please. There’s more to it. Usually this purchase is limited by the box size, as most of the subs are quite big, as their size is proportional to the output power they offer. If you are not going for a same brand solution for all speakers, there are quite a few lesser known brands that are worth a shot. To be honest here, as the frequency is so low, it will be very difficult to mess things up, unless you have your sub stand out compared to the rest of the speakers and hear more prominent low frequency bass, then the rest of the system components. Unless your room is really big, you don’t need a big sub. Anything north of 150-200 Watts will be more than sufficient for the majority of cases. The larger factor here is the crossover you set, ie. the the frequency below which the subwoofer kicks in. Most popular crossover frequencies are 40,60 and 80 Hz. I like to listen to house music, so I have mine set to 80, but it’s rarely what I recommend to others. Again, which one is best for you is trial & error, hear them all out and decide.

Wiring & Cable Management
Buy good quality cables, buying cheap wiring for an expensive system is like running a 40km marathon and dropping out on the finish line. They don’t have to be the most expensive there are, and believe me there are very expensive ones.
Personally, for me wiring is key, not because of the quality of the input it will provide, but also aesthetics. If you are to have the cables around corners of the room, going for a minimalist look, you want durable ones. Black wires running across the middle of the room for a surround speakers are far from aesthetically pleasing, but it depends on your setup of course.

Neighbours considerations
If you live in a house, that’s great. If you live in an apartment, however, neighbours are a large consideration. High frequency sounds don’t travel far, so they’d be less of a concern, however, low frequency ones travel far, so chances are they’ll just be hearing a muffled bass across the ceiling or wall. This is another reason not to go for a super powerful subwoofer, unless you need one. Another advice I can give is, if you watch movies until very late to use “Adaptive DRC” or whatever your AV receiver manufacturer calls it. It will compromise the quality a little, but you know how in some movies the sound effects are too loud, but the dialog is too low and you find yourself changing the volume constantly. Well this option will lower the volume for sound effects and “flatten” the sound a bit also reducing the high volume need and bothering neighbours. In reality, no matter how many technologies are invented, it does boil down to having understanding neighbours and you being a considerate neighbour yourself.

There’s so much more I can write on the topic, but the post is long enough as it is, and if you are reading on a mobile device, chances are I’ve lost you already. I hope this was a useful introduction and has brought you a little bit more clarity on how to pick a home theatre system.

One thought on “What to look for in a Home Theatre System

  1. Inspiring Design

    Thank you for this blog, I am looking to buy a home cinema system and was very confused with a variety of features and among them which I should prefer. This will definitely help me with my doubts.

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