If you just bought a new, big and shiny TV set and intend to make it the center piece of your home’s entertainment system, you’ve most likely already thought about the audio part, as well. It is no secret that all the commercials and magazines focus too much on the picture quality nowadays (especially with 3D thrown in) and often forget completely about the audio part, which is often just as, if not more important.
As an example, I can bring up my experience playing Half Life 2: the first time I played it on my PC I thought it was OK – good graphics, great storyline and stuff – but nothing special. There was no immersion to speak of on the 19 inch monitor, and the two speakers on the desk were, in retrospect, abysmal for gaming. The second time I got to play the game was also on a PC, with a similar 19 inch monitor, only this time my friend (the owner of the computer) had a 4.1 speaker setup around his rig, which I thought was for high quality music or something.
But after one level of the game, I was hooked – the 4.1 system provided a level of immersion and detail that I’ve never experienced before in any game! Every corner was now scary, the gun shots and zombies made my heart race super-fast and I was always on alert and wondering what’s going to happen next – it was pretty damn amazing.
The same goes for movies – watching movies with a good speaker setup makes for half of the experience for sure – more so if you have a home theater setup with a very nice TV. In fact, I doubt you can call it a home theater without a separate audio system – the integrated speakers are not enough even on the most high end plasma panels, and I’m not even mentioning LCD panels, which can’t even fit good speakers inside their thin housing.
In short, having a good audio system setup is very important for any home theater, but choosing one can be pretty difficult. Sure, you can just buy the most expensive system you can find – or should I say, one of the most expensive systems – but you’ve got to have a lot of money, with high end setups starting from several thousand dollars and ending in the hundreds of thousands dollars range – and they’re not even diamond-encrusted, although the sound will knock you off your feet (possibly literally).
If you don’t have that kind of money, you can still get a great system, but only if you put some thought and research in it. In this article, I’ll go through some of the most important aspects of an audio system, regardless of whether it’s for music, movies, gaming or professional audio work. I won’t be recommending any specific systems – there are a few separate articles listing and reviewing some of the best audio systems on the market on this site.
There are quite a lot of audio formats nowadays, with the main difference between them being the number of channels they have. The format is represented by a number with a decimal mark, with the first number being the number of mid- and high- range speakers, and the number after the mark defining whether the system has a separate subwoofer for low frequencies (bass) or not. For example, 4.0 means there are 4 main speakers and no dedicated subwoofer, while 5.1 means that there are 5 speakers and 1 subwoofer.
The standard 2.0 stereo format is not really enough for a good immersion into the scene – 2.1 is the minimal recommended format, but that would obviously not be enough for a home theater. The most widespread format is 5.1, and that’s what you should go with unless you want a higher quality system or are constrained by space, in which cases you could go with a 7.1 or 2.1 system, respectively.
What you should pay attention to when choosing the speakers
While there are a lot of things to take into consideration if you want to create the perfect audio setup for your home theater, generally the most important things to pay attention to are the speaker cone material, enclosure shape, material and build quality, power and quality of the amplifier and the placement of the speakers (the last point is more of an afterthought, but you should always choose speakers that fit well inside the room, not too big or too small). If you get all of these points right, the quality of the sound should be very high, and the price won’t matter (although it will most probably be high as well).
Ideally, you’d want your speaker enclosures to be completely spherical (on the inside, not only outside!), made out of wood, with paper cone speakers and silk tweeters, using a valve (aka tube) amplifier, and placed at ear level evenly throughout the room. Most of the times, you won’t be able to find (or afford) this perfect combination, but fear not – there are plenty of other good options out there, and you’ll most likely never see the difference unless you try really hard or have a very good ear.
The speakers and speaker boxes
The speakers (aka loudspeakers or woofers) are the most important part of an audio system – obviously, without them you wouldn’t have any sound at all. Their size, the materials they’re made of and the build quality matter a lot and play a decisive role in the final sound quality, so you should pay a lot of attention to them when choosing your audio system. Sadly, you won’t have much say in the matter, since most cheap 5.1 systems use cheaper speakers, while high end systems use higher quality materials and are better built, so you’ll most likely go by price in the end, but if you have a choice, always look out for the best deal.
The best speakers (excluding the tweeters, which produce high pitch sounds) are made out of paper, with aramid, Kevlar and woven fibers coming in close when it comes to sound quality. While they’re mostly rare nowadays because woven fiber has become very affordable to be used in even the cheapest of loudspeakers, you should avoid speakers made out of polycarbonate (which feels like plastic), polyurethane or any kind of metal (metal is just about the worst choice for a speaker material, actually).
The tweeters are different than mid and low range speakers when it comes to the best materials. Paper tweeters may sound quite high pitched and sharp to a lot of people, that’s why silk is usually the recommended high end material, with other fabrics coming in second for the most “natural” and “soft” sound. If you like techno music, heavy metal or just bright, more detailed highs, you’ll probably want to hear some metallic (titanium is the best choice) or ceramic tweeters before making a choice, though.
Speaker enclosure material
The speakers, no matter how good they are by themselves, must still have a good enclosure to sound good, though. Despite the advances in synthetic materials, the best material for speaker boxes (aka speaker enclosures) is wood – it has unmatched properties that make the sound of a speaker as good as it can be, without making the enclosure too thick or heavy, because the walls can be thinner than with ABS plastic or other materials to get a great sound quality without distortions. If you have to choose between wood and a synthetic material when it comes to the boxes, you should always go with the wooden ones.
Unlike plastic, wood resonates much less at any given frequencies, and can help sub-woofers produce a more natural and deep sound. ABS plastic is not that bad, by the way, especially if you don’t turn your volume too high and the walls of the box are thick (like 0.5-1cm thick), but it’s definitely worse than wood, especially in sub-woofers. Metal or thin plastic enclosures are the worst – if you somehow find them, run away immediately :-).
Speaker enclosure shape and size
The shape of the box also matters, although not as much as the speaker or box material. Generally, you should stay away from perfect cubes – this is the worst possible shape for any speaker enclosure, especially if they’re made out of plastic. Cubes produce a lot of vibrations, resonance and standing waves, and the sound will almost always be muddy, echoey and generally bad – you can hear it no matter how bad your ear is most of the times, especially if you have other speakers for comparison.
Rectangular boxes are good for most purposes except Hi-Fi music – they’re the main choice for most audio systems, as you can see, and the reasons are that they’re easy to make and have a pretty decent sound, with no major drawbacks. If they have a rounded back panel (as a lot of satellites and even subwoofers do), they’re even better. A cone or cylinder is also a great shape for a speaker, and a lot of high end systems have conical satellites and/or cylindrical subwoofers. The best shape, however, is a sphere – it has the least vibration, resonance and standing waves, but due to it being hard to make, you won’t see it in any average priced audio systems.
Obviously, the size of the enclosure matters, but not as much as you’d think. Pretty much most of the times, the size of the box fits the power and sensitivity of the loudspeaker, although it is possible to have smaller enclosures producing the same sound as bigger one by using a few clever design tricks (which a lot of companies do in their higher end systems that they sometimes advertise as compact).
If you pay attention to these details, it is possible to find a really good set of speakers for a nice price – after all, why would you pay a few hundred dollars more for a brand name when a smaller, relatively unknown company could provide the same quality at a lower price?
Frankly, when it comes to the receiver/amplifier, the choice is simple – the more expensive devices win out most of the times. There are no good ways of knowing from the get go which amplifier will provide you with the best sound aside from actually hearing it with your own ears. You should choose a device that fits your needs and is certified for your desired audio system format and the various decoders necessary for the movies you’ll be watching (Dolby Digital, Dolby TrueHD, etc.). The amplifier must match or be more powerful (but the latter is not desirable as you can damage the speakers) than your speakers when it comes to nominal power (RMS, not Peak Output power), or you’ll end up with a system that can’t develop the full sound quality it’s capable of. You should also get a receiver/amplifier with all the other features you need, obviously.
If you are a real audiophile, you should opt for a tube amplifier, but most of the times and for the big majority of people, the difference is almost unnoticeable between valve and transistor amps, especially if you’re using the system to watch movies. Tube/valve amplifiers are also a lot more expensive – more so than even the best high end transistor amplifiers.
The speakers set up/placement
While this is not directly related to choosing the best audio system, the placement of the speakers can make or break the whole experience, so here are a few tips for the best arrangement. The speakers must be directed towards the listener, of course, and they should all be positioned at ear level or display level (these two should also be the same, ideally).
There should be nothing standing between the speakers and the listener, and although that doesn’t apply to the subwoofer, it is best if it is located near the center speaker or between the two rear speakers, for the best experience – if you have it too close or too far from you, the sound will be either too strong or too weak, although most of the times the sub would have to be in another room to be too weak.
A few words on the cables
The cables play a very important role in delivering the sound, and the more powerful and high fidelity your speakers are, the bigger the difference will be between cheap and expensive cables. You should go for copper, twisted pair and shielded cables of adequate thickness (depends on the power, with the subwoofer requiring a thicker cable, but most of the times, thicker is better) and copper, nickel or gold plated connectors for the best quality.
A lot of the times, the cables that come with the audio system (especially low and mid-range models) are average in quality and not that well shielded, so you might not get the best quality with them. That’s why a lot of manufacturers don’t even bother including them anymore, and that can be a good thing since you can choose the best ones yourself. You can also save some (or a lot of!) money by getting the cables and connectors yourself and soldering them – that would also give you more flexibility when it comes to the quality, thickness and length.
Well, that’s about it – keep in mind everything you read and go out and get yourself the best audio system you can!
Despite the apparent amount of detail when it comes to audio systems, it’s really easy to keep in mind the most important points without knowing the actual reasons behind them, and in the end, that can help you choose the best audio system for your home theater setup, which will not only be great for watching movies and immersing yourself in the action, but also for music and gaming, which are also a pretty important part of a modern entertainment system – even if you’re rarely watching TV or a movie, you can get the most out of your new investment.