Audio Equipment Selection

When selecting an audio system there are many paths to take.  Key decision points that should come into play include…

  • Room Acoustics – spending a ton of money on audio in a room with a lot of glass and tile is a waste of money.  If your room sounds like an echo chamber it should be fixed or keep the audio modest.  All of the fancy electronics in the world will not fix this.
  • Connectivity – the number of connections and how the sources will be connected may limit the choices of equipment.  For example using TV speakers and the sound system will require routing the HDMI cable to the TV and not through the receiver unless you are willing to reconfigure the receiver each time you want to switch between them.
  • Speaker Placement – speaker placement is as important as the equipment purchased.  Consider smaller speakers if you cannot locate those great speakers in a reasonable position because of their size. 
  • Great Sound Is Loud At Times – if you will never listen very loud buying a high dollar sound system makes little sense.
  • Appearance – better looking gear will generally cost more.
  • Cost – you can spend a ton of money on these systems.  The amount of improvement is less and less with each dollar spent.  The key thing is to get the best value for your money.

TV/Display Audio

The lowest cost is to stick with the audio built-in to a display.  For many people this is as good as they need and may be the best option if you will not listen loud or have poor room acoustics.  You will lose the LFE (low frequency effects) when you do this.

Home Theater In The Box (HTIB)

The next step in quality is HTIB.  These systems can deliver great value.  However, they will not put out huge amounts of sound.  The smaller the room the better these systems will fill the room with sound.  The biggest deficiency for many people will be the lack of earth shaking bass.

Beware of products that use plastic speaker cabinets.  Many of these rattle at higher sound levels.  Wood is a much better material for this purpose than thin plastic.

Custom Assembled System

These systems really have no limit in cost.  Once your room acoustics are reasonable speaker quality, setup and speaker placement are the dominant factors.  Receivers should be purchased for their adjustability and lack of software bugs.  Receivers and preprocessors today are complex audio computers and the quality of the software is more a factor of the sound quality than most realize.

One way to limit cost is to reduce the number of channels driven.  Rear speakers in a 6.1 or a 7.1 system are not generally a huge factor for sound and require the space to place them properly.  These are the first speakers I would drop for cost or if your seating will be against a wall.  A great subwoofer is much more important than going from a 5.1 to a 7.1 system in my opinion.  After that it is much more difficult to decide which channels to drop.  No center will generally hurt dialog intelligibility and pans across the front.  No surrounds will reduce the ambient effect in movies.  No subwoofer will hurt the movie rumble unless you use very powerful main speakers..

The amount of power required from the receiver or amplifiers required will depend on your room and listening levels.  A reference home theater should be capable of 105db at each speaker and 115db from the subwoofer with minimal distortion.  The larger your room the more difficult this will be to achieve.  The calculator link on the right can be used to determine how much power you will need.  I would target 100db to 90db maximum per channel if you do not want to listen at reference levels.  You should note these are peek levels and not continuous. 

Quality subwoofers are a huge improvement to movie sound if you can accommodate them.  The best ones can put significant energy out at 20Hz and deliver quality bass at 30 to 80 Hz where music bass resides.  Multiple subwoofers should also be considered when multiple seating positions are involved.  A physical phenomena known as bass modes causes the bass to be strong and weak in various areas of the room.  The best way to reduce this is to purchase more than one subwoofer and place them some distance from one another.  Subwoofer equalizers can also be a huge improvement if they are used properly.  A simple unit like the Elemental Design eQ.2 is a great addition to systems that lack manual subwoofer equalization.

The amount of subwoofer capacity required will depend on the room size,, design of the subwoofer and your target sound level.  The larger the box the subwoofer is in the less power it will need to fill the room with sound.  Distortion also tends to be higher with lower frequencies making multiple subwoofers even more advantageous for a home theater.

When selecting equpment I would compare the following features between products your are looking at.

  • Sound quality (be careful to consider the environment when comparing products)
  • Weight (better audio gear tends to weigh more)
  • Receiver/preprocessor timbre adjustability (manual equalization of each channel is the best)
  • Reliability
  • Expert opinions and reviews
  • Owner opinions
  • UL amperage rating for all amplifiers (this shows the total power limit of the amplifier)
3 Comments
Phil Hoener

Great information! Do you have an AV receiver recommendation for a guy who is one step above the HTIB situation, but who doesn’t have the whole theater setup? I’m looking in the sub-$500 range. 5.1 system with automatic calibration…I just don’t use it that much to invest the dollars. (This is all much more interesting than IDCOM…wink.)

W. Jeff Meier

Hi Phil,

Those days in HMD were fun.

I would give the Pioneer VSX-830-K consideration. It is low cost and compatible with high resolution 4K external sources unlike many products. I am also a fan of Pioneer receivers in general.

Drop me a note when you get your equipment and I could drop by and help you with it.

John Halpin

Just discovered you! Have Sony system, TV/Blu-ray/Home Theatre, with Sky satellite box and Tannoy SFX 5:1 speakers. Had it for a few years and,although quite good, I’ve never felt it had the ‘wow’ factor – either the system or my settings not up to the match. Looking for some hope to engineer improvements. Also now got subwoofer grumbling randomly..not helping and finding that I’m turning it off often. Not good and getting bit despondent! Can you help?

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