Buying your first Home Theatre – how to demo and some suggestions
I compiled my thoughts on helping new members get the best out of their new systems into this post.
This thread aims to give new members a simple way of setting into a shop and finding that system you are looking for.
1 – things you do at home:
Settle the BUDGET!
Now this is a sensitive issue and often we want start out wanting to get a cost effective “simple” system and allocate a budget which is small not because we wish to save or cannot afford it, but when we haul that system home, it can be quite a let down. So put aside the maximum amount you feel comfortable with. Then spend it!
Allocation of funds:
There many formulae, but most agree the cornerstone of a Home Theatre system is the subwoofer and centre speaker. And speakers are where you want to put more of the money.
AV amps are now like computers, with processing to make that home theatre experience so real you feel right in the middle of the action. That means you need an amp which can handle the signals and turn them into a proper surround experience. Right now, good Digital Sound Processing (DSP) chips, Audyssey are key.
But don’t forget good amplification, and power is key and there is no substitute for good amplification sections. That should be where the fundamentals of good music and sound lie.
This should be tempered with the fact that AV amps are quickly updated the next year, so buy one with enough features and inputs to last for your current needs and a little more.
We did a little demo and shootout recently and the summary as far as players are concerned is:
For Blu Ray, in source direct, the difference between players is not that great, and the players only differ significantly in the quality of their scaling and interlacing. So if you have a significant collection of SD DVDS, then it is worth investing in a good quality and more expensive player. If you like to source your discs from many places around the world, a REGION FREE player will useful. CODE FREE players for SD DVDS are quite commonplace.
As for projectors and TVs, this is also a fast moving area and I would buy something I would like to use for a few years, but not go too overboard.
Stands are essential if you are into bookshelfs.
The whole more speakers are better thing should be tempered to your real needs. If you only have a small room, it may not be that beneficial. As for the whole satellites vs proper bookshelves and floorstanders, it is a balance of aesthetics versus functional needs and the WIFE ACCEPTANCE FACTOR (WAF). Work it out first.
Remember to keep about 10% of your budget for cables, wiring and the like.
Whilst you are still at home:
Do a bit of reading, understand the terms, so that when you visit the shops, you know what to ask, and also not feel overwhelmed or cheated.
Also MEASURE properly your Home Theatre space.
That way you know what kind of speakers will fit, and how much room treatment will be needed. Speaking of room treatment, this is a key element which can influence the outcome of your system more than many think. Quite simply a bit of time and money spent here can make a budget system sound more expensive and realistic.
Get a sound:
You will have gone to the cinema or even had a sound system before. The key is to listen to something you like, and practise listening to it until you can remember the sound, and know how it sounds to you.
ON TO THE SHOP:
Armed with some facts, and now onto the shop.
Where should you go? Well the shops should have the following:
- Have the brand you are eyeing of course
- A wide selection
- A decent sound room
- Friendly staff
- Establishing a good rapport is essential and reward them, please avoid using up all the time in a shop them walking somewhere else $10 cheaper!
What are some of the shops we commonly mention? Well reading around helps and you will hear some shops mentioned more often than others.
Make friends with the owners, and give them their due reward.
Firstly, avoid weekends, or even call first to make an appointment.
If the shop does not allow demos, walk away.
Bring along a CD of your favourite music or a demo disc of something you are familiar with. Also be familiar with the sound of a male BBC presenter. That will be a good test of the centre speaker’s ability to reproduce human voices.
Then consider what matters to you, a balance of music and HT. A highly musical system is more costly and you will need to be realistic about what our budgets can achieve, so this will be a system for HT.
Some Discs To Consider:
These are the discs I would consider essential:
There are many demo quality discs, but you should choose a few which you are familiar with and hear them often, then use only the segments you are familiar with to use as there will be fatigue and confusion if you use too many discs.
To me, the surround effect is harder to achieve than just bass. What you need to discern, is the naturalness of the sound, the quality of voices in the centre speaker and how the sound flows from one speaker to the next. Can you imagine the person or car going from one speaker to the next.
Then how does the sound from the main speakers integrate with the subwoofer. Speaking about the subwoofer, to reproduce the kind of chest thumping bass needs money and a big sub. If neither of these are palatable to you, then be more modest in what you wish to achieve. Depth and slam are not mutually exclusive, but only the better ones can achieve that in volumes, so if you can only spend under 1k, the results may be less forceful, but that’s ok.
What discs do I use? Again, each has their own but here are my own favourites:
Masters and Commander –
This disc has one of the finest surround channel effects around. The way sound flows from one rear speaker to the next and how the creaks in the wooden ship, the stretching of the ropes and the sound of the waves, all add to a complete home theatre experience. I suggest you choose one of the quieter scenes instead of merely concentrating on the cannon shots. That will give you a better idea of the surround channels at work.
Take note of how you can find in the middle of the action, and does it sound real.
Hurt Locker –
This newer show has really good ambience and also there are moments you will feel right inside the helmet of the bomb tech. of course when the explosions go flying, the bass is incredible.
The dialogue in the show also allows the various speakers to be tested, and whether you believe there is someone right in front of you.
For clarity in a non-animation show - the opening scene from Shooter; for an animation: "9" which has excellant surrounds and brilliant colour rendition.
One of the tricks is to switch OFF the screen. Then you can fully concentrate on the sound and decide if the system sounds realistic.
AFTER THE BUYING FRENZY>>>>
So you plonked down some hard cash for the HT system. The easiest way to get installation is from the vendor, or getting some knowledgeable friends to help. Not every shop does installation. If you did not get the speakers from the same shop, grab the amp or other items from another vendor who does installation, and negotiate a price.
When you do so, make sure you define what is installation. Does it mean driving to your home with the equipment, and dumping it in your leaving room, or hooking up, and calibration etc. many of these “installers” are merely labourers who will help a little, there is quite a bit of work after they leave and the dust settles.
What can you do?
If it is a big renovation, work with your interior designer. Lay the cables first, and Jaycar, or Monoprice online has most of your cabling needs covered unless you want something more exotic. IMO, for the rear speakers, just good old thick (18 AWG and better) will suffice. Even if you do not think you will get 7.1 or more, lay the cables first.
What if you cannot lay cables?
Well I go under… i.e. I simply hide everything under my carpets. A decent and thick carpet from IKEA will cost < $200 for a 2.4 by 1.7m piece and it also helps to tame reflections. But every now and then you will need to clean it or vacuum the carpet.
These are essential components for bookshelf speakers and will help the sound to no end. Ideally if your pockets allow it, the same brand ones look nice and fit the décor. But brands like Target, Atacama, or even Ikea has some that can do well.
See the thread on speaker placement for info on the arrangement.
If your décor does not allow large stands, especially for the rears, you can get specialised ones which are more dainty from the Queenie brand, and other nameless ones and sometimes IKEA also carries them. Alternatively, you can place the rear small speakers on large bookcases, such as the tall BILLY ones from IKEA. But make sure the bookcases are filled with heavy books or the shelves act to distort the sound.
When using satellites and small speakers, this is possible, but for the rears try and avoid mounting them right at the corners and also avoid sitting just next to the wall. Make sure the brackets are strong enough to bear the weight and extend your cables a little longer to allow flexibility in mounting.
This is a more esoteric audiophile term which is like “seasoning of your new gear”. Running in allows the sound to be more stable and listenable but YMMV. Usually it takes a few days although brands like Dynaudio and Monitor Audio do mention that it can be months. But in the mean time, just sit back and enjoy the sound.
CALIBRATION and Auto-EQ
If you have a Audyssey or other auto-setup equipped amp, that would be the first thing you can try yourself first. Use the info in the thread on Audyssey as a basis, then check the settings, such the speaker distance. I notice that subwoofer distance tends to be a bit longer than measured when I use Audyssey, but it sounds fine and I leave it as what the system perceives it to be.
If that is already too hard, just stop here. If you feel the boldness to proceed further, then using a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) meter and the test tones or a frequency sweep disc will help you fine tune the sound.
Some members specialise in room treatment and calibration and you can pay them to help you set up, and buy room treatment stuff from them to improve the sound. A bare room is not ideal for HT, and you can look at various member’s equipment list to see what matches for the best sonic marriage.
Electricals and wiring:
For the best in sound, you may want to work with your electrician or one of the suggested ones in the forum to get a new distributor box and if your WAF allows, lay a new direct line to your HT room or area.
There are posts on this everywhere, but suffice to say, fitting the décor is probably the paramount consideration, then for the hi fi bits:
- Can it bear the weight? Even though some consoles state 100kg, they will flex in the middle if all the weight is concentrated in the middle with no support.
- Can you reach the cables behind?
- Is there enough ventilation? Amps don’t like heat much, so as a rule, keep 4 inches around the amp.
I tend to install all the cables in, even if I don’t use them first, for the TV and the amp and Label them so it is easier for me to see what they are leading to. Also I keep a copy of the layout which you can photocopy from the manual and keep it behind my amp. I also have a light which I can direct behind my amp to help me visualise where all the wires are going.
As for mounting TVs – there is a whole section in the display area, but essentially the centre of the screen sound be just below eye level when you are SEATED, not when you are standing up.
Check your viewing distance, and a simple rule is for HD viewing, you should sit about 2.5 to 3 times the diagonal length of the TV screen.
If you are using a projector, check the throw distance, and zoom function and the keystone feature on the projector.
And as mentioned, avoid sitting right up against the back wall. The sound will not be good and you can expect distortions. Just moving your chair a little in front or putting some bookshelves on the wall behind you makes a lot of difference.
Finally read up about acoustics, or ask someone to help, and how to use your furniture, carpets etc to help create the right balance of sound dampening and harmonics.
Using Different Vendors:
There will be times when you like something which is only available from a specific seller. Some shops are also smaller and do not keep stock of so many things.
Right here, I should declare that I do not have any financial interests in any of the companies I mention.
Eastwood is affordable, but there are a scattering of shops. For the best deals you may have to buy blind from overseas.
KEC is often mentioned here and they offer a large variety, but sometimes they are too busy and one or two of their staff are little indifferent to newbies. So spread the love and look for the other shops around too, Anson, Seng Heng, Alpha Audio etc in Adelphi and City Electronics in SLS offer alternatives.
But we may need to buy one item from a shop then go elsewhere. So how should we do this? You need to choose something first. Either the speakers or the amp, and I have personally hauled my amp to various shops to audition the speakers.
Its your money and you should feel welcome. But after you spend the time there, then buy it there.
Sometimes the equipment used is different from what we intend and there is a different sound, this is a real issue, and ultimately there is a compromise.
How about Home Auditions?
This is a extremely viable option. Our community has quite a few helpful people who welcome people into their homes. Some simple rules:
Be on time or let the owner know that you will be late or cannot make it far ahead of time. It is rude and unpleasant for the owner to chase up the person who feigns ignorance.
But bring the material you are familiar with as mentioned. And note the kind of environment it is used in, the room it is used in and how different or similar it is to your own.
Ask the owner how he did it, and most of them will answer happily.
Oh do bring a little something, that is just a little courtesy. Cheers.
A little extra note on this:
Too often we see members post a certain budget. Then when they try a series of products on the ground, they then realise either the system underwhelms so much that they are very dissappointed, or that they like something much better and obviously more costly.
So it is best to sit down and assess what the size of your wallet really is:
Often we see members buy something low cost, then spend ridiculous money on tweaks which could have been spent getting a better system in the first place.
So concentrate your funds properly. Then when you audition (for goodness sake, you DO NOT AUDIT), try out something around your budget, something a little less costly and something which is just above your budget.
DO NOT waste time auditioning something too costly, then ask if it is better unless you really wish to buy it. Why do it? I can always suggest something close to your budget, but it is painful to read comments that the intend system did not meet the needs, then the poster suggests a budget a little higher and then finds again the system does not meet the expectation, and finally a realistic budget emerges which the poster could have said in the first instance.
Speakers make the biggest impression, and a well setup system can be a real blast - literally. With modern technology, you can really feel part of the action in the movie.
The HT system as mentioned before, can withstand upgrades, and should be something you will be proud to come home to every night. So make it a good budget without killing yourself and shut out the poison from our forums
Good luck to all trying to avoid the poison of this forum....
Narrowing it down:
If after a few visits to the shops you are not thoroughly confused, then that is a good sign that you have narrowed it down to a few choices wisely instead of trying to commit to too many or having no focus.
Basically the choices lie in which appeals to you more. Depending on your diet of music and HT, then you play the piece of music or movie clip which you know well and decide which coupled with the AV amp of choice give you that nice smile or tingle in your spine.
The earlier caveat of having a realistic budget still applies, but eventually there will be a system which can appease the wallet whilst still making peace with your ears. That will be the one to buy.
As for whether satellites or bookshelf speakers are right, it is answered in the thread on satellites too, but suffice to say, that satellites are a compromise. They provide a small footprint and are a concession to aesthetics. So that is the key reason why you buy them, so no sense going back and forth asking or tearing your hair out on choosing between the two. The tiny centre speaker of the satellites will lose out to a proper sized one, and again if the satellites are forced to crossover at 120 Hz or so, there will be compromises. Deal with it and move on. A choice needs to be made.