Home Theater Buying Tips: Audio Gear

August 22, 2006

Totem Forest SpeakerContinuing on in our series of ‘Home Theater Buying Tips’, I wanted to touch on audio gear. Ah audio gear how I miss you, once upon a time the sound really was just as important as the image. Sadly the old 50/50 rule of thumb in A/V expenditures seems to have shifted to something like 30/70 audio/video in many circles.

I suppose in the end this is a personal decision but every time a client asks me how much I recommended allotting for the audio portion of their system, I cant help but think of that Rotel advertisement that reads: (paraphrasing) “if you think the sound isn’t important try watching a movie with it off”.

Drastic illustrations aside Rotel is onto something there, so much of what we see in films would be greatly minimized without the dialogue, sound effects and ambient noise that goes along with the images. Truth be told if I had my way, I would probably shift that ratio around a bit, maybe something like 45/55 or even back to the good-ol-days of 50/50. I would especially recommend a more balanced approach if you’re a music lover.

I recall one particularly how should I phrase it, challenging customer who balked at the idea of our recommendation of putting more of his budget toward the audio section of his A/V system. We actually sent him away and asked that he keep a log of how often he listened to music versus how many hours a week he spent watching movies. Needless to say when he came back he wasn’t nearly as weary of our audio recommendations.


Regardless, we’re here for tips and recommendations not the ramblings of codgey old audio salesmen. So let’s assume you’re in the market for a new set of surround speakers, a center channel or even a pair of stereo-mains. For that matter it could even be a new surround receiver or universal disc player. I have one recommendation above all others for evaluating audio gear at a dealer or for an in home trial, use a CD.

Yep, I can already hear the ‘what the heck’s’ and ‘what about the surround sound’ calls from many of you. Absolutely I still recommend viewing some movie clips or even a multi-channel audio disc if you’re auditioning a new AVR or theater speakers but that ol’ tried and true CD can be indispensable for our purposes here.

Think about it, a CD contains what? Music (at least I hope) and what do film soundtracks contain? Well they may contain music, or dialogue, or explosions, laser beams or even long passages of absolutely nothing. Now I don’t know about you but I can’t say beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I know what a car explosion or a laser beam actually sound like because I’ve never heard one first hand. But I do know what music sounds like, and hopefully you do to.

Follow me here; I’m not suggesting that you purchase a new surround sound system without actually hearing some multi-channel surround tracks through it first but if a system can’t accurately recreate stereo through the main two channels, there’s a damn good chance that’s not the only thing it can’t do properly.

Taking along a CD to a dealer demonstration that your extremely familiar with, affords you several things some random chapters on a DVD has a hard time equaling. Right off the bat a song on a CD is continuous and well, hopefully musical, it contains voice and instruments whereas many soundtracks contain large gaps of time with little to no sound at all.

Music also stands a larger chance of being ultimately familiar to you; it could be anything from your favorite rock song from high school to that new found favorite that you’ve already heard 20 times. Either way you stand a much greater chance of know how it should sound over something you’ve heard half a dozen times through just as many speakers. Not to mention CD’s are much easier to cue up than a specific scene, in a specific chapter of a DVD.

So there you have it, that’s my biggest recommendation for auditioning surround gear for your home theater, take along a CD. I hope you don’t feel cheated for reading this far into the article, I’m dead serious and I’m not having fun at your expense.

Again of course I want you to listen to some surround, don’t buy anything until you have. But if that piece of gear cant pass the music test, then anything from there on out is just a mixed bag of settings, modes, specifications and other assorted non-sequiturs, because if a piece of audio gear cant play music (accurately) its time to move onto the next piece of gear.



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under Home Theater Speakers, Surround Sound


Comments

  • Mitch

    You know, bringing a cd with you is something so simple, yet the perfect idea. It’s a “Why didn’t I think of that?” kind of thing.

  • Mitch

    You know, bringing a cd with you is something so simple, yet the perfect idea. It’s a “Why didn’t I think of that?” kind of thing.

  • shakaZOLO

    Yeah! Audio…..we love audio!! Glad to see this. One addition to the 50/50 rule: Even the best pair of speakers will sound bad in a room with poor acoustics. I tell people that the most important element in audio systems is the room

    As for the CD thing. Not only is a quality demonstration tool, but it allows you to have a constant in your comparisons. You’ll start noticing details in some systems that you don’t in others. Then you’ll start looking for them as you get closer to a decision.

  • shakaZOLO

    Yeah! Audio…..we love audio!! Glad to see this. One addition to the 50/50 rule: Even the best pair of speakers will sound bad in a room with poor acoustics. I tell people that the most important element in audio systems is the room

    As for the CD thing. Not only is a quality demonstration tool, but it allows you to have a constant in your comparisons. You’ll start noticing details in some systems that you don’t in others. Then you’ll start looking for them as you get closer to a decision.

  • Dean

    I am constantly amazed when I view AV flickr pictures of home theater gear. Some people will have a cheap HTIB sitting next to a Pioneer Elite plasma.

    My system is probably about 70/30 A/V.

  • Dean

    I am constantly amazed when I view AV flickr pictures of home theater gear. Some people will have a cheap HTIB sitting next to a Pioneer Elite plasma.

    My system is probably about 70/30 A/V.

  • westcott

    I agree that it very difficult to recommend a percentage or ratio of spending between audio and video. Prices are all over the place. You can spend as little as US$1500 for a 100″+ HD projection system or more than US$20,000.00.

    Speaker prices can range even wider, so making a recommendation is very difficult based on ratios.

    I tend to recommend people spend more of their budget on speakers. I do so because good speakers can last a very long time, much like quality furniture. The same can not be said for video. With advances in technology and the steady drop in prices, video seems to last around 5 years before it starts getting long in the tooth.

    Using CD’s is a good recommendation and with such advanced surround processing, one can listen to music from CD’s in Pro Logic II music. With 5 or more speakers, it is easy for even a moderately prices speaker system to provide a very convincing sound stage.

  • westcott

    I agree that it very difficult to recommend a percentage or ratio of spending between audio and video. Prices are all over the place. You can spend as little as US$1500 for a 100″+ HD projection system or more than US$20,000.00.

    Speaker prices can range even wider, so making a recommendation is very difficult based on ratios.

    I tend to recommend people spend more of their budget on speakers. I do so because good speakers can last a very long time, much like quality furniture. The same can not be said for video. With advances in technology and the steady drop in prices, video seems to last around 5 years before it starts getting long in the tooth.

    Using CD’s is a good recommendation and with such advanced surround processing, one can listen to music from CD’s in Pro Logic II music. With 5 or more speakers, it is easy for even a moderately prices speaker system to provide a very convincing sound stage.

  • Blake

    As an audiophile, I whole-heartedly thank you for this. The general public so rarely grasps the power of a truly amazing sound system, and are instead almost always wowed by the next biggest or flattest tv around. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my Samgung 56″ DLP, but I could live without it before I’d part with my floorstanding Definitive’s and matching centers and surrounds.

    And, while I think trying to watch a movie without sound might be a little much, a test I often provide for skeptics (those that see my home theater and say “you spent way too much money on speaker”) is to watch part of a movie using the built-in tv speakers, and then compare that with a full blown audio set up. Even cheapy HTIB sets are a vast improvement from most of the speakers manufacturers are choosing to integrate into tvs these days.

  • Blake

    As an audiophile, I whole-heartedly thank you for this. The general public so rarely grasps the power of a truly amazing sound system, and are instead almost always wowed by the next biggest or flattest tv around. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my Samgung 56″ DLP, but I could live without it before I’d part with my floorstanding Definitive’s and matching centers and surrounds.

    And, while I think trying to watch a movie without sound might be a little much, a test I often provide for skeptics (those that see my home theater and say “you spent way too much money on speaker”) is to watch part of a movie using the built-in tv speakers, and then compare that with a full blown audio set up. Even cheapy HTIB sets are a vast improvement from most of the speakers manufacturers are choosing to integrate into tvs these days.