If you already have a nice HD or 4K TV the best way to take your home theatre experience to another level is through a Home Theatre Sound System. The addition of powerful room filling sound that is synchronized with the video image will make a movie experience feel that much more immersive. In addition to the added power and sound clarity, a home theatre surround sound system can make it feel like bullets in a war scene are shooting across the room, or a helicopter is flying right by you. Sporting events will also seem more real as you hear the crunch of pads clashing into each other while supportive fan cheering fills your room.
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Shopping for the best home theatre system to suit your home can be a bit challenging. The good news is that there are a lot of excellent brands to choose from, each with a variety of models to choose from. With all that choice, finding the best one for your requirements can be trying. This guide is will help you figure out what to consider so you can find a great solution within your budget.
Room Size and Setup
Before starting to shop, you need thoroughly survey the room you are placing your system in. The room will have a biggest impact on the type of system you should be looking for. A big room will need more power and potentially more channels than a smaller room. The space may only allow for placement of 5 speakers and a subwoofer, or it might only allow smaller wall mounted speakers rather than larger tower speakers. If it is a difficult room to cleanly wire all the speakers, you may need to go for a wireless system.
The size of your TV can also have some impact on the home theatre system. Just like the bigger the room demands a more powerful system, if you have a bigger TV you will want bigger sound to go with it. More power and bigger speakers will provide the best immersive experience with a 65” TV or more; whereas a 42” TV in a smaller room can easily be complimented with smaller speakers with less power.
Music vs. Movies
Although you want to augment your TV with immersive surround sound for a better viewing experience, you likely want to use the system for music as well. It is important to recognize that music and movie sound requirements are quite different. Because movie soundtracks cover everything from dialogue to music to sound effects they tend to have a much broader dynamic range. Their bass tracks tend to be much deeper for all those booming effects and their voice tracks tend to focus on the centre channel. The surround effects that allow a bullet to shoot across a room or raindrops to hit the floor are dispersed across all the speakers to create the best effects.
Music, on the other hand is largely two channel stereo, with accompanying woofer that needs to be more crisp and clear rather than overly deep. The most important speakers are the front left and right speaker.
If you primarily are using it for movies, try to ensure the subwoofer is better for those deep-bass effects and consider a centre channel speaker that is crisp, clear, and well-matched with the other speakers. Music listeners will want to ensure that the two front speakers are the highest quality for the best sound.
Because you are likely going to use it for both, the simplest solution is get a well-balanced system that is the highest quality that you can fit in your budget. Some subwoofers come with a music mode and a movie mode so they optimize the bass output based on the application. Also, many of today’s receivers compensate for the different equalization curves for both music and movies, when the appropriate surround mode is selected, so they can also optimize the sound accordingly.
How Many Channels?
The number of channels depends on how many speakers you would like to connect, which may be a function of what your room will accommodate. There are a variety of configurations: 2.1, 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, 7.2, and 9.2. The first number is the number of speakers and the second number is the number of subwoofers. Most surround sound systems have 5.1 channels, with five speakers and a subwoofer. A 9.2 system has nine speakers and two subwoofers. Placement of the nine speakers generally has 5 in the front around the TV (2 left, 2 right, 1 centre), 2 on the side of the room and 2 in the rear.
Taking this up a notch is the Dolby Atmos surround system, which is typically 5.1.2 or 7.1.4. The extra digit represents ceiling speakers, so a 7.1.4 has seven floor level speakers, one subwoofer, and 4 ceiling speakers. Dolby Atmos will provide the most immersive sound you can imagine, as the sound comes from every direction with incredible clarity and depth. It handles motion exceptionally well giving a three-dimensional feel to sound.
As you would expect the more speakers you have the more immersive the sound will be. The most common surround systems have 5.1 channels, and they work extremely well in creating a very good surround sound effect. Looking at 6.1 or more channels will do even better but will largely depend on your room size, room configuration, and budget. For more details on 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 channel systems and how they are typically configured, check out this post on the Plugin Blog.
All-in-One System or Á-la-Carte
A very convenient way to go is an all-in-one home theatre system, which is also known as a home theatre in a box (HTIB). This is a very cost-effective solution that reduces the hassle of choosing all the components. An HTIB is a complete system whereby the receiver and speakers are all specifically designed to work together. The speakers are also designed for the specific channel that they will support. For instance, the front left and right speakers are usually the biggest as most of the impactful sound comes from them, the centre speakers is designed to support more vocal content, and the rear speakers generally a bit smaller than the front left and right speakers.
An à-la-carte system has the advantage of allowing you to get exactly the features you want whereas a packaged HTIB comes the way it is as a kit. It isn’t too difficult to go à-la-carte since all you really need to select is the receiver and the speakers. There are some excellent receivers that are loaded with features that you might not easily find with an HTIB solution. In addition, speakers can be somewhat personal in that what is pleasing to your ear varies from one individual to another. You just need to make sure the power output of the receiver you choose matches the capacity of the speakers, which is very easy to do.
Wireless vs. Wired
Using a wired vs. wireless solution is a relatively simple decision. It will depend on how difficult is it to place the wiring for all the speakers in your home theatre room and how much flexibility do you want with your system. The nice thing about wireless systems is that the installation is very simple and clean. In addition, it allows you to easily move the speakers into different applications – place them outside on the sun deck, or into the kitchen for some music, or where-ever.
When referring to wireless systems, it is called “wireless” due to the fact that they don’t require speaker wires to connect to your receiver. They do typically require a power plug as most are not battery powered, but instead need to plug into an outlet. In that sense, they aren’t totally wireless, but since most rooms have outlets distributed throughout wiring up those speakers is a lot simpler than “wired” speakers.
The advantages of a wired solution is generally better sound quality and is a wider variety of different speakers to choose from. Wired speakers generally have better sound quality because the speaker is not limited to bandwidth, and they have better power handling. You are much more likely to find more powerful and clear sound that really suits your taste. Although there are a number of good wireless speakers, there are only a few that will work well in a balanced “surround sound” application. Sonos, who have been a leader in wireless speaker systems, are one of the best options for a proper surround wireless speaker system.
You can learn more about these advantages on Best Buy’s Multi-room Audio Buying Guide.
The A/V Receiver should be the centre of your home theatre system, and can be loaded with a lot of excellent features. Finding one with the features that are most important to you. There are a number of features to pay attention to like the number and type of connections, system output power, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Airplay connectivity, 4K upscaling capability, ability to support multiple rooms, and the availability of remote apps with Internet streaming options. You can discover even more features in your search.
An A/V receiver should be considered ad your Home Theater system’s “brain” as it selects and coordinates all the various components within your system, It determines which source is being used and sends the information to the playback devices like your TV and speakers. One very important feature, which is an indicator of sound quality is the inclusion of a dedicated “Phono” input. This input is more expensive to manufacture and requires discrete circuitry, which offers considerably better sound than computer chips or integrated circuits. This allows for improved dynamics, depth of field, and detail so even if you don’t have a phongraph to connect it is a good feature have for the electronics.
The number and type of connections is important is because the A/V Receiver can be used to control all your applications. Many receivers have multiple HDMI, optical and other connections so you can connect gaming consoles, Blu-Ray players, cable boxes, TVs, etc. and you can just use it to switch between the various applications. Figure out what you want to connect now and in the future and make sure your receiver has the connections to accommodate that.
If you have a big room to fill or you just really want a booming sound, make sure you have a powerful receiver – 50 Watts of power per channel should do the job nicely and make sure you have a dedicated subwoofer. This is especially important if you want a visceral sound experience that will make you feel it right to your bones. If it is not a HTIB then make sure to match it with similarly powerful speakers.
If you are into music or video streaming, the receiver should have wireless connectivity like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and/or Airplay so you can use your Smartphone, tablet or iPad to play content. Ideally it also has a remote app with a wide variety of Internet streaming stations.
If you have a 4K Ultra HD TV, a receiver with 4K upscaling is a great feature as it will ensure you get the most out of your 4K UHD TV. You may find other unique features with the wide variety of different receivers. It is important to review all the features and make sure it offers you the ones that are important to you.
The speakers are a critically important element of the system. You simply need to find speakers that are matched to the power output of the receiver and that are the most pleasing to your ear. So listen before you buy! The good news is that there are a lot of excellent brand name speaker providers that have excellent sound. Polk, Bose, Sonos, Energy, Klipsch, JBL, Definitive Technology, and Martin Logan all have some excellent speaker product. Listen to different speakers to find the ones that are the most pleasing to your ear. The power needs to match the output of the receiver, and the speakers for the entire system should be the same manufacturer.
Most of these manufacturers have speakers that are specifically designed for each of the separate channels of a surround sound system. You will be able to find different speakers to select for the centre, rear, front and side speakers. This makes it easy to select a system of speakers that work well together. If you are really into music as well, make sure your front left and right speakers are full speaker sets that will also stand on their own. If you go with an HTIB solution, the speaker combination is pre-selected to match the receiver making it very easy.
There are a few additional features worth mentioning, that you may find extremely useful. For instance, automatic audio calibration will ensure that the speakers are properly balanced for your specific room so it will optimize the surround sound effect. The way this works is the system comes with a microphone that you place in the centre of the room. It picks up the sound in the room and automatically adjusts the speaker outputs to best suit the room.
Although wireless Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and/or Airplay connectivity is convenient having an iPod dock and/or a USB port to connect digital content directly to your system will add another layer of flexibility. You can play your entire digital music collection with one simple connection.
Multi-room capability allows you to use the A/V receiver to provide independent sound in another room. This can maximize the usefulness of your receiver by using it to deliver music to another room separate to your home theatre room, giving you a bigger bang for the buck.
Take your home theatre to another level of enjoyment with a home theatre system! It isn’t that hard to find one that will work the best for your space and your taste. Enjoy!