A Guide to Creating the Best Home Theaters, Large and Small (Part 2)

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Part 2 of this guide focuses on sound quality in home theater. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1. Looking for info on Acoustic Treatment, building a space, or adding finishing touches to your TV setup? Check out Part 3.

The Audio Side

Sound is the real key to getting your home theater experience to the next level. Most people looking to get the best out of their movies focus on picture quality. And while a great projector or TV certainly packs a punch, 50% of a film or movie is what you’re hearing.

Why Buy Speakers?

Let’s start simple. Why do you need to buy external speakers? After all, that pricy flatscreen you bought already has speakers. They’re loud, ish. You can hear what people are saying. Surely that’s all you need, right? Wrong. The Gremlin judges you for settling.

TV speakers have MANY drawbacks. The first is that most TV speakers are mounted to the back of the television, meaning that the sound has to be reflected off the surface behind the TV, before it gets to your ears. I won’t bore you with details of acoustics, but suffice it to say, this process muddies the sound. Not that it matters, because TV speakers themselves pretty much always suck to begin with. TV manufacturers know that nobody buys a flatscreen based on how it sounds. All you care about when you’re strolling the aisles of Best Buy is how it LOOKS. So why would manufacturers spend lots of money on the speakers? Answer? They don’t. TV speakers are small and use cheap components. Finally, and most obviously, TV speakers offer no “sound stage” or the separation of sounds that gives you the impression of directionality, because they’re far too close together. If you want the full sensation of a starship flying across your room, TV speakers won’t even give you a hint of what you saw in the theater.

Convinced to spend a little money on your sound? The good news is, if you’re starting with TV speakers, VIRTUALLY ANYTHING will be a welcome improvement. That said, speakers and sound devices come in a dizzying array of options. To narrow it down, you first need to consider your space and your budget.

The tricky thing with speakers is, unlike a flat panel TV which can be discretely mounted on any convenient wall, quality sound requires space and placement. You need the right kind of speaker placed in one of only a few positions to get great sound. Ideally, you also need a room with good acoustics (I’ll delve further into room design in Part 3 of this guide). The rule of thumb with home theater sound is, it’s better to go with a more modest speaker design that can be placed in just the right spot, rather than a more expensive or complex setup that can’t be made to fit well in your room.

The Sound Bar

For those with limited space, limited budget, or just looking for an uncomplicated way to get better audio, a sound bar is your best bet. Basically an array of speakers built into a single bar a few feet long, sound bars offer a fantastic compromise: a set of good quality drivers that take up relatively little space, while still offering sound quality that is an order of magnitude better than any built-in TV speakers. Many sound bars can even be mounted to the bottom of the television on the wall, so you can get away with not having to have a media cabinet to rest them on. Best of all, most sound bars are self-contained and powered, which means, unlike a set of surround speakers, you don’t need a separate receiver box to power them. Just plug them into the wall, connect them to your TV, and boom, instant upgrade.

The Gremlin’s Sound Bar Recommendations:

For a cheap way to majorly improve on your TV’s sound:

Vizio SB3621 $179.99 

Vizio made the only sound bar I’ve ever owned and loved. That model’s a few years old, but their latest budget entry is awesome. For under $200, you get a solid upgrade over those awful TV speakers that’ll make your favorite movies and TV shows sound vivid and clear. It also includes a wireless subwoofer, to give you improved bass in a box that can be placed anywhere out of the way. If you’ve ever struggled to pick out dialog, or wished for more OOMF from your sound, this is an inexpensive but quality upgrade.

For top notch sound that’s easy to setup:

Sonos Playbar $700

Sonos is the top name in whole home sound solutions, and as a result, they’ve learned how to make a fantastic sounding speaker that offers great bang for the buck. This is serious sound in a svelte package that more than passes the “good enough” mark for discerning listeners. As an added bonus, because it’s Sonos, you get convenient, reliable playback from any phone or tablet, so this will pull double duty for entertaining or just kicking back to listen to music.

True Surround Sound Setups

If sound bars are so great, why do people buy surround speakers? Because sound bars are still a compromise. The physics of sound and speaker design are intricate, but suffice it to say that in order for a speaker to produce great sound, it needs space inside the speaker cabinet, some space behind and on either side of the speaker, and a big fat well-made power supply. By shoving smaller speakers into a confined cabinet along with all the power circuitry, a sound bar will always have a more muddied sound than comparably priced discreet speakers. Sound bars are also restricted by the very thing that makes them so damned convenient: placement. Great home theater sound immerses you in the action by creating the illusion that sound is coming from all across your space. Having speakers spread out across the front and back of your room is always going to do a better job of creating that all important sound stage than any sound bar.

The downside of a true surround setup is complexity. There’s plenty of clever ways to fit speakers into your space, but the fact remains that surround speakers are much larger than a sound bar, and they need to be placed all around you, which is far harder to accommodate in a multi-use space like a typical living room.

Surround speaker systems also require an external box that can send power to your speakers, and process all of the different sound channels so you get the booms and bangs coming from the right place, typically an AV receiver.

I’ll give you some thorough recommendations for both speakers and receivers below, but before you start buying speakers, you have decisions to make.

How many speakers?

The beauty (and curse) of surround sound is that you can have as few or as many speakers as you like, but there’s a reasonable minimum and maximum to consider. Some people are happy with a simple stereo speaker setup, whereas others have 20+ speakers in every nook and cranny of their custom home theater. Ignoring budget for second, where should you draw the line?

A good way of looking at it is to remember that, at the end of the day, the professionals recording, editing and mixing the sound for your favorite movies and TV shows have a limited number of channels to work with. Even in commercial cinemas, there’s only so many places to put speakers, and they have to consider that most people in the theater aren’t sitting in an ideal position (they’re not dead center of the space, with every speaker angled perfectly toward them). As a result, commercial theaters use sets of speakers which are each tied to a specific channel. So you may look around and see 15 + speakers, but many of them are receiving exactly the same channel specific information, and are simply making the same exact sound as the speaker next to them. In short, you can easily put together a seven or nine channel system that sounds BETTER than what you hear in a movie theater.

The people making the movies also realize that they have to design a movie release so that it sounds decent whether it’s being screened in the nicest high-tech theater in the country, or in a tiny cineplex in Muncie, Indiana. To do this, they carefully limit and design their soundscape so that all sounds are only coming from a handful of places (if you’ve read about ATMOS and this is sounding a little simplistic, bear with me).

TL;DR? Most movies are mixed down to between five and seven channels, and all the really important sounds are in the first five. This is why five channel systems are far and away the most popular surround setup.

Enough explanation, how many speakers should I buy?

Rule of thumb is, shoot for five speakers plus a subwoofer. If you don’t have a place for rear speakers, you can compromise with a 3.1 setup (two fronts, a center channel and a subwoofer). Even if you only have room for two quality front speakers, that’ll still beat the pants off of a sound bar, but you are going to lose a substantial benefit of going surround unless you’ve got five speakers. These are the five speakers that sound designers count on, and you’ll get exactly 86.69% of the complete sound scape with five well placed speakers (isn’t it fun to make up percentages?).

Where do they all go?

I’ll hit this in more detail in Part 3 of this guide, but here’s a primer. In the classic five channel, you have two “main” speakers, on either side of your projector or TV. In a dedicated home theater, these are usually large “floor standing” speakers. Channel three is the “center” which goes between the mains, and is responsible for replicating most of the dialog on your movie or show. Channels four and five are referred to confusingly as the “surround” channels, and they’re best placed just behind either side of a typical sofa.

On Subwoofers:

If you’re serious about home theater sound, you want to try and get a subwoofer. While all discrete speakers are capable of reproducing some low frequency bass sounds, they don’t do it well. Most speakers don’t go down very low in the frequency range, and if they do, they tend to distort. Receivers also only have so much power to hand out to their connected speakers, so if you spare your speakers from producing bass, it’ll make the upper frequencies sound clearer on the same equipment. The solution is the subwoofer, a dedicated speaker that includes its own power supply (typically, anyway) and only produces low sounds.

Subwoofers come in two basic types. The first is a “ported” sub, which channels the sound wave outward through an exposed port. I’m simplifying a bit, but these subs are best for large rooms, or for people who really want to feel the BOOM in their movie. If precision and subtlety is more your game, you’ll want a sealed sub, which produces a tighter sound at the expense of not going as low or as loud. The truth is, there are quality subs to be found in both varieties, so these are just general guidelines for subs within the same price range.

The Gremlin’s Subwoofer Recommendations:

The Entry Level Sub:

Polk PSW10 $79.99

Despite it’s rock bottom price, this little sub served me well for many years. It’ll blend in nicely with speakers far above its price point, and for anyone who’s not already rocking a subwoofer, it’ll give you that rumble that makes you truly feel like you’re sitting in a movie theater.

A Serious Ported Sub:

SVS PB-2000 $799.99

SVS is a hidden gem of the home theater world. They spend every cent on sound quality in their products, and they’ve got a reputation for excellence. This ported sub will fill any size room with pounding bass that’ll rival your local theater. This is quality that’s built to last, and performance far above it’s price point. Just don’t wake the neighbors.

A Fantastic Precise Sealed Sub:

SVS SB-2000 $699.99

The sealed version of the SVS 2000 series offers a more subtle, precise sound, while still packing a punch. I personally run a sealed sub in my setup as it keeps Mrs. Gremlin happy, so I can say with confidence that sealed offers the best balance of performance and relationship bliss. The SB version is also a great paring for a system that will double for serious music listening.

As a side note for anyone who loves bass but is worried about shaking the house, check out my guide to “Bass shakers,” a specialized speaker which bolts to your furniture and directly shakes your couch instead of the whole room.

On Home Theater In a Box Systems:

For years now, companies have been offering a convenient shortcut for those who want surround sound. Instead of having to read long guides on the internet and buy all the pieces individually, why not buy them as a package? For some, this might be a good option, but if you’re serious about your sound, the Gremlin suggests approaching these with caution. The problem is that HTIBs vary widely in quality, and often use non-standard components that only work with THAT system. My first foray into surround sound was a sweet little Logitech system that offered a 5.1 surround setup in a box for under $300. At the time, the young Gremlin was so excited about the concept of movie sound hitting from all around, that the actual quality and clarity of the sound wasn’t a focus. Within a few years, it quickly became clear, however, just how poor quality the sound was. When it came time to upgrade, it turned out the “receiver” processing the sound was built-in to the subwoofer box, which meant that both the sub and the receiver couldn’t be used with any other speaker setup. Having to repurchase both at once stung a bit. I was also shocked to find that even the poor quality speakers provided with the kit sounded remarkably better when a half decent discrete receiver was powering them. Long story short, you’re probably better off spending a limited budget on a good receiver and a couple of good front speakers, and gradually expanding your system, rather than buying a whole cheapo system that won’t upgrade well over time.

Taking It Up a Notch

If you’re still reading, that means you think like the Gremlin. MOAR. Bigger is better. More channels, more juicy directional sound goodness. All true. However, it’s important to realize that after five channels, the laws of diminishing returns do apply. Buying two more speakers to get seven channels is a very nice improvement. It’s just not a night and day transformation for most people. This is mainly because the way humans perceive sound, we quickly lose our ability to accurately locate (or frankly even perceive sound quality) for sounds coming from behind us. Also, those last two channels are often dedicted to music or atmospheric effect sounds, so think “greater ambiance” rather than “lasers echoing in every direction.” You’ll get a slightly more realistic sound bubble with two more speakers behind you, but not as much as you might think. That said, the Gremlin proudly rocks all seven channels, and is planning on expanding to ATMOS soon. What’s ATMOS, you say…?

ATMOS

As of a few years ago, it didn’t make much sense to go beyond seven channels. Some receivers offered options to process the sound and expand some of the channel information, so you could add extra speakers in front, but this kind of processing is basically guesswork on the part of the computer system, and for most people it wasn’t worth the cost.

ATMOS is a newer technology that has fundamentally changed the game for surround sound. For a few years now, sound designers have had a new tool for designing soundscapes. Instead of having to mimic the effect ofa realistic sound field by manually picking which speaker emitted which noise, new tech has enabled something called “positional audio.” Now sound designers can look at sound three dimensionally, marking a sound’s location in the frame of the movie. Advanced software then figures out how to manipulate the available speakers so that on playback, you can hear not just that a sound is “coming from the left” but that it’s three feet from the left, and five feet high. What we’re talking about is precision in space, and it’s awesome.

The best example for “hearing” ATMOS is when you go to see a movie in a cineplex ATMOS theater, and the little demo clip plays for THX SOUND. You hear droplets of water coming from seemingly all around you. When you pay attention to it, it’ll knock your socks off.

How Home ATMOS works

So, how is this feat accomplished at home? The good news is, it’s not actually that different from a typical 5.1 surround speaker system. When Dolby created the ATMOS standard, they were smart enough to realize that most theaters are setup with the traditional 5 channels in predictable places. So they designed their algorithms so that most of the precision sound processing could use speakers in those typical positions to “place” the sound. You may be wondering, “can I get that cool precision sound field with my existing 5 channel setup?” Not quite.

The simple reason is, in order for ATMOS to place a sound in three dimensions, it needs speakers at different heights. There’s no physical way for a 5 channel system to simulate sounds from above, or better yet moving from above to below, when it can only produce sounds on a single level.

The solution is to add height channels. In addition to the typical 5 channel or 7 channel setup, ATMOS requires a minimum of two speakers in the ceiling. Unable to put speakers in your ceiling? There is a workaround. Dolby has partnered with companies to create special ATMOS add-on speakers, which sit on top of your floor standing tower speakers, and bounce sound off your ceiling. The idea is that they create the effect of sound coming from above, without having to run wires and cut holes in your drywall. The problem is, much like our issue with TV speakers reflecting off the back wall, you lose much of the precision and quality of ATMOS sound with these reflective speakers, because the reflections are inherently less precise than sound coming from speakers in the ceiling. Your results will also vary based on what your ceiling is made out of (ideally you have a smooth, flat drywall ceiling).

Beyond speaker requirements, ATMOS also requires a surround receiver capable of receiving and processing an ATMOS mix from a source that includes it. Newer midrange and above receivers have an option for ATMOS, as well as DTS:X, which is a very similar technology to ATMOS that is used in non-Dolby mixed movies.

The Surround Sound Dewey Decimal

Just a quick aside, when you talk about surround speakers, you’ve gotta know how surround configurations are written out in shorthand. A five channel speaker system without a subwoofer is a 5.0 system (Five normal height channels, no sub). Atmos complicates things by adding another decimal point. A Speaker system with five normal height channels, two ceiling height channels, and subwoofer would be a 5.1.2 system.

What to buy if you want ATMOS?

Now you’re truly thinking like the Gremlin. A reasonable top end surround system is a 7.1.4 That’s two fronts, a center channel, two side surrounds, two rear surrounds, and four in-ceiling speakers (a pair in the ceiling in front of you, and a pair in the ceiling behind your head). Having two pairs in the ceiling allows your receiver to not just reproduce high vs low sounds, but also “front high” vs “back high.” The obvious example would be a helicopter flying over your head in a scene, which will sound much more convincing when your speakers can move the sound from front to back while relying solely on ceiling speakers.

On Form Factor:

Beyond how many speakers, or even what brand, you also have to decide what shape and size you want. There’s three types of speakers to choose from. The first is a tower speaker. These are the big tall cabinets that sit on the floor. Ideally, unless you’re in a tiny room, you’ll use two floor standing speakers for your mains.

Next, you have bookshelf speakers. Aptly named, bookshelves are much smaller speakers that can take up a lot less space, while still providing great sound. Most people will use bookshelves for their normal height surround channels, although if you have a massive space and an unlimited budget, you could build a surround system entirely out of massive floor-standing towers (people do it, seriously).

Finally, you’ve got your in-wall (or in-ceiling speaker). These are typically only a few inches thick, and mount inside the drywall, so you end up with a speaker that’s flush to the wall. These speakers are excellent for ATMOS height channels, and they’re also useful for rear surround channels in situations where you’ve got a couch against the wall but you still want the sound coming from behind you. HOowever, DON’T use in-ceiling speakers for your front channels unless you have no other choice. You’ll end up with a disconnected, muddied sound field that won’t do your movies justice, and it’ll still cost you a fortune.

On Receivers

Speakers are the part of surround sound that everyone looks at, but receivers are the brains of the operation. A great receiver will dramatically improve the clarity, depth and volume potential of a speaker system, and top end models even have the ability to correct for flaws in the acoustics of your space.

To buy a receiver, you need to know four things. How many channels do you want (or see yourself wanting in the future)? How many watts of power per channel do you need to properly power your speakers? (you’ll want to check the individual speaker specs if you’re looking beyond this guide). What additional features are important to you (such as ATMOS processing, or external outputs for powering a second speaker system in another room). And finally, you need to find a quality reliable brand who’s sound signature appeals to you.

The Gremlin could do an in-depth guide on JUST receivers, (hmm… that’s an idea…) but for now, we’ll keep it simple. Don’t buy a 5.1 receiver if you know your end game is a 7.1.2 setup. Don’t skimp on wattage, but don’t obsess over it either. In order to hear an audible difference in sound quality by way of wattage alone, you need to double the wattage from one system to the next. So the difference in clarity and volume cap of a 100 watt per channel system isn’t going to be that different from a 120 watt per channel system. HOWEVER, don’t be fooled by advertising. If a system is advertised as 100 watts per channel with two channels driven, that means it could only ofter 60 watts per channel when ALL channels are driven (like, when you’re watching virtually any action movie). The brands I recommend are generally reasonable about these schemes, but it pays to be vigilant.

The Gremlin’s Receiver Recommendations:

A Solid Receiver With Good Power and Quality:

Yamaha V383BL $229.95

The Gremlin’s first receiver was an older variant of this Yamaha. While it’s not a powerhouse, this is a great, cost effective way to start a really high quality surround sound system. It’s got plenty of power for bookshelf speakers and for efficent floorstanders (see my budget tower recommendations below). The V383 is a sturdy investment that’s easy to build a system around without breaking the bank.

The Next Level:

Marantz SR6012 $899

This is the successor to the Gremlin’s current much beloved SR5010. Marantz is known for their high end stereo music equipment, and their commitment to quality is just as evident when you give their receivers a listen. Featuring a warm but clear sound signature, 9.2 channels (including ATMOS and DTS: support) and the the remarkable Audyssey room correction system, The 6012 is the kind of receiver that could last a discerning Home Theater fan for a decade.

 

The Gremlin’s Speaker Recommendations:

Finally, we get to to the fun part. I’ll throw out the typical audiophile caveat, which is that people have different tastes in speakers. and you may find your tastes differ from mine. That said, The two proper speaker sets I recommend are both still in use in my house after many years, and were selected after months of critical listening in the bowels of Magnolia AV and many hours scowering audio review sites.

The Ultra budget option:

Logitech Z906 $272.40

If you’re upgrading from TV speakers, and desperately want to feel immersed in your movies, Logitech’s system is by far the best budget option. For under $300, you get a 5.1 system that’ll shake your couch, and fill a modestly sized space with sound. The precursor to this system was my very first home surround system, and even after I upgraded the guts of it, I used the small satellite speakers as surrounds for quite a while. Just remember, if you know you’re planning on upgrading from this, the subwoofer and processor are one unit, and not usable with any other speakers.

Serious Sound at a Fantastic Price (Bookshelves):

Polk RTI A3 $194 (pair)

Polk has long been the gateway drug to serious Home Theater. They’ve spent decades fine tuning and redesigning their speakers to offer top sound at a remarkable price, and these floorstanders don’t disappoint. If you’re looking for a reasonably budgeted speaker system that could last you forever, Polk is the brand to look at, and the RTI series is their sweetspot for quality. This is the point where you’ll start to hear things in movie scores you’ve never heard before. You’ll definitely rewatch every movie in your collection, just to re-experience it with awesome sound.

Choose these bookshelves for surrounds in a dedicated room, or for all of your speakers if you’re trying to create an amazing surround system in a living room. Also a great option if you’re making the most of your budget but still want to be wowed by sound quality.

Serious Sound at a Fantastic Price (Floorstanding):

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Polk RTI A7 $299.99 (Each)

These are part of the same series as the Bookshelf recommendation. What it adds is OOMF. Lots of it. Hearing floorstanders like these belt the opening score of your favorite movie is the kind of experience that will wow your friends and family. Floorstanders give you a true “wall of sound,” and these polks won’t dissapoint.

Serious Sound at a Fantastic Price (Center Channel)

Polk RTI A6 Center Channel $239

Pair this with the RTI bookshelf or floorstanding picks for crisp easy to hear dialog. Remember that most of what you’re paying attention to in a movie or TV show is people talking, so don’t skimp on your center.

Next Level Recs:

For Breathtaking Speakers That’ll Last a Lifetime (Floorstanding):

Martin Logan Motion 40 $999 (each)

Martin Login is a legend among speaker manufacturers. Known for their stratospheric Electrostatic speakers with truly godlike sound, the Motion speaker series takes their years of R&D and packs it into a home theater focused speaker that’s simply phenominal. The Motion 40’s are the center piece of the Gremlin’s home theater system. Sound quality is actually better than going out to the theater. Soundtracks glisten, effects are vibrant and realistic. You won’t top this level of quality without spending substantially more.

For Breathtaking Speakers That’ll Last a Lifetime (Bookshelf):

Martin Logan Motion 15 $348.88 (each)

Again, this is the same line of speakers as the Floorstanding recommendation. Same ribbon tweeter. Same fantastic quality drivers. Use these as surround speakers paired with the floorstanding option, or use them as your mains.

For Breathtaking Speakers That’ll Last a Lifetime (Center):

Martin Logan Motion 30 $549.95

The center channel companion to the rest of the Motion line. When the Gremlin deigns to listen to other lesser audio systems, dialag sounds muddied and dull compared to the excellence that is the Motion 30.

For Jaw Dropping In-Ceiling Speakers:

Martin Logan Electromotion IC $359.95

Another gem in the Martin Logan line, these IC speakers are the perfect way to add ATMOS to your home theater. In addition to the Martin Logan’s famed ribbon tweeters for tack sharp sound, these IC’s are brilliantly designed to pivot, allowing you to fine tune the directionality of the sound for optimal ATMOS performance.

One final caveat for speaker buying: If you decide to mix and match speakers from different lines or brands, always use like for like in the same area. In other words, if you’re using Martin Logan mains, don’t use a Polk center. However, it would be fine to pair all ML fronts with all Polk rears.

Thanks for reading, as always. If you enjoyed this guide and are planning a purchase, please consider supporting this site by purchasing through these links. ByteGremlin may earn a small comission, and it doesn’t cost you a dime!

As an aside, I only endorse products that I’ve personally used and loved, or thoroughly researched and genuinely recommend.

This guide continues in Part 3, The Room & Miscellanous Tips.

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