a Sound Investment
By Jim Bray
Part One: First Steps
Part Two: The Components
Part Three: Buying
Part Four: Buying a
Part Five: Accessorizing
Part Six: Buying a Receiver
Part Seven: Speakers
Part Eight: More on Buying Speakers
The TV may be a home theater's heart, but the audio system is its soul.
After all, what's the point of watching really neat explosions if they
don't shake the house? Okay, if you live in a thin-walled apartment -
or just don't like a lot of noise - you may disagree, but in the grand
scheme of things your home theater's audio quality is as important as
Besides speakers, which I'll cover in separate columns, a home theater
audio system is made up of three basic units: the amplifier, the preamplifier/control
unit and the surround processor. If you're really going for the gusto
you can get them separately (possibly via a second mortgage), but most
people compromise dollars, shelf space, and performance by choosing the
all-in-one route of an audio/video receiver. These are boxes that contain
all the abovementioned components, plus a radio tuner and, normally, a
You might say that receivers are nothing if not flexible. Purists say
receivers compromise the quality, and they're right - but most "real world"
people are well served by them.
Audio/video receivers can be had for well under $300, but you'll probably
have to settle for Dolby Pro Logic rather than Dolby Digital or DTS surround
sound. If that doesn't bother you, don't let yourself be talked into anything
Dolby Pro Logic served the world well for the better part of twenty years.
It gives you a single, "monaural" surround track from the rear speakers.
Dolby Digital (also known as AC-3) and DTS up the ante by offering full
range stereo surround and once you're hooked you won't want Pro Logic.
Some people say DTS is better than Dolby Digital. I have both systems
in my home theater and the chief difference I've been able to discern,
from my decidedly unscientific tests, is that DTS has a nifty audio/video
logo at the beginning of the DTS-encoded discs. On the other hand, virtually
every DVD comes with Dolby Digital audio, while DTS is available on far
fewer discs so far.
Most current A/V receivers and DVD players that offer Dolby Digital also
include DTS, however, so this isn't a big deal any more.
Some low end receivers compromise between offering only Dolby Pro Logic
and the "5.1 channels" (the three front and two rear channels, plus a
subwoofer) of AC-3 and DTS. They include all the inputs you need to accept
the 5.1 channel information, but without the decoding circuits. To enter
the digital domain you'll need to patch in a video source (like a DVD
player) that has built in decoders so, while you may save a few bucks
on the receiver, you'll spend extra on the source.
Receivers with the Dolby Digital/DTS stuff built in are available for
under $400 anyway, so it isn't much of a hardship going for the extra
Many receivers also offer a sometimes-dizzying array of fake surround
sound modes. These are kind of neat, but in my experience I've rarely
Make sure your chosen receiver has enough inputs and outputs to handle
all of your other toys, like your TV, VCR, DVD player, Satellite, phono,
etc. Most mainstream units should, though phono inputs are becoming somewhat
Remember, too, that power ratings can be misleading. Many stores try
to impress you with "fake" power ratings (for instance, 200 watts), when
the receiver in question actually pumps out 40 watts into each of the
five main channels. Forty watts per channel may be plenty, but don't be
fooled into thinking you're getting more than you really are.
Unless you listen to a lot of radio, don't be too concerned by the tuner
section and/or its number of station presets. Many receivers offer something
like 30 presets; this sounds great, but can you think of 30 radio stations
you really want to store into memory?
Don't forget to try the unit's remote control! This is the piece you'll
use more than anything, so make sure you're comfortable with it. Many
will work multiple components, and others are programmable to operate
different brands of equipment as well.
In the end, don't sweat it excessively. Look for the features and flexibility
you want, and a sound quality you like. If you use your head, you should
have many years of enjoyment from your "audio control center."
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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