Video was, to coin Ronnie James Dio, the last in line for me. But when VHS fell to DVD and its superior picture, audio and surround capabilities, I began accumulating enough video discs to warrant a home-theater system of my own. As a two-channel stereo guy, primarily, I dove into the world of 5.1, Dolby Digital and DTS Surround formats, room calibration and equalization with gleeful ignorance.
Putting together a home-theater system was fun but not without challenges, particularly when it came to choosing what components to purchase.
An A/V receiver is the heart of any home theater system.
Today’s receivers deliver multi-channel sound, process and upscale video, facilitate multi-room operation, and boast inputs for satellite radio, personal media players, DVD and Blu-ray players, VCRs and more.
The sound quality of A/V receivers has become so good that there’s little compromise to be made between a receiver and a standalone hi-fi component like a pre-amp/power amp combo or integrated amplifier.
Here are some recommended receivers:
1. Cambridge Azur 340R, 50-watt, 5.1 channel receiver ($679) — The 340R won’t blow you out of the room, but it’s a solid home-theater receiver perfect for smaller rooms or smaller budgets.
2. Marantz SR 6004, 110-watt 7.1 channel receiver ($1,249) — Laden with features, Bluetooth-compatible and boasting excellent surround sound, the SR 6004 is a cinch to set up, too.
3. Pioneer Elite SC-27, 140-watt 7.1 channel receiver ($1,699.99) — This big, powerful receiver delivers bold, audiophile-grade sound and can accommodate anything you throw at it. It even has a phono stage.
Most home-theater speaker systems come bundled in a package of five to seven stereo speakers along with one or two subwoofers.
The most common setup (5.1) features a pair of front-channel speakers, a center-channel speaker (vital for dialogue), a pair of surrounds and a subwoofer. Adding a pair of rear surrounds opens the door to 7.1 channel surround. Throw in another sub and you have 7.2.
If space constraints prohibit a multi-speaker setup, soundbars are a cost- and space-effective way to get “virtual” surround sound from an all-in-one speaker. Soundbars typically house tweeters and woofers in one cabinet and use a bottom or side port for bass extension. Many are also built to serve as TV stands allowing flat-screen sets to rest directly on the top panel.
Check out these recommended speakers and soundbars:
1. Orb Audio Mod 1 Plus ($999) — Orb Audio’s spherical “Orb” speakers can fit into nearly any space, making a perfect solution for most rooms, and the little speakers are offered in several finishes. Detailed sound, versatility and clean lines from this 5.1 setup.
2. Boston Acoustics TVee Model 20 Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer ($299.99) — Quick and easy setup with just one cable, and it works with any remote. Soundbar is mountable and sized for TVs 32 inches and up. The wireless sub can be placed anywhere.
3. ZVOX Incredibase575 ($699) — Fits neatly under flat-panel TVs ranging from 37 to 65 inches and delivers convincing surround via 133-watt powering five main drivers and two subwoofers. Setup takes 5 minutes.
Time will tell if Blu-ray achieves the popularity of DVD-Video, but considering Blu-ray’s strengths, it makes little sense to have a player that’s not compatible.
Blu-ray has the capacity to store more than 9 hours of HD video and up to 8 channels of uncompressed audio on a single disc. And nearly all Blu-ray players are backward-compatible with DVD-Video discs. Wouldn’t you rather watch in HD and listen in high-res?
The following DVD/Blu-ray players are recommended:
1. Oppo BDP-80 Blu-ray Disc Player ($289) — Oppo has become a major player in the A/V market, with its array of high-performing, low-cost DVD and Blu-ray players. The BDP-80 is an absolute bargain considering its ability to play DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, HDCD, CD, digital photos and music.
2. Cambridge 650BD, Blu-ray Disc Player ($699) — This recent model plays Blu-ray, DVD, DVD-Audio, SACD, HDCD and CD. Cambridge makes hi-fi gear at mid-fi prices. A great value in a universal player.
3. NAD T 577 Blu-ray player ($999) — The T 577 isn’t a universal player, but it has the ability to wirelessly stream TV shows, movies and videos and offers 7.1 channel analog outputs and USB interface.
The picture quality of HD-compatible TV sets is stunning. It’s so good that watching a concert or other event in HD is almost visually better than being there in person. Pair that with an immersive audio experience, and you’ve got amazing A/V.
Check out these recommendations:
1. Panasonic VIERA X1 Series TC-P42X1, 42-Inch 720p Plasma HDTV ($799.99) — A high-performing set. The only real limitations are 720p resolution and the perception of plasma TVs projecting a darker picture.
2. Nuvision NVU37FX5, 37-inch LCD HDTV ($1,499) — Nuvision delivers 120Hz video processing and signal compatibility up to 1080p for outstanding video. Its integrated NuControl Port serves as a single IR receiver and can control all related components.
3. Samsung LN46A650 46-Inch 1080p 120 Hz LCD HDTV ($2,099.99) — Samsung has a hit with this set. Fast processing, bold colors and available for much less than its MSRP.
In the near future, cables and technologies such as component video will be replaced entirely by HDMI cables. Not only can HDMI carry audio and video signals, it can support multi-channel high-resolution video and audio. Instead of navigating a spider’s-web tangle of cords, consumers can connect audio and video with just a single HMDI cable.
1. Better Cables Silver Serpent Reference High Speed HDMI Cable — Starting at $39.95 for a 3.28-foot HDMI cable, Better Cables Silver Serpent is a budget-priced cable that outperforms other cords costing two to three times as much.
2. Pangea HD-24L ($19.99/1.0 meter) — Pangea is a relative newcomer to the high-end audio cable market, and the company has deeply discounted wares currently available at direct-mail and Internet retailer Audio Advisor (www.audioadvisor.com).
3. Kimber Kable HD-09 ($79/1.0 meter) — Although one could spend much more, Kimber Kable’s entry-level HDMI cable is a good starting and stopping point for home theater connections.