Selecting audio components is one of the more daunting tasks that any serious home theater enthusiast faces. On the surface, it seems evident that if you just go out and buy the best components you can afford, they’ll sound great with both movies and music. And that’s generally true: A better system will more accurately reproduce the waveforms you feed it, irrespective of whether they come from a movie or music. But it’s often not that simple. While assembling a home theater system that’s equally spectacular with movies and music may be a laudable goal, unless you have unlimited funds, you’ll probably have compromises to make. At that point, you might want to steer the system’s performance strengths one way or the other with the right mix of speakers and electronics. But how do you go about matching these up?
Home theater has transformed loudspeakers in nearly the same way it transformed TV. As screens have gotten bigger, the stereo soundstage has expanded into a surround soundfield. Wall-mounted HDTVs can now mate with in-wall, on-wall, or soundbar speakers. Even the higher performance of HDTV finds an analog in lossless surround for movies and music.
Speakers are available in a bewildering variety of styles, sizes, and technologies. On the technical side, the vast majority are conventional box designs using one or more drivers—most commonly a single cone woofer for the bass and midrange, a single dome tweeter for the treble, and a crossover network to divide and route the appropriate frequencies to each. The speaker cabinet, or box, which can be either a sealed or ported design, is not merely a cosmetic touch; it is a key element in the design. Without a properly designed cabinet, even the best conventional woofer would simply flap in its own breeze and produce little or no bass.
Put away that charcoal. Here's a different kind of grille for your patio.
My, how times have changed. Back when vinyl records were king and a 25-inch-diagonal TV screen was considered big, here's how you had a good time in the backyard: a keg of beer, burgers on a charcoal grill, and your roommate's big, ugly speakers (carted out from the living room) blasting Rush (Geddy Lee, et al) until the conservative neighbors call the cops. A decade or so goes by, and the fun gets more sophisticated: a cooler of imported beer (maybe a margarita machine), steaks on a gas grill, and a big, ugly boombox belting out Rush (Limbaugh) until the liberal neighbors call the cops. Today, it's likely to be takeout from a local BBQ joint, a mini-fridge full of hard lemonade, and steam from the hot tub mingling with big-band music from outdoor speakers hidden somewhere in the (twice-monthly manicured) foliage.
Do you want your home theater system to have that "sucker punches in your gut" feel you got at your local cinema when T-Rex stomped his way through San Diego? Do you need your pant legs to flap with each bass line, just as they did at the recent Metallica concert? Want to be as emotionally attached to the recorded version of Beethoven's Fifth as when you heard the cellos and timpani pound out that familiar triplet live at the concert hall? Would you like James Earl Jones' voice-over for CNN to sound less like Mickey Mouse and more like, well, Darth Vader? If so, it's time for you to invest in a subwoofer.
The struggle continues: single versus dual speakers; dipoles versus monopoles.
Lightsabers swirl all around, machines explode to the side, and lasers come from directly behind you. If you saw The Phantom Menace in a Dolby Digital Surround EX-equipped theater, you heard one of the more spatially realistic soundtracks recorded to date. Now, that same technology has entered the home market under the moniker THX Surround EX (non-THX-certified products might refer to a similar process as 6.1), and a familiar question returns to haunt us: Should you use dipole or monopole (also known as direct-radiating) loudspeakers for the back channel? This time around, the question comes with a new twist: Should you use one or two speakers for this channel? Willing to conquer any challenge and answer any question, we at Home Theater took it upon ourselves to test various speaker configurations. After describing the process itself and the advantages and disadvantages of dipole and monopole speakers, we'll let you know what our panel of judges thought of the various options.