How to Choose a Home Theater for Movies or Music Page 2

On the other hand, if your room is small, say 12 by 18 feet, and you never need to feel it shake, a small satellite/subwoofer system and a decent mid-priced AVR should be adequate for both home theater and music. Bottom line: Room size and volume capability go hand in hand and should be linked to your system’s performance/price ratio. Big rooms with high-volume-potential systems will by necessity have a bigger ticket attached than systems for small rooms and/or moderate volume potential.

Balancing Your Speaker Budget
Not surprisingly, your selection of speakers is perhaps the most critical factor in leaning your system more toward music or home theater playback. Definitive Technology’s senior vice president Paul DiComo told me that, according to his customer surveys, “Even when people say they’re going to be watching movies 80 percent of the time, they really care about how the system sounds with music.” I took that as a given, but unless you have the very best speakers, there are inevitable trade-offs. Tonal balance issues and flat frequency response are generally more relevant performance concerns for music-oriented listeners.

If you’re primarily using your home theater for movies, consider putting more money into a better center-channel speaker, though always one that’s timbre-matched to the rest of your speakers. If music is the mainstay, put the majority of your speaker budget into the front left and right speakers. And, if you only watch an occasional movie, you might even consider forgoing the sub and using full-range tower speakers.

Once you’ve identified what you want, don’t make the mistake of buying by brand alone. Sometimes, we have a tendency, fair or not, to associate specific brands more with movies or music. But model selection is the key, even within a company’s offerings.

Here’s a hypothetical systemmatching exercise, starting with a music-oriented Definitive Technology system. For this, I’d go with their BP-8080ST towers ($1,499 each), which have built-in subwoofers; one of their smaller matching centers, the CS-8040HD ($499); and a pair of ProMonitor 800 surround speakers ($145 each). For a more theater-oriented system with close to the same list price, I’d use much smaller towers, the BP-8020STs ($599 each); the CS-8060HD center speaker with built-in sub ($699); SR-8080BP surround speakers ($349 each); and a SuperCube 1 subwoofer ($1,199). The prices of these two Def Tech systems are pretty close, yet the sound of each is tailored to a home theater or music application, with more of the music system’s budget being devoted to a larger front stereo pair and less emphasis placed on the center and surrounds. I just happened to use Definitive Technology in this example. You can apply the same theater-versus-music balancing approach to any speaker brand with broad offerings.

That said, I’ve found that Klipsch speakers are particularly well suited to home theater duty, based on my experiences with their THX Ultra2 speaker system, Reference RF-83 speaker system, and many other Klipsch reviews I’ve written over the years. A key reason is their dynamics: Klipsch speakers feature horn-loaded drivers, which give them above-average sensitivity and awesome dynamic-range capabilities. This makes them responsive to the wide swings in movie soundtracks. Horn speakers are, after all, used in virtually every movie theater in the world, not only for their aforementioned sensitivity but also their controlled directivity. So Klipsch’s home horn designs are a natural.

Klipsch speakers can sound pretty sweet with music as well, but for an even more musically oriented system, I’ve had great listening experience with Vandersteen, an old audiophile favorite. I might go with a pair of their 2ce Signature II speakers for the front left and right channels; a VCC-1 center speaker; and VSM1 on-wall surround speakers. The 2ce Signature II is a full-range speaker, so this system doesn’t need a sub.

Bass in Your Space
Sealed-box (acoustic suspension) subwoofers generally have superior performance in the time domain than ported (a.k.a. bass reflex, vented) subs. Ported subs are often tuned to produce more visceral bass slam at the expense of truly deep bass extension and definition. These design trade-offs tend to make sealed subwoofers the more favored by music-oriented audiophiles, who appreciate what is (hopefully) their tighter bass. But there’s much that goes into a good subwoofer design, and these generalities don’t apply in every case. My best advice is to audition a sub (and speakers) before you buy.

Most subs on the market today have a port or use passive radiators that serve a similar function, but you’ll find sealed models among the lines of Atlantic Technology, Bowers & Wilkins, Hsu Research, Monitor Audio, NHT, Paradigm Reference, Revel, SVS, Thiel, and others. Take a look at the subs offered by the manufacturer of your other speakers, but keep in mind that specialty manufacturers like Hsu Research and Velodyne also offer truly outstanding subwoofers.

Receiver or Separates?
A good A/V receiver is the most cost-effective solution for a home theater or music-oriented audio system costing $3,000 or less. But while it’s unlikely that a great speaker system you buy today will be out of date in 2021 or 2026, AVR buying decisions are fraught with concerns about HDMI revisions, new surround formats, networking, digital processing requirements, connectivity issues, and totally unforeseen technological developments that may turn the most up-to-date AVR into a relic in five years or less.

For years, Parasound offered a range of high-performance surround processors and multichannel amps, but they’ve recently bowed out of the processor category. As a small company, it could no longer match, feature for feature, what Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony, and Yamaha were putting in their A/V receivers year to year. That’s why Parasound’s president Richard Schram recommends buying an AVR loaded with every connectivity and processing feature you need, and then using the AVR as a surround processor connected through its preamp outputs to one of his Parasound power amps.


goodfellas27's picture

Thanks for the great article. It made me see things in a different way. Great info. to know for the next upgrade.

I just finished with my current upgrade. I got a Pioneer Elite SC-37, with Polk Monitor 70 as main, CS2 as center and OWM5 as surround with DSW Micropro 2000 for the sub, for a total of 7.1. It would be great if you could commend on this setup.

KikassAssassin's picture

I've noticed that I do tend to turn up the volume higher with movies than I do with music, and I think it's because music tends to play at a constant volume level, whereas movies are a lot more dynamic, so if you leave the volume level at the same point, the majority of a movie's soundtrack outside of loud action squences would be a lot quieter. With music, I tend to set the volume to around 75-80dB, whereas with movies, I tend to set it so that the peak volume is around 95dB, which seems to put normal talking voices at around 75-ish.

I also agree with your assessment of Klipsch speakers. I recently built a home theater system with Reference RF-62 floor standers, RC-62 center, and RS-42 surrounds, and they sound pretty damn good with music (they're not quite as detailed as my Sennheiser headphones--which is most noticeable in heavily layered music, like symphonic metal--but that's perhaps not really a fair comparison), but holy crapola do they sound good with movies. I seriously don't even want to go see movies at the theater anymore, because frankly, my home theater sounds better.

utopianemo's picture

Great article! You commented on something I just asked Scott Wilkinson last week: Generally, how does the fidelity of the processing stage of an AVR compare to that of a standalone pre/pro? I had been intent on going the separates route, specially with Emotiva, but I won't buy their processor due to some bizarre design choices they made with their bass management system. My only other options in that price range are AVRs, and I'm concerned I'll be giving up too much in the way of sound quality. Any thoughts on the matter?

Stephen Trask's picture

The John Bowers quote "The best loudspeaker isn’t the one that gives the most; it’s the one that loses the least," sums up sound and image reproduction perfectly. It is the foundation of high fidelity. This article does a great job of summing up the ways different components address this issue in different ways and way mere specs and rated power are not nearly as important as fidelity to the original. Clean power, good wiring, low vibrations, are at least as important as well written decoding software in making sure that ones and zeros are accurately translated and expressed as + and - pulses and, ultimately, sound out of a speaker. The article also gets at, in a succinct and user friendly way, the big differences between recording sound for consumption as music and for use in a films soundtrack. Interestingly, music mixing is more susceptible to fidelity loss because of how the dynamic range is compressed and sounds are blended and yet we ask our acoustic guitars to sound like acoustic guitars, our clarinets like clarinets. Movies have soundtracks that are allowed to suddenly shift between all extremes and yet, beyond the sound of people talking who is to say or care whether the sound of someone punching a a rib roast in a foley session sounds accurately like a punch to the face.

My favorite part is that you confirmed that my months of OCD listening and reading and research have resulted in as good a decision as any, to pair the Marantz AV7005 with Goldenear Technology speakers.

aleksandr's picture

this article help me a lot... Thanks
ps: I'm a HT fan

kousttav's picture

Hi There, really appreciate the hard work here.
just a little help, I am an average music / movie consumer but slightly inclined towards quality music, as in i can boast of my capability of identifying between good quality music versus cr*p.
having said that, i am planning to set up a HT system, in my living room ( size 350 sq ft), where the sitting arrangement is like we sit at the centre of the room, and the speakers can be equidistant diagonally ( the typical surround set up)
budget approx $ US 900. ( Rs. 60,000 in India)
In this budget i can afford an HTiB - Onkyo HT S5500, 7.1 system
(in India, prices are 40-50% higher than in Rest of the world)
would you recommend the above product, given my usage?
also, currently i am having an AVR of Harman Kardon AVR 132 with JBL ( 30 watts / CH) 5.1 speaker set up. frankly i am NOT getting that punch in it, will the upgrade to the Onkyo system solve the problem?

thanking you in advance

ramsreddy99's picture

Hi I have got Definitive Tech BP8060 towers , Klipsch rc 52 ii center, Klipsch RS 52 ii surrounds and YAMAHA RX 473 90 w per channel receiver.

Is this speaker combination a good one to have and after reading this article I have found that Center channel can be an issue for the sound stage. On close observation I found that the BP8060 produce more treble than the klipsch center (may be the 7.1 channel split is reducing the treble/high nodes for center channel i dont know). Is that going to disturb the sound center stage? Please note taht Yamaha receiver has automatic audiosetup feature using its device.

Also Do you think I may not bother about the surrounds being klipsch.


Bob Ankosko's picture
Generally speaking, it's best to choose a center speaker that is from the same brand/family, the goal being to have a center speaker that is tonally similar, if not identical, to the front left and right speakers. Having such a match is less important between the front and rear surround speakers. Definitive Technology recommends the CS-8060HD center speaker for use with the towers you own. You might consider trying that model in your setup. You will likely notice a more coherent front soundstage.