How to Choose a Home Theater for Movies or Music Page 3

Let’s stop here for a second and examine why a Parasound or any well-designed standalone amp might sound better than an A/V receiver’s built-in amps, even those of a top-of-the-line model. No matter how advanced or expensive the AVR, it likely doesn’t have enough internal real estate to house the humongous transformers and hefty power-supply capacitors you see in separate power amps. The performance compromises inevitably start there. Remember, too, that AVRs jam their sensitive low-level and processing circuits right next to the pulsing magnetic fields that the power amp section radiates, and that can have a detrimental effect on the sound.

Schram’s receiver-as–surround processor plan has one little catch: You have to make sure the AVR has preamp output (or preout) jacks for all five of the primary theater channels. This lets you take the surround-decoded analog line-level signals off all five channels and feed them into something like the 5 x 250-watt Parasound Model 5250 v.2 ($2,850). Many $800-plus A/V receivers provide preout jacks, and something like this Parasound will likely offer a very significant power and sound-quality boost over what you’ll get from the AVR’s built-in amplifiers. Of course, you can also go with other, less expensive amplifier brands, some examples being Emotiva, Marantz, Outlaw, Rotel, etc. Although some new energy-efficient amplifier technologies are appearing these days, amplifiers will likely continue to function as they always have in the coming years. So investing in a great amp that will likely stick around through three or four generations of receiver upgrades over the next decade or two is a safe and sensible plan.

Going All the Way
Using a relatively inexpensive A/V receiver as your system’s processor and mating it with a gutsy amplifier will ensure superb theater performance and enhance music playback. But for a do-it-all system that delivers the ultimate in sound quality for both music and movies, you might want to consider going with a high-end surround processor.

I spoke with Doug Henderson, a vice president from the B&W Group (Bowers & Wilkins speakers, Rotel and Classé electronics) to pick his brain about what sort of performance advantages separates offer over A/V receivers. He summed it up this way: “There’s greater resolution and the ability to drive bigger loudspeakers.” He also pointed out that high-end surround processors have more sophisticated power supplies than AVRs, which pays dividends in terms of overall performance. Henderson brought up a great quote from John Bowers (of Bowers & Wilkins): “The best loudspeaker isn’t the one that gives the most; it’s the one that loses the least.” That same line of thinking could also be applied to electronics. So while a high-end surround processor has more or less the same features and functionality as a $1,000-plus A/V receiver, a good processor can sound better than an AVR. Then there’s the matter of build quality. While top-notch separates are loaded with premium parts, AVR designers have to work within far more limited budgetary constraints. Henderson told me that Rotel’s RSP-1570 surround processor ($2,199) actually outsells either of Rotel’s two A/V receivers, the RSX-1560 ($2,599) or the RSX-1550 ($1,999). Of course, you’ll need to match a processor with a separate power amp, and Rotel’s amps start at $1,299.

Summing Up
I’ve given you a lot to think about, and I hope this article will help you make more informed choices when planning future purchases. Below, I’ve assembled some equipment options for music- or movie-oriented systems in a mix of price ranges, based on my own listening experiences and information culled from reviews of some Home Theater Top Picks recommended products.

Of course, if your budget is big enough and you choose carefully, you can indeed have a superb-sounding home theater and music system. You might even be able to enjoy the ultimate best of both worlds and have two completely separate systems—one optimized for home theater, and another one for music—each in its own room. What can I say? It’s good to be rich.

Mostly Music High-End Home Theater
1-Cary Audio Cinema 11a Surround Processor ($4,000);
2-Pass Labs XP-20 Stereo Preamp ($8,000);
3-Pass Labs XA100.5 Monoblock Amplifiers ($8,000 each);
4-Magnepan 20.1, CC5, and Magneplanar 1.7 Speakers ($17,990) or Thiel CS3.7 Speaker System ($18,790)

Mostly Movies High-End Home Theater
1-Classé CT-SSP Surround Processor ($8,000) Classé CT-5300 Amplifier ($9,000);
2-Klipsch Palladium P-39F Home Theater System ($31,500)

Mostly Movies Midrange Home Theater
1-Pioneer Elite SC-37 A/V Receiver ($2,200);
2-Dynaudio DM 2/6 Speaker System ($2,650)

Mostly Music Midrange Home Theater
1-Marantz AV7005 Surround Processor and MM7055 Amplifier ($2,700);
2-GoldenEar Technology TritonCinema Two Speaker System ($3,495)

Mostly Movies Budget Home Theater
1-Onkyo TX-SR309 A/V Receiver ($299);
2-Energy Take Classic Subwoofer/Satellite System ($600)

Mostly Music Budget Home Theater
1-Denon AVR-1912 A/V Receiver ($530);
2-Pioneer SP-PK21BS Subwoofer/Satellite System ($399)


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.