Oh My Tech!: What to look for in a home entertainment system

By Vince Horiuchi

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: June 7, 2013 06:57AM
Updated: December 7, 2013 11:33PM
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Vince Horiuchi

“What is the best [surround sound] system for a new home without breaking the bank?” — Mel Briggs, Aurora, Sevier County.

You don’t have to spend a lot to get a great-sounding system for your home theater, but the more you spend, of course, the more you get in pure sound.

I don’t know if I can recommend a specific receiver or amplifier, or a brand of speakers Mel should get because all ears hear differently, and we all have personal preferences when it comes to sound reproduction. But I can give some basic tips on what to look for when shopping, whether you want to spend $5,000 or $500. Here are some things to think about:

Speakers • If you break down your home theater system to the main components — amplifier/receiver and the speakers — the speakers are the element that requires the most attention.

Each brand can emit wildly different sound reproduction. Klipsch, for example, is widely known as a great rock speaker for its efficiency and low-end oomph. Other companies, such as Polk Audio, are known for their mid-range and three-dimensionality.

So which brand you buy is going to depend on your sound preferences, such as the kind of music you listen to or whether you’re mostly going to listen to movies through a Blu-ray player. The best way to measure speakers is with your ears, not by specifications.

If you’re shopping for mid- or high-end speakers, go to local places such as AudioWorks, 149 E. 200 South in Salt Lake City; a Bose store; or even a Best Buy, and just listen to the different brands.

Of course, room acoustics can vary wildly, and sound quality will vary plenty from the showroom to your front room. Some stores, particularly the high-end shops, let customers take speakers home where they can be listened to in a real-life setting, so ask if that’s possible.

(As a side note, if you do find a pair you like by listening to them in a local audio store, think about buying them there instead of online at a better price. Supporting your local store owner is the least you can do if that’s where you got good advice.)

Receivers • Receivers or amplifiers don’t differ as much as speakers, although I’ve found that mid-level companies such as Yamaha and Denon have been really good manufacturers. Today, the emerging standard in a receiver is one with at least a 7.1 surround-sound system that has the ability to play all known sound formats for Blu-ray and DVD movies (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-MA, etc.). It also will have a dock or plug to connect your digital music player, such as an iPod.

One of the most important things to consider in purchasing a receiver or amplifier is making sure the watts per channel, the specification of how much power is sent to each speaker, matches the rating for your speakers. If the receiver’s watts-per-channel spec is too high or too low, compared with the speaker’s rating, it can blow out the speaker or cause distortion at regular listening levels. Don’t let the salesperson try to impress you with an amplifier that puts out a gazillion watts of power. The more watts per channel doesn’t mean a better receiver. It’s how clean, or distortion-free, the power is that matters.

Also, different amplifiers and receivers emit different kinds of sound. For example, one amplifier can have a “warmer” sound than another, while yet another brand may have a “crisper” sound. Again, the best way to tell is to try and find a store that has demos on the floor for listening.

Finally, inquire about build quality. Your receiver should last for many years to come, and a cheaply made components — such as one made of plastic — can break down quickly because of heat.

Wires • Nobody likes to see wires or cables strewn all over a family room. Just ask my wife.

Mid-range systems can be installed in such a way where everything is built into the walls and inside the floors or ceilings. Custom installation is available, but you’re also kicking up the price considerably if you try to hide the cables and speakers.

Most of the independent audio stores in Utah are custom-installation firms that not only sell you the equipment but also can install it to your specifications.

Companies such as Sonos also offer systems with wireless speakers that eliminate the need for cables.

Budget • If the money you have available is much less than $5,000, or the room you want to put the system in is small, such as a bedroom or a dorm room, consider a good “home theater in a box.” That’s an all-in-one system that includes a receiver and bookshelf speakers. Particularly good ones can go for around $500 to $800, from manufacturers such as Sony and Yamaha.

Another cost-cutting measure can be going to “sound bars,” cheaper speaker systems that use one long horizontal bar with multiple speakers and an amplifier that you put below your television. Systems such as the Sonos Playbar put out good sound but traditionally only simulate full surround-sound, as opposed to delivering true discreet channels from separate speakers.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.