Getting Great Sound
June 2008 back to HDTV index
This could be a hobby unto itself. I'm only going to cover the very basics.
Some huge CRT HDTV sets actually started to evolve with decent sets of internal speakers, but that all went away again with flat panels.
Plasma and LCD flat screens have teeny-tiny speakers. The sound is nasty. You're going to want something better. Sound from flat screen TVs usually sound like it's coming through a toilet-paper roller.
Surround Sound Systems
Ideally, there are zillions of complete sets of receivers, 5 small speakers and single subwoofers out there. Even the crappiest is much better than your TV. Of course I could be wrong, so don't push it with a $79 complete "surround sound system."
Movies and HDTV are most often in what's called 5.1. That means 5 speakers, and the 0.1 is the woofer, which although big, only reproduces the lowest 10% of the sound spectrum. Stereo equipment makers love to sell you more stuff. 6.1 and 7.1 receivers are making up pretend channels that you don't need. Stick to 5.1 and you're going to love it.
Most subwoofers aren't. Most of those little black boxes don't woof; they just boom and boing. They never make any deep bass, they just thump the same upper-bass note each time. All bass sounds like the same note when played through a crappy subwoofer. M&K used to be my favorite suggestion, but they went out of business.
Every pro I know in the audio business despises Bose on technical, legal and ethical issues. I've never understood this, since I love their stuff. It works well and sounds great. My wife had a Bose Accoustimass 16 system, and it was great for movies. I'd buy one again. You use it with your own receiver; you can pay more for a Bose Lifestyle system which includes the receiver and DVD player. I don't know if they make any HD players.
The worst thing about surround sound is installing and wiring all the speakers. My wife hired a pro last time, and it cost her about $600 just for labor and materials, like new cornice molding. We sold that system as part of the house to which it was attached. Good luck trying to try different speaker positions for best sound!
Like TVs, you need to go listen. Specifications tell absolutelty nothing relevant to sound quality.
Luckily, cheap surround systems can sound better than good hi-fi music systems because sound sounds better while you're distracted with a picture. If you just want to enjoy movies and sports and be surrounded in sound, even a cheap complete system is nice.
Contrary to what you'd do for music, where just two speakers do all the work, the most important speaker in cine is the center speaker. The center speaker is not just the "dialog" speaker, the center speaker does 80% of the work for everything. The center speaker needs to be the best and sturdiest speaker in the system. Actually, since the primary sound comes from the center speaker and also the left and right, these three speakers need to match. The rear speakers ought to match the front, but if you don't mind a sound effect changing timber as it pans over your head, you can cheap-out a little for the rear (surround) speakers. You do need three solid, matched speakers for the front, and the center speaker needs to be as close to the center of the screen as possible.
If you really want to go whole-hog, which you don't need to for enjoying the picture, I'd explore anything B&W speakers, which are from England. The USA (JBL, Bose, Klipsch, Martin Logan), England (KEF, Quad, B&W), Denmark (Dynaudio) and even Finland (Genelec) make the best speakers. Speakers are a very specialized science. I wouldn't buy speakers made by generic electronic companies like Sony, Panasonic and Pioneer.
Duoble-whole-hog would mean something like five B&W 801D speakers, which would run only about $45,000 for all five. The good news is that they eliminate the need for a subwoofer which saves money, presuming you can set your decoder's bass management appropriately. These speakers stand as tall as as a 10-year-old kid, so you put the center speaker behind your perforated projection screen.
I'm kidding of course. I compared the wife's Bose system to the progenitors of the B&W 801Ds, and so long as you're not too picky about imaging or bass below 40 Hz, they sound about the same for movies. The wife and I spent zillions of hours watching with the Bose Accoustimass 16 system, and all I did was enjoy the movies and the sound, and I'm picky.
The easiest way to get all these audio channels into your receiver is with a single TOSLINK LED cable. They cost less than a dollar, but usually sell for around $40 at the store. Be sure the store throws these in for free.
There are a zillion ways to wire your speakers, and only one of those ways is correct. If you have the wires reversed to one or more speakers, things sound bad. Pay close attention when hooking up everything.
I doubt that your choice of audio electronics makes any real difference, but the speakers and their positioning do.
At least as important as the speakers you haul home are how you position them. If it sounds bad, move them around. Unless you're using Bose, which are designed to go where you want them, cramming speakers into corners and close to walls often cause sound reflections which can muddy the sound.
If you have a 75-foot wide screen, it's OK to put the speakers on each side of the screen. If you have a 3-foot wide screen, I prefer to put the front speakers much further away from each other for a wider soundstage.
In spite of all the science out there, you just have to keep trying until it sounds best. Simply placing them in the locations you see in the instruction book isn't always best.
Play around with the subwoofer location. Far more important than your choice of subwoofer is where you place it.
Go easy on the subwoofer level. It's tempting to crank it all the way up, but that gets old fast. I'd set it up with music, and that should put the level in the right place for film.
Once set well, you shouldn't need to tweak the subwoofer level. If you have to adjust it for each movie or music, something's wrong.
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