A high-end pair of headphones can be a cheaper way to get great sound

    A high end pair of Grado headphones. Headphones can be a great way to get fantastic sound without huge space requirements and complexity of other setups. You also don't dread it when you move to a new home. :~)

    Why Hi-Fi and home theatre?

    People get into Hi-Fi and home theatre for a variety of reasons. Some might be coming from a musician background and want to listen to their recordings without being distracted by actually performing the same pieces over and over again. Others might come from the gaming world, and want an amazing virtual reality 360 degree immersive experience. An entirely different set of people might be huge movie fans, and want to hear everything in surround sound. Others might just be audiophiles who want to hear their favourite music reproduced with the best quality possible. Whether it's for work, a distraction from everyday life, a way to enjoy a recording of something real, or just help you to mentally "change gears" from a stressful job and actually engage with the family once you get home, (as it often has been for me) a pleasant sound experience can be truly make a meaningful impact in your life.

    The similarities between the audio/visual world and "Alice in Wonderland":

    Now the audio world is a big, wacky, and wonderful place. It combines the physical, technological, psychological, biological and many other elements of existence in ways that can be complex, and at times...aren't always ideal. If you ask questions, it's worthwhile taking things "with a grain of salt", as everyone will have an opinion on every possible question, informed or otherwise.

    It's easy to be sucked down the rabbit hole into spending copious amounts of money, trying to solve acoustic quirks with the gear you have... or just getting the gear you want. Many will want to talk about the latest and greatest technology and equipment. Some smug "Cheshire cat" like people will speak truths, but seldom the whole helpful story, and you can be sure that they will never be able to put it into the contexts of your needs and preferences.

    The "Mad Hatters" will babble on in their tea parties (a.k.a: "audio forums") marketing everything from useful products to "snake oil" remedies by extolling the questionable benefits of "Monster" branded cables costing hundreds of dollars, and the benefits of vastly overpriced "99.99% oxygen free" copper wiring. (Note: It's copper wiring, of course it's 99.99% copper, we've had the ability to refine copper to that level of purity for decades. It's also 99.99% free of cat food, but I don't charge 5, 10, or even 20 times as much for that privilege). Bloody marketing mad-hatters!

     

    One of the most iconic stereo ad images. Taken in 1978, this image has been parodied and even redone with this same guy, 30 years later (picture can be found at the bottom of this article). The lamp shade, martini glass, the lamp string and tie were held back with fishing line, and the hair was in fact blown by a fan... if I recall correctly.

     

    Continuing with the Alice in Wonderland theme, a lot of guys will know what their Queen of Hearts will do to them if they overspend on speakers that clash with the drapes. To some, "Off with their heads!" might actually be preferable. If you find that your house looks like the image below.. you might be in a world of trouble.

    Not only is this an indication of "too many" speakers, it's also useful to show just a small sample of how many sizes, shapes, colours there are.

    Cutting through the jargon, misinformation, conflicting technologies, and complexities:

    I can't cover all the terminology here, from Beryllium tweeters, 7.1.4 speaker setups, DLP/LCD projectors, and "balanced" connections, to compression, frequency response, acoustic phase, and timbre. All this can easily overwhelm, confuse, and mislead people as much as help. Even if the information given to you is correct, there are many instances where the application of that information might be much more involved than you might think. You need to be able to enjoy your system, and that requires trying a few options.

    At the end of the day, this is all designed with one purpose in mind, to provide a "good" audio and/or visual experience. However, what does that actually mean?

    What is "good" sound?

    Such a simple question, but everyone has a different idea of that that might mean. Some people say it's an "accurate" reproduction of the recording. Others say that it's a "warm" tone given to the recording by the actual playback equipment. A different group will say it's bringing out all the subtle and nuanced details of the music. Another altogether different group will outline how "good" sound can make it seem as though you were there, and how you can use the "sound stage" to identify where the performers were located and even hear the effects of the room itself to add realism.

    You might well be asking, "So, who is right?". Everyone, and no one. You see, you can take each of these ideas too far. Accuracy to technical standards can become less enjoyable if it strips the music of its emotive meaning. Or put another way that legal professionals might prefer, it's like using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit or purpose of that same law. So-called "warm" or pleasing tones can again, change the experience from the intended sound, and excessive details can become overwhelming and make listening a fatiguing experience. Similarly, spatial experiences can do both good and bad things to a recording. It might make the recording seem intimate and relaxing, (like a small jazz bar) or distant and overpowering (like a concert), or it just might make it sound like it was recorded in a fish bowl... which some TV speakers do... and it makes it very hard to understand at times.

    What you listen to, and how you listen to it also plays a factor in whether you consider a sound "good" or not. If you like intimate vocal recordings, played at modest volumes in a small apartment, then your equipment needs will be completely different to someone who plays bass guitar at ear-bleeding volumes in a converted industrial warehouse. If you want the latest in movie surround sound, or want to try virtual reality gaming in the comfort of your modest-sized home, then again that's another completely different set of requirements. Honestly, there is no one universally perfect setup, no matter how much you spend.

    Everybody's ears are different. Some people hear very well, and others... not so much. So you need to decide what is "good" for yourself. To do that, you have to hear hear the stuff you listen to on any prospective equipment before you buy it. Don't just run off someone else's reviews online and order it from the cheapest seller on the Internet.

    Finding good sound for yourself:

    The first thing you need to know is where you're going to be putting the equipment. If you've got a big, open planned space or a tiny personal "listening room" then get some rough measurements, and draw a rough outline of the room shape on a piece of paper. Take some photos so knowledgeable people can see the furnishings in the room, and can figure out what considerations that might need.

    Why do this?

    The room you listen in has a large impact the sound experience, but this is also affected by furnishings and floor covers. Are the floors hard tile/polished concrete or something softer like rugs and thick carpet? Do you have wooden blinds, or heavy backed curtains? How much room do you have for the speakers? Are you thinking small bookshelf speakers (which rarely sound best on a book shelf) or tall "floor-standing" speakers? For those going into surround sound, are you going for 5, 7, 9, 11 or more speakers? Where will you put a subwoofer? Also, what colour should the speakers be in order to suit the room's decor.

    A little side-note:

    Many an audiophile has had to negotiate with better halves on budget, space, complexity, colour, and of course, size of a decent audio setup. Since the audio world is heavily dominated by malefolk, the terms upon which we menfolk are allowed to indulge in our hobby is called the "Wife approval factor" (or WAF on many forums). Of course, if you're single, then you don't have much to worry about, do you? Decide for yourself.

    Once you've had a thought about how the equipment may fit into your room (and lives of everyone in the household... don't forget toddlers and pets can destroy your equipment) you'll need to find some test music or sounds so you can make informed comparisons on the sort of stuff you might actually listen to.

    Ok, so find some music that you actually like, and have played often enough that you know how it sounds well. If music isn't your thing, and you prefer movies, again, find one that you both like and know well. Now this is important. You will struggle to make a meaningful decision if this particular song/movie section isn't a high-quality sample. Audio CDs, DVDs, and Blurays do a pretty good job, LPs can be better if you listen that way. If you're usually running from a low-quality MP3 file on your iPod or whatever, it's probably going to make your testing more difficult. You really want to put the equipment through its paces, so try to find a "high quality" or "high resolution" digital copy... and put the file onto something most setups can read. A CD, a Bluray, or just a USB stick.

    Please note that I'm not saying you should pirate an illegal copy of the music. Merely prepare a legal copy for testing purposes.

    Now I know I'm going to offend people when I say many mobile phones, tablets, and portable music players with regular headphone jacks, or bluetooth audio... aren't a good choice as a "source device" for testing audio equipment, even if the file being played is high quality. So plugging in an iPhone to a high-end system, is often counterproductive. The $30 audio circuit in the iPhone can't compete with the quality of a higher end LP player/Bluray/Streaming device that costs $3000. Even a $50,000 amp and $100,000 speakers will merely play the signal as it presented, warts and all, and can sound inferior to much cheaper equipment if the source device itself is the limiting factor.

    Please don't think I hate mobile devices, I say this as a guy who owns 5 mobile devices and a high end sound system. If you're happy listening to music that's generally from MP3s on an iPhone, fine, but for testing purposes, don't even try it... the people in the store will probably suggest a better alternative anyway... if they know what they're talking about.

    Ok, so you've got your room description, photos of the room and dimensions? Check. Got your music/movies to test it with? Check!

    Now you're ready to hit the local Hi-Fi shop. Ready to drop a ton of relevant information on people who can help you, and allow you to "road test" various setups in the store, and possibly (with payment) a try in the home as well. Many specialist Hi-Fi shops will have a "if you don't like it, bring it back", policy (Keep the boxes and packaging in immaculate condition so there won't be any nasty surprises for you). You know how I said the room is an important factor, this is why good Hi-Fi shops have a love it or return it policy. Not everything that sounds great in the store will sound good at home.

    When you are talking to the people in the store, tell them "I only listen to music" or "I'm a home theatre purist", or "I use my system for 70% movies, and 30% music". This gives them a solid understanding about what your needs might be. Remember they have this conversation every day, and even the wealthiest of customers often have little or no intelligent answers when asked, "What are you looking for?".

    If you can tell them (this is just an example, adjust to your situation):

    • I want a system aimed mostly for movies, but with good sound for music too.
    • I use the system 70% of the time for TV/movies and 30% music.
    • I have a room with the following dimensions. It has a funny shape, gabled or sloped roof, or a light well that goes up to the master bedroom that looks like this. (Cue diagram and photos)
    • It is furnished like this (show photos)
    • We have a lot of furniture, it looks like this, so we don't have a lot of room for speakers... I'm not allowed to install "in wall" or "in ceiling" speakers, but I'd like a subwoofer for the low frequency effects in movies.
    • I'm on a budget of N dollars.
    • I listen to music like this (cue CD, LP, digital file), and movies like this (cue movie). Maybe you listen to a little bit of everything, tell them this.
    • I currently have the following gear (Cue makes and models)
    • I plan to hook up a projector/screen or TV too. (Make and model is important.. perhaps taking an IN FOCUS photo of the connections on the back/side of each device is also handy).
    • My children have the following gaming consoles.
    • I'd like to be able to connect speakers for the outdoor area or kids play room in the future. I love my existing speakers at the moment, but I want to add the latest Dolby Atmos/DTS decoding feature by upgrading/replacing my receiver.

    Now you have just given the staff more pertinent information than many so-called audio experts. The staff can now make informed assessments and:

    • They'll look at speakers that suit your needs, budget, space, and listening style.
    • They'll know how many metres of cable you'll probably need.
    • They can tell you that maybe your old equipment can be incorporated so you can put your money into better speakers, components, or wherever it's needed.
    • They can tell you that your room full of hard surfaces is probably going to suffer from echo and reverb problems. They'll likely suggest that you might want to add more soft furnishings from another room to absorb the excess waves.
    • If your room is a funny shape, maybe they'll recommend a system that can acoustically compensate for that.
    • Setting up a regular movie night? They can even help you get the most out of your projector by offering a high quality screen to increase image contrast and colour.
    • Also, by buying from a specialist seller, you can try it out at home, and if you don't like it, bring it back. Just give them a call first so you might solve the problem without you breaking your back packing it all up and shipping it to the shop.
    • Sometimes it's just worth getting professoinal help to come and figure out what's going on at home. I have literally known people to waste thousands of dollars by swapping for ever-more-expensive gear, when really they just needed to get a pro in to help.. maybe for the cost of a few hundred dollars.

    When listening to equipment comparisons in-store, take your time. This isn't something you can do in a lunch break. Listen carefully, and switch back and forth between speakers and amplifiers. It's a lot like going to the optometrist. They'll ask you "which is better" option A or B. Don't listen to gear you cannot afford, that's a waste of time. Remember, a fantastic sound can be had with modest equipment if it's chosen carefully and configured properly. (Like anything). The expensive stuff is nice, but there really is a law of "diminishing returns". The difference between a $200 setup and a $2000 setup will be substantially more noticeable than $2000 and $20,000, especially to untrained ears.

    A little introduction about equipment:

    There are five main categories of equipment in any Hi-Fi or home theatre setup. It really helps to think of a sound system as a chain of equipment from source to screen/speaker. Each component or stage has an impact on the end result, and usually the system is limited by it's "weakest link".

    1. Source devices: These are the device that generate the original sound signal (or input, if you prefer). Whether that's a CD/Bluray player, a mobile phone, a record turntable, computer, or some sort of dedicated streaming device. These devices may generate an electrical pulse for wired connections, a light signal for optic fibre connections, or a radio signal for wireless/Bluetooth devices. No matter how good the rest of your system is, if you start with a low-quality signal, the rest of the system cannot compensate for a lack of detail that it receives. Similarly, cheaper "source" equipment tends to have more audible "hiss", "pops" or just "weird" sound that just doesn't seem right. You don't have to spend a fortune on source equipment, but a modest improvement in quality here can significantly improve things over "cheap and nasty".
    2. Interconnects: Normally wires, optic fibre or wireless equipment. Many people think any cable that connects from point A to point B is good enough, but the quality of the cable, the environment that it's used in, and the distance it has to cover, can have a significant effect on the quality of the sound. There are many types of connections.
      • For analogue signals, unbalanced RCA cables and balanced XLR connections usually connect source devices to the pre-amp, and amplifier stages.
      • For digital signals there are many types of connections. Hi-Fi equipment can use USB, HDMI, fibre optic (Toslink), "Coax" (which is effectively, an analogue RCA cable used for digital signals), and let's not forget Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and wired network cables (I recommend Category 6a ethernet cabling wherever possible as it supports all previous network standards and handles up to 10 gigabit transfer speeds, but Category 5e is still a common option for those using gigabit equipment). Now please note that many of these cables are defined by certain industry standards. However, whether a cable manufacturer chooses to barely meet that criteria, or wildly exceed it can have an impact on both sound and video signals alike. Unfortunately, HDMI cables come in two standards, one is the HDMI 1.4 standard and the HDMI 2.0 standard. If you wish to watch "high resolution" 4K movies, then you need the HDMI 2.0 cables, and HDMI 2 compatible equipment throughout the entire source to screen chain. Otherwise you'll find it doesn't work. However, regular DVDs, Blurays, and lower-than-4K content will work fine on HDMI 1.4 systems. Please note that there are some extremely high quality HDMI 1.4 cables that have exceeded the quality needed to meet HDMI 2 standards, and I've found a few of those in higher end installations. However, they were very expensive cables (think $300 each, back in 2008) A relatively new breed of interconnect are the wireless links. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the most common variety, and can greatly simplify the number of cables forming a tangled mess around the room. However, they're also limited by range, can suffer from interference, and there are added compatibility issues when mixing some brands and models.  
    3. Pre-amps: Ok so you've got your signal from the source, and it's connected via your interconnects. The next thing the system has to do is figure out what to do with that signal. Some people will now plug it into the TV so it can play the video on the screen and sound through the TV's speakers, some will have a dedicated pre-amp device (sometimes called a processor). This is where your everyday analogue signals, and complex digital signals like  Dolby and DTS, are decoded. Other things the pre-amp can do at this stage is adjust signal delay to certain speakers (if distances are different), tone manipulation/equalization, and various adjustments for room-based acoustics. The problem with this style of "processing" equipment is that most of this equipment generates a signal far too weak to power the speakers, so the signal is then sent to the amplifier to compensate for that. Note: An Audio/Visual receiver (usually just known as a "Receiver" contains both pre-amp and amplifier components in one handy box, and generally forms the beating heart and the brains of many home theatre systems. However, the pre-amp equipment is very susceptible to interference, and the amplifier equipment is the stage most likely to generate that interference. So many audiophiles and home theatre enthusiasts will buy separate pre-amp and amplifier equipment to minimise the interference that degrades sound (and occasionally, video) quality. It also keeps things more modular should you want to keep your amplifiers in the future, but upgrade to new pre-amp/processor equipment when Dolby brings out it's new surround sound formats. A good pre-amplifier will process the sound but produce the least amount of noise (usually a hiss) to the signal. Lower quality pre-amps can introduce an audible amount of noise, and this is where things can go horribly wrong because the next stages in the chain will make any noise more noticeable.
    4. Amps: Amplifiers do one thing. They take a weak signal, and by adding power from the wall socket, they make the signal strong enough for the speakers to run.
      • Sometimes amplifiers are in the output devices like TVs, or even speaker boxes themselves (common in sub woofers, and wireless speakers). Sometimes the amplifiers are in the receiver. Other times, there are dedicated boxes that create a midway point between the pre-amp and the speaker. Dedicated amplifier boxes are sometimes called "power amps" because they can be way more powerful than those running in a receiver or TV. 
      • Note that an amplifier's power is measured in watts ("W") and some people will believe that "more watts = better and/or louder" but that's not always the case. Wattage alone does not tell you the whole story. If you have a highly efficient speaker (runs on little energy), then more watts will indeed make it louder, and less likely to "run out of steam" when sudden loud noises (called "transients") occur. However, an amp delivering an extra 50 watts of power may actually sound quieter if your speakers are more inefficient.
      • Many people believe that a lower-wattage amp is less likely to "blow up" the speakers. However, speaker damage is more often caused by under-powered amps, because speakers want a nice smooth signal to run forward and back safely. You start maxing out your amp by "cranking the volume up", and those nice smooth peaks and troughs in the signal get clipped to flat plateaus when the amp has no more power to give. This causes a harsh, kinda distorted sound. Every time the speaker cone moves forward and back with a clipped signal, it's like it's being driven into a brick wall instead of a gentle curve and your speaker will sustain damage over time.... sometimes, very little time.
      • There are two types of electrical components that "define" an amplifier.
        • Transistors: The newer and most common sort are transistor based (also known as "solid state") amplifiers. Solid state amps come in numerous designs, and operate by digitally amplifying an analogue signal in a series of pulses instead of a continuous analogue process, but for all intents and purposes generate sound so close to the original, that most people can't tell the difference. Almost all sound equipment these days from your phone, car, computer, TV, and most consumer electronics are using transistors. Mostly because they're cheap, low maintenance, are often more energy efficient than the alternatives, and last a long time.
        • Vacuum Tubes: The alternative tech is much older, and uses vacuum tubes (sometimes just called "Tubes"). Vacuum tubes are actually a true analogue device and aren't just an "on or off" technology like transistors, so they naturally produce analogue sounds better than a technology that breaks it up into pieces. Many audiophiles love them because they sound more "natural" or "pleasing" or "warm". However, the catch is that tubes are a consumable component, and are only good for a certain number of hours... oh and they are often expensive. Some amplifiers run on one or two tubes, but it's going to get expensive when you need four or more at the same time. Also, if you do run multiple tubes, you can have a tube start to fade on you earlier than the others, leading to sonic imbalances, and other fun stuff to diagnose. Personally, I'm a digital, and solid state guy. But if you have a lot of analogue sources (records for example) then tubes might be the only way to preserve that analogue feel. In honesty though, I have listened to both a tube and amp-based device side by side, and the difference isn't always as clear as the die-hard tube fans would have you believe. I think there are many variables at play here... so if you want to go down the "tube" path, make sure you try before you buy.
    5. Speakers: Speakers offer the most dizzying array of choices to your setup. As the last component in the audio chain, the buck really does stop here.
      • From in-ear earbuds, to headphones, to small bookshelf speakers, to speaker towers and even full blown speaker arrays. Size, shape and sonic properties are only limited by available space, the laws of physics and budget.
      • In general, smaller speakers are suited for smaller rooms, larger speakers sound better in larger spaces. However, just like people, speakers can have differing voices (called "Timbres"), and different speakers will sound different from one brand, or even model to the next. Whether you like one speaker over another is up to you. You may like one speaker for a particular activity and a different speaker for another.. but you'll find that there's a particular "ballpark sound" that you like and the subtle nuances between the options giving that style is might be more a matter of "what you like on the day."
      • Once you find a set of speakers that you like, the next question is how many do you need?
        • Many audiophiles go for a pure 2 speaker (stereo) setup and spend thousands on each speaker. Others might add more speakers for the surround sound effect but this can get very expensive.
        • However, as equipment becomes more plentiful, the dilution of your budget also has an effect. Is it better to get two fantastic speakers, or 5 "good" speakers with a subwoofer, or 13 cheap speakers? Don't forget you need to upgrade the pre-amps, amps, and/or receivers to handle all these channels as well. Obviously, if money is no object, then have fun! Some people will buy two amazing speakers and slowly add more as the budget allows, but this can be troublesome when they cease production. I've taken 5 years to complete mine, and that's by buying second hand and traveling many more kilometres than I'd like to admit.
      • Speakers can use a variety of technologies to work. Most use electromagnetism to move the speaker's cone, but a few use electrostatic charge to move the speaker's membrane. Electrostatics aren't renowned for their bass, but some such as the "Magnepan" range can look like unpainted canvases which might be easier to hide/match decor/justify to better-halves than the usual boxy magnetic types.
      • Individual speaker cones/drivers can target specific frequencies (like using a "subwoofer" to do very low frequencies, a woofer to do middling frequencies, and a "tweeter" for high frequencies). This is why many speakers have multiple drivers in the one box. Other drivers are "full range" where they handle everything with just one cone unit. Which route manufacturers and DIY speaker builders choose is a matter of design, application, and preferences.
      • Speaker placement in a room is critical, and a lot less forgiving than many people know. Particularly for higher frequencies.
        • When you play sounds from two speakers, you really want the sound from both speakers to reach your ears at the same time. Perceptual psychology studies suggest that differences of just 5 milliseconds (5/1000ths of a second) up to 50 milliseconds (1/20th of a second) are perceived as "reverb". Longer differences appear to the listener as "echoes" where there's a perceived "gap" between the sounds. Just like listening to two people talk over one another, the noise is muddied, and generally less fun to listen to. To ensure coordinated arrival, you need the distance between the listener, and each individual speaker to be the same. When two sounds arrive at the same time, they're said to be "in phase". In phase is good! The sounds from the speakers, reinforce one another, become clearer, and more pronounced (louder). If the listener is at different distances from each speaker, the sound won't arrive at the same time. In this scenario (a common one) the sound is considered (out of phase) and overall clarity of the sound will reduce. If you listen carefully, certain frequencies (or noises with certain pitches) will seem much louder or softer than others of higher and lower frequencies. As the difference in speaker distance increases, the affected range of sounds include increasingly low frequencies.  A difference of just 17cm can affect the clarity of female vocalists. A difference of 34cm starts to impact male vocalist frequencies. So the moral of the story is, try to keep the speakers equal distances from the listening position. Some people use string, other people use tape measures.. I prefer a laser distance meter.
        • Speaker placement also affects bass. Sticking your speakers in the corners of room will emphasize the bass, but at the expense of overall clarity. It's usually best keep speakers at least 30cm from any wall behind them, and at least 60cm (although I prefer 1m) away from side walls.
        • For home theatre setups, speaker placements are pre-defined, based on the number of speakers, and preferred surround sound technology you use. The following image is just one example.
    A typical Dolby Atmos 7.1.4 setup
    A Dolby Atmos 7.1.4 surround sound setup with 11 speakers, and one sub. Note that the 7 are the speakers on the stands/cupboard. Which usually comprises of a special "centre" speaker, two larger "front" speakers", and four "surround" speakers. The 1 refers to the sub at the front, and the 4 refers to the speakers mounted in the ceiling.

    Setting it up:

    Once you get the gear, setting it up can be as daunting to some as buying it. I can't stress this enough. Read the manual. I know, you just want to play with your shiny new gear, I feel your twitchy anticipatory pain. But you've just dropped your hard-earned cash on this gear, and it makes sense to want to make the most of it. Your speakers will probably have some guide on how far apart they need to be in order to sound good, I'd try to stick to that as much as possible.

    Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to break it down into manageable parts:

    1. Unpack your speakers, and place them around the room as close to the appropriate setup as possible. (If Dolby 5.1, 7.1, 9.1, or 7.1.4 setup is involved, look that up on the web and follow that as closely as possible. One thing many people don't do is measure the distance from the speaker to the main listening position (usually the middle seat on the sofa). Do that, and note it down.
    2. If using cabled speakers, ensure the speakers are wired the same way. Decide on the wiring colour scheme/convention and ensure everyone uses the same one especially if you've got some volunteers. (Red might be positive, but if your cable has a white stripe, some people will think.. "Positive" while others think, "the copper colour is closer to red, so the white stripe is negative"). Run the cable from each speaker, ensure you have enough distance to get to your amp/receiver, (plus a enough "slack" to be able to extract your receiver from a cabinet if needed). Label every cable at the receiver/amp end so you don't have a bunch of cables that all look the same. I use masking tape and a permanent marker as an improvised label for each speaker. I'll use the following markings (refer to the dolby room picture above):
      • LF = Left front speaker (the big one to the left of the screen)
      • C = Centre (the horizontal one under the screen)
      • RF = Right front speaker (the big one to the right of the screen)
      • SR = Surround Right (The one to the right side of the sofa)
      • SBR = Surround Back Right (the right speaker behind the sofa)
      • SBL = Surround Back Left (the left speaker behind the sofa)
      • SL = Surround Left (the one to the left side of the sofa)
      • FHL = Front height left (ceiling)
      • FHR = Front height right (ceiling)
      • BHL = Back height left (ceiling)
      • BHR = Back height right (ceiling)
      • SW = Subwoofer (usually takes a different connection, but labeling makes life easier, that's the big square box on the floor).
    3. You'll find that speaker cables are the most difficult because they can look the same, the connections can be a little finicky if you use don't use speaker cables with plugs, and the port you connect them to is important. On the receiver, I do the lower connections (generally the speakers) first, because the other interconnects can get in the way when connecting speakers. Inputs and other interconnects are usually much easier to connect later.
    4. Connect one device at a time, and note the cables and ports used. A bluray player may only have a single HDMI port and a power cord. More advanced models may have multi-channel analogue out, optical out, wi-fi adaptors, or even a network socket. I like to connect all the relevant cables to the device, note which ports they're connected to, and draw a crude wiring diagram, and then note where the other ends get connected to. This is important so you can configure the equipment, program remotes, and get everything right the first time. Again, labeling each cable used at the far end will make your life much easier. Especially when diagnosing problems sometimes months or years later.
    5. For TVs, don't forget it's not just HDMI ports, remember your antenna input, power, probably network. Also, remember that if you want to run your TV's sound through your sound system instead of the in-built speakers, you'll need to connect the audio output of the TV to the appropriate input on the receiver/preamp. That might be through an HDMI cable, or some other connection, depending on the available input and output connections on each device.
    The back of a 5.1 speaker receiver. Once you've learned this, you'll be fine for more complex configurations. You'll just find that the ports may be arranged a little differently or the number of ports on the back will be higher, but most equipment has clearly labelled ports.

    Remember: You certainly do not need to use every speaker (or input) port on your receiver if you don't want to. If you have a 5.1 set of speakers, and you've got a 7.1, or larger receiver, simply configure the amp to turn off the unused channels.  (There might be other options like "bi amping" your front speakers, or sending a different signal to another pair of speakers in another room... but that is beyond the scope of this article). Unfortunately, the reverse is not possible. If you have a 7.1 set of speakers, and a 5.1 receiver, you cannot use all the speakers. Do NOT plug two (or more) speakers into one output, as this will not make it sound any better, and may overload the amp. In this case, it's better to replace your receiver with a 7.1 model. In general, it's best to match your equipment to the speaker configuration, and other equipment to ensure the best possible experience and ensure connection compatibility.

    Consider getting a universal remote:

    Ok so most home theatre setups will have a TV, DVD/bluray player, a receiver, maybe even a gaming console, home theatre PC/Apple TV/Google Chrome Cast device. Each of these probably came with it's own remote, but having to pick up the TV remote, turn it on, then pick up the receiver remote, and turn it on, and then a bluray remote, and turn it on is a discouraging and time consuming process.

    If you get a universal remote, you can program it to turn on the TV, bluray, and receiver at the touch of a single button, and set all the devices to the correct inputs and outputs for that particular activity.

    I personally use a Logitech Harmony 650. It's a cheaper end but reliable remote, with an unbelievably large device database. It requires you to know the makes and model numbers of each device you have, and to know the connections you use to function. (Remember that device, and connection note taking I mentioned above? This is where it is extremely handy).

    Setting up a Logitech universal remote:

    • For instance, I have a 55" Sony TV, Model BXU55UTXL. If I want to use the free-to-air TV, the TV should power on, and it should be set to "TV" as it's input.
    • The receiver is a Denon AVR-X8500H, and it is connected to the TV's audio output via receiver's HDMI port 3. So I want it to power on, and switch to HDMI input 3.
    • I want the TV to control the station, and default to the ABC channel, but I want the receiver to control the volume.

    I then use the Logitech software on my computer to search for those devices, add them, and then set up the basic one-button function to run ALL of these configurations. Ok, so now my "Watch TV" button is set.

    Ok so imagine I want to use the same devices, but now set up the "Watch movie" button. I now have to add the Bluray player.

    • I have a Panasonic DMV-220UYJ, (I add that in the devices section) for the watch movie activity, I need the bluray player to power on, and set the input to "Disk".
    • The Denon receiver is connected to the bluray player via the receiver's HDMI 2 input. It needs to power on, and switch to HDMI input 2.
    • The TV needs to power on, and switch to the input from the receiver. I connected the receiver's output to the TV's input port HDMI 1, so I want it to switch to TV's input HDMI 1.
    • I want the playback controls to be directed to the bluray player, and the volume directed to the receiver.

    Again, the Logitech software asks, what devices are involved, and then what should each device be set to for this activity to work.

    Other activities may be "listen to music", or watch "Smart TV" or play games on my Playstation, or run my home theatre PC, or simply "listen to the radio". You may use these activities on a daily basis, so it makes sense to configure the remote up-front to simplify these activities.

    The downsides of universal remotes:

    While it is undeniable that universal remotes make many things easier. There are some interfaces (particularly on modern smart TVs) that require advanced motion and pointing sensors in the remote to function. For instance, on modern high-end LG OLED TVs, the web browser brings up an on-screen keyboard and the remote can be waved/pointed at each letter you want to type. If I use the Logitech Harmony 650, there are no motion sensors in the remote, and so I have to use the arrow keys to scroll through each letter on the keyboard... and this is very, very slow. So I keep the original remote nearby for these occasions.

    Good universal remotes are worth their weight in gold, but poor/cheap universal remotes often cause more problems than they solve. There are a lot of them.

    Where to go from here?

    Ok, this is just a simple introduction. There are whole books on the subject, thousands of forums, and tons of YouTube videos. Start with a basic overview, talk to your friends with decent systems, and ask for a demonstration. Listen to as many systems as you can before buying.

    Media availablity and setup choices

    The vast bulk of music, even on streaming services is recorded to a stereo, 2 channel mix. Despite home theatre systems now reaching 13 speakers and beyond, most movies on Bluray/DVD and streaming are produced to 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. There are a few Atmos movies, but not as many as you'd think. So pick your setup with a little thought. Honestly, I would expect to see more 7.1.4 sound mixes in the future, but it is also likely that the new virtual reality/augmented reality setups with on VR goggles will provide a full, 360 degree spherical sound fields will eventually replace statically placed speakers.. but here and now, in early 2020s, it's still early days yet. 

    I hope this helps, and happy listening!

    Ham.

    This is the same guy from 1978.. now with less hair.

     
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