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Need advice for 1st HT audio-only (very long post)

634 Views 7 Replies 6 Participants Last post by  Greg_R
My questions are general and perhaps could be broken down across posts to several different forums, but I hope this is a reasonable place to start.

In a nutshell, I am buying my first home and want to build my first home theater, starting with the audio at a pretty strict upper limit of $1500 (those mortgage payments are killer!).

===About Me

I am definitely not an audiophile. I have neither the ear nor the budget to spend a lot on equipment, nor do I think I have to in order to get decent sound. Also, since I've been using crappy 2.1 computer speakers all my life thusfar, just about anything I get will be sure to sound worlds better. I do value quality over sheer volume, and this combined with the fact that I'm sharing a structural wall with a neighbor means I can't blast things (too much) anyway.



urf, marking up this addy is hard


My first choice would be the living room (bottom of floorplan_upper). The ceiling slants up from the kitchen area to about 12 feet at the end of the living room. In this situation, should I put the front of the system (TV/etc.) towards the right or the bottom? I'm already considering blackout curtains so errant light/glare issues should not be a problem. Does the lack of a wall between the living and dining rooms wreak havoc with the sound (especially if I go with smaller speakers)? Would it be better to place speakers along the walls even if that means they're 10+ feet from the listener?

Feel free to photo/paintshop the image for speaker placement suggestions. =)

If there's no way this could work, I might try a bedroom, but that would be pretty far from ideal.

=== Other Equipment

As I said above, I'm concentrating on audio first. The primary sound source will be my desktop computer (Windows XP, recent hardware). I currently use a CRT monitor for DVDs, video games, and just general computing. With all sorts of HD technologies that are currently relatively young and expensive, I can wait for the dust to settle before getting a TV.

Eventually, I will probably be including a HDTV of some kind (and probably a DVD player), so my purchasing decision should be made with that in mind. I might also get an x-box, though that's really low priority.

=== Expected Uses

Playing music, watching DVDs, and playing computer games are all important to me.

=== Planning on buying

Some sort of sound card for the computer

Some sort of amp/receiver, preferably 7.1-capable

Either a 7.1 speaker set or 5.1 speaker set

=== Sound Card

How should I best get sound from the computer to the amp/receiver? I would like to keep it digital between the computer and the receiver to reduce cable clutter, maximize quality, and force the sound processing to be done on the receiver. On the other hand, at least some cards don't offer 7.1 digital outputs, so I will need to use analogs or a different sound card if I choose to go with 7.1 speakers. Assuming I'll be using SPDIF there, should I go coax or optical, and why? Optical cables seemed really expensive about a year ago, so maybe I could save a bit and go with coax unless there is a good reason not to.

The type of SPDIF I choose will also affect what sound card I can get. I'm currently looking at Turtle Beach, M-audio, and (sigh) Creative cards under $100. I have what seems like a strange set of requirements: I need a lot of support for sound/gaming APIs and a friendly, interoperable SPDIF output for going to the receiver, but ultimately a dumb card and dumb software will do as the card shouldn't be doing much processing.

TB Catalina - New gamer card, optical digital 7.1 out with LPCM/AC3 autoselect (whatever that means)

M-audio Revolution 7.1 - Coax digital out (Manual states LPCM/AC-3, doesn't say how many channels on this output)

Creative Audigy 2 ZS - Coax digital out with only 5.1 support, best game support, bad reputation for sound quality, software bloat, CPU-use, etc. (I couldn't find the manual online, and the specs are less than encouraging)

Any other cheap cards with decent game support? I know that if I'm going for music-only, I have many more choices, but I still play games. =)

Creative cards support up to EAX v4.0 while the other manufacturers support up to 2.0. How likely is it that support for more recent APIs will be added to the TB/m-audio cards through driver updates, or does support depend on the chip? Do you know if EAX 4.0 games are at least somewhat backwards compatible with EAX 2.0, or will such games only play in stereo with a EAX 2.0 card?

More considerations: How painless will it be to use the setup? I would like for my stereo music to be expanded to all channels, games and DVDs that support 3D tech to use all channels intelligently, and games/DVDs that don't support 3D tech to be expanded out as well as possible to all channels. It seems that many manufacturers like m-audio like the idea of application-dependent profiles, but if the drivers are intelligent enough to decide how to act on its own without my intervention, that would be ideal. Do you know if any manufacturers will remember my preferences and automatically select them in the future, for example?

How is software quality from these three manufacturers? I know the TBSC drivers used to be terrible, but they've gotten better. Creative has a reputation for being bloaty and CPU-intensive... is this still true? With my intended "just playback" uses, will I be able to simply avoid installing a lot of Creative software (like mixing, authoring, editing, ripping/burning, whatnot)? At a basic level, are the drivers stable?

One thing I'm deathly afraid of is crackling or skipping playback. Sometimes, when a machine is sitting idle and not doing much besides playing music, there will be little flaws in playback that stem from the machine (playing the same segment of audio again will not repeatedly give the problem). For example, I get this on my IBM R40e laptop running Redhat Linux 9 with generic drivers, and rarely but occasionally using my Asus P4P800E's onboard sound in Windows XP. I think this is the fault of the sound card/driver, since the other hardware should be plenty fast enough. Assuming what I just said makes sense, has anyone experienced this with any of the cards mentioned above?

=== Amp/Receiver

First of all, should I get a home theater in a box? I know that some like the Onkyo 770/777 are pretty well respected and are well within my price range, but some nagging feeling at the back of my head balks at the thought of a prepackaged system (plus the fact that systems like the Onkyo are 6.1, which I have been warned against due to imaging problems (I think that's the term)).

Assuming I make a system from components by myself, I guess I'll get an amp/receiver combo unit. Getting a two-in-one should make things a bit cheaper and as a non-audiophile I probably won't notice any serious quality problems with a 2-in-1 as opposed to separate amp/processor.

I thought the 7.1 vs 5.1 debate would be at the speaker level, but it must be answered here, as going from 5.1 to 7.1 can nearly double the price of the receiver. So: I want to buy a system and have it survive as long as possible, so I'm leaning towards 7.1 as future-proofing. Most surround-system-in-a-box speaker-only kits seem to be 5.1, so going 7.1 leaves me with the task of piecing together my own set of speakers (which might be a good thing anyway). On the other hand, most "7.1" sources nowadays seem to be actually 6.1. Is this a sign that it's too early to adopt 7.1, and any forward-looking 7.1 receiver will be made obsolete by the time people get around to standardizing "true 7.1"? The speakers will survive new standards, but I don't want to waste $200-300 on premature 7.1 support on a receiver.

I have no clue about what to look for, so tips are most welcome. I've read basic guides about the different Dolby surround sound formats, I know that THX certs are half truth and half marketing, but that's about it. I anticipate spending between $200 and $400 of my budget on the receiver, leaving $1000-1200 on 6 to 8 speakers. (If this is stupid or unrealistic, let me know.)

General questions to get started: what features should I go for? Are there any that are totally useless given my requirements and intended uses? I hear "Dolby Pro Logic IIx" (with the x) is pretty neat for 7.1 speaker systems... any thoughts? Feel free to recommend specific models that you've had experience with.

=== Speakers

Above, I mentioned HTIB speakers-only sets. Audioholics has good things to say about the RBH Sound CT-5.1 System, for example. Would smallish speakers like these have a problem with the room I'll be playing in (1 wall missing, high ceiling, etc.)? If I get 5.1 speakers with the intent of upgrading, would it be easier to find matching rear surround speakers for a pieced-together set than for a boxed speaker set?

Does a 7.1 setup give such better immersion that it overcomes whatever quality hits result from buying cheaper components? That is, will I be more likely to appreciate 5.1 speakers that are a bit better, or 7.1 speakers that are a bit worse due to my budget? Should the characteristics of the room affect my choice between 5.1 and 7.1? If so, how?

If I am piecing together my own speaker set and space is not an issue, should I go with all bookshelf speakers instead of small surrounds for better quality?

If I were going to spend $1000 on 4 surrounds, a center channel, and a sub, how should i distribute the money among them?

For an audio-newbie like me, how important is it to get "matched" main/center/surround speakers? Is the difference as painfully obvious as looking at a photograph on a typical CRT and LCD side by side?

=== Specific Models

Just to throw some names (of cheap models) out there:


Infinity Primus 140/150/etc.

Sony SS-MB350H

AR PS2062

Polk R20

Speaker Sets

RBH Sound CT-5.1 ~$800

Harmon Kardon HKTS14 $400-650 (can expand to 7.1 with HKTS4)

Infinity TSS750 $550-700 (can expand to 7.1 with TSS SAT750)

Infinity Modulus II $1350-1500 (can expand to 7.1 with MS1 II)

Polk Audio RM20 ~$1000

Polk Audio RM7200 ~$900 (satellite model RM3300 seems rare)


Denon AVR-1905/AVR-785S (same specs?!?) $400-500 for 1905, $350 for 785S

Sony STR-DE897/B $300-350 street

Onkyo TX-SR602 $450-500 street

Yamaha RX-V650 $350-400 street

Sound card models are listed above with sound card discussion

=== Other Information Sources

After reading around a bit, it seems that there aren't too many trusted sources for reviews. Most audio magazines only focus on high end equipment, which I am definitely not in the market for. Consumer Reports, which I like because they value price/performance ratios, is said to have archaic testing procedures that are in desperate need of revision (is that true?). In the end however, I probably would be more than happy with anything given any passing grade by any of these publications. Regardless, I'll go with any strong trends or repeated recommendations, so please let me know what you think about what I've said, and please give reasons if you recommend a specific product.

Lastly, I am still reading through all the various Internet forums and review sites, but figured I'd put this out early to make sure I get misconceptions and false impressions out of the way ASAP. Thanks!
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Kirby, I think you better start over and ask one question at a time.

I'll just make one short comment, because I really don't know anything those audio components. (I'll just say pick one and enjoy it.) :)

Don't fret about speaker placement. Get your speakers, and experiment with the placement. Use some temporary speaker wiring, and try different placements. Keep the one you like best. That's a free system tune.

Okay, one other comment. All of your sources (movies, HDTV) are mixed in a 5.1 soundstage. (Okay, there might be a few rare exceptions.) To get 7.1, your receiver has to do some processing magic. If you want to hear the movie the way it was mixed by the sound editor, all you need is 5.1.

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Besides the fact that 5.1 will free up more money for everything else. Personally, with your budget, a good sub comes to mind as a better place to sped the $$$.
Originally posted by Morris Jones
Kirby, I think you better start over and ask one question at a time.

Okay, one other comment. All of your sources (movies, HDTV) are mixed in a 5.1 soundstage. (Okay, there might be a few rare exceptions.) To get 7.1, your receiver has to do some processing magic. If you want to hear the movie the way it was mixed by the sound editor, all you need is 5.1.
I wrote what I did because on most boards, people ask such general questions as "what receiver should I get?" and the veterans are understandably annoyed at the lack of background information. I guess I overcompensated, hehe.

If I had to start with one issue, I guess it would be the 7.1/5.1 issue that you went into. I started out with 7.1 in mind because I thought it would provide some amount of futureproofing as 7 discrete channels became standardized, but I now think that was probably wrong.

Most surround sound encoding schemes are not forwards-compatible, i.e. the very first 5.1 receivers probably wouldn't know what to do with a present-day 6.1 EX/ES signal, right? Currently, DTS and Dolby Digital are 5.1, DTS ES and Dolby Digital EX are 6.1. SDDS is true 7.1 sound, but I've only seen it in movie theatres.

I guess the only good reason to get 7.1 is to play a 6.1 EX/ES movie without any imaging problems. (I think the problem usually raised is that the brain doesn't know where to "put" a sound source coming from directly behind, so it changes a listener's perception of the sound environment)

In that case, my choices boil down to:
5.1 rcvr, 5.1 spkr: because (1) the perceived difference between 7.1 and 5.1 is negligible, (2) 7.1 has not sufficiently matured (no discrete channel support, etc.), and/or (3) I should be looking at better quality anyway and should not sacrifice it for extra speakers
7.1 R, 5.1 S: because (1) 7.1 as it stands now will be compatible with emerging standards, (2) I should invest in a receiver that is futureproof and can add speakers later as i get money, and/or (3) this middle of the road idea is safest for any future development
6.1R, 6.1S: because (1) another channel in the back helps immersion greatly, (2) there is currently media support for 6 discrete channels, and/or (3) the imaging problem with a speaker right behind the head is overblown
7.1 R, 7.1 S: because (1) 7.1 is overwhelmingly better than 5.1, and/or (2) 6.1 really is as bad as people say.

With the future-proofing reason out the window, it seems as if the first option (5.1 throughout) is the best. Any supporters of the other choices though? Does 7.1 really provide significantly better immersion than 5.1, for example?

Originally posted by bpape
Besides the fact that 5.1 will free up more money for everything else. Personally, with your budget, a good sub comes to mind as a better place to sped the $$$.
I've been getting the advice from many sources that the choice of sub needs a lot more care than I initially thought, and that leaving it out altogether is a option especially if my satellites/surrounds are of reasonable quality.

Any other thoughts, even tangentially-related, are more than welcome. Thanks for the help!
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7.1 is a considerable improvement if you have a DPL IIx receiver.

I would suggest buying a 7.1 receiver (most are today) and a 5.1 speaker set-up to maximize your budget. Later you can add the back surround speakers and fill out your experience.
Originally posted by Version
7.1 is a considerable improvement if you have a DPL IIx receiver.

I would suggest buying a 7.1 receiver (most are today) and a 5.1 speaker set-up to maximize your budget. Later you can add the back surround speakers and fill out your experience.
I would agree with the 7.1 thing. I just built a new house and we went 7.1. Although I cannot always tell when all 7 speakers are being used, I definitely wanted to go that way b/c I think that 7.1 will be more and more widespread. Besides, the DVD's are encoded by DPLx are amazing!

My only other advice would be to go to some stores in your area and listen, ask questions, and listen. Circuit CIty and Best Buy do not count as stores to go to! You can find some very nice equipment within your price range at the speciality shops. Good shops won't thumb their nose at you b/c of your smaller budget.

Good luck...
Leave out the sub!? Blasphemy!

Seriously, you really need a sub if you want a true HT experience. A dedicated sub will do a MUCH better job that just depending on your mains. It doesn't have to be a multi-kilo-buck beast. Also, the optimal position for your mains can cause room reponse issues that can be partly mitigated by moving the sub around if it is separate.

A sub will allow you to actually spend LESS on your mains in some cases since you only have to get something that will perform well from about 80Hz up.
OK, given your budget I would strongly suggest a HTPC based system. Your HTPC can:

- Play DVDs with the best image quality available

- Play 2ch and multichannel audio with high quality (with appropriate sound card choice)

- Receive and record TV and HDTV

- Play games and other forms of media

I would suggest getting a Maudio sound card (for bass management and overall sound quality). If game surround is absolutely crucial, get a Creative card (even though it resamples the audio). Theatertek 2.0 has DD and DTS decoders so you will not need a digital output.

Since your HTPC is the source, you will now only need to get a 5ch amp and speakers. Investigate pro amps or possibly a cheaper receiver that has pre-ins (this will accept your HTPC's output). Try and keep the amp purchase ~$400.

There are a large number of popular speaker choices. I'd spend $100 on each speaker and $400 on the subwoofer. 5 JBL N24s and a Hsu/SVS/Adire sub in this price range will work very well. Plan to spend ~$50-75 on cheap cables.
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