People say there’s a recession, but from the Christmas lineups in the home theatre section of Best Buy, it sure doesn’t look like it. People were throwing around money left and right! But I think there are still a lot of cheapskates like me out there, who want to have home theatre but don’t want to spend a lot of money. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you’re poor; it might just mean that you would rather invest your money than spend it on home theatre. Therefore, I’ve got some tips for getting the most home theatre you can on a budget.
Tip #1: TV reviewers are too picky. Seriously, you won’t notice half the stuff they get worked up about, especially stuff like refresh rate. 60Hz versus 120Hz versus 240Hz … are you kidding? A Blu-Ray disc plays 24 frames per second! Yes, they can make movement a bit more fluid by giving you ten times more frames per second than the movie does, but is it really worth spending thousands of dollars more? I don’t think so. Reviewers make it sound like slower-refresh TVs look terrible, and they don’t. The reality is that pretty much any modern flat-panel TV from a reputable brand-name is going to look pretty damned good, and those “side by side” comparisons are rigged to favour the more expensive option.
Tip #2: speakers, speakers, speakers. People who don’t know much about audio often underestimate the importance of speakers. Good speakers make the difference between muddy indistinct sound and clear sharp sound. In most cases, they make more of a difference than the quality of the receiver. People usually don’t realize that most varieties of budget speaker are basically crap. As a rule, avoid Bose (it’s overpriced and has lousy build quality) and keep in mind that good brand names in speakers are different than good brand names in electronics. Some good speaker brands are Energy, psb, Paradigm, Kef, B&W, etc. You might want to check out a few stereo magazines.
Tip #3: surround-sound is overrated. I know this is nigh-heretical to say nowadays, and you’ll never hear it from a salesman, but I’ve got a system with surround-sound and a system without surround-sound, and I have to say that you don’t really miss it on the second system. Most movies make only limited use of the surround channels anyway; it’s a neat toy but it doesn’t contribute much to the enjoyment of the movie. It’s more of a toy show-off thing, where you have the toy just so you can show off what it does. Surround-sound is also a pain to install; you have to mount speakers on walls or run cables around the floor. To do it properly, you have to make holes in walls (not to mention buying a lot more speakers, so your speaker budget will either skyrocket or you’ll have to get really cheap speakers, which is a bad idea).
Tip #4: subwoofers are underrated. Most speaker systems just don’t have any oomph without a subwoofer, and cheap subwoofers don’t get the job done. It’s actually quite difficult to make really deep, powerful bass, and without it, a movie will sound weak. If you like special effects, subwoofers are more critical than surround. Surround-sound gives you the occasional “neato!” moment as you hear something whoosh overhead or left to right, and it can create a certain aural ambience, but without a subwoofer, everything sounds wimpy. Music has no foundation. Explosions don’t rumble. Thunder doesn’t thunder. It’s like taking away the soundtrack’s balls. If you can afford either surround or a decent subwoofer but not both, get the decent subwoofer.
Tip #5: learn how to hook up your equipment properly. This is less of a problem in the age of HDMI cables because the digital connection make everything almost idiot-proof, but in the old days of analogue equipment, it was common to see people use a yellow composite cable for video and then pipe everything from the DVD player to the TV in 4×3, which they simply distorted to 16×9 in the TV settings without making the corresponding adjustments in the DVD player. Ugh.
Tip #6: Monster Cable is a rip-off. Seriously, if you have even a single item in your house with the words “Monster Cable” on it, you got scammed. They sell ridiculously overpriced “high-purity” cables for every piece of the audio/video chain, and none of it helps at all. Analogue audio or video interconnects need only be good enough to have connections that won’t break. Anything better than freebies is probably good. As for speaker cables, you will not hear any difference between cheap 12ga speaker cable from an electronics store and expensive Monster Cable speaker wires. “Premium” HDMI cables are an even bigger scam, since HDMI is digital, and therefore doesn’t require high-quality electrical connections. In fact, I get HDMI cables from computer stores rather than electronics stores. Big-box electronics stores such as Best Buy usually give you a good price on the big-ticket item (like the TV), but they try to fatten their profit margin on the accessories, like cables and stands (not to mention extended warranties).
Tip #7: Use the “knock test”. Speakers and subwoofers have wooden cases, and the thickness of the wooden case is often a good predictor for the speaker’s sound quality. Knocking on the side of the speaker can help you assess its wall thickness and case rigidity. If you understand how a speaker works, you’ll realize that the driver’s constant motion will create rattlings and nasty harmonics unless the case is quite strong and rigid. While it’s true that a solid case doesn’t necessarily make a good speaker, you can almost guarantee that a crappy cheap speaker will use a crappy thin-walled case.
Tip #8: Feel the weight. You need an audio receiver, and people have lots of different ways of choosing one: wattage per channel, connectivity features, appearance, brand name, etc. However, while you shouldn’t ignore those other factors, you should also check weight. A good amplifier requires a stout power supply, and that will involve large heavy coils. Many amplifiers’ power ratings are based on impedance assumptions which don’t take into account the realistic electrical characteristics of a speaker, which is a highly reactive load. If you don’t know what that means, just trust me when I say that power ratings can be misleading, and it’s important to have a stout power supply. If the amplifier is unusually light, then it’s crap.
It’s always dangerous going into an electronics store where the salesmen work on commission (especially when they lie and claim they don’t work on commission). Good luck.