Summary: Thinking about upgrading your home theater this Holiday Season? Start with this article where we go through the process of designing FiringSquad’s Reference Home Theater.
Building a home theater is no different than building a custom computer. Just as you can buy a complete PC from HP starting for a couple hundred or a Blackbird 002 for a couple grand, you can certainly save time by going with a pre-packaged home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB). HTIBs aren’t synonymous with budget-quality performance either. While Wal-Mart’s $59.87 “5.1 Durabrand Home Theater System” won’t bring the full movie theater experience home, I’m sure it’ll outperform the speakers on the $300 TV it is probably going to be used with. Likewise, there is probably no better premium pre-packaged HTIB solution than the JBL Synthesis line, which starts at $15,000 for an entry-level setup, sufficient to provide reference quality movie experience in the home, to the Synthesis Everest, retailing at over $200,000 and featuring four 18” subs, and 800 watts per channel into 11 speakers.
Technically, it’s not a HTIB because it comes in many boxes, but the idea is the same. There’s nothing wrong with going with a pre-packaged home theater setup. The sub-$100 HTIB market is something that a custom setup cannot compete with on cost and the combination of JBL Synthesis hardware and services integration is superb, exceeding what is “easily” achieved on your own by buying Lexicon electronics and JBL K2 speakers.
But for the rest of us, those of us looking to build a dedicated home theater somewhere in-between, going with a pre-configured solution is the wrong approach. It’s the same reason most FiringSquad readers prefer to build their own systems, or at the very least to buy a system that allows industry standard upgrades.
Our opportunity to build a new Reference Home Theater came with the desire to come up with a viewing environment that would allow us to test and evaluate the latest video technologies from NVIDIA, AMD, and Intel, as well as the stand-alone world of the Xbox 360, PS3, and countless stand-alone hardware manufacturers. We needed to spend enough money to get a high-performance home theater system that would allow us to evaluate the quality of different hardware and software, but we didn’t have an unlimited budget either.
There’s a lot of an opinion in home theater technology. No one seems to agree on what the best speaker is. How much is good enough? How much is overkill? In this article, we’ll go through the rationale behind our purchases and choices. Remember, this isn’t a checklist of everything you need to buy – it’s a framework for you to do your comparison shopping to understand what you actually need. Over the next few pages you will see us drop the names of multiple manufacturers and resellers, this doesn’t represent an endorsement from FiringSquad, but rather our research.
Before we really get started, we need to establish what a reference theater must have. It used to be that the local theater was the best place to see a movie, but that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Here are some guidelines, or goals that we think would make for the ultimate theater.
The major components of a theater will be the visual, audio, and visceral experience, with a good source material. Movies should draw you in not just emotionally with their stories, but physically with their presentation.
In the TV world, there is nothing that has been debated more than 720p vs. 1080p. There are those who insisted that there was very little in the way of 1080p content, or that the human eye could not resolve the added detail with ease. Turns out, the answer is much easier: The question isn’t about 1080p vs 720p, it’s whether or not your TV has 1080i 3:2 inverse telecine.
Myth #1: There’s very little 1080p content
Fact: There is a ton of 1080p content available.
Scenario 1: 1080p TV without 3:2 inverse telecine
Without inverse telecine, the original 1080p signal cannot be reconstructed from the 1080i broadcasts. That means that as much as half of the resolution is thrown away! The 1920x1080i is “effectively” converted to 1920x540p. For 720p broadcasts, the television has to upscale from 720p to 1080p. Some TVs will scale better than others.
1080i content: Bad
720p content: OK
Scenario 2: 720p TV without 3:2 inverse telecine
Just as above, the lack of inverse telecine becomes a problem. The 1920x1080i broadcast is converted to 1920x540. From that point, you scale 1920x540 to 1280x720. Again, when you scale the image, it can introduce artifacts. However, in this case, there is no processing that needs to happen when displaying 720p images.
1080i content: Bad
720p content: Perfect
Scenario 3: 1080p TV with 3:2 inverse telecine.
With inverse telecine, you get all of detail you were meant to see with 1080i content. The reconstruction happens “perfectly” as if you were watching a 720p broadcast on a 720p display. There’s not wizardy involved – you’re just tapping into the quality that’s hidden in the source. In general, TVs with HD inverse telecine have a good enough scaler where you can go from 720p to 1080p reasonably.
1080i content: Almost Perfect* (we’ll get to this)
720p content: Good.
Scenario 4: 720p TV with 3:2 inverse telecine.
With inverse telecine, you have to downscale 1920x1080 to 1280x720. This can still introduce artifacts, but you’re starting off with more pixels and that helps to keep the quality up. In contrast,
1080i content: Good
720p content: Perfect.
What are the artifacts of scaling? Going from 1280x720p typically generates a slightly “blurrier” picture. After all, you’re working with fewer pixels to begin with. Importantly, if you sit back “far enough” from the TV, the blurriness isn’t a problem – you’re already beyond the limit of human vision. In general, the artifacts that occur when going from 1080p to 720p usually show up as jaggies. These artifacts are particularly visible in motion, and because the eye is tuned for “local contrast,” we feel that these artifacts are more glaring when compared side by side.
So from a purely technical standpoint, it makes sense to go with a video processor that can do 3:2 inverse telecine and for technical reasons, upsampling 720p to 1080p tends to produce fewer artifacts than downscaling 1080p to 720p. Don’t forget that the quality of the scaler makes a difference – a high-end scaler can do 1080p down to 720p with few artifacts (but it can also go from 720p to 1080p with few artifacts as well).
FiringSquad Recommendation #1: Your video processor needs 3:2 inverse telecine
Myth #2: You can’t see 1080p quality anyways
Fact: It depends on how far you sit away from the TV.
With the exception of large screens, most people tend to sit further away from the TV than what is needed for “maximum” benefit of 1080p. However, what you rarely see quoted is the same set of numbers given for 720p displays.
That is to say, if you are sitting closer than the numbers in this second chart, you will be in the range where you will begin to see the differences of going beyond 720p. Sometimes, the viewing distance with will be a limitation of what’s physically and aesthetically reasonable in your living room/family room/bedroom, but can you get a TV that’s too big?
Myth #3: A viewer should sit no closer than 1.5 times the diagonal width of a HDTV.
Fact: It’s complicated.
This range of distances is right in the sweet spot of where the full benefit of 1080p displays can be seen. However, for many TVs, sitting at THX recommended distances results in the ability to see the individual pixels.
If you want to bring the full movie theater experience home, you’ll need to go big. At these viewing distances, the benefits of 1080p are noticeable. In addition, the video processing in 1080p televisions with inverse telecine tends to be better. Bottom line?
FiringSquad Recommendation #2: if you can afford it, go with a 1080p LCD or plasma flat panel or a 1080p SXRD or DILA front projector. That’ll get you the best picture quality both as a result of the increased resolution and more optimal video processing.
The Argument for 1080p24 and the upcoming world of 120Hz displays
We can go on and on about video processing (and we will in a future article). On the frontier of video processing are two separate features: 1080p24 and 120Hz displays (typically with inter-frame interpolation).
120 Hz displays are somewhat though to be a Holy Grail. In order to deal with both 720p60/1080i60 deinterlaced to 1080p60 and 1080p24, displays had to support 60Hz/72Hz or 60Hz/96Hz. This increased the cost of manufacturing because the TV needed to sync at multiple frequencies. With the advent of 120Hz displays, both 60fps and 24fps content can be displayed without judder. There’s just one catch.
All 120Hz displays are not created equal.
The faster frame rate of the display allows two additional technologies to be introduced. One is inter-frame interpolation. In this video processing mode, the position of moving objects is “estimated” in the intervening 1/120 second. This creates images that look smoother and more lifelike as viewed through a window. This is similar to the Pixel Plus technology used in Philips and Bang and Olufsen TVs (marketed as Trimension for HTPCs). It also allows some manufacturers to insert dark frames to increase the paunchiness and black levels of a display.
We also had our projector custom calibrated to ensure that the picture is fully optimized. The convergence of projector is essentially perfect. On the right size of the screen, there is no visible error in convergence and in the lower left corner, the misconvergence was less than 1/4th of a pixel probably more indicative of chromatic aberration form the lens rather than the SXRD panels themselves.
A Detour on Convergence
DLP televisions work by shining light onto a micromirror array and using a high-speed spinning color wheel (as fast as 360 Hz). So instead of creating a screen with red, green, and blue pixels, DLP shows you a red picture for 1/360th of a second, a green picture for 1/360th of a second and so on. It’s more complicated than that (it’s more than just 3 colors) and the newer DLP-LED technologies cycle through the picture at more than 2000 Hz. LCD and SXRD/DILA projection systems (both rear projection and front projection) rely on three separate panels. If the convergence of these three panels is incorrect, picture quality suffers.
Why get a one-year-old projector?
Although Sony announced the replacement VPL-VW60 at CEDIA this month (Sony codename “Amethyst”, Internet codename “Black Pearl”), the original Pearl remains one of the best projectors on the market today. The VPL-VW60 improves black levels (resulting in 5000:1 native contrast and 35,000:1 contrast with the auto iris) and adds 120Hz support (we haven’t confirmed which type). Indeed, there are probably only handful of projectors that can beat the VPL-VW50 in picture quality while providing 1080p24 capability: Sony’s VPL-60 ($5000), JVC’s DLA-RS1/DLA-HD1, and Sony’s Xenon-based VPL-VW200 ($15,000 with a $1k replacement bulb). Some of the 3-chip 1080p DLP devices from the like of Runco qualify too as they have a video processor that converts 1080p24 to 1080p48.
Alan’s choice: Sony VPL-VW50 (Screen TBD)
Although the HD DVD and Blu-ray battle continues, there’s no question that the future lies with these two formats. Both of these formats are capable of 1080p24 output (HD DVD 1080p24 support is found in the LG Super Blu players and the latest Toshiba players). We are currently waiting for our HD DVD players to come in.
When it comes to the Blu-ray, we went with the Playstation 3. First of all, we’re gamers. While good PlayStation 3 games still seem to be few and far in between, you know we’re Gran Turismo fans. Still, the PS3 offers tremendous value as a Blu-ray player. Besides offering full 1080p24 support and perfect compatibility and the fastest performance of any Blu-ray player to date, it also gives you the opportunity to playback movies such as John Woo’s Hard Boiled (as part of the Stranglehold Collector’s Edition games). The PS3 supports lossless Dolby TrueHD (decoded internally and output via HDMI), DTS-HD (but not DTS-HDMA), and PCM when it comes to HDMI audio. You can still output a traditional DTS or Dolby Digital signal over the optical SPDIF output.
For upsampled DVD playback, we’ve got an upcoming article planned comparing the PS3, the Xbox 360, NVIDIA PureVideo, AMD AVIVO, and dedicated stand alone players (including HQV-based models) planned. There are only so many hours in a day…
Do you need lossless audio? Yes and no. Recall from the first page that 1080p is the ideal resolution when considering THX recommended viewing distances (and along with it, practical considerations of your living room/family room). Indeed, you’re almost at the threshold of human visual performance at these recommended distances. Perhaps more importantly, we are unlikely to see movies released to public with greater than 1080p resolution.
What about audio in the movie theaters?
Lossless audio gives you the opportunity to obtain the same quality of audio as what’s available to the studio masters. While Digital Cinema venues broadcast in lossless audio, the typical movie theater that most people enjoy has audio performance that pales in comparison to the home. A 35mm print with Dolby Digital (the majority of movies seen today) has a bitrate of only 320 kbit/sec in comparison to the typical 448 or 640 kbps of home formats. That is to say that you’re already getting “better” sound than most movie theaters on your DVD. That’s not to say that there’s no advantage to lossless audio. Listen to a music CD on a high-end system or a DVD-Audio/SACD and it’s clear that there’s still room for improvement, particularly with music. The catch is that you need a high-end setup to benefit from the lossless audio.
In the “budget” speaker range, what we define as $300/pair, we really like AV123.com X-series of speakers, the HSU Research HB-1, and the SVS SBS-01 line. We don’t think you can go wrong with any setup. The AV123 line tends to look the best, the HSU Research HB-1 is a modern-day version of the JBL HLS-610 (our old reference with a horn tweeter providing good off-axis response) and offers the best overall sound with the worst appearance, and the SVS SBS-01 line is also a great setup, especially because you get discounts when you combine it with a legendary SVS Subwoofer. Of course, you can’t go wrong with the Insignia NS-B2111 although its current $72/pair price point makes it less amazing of a deal.
In the “mid range” speakers of ~$1000/pair, we like the Polk LSi 9’s, Dynaudio Audience 52’s, and have good hopes for the SVS MBS-01 and the new AV123s. The reason we like the direct internet retailers, is that you usually get more bang for the buck. There are many other speakers within this price range, but we haven’t listened to them, so we can’t make good recommendations. Most speakers nowadays are pretty good.
In our reference setup, we went with the Polk LSi lineup. At its original retail price of $1k/pair for the LSi9 and $600 for the LSiC, many reviewers have already called it one of the best. Better yet, since Polk does not have the same cachet in the high-end world such as B&W, Dynaudio, Revel, or Sonus Faber you actually get more value for the dollar. In the used market, the LSi line of speakers is even cheaper…The Polk LSi line is special because of its Vifa ring radiator tweeter, which can be found on the $10,000 Krells and Sonus Fabers. Polk is no stranger to high end audio and high end home theaters has their old SDA and SRS speaker lines were always well regarded, but too expensive to sell in mass market scores, and not exotic enough for the boutique shops.
We like the LSi series so much, that it anchors the front stage of both of our home theaters. One warning about these speakers is that they sound better with more power. The LSi 9 have an impedence dip to 2.5 ohms and if you amp can’t handle this, you will get distortion and will stress your components. Unfortunately, the higher quality the speaker, the less efficient it tends to be (and the better the amplifier you need). This is more about design choices. If you don’t have to design an efficient speaker, you have fewer constraints.
For home theater setups within budget, we recommend bookshelf or large bookshelf style speakers paired with a good subwoofer. Floor standing speakers will have better bass response, but bookshelves on sturdy stands may have a slight imaging advantage and a definite placement advantage.
Ideally, all of your speakers should be identical, but if you are on a tight budget, spend the money on the front stage, the left, center, and right speakers. I prefer that the speakers be identical and placed the same way, i.e. vertically. When the center channel is placed on its side for looks, it won’t image or sound identical to the left and right speakers. Rear speakers are a good place to save your money since your ears aren’t as sensitive to sounds behind you.
How do I allocate my funds?
The center channel is often thought to be the most important speaker because it’s responsible for all of the dialogue. On the other hand, the left and right channels are important because they’re responsible for most of the music, and generate the rest of the world. Rear speakers add the extra ambience to set. But what about the subwoofer?
When it comes to amplification, all amplifiers are not created equal. Everyone might claim 120 watts per channel, but the question is if it can really deliver that level of quality with all channels driven and for how long. It’s current that actually matters. When listening to movies with a lot of special effects and sounds at “reference” levels and standard efficiency speakers, it is not uncommon to see 10 amps of current being drawn from the wall for short periods of time. You can never have too much power, and having this extra power gives you the opportunity to be more flexible with your speaker choices.
Your audio is only as good as your weakest link. Getting a $400 receiver with HDMI for “lossless audio” may not give you as high-quality of an experience as a $2500 receiver running regular old DTS or Dolby Digital due to the amplification stage, the power supply, the capacitors, the DACs, etc.
If only you could get a $2500 receiver for less than $2500... Fortunately, you can.
The trick is to buy a used “flagship” or “near-flagship” receiver. While the processor component of the receiver may improve over time, the actual amplification stage has not evolved quite as much. We think that the best buys can be found with used Denon receivers or refurbished JVC THX Ultra amplifiers. These aren’t the only options – just the ones that I’ve found on the used market for a great price – Denon because there are more of them on the used market than Harman Kardon, Marantz, and Pioneer Elite; JVC because they couldn’t sell many THX Ultra receivers due to the brand-name. Some of the Denon models to look out for on eBay are the AVR-3600dts, AVR-5600dts, AVR-4800, AVR-4802, and when it comes to JVC, the JVC RX-DP10VBK, JVC RX-DP15VBK, and JVC RX-DP20VBK are all great models. In our case, we went with the JVC RX-DP20VBK receiver, currently available on eCost for a ridiculously cheap $400. Honestly though, I wish these companies would give us a pre-amp only version of their flagship receivers, for those who don’t really need to have it all in one box.
The DP20VBK has all of the usual processing capabilities, DTS-ES Discrete, Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro-Logic II, and one of the best 1-bit DACs on the market with K2 de-jitter technology and upsampling to 24/192. Although it doesn’t have the toroidal transformer of the Denon AVR-480x and 5xxx series, it still offers plenty of power reserve augmented with beefy Nichicon capacitors. Real-world output is on the order of 200 watts into 4 ohms, and it can be configured for bi-amplification for the front channels.
Another approach is to go with separates, combining a high-end vintage amplifier such as an Adcom GFA-555 II with a “barebones” receiver with HDMI input and analog pre-outs. However, this can be somewhat trickier to achieve. Finally, the new Onkyo TX-SR805 looks like an interesting product given its price point ($900 but THX Ultra2 certification, HDMI 1.3 support, and Audessy equalization), but we haven’t had a chance to listen to it.
A great advantage to going with a separate power amp is that is can be transferred from system to system. Once a new digital format comes out you only need to replace your pre-amp decoder. This approach does require more upfront expenditure, but if you are upgrade happy, and who isn’t, then it isn’t so wasteful. Outlaw Audio has some reasonably priced pre amp and power amp packages. Just watch your total power, to make sure that you don’t blow your circuit breaker.
Alan’s choice: JVC RX-DP20VBK, 120w x 7 at 8 ohms, front speakers bi-amped in 5.1 mode (200W into 4 ohms x2 each channel)
There is nothing that has been debated more than 720p vs. 1080p when it comes to video, but when it comes to audio, speaker cables remain an area of hot contention. Cables do make a difference. Consider the difference between the 80-conductor IDE cables and the 40-pin IDE cables. If there was no difference, why are there performance issues? The problem is that bits aren’t bits. Even when transmitting 0’s and 1’s, it’s still a question of voltages what is driving that voltage. A lot of science has shown that “all things equal,” there shouldn’t be a difference in sound quality – but for whatever reasons, all things don’t seem to be equal. The problem that clouds everything is that cables are frequently overpriced.
In general, there are three ways to deal with cable.
In our previous setup (now with Alexis in San Francisco), we went with custom cable route using exactly what I mentioned above: Belden cable, mil-spec, or telecommunications surplus. Although Belden cable can be found easily, it’s impossible to make cables from mil-spec cables in any sort of quantity. My best analog interconnect was made from this flat-topology silver plated copper cable with a Teflon dielectric. It came from an F-16. If you have the time to make cables, listen to them to see if they’re any good, it’s a fun thing to try. Otherwise, it’s not very practical. In terms of commercially packaged Belden cable, Blue Jeans Cable is a good choice (http://www.bluejeanscable.com/). You can buy bulk Belden cable without the connectors from any number of retailers.
Monster Cable has a bad reputation for being overpriced, but their cables are actually high-quality products. We like their products a lot and we actually use them in our systems on a regular basis. The reason we like Monster Cable over other “high-end” cable manufacturers is that their ready availability means that you can find clearance and close-out deals ALL of the time. Likewise, because a large part of the price markup happens at the retailer side of things, you can often negotiate a good deal.
People often talk about Monoprice as being the Newegg of cables – dirt cheap, high quality. That said, buying a 12-foot “subwoofer” cable from Monoprice runs you $6.38. At Accessories4Less.com, you can get the MonsterBass 400 subwoofer cable which has solid core copper conductors and a lifetime warranty from Accessories4Less for $10 (retail is $60). Monoprice premium 12 gauge speaker cable is 50 cents/foot. Accessories4Less has Monster Cable Z2 speaker cable at $1/foot, which is way better than the standard 12 gauge speaker cable. Even if you don’t believe in speaker cables, you can get a 10 foot pair of terminated New Monster Cable (that’s the model name) for $15 (retail $40). It’d cost you $10 at Monoprice and that’s not even terminated. I’ve gotten Monster DVI cables for less than Monoprice. Sure, you can go with Monoprice, but there are many times when you can find Monster Cable on clearance at prices that rival Monoprice pricing. Accessories4Less.com has been one of our new favorite retailers for premium cables.
HDMI cables? Still cheaper at Monoprice. You can consider going with a premium cable if you’re running longer distances though. They do sell premium HDMI cables that are silver plated copper.
How do I prioritize?
People often talk about spending 5%-10% of your budget on cables. The tough part is that it’s hard to talk about spending x percent on cables when you can find cables on clearance for 50-80% off retail if you look hard enough. What about the subwoofer that you’ve gotten for $300 that performs like a $1200 one? Here’s how you should prioritize your cables:
In our setup, we’re running long distances with our HDMI cable (front projector). This is where we’ll need to spend the most money. The problem is that HDMI doesn't have error-checking or error correction. Next, 1080p60 requires a ton of bandwidth. It’s fully uncompressed data, up to 5Gbps (when also carrying audio). Finally, HDMI runs in parallel even though the rest of the world has moved to serial for high-speed connectivity which means that there are three color signals and forth clock circuit which need to be appropriately synchronized.
Next, you should invest your money into high-quality analog interconnects. These low-level signals are most prone to interference. Nowadays with digital audio, the only time you still deal with analog interconnects is with the subwoofer cable. Since subwoofers typically carry frequency below 80 Hz, they are also the ones most prone to low-frequency interference because of the relatively low voltage of the signal. A good subwoofer cable will be well shielded to reject the 60Hz hum from other AC power cords and fluorescent bulbs. Remember though, a good subwoofer cable can be something as simple as the $10 MonsterBass 400 (retail $60).
The best cable to get is bulk Monster Cable. I don’t think you can get a better $1/foot cable than Monster Z2 and since Monster XP Navajo White cable is often used by home installers, you can often find remnants for dirt cheap prices. Don’t ever pay retail for Monster Cable though.
Digital cables make a difference when dealing with PCM audio due to jitter. When you’re working with DTS or Dolby Digital, it doesn’t make as much of a difference, since the data is error corrected. A good coaxial video cable can serve as a good SPDIF cable too. For optical cables, the differences lie in the terminal end of the fiber, you need a polished end to have the most efficient transmission.
Alan’s choice – Monster Cable
For components that don’t have built in AC regeneration, all the noise in your home’s AC line will continue from the wall into your audio and video signal. Most homes and especially older apartments don’t have much shielding on their AC lines, and the lines will pickup interference from other household appliances such as your fridge, microwave, or fluorescent.
I know someone who had their SPDIF signal interrupted every time someone turned on the bathroom light and fan. At my place, when the washer switches from one cycle the next, the SPDIF signal is interrupted. The solution is to get at least a line conditioner and possibly and AC line regenerator if you can afford it. Power conditioners range from just about $100 to $1000’s. The most accessible brands are Panamax and Monster Power, both are readily available at local stores and online.
In the grand scheme of things, audio filtration has the smallest effect on audio quality. Unless you have the speakers and amplifier to benefit from AC filtration, you’ll just be buying an expensive surge protector. That said, it’s not a negligible effect. Turn up your receiver to reference levels and places your ears near your speaker. Hear that hiss? It’s not all from the amplifier and source, there’s a good amount of noise from the power in there. While the noise is below the threshold of hearing when you sit back in your seat, this low-level noise makes is harder for “normal” speakers to reproduce the rest of the audio -- that’s why AC power filtration works.
You can get a test device to measure your line noise at home; Monster Cable used to use it to show off their products. Unfortunately, they haven’t setup a system where people can borrow or rent the device for the day to see if they really need line conditioning. Some high-end retailers with such a device may allow you to borrow that device or allow you to trial a power conditioner in your home. Fortunately, FiringSquad has one of those devices.
Alan’s choice – Monster Power (Stage 2 v.2.0)
There are probably two general themes to this article that you need to remember. First, there’s a lot of misconception about what a high-end TV needs. We haven’t even begun to talk about things like color gamut, contrast ratio versus color accuracy, or even noise reduction video processing. Still, the things to look into are 1080p, 3:2 inverse telecine, and for high-end setups: 1080p24.
The last TV you owned probably worked for 20+ years. We’re approaching the point where high-end TVs are approaching the limits of human visual perception. After all, you can only fit so big of a TV into your living room. Front projection is still the way to go if you want to bring the full movie experience, however large LCD and Plasma panels are quickly dropping in price making them extremely affordable.
The trick to the home theater, though, is saving money on your audio equipment. While TVs at Best Buy or Costco are always competitively priced, audio equipment is often extravagantly priced with hefty dealer markups and networks. In the end, speaker technology has not advanced substantially nor has amplifier technology (you still need big beefy power transformers with digital amps). A Mark Levinson ML-3 amplifier from 1979 still outclasses any receiver today, and the JBL K2-S9500 introduced in 1989 is still a stunning speaker.
In that regard, some of the best deals in home audio are “former flagships” or statement products from “mainstream” manufacturers. The Polk LSi is still one of the best deals in hi-fi to date, but you can also find great deals with used speakers such as the Infinity Compositions line or older JBL speakers. Likewise, speakers from SVS, AV123, and HSU Research are also great bargains, harnessing American engineering with overseas manufacturing. For the receiver, a “former flagship” from companies like Denon, Marantz, B&K which may “only” have 5.1 audio may in fact be far superior in the end-user experience than one of the new-fangled HDMI 1.3 mainstream receivers.
My perfect home theater is going with a JBL Synthesis audio setup, a Qualia 004 projector, a HQV Realta processor outputting 1080PsF24 and a Stewart StudioTek 130 screen in a light controlled room. For music in the living room, I’d have a stack of Mark Levinson equipment powering a pair of Sonus Faber Stradivari Homage speakers and a Shigeru Kawai SK7 grand piano. But until I win the Powerball or Mega Millions, compromises will always have to be made.
Could we have gotten better speakers in the rear? Sure. Could we have gotten a better subwoofer? Yes, most definitely. But then there are practical considerations. Going with better rear speakers would have meant going with a 720p projector. Going with a bigger subwoofer doesn’t make sense while I’m in an apartment. The LSi 9’s with good amplification actually give sufficient bass response for smaller rooms and apartments.
In the end, our system met our design goals. It offers a “better than movie theater” experience, with plenty of room to grow and the quality we need to ensure FiringSquad’s ability to objectively evaluate video technology. Although we’ll probably upgrade to an HDMI receiver in the near future as FiringSquad expands to review audio hardware, it doesn’t mean that you need to do the same thing to maximize your budget.
We’ve through a lot of information in the preceding pages. Few people actually have the resources to plop all that money down to build their reference theater in one step. Our reference theaters were built component by component over an extended period of time while also shopping for deals on the used market. If you wanted to get something right now, needed to buy new, here’s our recommendation for an entry level audio system.
Budget Audio System:
AV123 X-CS $140 x 5 = $700
FiringSquad Reference Home Theater #1
Display: Sony VPL-VW50 Projector (1080p24@96Hz 3-chip SXRD front projector)
FiringSquad Reference Home Theater #2
Display: Sharp Aquos LC-45GX6U (1080p60, 45” S-IPS LCD display with HD inverse telecine and true HD deinterlacing)
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|