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Sound is the heart and soul of a home theater system. Visuals are important as it gives a movie its form and tells you the narrative, but it’s the sounds that lets you live it. This is why watching even the most intense and compelling suspense film with the volume turned down is just as scary as watching Sesame Street. When your thoughts are drowned to the point that you stop watching and start experiencing the film, you know you’ve got yourself a spectacular sound system.
And this is exactly what surround sound technology tries to achieve in home entertainment systems. What it does is it splits a movie’s sound elements into channels to be distributed to several speakers. These speakers are then arranged so that they “surround” the viewer(s). Now, when the film shows that someone shouted at the left side of the screen, the sound comes out on a speaker from that same direction. The most typical setup involves two speakers at the front and another two at the back while the more complicated ones involve more speakers positioned to cover more directions.
The A/V receiver is a device that sorts out the sound channels and assigns them to their respective speakers. The more advanced a receiver is, the more channels it can support with higher efficiency and quality.
Separate vs. Integrated Amplifier
Built-in amplifiers is a common thing among a/v receivers. They’ll save you a whole lot of cable work and will take less space. Having one device to cover both sound processing and amplifying functions is economical.
But divorcing the two will yield audible improvements. For one, dedicated amplifiers are able to focus more of its power to each channel speaker, resulting in a bigger range of sound magnitudes. Your amplifier and your receiver will also have their own dedicated cooling mechanism which may prolong the life of your home theater system.
Dolby Laboratories and DTS (Digital Theater Systems) are the two leading companies in home theater surround sound processing these days. Bluray and DVD copies of movies go through either of them and they are the ones who encode the sound formats supported by those discs. DTS’ sound has a higher quality than Dolby because they use less compression on their process. However, since Dolby Labs has been around longer, more DVDs and Blurays tend to support this format.
But the choice need not be too hard, since most A/V receivers are compatible with both. The more important choice will be on how many channels you would be willing to spend for. When a receiver supports 5.1 surround sound, this means that it can split the audio into 5 channels or speakers and another channel for a subwoofer. Therefore, 6.1 means 6 channels + subwoofer, 7.1 is 7 channels + subwoofer, and so on. The more channels a receiver can support, the better the quality of the surround sound tend to be. The most recent receiver models often support the latest technology but, of course, expect them to cost more.
Many people tend to base their choice at the power rating or watts-per-channel of an amplifier. While this notion is not wrong, it’s not completely correct, either. The WPC indicates how much power an amplifier supplies to each speaker in the system. Higher figures will yield louder volumes. But the choice isn’t all about volumes.
Total harmonic Distortion
You should also consider the Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) of the sound system. Less distortion means happier ears. Most amplifiers and receivers indicate them as a percentage and a THD of 01.% will be listenable at all levels. Just to make sure, try listening to the sound an amplifier/receiver produces at all volume levels. If it goes all over the place when you’re not even close to the maximum volume, leave it, and yes, even if it has a stellar WPC.
This has much to do about how efficiently a receiver separates the main sounds such as music, voice and SFX from the ambient ones. It’s measured in decibels (db) and the higher the S/N ratio the better.
You already know that WPC says how much juice an amplifier distributes to each channel speaker. But unless it’s measured in RMS (root mean square), that means it’s only the maximum power output that may not hold for an extended period of time. If it’s not in RMS, the performance of each speaker may fluctuate which will definitely lessen the quality of your home theater experience.
iPod Compatibility and other connectivity options
If you have an iPod, you’ll probably want an a/v receiver compatible with your gadget. Many recent models offer iPod docking stations but not all them are capable of playing the videos stored in the device. Also, you would want a receiver that will enable you to navigate through your iPod via the remote controller.
Since HD video quality is quite popular today, you may also opt for a receiver that offers HDMI connectivity. This is specially needed if you intend to make the receiver, the core of your home theater system. Try to look for USB ports, as well, if you want to play music from any MP3 players or videos from flash drives.
Streaming and Networking Capability
Perhaps. in the future, someone will find a way to incoporate the internet to a rice cooker. But until then, you’re concern is if you’ll benefit a from home theater system that can be wired directly to the world wide web. It enables the user to automatically update the system’s firmware or watch Youtube and other streaming videos and a whole lot of other applications. This feature is common among mid- to high-tier systems but may also present in other devices such DVD players, game consoles and even TVs.
Setting up a home theater system will mean cables --- lots of them. But if you opt for wireless speakers, you may be rid of some of the messy tangles. They still utilize a cable for power supply but the rest of the audio cables are removed from the equation. If you have the cash for this type of equipment, try to look for the one with the highest transfer rate (GHz).
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