First Step: Read the Manuals
Speakers from One Manufacturer
Although owner’s manuals for A/V receivers can seem more complicated than the products themselves, reading some manuals before you buy can help you make a better choice and save you a lot of time later.
What About Separate Components?
Separates—specifically power amplifiers and preamplifiers (or control centers)—are an alternative to A/V receivers. Advantages include:
Flexibility—more easily expandable, especially for adding channels
Power capability, a consideration in large rooms
Potential for better overall performance
The disadvantages of using separate components include:
What About Home-Theater-in-a-Box (HTIB) Systems?
These prematched, close to turnkey systems offer a number of advantages:
Slightly easier setup
Often a great option for small rooms
Quality and size often directly related to the price
Sometimes difficult to upgrade
One-size-fits-all system not ideal for all rooms
What About Sound Bars?
Sound bars are a very room-friendly alternative to separate loudspeakers. Many offer “virtual surround,” simulating a five-speaker setup from just two channels.
As with any system, there are trade-offs:
Efficient use of space, easy to hook up
Huge improvement on built-in TV speakers
Surround effects limited to very small “sweet spot”
See a sound bar with Dolby technologies.
Speakers from One Manufacturer
Your speakers need similar “sound signatures” to create the most convincing surround effects. Choosing all your speakers from the same manufacturer will help ensure that consistency.
Most of the major manufacturers now offer prematched home theater sets, saving you the trouble.
Multichannel Playback from Your Stereo Recordings
Most receivers include Dolby Pro Logic II (or IIx or IIz) that can generate surround sound from any stereo source:
The effect will vary, but live recordings in particular will deliver dramatic spaciousness.
If your receiver offers Music and Movie modes, use those modes for listening and viewing.
MP3: Don't Expect Too Much
Strangely enough, MP3 music recordings that sound great through earbuds on your commute probably won’t sound as good on your home theater, especially at higher volumes. MP3 files are highly compressed, and you’ll hear the difference very quickly.
Receivers and amplifiers are rated in watts per channel. A typical spec for an A/V receiver is 100 W × 5, meaning that each of the five channels can deliver 100 watts.
Ideally, all channels would be capable of delivering those 100 watts simultaneously, but this is usually not the case except for top-of-the-line models or separate power amplifiers.
In everyday use, it doesn’t matter that much—it’s very rare for any movie soundtrack or music to reach peak levels in all five channels together.
Although most speakers will play pretty loudly with only a few watts of input, you need the extra power to handle peaks, such as the sound of a gunshot.
Every 3 decibel (dB) increase in sound level (the minimum increase you can hear) requires doubling the power. A change in sound from 85 dB to 105 dB could easily mean going from 1 to 100 watts, even for an instant.