Choosing Equipment

I don’t sell equipment except for the occasional piece of used equipment I have left over, but I can help you shop for home theatre equipment at very reasonable prices and bring it to your house in my minivan and install and calibrate it for best performance. Here are some suggestions on choosing the best equipment for you. Because most manufactures put out a whole new line of home theatre equipment every year I will refrain from recommending specific models. These suggestions are more along the lines of what to look for.

Size-With standard definition TV resolution was the limiting factor. Get a TV too big for your viewing distance and you could see every pixel. With HDTV this is no longer the case especially with 1080p models. You can sit 6’ away from a 60” screen and still not see the pixels. THX recommend sizes based on viewing distance. I have found most people find these much too big. I suggest measuring your viewing distance and going to the store and standing that distance away and see what size works for you. I like a screen with a diagonal measure about half the viewing distance (for a 100” viewing distance get a 50” TV), but you may prefer a larger or smaller screen. Remember you are going to use it to watch movies and want a theatre like experience so you might want to go a bit bigger than you initially think.

LCD or Plasma: This one is really pretty easy. Plasma has deeper blacks, a greater tonal range, more accurate color reproduction, smoother motion and no issues with viewing angle. Most of the innovations going into LCD sets today (like LED backlighting) are to make them look more like plasma. But since plasma still looks better, is easier to calibrate and usually cheaper why not go with the best. There are two drawbacks to plasma. The first is image retention. If you leave a still image on a plasma screen for a long time you will see an after image in dark parts of the picture. This should go away soon when a bright image is displayed again. Plasma may not be the best choice if you use your TV as a computer monitor but for watching movies they are great. The other drawback is screen reflections. If your TV is in a bright room with lots of windows or lights you will see more screen reflections in a Plasma than an LCD screen. Plasma TVs may not look as bright as LCD or LED sets in a showroom but don’t worry, they are plenty bright enough for accurate calibration. The smallest plasma TVs are 42” so if you need smaller than that you will have to go with LCD. Unfortunately Plasma TVs are being phased out by the manufactures. Panasonic has stopped making them leaving only Samsung and LG. So if you want a Plasma TV I would strongly suggest getting it now.

1080p or 720p: In theory 1080p is better with higher resolution and no scaling when watching Blu-ray discs. However unless you like to sit unusually close you will probably find it very hard to see the difference. So if budget is tight you may want to consider a good 720p plasma set which start as low as $300 on sale.

4k UHD TVs: The latest TV technology is 4k (Ultra HD) TVs. These ultra high resolution TVs quadruple the pixel count from 1080p giving you 2160 x 3840 pixels. Like going from 720 to 1080p, in theory higher resolution is better providing more picture detail. However, unless you sit extremely close you are unlikely to see any difference. To see the pixels on my 50 inch 1080p set I have to sit less than 4′ away (far closer than my usual distance of 8′) To see any improvement in resolution with 4k I would need to move more than 4′ closer or get a 100″ screen. This would be far too big for the room and difficult to watch. Also there is the matter of programming. The current HDTV standard maxes out at 1080p as does Blu-Ray disc. The only way to get true 4k programming is a 4k media server discussed below. Otherwise you will just be watching up scaled 1080p, 1080I or 720p that will look no better on a 4k TV than a good 1080p set. Another drawback to 4k is that the TVs are more expensive and there are no plasma models available. So if you have a good 1080p TV I wouldn’t waste any money upgrading to 4k.

OLED TVs: OLED stands for organic light emitting diode is the latest in display technology. OLED looks really promising. It provides almost unlimited contrast, even superior to plasma and superb color reproduction. So far only a few sets are available with prices starting around $3,500.00. Reviewers of the first sets were really impressed with the contrast ratio but noted that like many first generation electronics the sets were not perfect. Unfortunately most of the first sets have curved screens (see below). However in a couple of years when there is a good selection of flat OLED TVs at reasonable prices this will almost certainly be the way to go.

Smart TVs: These TVs let you surf the internet and stream video directly to your TV from Netflix, Amazon etc. Although sometimes useful, streaming features are also incorporated into every Blu-ray player now available and are easier to use than a smart TV. I wouldn’t spend any extra money for smart TV features.

Curved TVs: This is just a marketing gimic. Manufactures realized that the increase in resolution of 4k or greater contrast ratio of OLED wasn’t enough to get people to buy their expensive new TVs so they came up with curved screens so these TVs would stand out from the crowd. Curved screens cause geometric distortions, more screen reflections, limit viewing angle and do nothing to improve picture quality. Go for the flat version.

Voice and Gesture control: This is just another marketing gimmick and one I would definitely stay away from. These TVs include a camera that is watching you and a microphone that is listening to you and can transmit data to a third party (usually the TVs manufacturer). They even come with a extensive privacy policy. Not only that but voice and gesture control is much harder to use than a basic remote and can be triggered accidentally. I would stay away from these TVs.

Other factors: Make sure the TV you choose has enough inputs and outputs for your needs. Most sources are now hooked up by HDMI cables. If you have a HD cable box, a Blu-ray player and a video game system and are not using a receiver you will need more than the 2 HDMI inputs offered by budget priced sets. If you plan to use the TVs tuner and an older stereo as your sound system look for analog audio outputs in addition to the digital audio output (analog outputs are getting rare these days) If you want to hook up a older DVD player with component outputs and a VCR you will need separate component and composite inputs (many TV combine them) Don’t pay too much attention to how the picture looks in the showroom. Most TVs are badly miscalibrated in the store. Read reviews in home theatre magazines and Consumer Reports and go by manufactures reputation. Most manufactures put out series of TVs with several sizes in a series. If one set gets a good review it is a pretty fair bet that the other ones in the series will perform likewise. Also ask the salesman for the remote and try changing channels and have a look at the picture adjustment menus. Go to the custom setting for picture and see how many adjustments there are. All sets should give you brightness, contrast, color, tint, sharpness and color temperature. If the set provides advanced settings too all the better. These should allow me to tweak the picture to perfection when watching movies.

If you need a screen that is bigger than the largest affordable Plasma or LCD TVs (over 65″) you may want to consider a projector and screen. There are several projector technologies available. 3 chip DLP projectors with Xenon bulbs are used in movie theaters. They are very good but also very expensive. A great alternative with even better contrast ratio is LCOS (also known as D-ILA and SXRD by various brands) These can give you the performance of a good Plasma TV, with a much bigger image for around $3,000 plus the cost of the screen. Projector quality is getting better and prices keep dropping so you may be able to find a great projector for even less by the time you read this. The 3 major brands to consider in this price range are Epson (known for great brightness, excellent for very large screens) JVC (known for superb contrast ratios) and Sony (known for great all around performance). It is hard to find a store where you can try out projectors so read reviews and choose carefully. Check the lens specs to be sure the projector can give you the image size you want for your distance from the screen. A 2 to 1 zoom lens offers some flexibility in image size but not all projectors include one. Many projectors include lenses that are too wide and produce too big an image. For the best possible image the projector should be placed as far back as possible, projecting with a longer lens centered on the screen to avoid geometric distortions. Often a small shelf for the projector, mounted to the wall at the back of the room is a better option than ceiling mounting. For a projected image to look good you will need dark room, so projectors are generally best suited to dedicated home theaters with no windows or other light sources. Another thing to consider is the cost of the bulb and it’s lifespan. Bulbs tend to cost several hundred dollars and usually need to be replaced every couple of years for best performance (bulbs get dimmer as they age). Projectors also will not last as long as TVs probably due to the heat generated by the bulb. I have replaced projectors that were only about 5 or 6 years old and calibrated some that probably should have been replaced.

4k Projectors:
4k resolution probably has more value here since screens are bigger and some people will probably sit fairly close to the screen. However 4k projectors are currently very expensive and there is still the problem of very little 4k programming. Look into it carefully before spending the extra money.

A good projector needs a good screen and these can cost anywhere from $140 for a basic pull down model to several thousand for a large high end motorized screen that disappears into the ceiling when not in use. There are fixed screens, retractable screen, acoustically transparent screens, motorized screens etc, all available in different sizes. One of the most important thing to consider is screen gain. Screens with higher gain reflect more of the projectors light directly back toward the viewer, providing a brighter image while rejecting light from off center (room lights etc.) This is good in theory but it can also cause some problems including hotspotting (the center of the screen is brighter than the edges) and darker, uneven images for people sitting off center. Therefore I generally recommend using a screen with a gain of 1.0 (no gain) for dark rooms with a good projector. If you are unable to eliminate light sources in the room or are using a projector that is too dim a gain of 1.3 (30% brighter) or higher might be helpful.

Stick with the major brands that have been making receivers for years like Denon, Marantz, Pioneer, Onkyo, Yamaha, NAD etc. All these should perform at a very high level. I usually recommend buying in the middle of a manufactures lineup. This avoids the performance sacrifices made by the lowest priced models and gives you essentially the same performance as the expensive models without the high price. $400-$1,000 should get you a very good receiver. If spending more make sure you are not just paying for more features (more DSP modes, Bluetooth etc.) that you are probably not going to use. Read product reviews in home theater magazines and if possible go to a dealer that is set up so you can audition and try out receivers. Some are easier to use than others. Don’t worry too much about amplifier power. Pretty much all receivers made today have more than enough amplifier power for any reasonable playback level in the home.

One of the first things to consider is if you need 5.1 or 7.1 channels or Dolby Atmos. For many years almost no movies had more than 5.1 channel soundtracks, but recently more Blu-Ray discs are coming out with 7.1 channel mixes. So if you have the room and budget for the back surround speakers 7.1 channels might be worth it. The home version of Dolby Atmos adds 2-4 ceiling mounted speakers for a even more immersive experience. The additional “Atmos” channels are decoded from the 5.1 or 7.1 channel bitstream on Blu-ray discs so if you don’t have Dolby Atmos those sounds will just come from your surround speakers. Although widely used in high end commercial cinemas there are very few Blu-ray discs encoded for Dolby Atmos. DTS is also coming out with their own version of the technology called DTS-X. So if you are considering a high end receiver that includes Dolby Atmos it might make sense to wait for a model that also decodes DTS-X.

The next thing to consider is video processing. If you have a older DVD player without HDMI outputs or VCR you want to use look for a receiver that can convert analog signals to HDMI. Video processors made by Anchor Bay, Faroudja and others that are built into receivers can do a very good job converting analog video signals to digital and outputting them to your TV through a HDMI connection. This allows you to use just one HDMI cable to hook up your receiver to your TV and simplifies operation because there will be only one input to select on the TV to view all sources.

Next make sure the receiver you are considering has enough inputs and outputs for your system plus a few more for expansion. Most sources are connected by HDMI these days so make sure there are enough HDMI inputs plus one or two extra. If you use turntable look for a phono input. Many receivers now available don’t include one. If you listen to SACDs look for a receiver that can decode the multichannel DSD bitstream of SACDs from its HDMI inputs. Otherwise you will have to set your player to output a PCM bitstream. This could compromise sound quality of this high end format. If you want to take advantage of the higher quality digital to analog converters in some high end universal players you will need a receiver with a 5.1 channel analog input. These are getting increasing rare these days too. If you use a tape deck make sure the receiver has at least one analog output for recording.

If you plan to use your system to listen to music as well as movies an important feature is LFE attenuation. Movie soundtracks are mixed with far more bass than music. If you set up your system so the subwoofer level sounds right with music often movie soundtracks will have way too much bass. Some receivers let you turn down the Low Frequency Effects level with multi channel movie soundtracks without changing it for other sources. Pioneer calls this LFE Attenuator and other brands just let you turn down the Dolby Digital and DTS level in the audio parameters menu. Not all receivers have this feature. It is worth seeking out one that does.

Blu-Ray players:
Blu-Ray players provide true 1080p video and up to 7.1 channels of uncompressed audio when playing Blu-Ray discs. They also do a great job playing DVDs and upconverting their picture to HD. Since good Blu-Ray players are available for under $100 there is no reason not to get one. I generally prefer Sony for inexpensive players (under $300). I have owned two and found performance to be excellent and had no trouble with either one. Some Sony models even play SACDs. Make sure the player you choose will do what you want. If you need 3D make sure the model you choose has 3D capability. If you shoot AVCHD video onto SD cards look for a player with a SD card slot that will play it. These models will also allow you to look at photos from your digital camera on your TV. Blu-ray players can be hooked up to your home network and allow you to stream movies from the internet. The amount of internet connectivity and features varies and some players have built in Wi-Fi. Your TV may include these features too. Consult you dealer if you want to use your Blu-ray player for streaming and make sure the player you choose will support your streaming service. 4k Blu-ray is being developed and hopefully we will see true 4k Blu-ray players and discs in 2016. Until then many Blu-ray players can upscale 1080P content to 4k and it will look great.

If you listen to classical music you should consider a player that will play SACDs. These discs provide up to 5.1 channels of uncompressed, better than CD quality audio and are used for many high quality classical releases. You can also get a universal player from companies like Oppo and Denon. These will play all disc formats currently available including Blu-Ray, DVD, CD, SACD and DVD Audio. They may cost more than regular Blu-Ray players but their performance and build quality make them worth it.

4k Ultra HD Media Servers: These Hard drive based servers are currently the only way to get true 4k content. They come preloaded with some movies and nature documentaries. Sony makes a couple that can download additional movies from their Video Unlimited service and stream 4k content from Netflix. At it’s best 4k can look spectacular, however there are many disadvantages to these machines. Currently movie selection is very limited and costs are high. A 24 hour rental from Sonys Video Unlimited service cost $7.99 or more and purchasing a movie costs $29.99 and up (many Blu-Ray discs are now under $10 to buy). Downloads take several hours to several days depending on internet connection speed and all your movies are stored on a hard drive. There are no removable discs. This means when your Media Server fails (hard drives all crash sooner or later) you are probably going to lose your 4k movie collection. Since it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between 4k and 1080P at any reasonable viewing distance I would stick to Blu-ray discs. Hopefully 4k Blu-ray players and discs will arrive sometime in 2016.

Having designed and built speakers for years I have a lot to say on the subject of speakers but will try to keep it brief. Let me start out by saying that your choice of speakers will have a bigger effect on the sound of your system than anything else, so the majority of your home theater budget should be spent here. There are lots of budget priced TVs, receivers and Blu-Ray players that perform very well. With speakers you tend to get what you pay for. If you only spend $500 and expect to get 5 good speakers and a subwoofer you will probably be disappointed. You might be better off getting 2 good bookshelf sized speakers then adding more and a subwoofer as your budget allows. It is really important to seek out a dealer that is set up so you can audition speakers before you buy. A good speaker accurately reproduces what is put into it without adding any sound of its own. If a speaker sounds boomy, thin, bright or inaccurate in any way move on to another speaker. Take some CDs you are familiar with to audition speakers. If they sound good with music they will sound good with movies. Also make sure you dealer will let you exchange speakers if they don’t sound as good in your home. Room acoustics can have a big effect on sound quality.

There are many types of speakers to choose from but most people buy large floor standing speakers with matching center and surround speakers, or small mini speakers and a subwoofer. If you can afford large floor standing speakers with a matched center and subwoofer, and have room for them, this arrangement can give excellent performance. You may not even need a separate subwoofer. Many floor standing speakers have subs built in or play low enough so you don’t really need one. After all why are you buying large speakers if you are not going to give them anything under 80hz. When auditioning complete 5.1 channel systems pay particular attention to how well the center and surround speakers match the left and right towers. Ideally they should produce a seamless wall of sound at the front of the room with no tonality changes between speakers. Surrounds should also tonally match the front so sounds don’t change when they move to the side.

Mini speakers is where most of the performance compromises have to be made. Tiny speakers just can’t play very low making the transition to the subwoofer difficult. The ideal crossover frequency to the subwoofer is 80hz. If you set it much higher the subwoofer may start muddying up male voices and upper bass it was not designed to reproduce. However if your small speakers can’t go down to 80hz you may have to set a higher crossover frequency or some upper bass frequencies may be missing altogether.
For the beat possible blend, look for small speakers with frequency responses down to 60hz or lower. This usually requires at least a 4” woofer.

Another good approach is to find some good quality bookshelf sized speakers or mini monitors that play down to 60hz or lower and just buy 5 to 7 of them for all channels of your home theater and a good subwoofer. Having identical speakers all around guaranties perfect tonal matching and this approach can save you a lot of money over a floor standing system. I have put together several excellent systems this way including my own.

Choosing a subwoofer can be tricky. Remember that a subwoofer is designed to reproduce very low bass 20-80hz and generates most of the impact of explosions in action movies and fills out the low end of music. By talking over the lowest frequencies subwoofers make your other speakers sound better. They are no longer burdened by trying to reproduce low bass their small woofers are not designed for.
Many of the small bass boxes packaged with mini speakers shouldn’t be called subwoofers at all since they can’t reproduce anything under 40hz. Low bass usually requires a large woofer of at least 10” in diameter and a big box. Look for a frequency response down to at least 30hz and 25hz or lower is even better. Subwoofers are not supposed to emphasize upper bass in favor of really low bass or sound boomy or unnatural. They should seamlessly blend with you other speakers and not stand out on their own. A good way to audition subwoofers is with organ music. Pipe organs produce fundamental tones all the way down to 20hz and lower. When playing organ music a good subwoofer should let you distinguish the various low notes from each other without sounding boomy or smearing all the low notes into one indistinct rumble.