Home Theatre Advice for Newbies
Yes, even though I'm no expert, people still ask me for advice whether via e-mail or in person. In my efforts to assist them, I've actually had to learn something about Home Theatre. I may make an attempt to sort this out into some coherent whole, but for now, its all in random point form :)

People with existing Hi-Fi systems have it much better as they already have a good 2 channel stereo system. All they need to do is to add a processor, an additional amp and rear speakers. Of course, this provides the perfect excuse to upgrade your stereo system and use the old amps/speakers for surround duties :)

1 box or Seperates?
I have absolutely nothing against 1 box solutions for HT. If you're just starting out, the 1 box receiver is a very good and cheap solution. (not to mention avoiding the interconnect tangle) All the major Japanese manufacturers are producing such 1 box receivers and I think that in terms of sound, all are worthy of recommendation. Of course, they have their own ideas of what HT should sound like.

Heres a simple checklist:

  • What sort of inputs does it have? (if you want to upgrade your system by getting an external processor, you need to bypass the internal processor)
  • What sort of outputs does it have? (if you want to upgrade by getting a new amp for your 2 front speakers, you need outputs to connect your amp to the internal processor of the 1-box solution)
  • What sort of decoding does it do? Does it do AC-3 or DTS? If AC-3, AC-3 RF or AC-3 PCM? (see below)
  • What kind of speaker binding posts? (spring loaded clips are the worst, 5 way brass posts the best)
  • Are the contacts gold plated? (resists oxidisation)
  • For AC-3 systems, 1 or 2 subwoofer outputs? (you never know...)
  • Check how heavy it is. The heavier the better.
  • How hot it runs (but you'll give it lots of breathing space notwithstanding right?)
  • If you have a mono source (like a mono TV), does the processor convert it to 'stereo' (I'm sure one of the many DSP modes will do it)

But ignore:

  • Number of DSP modes: 'large hall', 'jazz club', 'toilet at subway station', 'phone booth', 'construction site'. Duh.
  • '24-bit DSP processing' (they all are, and its soon going to be 32-bit with the new Motorola processors)
  • Power ratings. Check the weight instead.


The standard HT system is a HT receiver. This is usually a  5 channel amp with Pro-Logic decoding. The important question to ask is whether or not this receiver has 5 analogue inputs, i.e. 1 for each amplifier channel. If it does, then an outboard processor can be used should you want to move up to DD/DTS.

Midi Home Theatre systems
This is interesting. Kenwood makes a 'MIDI' system with Laserdisc player. i.e. amp, tape deck, tuner, CD/LD player and speakers. The interesting thing is though the LD player is on a seperate chassis, it is connected to the 'midi' deck by proprietary connections which make it incompatible with anything else. The LD player has no analogue/AC-3/PCM Digital etc etc output, just a single proprietary connector. Hmm, talk about a 'dead-end' system. But actually, should you wish to get a new HT system, you can use the MIDI system as your computer sound system...

AC-3 RF and AC-3 Digital
Take note what sort of AC-3 your processor accepts. The AC-3 output from LD players is an RF signal while the AC-3 output from DVD players is digital. The words "AC-3 RF" are a dead ringer. Of course processors like the Sony EP-9ES takes both while others need an AC-3 RF demodulator.

HT speakers that come with cheap '1 manufacturer' packages sound awful
The above sentence is self-explanatory. Some people don't seem to think so; either:

  • They have low standards, having previously listened only to music on TV or their transistor radio
  • They can't hear the high frequencies hash from the cheap tweeters which make dragging your fingernails across a blackboard sound like a Mozart string concerto.
  • The most appealing feature of the sound to them is a warm, overblown midbass.

Ok, so not all speakers are painful to listen to. I had a bad experience listening to 'Twister' at a Sony Home Theatre Demo at Funan Centre, but most speakers just suffer from horribly overblown midbass and unnatural midrange forwardness. Yes, they do sound better than a cheapo TV set, but do you have to set your standards that low?

Cheap Centre Speakers - Why Bother
I don't understand why so many people consider it so important to get a centre speaker when their 2 front speakers are cheap packaged junk. And then, if the centre speaker is also cheap junk, just what sort of improvements do you think you'll get if you buy it? And don't get me started on subwoofers.

In Hi-Fi, people buy components so that they can get sonic improvements. On the other hand, the home theatre beginner seems to buy centre speakers because of some vague understanding that surround sound is '5 channel' and that the more channels the better. Have you attended a HT demonstration where they've shown that adding a sub-S$200 centre speaker improves the sound? I won't go on about phase differences from centre speakers messing up the stereo image etc...

OK, so you're on a budget, and you need suggestions; there are basically the standard British brands I'm aware of:

  • Mordaunt Short
  • Tannoy
  • Mission
  • Acoustic Energy
  • PSB
  • B&W
  • Boston (since its endorsed by REL :))

Instead of buying 5 speakers and a subwoofer, put all the money into 4 speakers, the front and rears. Buy the subwoofer next and the centre last. Don't get worried about having 1 channel in your receiver 'unused'; it probably draws current from a common power supply, so if left unused, theres more current left for the other channels. (hint: so when a manfacturer says 50 watts for 5 channels, does he mean that the receiver is able to deliver 50 watts to ALL channels simultaneously? Usually the answer is a big fat no).

When you purchase front speakers from these manufacturers, or other manufacturers with a good reputation in producing speakers for the hi-fi community, you'll be getting speakers that are able to play music as well. Also, their centre speakers are good quality as well (about the price of a pair of their front speakers), and so, you can pick them up later as an upgrade to your system.

Oh yeah, the subwoofer is also an upgrade. The REL Q-50 clocks in at $695, the Q-100 at $895 and the Strata II at $995. (note: the Q-100 is louder than the Strata II and is an Alan Sircom favourite, but Strata II owners can take note of RH's review in Stereophile).

Video In/Out :-avoid

I'm sure it has something to do with this silly PAL/NTSC problem, but I know some people who have NTSC LD players, they plug it into the video in of the 1-box solution, and connect the video out to the multisystem TV. But they don't get any signal. However, after connecting the video out of the NTSC player directly into the TV, everything's fine. Then I've seen video outs from some of these 1-box solutions working with one multisystem TV but not another, whilst plugging the player direct always works. I can't explain this, I just recommend plugging it direct.

What? There are essential onscreen menus which your billion-button remote control accesses? Well, I don't know why this onscreen menu thingy is prevalent in cheap 1-box solutions but not in seperates (the Sony EP9ES is ridiculously simple and easy to use).

Using your Surround Processor as a DAC

Yes, your AC-3 processor can be used to decode the standard 44.1Khz PCM digital data stream from a CD player. However, the standard "cheap" AC-3 processors, OK heres the list arranged according to price:

  • Marantz DP-870
  • Sony (can't recall model no.)
  • Denon AVD-2000, AVD-2020
  • Sony SDP-EP9ES
  • Pioneer (can't recall model no.)

    Basically, if you have a half decent $500 CD player, I can assure you that using a surround processor as a DAC is not a good idea. The sound quality of the processors are about the same as 'budget' players in that brand's line. Hi-Fi Choice has extolled the virtues of the EP9ES as a DAC, but it should be noted that they're saying its 'good' as compared to budget players a fraction of the EP9ES' price. When I use the EP9ES as a DAC and the XA7ES/D790 LD player as transports, I notice a high noise floor cause by some kind of 'digital noise' coming through the speakers even though there is no signal from the CD player.

    Also, the volume control is digital, and if the digital volume control is way down low (in the metaphorical 9 o'clock' position or whatever), you lose out a lot in terms of sound quality.

    TV settings
    Stereophile is correct; the factory presets for colour and contrast settings are usually too high. For brightness, when watching in a darkened room, lowering the brightness helps too.

    Some people ask about DTS compatibility. Most have no idea what DTS is. But for those who ask about DTS compatibility:

    • All LD players with digital out are compatible with DTS
    • DVD players that specifically say so (usually in the form of annoying hard to remove sticker on face plate) are compatible with DTS.
    • The newest HT processors do DTS and DD because they managed to stuff a DTS/DD decoder into a single chip thus cutting costs enormously. All new chipsets will be able to do DTS & DD, so in a few years, after they get rid of old stock, all HT processors will do DTS & DD since theres hardly any increased cost.
    • DTS gives 4 x bandwidth for about 10% increase in soundquality.
    • There's hardly any DTS software around.

    Those funky subwoofer + 5 satellite systems are usually not compatible with Dolby Digital
    I'm sure you know what I'm referring to. Heck, they won't even be compatible with SoundBlaster Live! In order for a speaker system to be compatible, it has to have a seperate input jack for each of the 5+1 channels.