Ben Morehead's Home Theater System
This article describes the video and audio components of my system, and sets forth some of the lessons I learned as I upgraded my components over the years.
Projector BenQ PE8700 DLP, ceiling-mounted, with 1280x720 resolution, 1,000 ANSI lumens, and DVI inputs. DVD/CD 1
(DVI source 1)
V Inc. Bravo D1. A DVD player with DVI output. It also supports modern formats like MP3, MPEG–4, DTS, etc. HDTV PVR
(DVI source 2)
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000HD (A one-trick pony that records HDTV, and in all other respects is the worst PVR in the universe. A real contender for worst user interface ever invented. God how I miss my ReplayTV.) PC
(DVI source 3)
Custom made 2.8GHZ P4 with 1GB RAM, an MSI 6728 motherboard, and a Radeon 8700 graphics card with DVI outputs. DVI switch Extend-it 4x1 with three 12m Display Magic DVI-D cables from BetterCables.com. DVD/CD 2 Pioneer 434, with aftermarket EEPROM from DVD Ireland. EEPROM defeats both region coding (enabling me to watch DVDs from any region worldwide) and Macrovision (enabling me to copy my DVDs to my ReplayTV or VHS tape). Screen Recessed ceiling-mounted DaLite, 10 feet wide by 5.6 feet tall (16:9), with 2.8 gain. Amplifiers Four Marantz MA-500 monoblocks (100w each) for center, right rear, left rear, and subwoofer Center Channel Custom made shielded D'Appolitto (MTM) configuration (2 Focal 5-1/4" midbass drivers, Focal T90ti tweeter) Surround Speakers Custom made ceiling-mounted Focal two-ways (5-1/4" Focal midbass, Focal T90ti tweeter) Subwoofer Custom made VMPS Larger Subwoofer (8-1/4 cubic foot bandpass design with 15" woofer, 12" woofer and 15" passive radiator) VCR JVC HR-S3500U S-VHS Hi-Fi with Movie Advance, a must-have feature that skips all the commercials at the front of pre-recorded tapes, if you can stomach watching VHS. Speaker cables Sound King 12 gauge stranded copper ($.40 a foot at Parts Express)
Tuner/Preamp/Processor Sherwood Newcastle AVP-9080 with Dolby Digital and DTS decoding Main amp Bryston 3B Main speakers Monitor Audio Silver 5i Main interconnects Audioquest Quartz Main speaker cables Sound King 12 gauge stranded copper
If you're in the market for an HDTV projector, be sure to get one with HDMI (newer) or DVI (older) inputs. Both HDMI and DVI support HDCP (high-bandwidth digital content protection), which many so-called "high-value" content owners require before they'll distribute their signal in high definition. What the HD salesman didn't tell you is that if you DON'T have HDMI or DVI, you're probably watching a 480P (enhanced definition) signal, because content owners like Disney will not allow their content to be broadcast without HDCP. Instead, they simply down-convert it and send it as an ED signal, and of course they never tell you they shortchanged you.
With genuine HD content, the projected image on my screen gives a genuine theater experience in my 27'x14' living room. In fact, the sound in my home is as good as the best movie theater I've ever heard. The Dolby Digital and DTS decoders in my preamp provide excellent dynamic range and separation. Well-recorded soundtracks are reproduced with incredible dynamics; more than once I have fallen asleep during a movie only to be startled out of my chair by an action scene.
The sound quality of my center channel is astonishing, and it mates extremely well with the Monitor Audio Silver 5's. Despite having identical drivers, the surrounds don't sound nearly as good. They lack the upper bass fullness and warmth that characterize accurate voice reproduction. I attribute this to the surrounds having only one midbass driver, while the center has two.
Lesson #1: The room is the most important influence on the sound of your system, followed closely by the placement of your speakers.
Having lived in six different places since 1986, I can say with confidence that the influence the room exerts on the sound dwarfs the influence of different components. Within a specific room, speaker placement can drastically affect the sound quality, especially with dipoles like my old QUAD ESL-63's.
Next time you're shopping for a home or an apartment, insist on a large room for your audio system. This simple step can save you thousands of dollars in needless upgrades trying to fix unalterable limitations imposed by your listening room.
Lesson #2: Buy separate components with an eye toward your next several upgrades.
Separate components are a must if you are planning incremental upgrades. Separates allowed me to upgrade my preamp and amps separately, as I could afford it. More recently, the advent of surround processors and different encoding schemes like Dolby Digital and DTS have rendered many conventional preamps and receivers obsolete. If separate components are out of your financial reach, then be sure to buy a receiver that has at least one discrete six-channel input. This will allow you to upgrade to new multi-channel encoding schemes (like DVD-Audio or SACD) as they emerge, using an outboard player/processor.
Lesson #3: If a DVD, CD, or HDTV programming sounds bad, it's likely not the fault of your system.
If you have a high-end system set up properly in a good room, then bad sound is NOT the fault of your system. Fortunately, poorly engineered classical CDs are becoming something of a rarity. But movie and television soundtracks exhibit wide variation in sound quality. For a long time I thought something was wrong with my surround system: the effects were diffuse and uninvolving. Then I bought Jurassic Park and found that nothing was wrong with my hardware; software was the problem.
Recordings that fully exploit the dynamic range available on CD, or the newer surround and multi-channel effects capabilities, are expensive and difficult to make. While many studios continue to shrink from the effort and expense, others are making vigorous use of audio special effects to differentiate their products. This can be seen on television, with networks like Fox, ESPN and Discovery sounding far better than other networks. On DVD, The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan vividly demonstrate the capabilities of Dolby Digital and DTS, respectively. (On laserdisc, Amadeus, True Lies and Toy Story are great demo discs.) As more and more homes are equipped with surround sound, studios and networks will be forced to make creative use of surround effects in order to remain competitive.
DSS's much-vaunted "near CD quality" sound is a real disappointment. Using my SPL meter, I measured the dynamic range of several different networks and music stations. The practical dynamic range of most program material was only 10-12dB. Using very generous measurements (i.e., from the "silence" between programs and commercials, to the highest peak measured using the fast setting on my meter) I measured 18dB. Pathetic. These low figures were mostly the result of very high noise floors in the program material and extreme compression. If I turned up the DSS until I got peaks of 100dB, the softest sounds were 85-90dB. By comparison, my CDs and lasers routinely produce dynamic range approaching 60dB: a noise floor of ~40dB with crescendos of about 100dB.
Lesson #4: To get high-end sound on a tight budget, do it yourself.
Nearly all of us have experienced life on a tight budget. It isn't as fun as having lots of money, but it needn't keep you from enjoying high-end audio. While in college, building my own Hafler preamp and amps gave me sound I otherwise couldn't afford. More recently, I've built my own subwoofer ($329 drivers, $35 of medium density fiberboard, and $100 for maple veneer), two surrounds (~$350/pair) and one center channel speaker (~$300). All four speakers sport high WAFs. (Wife Acceptance Factor, perhaps the most important equipment specification for married men to consider.)
The sound quality of these components rivals that of manufactured gear costing several times as much. My subwoofer can literally shake the house until you fear for your life, and has flat response to 17Hz. The center channel is a marvel of dynamics and midrange smoothness.
Lesson #5: Calibrate your system.
Calibrating your audio system is easy and inexpensive. If you have a Dolby Digital decoder, then you have a test tone generator built-in. While sitting in your preferred listening position, simply alternate the sound from one speaker to another while adjusting the volume so that all speakers sound equally loud. A sound level meter is helpful here (and is required to accurately calibrate a subwoofer), but isn't necessary. I have found that I can consistently set my speakers by ear to within 1dB of the metered setting. A system with different brands or types of speakers will have wide variations in loudness between speakers; don't hesitate to turn one way down or another way up. In my case, the subwoofer has a sensitivity of 95dB and requires a setting of -6 (on a scale of 10), while the Monitor Audio Silver 5's sensitivity is 89dB, requiring a setting of +0. If you want to use an SPL meter, I recommend the digital Tenma, distributed by MCM Electronics (800-543-4330). It has two very wide volume ranges and its response extends to 30Hz; both features make it superior to the cheap Radio Shack meters.
The NTSC standard that governs video transmission in the US is routinely ignored by television manufacturers and showroom salesmen. Most of the televisions you see in a showroom have the brightness set much brighter than the NTSC standard, because brighter pictures have been shown to increase TV sales. But an improperly calibrated TV has an unrealistic image, and is as irritating to live with as those boom-and-tizz-brigade speakers we all bought in high school. The least expensive way to calibrate your TV is to buy a calibration disc such as A Video Standard, or the less expensive Video Essentials, both produced by Joe Kane. These discs have thorough documentation, written in laymen's terms, that walks you through the process of calibrating gray scale, brightness, contrast and color. Unfortunately, the user-accessible controls on many TVs only allow you to change settings at the margin, and are only effective if the "right" setting lies within their range. Whether this is so depends on the settings of advanced controls accessible only inside the TV or projector.
With the advent of DLP, the old chore of CRT convergence has been supplanted by a more expensive new one: new HID projector bulbs every 2,000 hours at a cost of nearly $400. Regardless of projector type, I advise ceiling mounts to keep it safely away from children and the inadvertent jostle.
Lesson #6: Give considerable thought to how your system components are configured and operated.
If you have a spouse or older children, their ability to use and enjoy your high-end system may depend on how well you've configured it. Here are some tips to make your A/V system easier to operate:
- Get rid of all those remotes! Buy a unified remote and program it thoroughly. In my case, a single Phillips ProntoPro remote takes the place of seven different remotes. I've programmed it so that the volume and mute buttons always control the preamp, no matter what source component you're controlling at the time. And the channel up and down keys always control the cable box.
- Don't use your television for audio/video switching. This common error introduces a number of complexities. First, it requires you to turn the volume way up on your receiver or preamp, while using the TV volume to adjust the sound level. This is confusing for novices, who have trouble figuring out why they're not hearing anything even though they see a picture and the TV volume is all the way up. It can also lead to blown speakers if, with the volume maxed on the TV, they turn on the preamp. Blown speakers can also occur if the source input is changed on your preamp or receiver, while its volume is maxed from a previous TV listening session. A preamp or receiver with video switching capabilities (or a DVI switch) will fix all these problems. Simply connect all source components to your preamp, and send only the video output signal to the TV.
- If all of your components support S-VHS, use S-VHS interconnects; otherwise, stick with composite video to simplify the operation of your system. If some of your components support S-VHS and some don't, use composite video throughout and eliminate the need to switch inputs on the TV. The video quality you sacrifice is small; the simplicity of operation you gain is large.
- Use an infrared repeater system. It not only looks better with all your components behind closed doors, but it also allows users to point their remote control intuitively at the visual image, rather than at the component they're trying to control; remember, they usually have no idea which component they need to control.
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