Did you hear something?
In the latest episode of Phreaks on Geeks I rambled on incoherently about surround sound and gaming. During that rambling I think I said something regarding blogging about different home theater options, so 'hear' goes...
Do I need surround sound?
Yes. Today's games (and movies and even some television) are designed with surround sound in mind. The developers want you to hear the ambient noise all around you, the bullets ricocheting by your head, the footsteps sneaking behind you. They program the sound in the games to present an immersive experience. You are not just observing the action, you are in it! Without surround sound you are only getting half of the experience.
What the hell are you, some kind of expert on this?
Definitly not. But I have been dabbling in a/v stuff for the last few years. I have done a ton of research for my personal surround sound systems and quite a bit of comparative shopping. Throughout the years I have purchased everything from cheap, whatever gets it done gear to expensive, “you paid an extra $3000 for that?!?” kind of stuff. Lately I have been concentrating on the best values in my various budgets. Along the way I have made some mistakes and I hope some of you can avoid these purchasing errors.
Isn't it expensive and complicated to get a home theater or surround sound system?
It isn't. Or I should say it isn't if you do not want it to be. For as little as $300 (less, but I don't recommend it) you can get an easy to set up Home Theater in a Box (or HTiB). For a fraction more you can get a separate receiver and 5.1 speaker system (5 speakers that surround you and the '.1' refers to the subwoofer).
What do I look for?
The absolute most important thing to look for, especially with a budget or lower end system, is a system that can handle all of your digital audio requirements. You need to make sure that everything you want to hear in surround sound can be plugged into the HTiB/receiver. For most of us that is a 360 and maybe a cable box or satellite box. Many of us also have additional game consoles and DVD players. The digital part of digital audio inputs is important, because if they are not plugged in digitally then you are not getting discrete sound on the rear speakers, meaning you hear the same thing in both rear speakers rather than different sounds.
You may also want your home theater system to handle all or some of your video sources. Lower end systems probably won't be able to, but keep track of how many and what types of video inputs you have.
I am poor, what can I get on the cheap?
For around $300 you can get an all inclusive Home Theater in a Box system (or HTiB) from places like Best Buy or Circuit City. The systems include a receiver and five or more speakers plus a subwoofer. Most also have a built in DVD player. To me, most of them in the $300 to $500 range sound about the same, so here you just want to make sure it has enough digital audio inputs. You don't want to spend less than $300 as the speakers with a system in that price range are likely to be sorely lacking and you don't want to spend much more than $600 as you are then getting to the point where you may as well want to hold out for separates.
I don't recommend HTiBs unless you have a budget you can't break. If you can hold off and purchase a separate receiver and speakers down the road then do so, but if not a HTiB is better than nothing, especially for gaming.
It was my first purchasing of a HTiB (two of them, actually) that I made some mistakes. First I purchased one that did not support all of the inputs I needed for gaming. The second HTiB I purchased had all the requisite inputs, but when I upgraded to high definition television the DVD player was not good enough and I had to go back to the first system. Had I spent a few more hours looking at what I had and doing some research on the web I could have saved myself some aggrivation and maybe some money.
Okay, I'll wait a bit, what can I get now?
Now you can get an entry level system consisting of a budget receiver ($300 or so) and a cheap set of good speakers ($500 and up). The main problem with the HTiBs is the speakers, that is where the manufacturers cut corners to save money in order to keep the units as inexpensive as possible. Going with a separate receiver and speakers has advantages other than quality – You can mix and match to get the best possible sound and value for your dollar and you can upgrade pieces individually in the future. You will also be able to get a receiver that should cover all of your audio needs (and with luck some of your video needs). This is the level of system I would recommend for gaming and some movie watching.
For $300 you can get a Sony STR-DG720 (lots of inputs including HDMI video) or an Onkyo TX-SR506 (great sound for the price). Assuming you don't have too many components any of these should work just fine.
Now, speakers is the hard part. Honestly the best you used to be able to get is the Athena Micra 6 system. This is far and away the best $500 speaker set (for most people) and worth looking for online or off of eBay. If you can't find the Athenas then try the Klipsch Quintet III or the Mirage Nanosat Satellites, both around $500 to $550. If you have a few extra dollars to throw towards speakers then consider the Energy Take 5.2 ($900, which is a bit pricey for a low end system).
All of these are small satellite speakers. Another option would be full size tower speakers (Polk Monitor 50, Infinity Primus 362,which run about $99 each on sale) and the matching center channel and surrounds. Prices vary but sites like Pricegrabber.com or Nextag.com can help you piece together a full size surround experience that sounds great.
That sounds good, what sounds a bit better?
A low to mid end system would be next, and is a must if you do a lot of movie watching and want more of a home theater rather than just a home theater-ish experience. You won't have to go up too much on the receiver ($500 to $600 or so should do it), but you are going to want to spend much more on the speakers. One thing to consider at the price point is a good no-hassle return policy. This may mean spending a few more bucks at a big box store but since sound is so personal and dependent on your environment then it may be nice to have to option to return something that just doesn't work for you.
Good $500 to $600 receivers include the just released Pioneer VSX-1018 or Yamaha RX-V663. The Onkyo TX-SR606 just came out to replace the 605, I did not like the 605 but the new model may be worth a listen. Now you have a receiver with lots of power as well as plenty of audio inputs. Some of these have up to 4 HDMI inputs to handle video and even audio.
Next you need good speakers. Two of the best systems can be found online, which is counter to my listen and return advice, but an x-series System ($1000) from av123.com or the Intimus 4B Harmony system ($1200) from aperionaudio.com should be checked out. Both companies, especially Aperion, have generous return policies. They are just not as convenient since you have to ship the speakers back if you are not satisfied. If you want the convenience of the big box stores then look again for Polk Audio and Infinity, and also throw JBL and Klipsch into the mix.
I am either made of money or a true A/V junkie, what is better than that?
That is as far as I will go. If you are going to spend more than a couple of grand on speakers and a receiver then do your own homework. I will be happy to share my opinions with what I have and what I've tried but you need to do some hardcore research and demo quite a few systems on your own.
WTF? Shut up already, can't you summarize this?
I guess now is the time to end this seemingly endless blog, so but first let me go over a few things again:
---- First of all, you need surround sound to truly enjoy gaming and movies. They were designed with surround sound in mind and gaming can even be easier when you can hear all that is going on around you!
---- Next, when picking out a surround sound system make sure you get one with enough digital audio inputs to handle all of your current a/v gear.
---- If you can only afford a HTiB then get one, it is better than nothing. But if you can wait a bit and stretch your budget then get a separate receiver and speakers. You would be surprised at how much more you can get for just a few hundred dollars more. Plus, many people that start with HTiBs quicky realize they should have spent a bit more and wind up buying separates anyway.
---- Shopping online can save some money, but buying from big box stores lets you take something home and try it out for a while. Everyone hears sound different, and a/v components can sound different depending on the environment they are placed in. What sounded good to you at first may not be so good once you get home, so being able to return something could be important.