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The Point in 5.1

14th May 2012 • Dave

To answer some questions about our home cinema, here are some rambling about: how we chose our equipment, how it’s setup and what we get out of it.

You don’t have to throw a small fortune at technology to realise that: Hi-Fi, computers, mobile phones, whatever are usually somewhere close to out of date before you’ve taken them out of the box. And with this in mind, if I were buying our home cinema today I would choose differently. So just decide how much you want to spend and when you want your system. No point worrying about everything that may be lurking around the corner.

Some of the factors we considered included: budget, environment, source formats, genres and technical support. What factors are important to you?

Budget – This was to be a big present to ourselves. We had some very generous family and friends give us cash when we married. And as parents at home most evenings, this was our version of wild. Remember your money needs to buy all the cabling and fixtures and fittings. You are not just buying the shiny boxes. You want to leave a couple of quid for actual content. After all, what’s the point if you have no beautifully produced media to enjoy?

Environment – we started with measuring our living room. Mrs W wanted the speakers to blend in with our lovely oak tables. It was also high time to replace our beloved Sony Vega CRT which stuck out hideously from the wall. Windows make it difficult to put speakers to the side of our viewing area. But we can mount speakers behind our sofa. So be realistic about what is achievable in your space.

Source materials included: Sky TV movies and sport, DVD collection, and as we have a 3-year-old, Disney’s finest on Blue ray with lossless Dolby True HD in 7.1 channel goodness. We also like to listen to music stored on our NAS in MP3 or Flac. Our favourite CDs are mostly pop, jazz or acoustic. What do you actually listen to and watch the most?

Technical support – while the best deals can usually be had online, the expense and potential complexity of the system justified taking our business more locally. We could not find a way to have Amazon prices and amazing local customer service. So we tried supporting our guy down the road. You need a plan B if it all stops working.

With all this in mind, we found ourselves in the market for a system which would strike a good balance between a dazzling 5.1 home cinema for movies and sport, also a respectable stereo performer for serious music listening. All within our few K ring-fenced for the project. Where are you prepared to make compromises? Which factors are more important to you?

The other specialist requirement worth mentioning separately, is the fact that AV Receivers are becoming increasingly complex, and I wanted to have a screen reader accessible App so I could operate the interface from the iPhone. Lots of AV Receivers do this now, so worth searching your Smartphone’s Apple App Store for the brands of any AV Receivers on your short list.

The AV Receiver is the beating heart of your home cinema. Our AV Receiver is the Onkyo TXNR 809. No shortage of online reviews for this one. The big thing which no one tells you when moving from integrated stereo amps to AV receivers is they are usually physically much larger, a good deal heavier and run significantly warmer requiring greater cooling, in my case necessitating a new rack. The big change in the 2010 2011 AV Receivers was the integration of networking features. You can play digital content directly: from your NAS, streaming services such as Napster and Internet Radio etc. and depending on model, you can remote control from your web browser or smartphone. So you’ll see modern AV receivers described as network receivers. I also auditioned: Denon DHT 1912, Onkyo 609 and seriously considered Cambridge Audio 650R, Marantz SR6004 and a slew of other Denons. Sadly had to rule out the budget busting Arcam AVR400. Onkyo came out on top for us in the sub £800 price range because it sounded punchy and warm with movies and just about held its own with Emma’s Michael Bublé collection. A big win was the fact that I can drive most of its features with a range of apps. If I have any gripes it would be the physical size, at around 44 CM square and 20 CM high plus clearance for cooling. Oh and the lack of Airplay meaning I have to plug the iPhone in to the front USB port. Will need a dock.

I did get a warm fuzzy feeling from the fact that Onkyo have recently sponsored Braille essay writing competitions in Europe and North America.

Our new TV is the Panasonic VT30 50 inch plasma panel. I liked the connectivity including LAN and USB, deep Blacks and aesthetics. It feels very sleek having no plastic bevel round the screen edge, like having a huge iPad on the wall. Negatives include: price, not as bright as LCD, and over specified with Free Sat and Freeview support which we never use, and 3D which is still pointless for most content. We’ve also not made much use of the embedded apps for: YouTube, Skype and BBC iPlayer. I have a lengthy short list of other TVs from Samsung and Sony which were ruled out for various reasons. We managed to blag a Blue ray player and wall bracket in with our TV. And the nice man from the shop came round to help install it. Happy with the TV as a package but if I was starting from scratch I’d possibly go for a slightly less ambitious panel. The only thing a display needs to do well is show content, everything else is just nice to have.

If you decide to wall mount anything, do your homework. I know very bright people who saw their pride and joy smashed on their living room floor because they got the wall mounting wrong. Have many screws driving deep in to supporting joists or even masonry. Don’t expect to hang anything more than 1 or 2kg directly off plasterboard because the weight will just sheer down the wall. My TV bracket is on at least 8 screws which go through the plasterboard and right in to joists, and I lifted my own 90KG weight on the bracket before I dared put the TV up there.

A note about the VT50 and the other 2012 models from Panasonic sporting the Voice Guidance feature. For anyone with enough tech savvy to use the internet, TV now and next info plus 7-day listings are easy to come by. Voice Guidance will only be really useful to me when it speaks Red Button services and Video on Demand including apps like iPlayer. My disappointment at buying Panasonic too early and not having one of the 2012 models was short lived. Good on Panny for making talking listings happen, but anyone who is prepared to buy a premium TV for this feature, really expects much more than simply TV listings to be spoken allowed. Don’t you?

Speakers are Monitor Audio Silver Series. RX6 left and right, RX Centre, RXW12 sub-woofer and RXFX surround. Auditioned Monitor Audio Bronze BX series which didn’t have quite enough sparkle for direct 2 channel music listening. I also tried the Monitor Audio Radius speakers for surround but found them to sound crisp but a bit metallic. So bit the bullet and again blew the budget by going for the Silver series. Bi-wired the RX6 left and right for music listening and wall mounted the RXFX speakers. I stopped short of RX8 with its extra base driver because I was going for a big sub and RX8 plus RXW12 in my room seemed like overkill. If you are splashing out on speakers, what is going to rock it for you in your room with your music?

A word on woofers. Sub woofers reproduce low frequency sounds. The “cross over” is the point where the sub rolls off and your other speakers take over. Lots of debate about where to have your cross over set, I like it quite low so you only really feel the sub when something really goes boom! And that’s the point, the sub is about creating ultra low frequency vibrations which you feel in your legs rather than hear with your ears. Your other speakers will take care of bass guitar solos and other general low frequency work. a sub too far in the corner of your room can boom too much, so some positional experimentation may be required. Very low frequencies at loud volumes travel a hell of a long way and will be felt by your neighbours. A bit like when a heavy truck goes passed your house. So get a great sub, but don’t become a complete arse with it. He says. 

The other thing no one tells you about surround sound, 60 percent of a movie’s sound track comes through the centre speaker. and that’s the way it should be. The actors are on the screen and you expect most of the dialog to be heard from that part of the room. So don’t skimp on the centre speaker either.

Configuration – Getting those speakers positioned, AV receiver and display correctly calibrated, even all the cables in the right sockets can all be a ball ache and take ages. As mentioned somewhere above, we decided to pay a little bit more and get everything from a local supplier. This meant they were prepared to help with installation. And the man from the shop used to visit my house if I asked nicely.

In Conclusion – yes I’m smarting a bit from the stupendously large bill. But our system gives us hours of enjoyment and makes us all smile. As a family we are all wowed by the production values in Toy Story or Cars in lossless Dolby True HD. Emma can hear Buble’s swing band sounding punchy and superb in stereo. And I can have the next best thing to going to the match, live football in 5.1 with the crowd all around me.

I had to make some compromises. Audiophile stereo listening being the main one. But how often do I get to do that these days anyway. Maybe that is a separate project for when I have more time.

The point in 5.1 is not having all speakers blasting the same signal. 5.1 is about creating immersive experiences generated by different sounds coming from different parts of the room. If a well-mixed movie playing on some carefully selected and configured kit doesn’t blow your head back or make you go “wow” then you’d be better spending your money elsewhere. If sound effect zinging around your room makes your pulse race then it’s time to go audition some kit!

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