Home Theater: 5 Ways To Pick a Good One (Surround Sound is Number 5)

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, March 22, 2009

If you ask people "what's the most important thing about a home theater system," most of the will say surround sound. But in our opinion, surround sound effects play only a minor role in creating a theater-like experience in your home. In fact, on our list of five key elements, it comes in last place. Here's the list:
  1. Audio accuracy. A home theater system should sound "right." Musically accurate. It should have proper octave-to-octave tonal balance (each musical octave should have the same "weight"). You don't need "a golden ear" to tell the difference between accurate speakers and inaccurate speakers. The best way is to listen to a good vocal recording with non-amplified musical instruments (we used to wear out copies of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" in the 70s in stereo stores). Does the vocalist sound like she's in the room in front of you -- or like she's singing in an alley (or through a megaphone)? Does the guitar sound natural, or tinny? Is the piano strident or clear? This is important. Basic sound quality -- musical accuracy -- is WAY MORE important than anything else when you evaluate a home theater system. The sad reality is that most under-$600 surround sound systems use speakers that we would consider "highly questionable." Manufacturers put a lot of emphasis on watts, exotic features, gazillions of inputs and -- most important -- swoopy plastic cabinets. But they can't seem to muster the fortitude necessary to spend what it takes to put in good speakers.
  2. Vocal clarity. This is a biggy. It shouldn't be that hard to create an audio system that allows people to understand spoken words. But we've heard a number of systems where vocal clarity, well, sucks. You shouldn't have to strain to hear the voices -- or crank the volume way up. A good home theater system will use high-quality speakers that reproduce the human voice with crystal clarity. Odd retro-fact: monaural speakers are great at voices. That's why the middle speaker(s) in ZVOX systems is "all channel" (our fancy way of saying "monaural").
  3. Dynamic impact. If you're watching a "big" action movie or a concert video, you want the audio system to be able to go from "soft" to "very loud" without straining and without compressing the sound. Dynamics are often determined by some pretty predictable factors: speaker driver size, amplifier size and cabinet size. Smaller speaker systems -- including ZVOX models -- have less dynamic impact. Yes, we know everybody wants smaller and smaller speakers...and laptop computers....and iPods...and phones. But with speakers eventually smaller is NOT better. We've compared our ZVOX 425 system (five 3.25" speakers, two 4" long-excursion woofers, 133-watt amp, big cabinet) to our best-known competitor (incredible numbers of 1.5" speakers). On a big movie, with big special effects, we think there's no comparison.
  4. Bass response. A home theater without good bass isn't a home theater. And by "good" we don't mean just loud. Bass needs to be accurate, wide-ranging and musical. It's pretty easy to design a subwoofer that thuds away with 60-90 Hz bass -- reproducing all bass as one sound (also known as a "one note subwoofer"). But bass that sounds right, especially below 60 Hz, is a different story. Try picking up the subwoofer that comes with an inexpensive home-theater-in-a-box. If it's as light as an empty suitcase, it's going to sound like an empty suitcase. Push in on its sidewall. If they flex, they're going to absorb the energy of the woofer instead of transmitting it. Listen to a recording of a stand-up bass -- you should be able to clearly hear the tonal differences between the notes, and to some extent you should actually "feel" the bass.
  5. Surround effects. When home theater systems first came out, we all scrambled trying to find demo material that made the rear speakers seem important. Stuff coming from in back of you was cool, and it was sure different. It's fun to be "immersed" in the sound of a movie. But we believe surround effects are the least important factor on this list. Here's a story. About eight years ago, when I was VP of Marketing at Cambridge SoundWorks, I had a pretty serious surround sound system. But we were having our living room repainted, so everything had to be disconnected an covered with tarps. About a day after the system got put back together, I noticed that there was nothing coming out of the rear speakers. The painters hadn't connected the rear speakers. I decided to not mention this, and wait to see when any of my family members or friends mentioned the lack of rear speaker sound effects. Two months later, when nobody had said a word about it, I quietly removed the rear speakers and put them in the attic.
Bottom line: If you want a home theater system that you'll really love, the most important thing to consider is basic high fidelity. Realistic sound is more important than realistic sound effects.


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