Friday, November 21, 2008

Our movie experience just got better

I went into Fry's last night to get a pack of rechargeable AAA's for my head lamp, and somehow came out with almost $1800 in home theater equipment. Most of my friends know I don't waste a lot of money on material things, but when I want something, I usually don't waste much time before getting it. =)

We watch a lot of movies, so I splurged about six months ago and bought a 52" Sony Bravia XBR LCD TV to replace our projector. I'm super glad I did, too, because that TV is awesome! However, we never made an investment in audio equipment to complement it.

Our biggest problem is that we don't really have a TV "room." Instead, we have a TV "nook." It's a fairly decent area (about 15' square), but it's wide open on the right side, and the ceiling is vaulted towards the right. Not only does this make it a not-so-optimal listening environment, but there's no obvious place for the surround speakers.

I thought I might get one of the Yamaha sound projectors that try to give you "virtual" 5.1 sound using a bunch of speakers in a single box that goes under or over your TV. There were several drawbacks with this setup, the major showstopper being that it didn't support Dolby TrueHD, one of the new surround standards for HD video. Plus, they cost about $1500, and that's without the subwoofer you'd have to add. On the upside, they get an A+ on the "spouse acceptance factor" because you don't have speakers all over the room.

So, with all this in mind, I visited the Fry's listening room. They had a Polk Audio sound bar there, and the sales guy gladly ran through the demo for us. I knew immediately I wasn't going to buy it because it just didn't sound right. It sounded as though it was using volume to compensate for the lack of rear speakers, and it didn't have the natural spread or timber I was looking for. Even Jen could tell the difference, and she usually only cares what the stuff looks like. =)

Next, we listened to some Polk Audio bookshelf speakers, with some JBL rears. Now we're talking! The fronts had a 5.25" cone, so there was plenty of mid-range to make things sound natural, and the spread was very realistic.

Allow me to digress for a moment...

There has been an unfortunate trend towards HTIB lately (Home Theater in a Box), and these systems typically come with a subwoofer and five speakers (two front, two rear and one center). More often than not, the five speakers are very small, which means their speaker cones are small -- typically 3" or less.

It's pretty much impossible to get natural sound from a setup like this because you have no mid-sized speaker cones to produce mid-range frequencies. Instead, you get a lot of low end (boomy) with a lot of high-end. It's important to have small cones in your setup because they add sparkle, but without any mid-range drivers, you end up with an overall sound that is "tinny" and hard on the ears. I've heard several people's Bose systems, and they all sound very tinny to me.

Okay, so I was pretty happy with the Polks we were listening to, but the sales guy decided to put on some Infinity's, too. These speakers were smaller and, sure enough, the demo soundtrack became noticeably more tinny. "Can I hear the Polks again?" I kindly asked.

You're probably getting tired of this story by now, so I'll cut to the chase. Here's what I bought (and why):

Onkyo TX-SR606 7.1 Receiver
Lots of HDMI, S-Video and composite ins/outs, two optical digital audio ins, and HDMI upscaling. Also, the cheaper models didn't have Dolby TrueHD support.

Polk Audio DSW Pro500 Subwoofer
Polk was running a special that gave us $200 off, so we splurged with a better sub. It ranks high on the spouse-acceptance factor because it fires down, which means you don't see any speakers. It's just a black box in the corner of the room. The bass is quite impressive without sounding boomy.

Polk Audio CS10 Center Channel Speaker
I think this was actually the only center speaker we listened to. It sounded great, and the price wasn't outrageous. I guess I got a little lazy with this speaker.

Polk Audio TSi200 Front Channel Speakers
We were actually sold on the smaller TSi100's, but the only pair they had left were "open box" (i.e. had been returned by someone). You know how I feel about having mid-sized speakers in my system, and the TSi200's have an extra 5.25" cone.

Polk Audio OWM3 Rear Speakers
The JBL's we listened to sounded okay, but the form factor was a little odd. They tapered slightly at the top and bottom, and just looked too tall and skinny. These OWM3's can be mounted in seven different ways, and they look pretty decent.

Here's a shot of everything but the rear speakers. This setup is temporary -- we'll be building a custom wall unit to house everything, so it'll look nice and tidy, eventually (I'm almost embarrassed to post this photo):

Here's a shot of the surrounds. They're sitting on some super stout stands my dad made for me about 15 years ago when I had a small recording studio. We'll most likely mount a couple small shelves on the wall for the surrounds so there's a minimum of clutter (and nothing on the floor to get in the way of vacuuming, according to Jen).

After setting everything up and running the Onkyo through its room calculation routine, we tested the system out by watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This isn't the typical extreme audio movie you'd normally test an audio system with, but it's more like the movies we usually watch. It was also recently recommended to me because of the cinematography.

The bottom-line: I was totally happy with the sound quality. Everything sounded very natural, and I could turn the volume up quite loud without a particular frequency becoming hard on the ears. I pretty much forgot there was an audio system in the room, which I think is the best way to gauge success.

Now, onto that custom wall unit...

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