Killer Audio Completes Your Home Theater

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By Alan Zibel
Associated Press
Saturday, November 8, 2008

You can't have a great home theater system without great sound.

Home theater audio comes with a sometimes confusing set of technical terms, including DTS, SDDS, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, to name a few. But all the lingo boils down to something rather basic: the number of speakers that surround the viewer, providing an immersive, enveloping experience.

The main goal "is to feel like you're actually sucked into a movie," said Dave Pedigo, senior director of technology at the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association.

And newer technology, such as high-definition Blu-ray players, can deliver an even more impressive effect. You can even get rich surround sound from game systems such as the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

The most popular surround-sound system is known as a 5.1 channel system, which uses five speakers to create three-dimensional whooshing sound effects. The next level up is the six-speaker 6.1 channel system, and then there's the maximum 7.1 channel system, with seven speakers.

Included in all three varieties is a subwoofer for thumping bass and other low-frequency sounds. A 5.1 channel system includes three speakers in front of the viewer and two rear speakers, while 6.1 channel and 7.1 channel systems add more rear speakers.

One easy option is to buy a "home theater in a box." For $200 to $1,000, such systems include a receiver, speakers and sometimes a DVD player. Consumer Reports gives top ratings to systems made by Onkyo, Sony and Yamaha.

For the true audiophile, putting together a stereo component system is the best option. Speakers made by Infinity, Bose, Polk Audio and Sony all get good ratings from Consumer Reports. Basic bookshelf speakers sell for as little as $95, but high-end speakers can sell for thousands.

Picking which is best for you depends on the size of your room, experts say. If you have a relatively small basement and your couch is backed up against the wall, a 5.1 channel system works just fine.

"A lot of times people will say, 'I want the biggest and the best,' rather than finding what's appropriate for them," said John Wanderscheid, vice president of marketing at Aperion Audio, a Portland, Ore.-based designer of speaker systems ranging from $1,200 to $4,500.

For rooms where there is more than 15 feet between the rear speakers, Wanderscheid recommends a six- or seven-speaker system. But to have the best surround-sound experience, they should be at least three feet behind your couch. Otherwise, he said, "in a small room, it doesn't really add to the performance."

Another issue to consider is what kind of cables to use. The latest and greatest audio and video equipment comes with a new kind of cable that is designed to simplify the process.

High-definition multimedia interface, or HDMI, cables can transmit digital high-definition video and surround-sound audio signals over a single cable. That's far simpler than the older analog standard, which required three video cables (usually red, green and blue) to transmit high-definition signals and separate audio cables.

HDMI, however, doesn't work with older televisions sets and DVD players. Most of the time, HDMI works pretty well, experts say, especially if your setup is relatively simple.

But home theater installers say they sometimes run into problems with repeated images using HDMI cables over long distances. And HDMI comes with built-in copy protection, so you might not be able to record some programming.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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