Surround Sound Component Buyer’s Guide (A/V Receivers, Speakers, HTIBs)

What separates great home theatre sound from mediocre sound is the right balance between all the audio components. Matching a $2000 A/V receiver with a $500 multi-channel speaker system simply doesn’t make sense. The receiver’s performance would far exceed the capabilities of the speakers. The idea is to choose an A/V receiver and a speaker system of similar performance. Spending about 40 percent of your sound budget on an A/V receiver and the remaining 60 percent on a speaker system should help you achieve a proper balance.

Below, I brake down surround sound systems into four sections based on price. Each section explains what features and performance you should expect from products covered in the particular price range. The components of a surround sound system should never be chosen based on just technical specifications because specifications can often be misleading. An A/V receiver that has more Watts of power will not necessarily deliver better performance or play louder, than a receiver with a lower power rating. A speaker with similar specifications to another speaker can sound completely different. Ideally, the optimal way to choose the components of a sound system is to listen to them before you buy them. Of course, this may not always be possible so you should research the products as much as possible before making your decision. Canada is a well respected speaker-building nation so be sure to consider speakers from brands including Axiom Audio, Paradigm, Energy Speaker Systems, Mirage and Sinclair Audio.

HTIB Packages (all price ranges): HTIB packages are available from $200 to about $2000, although the vast majority fall under $1000. For $350 or less, a basic HTIB will contain an A/V receiver, capable of decoding Dolby Digital, and a 5.1 speaker system. It may also contain a CD/DVD player built into the receiver. In the $400 to $500 range, you can expect to see a multi-disc changer built into the A/V receiver, capable of playing formats other than just regular CDs and DVDs. These formats include MP3, WMA, JPEG, VCD, DVD-Audio and SACD. An HDMI output that up-converts regular DVDs from 480p to 720p or 1080i may also be included. Above the $500 point, the HTIB may contain an entry-level A/V receiver from the manufacturer’s standalone receiver line-up. This receiver should have more power, a larger number of audio and video inputs and perform better than other receivers included in lower priced HTIBs. Otherwise, with systems above $500 you may be paying for the visual appearance of the system, as opposed to a better performance. Some packages above $700 include a 7.1 speaker system or wireless surround speakers. The wireless speakers still have to be plugged into a power outlet but no wires are required between the speakers and the receiver. I do not recommend paying more than $1000 for a HTIB, instead you should consider an A/V receiver and a separate speaker system. HTIBs are available from manufacturers including Pioneer, Yamaha, JVC, Marantz, Panasonic, Sony, Denon, LG and Samsung.

Separate A/V Receivers and Speaker Systems

$1000 to $1499 Sound System: In this price range, look for a 5.1-channel or better A/V receiver and a speaker system between $500 and $750 each. The receiver should decode all of the latest surround formats including Dolby Prologic IIx, Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES. All receivers in this price range should perform video-switching of composite, S-video and component signals. The latest receivers also offer HDMI video-switching. Most receivers will also include outputs for a second set of speakers in another room. Automatic acoustic room calibration, XM Radio capability, iPod compatibility and multi-channel analogue audio inputs (for DVD-Audio and SACD playback) can also be found in receivers within this budget.

Within this price range, you should look for a complete 5.1 speaker package from a respectable speaker manufacturer. The speakers should be larger than those found in an HTIB and should deliver cleaner mid-range frequencies and sharper highs. The subwoofer should achieve lower frequencies and produce a much more refined bass. Expect the speakers to be made from composite, plastic-like materials, as opposed to MDF used in full-range speakers.

$1500 to $2499 Sound System: An A/V receiver in the $750 to $1250 range should contain all the features of a receiver in the previous section. An increased amplifier power of the receiver will translate into a better sound performance across all frequencies. The receiver will also contain a larger number of audio and video inputs. THX certification and video up-conversion to HDMI are also features that can be found within this budget. Some receivers may also include compressed music enhancement technology that improves the sound quality of files such as MP3, when playing music from a computer or an iPod connected to the receiver.

As in the lower price range, there are a number of complete speaker packages available within this budget. With this higher budget, you can also put together your own 5.1 or better speaker system by selecting two pairs of bookshelves, a centre channel and a subwoofer. These speakers should offer a wider frequency response and hence deliver a cleaner, more natural sound.

$2500 plus Sound System: A/V receivers that hover around $2000 should offer all the power and features that most consumers will ever need. A receiver in this price range should deliver enough power to fill a large home theatre with clean, high-fidelity sound. Generally, these receivers will include top-notch internal components and a superior build-quality. Ultimately, a receiver in this price range should deliver realistic movie theatre sound and at the same time cater to audiophiles who enjoy the DVD-Audio and SACD formats. A vast number of audio and video inputs should also be supplied for all your equipment and more. High-end receivers are available from Denon, Pioneer, Onkyo, Harman/Kardon, ARCAM, NAD, B&K Components, Yamaha, Marantz and Sony.

Achieving the ultimate audio performance is best accomplished by using full-range speakers: floor-standing in the front, surround speakers or bookshelves in the rear, a large centre channel and 10-inch subwoofer or larger. Floor-standing tower speakers will produce a substantially clearer mid-range and treble. They will also create a much larger soundstage in the room. A soundstage of a speaker system is its ability to create sound that appears to come from well beyond the room’s physical boundaries. Using dipole or bipole surround speakers will create an atmospheric sound, similar to that in a real movie theatre. A large centre channel speaker will deliver a much clearer movie dialogue. A large, powerful subwoofer will deliver a very deep and precise bass.

Some of today’s most respected speaker brands include Axiom Audio, Energy Speaker Systems, Paradigm, Klipsch, JBL, Infinity, Wharfedale, PSB Speakers, Tannoy, Mirage and Definitive Technology.

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