Great video needs life-like sound. Get surrounded, its fun
If I could get a ten buck note for the number of times readers have written to me asking for advice for a home entertainment system or the number of times I’ve been to a hardware shop and seen someone asking after the same I’d probably be able to buy a Lamborghini. My aspirations aside, home entertainment (HE hereon) remains a buzzword in this country — a word which is used a lot, but one which very few people really understand.
For example if I were to ask you what is a home entertainment system (HES hereon), what would your reply be? Some would say a DVD player while others would talk about a 5.1 speaker system. Some of you may mention a large screen display, while others would point towards Blu-Ray movies. Did anyone say popcorn? Well, congrats — everybody’s right. An HES is a combination of all of the above. The components may change, some may be absent, but one thing that remains the same is the entertainment factor. For someone on a shoestring budget a simple 4.1 speaker setup, a 21-inch CRT TV and a DVD player may be heaven in your living room, while for another a 5.1, 800 W RMS speaker setup, Blu-Ray player and a 65-inch, 1080p plasma display may only just suffice — but the concept is rather simple; a cinema-like experience, all in the safety and comfort of your living room sofa.
Now many questions arise. Is a DVD player essential? What if I do not have surround sound? Is my PC an HES by itself? Or what if I have an HTPC hooked up to my 32-inch LCD TV? Once again I answer affirmative to all. In fact in my opinion a reasonably fast HTPC (Home Theatre Personal Computer) hooked up to a large screen and some punchy surround speakers will offer as good an HTPC feel as any Blu-Ray player. Then there may be those who may want to use their XBox 360s or PS3s as a video player. The options are endless and if you’re shopping for a home entertainment system you have a lot to choose from and a lot of decisions to make. I’d like to get a little personal and go on the record for saying that for me my PC is the best home theatre system ever. The flexibility of playing any kind of video file formats is just too addictive for me to consider moving to a home theatre system. Even Blu-Ray and HD ready players are finicky about resolutions — for example only strict resolutions like 1280 x 720 pixels (720p) is supported by a player than advertises HD support. If you attempt to play a movie encoded at say 920 x 544 pixels it will not work. Even a 1440 x 720 resolution will not work.
Firstly, you need to decide whether you are going to build an HTPC and combine the same with a good set of speakers and a large screen or ditch the idea of a PC altogether and buy a discrete home theatre with all the paraphernalia needed. I’ve already suggested a killer HTPC a few months back so I will not waste time with specifications, but in case you wish to use your own PC for such a setup you will need a large monitor and some good speakers. For the monitor I recommend the biggest one you can afford, 22-inches is a good place to start. For PC speakers look at Logitech’s Z5500 and Z5300 — these are available for Rs 16,000 and Rs 10,000 respectively and are very suited to movies because of their decent RMS rating and heavy bass. Creative and Altec Lansing do not have good 5.1 speakers, except for Creative’s G550 Pro Gamer which are very difficult to find. Smaller local brands like Zebronics and Artis also have some decent offerings priced around the Rs 10,000 mark. Zebronics has a noteworthy model in the SW 10000R. This is an 85 watts (RMS) model that sounds absolutely superb for its price — a meagre
Rs 4,500. Intex is yet another local brand worth looking at with a couple of decent options.
If you are shopping for a separate HES remember that any good setup is a sum of good parts and your experience is as good as the weakest link. For example spending Rs 30,000 on terrific speakers is great but not if you are using a 21 inch CRT TV, which will mar the experience. Similarly a 50-inch plasma display is no good if you do not invest in a good Blu-Ray player. Watching simple VCDs or DVDs on such a screen would be a humongous waste. Let’s start with the display itself. I recommend at least a 32-inch LCD display for a full family viewing experience, or, if you are single, then a 26-inch display would suffice as well. However the bigger the display, the bigger your cinematic kicks — so if you can afford a bigger screen go for it. Remember that once you reach the size of 50-inches, plasma screens make more sense than LCDs. This is because bigger plasmas are cheaper than bigger LCDs and their display quality is also generally superior to an LCD. Check the large screen TV article to get an idea of the prices of LCD and plasma displays.
For speakers you need to choose something that will go with the look of your room. You don’t want too large, too powerful speakers if your hall / living room is tiny. This will ruin both the look of the room and the aural experience. Choose speakers based on your sound requirements and not just the most powerful ones around. Never look at the PMPO rating of speakers; as an indicator to their performance it’s pretty useless. Instead look at the RMS (Root Mean Square) rating as this gives a more accurate idea of the sustainable decibel (dB) levels. A stereo setup i.e. a 2.0 or 2.1 set of speakers isn’t a good idea for a system used solely for movies, although a really good stereo system will knock the socks of a poor 5.1 system. 4.1 systems are mostly pseudo surround systems. They do not have a front sound channel, and the bass channel is derived from the front two channels. Contrary to what people believe a 4.1 system never has more than four sound channels. A 5.1 system on the other hand, has six channels as the bass has a separate channel. There are 6.1 and even 7.1 systems available, but unless you have a really large hall these are rather useless. Also remember that most audio in movies is encoded with 6 channels of sound in mind, so the extra channels aren’t doing much. Many times your HES will come with a DVD player and with surround speakers and possibly a decoder. This eliminates the worry about buying separate speakers but for those discerning people a good 5.1 system is worth the effort and the cash. Ideally look for a woofer that can belt out around 85 watts RMS. Then check the weight of the woofer by lifting it — the heavier, the better. Bass should be clear and hard hitting but not undefined and flabby, where one bass note intrudes into the next one. For the satellites look for an RMS rating of at least 20 watts, but this will change depending on the size of your room. These recommendations stand for a room that is around 300 square feet.
Speaker placement is also important. In case your subwoofer is overpowered you may need to place it facing away from you, and away from any walls which only increases the bass. To minimise bass induced vibrations you could place your sub on a soft surface like a carpet or rubber mat, note that this doesn’t affect the quantity of bass output like many think it does. For the best surround experience the satellites should be placed at the listeners’ ear level (and not on the floor or the ceiling) and the units should be turned so that the drivers face you.
I roamed around some of the large electronics malls and noticed that the most popular HES’ were from Samsung, Sony and LG although not necessarily in that order. One of the really affordable and aesthetic systems I came across first was Samsungs HT-TX22. It was priced at Rs 14,599 and its main claim to fame is the USB connectivity which means you can hook up a thumb drive or external HDD for instant access to your movies and images. It supports DVD, DivX and WMA playback. MP3s are also supported. The front speakers have stands which add a little appeal to the looks. The total power of this system seems a little overrated at 600 watts, simply because it wasn’t as earthshaking as I expected. The much better looking HT-TX250T was on display. It has the same RMS rating as the HT-TX22 but the satellites, woofer and even the DVD player are very attractively finished in piano black. This set is WiFi ready, but the WiFi device hasn’t been provided. At a price of Rs 32,900 the HT-TX250T sounds much better than the HT-TX22, but not Rs 18,000 better. LGs HT 762TZ is a beautiful looking system. LG has nicknamed this one Champagne, presumably because the speakers with their stands resemble the shape of champagne flutes (glasses used to serve the beverage). Offering a whopping 700 W RMS — 200 watts for the subwoofer and the remaining 500 watts distributed evenly for the satellites. The overall look is very attractive as is the build quality, and the DVD player itself looks sleek. I fell in love with the shape of the satellites. Sound quality is good, and the bass should please all but the most demanding movie buff. The satellites are very powerful, and will probably drown out the bass with their liveliness. Up scaling to 1080p is supported and with USB and HDMI connectivity. Available for
Rs 29,500 this should please most cinema buffs. The LG HT-902B is also available at Rs 24,500. This system is just as cool looking, with a larger subwoofer and a higher overall RMS rating of 1000 watts (225 watts for the subwoofer, 155 watts per satellite). The USB connect and HDMI remain unchanged but there’s support for up to 1080i only. The HT-502TH was also on display for a price of Rs 17000. With 500 watts RMS, HDMI connectivity with up to 1080i up-scaling and an FM Tuner, this is a good buy for the entry level user. The satellites and the woofer are quite attractive looking — a plus. For me, the inclusion of HDMI connects and support for HDMI-CEC — a standard which allows control for all devices hooked up via HDMI with a single remote, is a huge plus over Samsung, who incorporates such features into their top-end offerings only.
Sony’s DAV-DZ777 is available for Rs 24,990. 1080p is supported and an HDMI port is provided to enable HD viewing. The rear speakers are wireless –a huge plus for those with cramped living rooms, or people who don’t want a mess of wires snaking around. A 1000 watt RMS rating doesn’t detract from its appeal either.
For me the LG Champagne (HT 762TZ) was the model to beat as well as the model to buy. It was the most attractive model for me — the satellites are just too hot! I thought the overall build quality and the performance was well worth the price of Rs 29,500. If you’re really on a shoestring Samsungs HT-TX22 at Rs 14,599 should please.