Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Buying a home theater? Read this :)

Well, a few weeks ago I didn't know frickin' ANYTHING about home theatres. Since then, I've been reading and researching like a madman, gathering all kinds of information about home theatre setups and intently reading articles, reviews, and trawling Ebay and Amazon like a fiend for hours on end. It's 1:23am now, I think tonight I've (only) been doing this for 5 hours. I did take a 30 min break to watch Colbert... but only watched him for 10 minutes so I could get back to reading. This is fun.

For those of you who finally upgraded to an HDTV, and finally joined Netflix, and finally threw out that damn painful futon and bought a new couch (or in my case, scored a free couch from your fantastic neighbour)... If you're a couple of years outta student life like me, love movies, and are finally getting the chance to work through that Netflix list... here's what I'm planning to get to move into the fancy world of bachelor-pad home theatre glory.

There are a TON of interconnected pieces, and most of it relies on whether or not you are planning on upgrading to Blu-Ray, actually. If you're spending enough money on fancy speakers, then I venture to say that recycling your old DVD player is probably a good idea, and getting Blu-Ray (and the slew of stuff that you need to get to support it) is probably a good way forwards.

First off: DVD vs Blu-Ray
  • If you have a TV over 40", then BluRay's resolution may be a good idea.
  • Upgrading to a speaker system means buying a receiver
    • Receivers can take your low-resolution DVD player's signal, and do a "1080p upconversion" on it, so it scales up to your HDTV resolution. Note that Receivers currently are not generally well reviewed at this functionality (read: Receivers suck huuuuge at upconversion, so you need a new DVD or Blu-Ray based upconverter.)
    • So there are 4 DVD/Movie-related options:
      • Keep your current non-upconverting DVD player, and live with the crappy upconversion through the receiver (nope, that's gonna suck)
      • Keep your current DVD player, feed audio and video signal separately to the receiver and the TV. This means you will need to change TV and receiver when you want to watch a movie (not the best setup)
      • Buy a DVD 1080p Unconverter DVD player for ~$60 so you can output to HDMI. HDMI is the one-cable connection that carries both audio and video at 1080p. (This method is too expensive for something I already basically have)
      • Buy a Blu-Ray player with Netflix Streaming (bingo!) More expensive, but ultimately should be worth the upgrade. I'm not totally sold on this whole 3D at home thing yet, and also I JUST bought a (non 3D-capable) HDTV last year, so I'm not too concerned about "future proofing" my components for 3D. So I don't need to buy a 3D BluRay player, I can just go for the cheapest reasonable one that also has Netflix Streaming Capability. I don't need WiFi 802.11N capability for streaming Netflix, since I am so Computer Science that I've wired a Cat-5 network cable through my walls and into my living room. Hard-wired streaming is MUCH better than wireless anyway, even Wireless-N I believe. Anyyyywaay, ultimately Sony's BDP-S370 ($160) should do the trick for my needs.
Next: What the heck is 5.1 vs 7.1?
  • You need to pick your Receiver first. That is the big amplifier dealie that parcels out the audio signals (from your Blu-Ray, or XBox, or TV signal, or whatever) and sends them out to your 5.1 surround sound speakers.
  • Note that 5.1 means "Fronts" left and right speakers, "Center Channel" the main center speaker that gets all the vocal tracks, "Rears or Surrounds", the 2 speakers at the back beside your couch on the walls or on stands, and finally the Subwoofer, which is for bass only and is optional, especially if you have people in an apartment under you!
  • 7.1 adds an extra 2 speakers at the top L/R rear, I believe. Most people think this is totally overkill for a small home theatre, and I agree. You can still buy a 7.1 receiver and only use it for 5.1 (or 5.0 even).
Now, Receiver time
  • CNet ( and Gizmodo ( both reviewed a the Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K as the best midrange receiver. It's a 7.1 Surround unit, and highly rated with some amazing features like an included iPod dock. This lets you plug your iPod Touch or iPhone into it, and then control the songs on the TV screen, while the audio is essentially "upconverted" through the Receiver and sent out to your badass speaker system. VERY nice feature.
  • The VSX-1019AH-K is pretty expensive, coming in at about $500 US. I (extensively, believe it or not, haha) read about their entire range, and was about to buy the cheaper, $300 5.1 VSX-819H-K. That seems ALMOST right... but just before deciding on it for sure I read a bunch more reviews and it's missing one feature that may prove to be pretty important - the "Cinema True 24fps" setting. This is a feature which tells the Receiver to send the HDMI Video signal directly through the receiver and to the TV without attempting to smooth the video or modify it. Most Blu-Ray players support this, and it's an attempt to send the video signal out in a way that is the closest match to what the film's director actually wanted to achieve. Some TVs offer this 60Hz thing now (mine actually has that) which tries to interpolate the frames so you get "smoother action sequeneces." Some people like it, some hate it... I am on team "Hate it". It makes things look cartoony and weird, and the first time I watched Transformers 2 (which has a LOT of fast camera movement in it), I couldn't figure out why it looked so weird on DVD... turns out I had that weird setting on. It's kinda crazy, I don't like the effect. Anyway... basically you don't want your receiver to screw with the video signal if you're intentionally setting your Blu-Ray player to output in "True 24fps". The 819 screws with it. The 919 and the 1019 do not. The 919 does not have "Analog Upscaling" like the 1019 does, but again, that's not the greatest quality anyway, and "Analog Upscaling" is only needed if you're using Component Video and not HDMI. This decision has already been squared away given the earlier Blu-Ray choice. :) Apparently the Nintendo Wii would benefit from this, so if you have that, maybe pay an extra $100 and get the 1019. But since my VHS collection isn't used all that often any more, I'm gonna just stick with the 919 (comes in at about $400). Note that Pioneer is JUST about to release the 2010 models, so I may end up buying the 920 (this year's model). Not much difference there, same price, but it uses the new HDMI 1.4 technology which is "3D capable" - so no major benefits really yet other than more "future proofing". I say go for the 919 (or 920).
  • Now that I am focused in on getting a Blu-Ray player, I now no longer need to worry about paying more for 1080p upconversion, cause I won't have any more analog sources. So the money I save on not getting a more expensive receiver, I'll spend on the upgrade price (~$100) to go from a new 1080p DVD Upconverter to a Blu-Ray player (which all have built in upconversion anyway)
  • I thought a Marantz or Yamaha or Denon or Onkyo or something would be much better, but features-wise and value-for-money-wise, this Pioneer system seems hard to beat.
  • Another thing to note is that if you're getting a Blu-Ray, don't be tempted by the fancy old MSRP $1600 Rotel receivers going on Ebay for $300. The sound would be sick, but they can't decode any of the new sound codecs, like dts HD Master Audio and Dolby True HD. These are the fancy new high-quality sound codecs that Blu-Ray discs store, and if you're spending lots of money on speakers then you definitely want to be able to make use of the excellent high-quality sound encoding that the 50Gb of storage on Blu-Ray offers over the (now "measly") 4.7Gb of storage on DVD.
Speakers, Speakers, Speakers
  • I spent a LOT of time on this.
  • Fluance (Canadian speaker company) is an interesting option.
    • Generally excellent reviews
    • Full 5.0 speaker set for $400 including delivery
    • Said to be one of the best values for money, if spending < $1000 for 5.0 speaker set
    • That IS my price range, but...
      • People upgrade, buy, sell a lot
  • Ebay is an excellent source for used electronics, and I can buy without hearing stuff first if I stick to reputable sellers and good brands
  • So... buying used Speakers on Ebay is really an absolute goldmine for excellent used stuff.
  • Most important speaker choice: L/R mains, Center Channel
  • Less important: L/R rears, Subwoofer
  • B&W (Bowers and Wilkens) is one of the best companies in the world for speakers, one of the oldest, most reputable, and highly respected by the audiophile community. I couldn't really afford a 5.1 set from them if buying new, but on Ebay I can get lucky and get something amazing.
  • I looked at a bunch of other options, and Paradigm (a Canadian company) seems like a good choice for the Surround speakers. My room is not well setup for those weird looking bipole surround speakers, so instead I am gonna get 2 more bookshelf speakers, and put them on speaker stands as my L/R rears.
Here's my plan

I think I've FINALLY locked down a plan as of tonight. I've been looking at speakers for a while, but this seems to be the way I am likely gonna go, barring any major new releases or better deals I find.

Front (iPod connector, switcher, phono jack)

Back (7.1 surround)

Sweet Netflix streaming action, and 1080 love.

Sorrento colour, I really love this one

The classic black and yellow one, also nice

Monitor with Stand

A pair of Anim Monitors from Ebay
  • Subwoofer
    • Will probably not get one for the moment
    • Living in an apartment building it's a bit hard to get away with thumping bass at your neighbours all evening, people on all sides of you would be annoyed.
    • The B&W 602's are supposed to have nice bass already, so that should hopefully do the trick.
    • I can always add this on later and re-calibrate my Receiver for it.

And that's why it would be WAY easier to just show up at Best Buy one afternoon, pull out your credit card, and spend $700 on a Sony HTIB (Home-Theatre-In-A-Box) system. This research took like 3 weeks, but ultimately I will only be spending a little more than that and I'll be getting a system that is WAY better and will last me for years and years, rather than an HTIB system that I'd have to recycle/chuck out in only a few years. This is gonna rock.

I feel many happy movie watching days are in my future.

If you, faithful reader, end up getting a home theatre system soon too... send me your thoughts or comments. This is all very interesting and it was really cool to learn all the (hundreds of) details required to make a decision. :)

1 comment:

Hussein said...

Hey Mike,

Great picks all around, particularly the Pioneer box.

The only suggestion I would have is to consider a PS3 as opposed to the Sony Blu-Ray player.

The new slim version is nearly $200 bucks cheaper than the old model, streams Netflix (they'd have to send you the software though) and makes for a pretty nifty Linux box if you have the time.

Anyways, good luck.