Shopping for Sight and Sound

The Denon AVR-X2100w

The Denon AVR-X2100w

The reaches a point in anyone’s renovation process where the thorny issue of AV equipment comes up. What home theatre, amplifiers, speakers, TV etc. should one be buying?

Let me say at the outset that I have not yet spent any money on this stuff – so this counts as a preliminary look at the options. I will follow this up at some point with a rundown of what I ended up buying and installing, to see if it all worked out ok.

So let’s start with the philosophical question: why do you need these things?

If you are a highly evolved being who gets their R&R time from reading books, playing chess and debating Kierkegaard with friends, then a TV means nothing to you. Buy yourself a vinyl record player, pour yourself a drink and move on.

For the rest of us, we’re going to spend at least some of our time watching series, movies and sport (not me in the last instance because I’d rather have root canal. But we know this).

There are many different possible setups as there are homes and families. A lot depends on how many rooms you want a TV in, whether you want audio playing throughout the house, what you video and audio sources are and so forth. That said, it comes down to the following general considerations:

  • Sources: what is the provenance of your audio and video signal? The common options are radio, DSTV, Internet, CD player, DVD player, gaming console, mobile device and computer server. Depending on how many of these you want to support you will need a different sort of setup.
  • Distribution: where do you want all this stuff to appear? Is it mainly in one room or throughout the house? And most importantly: do you want a TV in multiple rooms, or just sound?
  • Quality: in particular, audio quality. Are you after the kind of sound system that shakes you to your very soul? Or will merely fantastic be good enough?

I am going to run through my planned setup and talk about how I’ve approached each of these areas.

Sources

I have exactly no interest in broadcast signals, radio, TV or otherwise. I don’t have DSTV and I don’t ever want it. So for me this confines my sources to networked – LAN or Internet, with the exception of a future gaming console like Playstation 4.

From a video point of view, I have an Apple TV and I also have a server with cached videos which I stream to the Apple TV using Air Video from my iPhone or iPad. So I don’t have the hassle of a DSTV installation and I’m not concerned about Bluray or CD players (that said, the PS4 can play both if the need arises).

So, with that in mind, the first big piece of equipment required is an AV Receiver. While true audiophiles (see Quality) may want to supplement this with a dedicated amplifier, and pre-amplifier, for most of us a good AV receiver is enough to push out solid sound.

Your sources plug into your AV Receiver. Decent AV receivers have inputs for many devices, audio and video, and act as a kind of aggregator, translating all those sources into signals ready to be distributed.

Choosing an AV receiver – like all things home theatrish, is a complicated business. There are models from a couple of thousand rand up to tens of thousands of rand – and more. Typical features that come with bigger price tags is sound quality or power, the number of zones sound can be fed to in the house, wifi connectivity and the number of inputs and outputs supported.

The models I have perused include the Denon AVR-X1100 and X2100, the Integra 30.6 and the Yamaha RX-V677. If those sound like lawnmowers then you understand some of the challenges. Differences between units come in strings of letters and numbers like THX and HDMI 2.0 and 4K.

You pretty much need to shop by price and brand reputation. From what I’ve seen you should expect to spend around R8 – R15k on a decent AV receiver.

That’s the home theatre bit.

If you have audio on a mobile device, or a library somewhere, and you want it to play in different parts of your house, you are going to need some kind of multi-zone amplifier. This leads us squarely to the topic of distribution.

Distribution

Right – so let’s say you’ve got your radio, Apple TV, Playstation, DSTV and whatever else plugged into your AV Receiver. Now what?

The most obvious two immediate places you need to send the audio and video from the amp to are in your home theatre room: to the TV or projector and a set of speakers.

The choice between a projector or TV comes down to price, and configuration. TV’s these days are cheap – even at large sizes. They also have very sharp, bright images with excellent contrast. The drawback is that they dominate the room.

You can get a TV lift which can hide the TV inside a cabinet and have it rise into view when you want it. And you can also get various other cabinets and systems for disappearing the TV for non-watching times.

For our room, however, there really isn’t a convenient place to put a large TV set. So we investigated getting a home data projector with a motorised screen. This is discreet and leaves the lounge able to be a lounge without becoming a permanent TV room.

Projectors demand a trade-off between brightness and contrast. For home viewing you’ll want something that does high resolution (1080p or better) with good contrast. That means less brightness, which means it’ll only really be ideal to watch once the room is dark.

A projector is also considerably more expensive than a TV – and the bulbs blow from time to time (after 4000 hours or so).

Still, if you want something that allows your room to be fully dual-purpose, this is a good option. Plus it’s like going to the movies in your own house which is pretty cool.

So much for video distribution. What about audio?

In your home theatre itself you’ll want a 5.1 surround speaker system, at least. All the AV receivers mentioned above support at least that. That’s two front, two rear, a center speaker and a sub-woofer. You can get additional speakers on bigger systems if you want even more sounds separated out of the audio field.

There are good 5.1 speaker sets out there for under 10k, but you probably want to spend closer to 15 for something that packs a punch. If you can afford it, 20 opens the door to really exceptional speakers.

Two options recommended to me here are the Monitor Audio MASS and the Jamo S626HCS5 or 345HCS. But there are many others.

For the rest of the house you now have a big choice to make. There are two philosophies these days in audio distribution: the old method, which is to cable speakers from a central amplifier to each point in the house they’re wanted; or to use a wifi-based system where each speaker in each room connects via a network to one another.

For the cabled option you need a multi-zone amplifier such as one of the Russsound systems.

There are pros and cons to both – but to be honest these days it makes no sense to me to not take advantage of a wifi system. We have looked at both Sonos and the Denon Heos options.

So, how do these work?

In effect you put a unit that is both speaker and amplifier in each room you want audio. Both Sonos and Denon offer different sizes. These connect to your home network and allow audio to be streamed from any tablet or phone to one or more rooms. You can stream different songs to different rooms, and the apps have streaming services like Spotify built into them. The devices also support Airplay – and Sonos even have a dedicated device that will connect any amp into the network.

The huge benefit is that no speaker cabling is needed and the system is extendable by just buying another speaker unit.

For us, this is the perfect way to go. We will also connect the AV receiver via the Sonos connect to the environment so that we basically have one audio system throughout.

Quality

Audio, in particular, is something that people can get pretty tense about in terms of quality. True audiophiles want clarity and definition that demands amplifiers in the tens to hundreds of thousands of rand. The same is true of all the other components in the system – speakers, projector, TV, you name it.

Most of the video and audio I consume streams from the Internet. Whilst the quality is good, it is not uncompressed, zero defect stuff. To me, spending that kind of money on reproducing the exact sounds of sitting in a concert in Carnegie Hall just isn’t justifiable.

There is no exact right amount of money to spend on a home system. How many rooms are you covering? How big an image do you need? How many sources are you integrating and outputting? Do you have kids who want to watch TV in their own rooms – that requires some rethinking of the above setup.

Realistically, there is no setup worth having that includes both a home theatre and a 4-5 multi-room audio setup that will cost less than around R30,000. And that’s cutting a lot of corners.

We live in a media saturated world – and we fortunately have access to fantastic audio and video entertainment, as well as games. To me a house should allow you to enjoy that.

Needless to say, a solid internet connection is required to enjoy most of this properly. How apt that fibre to the home is rolling out in my suburb just in time.

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