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Surround sound: The big picture

Surround sound: The big picture
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First Published: Wed, Apr 11 2007. 12 00 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Apr 11 2007. 12 00 AM IST
While you can’t help how a movie turns out, you can surely tailor the experience. Especially when you are trying to recreate the magic of the movies in your own home.
Where to start
Today, there are many options for setting up a home-theatre system. If you are very particular about how every component will look and what its exact function will be, you can opt for a custom-assembled system. This will take some researching since the variables involved are plenty. If you were to find a good Bose, Sonodyne or such signature store, you could easily get help from them. It would still be recommended that you do your research beforehand.
There are also out-of-the-box systems available from leading manufacturers that you can hook up, and these certainly cost a whole lot less. Of course, the quality you get is also only as good. Most of the out-of-the-box systems do not bother much with the size of your room when putting together the components, thus rendering some of the speakers inadequate. The wiring, which is also an important part of the set-up, is often not as good as when you have gone out and assembled your own components. But if time and budget are constraints, the ready-to-use ones are a good option.
Something point one
2.1 ch (channel), 3.1 ch, 5.1 ch and, now, even 7.1 ch. These are the buzzwords you will hear when shopping for a home theatre system. Simply put, the format consists of three speakers across the front and two speakers in the rear. The .1 is a sixth channel called an LFE that is sent to a subwoofer.
So, in a 3.1 or a 7.1, the .1 remains constant, but the 3 or 7 defines how many speakers there are in the system and how they are to be distributed. The wiring for these needs to go all around the room and, when setting up the speakers, it is important to know the size of your room and choose the speakers that have the best reach. To really make your sound system work, you would also need to worry about things like thick concrete walls with no windows, solid-core doors with yards of weather-stripping, and sound-absorbing baffles on the walls and ceiling. Chances are that most of us won’t have the time, inclination or the budget required to do this. Hence, we make do with five speakers arranged at the right places.
Key components
A TV set, a DVD player, five speakers (we’ll use 5.1 as the norm), receiver and the right cabling are what will be needed. Instead of a TV set, you could also use a projector that is hooked up to your DVD player and a wall-mounted screen to make the effect bigger. But the components for this are costlier because High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) output will be required. HDMI is a direct digital connection that can carry digital high definition video as well as digital multi-channel audio. By eliminating the conversion to analogue signals, it delivers perfect picture and sound quality, completely free from noise (distortion).
While the experience will be greatly enhanced if you used a projector set-up, getting the right projector itself could run into more than Rs1 lakh. Unless you are a certified movie buff, it’s not recommended. Commonly referred to as front-projection systems, these are for the connoisseur with deep pockets. If you are on a budget, a large-screen TV set or plasma screen should do just fine.
Once you have the components in place, it is important to check whether your room is right for this. If you have a choice, go for a rectangular one with as few doors and windows as possible. Or you could place your components in such a way that they form a rectangle with you at the centre on the shorter side, opposite the TV set (or whatever display you are using). Now, it’s time to hit the shops and get your rig. Before this, though, get a fix on your upper-limit budget. And stick to it. It’s easy to succumb to temptation.
For example, the friendly salesman told me that I should try out the new Monster cables that would greatly improve the sound and picture quality because they carry digital signal from the DVD player. Somewhat of a compromise since I could not afford an HDMI set-up. I agreed, and it cost me about Rs6,000 for a set of two cables.
Remember that the reason you are doing all this is to get the feel of a theatre in your house. It’s important to get as many aspects right as possible. Bare tiles, marble or any wooden flooring will reflect sound, causing a loss in quality of the audio. It’s advisable that you place a carpet or, at least, a large rug to fill as much of the room as possible. It’s also a good idea to have some paintings or decor items in the room to absorb unwanted noise. Hang thick curtains to keep out the light and reduce glares from the screen. But if the room is pitch dark, watching a long movie in such a set upcan cause strain on the eyes. To correct this, you could buy dimmers for lights and reach a middle point. We never said this was going to be easy, did we?
Check these out
Bose is one of the preferred brands, and not without reason. Of all their systems, it is worth checking out the new 3.2.1 GSX Home Entertainment System. It can store up to 200 hours of data digitally and the new Gemstone speaker system makes the components smaller, yet retains the output. It comes with the acoustimass module, a media centre, two speakers and the 3.2.1 universal remote control. Although the system does not have five speakers, it claims to deliver the same effect. The media centre combines a progressive scan DVD/CD player, FM tuner, and offers inputs for three other sources. All this for a nifty price tag of approx. Rs94,900 (excluding taxes and levies).
Pioneer is another manufacturer that is not often considered when looking for a home theatre set-up. They have some great components on offer, including 42- and 50-inch plasma TV sets that bring a 5.1 ch home theatre set-up with it free. Although prohibitive for some buyers, the cost of Rs1.6 lakh for the 50-inch TV set and Rs1.3 lakh for the 42-inch TV set do make a good deal. The screens can be wall-mounted as well as kept on a tabletop. The set-up includes five 60 watt speakers (four towers and a subwoofer) in addition to an HDMI-ready DVD player. The cost of this set-up is otherwise approximately Rs30,000, but free when you buy the TV set!
For a high-end system, you could also visit Yamaha and the Bang & Olufsen (B&O) shops. They will be able to offer customized solutions based on your room set-up and size. Most homes do not have good acoustics in their rooms. That’s where the solutions from Yamaha or B&O will help. These solutions, however good they may be, are not cheap and start at around Rs1.5 lakh for a great set-up that includes speakers, amplifier and a good player. The TV set’s your own.
If the Bose, Pioneer or Yamaha systems are beyond your budget, you can try the Sonodyne Genie 2 HTS that has a receiver with seven analogue, one optical and two digital inputs. Simply put, you can plug everything you have into this and use the speakers to output it. Priced at approximately Rs62,000 (all inclusive), it includes five satellite speakers and one main speaker with the universal remote. Best suited for small or medium-sized rooms (up to 300sq. ft), it delivers great audio. The video quality would depend on your DVD player and TV set. These are not included!
And if this, too, is out of your budget, you could opt for one of the many out-of-the-box solutions offered by manufacturers such as Sony or Philips. While both these manufacturers also offer high-end solutions, it is their low-end ones that attract budget buyers. The Cineos HTS9800W/55 from Philips is a brilliant HD-capable set-up priced at about Rs60,000. It includes wireless rear speakers.
Among some of the better budget offerings is Sony’s DAV DZ720, which comes with five speakers, including four standing ones (so you don’t do any permanent fixtures on walls), a progressive scan DVD player and a woofer. All this for just about Rs30,000—not a bad deal for a 5.1 ch system, which requires no installation time.
In most cases, the installation will be handled by the manufacturer and they will bring around three metres of cable (variable depending on your deal), but will not be helpful if you need to get casing done to conceal the wires.
The list is endless. But with these basics, you have a starting point. You could also start with a small system and build up to a big one. Collect your components and learn from your mistakes. And let us know what’s playing when… we’ll get the popcorn!
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Apr 11 2007. 12 00 AM IST
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