Here is another introductory article on home theaters from Kevin Hunt of the Hartford Courant. It is a good read if you are new to home theaters but may be a bit of a rehash for you experienced guys. The really nice thing is that the writer of this article goes on to setup some rules for choosing a home theater and then actually applies them to the Panasonic SA-XR57.
Surround sound starts with an audio-video receiver. Consider the number of channels, how much power you need and how to hook things up.
BY KEVIN HUNT
It’s not a crime to own an HDTV without a surround system, but don’t wait until lobbyists push through legislation.
Let’s keep it an unwritten law: It takes a big-screen television and surround sound to make a home theater.
Surround sound starts with an audio-video receiver. Here are a few things to consider when buying your first:
1. How many channels? A basic home theater has 5.1 channels, which translates to five speakers — left, center and right in the front and left and right behind the listener — and a subwoofer. The subwoofer plays only the lowest frequencies, producing the rumbling special effects of movie soundtracks, so gets only fractional credit (the .1 in 5.1) in a surround system. Think of it as the vice president of your surround system.
6.1 OR 7.1 CHANNELS
Many new receivers offer 6.1 channels, adding a third rear channel to accommodate new movies encoded with 6.1-channel Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES soundtracks.
Some receivers even have 7.1 channels, encouraging users to add yet another rear-channel speaker.
Although there are no 7.1-channel formats, you can bet Dolby and DTS are working at it.
But these new receivers also process 5.1-channel material into simulated 6.1- or 7.1-channel surround. Or you can use the amplifiers for the rear channel to power a pair of speakers in an adjoining room.
Advice: Get at least a 6.1 receiver or a 7.1-channel model so you’ll be prepared for future surround formats.
Just make sure you can fit seven speakers and a subwoofer in your room.
2. Power. Manufacturers will do anything to list their receivers at 100 watts per channel, including deceive or mislead the consumer. Check the specifications: An honest appraisal of a receiver’s power out is measured at the full range of human hearing (20 hertz to 20,000 hertz), with all channels in action.
Unfortunately, most manufacturers give useless measurements at extremely limited frequencies, such as 1 kilohertz, with only two channels operating. Beware.
Distortion levels, usually designated as THD, or total harmonic distortion, should be below 1 percent. Exception: New digital amplifiers sometimes have higher distortion figures but behave differently.
Remember, 100 watts is not the minimum requirement to blow the doors off your room. Efficient speakers in a smaller room will do fine with half the wattage.
3. Connections. HDMI, or High-Definition Multimedia Interface, is the glamour connection for HDTV owners because it carries high-definition video and multichannel audio on a single digital cable.
You’ll need a receiver with multiple HDMI connections if:
• You’re using more than two devices with HDMI, such as a high-definition cable box, DVD player and DVD recorder. (Most hi-def TV sets have only two HDMI inputs.)
• You want to use your receiver to switch audio and video simultaneously, such as cable box to DVD player, instead of switching audio with the receiver and using the TV’s remote control to switch video sources.
4. Features. Extras to look for:
• Auto setup that matches volume in each channel.
• Upconversion of analog video via HDMI.
• On-screen display. Displaying the receiver’s menu on your TV makes it easier to navigate.
• If you use satellite radio, some receivers (notably, new models by Yamaha and Pioneer) are XM-ready.
5. Sound. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell how a receiver sounds until you get it home and use it with your speakers.
A few receiver brands known for good sound, on both soundtracks and CDs: Pioneer, Denon, Marantz and Onkyo.
So let’s apply these guidelines to the Panasonic SA-XR57, a $400 home theater receiver.
1. Channels: This 7.1-channel receiver leaves room for growth.
2. Power: Panasonic says the receiver puts out 100 watts into all seven channels at 1 kilohertz with 0.9 percent distortion, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.
More likely, this receiver produces far less power across the full audible range of human hearing.
But conventional rules don’t apply to the SA-XR57, because it’s among the few receivers using digital amplification.
These highly efficient amplifiers run cooler and smaller than conventional amplifiers and are capable of extraordinary frequency response and dynamic range — the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds produced by an audio system.
Because digital amplifiers operate differently from analog amplifiers, throw out the distortion rating. The digital circuitry, in fact, reduces the most offensive distortion and signal degradation found in analog amplifiers.
3. Connections: The SA-XR57 has HDMI connections for an HDTV and a single component, such as a DVD player. That’s typical of a receiver in this price category.
If you want to connect a lot of HDMI-ready equipment to a receiver, you’ll have to spend more money.
4. Features: No auto setup for matching volume in each channel, no upconversion of analog video via HDMI.
5. Sound. This is one receiver, because of the digital amplification, that must be heard.
With music, the SA-XR57 has a rich, effortless midrange, an immediately likable sound compromised only by some thinness in the higher frequencies at louder volumes. Still, this is about as good as sound gets in a $400 home theater receiver.