Great sound is a key part of any decent home entertainment setup, and these days it’s pretty easy to find various systems that will give you fuller range and more volume than your TV’s speakers or your phone’s headset.
But if you’re looking to kick it up a few notches and go for higher-quality audio, there are some important points to consider.
First and most importantly, is your top priority music or home theatre? You might think, “Hey, sound is sound, right?” But the sonic demands of music and movies are quite different.
Cinema audio is mixed to five or seven channels, plus a low-frequency channel. These mixes are called 5.1 or 7.1. The 5.1 format is most familiar in home theatre setups – you’ll have left and right front speakers, a centre front speaker, two rear (or “surround”) speakers and a subwoofer. The 7.1 version adds a couple of side or top speakers to the system.
These configurations are designed to immerse the viewer in a movie, with effects entering the soundscape in ways that add to the storytelling. You might hear a car approaching from the far left or a helicopter flying overhead, for example.
Dialogue is mixed mainly to the centre-front channel for clarity. The subwoofer is design to reproduce very deep sounds – the rumble of an earthquake, an explosion, or a passing train, for example.
Movie audio happens all around you. Music, on the other hand, comes from a defined place. Musicians play on a stage, with the audience facing them. There might be a bit of reverberation off the back wall of the venue, but the music comes from in front of the listener.
The best way to reproduce that experience is with good old-fashioned two-channel stereo.
“To create a lifelike experience for music, I would highly recommend traditional stereo components,” said Kurt Villanueva, operations manager at the Audio Room, a Calgary shop specializing in high-end sound systems. “You want to keep the circuits simple without adding any distortion to the original music signal.”
While cinematic audio is all about dynamics – the difference between quiet and loud – music benefits more from accuracy. Speaker drivers are chosen carefully based on their frequency response. Bass is tight and defined, with smooth transitions.
Villanueva says it’s possible to build a top-quality, all-purpose system. “For clients who want both, we make sure to choose products from companies such as Arcam or Cambridge Audio that have a ‘music first’ philosophy.”
The other approach for someone who wants no compromises is to integrate a dedicated stereo system into a home theatre setup, he says.
While many regard the 1970s as the golden age of stereo components, there’s a renaissance going on today, partly fuelled by the renewed popularity of vinyl records. Scotland-based maker Tannoy has reissued its ‘70s-era Legacy speakers, and there’s plenty of interest in both new and vintage home stereo gear.
Meanwhile, Villanueva says, new technology is giving audiophiles more options than ever.
“For example, the Devialet Phantom is an all-in-one wireless speaker that can be configured for stereo or multi-room setups,” he said. “They have pushed the limits of physics to create a relatively small speaker with a frequency response and output equivalent to a speaker 20 times its size.”
All told, these are exciting times for anyone who appreciates great sound and cool technology.