Latest in Crt

Image credit:

HDTV Buying Guide: Adding better sound

Matt Burns

High definition is a great advancement in broadcast technology. It gives us that beautiful picture but moreover, a lot better sound. The high-def TV is just the beginning if you want the full experience that high definition offers. Most TVs do not have the ability to give you the digital sound that is carried by HD.

HD Beat has guided you through the buying process by starting with the size and moving on to the type. From there we gave you a special Xbox 360 edition and last week extended warranties were covered. This edition will help you find the right type of sound system that works in your home and within your budget.

Sound systems can be slipper slopes. Once you start adding options and quality, it is hard to stop. But we can curb that by breaking it down to three different types of experiences. One, just by adding a simple subwoofer or two speakers is not going to give you the digital experience HD carries, but it will give you a lot better sound then the TV can produce alone. Second, home theater-in-a-box systems are often the cheapest way to add surround sound but can lack necessary options to maximize the digital sound. Third, separate components will give the consumer the best sound possible, but it can be daunting to purchase and use.

[all options explained after jump]


Let’s cover some basics of surround sound systems first. The first thing you are going to see is “5.1, 6.1 or 7.1.” This refers to the amount of speakers you are using. A 5.1 is the standard that includes: a center channel that goes above or beneath the center of the screen, one speaker on the ether side of the screen, and two speakers behind the listening area. That is the “5,” the “.1” refers to one subwoofer. A “6.1” system has all the same speakers that is in the “5.1,” but adds a rear center. A “7.1” removes the rear center but adds two side speakers. You need to look at your room to determine what would work best. Most simple surround sound systems are going to be 5.1 and that is fine for most people. The more speakers will offer more sound that is not necessary better sound.

The high definition picture needs special cables to carry the HD picture and likewise you will need special cables to carry the digital audio. Some cheaper options will not give you the ability to use these cables to carry the Dolby digital sound and will make the sound receiver processes the sound internally rather then using the native encoding.

Speaker size has a lot to do with speaker sound. A good amount of the sound quality comes from the type of cabinet it is in rather then the speaker cone. Small speakers are attractive, but if you have room, and the money, tower speakers will give you a richer and fuller sound.

The biggest trap that consumers get hung up on is watts. Yes, you do want a decent amount of them but the type of receiver that the watts are coming from plays a big part in the overall power. It is the current that pushes the watts and therefore is the most important thing. More watts can produce more power but often at the expense of distortion and sound quality. This needs to be repeated: DO NOT LOOK ONLY AT WATTS!

Simple sound improvements

The most popular way to improve the sound quality without filling your room with speakers is to add a subwoofer. The majority of HDTVs have an audio output jack on the back and a “variable output mode.” This will output the TVs sound through the internal speakers and send it out to the subwoofer. The sub has an internal crossover that will filter out the unwanted high frequencies and produce good low tones that will compliment the naturally high notes that the TV speakers produce. This is a great option for flat panels where the average size of their speakers is somewhere between that of a quarter and a 50 cent piece. A good sub can run from $150 on up.

What if you want to add speakers though without a receiver? Bose just came out with a set of speakers that will do just that. They are modeled after Bose's 3.2.1 system but are not that much overpriced. The speakers use the same audio output that the subwoofer would use but sends the signal to a subwoofer and then out too 2 speakers. It’s an O.K. system if a consumer just wants a simple solution for better sound; but for $500, I can show you a lot better quality systems.

You can do the same thing with a good computer sound system. Just use an RCA to 3.5 mil. y-adaptor to change the gender of the output to one that the sound system can handle and off you go. I did this for a bedroom TV after I upgraded the one on my computer. It sounds great in a smaller room.

Home Theaters in a Box

Do not discard these systems. They come with everything you need and are easy to use. Bose started this genre years ago with high priced systems that anyone can use. Now, do not get me wrong, I am not telling you to buy Bose ‘cause I can show you lot better options for less if you are willing to read on.

Most HTIB’s systems that cost over $300 do sound good. In fact, they are ending up in more homes then ever because of improved sound quality. Panasonic offers, in my opinion, the best sounding systems that start at $330 and go up to $500. They sound great and look good, but they do not have a digital input. So if you just want to add this sound system to use with the built-in DVD player, this is a great option.

A little more money will get the average Joe a full fledge sound system though. For around $500 Joe could pick up a great Onkyo or Yamaha system that includes a real receiver with matching speakers. The receiver often is worth $250 to $300 and would give the purchaser the option of upgrading the speakers down the road. Normal HTIBs do not give you this option; what comes in the box is usually the only things that will work with it.

Then there is Bose systems. They are in a class by themselves. They are high priced and high market, but they have a niche. They do produce great sound and are very easy to install and use. Sure, they are overpriced but if you need a sound system that is easy to use then Bose might fit the bill. If you do not mind a learning curve though, there is a whole world out there that is 10x the sound quality of a Bose system and sometimes cost a lot less.

Separate componentsavr

The best investment into home theaters involves separate components. They give you a cleaner sound via less distortion. They work independently and can be replaced independently. They offer such a better sound but it does come with a price. They can be daunting to hookup and install.

The separate components found in large electronic stores are the entry-level. This does not mean that they are low quality because it is quite the opposite. A person can find some great components at a Circuit City or Best Buy. But a good rule of thumb of home theater, and I know this sounds crazy but, “if you have not heard of the brand and it costs more then a Sony or Kenwood, then it is more then likely better.” Check out one of my favorite blogs for proof: SonicFlare.

A basic system of separate components would include a receiver that processes the sound and outputs to the speakers, a source for audio like a DVD player or HDTV receiver, and then the speakers of course. Look at the speakers first though. Find a set that will match your room or the look you want and then shop for the receiver. If you look at the receiver first, you might over or under buy. Small speakers will sound great if paired with a receiver that has very low distortion verse a lot of power. Likewise, big floor standing speakers need the extra power in order to work optimally.

This is big investment and can be hard to stomach at one time. If you must piece it together start with the receiver matched to two front speakers and a subwoofer. This will only give you stereo sound but it will be great stereo sound and will far surface anything a TV could do by itself. The center channel and rear speakers can be added later and this is how you will get the true Dolby digital sound that HDTV carries. These systems can be very expensive and I am one to work my way up to something rather then compromising to get everything at one time.

Do not forget to hook these components up right. It is very important that you use the appropriate cables for the digital sound. Sometimes people will get overwhelmed with the amount of cables but take a step back and think of it this way. Follow the flow of the signal. It starts at the HDTV receivers’ output and travels down the optical cable and goes into the input of the receiver. Now you will need to select that input on the receiver so refer to the owners’ manual on how to select it. Do not be afraid to look at the manual; you will need to.

It is ultimately up to your ears

You need to ear these systems in order to make a decision. Do not buy online based off of other people’s reviews because we all hear things differently. Go to a store and listen to them. Maybe that $500 Onkyo system is good enough for you. If you want the best HDTV experience it starts at the TV and finishes with a great audio system.

Previous HDTV Buying Guides:

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr