Let's say you are not a sound guru and it is time to upgrade your sound system from the not so stellar speakers your flat screen came with. You will want to know what to look for when picking out your home theater audio system. There are a huge range of brands, prices, and specifications that can leave you feeling a little lost. Here I give you a few basic pointers to help narrow the field for you and reach your goal of audio bliss. I focus here on entry level AV receiver/speaker systems and how to get the most bang for your buck.
Figure out your budget and what level of system you want
You might need to go through a few iterations of this process. Start with a budget of what you can afford. Then start looking at the options. If you think you will not be satisfied with what is in your budget, then consider waiting until you can afford to spend more. It might not be worth it to settle for something you will never be satisfied with when you could have waited a few more months to get what you wanted. Essentially, start with a price, look at your options, and consider whether you will be satisfied with what your budget can provide.
Features to look at in an AV receiver
As a starting point, here are a few of the basic features you should pay attention to and compare between units.
- Expandability – AV receivers come in a few configurations. 5.1 and 7.1 are probably the most common. 5.1 will suite most situations and people just fine. However, if you see yourself expanding your system over time, go for the 7.1 system as you will be happier in the long run. The first number (5 or 7) refers to the number of speakers your can hook up. The second number (.1) refers to the number of subwoofers.
- Power – Look at RMS power handling per channel. RMS is a measure of the continuous power. Peak power handling has far less meaning.
- Total Harmonic Distortion THD – This is a measure of how good the receiver will amplify the sound. This number should be very low.
- Future Proof – Are you going to want to play 3D movies? Control your system with you iphone? Check out these types of features and decide if they are important to you.
- Connections Available – Make sure it has enough connections to suit your needs and any potential future needs.
Features to look for in speaker selection
- Power Handling – Make sure that the RMS power handling meets or exceeds your receiver’s. Buying something that has power handling far above that of your receiver is not necessary and will only cause you to spend more money.
- Frequency Response – The human hearing range is 20Hz to 20kHz. If you are not going to buy a subwoofer, then the closer you can come to a full range speaker the better. I recommend buying a subwoofer. In that case, your speaker range below around 80 Hz is not as important as the subwoofer will be handling these frequencies. The upper range is usually not that hard to achieve even for cheaper speakers.
- Size – At least make sure they will fit in the areas you want to put them. Keep in mind for bookshelf speakers you will need something to put them on or mount them to the wall.
- Linearity, Clarity, Sound Stage – These are terms that are usually not backed up with numbers you can see, but may be referenced in the product description or people’s reviews. This are all things that make good speakers sound good.
Consumer and expert reviews are a good final check on something you are considering. Or they can lead you to products you should consider. However you are using them, there are a few things to be aware of.
- The number of reviews – Typically, I would trust 500 review that averaged 4.5 stars over 5 reviews that were all 5 stars.
- The reviewers – Are these all generally people who have no technical experience and are giving 5 stars saying “great for the money”? Or is it an expert comparing it to units twice as expensive and saying “3 out of 5”? Just be aware of who is talking about it and what experience they have.
Lastly, a less popular brand speaker might have nearly identical specifications to the popular brand and be half the cost. Does this mean they will sound the same? The short answer is no. However, they might sound similar and have similar capabilities making it worth your time to consider. This is where product reviews can be especially helpful. In the end, you need to consider all of the information you can find and balance it against your budget to make the right decision.