Surround sound is great, but stereo can be even better for some things

Why do you want a high definition sound system in your home? Are you dying to enjoy the big screen movie experience, with sound to match? Or are you primarily interested in music? Because if music is your first love, it’s a good idea to approach your loudspeaker buying in a quite different way.

The perfect loudspeaker for music is also the perfect loudspeaker for movies, and vice versa. But since we live in world of compromise, perfection is not available to us. Instead we have to try to choose the best loudspeakers available for our budget. The music lover’s choice, therefore, is between whether to spread the money over five loudspeakers and a subwoofer, or two loudspeakers and a subwoofer, or just two loudspeakers alone.

Two’s company

For the music lover, we think that either of the last two is the way to go. For convenience, we will talk primarily about two speakers and a subwoofer – a 2.1 channel system. The main reason is that the subwoofer can deliver great results with music, yet still add an additional dimension to movies that few regular speakers can deliver: the extreme bass.

So why 2.1 channels? If you buy a 5.1 speaker system for, say, $2,000, then the allocation of value will be roughly $700 for the subwoofer, $600 for the centre and surround channel speakers, and $700 for the front stereo pair. But you love music above all else, so wouldn’t it be better to spend $700 on the subwoofer and $1,300 on the front pair?

In our experience, the differences in the performance between a $700 pair of speakers and a $1,300 pair are enormous. And since you will also be using a subwoofer your stereo speakers need not be large, floorstanding models. Instead, you can use smaller speakers from the audiophile ranges offered by many leading brands. In our view, you can actually get better sound quality on the most important criteria – musical accuracy, stereo imaging, tonal balance, delivery of fine musical detail – from a system like this than from an equivalently priced pair of stereo loudspeakers.

The overwhelming majority of music is sold in stereo format. We do have a particular soft spot for the high definition surround sound formats on DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD, but these are at best limping along with very little available material. Your favourite musician almost certainly has nothing out on DVD-A or SACD. In the future we suppose that an audio version of the Blu-ray disc will advance high resolution multichannel music availability, but that is some way off.

Two plus one

There are some special considerations for a 2.1 channel system. One possibility is the specially designed system in which the amplifier is included as part of the package. Some of these have additional features, such as built-in Dolby Virtual (or equivalent) processing that, when switched on, creates a surround sound effect. However this does limit your choice of loudspeakers to those available with the system.

Alternatively, you can go for a traditional stereo amplifier to drive your compact audiophile loudspeakers. These don’t have a dedicated LFE output socket for sending bass directly to the subwoofer like home theatre receivers to, so there are special – though not overly complex – wiring considerations with this kind of setup.

Or you could still purchase a home theatre receiver and use it as a 2.1 channel amplifier, with the subwoofer connected to its LFE output. Used as a stereo amplifier, most home theatre receivers can produce more power than they do when driving the five speakers in a surround setup, and many also have a Dolby Virtual (or equivalent) circuit built-in. Plus they give you the advantage of switching between different video sources for those times when you do just want to veg out with a movie.

Shopping checklist

  • The sound that suits the music you like
  • Appropriate inputs and outputs on the subwoofer
  • Good quality electronics to match
  • For compact speakers, stands may be required

GadgetGuy tip – playing vinyl

We are great fans of digital audio here at the HDTV Guide. But we also respect those who love, above all, the analog sound of vinyl. They are willing to overlook the inevitable clicks and pops of a damaged vinyl surface, and the limitations in bass, to enjoy a certain ethereal wholeness to the music that doesn’t seem to be as apparent in many digital recordings.

To play vinyl you need a turntable and suitable inputs on your amplifier or receiver. Most home theatre receivers have abandoned the ‘phono’ inputs required for most turntables. These special inputs have to boost the signal an enormous amount, and equalise it to make is sound correct (they cut the bass and boost the treble). Still, some home theatre receivers provide them. Alternatively there are special phono preamplifiers available that process a turntable’s signal and make it suitable to be plugged directly into a normal analog stereo input on the receiver.

Finally, if you are purchasing a turntable, some models have the phono preamplifier built right into the turntable, allowing you to simply plug it into an auxiliary audio input on your home theatre receiver.