Choosing a home audio system that fits all of your media needs and listening desires can be daunting. The wealth of options and conflicting opinions surrounding home theater, two channel stereo and the ancillary equipment such as cabling and subwoofers makes the choices quite complicated. Understanding the strengths and limitations of each type of audio system helps you navigate through the maze of opinion, focusing instead on what's right for you and your family.
Receivers and Integrated Amplifiers
Receivers and integrated amplifiers are virtually the same piece of equipment, with integrated amps foregoing a radio tuner. Receivers are most common in the home theater world, serving as a multi-channel all-in-one media hub for audio, video and streaming media. Integrated amplifiers in most cases are stereo affairs, and are normally positioned higher in a manufacturer's lineup both in terms of audio quality and price point. Both typically offer preouts to add a stereo or multi-channel external amplifier to increase power output, addressing what is usually the weak link in these devices. Many surround receivers incorporate Apple's AirPlay streaming media or Bluetooth connectivity, allowing you to wirelessly play that large audio collection on your computer or portable MP3 device.
The primary element of separates that carries the potential for superior performance over conventional receivers is versatility. Serious stereo listeners take painstaking care in selecting the right preamplifier, amplifiers and sources to compile the best system they can within their budgets. Home theater separates allow selection of the most updated processor and the subjectively best-sounding amplifier, allowing owners to sell off and upgrade pieces as they become outdated. Separates are normally pricier than most receivers, with a little overlap among the highest-end receiver models.
Soundbars offer a clean and stylish way of improving the basic sound of a television without adding multiple speakers in a space. Soundbars mount directly below flat panel televisions, adding audio punch while remaining visually discrete. Although primarily an aesthetic choice, the right soundbar teamed with a compact subwoofer can outperform many home-theater-in-a-box speaker systems. Soundbars operate best in small or narrow rooms, leveraging the speaker's ability to bounce sound off of parallel walls to create a simulated surround effect.
Home Theater in a Box
Ranking high on the list of home audio convenience, home-theater-in-a-box systems often come with compromise. HTIBs often use low-powered receivers teamed with cheaply-made speakers. However, this does not always translate into a low price. Additionally, these receivers often use proprietary connections, limiting speaker replacement or forcing you into purchasing upgrades from only that manufacturer. Compact speakers and receivers are broadly available at every quality level for you to assemble on your own for superior performance.
Speakers and Subwoofers
Speakers are the components in a home audio system most directly affecting overall performance; they come in various form factors, from large, ominous black boxes to svelte, stylish satellites. For those most concerned about saving floor space and minimizing speaker appearance, quality in-wall and in-ceiling options are plentiful. Even if you're using the same receiver, amplifier and sources, replacing a speaker system with a higher performing model will have a significant effect on sound quality. This is in contrast to most other audio components, where upgrades may involve higher build quality but not as much of an impact as the speaker array. However, finding the right speakers for you involves a little work in demoing sound, evaluating appearance and researching if your room supports certain types of speakers like bipolar or dipolar arrays. Subwoofer choice is a matter of performance, with room size and floor plan layout affecting required amplifier power and subwoofer quantity. Subwoofers range from monolithic room-shaking devices to compact units tucked behind a couch or coffee table.
Wires and Interconnects
No more topic in the audio world is more controversial than the cabling lacing your system together. Primarily, this is due to some cables being offered at astronomical prices compared to the components they connect together. At the most basic level, speaker wires need to be the right gauge for the distance they travel. For example, 16 gauge wires work well up to 50 feet, with 14 and 12 gauge better suited for 100 and 200 feet, respectively. HDMI interconnects in home theater environments do not differ much. RCA cables offer some variance, but generally this is due to the manufacturer manipulating electrical properties of the wiring to produce what is in effect a passive tone control. Digital audio cables operate in a similar manner as HDMI, with the signal getting to the preamplifier or receiver perfectly or not at all. Many times, cabling is chosen for appearance reasons every bit as much as audio, providing that finishing visual touch to a carefully-selected suite of components.
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