Home audio catch-all
This is a thread for anyone interested in home audio, whether you just want to share your latest you, home entertainment setup, or need advice on what to buy. Feels like a natural extension of gaming and movie watching so I figure there's at least a few people here with some interest to chat about it.
Here's a little guide based on what I've learned:
Onkyo, Yamaha, and Denon are generally considered the best of the mainstream brands. My only recent experience is with Onkyo, which seems to work fine for me. However I'd strongly recommend choosing a receiver that comes with some form of auto-equalizing technology. In Onkyo and Denon this is called Audyssey, while Yamaha uses its own version called YPAO. Receivers with these technologies come with a mic that you place at various listening points throughout your room to measure test tones generated by the receiver, which are used to calibrate speaker levels across a range of frequencies. Higher-end receivers come with more advanced versions that will EQ a greater number of frequencies.
As far as performance goes, Onkyo may run comparatively brighter than the other two, meaning higher frequencies are emphasized a bit more, so you may not want to pair it with speakers that are known to be bright. My speakers run pretty flat in the high-end, so I have actually boosted treble slightly. Denon's run flatter and cooler than Onkyo (my Onkyo is only 60 watts/channel and runs quite hot, so I can attest to this) and Onkyo has had some reliability issues in the past few years, particularly with HDMI outputs quitting on you. The 2014 models just came out, so it's too soon to say if they will have the same trouble.
Other than that, all receivers tend to have pretty similar features at a given price point, so it really just comes down to which brand produces the kind of sound you like most.
Generally, you get what you pay for though I'd say the cost-benefit analysis is somewhat logarithmic. Going from $50 speakers to $1000 will give you a pretty significant boost in quality, but you'd have to go from $1000 to $5000 to see a similar boost. Audiophile consensus is Bose are overpriced, and frequency response measurements show this to be pretty true of their Acoustimass models (bass is anemic below 40hz and more surprisingly, the satellites drop off precipitously above 13khz. Human hearing is generally decent up to 15khz and theoretically to 20khz or so). There are plenty of decent speaker makers within the $300-$800/pair range, though.
Satellite + Sub or full-range tower speakers?
Hugely subjective, always depends on a number of factors, but actually this question is likely moot. Of course you need a sub if you get satellites or bookshelf speakers if you want anything resembling decent bass performance, but even most towers will benefit from a sub as well because most towers will rely on your receiver to drive their woofers, and bass requires a lot of power. A dedicated sub with its own amp helps take the load off the receiver, allowing it to drive your speakers more cleanly. Personally I like having towers because it ensures that when I add my sub later, I won't need the sub produce bass above 80-100hz, which is where sound starts to become localizable (i.e. you can tell the sound is coming from a particular direction. Bad when your sub is off to the side somewhere).
Note that if you're building a 5.1 or 7.1 setup, the center and surround speakers will most likely be satellite or bookshelf size, but you'll always want to buy models from the same line as your main speakers to ensure consistent performance.
Oh, and always use at least 16 gauge speaker 100% COPPER wire (If your surrounds are more than 20ft away, get 14 or even 12 guage to be safe). I recommend buying from monoprice as their wire is actually all copper, unlike many you find on Amazon that are a copper/aluminum blend.
Since I'd been researching one to buy recently, this is probably what I know most about right now. Subs are a very different beast than your other speakers. While the latter need to be places in specific locations, the non-directional nature of bass means a subwoofer can be placed just about anywhere in the room.
Theoretically speaking, that is. In reality, you'll find that's not the case. But before we go there, it's important to understand the basics of subwoofer design and what makes one "good".
For the most part, there are three types of subwoofers: sealed, ported, and bandpass.
Sealed subs are the simplest form: a driver (the woofer), screwed into a box with an amp attached to the back. No holes, thus it is sealed. They are the smallest of the sub types and tend to be neither the least expensive nor the most. They also are usually not as sensitive as the other sub types (meaning they aren't as loud per unit power), and they don't drive as deep as the other sub types. What's good about them is their small size (easier to place in a room) and that they typically produce a cleaner sound because the frequency response rolls off gradually as it drops, and because without a port, you never will hear port noise, also called "chuffing". The sealed design also makes them harder to damage via overexcursion, where the driver is pushed to move back and forth farther than it was designed to do, since the internal air pressure provides additional resistance.
Generally people looking for a more "musical" sub go with sealed.
Ported subs are the most common. They feature everything the sealed sub has, except there's also a hole, the port, on it, possibly on the front, side, bottom, or rear. Ported subs are almost always larger than sealed, and range from being the cheapest to the most expensive. Why cheapest? Because adding a port is a very easy way to extend bass performance to lower frequencies. The sensitivity is also greater than in sealed subs and good ported subs will drive deeper than a sealed one ever can. The main downsides are the size and port chuffing, which occurs usually when the sub is trying to play low frequencies at high levels. Ported subs can be trickier to build because the port needs to be tuned to a specific frequency, and where the sealed sub's frequency response rolls off gradually, the ported sub's will drop off a cliff once you get below the port's tuned frequency. This means that a sub with a port tuned to 20hz will play louder than an equivalent sealed sub down to 20hz, but below that the sealed sub would take the lead.
Because of lower frequency response and the potential distortion due to chuffing, ported subs tend to be preferred for movies over music. However, if you pay enough money ($1000+) for a ported sub, they tend to perform as clean as a sealed sub in most situations.
Most home subs are not bandpass, so I'll only mention them briefly. This is the kind that has the driver(s) completely contained within the enclosure, so you couldn't ever see them without taking the sub apart. All Bose subs are like this. This is an extremely efficient design, so it's great for building with small drivers. I think in the Bose sub module they're a couple of 5 1/4" drivers, which are tiny. The problem is, unless you want to pay $thousands, the sound is the least accurate of any type. These tend to be very boomy, typically peaking at a certain frequency, which, due to harmonics, ends up reproducing all bass with that frequency dominating. Fine perhaps if you are very tight on space and only want something to create a bit of feeling, but for most people it won't cut it.
What makes a sub "good"?
There's no magic here, really. It comes down to the components used, and generally you get what you pay for.
The enclosure should not vibrate, therefore it needs to be thick. At least .75 inch MDF (medium density fiberboard) on all sides. Better subs will also use internal bracing to keep vibrations to a minimum. When you knock the enclosure, expect to here a dull thud. If it sounds hollow, it's not so good.
The driver should be rigid (minimize distortion) and lightweight (for fast response, avoid creating a muddy sound). Sub drivers are made from a range of materials, including treated paper, aluminum, and kevlar. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but paper tends to be the cheapest though not necessarily bad if made right. If it's ever untreated paper, avoid at all costs.
And when it comes to drivers, size matters. Simply put, the larger the driver, the more air it can push, the lower it can go. I recommend nothing smaller than 12" (which is not to say there aren't great 10" and even 8" subs out there, but they won't hit as low).
If you want a ported sub, keep in mind where the port is located. Rear ported models tend to be the most compact, but the port needs to be at least 5" from a wall.
Where do I put this thing?
Good question, and the answer will always be different for everyone. While it's great that bass is non-directional, the problem with bass is that the sound wave is so damn long that when they bounce around the room, it's pretty easy for all those reflected sounds to start cancelling each other out. Areas in your room where they cancel each other out are called "nulls". Naturally there will be other areas where waves meet and reinforce one another, and these are called peaks. Both are bad, but nulls are kind of worse because you can't really fix them with through your receiver's built-in auto-EQ system.
To minimize the nulls, and assuming you're not restricted to any one location, you'll want to do what's called a sub crawl. This means placing the sub in your primary listening position, even if that means right on your couch, wire it up and start playing some bass through it. Doesn't need to be super loud, but it should be clean and clear enough that you can hear it fluctuate, which it will as you're doing your crawl. Once the sub is playing, you'll literally crawl around the room listening for location in which the bass sounds best to you, ideally without any nulls. Wherever that location is is where you'll want to place the sub.
Now is a good time to talk about those dials on the back of your sub, connected to the sub's amplifier. Typically these are all more or less the same. One for gain, one for frequency response, and either a switch or knob for phase.
Gain is like volume, except it will be relative to your receiver's volume so be careful not to set it too high, as it could damage the sub.
Frequency response sets the low pass filter, meaning all sounds above the frequency you choose will be filtered out and the sub won't play them. You'll want to keep this set to max and just let the receiver choose for you, however.
Phase switch/dial. Leave it on 0. You don't need to mess with it unless you've got multiple subs.
So once you've found the best place for your sub via the sub crawl, you'll want to run through the EQ process via Audyssey/YMAO. Make sure your sub's gain knob is set pretty low, like a 1/3 of max before running the EQ. You'll probably need to run the EQ several times, adjusting the sub gain in between tests until the receiver sets its own sub gain at about -6 to -9dB. Once you get that done, feel free to turn up the sub's gain as high as you like it.
And that's about it! You're system is ready to rumble (I'm assuming you have all the cables connected correctly, of course).
If you're curious, here's my system (very budget, far from ideal as my mains/center/satellites don't match):
Receiver: Onkyo HT-RC430
Main speakers: Fluance SV10
Center speaker: Boston Acoustics Soundware XS
Surrounds: Leviton AESS5-WH (drivers made by JBL)
Sub: Reaction Audio BPS 212 (on its way)
Total cost is about $1040, almost half of which is the sub.
What should I buy?
If you're going for a 5.1 setup from scratch, you should probably plan to pay at least a grand for a basic setup. Cost would go something like this:
Main speakers: $200-$500
As far as specific models, well, sound is such a subjective experience and everyone's room is going to have unique acoustics. But here's a starting point:
Center and surrounds
best to match with your mains. So e.g. if you get the Pioneer speakers mentioned above, you'd want to get the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR ($97) for surrounds and Pioneer SP-C22 ($97) center speaker.
Unlike the center and surrounds, the subwoofer does not need to match the rest of your speakers. It's creating sound that doesn't overlap in frequency range.
The good news is that while most cheap subs are crappy, they don't have to be. Here are a couple that produce very good sound for the price.