The Ultimate Home Theater
Preamp and Amplifier
Those of us with modest means get our surround sound through an amplifier, also called a receiver. You plug all of your audio sources, including your DVD or Blu-ray player, into the amplifier, which receives the sound, processes it, and sends it to your speakers.
Home-theater-oriented surround amplifiers can also receive and process video signals, sending them to the television.
But hardcore audiophiles prefer to separate this one box into (at least) two: a preamp (pronounced pre-amp) or processor, and an amplifier. The first accepts and processes the signals, and then sends them to the second, which amplifies them.
Why two separate devices? Powerful amplifiers put out a lot of heat. Processors work best when they’re cool. When you put them in the same box, something has to be compromised--either the preamp loses precision from the heat, or the amplifier is underpowered.
In theory, your preamp and amplifier don’t have to be from the same company. But things may be simpler if they are.
One might, for instance, consider matching Anthem’s $5500 AVM 50v preamp with that company’s $2000 MCA 50 amplifier. The preamp, which has eight HDMI inputs, has circuitry to clean up noisy source material. In his Home Theater Sound review, Anthony Di Marco says that the “MCA 50’s low noise specification proved to be the real thing... Even the highly revealing tweeters of my Canton Ergos revealed nothing other than what was on the soundtrack.”
If you’re going to spend $7500 on a preamp and amplifier, you’re going to need some awesome speakers, as well. After all, that’s where the sound actually gets reproduced.
And you’ll need a lot of them. In addition to the great, big subwoofer sitting on the floor, you’ll need five to seven satellites--one center, two sides, and two to four surrounds. You could easily spend $30,000 or more on speakers.
What do expensive speakers have that others lack? Dynamics. A great speaker can be played very quiet or very loud without loss or distortion, and can move quickly between the two extremes. Today’s movie soundtracks have a wide dynamic range. Music Lovers’ Brinkman describes it as a “visceral response.”
Sergey Rekutin of AV-Setup, discussing speakers made by the very high-end company Escalante Design, describes the difference in musical terms: “Any kind of music comes out like it was written for this equipment.”
Because speakers vary so much, and since the requirements for what you buy have almost as much to do with visual aesthetics as sound quality, I won't recommend any particular models. Along with Escalante Design, Wilson Audio is also well regarded for its high-end, high-quality speakers.
“You can spend a lot of money on equipment, but if the room isn't right, you'll never hear that difference.” That’s what Joe Kane of Digital Video Essentials, one of the home theater industry’s major gurus, told me. Fixing the room’s acoustics was the “most expensive part of my home theater, by far,” he says.
And no, simply slapping acoustic tiles over your walls won’t do. Overuse of anything designed to absorb sound will leave the room sounding dead. There may be places in your room where the sound needs to be absorbed, and others where it should be reflected and diffused.
Simply put, you need a professional to figure it all out.
According to one such professional, Nyal Mellor of Acoustic Frontiers, going through the process isn't even worthwhile if you’re not investing at least $20,000 in equipment. Mellor finds that analyzing and improving a room's acoustics usually costs $4000 to $10,000.
An acoustics expert will generally come out and run some tests to determine where the problems are. Is the sound clear? Can you properly tell where a given sound is coming from? (It’s not necessarily one of your speakers.) Do echoes take too long to die down?
The professional can also take the appearance of the room into consideration, figuring out what they can hang where without disturbing the visual design. Eventually, they formulate fixes, placing absorbing acoustic tiles here, diffusers there, and perhaps adding rugs.
It’s a lot of work, and a lot of money. If it's done right, you’ll be left with a truly awesome home theater.
On the other hand, you probably can’t afford it. Maybe it’s best to be satisfied with what’s within your budget--or with what you already own.