Friday, January 23, 2009

Home Theater System - Part 2

The home-theater-in-a-box came via UPS yesterday at 6:00pm. The UPS guy was relieved that I was there so he could drop-off the 104 lb. box the size of a small refrigerator at the garage rather than my front door (which is much more difficult to get to.

Everything that people said about the Onkyo HT-S7100 is absolutely true. On the negative side, everyone said the wire was too thin and lousy and they were all correct. It looks like 20 gauge wire, and that's just too thin. The surround cables were also 30' and the runs to my surround speakers was 50'. The night before the unit came, I ran 200' of 16 gauge speaker wire through the attic (which was a herculean effort in and of itself). All this said, the color-coded, much-too-thin wire was ample to connect everything up and test to make sure that everything worked.

The receiver is complex. You can hook your components to it, turn it on, and sound will start coming out, but it won't be working quite right. I also forgot to set my TiVo HD to output Dolby Digital audio, and that also created some initial confusion. Moral of the story: Read the manual. There's some good stuff in there. The Audyssey automatic speaker set-up system is truly amazing. The system comes with a microphone that plugs into the front of the receiver. You place the microphone in three different locations when instructed to do so by the receiver, and it makes whoooop-whoooop noises from each speaker to measure the room acoustics and speaker position. It then makes a bunch of calculations for about 5 minutes, after which the system is balanced and adjusted properly. I happened to know (from running my speaker wire) that the front speakers were 30' from the sofa, and the system had it right on target. What Audyssey does is save having to make a lot of manual measurements and subjective settings. With everything adjusted and the receiver set in the proper decoding mode, sound came from all the speakers. I put on an episode of Planet Earth I recorded from The Discovery Channel, and Smokey perked-up and thought the animal on TV was real. The only trouble I experienced is that the audio and video were quite obviously out-of-sync. I enabled "Lip Sync" mode and set the delay, and it turned out that the maximum delay (100ms) was needed to synchronize the video and audio. This was a little disappointing, but thankfully the function exists. I'm kind of wondering if I missed something (because I didn't read the instruction manual in detail yet) that will make me say, "Ah-ha...that's why that happened!"

A really cool feature that has saved me (in the short-term anyway) $150 and additional complexity is the receiver's ability to communicate with my Sony TV over the HDMI cable (the mode needs to be turned-on in the receiver's set-up menu). Now if I turn the TV off or on, the receiver's power turns on and off accordingly. The receiver tells the TV to turn off the TV's built-in speakers and send volume commands to the receiver. When I use my TiVo remote to adjust the TV volume, the TV says "Audio System: VOL +" (or minus) and tells the receiver to raise or lower the volume. So this means I don't need a universal remote right now (that's the $150 savings).

My subjective opinion of the sound is that it is pretty amazing. For the right source material, it truly feels as though you're in a movie theater. Much of the material on TV (particularly anything in high-def) is 5.1 audio, so you get the audio experience that was truly intended. For music, I find the audio processing to make the sound come out of all the speakers to be somewhat distracting. I put the system in "Music: Stereo" mode when I listen to Music Choice so only the front speakers and subwoofer are active. The sound is good, although I have to admit that my old stereo system (about a quarter of the price) sounds similar in this mode, although the subwoofer helps fill-in the lows my old system was missing.

So for the nuts and bolts (almost quite literally) of putting the speakers up and the system together... The speakers are in their final locations but not necessarily installed as I intended yet, mainly because I am having some second thoughts about speaker orientation. In the front I had the center speaker on the included stand in front of the TV on the TV stand. I moved it above the TV because the sound coming from that location when the other speakers were higher didn't sound natural. I decided to try to bolting it to the wall above the TV, and that seems to sound better. If I decide to leave it in that location permanently, I will run the wire through the wall instead of on the outside of the wall as shown in the photo. I am also considering getting a set of Bose desktop speaker stands because they look like they'll work with these speakers and it will allow me to have the speakers horizontal instead of vertical (a stand is needed because the sides of these speakers are curved). Using the desktop stand would also allow the speakers to be positioned lower in the bookshelves and be closer to ear-level as recommended in most home theater guides. Personally, because the surround speakers are high, having these high as well doesn't hurt the sound as much as they claim it does.

I made a last-minute decision to mount the speakers vertically instead of horizontally at the windows (note that the speakers are both straight - the camera's distortion and viewing angle makes one speaker look crooked). Looking carefully you can see the wires go up into the ceiling just above the speaker, but it really looks fine.

I am still not sure where, exactly, these speakers should go, so I put them on the shelf area next to the (fake) plants. There are two problems with this as a permanent location: The first is that they are much too high, and definitely higher than the speakers at the window side of the room. The second reason is that the rear of the speakers and wires are clearly visible when walking-in the front door. In other words, while the appearance is nice from the living room, it isn't from the other side. My gut feeling is to mount one speaker vertically on each post with the top of the speaker just below the top of the plant shelf level. An alternative (if I decide to mount the speakers at the windows horizontally instead of how they are now) would be to put them horizontally just below the shelf.

Suffice to say that everything works, and that it is obvious that there is still some work left to do. I had to start somewhere. I'll also say that while I am overall happy with this system it seems as though I have killed the proverbial mosquito with a hand grenade. I think I would have been more than happy with a good-quality system that provided two front speakers and a subwoofer, as in a "2.1" stereo system. However since the last time I purchased an audio system was 25 years ago, I think buying something that will last at least that long was a good decision. I can see this system working for me well-into retirement. My old stereo receiver has problems with the volume control and all the contacts on the controls making poor contact and sound crackles and channels go dead. This receiver doesn't have any mechanical contacts in the audio path, and the only thing I can see happening over the long-term is that the technology changes beyond what the receiver can support.

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