A recent move meant trading my custom-built home-theater room for a small loft area in the new tract house. My previous room had been built from scratch and was packed with $33k worth of acoustic treatments. And because it was also my room for evaluating the world’s finest high-end audio products for The Absolute Sound, the room featured such products as the Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 loudspeakers ($158,000 per pair) driven by Pass Laboratories Class A monoblock power amplifiers. The front-projection system included a 120"-wide motorized retractable screen.
The new room is considerably more humble, measuring just 12' x 16.5'. (My stereo listening room is the home’s main living area at 22' x 19' with a sloped ceiling that peaks at 17'). Because I had become spoiled by my previous room’s fabulous picture and sound, I set myself the challenge of creating an extremely high-quality home theater in the new space. I’m sure that many readers are in a similar situation; the main living area isn’t conducive to a theater system (aesthetics, lack of light control, need the room for other purposes, Wife Acceptance Factor, etc.), but the home might have a spare bedroom that can be converted into a dedicated theater. After wrestling with a number of key decisions, choosing equipment, and getting the system up and running, it occurred to me that I should share my thought processes and the results with readers in the hope that they might benefit from my experience.
Small rooms are notoriously problematic acoustically, but I wasn’t ready to live with lumpy bass or lack of clarity without a putting up a fight. My goal was to put together a home theater that, although less grandiose than my previous system, would still provide an immersive experience with film, concert videos (I love musical performances on video), and multichannel music. Going in, I thought my biggest challenges would be:
1) Achieving smooth bass response free from boominess and distracting colorations
2) Realizing clarity in the midrange and treble (essential to dialog intelligibility) without the sound becoming harsh or strident
3) Creating an immersive surround field
4) Finding a video display big enough to subtend a large field of view yet without seeing the pixel structure at my close viewing distance.
I’ll take you through the process of selecting components, matching those components to each other, setting up the system, and then fine-tuning it for maximum performance.
Here are the key decisions along with my reasoning behind each choice.
I had the ability to choose one of two rooms in the house for the theater. The first option was a rectangular bedroom measuring 11' x 14.5'. The second option was an upstairs loft over the master bedroom. The loft, at 12' x 16.5', was slightly wider and longer than the bedroom. A larger space is nearly always an advantage acoustically. The loft had an opening behind the listening area that coupled acoustically to a large space. One drawback to the loft was the lack of a right sidewall to which to mount the right surround speaker (that area is a short hallway to the loft’s entrance).
Deciding on the loft was, however, easy; the loft’s opening behind the listening area would make the bass less problematic because some of that bass energy would be vented through the opening rather than being reflected back into the room. I envisioned that this venting would make my anticipated uphill battle against the bass a little easier. The loft’s extra foot of width would also allow wider placement of the left and right loudspeakers.
If you have the luxury of choosing which spare room to use for your small-scale theater, choose the one with an attached hallway or windows behind the listening area. Those structures help skew the room’s resonance modes as well as allow some of the bass energy to exit the room rather than being reflected back where it interacts with the direct sound.
The next step was putting together the equipment list with an eye to maximum performance for the least amount of money. I have very high standards when it comes to sound quality (the result of being a full-time high-end audio reviewer for the past 21 years), but alas, have a limited (although substantial) budget.
Here are my equipment selections along with some thoughts on why I chose each component.
Controller and Amplifier or AV Receiver?
I first had to decide between one of the new generation of sophisticated high-end AV receivers or a separate controller and power amplifier. The new AVRs are packed with advanced technologies, are much less expensive than separate controllers and amplifiers, and with just one chassis, consume less rack space.
The limitations of AVRs are often in their power amplifier sections, which must pack seven channels of amplification into a relatively small chassis. An AVR and a separate power amplifier that have similar power outputs “on paper” into 8 ohms will have very different performances driving real-world loudspeakers; the separate power amplifier can deliver more current when demanded by the loudspeaker. It’s current flow through the speakers’ voice coils that causes them to move back and forth creating sound. If the current flow is constrained, the sound will be as well. The standard power-output rating into 8 ohms doesn’t tell you anything about how much current the amplifier can deliver into low-impedance loudspeakers, or about how it will handle dips in the speaker’s impedance at certain frequencies. Separate power amplifiers usually have much more robust output stages by virtue of a larger power supply, more output transistors, greater heatsink area, and better ventilation. This translates directly into greater dynamics and a sense of ease on musical peaks or loud film sound effects. When a musical performance or film gets loud and intense, you don’t want to be brought back to reality by hearing the amplifier run out of steam.
In addition to these benefits of a separate power amplifier, a high-quality controller from an audio-oriented company will generally have better-sounding digital-to-analog converters and an overall cleaner sound than the DACs and analog stages of an AVR. Because all the sound you hear will have been converted to analog by these DACs, the quality of their design plays a large role in the system’s overall sound quality. Although an AVR can be the foundation of a quality theater, I chose a separate controller and power amplifier.
The controller I selected is the Classé SSP-800 (reviewed in Issue 194 of The Absolute Sound). At $8500 the SSP-800 the most expensive component in the new system, but it offers fabulous sound quality, a great user interface, and a host of useful features. In fact, the SSP-800 is the state-of-the-art in my experience. The controller is the core of a theater system that decodes surround formats, provides digital-to-analog conversion, and is the component you’ll touch and interact with the most, which in my view justifies the expenditure. We’ll look at how I used some of the Classé’s features in fine-tuning my system later in this article.
One feature the Classé lacks is room correction using digital signal processing (DSP). This technology measures the frequency response of peaks and dips of your speakers in your particular room and applies correction filters to restore flat response. Audyssey is an example of a popular DSP correction system, and is available in many AVRs. I had mixed feelings about not having this powerful tool at my disposal. My previous system didn’t need room correction because the room was well designed and I employed optimum loudspeaker-placement techniques. I’m not saying the response was as flat as it would have been with DSP correction, only that I didn’t feel the need for it.
My new room, however, was a different story. I imagined that the only way to deal with the new room’s anticipated colorations would be with room correction. Still, I’ve had variable results with room correction. I’ve found that although the improvement in the bass is remarkable, DSP room correction systems can change the overall tonal balance and result in a sound that is generally too bright. In addition, DSP room correction doesn’t obviate the need for acoustic treatments; if a room stores and releases energy at certain frequencies (which they all do), reducing the amplitude of those frequencies mitigates the problem in the frequency domain but that energy is still smeared over time, coloring the sound. Acoustic treatments, carefully applied, absorb and damp the excess energy to reduce the smearing problem. Although acoustic treatments lack the surgical precision of DSP, they nonetheless address the problem of room colorations more broadly.
I decided to forego wideband DSP room correction and tackle the room with acoustic treatments, the powerful parametric equalization within the Classé SSP-800 if needed, the automatic (analog) calibration feature of the JL Audio fathom f113 subwoofer, and careful loudspeaker placement. My ace-in-the-hole for taming the bass was a DSPeaker Anti-Mode 8033, a $350 DSP room-correction device that operates only on the subwoofer signal. The Anti-Mode 8033 could clean up the bass without subjecting the main signals to DSP room correction.
My requirements for a power amplifier included: the ability to adequately drive the loudspeakers (specifically the ability to deliver current during loud peaks) and to provide a smooth, natural, and unfatiguing sound; a small chassis; and efficient operation so that the amplifier wouldn’t heat up the relatively small theater room. This latter requirement pointed me toward a Class D amplifier, which has the virtues of high power from a compact chassis, low power consumption, and very cool operation.
There are many Class D amplifiers on the market, but most of them are designed primarily for high-efficiency and low cost rather than for good sound. Frankly, there are many terrible-sounding Class D amplifiers out there. A Class D amplifier that met all my needs was the NuForce MCH-300SEC7. This is a seven-channel implementation of nearly the same circuitry used in NuForce’s high-end Model 9V3SE monoblock amplifier, which has garnered praise for its musical qualities. An earlier version of that monoblock was awarded the Amplifier of the Year Award in 2005 by The Absolute Sound.
The $6000 MCH-300SEC7 outputs 175Wpc into 8 ohms and 335Wpc into 4 ohms, has both balanced and unbalanced inputs, measures 17" x 14" x 3.5", weighs just 33 pounds, and puts out virtually no heat (which allows it to be located in a semi-enclosed equipment rack). The NuForce’s ability to nearly double its output power into 4 ohms indicates that the amplifier can deliver current to the loudspeaker when needed. The remote control is a metal wand that allows you to turn channels on and off independently. Incidentally, NuForce makes a wide range of mono, stereo, and multichannel amplifiers based on its own Class D technology, which we’ve found is far better sounding than that of off-the-shelf Class D modules.
When it comes to speakers for two-channel music listening or home theater, my first choice for high value is PSB Speakers. The company’s business model is great for consumers: Combine audiophile values and skillful design (still performed by founder Paul Barton) with economy-of-scale manufacturing in China. The result is loudspeakers that sound great, are beautifully finished, and offer amazing value.
A big question for me, and I suspect for other home-theater speaker shoppers, is whether to use full-range floorstanding speakers in the left and right positions, or to go with stand-mounted models. In the PSB line, as with many other companies’ ranges, the stand-mounted speakers sound virtually identical to the floorstanding units except that the floorstanding units extend lower in frequency, deliver wider dynamics in the bass, and can handle more power. But if the left and right speakers are crossed over to a subwoofer at 80Hz or so, are the floorstander’s bass extension and dynamics wasted? If so, should we choose stand-mount speakers and allocate the cost savings to other areas of the theater that will produce greater performance gains?
To reach a definitive conclusion on this fundamental question, PSB graciously let me experiment with both its Synchrony Two floorstanders ($3500 per pair) and Synchrony Two B stand-mount models ($1750 per pair). The floorstander goes lower in the bass (–10dB point of 29Hz vs. 40Hz) and has slightly higher sensitivity (88dB vs. 86dB). Other than those differences, the two speakers are identical in tonal balance, clarity, and overall sound quality. After some experimentation, I ended up choosing the floorstanding Synchrony Two. The floorstander not only allowed me to use a lower crossover frequency to the subwoofer, it also had a touch more weight and dynamics in the midbass. Plus, the floorstanding Synchrony Two obviated the need for speaker stands (and their additional cost) and looked far more attractive, to boot.
I coupled the Synchrony Two with the Synchrony One center channel ($2000) and two pairs of Synchrony S surrounds ($2200 per pair) in a 7.1-channel configuration. Notice that I went for the best center-channel speaker in the Synchrony line, but the second-from-top model for the left and right speakers. The center channel is the workhorse of a theater system and is worth spending some extra money on. In fact, the center channel speaker is the last place in a theater system you should cut corners because it reproduces virtually all the dialogue and many of the effects.
The Synchrony S surround can be wired so that it operates as a dipole (the front and rear outputs are out of phase) or as a bipole (the front and rear outputs are in-phase). I had planned on using all four Synchrony S’s as dipoles, but this switchable feature came in handy (more on this later).
I chose the Synchrony line because of its great sound and advanced technologies. All the drivers are custom made and mounted in an extruded aluminum baffle. Aluminum baffles are used in some of the most expensive speakers in the world because aluminum doesn’t vibrate the way wood-based material does. This aluminum baffle is part of an enclosure that is fitted together with no fasteners. Instead, the enclosure panels lock together to form a very rigid structure that’s less prone to vibration than conventional materials and construction techniques. Enclosure resonance is a significant contributor to loudspeaker coloration; consequently, creating a rigid cabinet is an important element of a good-sounding speaker. A side benefit is that you don’t see any screws or bolts on the enclosure, contributing to the streamlined look. The build and finish quality of the Synchrony line is miraculous for the price. The cherry finish (black is also available) and rounded contours would not be out of place in a loudspeaker at five times the price. The product benefits from Paul Barton’s 40 years of experience designing loudspeakers, along with testing in the anechoic chamber of Canada’s National Research Council.
Although PSB makes some excellent subwoofers, I kept from my previous system the stunningly great JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofer ($3600). The Fathom f113 (reviewed in The Absolute Sound Issue 170, and winner of our Subwoofer of the Year Award in 2007) has unbelievable “center-of-the-earth” solidity on deep bass, can deliver massive dynamic impact with total ease, and will play loudly effortlessly. But what really distinguishes the Fathom from other subwoofers is its extremely tight, defined sound with superb pitch articulation and control. The Fathom is the antithesis of a subwoofer that constantly drones away under the music or soundtrack with no sense of dynamics or pitch. Instead, the Fathom has no overhang, and delivers by far the best transient fidelity I’ve heard in a subwoofer at any price (and I’ve heard some five-figure models). This last quality makes it easier to get the sub to blend with the main speakers and not sound like a separate component in the system. The low bass should sound fully integrated with, and part of, the sound from the main speakers. The Fathom’s design and build, extensive adjustments, and Automatic Room Optimization (ARO) makes this subwoofer my first choice. The ARO feature measures the frequency response of the Fathom in the room, and then applies a correction filter to smooth the response. ARO lacks the multi-frequency filtering of DSP-based units, choosing instead to tackle just the room’s main resonance mode.
Choosing between cable, DirecTV, and DISH Network was the easiest decision of this entire project. I’ve tried them all, and found that DISH Network offers a huge amount of HD content, delivers terrific picture quality, has great customer service, and its DVRs are user-friendly and sport a host of great features. My system included the ViP722 DVR, a dual-tuner unit.
For Blu-ray and DVD playback, I went with a Sony BDP-S570 disc player. For multichannel SACD, I used a Sony SCD-XA9000ES, connected via six analog interconnects to the Classé controller’s discrete analog input.
The top priority for the video display was picture quality. That, along with the fact that I could control the amount of ambient light in the room, meant only one technology: plasma. Although LCD is ascendant because of its high light output (useful in bright rooms), plasma’s deeper blacks, wider contrast, and superior reproduction of motion make it the technology of choice for critical applications.
I had lusted after the spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) Pioneer 60" Kuro, but Pioneer no longer produces this state-of-the-art plasma. My second choice, however, worked out just fine and cost considerably less than the Kuro: the 65" Panasonic TC-P65V10 ($3999). It’s a step up above their TC-P65S2, and well worth the additional money. (Incidentally, the price dropped by nearly $500 since I bought mine.) The panel features a THX calibration mode that delivers the correct color temperature right out of the box, THX certification, four HDMI inputs, 24fps mode for optimum display of film-based sources, and a variety of technologies for improving picture quality not found on lower-end models.
AC Power Management
Now that I had all the main components, the next step for this high-end system was a solid foundation of AC power. I needed an AC system that cleaned up the AC power for better sound, protected other components from spikes and surges, switched on its AC outlets in timed sequence, and provided battery back-up. This last feature prevents loss of settings that might be stored in volatile memory, protects the components from transient power outages (the system turning back on after the power is restored could put a high-level signal through the speakers), and, importantly, supplies uninterrupted power to the DISH Network DVR. Preventing power loss to the DVR means no lost recordings, as well as protection from damage to the DVR’s hard-disk drive when the power is suddenly interrupted while the disk-drive head is reading or writing.
After searching the market, I decided on the Monster HTUPS 3700 ($1199). In addition to having all the features I needed, the HTUPS 3700 is packed with sophisticated features I had never even thought of in a power conditioner. For example, the Monster unit has the ability to regulate the AC voltage going to your equipment preventing damage from too high or low voltage. The “Greenpower” outlet management system turns off power to devices that are in standby mode to save electricity. Other features include an RS232 port for external control from a control system, as well as surge and spike protection on cable, telephone lines, and Ethernet connections. The surge and spike protection in the HTUPS 3700 is vastly more advanced than is generally found in AC power products. Rather than use a simple passive device for protection, Monster’s patented T2 technology employs a microprocessor that monitors the line, neutral, and ground lines and disconnects the HTUPS 3700 when a dangerous condition is detected either too high or too low beyond what is safe. This operation works faster than traditional fuses or MOVs, and is more reliable. The battery back-up is very cool in practice. If the power goes out, an audible alarm goes off and Monster’s “Count Down” technology displays on the front panel how long the battery will supply power. As you turn off unneeded components, the countdown timer automatically adjusts to show you the actual time remaining. The battery is quite heavy and robust, and can run a system that’s consuming 450W for about 35 minutes. If you’re just powering a DVR, the battery will last more than an hour.
A unique feature of the HTUPS 3700 is that is compatible with Monster’s remote-access IP control Module. When this module is added to the unit combined with an Internet connection, you can monitor the status of any of the unit’s AC outlets. Moreover, in the event of a power failure, the HTUPS 3700 will automatically power-up the AC outlets supplying your Internet router and one other device (such as a DSL modem) so that Internet access is restored. I’ve never seen such a feature-laden AC management system, and ended up using features of the HTUPS 3700 I didn’t realize I needed.
The AC power cables connecting your equipment are an important component of the system’s sonic performance. I replaced the stock AC cords (on the products with detachable power cords) with the Venom3 AC cord from Shunyata Research ($99 each). I’ve used Shunyata’s AC power conditioners and upper-end CX-series of power cables in my two-channel system for years. In my experience, replacing stock black AC cords with quality aftermarket cords results in greater low-level resolution, a quieter background, wider dynamic contrasts, and smoother timbres. Although the Venom3 is Shunyata’s least expensive AC cord, it nonetheless can render a dramatic improvement in the system’s sound. The important thing is to get the cheap stock cords out of the system.
Cables, Seating, and Equipment Furniture
For speaker cables, I already had on hand multiple runs of Kimber’s excellent 8TC as well as AudioQuest models. HDMI cables were all Monster’s top-of-the-line, and line-level analog interconnects were a combination of AudioQuest, Kimber, and Monster.
I brought with me from the previous theater a beautiful leather theater loveseat made by Continental Seating.
The last, and vital, piece of the system was an equipment rack. I wanted something that was sturdy, functional, well-built, and attractive. Keep in mind that the equipment rack had to support the weight of the Panasonic 65" plasma (147 pounds on its stand), and I didn’t want a rack that was only marginally up for the task, or one that might sag over time.
I was familiar with the high-end stereo racks and speaker stands from Sanus Systems. Visiting its Web site, I was surprised by the sheer breadth of its product line; the company offers more than 300 flat-panel mounts, speaker stands, equipment cabinets, racks, and accessories. I chose the upper-end Java JFV65 ($799), which was perfect for my needs. It’s an 18.25" tall, 64.5" wide, enclosed lowboy with sliding doors. It’s nearly exactly the same width as the Panasonic plasma. The Java gave me the option of positioning the plasma on its stand on top of the cabinet or mounted to metal posts that attached to the back of the cabinet. The Java is also available with a backdrop that gives your plasma a “floating” look. In a nice touch, the tempered glass panels in the doors are frosted, which softens the glare of front-panel displays and LEDs while remaining transparent to infrared remote control signals. The JFV65 is loaded with great features, including concealed vents that provide convection cooling of components, metal and nylon bushings and steel bearings in the door glides, and rear panels that slide open or can be removed completely. The JFV65 is massively built, with thick, sturdy shelves and side panels. The top shelf is rated to support 275 pounds. This is a serious piece of AV furniture, weighing in at 157 pounds in the carton. The unit was finished in a beautiful espresso with aluminum accents.
SETUP AND CALIBRATION
I positioned the center channel on a short speaker stand just in front of the Sanus JFV65, with the left and right speakers on either side slightly in front of the equipment furniture. A common mistake is to locate the left and right speakers on the same plane as the video display. Although this creates a more streamlined look, and is less intrusive on your living space, speakers sound better when they are in front of acoustically reflective objects such as a large video display. This placement minimizes the amount of acoustic energy reflected from the video display to the listener.
I mounted the left surround speaker on the left sidewall with the dipole “null” aimed directly at the listening position. Dipole speakers produce sound to the front and rear, and almost no sound (the null) across a small area perpendicular to the speaker. The idea is to sit in the null so that the only sound you hear from the surround speakers is sound that has been reflected around the room. This diffusion of surround information increases the sense of envelopment in the surround field. The right surround speaker was a bit trickier because the place where it should be located is a hallway with no wall on which to mount the speaker. I built a hanging bracket, which did the job.
The biggest physical challenge in installing a multichannel speaker system is running wires to the surround speakers. Of course, you can simply connect the surround speakers with exposed wires, but that method is unsightly. This is where most of us, including me, need professional help. I called in Zeke Mass of North County Home Theater in Encinitas, California to run the surround wiring through the attic. Zeke had a number of clever tricks up his sleeve that made the process fast and efficient. The finished look was terrific.
I was concerned about the performance of the surround-back speakers because I’d be sitting so close to them. At Paul Barton’s suggestion, I connected the surround-back speakers as bipoles rather than as dipoles. A bipolar speaker radiates sound to the front and rear, but in-phase. Connecting the surround-back speakers as bipoles produced a more solid sense of the surround channels.
I mounted the JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofer on a subwoofer stand/bass absorber made by Acoustic Sciences Corporation. This cube, about the same size as the JL Audio subwoofer, raises the sub off the floor for smoother response and also absorbs excess bass. The subwoofer and stand were mounted behind the Sanus rack and Panasonic plasma in a niche in the room. They are totally invisible unless you look behind the plasma panel. In the opposite corner behind the plasma I installed a 16" Full-Round Tube Trap from Acoustic Sciences Corporation. I’ve found that a Tube Trap in the corners behind the speakers is highly effective in reducing the boominess that we often hear from speakers in a room.
Without the Tube Trap, and before running the AOR calibration routine in the JL Audio subwoofer, the sound had a huge peak in the response at about 50–60Hz, manifested as a thick, slow, boom that was a constant annoyance. The Tube Trap (which is highly effective at this frequency) smoothed the response somewhat, but running the fathom f113’s AOR really reduced the amplitude of this peak.
A day after I’d roughly set up the system Paul Barton visited to help me dial-in the system using his laptop spectrum analyzer. We played tones and pink noise through individual speakers and groups of speakers (just the three fronts, for example), measured the response at five locations around the listening seat, and then averaged the response curves. The system measured and sounded surprisingly flat with the Tube Trap and the AOR calibration, but there was room for improvement. First, we crossed over the front three speakers at 50Hz rather than the typical (and THX standard) 80Hz. The idea was that multiple sources of midbass (from the front three speakers rather than from the subwoofer’s single location) helps drive the room modes differently for smoother bass. Fortunately, the Synchrony Two left/right speakers and Synchrony One C were easily able to handle this additional bass extension. The Classé SSP-800 controller allows you to select between 12dB/octave or 24dB/octave filters, and we chose the steeper 24dB/octave slopes. We still measured (and heard) a peak in the midbass, so we plugged one of the ports in each of the Synchrony front speakers with the supplied bungs, reducing their port outputs. This helped considerably but didn’t completely eliminate the peak, so I went into the Classé SSP-800’s set-up menu and engaged an equalizer that gave me complete control over the equalizer’s center frequency, amount of boost or cut, and “Q.” The term “Q” is a unitless number that describes the steepness of the filter (specifically, it is the filter’s center frequency divided by the filter’s bandwidth). Variable Q lets you tailor the filter’s width to just the band you want to boost or attenuate. Up to five filters are available for each channel. This equalization turned out to be just what we needed to push the system into nearly perfect tonal balance. The ability to adjust the filter’s Q greatly increased the equalizer’s effectiveness.
The Fathom has a feature that turned out to be incredibly useful: a control called Extreme Low Frequency (ELF) Trim. This knob on the subwoofer’s front panel allows you to select up to 12dB of cut or 3dB of boost at 25Hz. With the ELF Trim set flat, the extreme bottom end was overblown; explosions and other effects were way out of proportion to the rest of the bass frequencies. A 7dB cut brought the very low frequencies under control, and allowed me to increase the subwoofer’s overall level for fuller bass without overloading the room.
The bass was already smoother and more articulate than I thought possible, but adding the Anti-Mode 8033 took the bottom-end performance to another level. When I compared the system with the Anti-Mode bypassed and engaged (with the push of a front-panel button), it was obvious that the Anti-Mode was eliminating some room-induced bass colorations. I heard this largely as a “cleaning up” of the bass—that is, the bass became “lighter” and more articulate, yet weightier on the very bottom. This improvement in bass performance also conferred a large gain in midrange clarity and resolution.
The picture quality of my new theater is in many ways better than that of my previous system of a full-HD front projector and 120" screen. Although the plasma panel’s smaller picture isn’t as dramatic or cinema-like as the projection system, the plasma’s deeper blacks, wider contrast ratio, broader color gamut, better fidelity, and higher light output more than make up for the size disadvantage. The picture is spectacularly vivid, detailed, and engaging. The deepness of the blacks is a huge contributor to the sense of impact and immersion. It was worth the additional money to step up to the TC-P65V10 panel over the TC-P65S2.
As for the audio, I was absolutely stunned by just how good the system finally sounded. The bottom end, which I thought would end up with some colorations no matter what I did, turned out to be spectacularly smooth, deep, defined, and dynamic. I’ve set up hundreds of high-end stereo speakers and have battled bass colorations purely with loudspeaker and listener placement. But the extensive control over the bass afforded by this system (subwoofer crossover frequency and slope, subwoofer level, the JL Audio subwoofer’s AOR calibration, parametric equalization in the Classé SSP-800 controller, plugging the ports in the Synchrony front speakers, the DSPeaker Anti-Mode 8033) allowed me to achieve fabulous bass performance in an acoustically problematic room.
One of my references for multichannel sound is the Blu-ray Legends of Jazz Showcase, a collection of clips of various performances shot in HD and recorded in DTS HD Master Audio. Through this system, Marcus Miller’s bass guitar in the clip “The Panther” had massive dynamic impact with no sense of strain, very clear articulation of the instrument’s dynamics with no bloat or overhang, and detailed reproduction of the instrument’s timbre. The vocals on the track “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” by John Pizzarelli and Jane Monheit revealed a clear, open, and detailed midrange that lacked any sense of nasal coloration, excessive brightness, or “hooded” closed-in character. The top end was smooth and extended, with just the right balance of high-frequency energy and delicacy.
The fabulous high-resolution multichannel DVD-Audio disc XXL by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band really showed off the system’s qualities. The bass was extremely tight and defined, and kick drum cut through the mix with considerable dynamic impact and no sense of slowness or smearing. The bass and kick drum seemed to lock together to drive the rhythm. Systems in which the bass lacks this level of precision sound slower and less upbeat. The timbre of the brass and woodwinds on this disc were reproduced with tremendous clarity and resolution, but were never overly forward or aggressive. In short, the system provided a thrilling musical experience.
On film soundtracks, the system delivered excellent dialogue intelligibility, a wide front soundstage with precise image placement, and good surround envelopment. I didn’t hear the same sense of diffusion and space around me in this system as in my previous room (where I sat much farther from the surround and surround-back speakers), but was happy overall with surround performance.
The performance of my new home theater exceeded all expectations, delivering a fully immersive experience despite the room’s small size. The choice of a 65" plasma was a good one even though the viewing distance was just 11'. As far as the sound quality, I never thought I could get such tight, deep, and clean bass in a small room. The keys to achieving this sonic performance were the room’s irregular shape, the fundamental quality of the subwoofer, loudspeakers, and electronics, the acoustic treatment, and particularly, the extensive bass adjustments on the AV controller and subwoofer. This last point was key: With so much range in setup and fine-tuning, it’s possible to overcome many acoustical challenges.
The new system is so good that I don’t find myself missing the dedicated room. Moreover, it was educational and gratifying to overcome the various challenges and end up with big sound from a small home theater.
Video Display: Panasonic TC-P65V10 65" plasma panel, www.panasonic.com
A/V Controller: Classé Audio SSP-800. www.classeaudio.com
Power Amplifier: NuForce MCH-300SEC7, www.nuforce.com
Loudspeakers: PSB Synchrony Two (left and right), Synchrony One C (center), Synchrony S (surrounds), www.psbspeakers.com
Subwoofer: JL Audio Fathom f113, www.jlaudio.com
AC Power Management: Monster Cable HTUPS 3700, www.monstercable.com
Equipment Furniture: Sanus Systems Java JFV65, www.sanus.com
Loudspeaker Cables: AudioQuest, www.audioquest.com; Kimber, www.kimber.com
Analog Interconnects: AudioQuest, www.audioquest.com; Kimber, www.kimber.com; Monster Cable, www.monstercable.com
AC Power Cords: Shunyata Venom3, www.shunyata.com
HDMI Cables: Monster Cable, www.monstercable.com
Satellite and DVR: DISH Network, DISH ViP722, www.dishnetwork.com
Disc Players: Sony BDP-S570 Blu-ray, Sony SCD-XA9000ES multichannel SACD, www.sonystyle.com
Acoustic Treatment: ASC Tube Traps, www.acousticsciences.com
Seating: Continental Seating, www.continentalseating.com
The Room: A room that opens to another room, preferably behind the listening position, confers a significant advantage over a rectangular room in achieving smooth bass.
Electronics: 1) Spending the additional money on a high-quality controller and separate amplifier is worth the money if you are discriminating about sound quality and, particularly, if you will play music or music videos through the system. 2) The ability to select the subwoofer crossover frequency independently for each channel, along with full parametric equalization in the controller, is a powerful tool in fine-tuning the system to the room. 3) A high-quality Class D amplifier can deliver superb sonic performance and confer the benefits of small size and low heat output.
Loudspeakers: 1) Floorstanding speakers give you more flexibility in setting the crossover frequency than small stand-mount units. 2) Installing surround-back speakers (a 7.1-channel system vs. a 5.1-channel system) is worth the cost and effort, even in a very small room. 3) The ability to select dipolar or bipolar operation of the surrounds is useful. 4) Save a good portion of your speaker budget for the center-channel speaker.
DSP room correction: If you choose quality loudspeakers that are inherently accurate (flat frequency response) you probably don’t need DSP room correction except in the bass (if at all). With some acoustic treatment and enough flexibility in the controller (point #2 above), it’s possible to get very good bass without DSP room correction. But for the ultimate in performance, DSP room correction is a powerful ally. And at $350, adding the DSPeaker Anti-Mode 8033 is a no-brainer.
Subwoofer: 1) Subwoofer quality makes a huge difference in the system’s overall performance. 2) Automatic room correction (analog) in the subwoofer goes a long way toward a sound that is free from boom and bloat. 3) The more controls on the subwoofer, the better (continuously variable phase, ELF trim, etc.).
Video Display: Plasma is the technology of choice when light can be controlled and pure picture quality is of paramount importance.
Equipment Furniture: High-quality equipment furniture is worth the investment, both in performance (no sagging shelves, smooth operation of doors, carefully design ventilation) and aesthetics.
AC Power: A high-quality theater needs sophisticated AC-power management for sound quality, component protection, and convenience. Replacing stock black AC cords with aftermarket cords designed for audio/video systems greatly improves the sound, and is one of the most cost-effective upgrades you can make.
Setup: 1) Using the array of bass adjustment parameters (crossover frequency, equalization, subwoofer level, ELF trim) it is possible to produce large changes in the system's bass performance, 2) Measurement with a spectrum analyzer allows you to see the effects of set-up changes, guiding you toward the goal.