I’m exhausted. My 4 year old $600 Sony surround system started to show signs of it’s age by clicking and cutting out. Sadly that meant in this day and age that it would have to go, because usually the cost of repairing them costs more than replacing it. Plus we’d been dissatisfied with the quality of sound since hearing other peoples setups. So I thought a quick trip to the store would be enough to get me a good replacement. Little did I know that I would need a degree in Home Theatre before I could even begin to start talking to a salesman. Here are the things I’ve learned:
1. Amplifiers are so 90s, these days it’s all about AV Receivers for Home Theatres
What’s the difference? Well basically AV Recievers not only handle your audio but also do your video switching. So you can plug your xbox, tivo, foxtel and dvd all in to the reciever and it will handle the rest. Only one cable from the receiver to the tv is all that is required to get something on screen. Which leads me to the next learning:
2. Coloured cables have names
Component cables are red, green and blue. Composite cables are red, yellow and white. S-Video is black with pins and a rectangle when you look at the connectors. Component is better than S-Video and S-Video is better than Composite. HDMI is the next generation of cabling but isn’t yet a mature format as they are still versioning them (currently it’s 1.3). Plus not many devices have HDMI yet.
3. Upconvert, upscaling and fish descaling
Middle of the range to top of the range AV Receivers will upconvert your video. This means if you plug in a composite cabled VCR, the receiver will improve the video if your output to the tv is component. I’ve not seen this in action so I can’t say if it’s any good but I guess it must be. Also, fish should not live in your receiver – they smell
4. Dolby Digital, Dolby Surround, THX, Dolby 5.1 and DTS
Bloody hell. Everything is Dolby something and apparently some of them sound better than others. Note to Dolby – start giving things meaningful goddam names that don’t start with Dolby.
5. There are too many features and too many choices
When you look on the net for reviews, specifications and comparisons you will find no meaningful information. No one will be comparing the receivers you have shortlisted, no one will be using the same speakers for all their tests and they will all expect you to be as passionate about HT as they are. There will be a plethora of amplifiers to choose from and the same company will have a receiver at every 100 dollar price point. $699, $799, $899, $999 – $10 999 and more. You are sure there is a difference between each one of them but you will have no idea whether that will affect you as a user. It’s only when you bring it home that you will discover what is missing when you realise you need it.
Sadly this shopping experience is not isolated. I had the same issue when purchasing a phone. You have simple requirements but you end up having to ask one of your friends who has a passion for it and is the resident expert. Why should it be so hard?
My final advice if you are going basic home theatre shopping?
Be ignorant. Only go to two stores that you trust, only have one price range that cannot be budged and listen to to the receivers so you can decide what you like. Don’t look anywhere else, don’t talk to anyone and don’t search the net. Buy a brand you are familiar with and you will be as pleased as punch with whatever you purchased. You won’t have any regrets or yearnings for features that you don’t have because you don’t know about them. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss.
For those who are desperate to know what I ended up with, it was a Denon AVR1906 that I got the guy to virtually give away to me (I think I made him cry) and some Dali Concept 6 front and centre speakers. In the end I kept the Sony subwoofer and rear speakers as they can still do the job for now. The speakers are cherry instead of the black I preferred and the Denon is silver instead of the black I also preferred. Of course I didn’t realise it until I got the Denon home but by then I had had enough and just wanted to plug it all in (I’ll just hide them in a cupboard one day). It sounds a hell of a lot better than what it used to. The purchase took me one full day of shopping, 5 nights of research and a couple of emails from a few helpful friends.
Thank god I don’t have to do it again for at least a few more years.