Home Theater Advice

It’s time to upgrade to my first “real” home theater system. This will be replacing a Logitech system whose wireless rear speakers died after a couple of years. We’re not audiophiles by any stretch, but want something that will sound good for movies and games, and hopefully last for 10 years or more. I’ve done some research, primarily on Cnet reviews and avsforum, but it’s a bewildering morass of info out there, so figured I’d check in here to see if anyone could help narrow it down.

My budget is roughly $600-800 for everything, but that has some flexibility on either end if there’s a chance to go a bit lower without sacrificing significant quality, or go a bit higher for a major improvement in quality. Going through Costco would be nice for the peace of mind from their indefinite return policy, but if their speakers are lower quality than those for similar prices elsewhere, then it’s not worth it. I’m open to either building piece by piece or going the HTiB route, again based on whichever results in the best bang for the buck (with an HTiB, I would want one with a real receiver, and I already have a PS3, so wouldn’t want to spend money on another blu-ray player).

Here are a few of the options I’m weighing:

1: Do nothing now and wait for some crazy deal when Black Friday rolls around.

2: Pioneer VSX-31 Receiver + JBL CS6100BG 5.1 Package Deal for $800 at Costco. Both of the components seem to be pretty high quality from the few reviews I’ve found, and of course the return policy is a huge plus.

3: Onkyo HT-RC230 receiver + Bose Acoustimass 6 Series III Package Deal for $800 at Sam’s Club. I always hear people saying that Bose is overrated and overpriced, but the in-store demos I’ve heard sound great to my untrained ears.

4: Onkyo HT-RC360 Receiver for $250 at Fry’s. Seems like the best bargain I’m likely to find on a quality standalone receiver, fitting with the rule I’ve seen that the receiver should be about a third of your total budget. The room is a bit of an odd space, being rectangular but with the entire left wall open to the dining room, so the automatic-configuration Audyssey system on this receiver sounds valuable to me. It’s got good reviews, and is discounted from $550 MSRP, and I have a rain check on the price that’s good for a month. This might be combined with either:
A) Pioneer SP-PK21BS speaker set for $400, based on glowing CNET review; or
B) JBL piecemeal options at Costco – Tour Bookshelf 2-pack for $60 X2, Balboa center for $60, and ES150PW sub for $250. This would total to $430, but I can’t find reviews of the individual speakers and am more going on the general guideline I’ve seen that you get better quality with individual speaker purchases than on packages. I’d also be concerned with the wireless receiver in the sub breaking, and might consider a different sub with those speakers.

5: Something else entirely if anyone has better ideas, since I’m still mostly in the dark about what to look for to get the best deal.

For $800 with receiver and speakers, you can get something real, so forget HTIB junk. But, $800 isn’t infinite money, so you’ll want to prioritize your spending carefully. Here are my principles:

  1. Put most of your money in the speakers, not the receiver. Receivers go obsolete relatively quickly. Speakers don’t. The receiver I bought for $300 in 1997 is total junk today – Dolby Pro Logic? No HDMI (or even DVI), or HD-supporting component inputs? – whereas the speakers I bought for $300 in 1997 are still just as good as any $300 speaker you can buy today.

  2. It’s better to buy a little bit of quality than lots of junk. If you buy 5 ungreat speakers and a really terrible subwoofer, then your upgrade path is “throw everything out and get new stuff.” If you buy 2 good speakers and then some ungreat ancillary stuff, your upgrade path is adding on to the good stuff you have.

  3. Front speakers are more important than rears. I know this isn’t 100% true for games, and ideally even for movies you want to be surrounded by equal quality speakers. But if you’re listening to music or watching most movies, the front is the most critical area.

So, with that in mind, here are my concrete product recommendations. For the reciever, that Onkyo 360 sounds like a pretty good deal. (Amazon has it for $399.) Certainly, it has all the specs you’ll need, and then some. Go ahead with that, leaving you with $550 remaining.

For the front speakers, get the PSB Alpha B1. This is a great speaker for the price, and if you search for reviews, you’ll find all sorts of raves and awards. I’ve recommended these to multiple friends, and those that have purchased them have raved about how great they were. You’ll need stands for them too, so call that $300, leaving you with $250 left.

You could get another pair of those speakers for the surrounds, but if you’d rather go slightly under budget than slightly over, the smaller Alpha LR1 should work well for you.

What this setup gets you is a solid receiver and audiophile quality speakers.

What you’re missing is a center channel, which won’t matter – just set up your receiver with a phantom center, and it’ll redirect that channel to the front speakers – and a subwoofer. You’ll notice that you’re missing the subwoofer – no thundering bass! – but you’re not going to get a quality subwoofer at this price anyway. And given the choice between a one-note thumpbox and no subwoofer at all, you’re better off with no subwoofer. (Especially because including the thumpbox would mean that you’d get lousy sound off the other speakers.)

Later on down the road, you can expand this system by adding a subwoofer; you can add a center channel if you feel like it; and if you really come into money, you can buy better fronts and relegate the Alpha B1 to the rears and the old rears to a second system, Craigslist, or 7.1 if you feel like going all crazy.

We really need another word for this sort of thing that doesn’t immediately summon images of $500 volume knobs.

If I had to do it all over again here’s what I’d do:

I’d get the receiver that I need, that Onkyo for instance. Then I’d get the two best speakers I could for the fronts, making sure that a matching center is available. You want the front three, if you use a center, to match.

I’d add more speakers later, if/when I felt I needed them.

My experience has been that the rears add very little to the experience most of the time. I watch a wide range of movies and tv and it seems half the time the stuff isn’t even in stereo much less surround, much less surround that takes advantage of rear speakers.

The subwoofer? If you get great fronts then they will deliver bass. If you need more bass than that then you’ll want a good subwoofer not a cheap one.

I refuse to let crazy people sully a perfectly good word.

But so also, what I mean by that is this: Back in '97, I worked at Best Buy. And I needed speakers, so I listened to all the ones they had, and found the best pair of speakers that were under a grand – they were actually like $1200, but with my employee discount, I got them for like $600. (They’re a high-margin item, it turns out.)

Later that year, I ended up getting exposed to the audiophiliac corners of the internets, and found myself going into hi-fi shops to listen to speakers. The result of that was that I ended up purchasing a $350 pair of Paradigm Mini-Monitors, which I planned on using for my bedroom stereo system (leaving the giant, expensive towers hooked up to the TV in the living room).

And so, living with both of those speakers, it quickly became VERY apparent that the $350 bookshelf speakers from the hi-fi store were better than the $1200/$600 speakers from Best Buy. The Best Buy speakers had all these tricks that made them sound appealing – a boosted treble to make them sound “detailed”, a boosted midbass to make them sound “rich”, and a thumpy bottom-end to make them sound like they had lots of low bass extension. Very impressive on the showfloor, but when you’re actually listening to music, it ends up making the music fatiguingly shrill, congested, and sloppy.

And that’s the main difference between “audiophile” speakers and mass-market ones: The mass-market ones are designed to sound appealing in a showroom, to people who don’t really know what they’re listening for. The audiophile ones are designed to be as good as possible within the constraints of their materials budget and designer’s skill. Which means that a much cheaper audiophile speaker is almost always going to sound better than even expensive mass-market ones (of which Bose is the most infamous, but far from only, example).

It’s like, you know how the TVs at an electronics store are set up in crazy mode, with the colors all blue, the contrast artificially boosted, the sharpness cranked, and all sorts of nonsense on? Mass market speakers are like that, except you can’t change the settings.

So anyway, my recommendation is to always buy speakers aimed at audiophiles. If you buy from a brand like PSB or Paradigm, you’ll find a wide range of products for just about any budget, and you’ll get pretty close to the best performance available for that budget, too.

Secretly, this is also what I recommend. But nobody will ever, ever, ever take that recommendation, so I generally don’t bother making it anymore, because then they just ignore everything else I’m saying.

If I were to buy a pair of the PSB Alpha B1 speakers to replace the fronts that came with a Kenwood HTiB I bought ten years ago along with a new receiver, would it be better to continue using the center channel that came with the Kenwood system or better to simply remove it?

You could try it both ways, but I’d say remove it.

Hmm, thanks a lot for all that information. I’ve been reading some reviews of the PSB Alpha B1s, and they do seem really impressive.

This might change if I suddenly come into money, but as of now I’m not looking at this as the start of a new hobby to be adding to in the future. I want something that I can be happy with as-is for 10 years – an upgrade path is a nice bonus, but definitely a secondary consideration. So with that in mind, if I never add to it, you think that a 4.0 setup using the PSBs will provide a more enjoyable experience with games and movies than one of the 5.1 options in the same price range?

Hmm, I always thought a center channel was supposed to be crucial for dialog in movies – didn’t realize you could split it between the front sides and have it work well.

So if a subwoofer isn’t plugged in, some of the bass gets routed to the other speakers to partially make up for the loss? And it would be better to stick with just the 4 corner speakers rather than scrounging the sub or center channel from the older Logitech or Klipsch sets I have lying around to mix in with them?

My wife will be happy to free up some floor space from the sub. With past sets it’s always seemed to add quite a bit to the experience, but I guess if better main speakers can handle some bass it might not be too big of a loss. What would you consider to be the dividing line between a respectable subwoofer and a “thumpbox”? If I did decide to upgrade later, what sort of budget would I need to allocate?

Yeah, I don’t think I’m quite ready to sacrifice the rear speakers, since the death of my current ones is the catalyst for this upgrade in the first place. Having the full positional sound experience really added a lot, and we want to get that back.

Oh, the music I have is almost all in mp3s rather than in a really hi-fidelity format – will the speaker quality difference still be as noticeable with that source?

And in the audiophile-level segment of the market, will the good speakers go on sale if I’m willing to wait around for a couple of months, or are they pretty static priced?

Thanks again!

Try both and listen
Stick with whatever sounds best… it doesn’t really matter what the “correct” audiophile solution, if it doesn’t sound good to you.

I’m all about Paradigm speakers. I bought my first pair of them in the mid-90s, and have been a fan ever since. It’s really hard to beat the quality level value of the Paradigm monitor series, for whatever your budget it. That being said, $800 won’t get you a 5.1 system with Paradigms.

It really depends on you. What you want, what you can actually hear and what you’re quite happy with.

I just went through the same. When sitting down to watch the Star Wars Blu-rays I discovered my trusted Logitech Z5500 set was busted and started looking around for a proper receiver and good separate speakers and found out that the stuff that was both high quality and and good looking was more than I had to spend, so I went with this LG HTIB.
It cost the same as a new Logitech system would cost me… and about 1/5 of what a separate receiver and decent speakers would cost me. It’s not quite as good and carrying out the Logitech sub, which weighs a fucking ton, and replace it with a small flimsy passive one, did hurt a little - but like you, I wanted the full surround experience more than just a couple of good speakers.

And honestly… I can’t really hear the difference now (and the Logitech set was never audiophile gear). Also the speakers are nice and discrete, which is important to us.
The alternative would be something like this or this. Both better and better looking… but also at a very different price (and I’d still need the receiver).

I’m going to say yes. The main thing you’re going to be missing with that setup is deep bass. It goes down to 55Hz. That’s not super-low. But: It’s not much less bassy than you’d get with a lot of cheap sat/sub setups, and it’s controlled and accurate, not just thumps.

So if a subwoofer isn’t plugged in, some of the bass gets routed to the other speakers to partially make up for the loss? And it would be better to stick with just the 4 corner speakers rather than scrounging the sub or center channel from the older Logitech or Klipsch sets I have lying around to mix in with them?

Yes, the .1 channel will get routed to the rest of the speakers, if you have no sub. As far as the center, I suspect you’ll prefer it without the others, but if you have them lying around, might as well give it a try.

My wife will be happy to free up some floor space from the sub. With past sets it’s always seemed to add quite a bit to the experience, but I guess if better main speakers can handle some bass it might not be too big of a loss. What would you consider to be the dividing line between a respectable subwoofer and a “thumpbox”? If I did decide to upgrade later, what sort of budget would I need to allocate?

Here I am talking somewhat from surmise, rather than firsthand experience, but the PSB SubSeries 1, their cheapest model, is $399.

When you’re looking at subwoofers, honestly, a big thing is to just look at their specifications. A lot of the cheap ones won’t even publish them – I can’t find the frequency response charts of those LG things that Hans is talking about. That Subseries 1 is +/1 3dB down to 36Hz, and 10dB down at 32Hz. That’s not like the earth-shakingiest thing ever, but I doubt most people would complain about it.

So to expand a little bit on what I was talking about with bass, subwoofers, and the badness of cheap 5.1 systems, here’s a chart with the frequency response of that Logitech Z5500 that Hans is talking about:

And here’s the chart for the PSB Alpha B1:

So the first thing you note with those charts is, you want those frequency responses to be flat. If you take 86dB as the baseline, the PSB is within 3dB from 100Hz through 20KHz. If you take 135dB as the baseline, the Logitech has massive 10dB deviations just in the 200Hz-20KHz range. That +7dB peak at 2KHz will make it sound fake-detailed, covering up for the massive dropout from 15KHz up.

Below 200Hz is where the Logitech gets dicey. The satellites there fall off entirely by 100Hz, leaving that frequency to be reproduced by the subwoofer. The fundamental frequency of human voices is between 85Hz-250Hz, which means that a substantial portion of human voices are going to be passed across to the “subwoofer.” So, despite having 5 carefully-positioned speakers, you’re hearing a lot of voices out of the box in the corner.

And then look at what the “subwoofer” is doing: Around 100Hz, it’s boosted way up, with another bump at 50dB to give that “rich, full” sound associated with a mid-bass bump (which will also make a lot of things sound woolly/fuzzy – male vocalists’ voices get killed by that mid-bass bump). And then the “subwoofer” fades away, and it’s down 10dB by 40Hz.

Meanwhile, the bass of the PSB Alpha B1 is down about 3dB by the time it hits 70dB, and down nearly 10dB at 50Hz, but it falls off in a smooth, even way with no boosts or holes. It won’t result in deep bass, but you’re only really giving up about 10Hz to the “subwoofer” of the cheap 5.1 system.

And if you do add a real subwoofer later? The PSB SubSeries 1 that I mentioned is rated at +/- 3dB from 36Hz to 150Hz, so no bumps or boosts for its range, and its -10dB extension is down to 32Hz.

So with that Logitech – or any cheap 5.1 system – you’re getting a system with massive distortions throughout the audible range, midrange frequencies reproduced through the subwoofer, and a subwoofer that doesn’t extend much further down than inexpensive bookshelf speakers.

And that’s just frequency response; if you could find graphs of dynamic response (how quickly it reacts to changes in volume), you’d almost certainly find that the subwoofer in the Logitech system is embarrassingly bad, just slopping all over the place.

And that Z-5500 is a well-regarded HTIB system, too, not some totally junky thing that I’m throwing up as a strawman.

Upshot is, yes, I think the 4.0 system is better than the 5.1.

Thanks again for the detailed info – that’s quite a rabbit hole. I backtracked the chart to soundstagenetwork.com and have been looking at the stuff there and trying to make sense of it all. Am I right in guessing that Chart 2 - Listening Window is the most important in gauging a speaker’s quality? Are there any other stats besides the frequency response that I should be paying particularly close attention to?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they have equivalent charts for subwoofers on there.

I edited this in to my last post and you may have missed it, but how much does patience pay off when shopping for PSB or other good-quality speakers – are there regularly good sales that could stretch my budget further, or do the prices stay fairly static?

And any thoughts on how Infinity stacks up to PSB? While browsing, I saw that there’s a sale on them at Crutchfield now. The Primus 162 seems to have both positive reviews and a chart that looks similar to the PSB Alpha B1 except at the very edges, and with the current price of $85 ($55 off), I could get four for $340 and still squeeze in a $200 sub ($100 off) like the PS28, whose 35-150 Hz frequency response seems comparable to the SubSeries 1. That would put me at $790, or if the upgrade was significant enough I could possibly stretch to $890 for the PS410BK, which goes all the way down to 27 Hz.

Hmm, Amazon also has the 163, which seems to be an updated version of the 162, for the same $85 price. And a bunch of subwoofers on sale in my general price range whose specs look impressive to me, like this Polk PSW505, which is marked down to $200 from $589 and goes down to 23 hz. How would that, or others in the same ballpark, compare to the PSB?

For sales on PSB, no, they don’t really have them that I’ve noticed. As for comparing them to the Polk/Infinity things that you’re looking at, well, I’ve never heard them, so don’t really know. If they’ve got good reviews ‘n’ stuff, it’s entirely possible that they’re good; Infinity and Polk are brands that tend to have some good stuff and some lousy stuff, and I don’t pay enough attention to know what’s what. And like I say, I can’t even personally attest to the PSB subwoofer; I only take it on a little bit of brand faith that it’s any good.

A couple years back I picked up a Hsu STF-2 sub for $300. It sounds fantastic and I’d do it again if I had the choice.

Phew. Thank God my ears suck then.

Indeed, I’m a bit picky about my headphones but went cheap on my HT setup with monoprice in-wall speakers and couldn’t be happier.