I am a big fan of music, and it’s what I spend the majority of the time using my system for. But I also enjoy watching movies and TV, and the results I get from better performance audio gear in enveloping me in the experience of film and TV entertainment. The general consensus among the majority of people is that you need to have surround sound with either 5 or 7 or even more channels and a subwoofer in order to properly enjoy watching a movie. I’d like to challenge that approach for those of us who would like our movies to sound stellar, but don’t want to sacrifice the musical experience we enjoy from our performance stereo systems.
Sometimes 2 is All You Need
I don’t wish to diminish the idea that home theater is best experienced with 5 channels and a subwoofer (the .1 in 5.1). At Definitive, we pride ourselves in selecting only the best applicable components and products to create a truly better-than-the-movie-theater experience, and we’ve got the track record to prove it. If you are the type of person who uses their system to primarily watch TV and Film, most often 5.1 or 7.1 (or .2 or .4, you get the idea) is the right solution for you. However, many of our clients listen to music on their system just as much, if not more, as they watch movies. And many times, especially in smaller spaces or a living space like a condo or apartment, it’s often a design challenge or simply not possible to have all 5 speakers. My alternative approach to a 5.1 system in these types of situations is a 2-channel system (and maybe a subwoofer to go along with it). In fact, many clients are amazed at the performance a 2-channel Home Theater provides, even in comparison to systems with all 5 channels at similar prices. I’ll detail a few products and concepts that can help you get the most out of a stereo Home Theater.
When choosing speakers for a Home Theater or Music System, there are many things to consider such as the end location of the loudspeakers, the size and type, and for the aesthetics-conscious, the appearance of the loudspeaker and how it blends with the décor of the room. With a 2-channel Home Theater, often the design goal is to have less clutter in the room by eliminating the center and surround speakers. Also, if there are no plans to have a subwoofer, this will mean that you will typically wish to purchase as full-range a speaker as possible. If the speakers are not mounted in or on the wall, and you have some ability to move the speaker around, you will especially want to pay close attention to how you have the speakers placed, since surround and center channel information will be down-mixed to the 2 front speakers and thus be sensitive to positioning. I recommend this anyway no matter the system, but you will typically notice more phase-induced issues if the speakers aren’t properly dialed in because of the delay times and such going on in the 2-channel down-mix.
There are a few ways to approach the electronics in a 2-channel Home Theater. The simplest and best sounding for music (assuming you have a good music source) is to use an integrated amp, or a separate pre-amp and amplifier. The downside to this is that most pre-amps and integrated amplifiers only have left and right analog inputs, which leaves the digital-to-analog conversion up to the DAC circuits in your source equipment, which are often not very good (especially if you are using a Cable or Satellite box for TV), unless you have a truly high-performance source like Ayre’s up-and-coming Blu-ray Universal player. It’s also not quite as convenient to use since a 2-ch preamp will not have video switching built in. If you only watch a little TV and movies, this is ok, or you can always purchase a separate DAC, like the Audio Research DAC7, to get better sound from your DVD, Blu-ray, and TV components. A very popular piece for us is also the Peachtree Audio Nova, which is an integrated amplifier with a built-in DAC and multiple inputs for your equipment. There are also a couple of very nice products from Linn, like the Classik Music or Akurate Kontrol, which have digital inputs as well. The Akurate Kontrol in particular is a very high-performance primarily 2-ch preamp that also has surround processing built in, so that a full 5-channel signal from a source is properly processed and down-mixed.
The Digital Approach
The more common approach to 2-ch Home Theater is to use a surround pre/amp processor and a 2-ch amplifier, or a simple surround receiver. The pre-amp processor is really the heart and soul of a typical surround sound system, since it handles all of the digital information and determines delay times, channel levels, etc. before turning the digital signal into analog for an amplifier. When used in a 2-ch system, you simply inform the surround processor that you are not using a center, surrounds, or subwoofer; the processor then takes the full 5.1 channel information and mixes it for use with only 2 speakers. Most surround processors also have video switching and trans-coding built in, so that you are only using one input on your display device for your video sources. The Classe SSP-800, Rotel RSP-1570, or Meridian HD-621 with a Meridian Surround Processor all have the latest HDMI 1.3 audio and video inputs for proper Hi-Resolution audio decoding (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, etc.) and full 1080p video processing or pass-through from Blu-ray sources, which gives them a convenience advantage over a typical 2-ch analog preamp or 2-ch DAC. This is also a great approach since you have the option for future expansion to a full surround system at a later date; you can have great sound for a long time with only 2 speakers while waiting to budget for the rest of the surround system over time which will yield much better performance in the long term.
If you plan on improving the value of your investment in your music and movies by integrating audio and video, don’t automatically assume that you should buy a 5.1 system. Granted, more often than not we will recommend a full surround system for the best film performance, but in some cases (especially for the music lover) your budget and resources might be better served allocated to maximizing the performance from just 2 speakers.
Jesse | Definitive Audio Seattle