Building a Speaker System on a Budget
By: Caleb Denison, Home Theater Guru
On a budget? Not ready to plunge headlong into a full on 7.1 home theater system just yet? No problem. The solution is to piece meal your system. You get the advantages of a lower initial investment, you lessen the shock value to your significant other by having fewer boxes show up at the door and, once your family experiences what great audio can bring to your movie nights, you’ll have ‘em begging for more!
So where do you start? What is the most important speaker(s) to get first? What will you be missing without surround speakers, a center channel etc.? Great questions! I’m glad you asked. First, we have to understand what role each speaker plays in your system. This way, you can set up your own list of priorities and start building where it will pay off the most for YOU.
Give Me Better Sound – Your Front Left & Right Speakers
Most of us are familiar with stereo sound. One left speaker, one right speaker… DONE! In fact, this is a great place to start. It is a sad truth that most TV’s have pretty lame speakers built in to them. They certainly aren’t worthy of reproducing your music collection and they aren’t going to do much to enrich your movie watching experience at home. For that reason, the front left and right speakers are a must. They’ll add a lot of fidelity and whet your appetite for the improvements that will come in the near future as you beef up your new system. Front speakers typically fall into two categories: Tower Speakers and Bookshelf and Satellite Speakers.
I Wanna FEEL it! – Introducing the Subwoofer
Your subwoofer handles all the bass and super low, room shaking, hit you in the chest movie effects (called Low Frequency Effects or LFE for short). The subwoofer in your system brings all the impact of a great action flick to you. Without it, you won’t get the more visceral side of a movie. If you’re big into action, sci-fi and other harder hitting movie genres, then the subwoofer takes some priority on your short list. If, however, chick-flicks get most of the air time on your system, then the sub may not be of immediate importance. For instance, I could easily have gotten through “The Notebook” without my subwoofer. “The Matrix” is another story. That movie begs for a sub!
What Did They Just Say? You Need a Center Channel
By far, the most common complaint about watching movies at home is hearing the dialogue. You’ve been there. You can’t hear what’s being said very clearly so you turn up your TV or receiver. That works ok until BAM !!!!! An action sequence hits and you’re being blown out of the room as you scramble for the remote. That’s what your center channel speaker is for. Its job is to take the dialogue and put it right there in the room with you. Since an estimated 80% of the audio on a DVD is for the center channel, it makes sense that this piece be implemented as soon as possible. It really makes a noticeable difference in the quality of sound and gets you that much closer to the ultimate home theater.
I Want to Be Like… THERE, Man – Surround Speakers
The surround speakers are the final element of your home theater system. These are like the icing on an already delicious cake. Without them, your system will still sound really, really good. With them, your system sounds AMAZING. With the surround speakers in place, you might find yourself ducking when a helicopter flies over. They really put you in the midst of the action and make it easy to forget that you’re at home watching a movie. Suspension of disbelief is what a lot of movie watchers are looking for and surround speakers help deliver that experience.
Some common questions:
But, my receiver says 7.1 on it. Will it work with just part of a system?
YES, it most certainly will! Even though your receiver is capable of 7.1, it doesn’t HAVE to process things that way. You get to tell your receiver if you have 7.1, 6.1, 5.1, 3.1 3.0, 2.1 or 2.0. For instance, if you have mains and a sub, you have a 2.1 system. You’ll tell the receiver you have no center channel or surrounds and your receiver will process the sound so that you don’t miss a thing. Same thing goes for 3.1 systems that feature a center channel and no surrounds.
Now, for some cool ideas you may not have considered:
- Buy your surrounds, but use them as mains for now. This enables you to experience an immediate improvement in your system’s sound without going for the gusto right this second. If you plan on using a satellite speaker or bookshelf speaker as a surround channel later, then get them now but use them as mains. Later, when you’re good and ready, you can get your dream speakers for the front left and right channels and move those bookshelf speakers to the back of the room for those enveloping surround effects.
- Beef up your existing speaker system with a better subwoofer. Perhaps you have a speaker system already but it just isn’t delivering the goods the way you want it to. A high quality subwoofer can make a tremendous, highly noticeable difference in your system.
My hope is that, armed with this information, you can piece together a system in a way that will deliver a great experience for you right now and allow you to add speakers as you can, making your experience better and better as time goes by. It’s kind of like having a birthday party every couple of months. The gifts just keep coming!
Enjoy and have some fun!