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 Home Theater Amplifiers

While most home theater quality TVs have much better speakers and amplifiers than those old TVs we grew up with, the best sound is to be had with a separate amplifier. There are several reasons for this decision:

bulletBuilt in decoders for more sound options:
bulletSeven channel Dolby ES or DTS EX
bulletDolby 5.1 (AC-3)
bulletDolby Surround
bulletDolby Prologic
bulletStudio, Club, Hall and other Emulation
bulletSimulated Surround
bulletGreater control over the sound quality
bullettreble, bass and mid-range controls
bulletadjustment of sound field for the room acoustics
bulletcut off frequency for the subwoofer.
bulletMore Power, wider range of listening levels with clear sound
bulletConnection to other sound components
bulletTuner for radio
bulletCD player
bulletDVD Player
bulletTurntable (yes some of us still listen to vinyl)
bulletConnection for all necessary speakers
bulletmost TVs permit only two speakers
bullethome theater requires four to six speaker connections.
bulletUpgradability, change amplifier if technology or finances change.

Often you will see the terms receiver and amp used almost interchangeably. Look at it this way, a reciever is an amp with a radio tuner added. Most people buy a reciever for the amplifer's specifications rather than the radio.

Make sure that the amplifier that you choose fits your needs. This includes your budget, your room and your environment. A 300 watt per channel amplifier is nice but if you live in an apartment expect to see some police officers at your door during the death star scene in Star Wars. Speakers today are a lot more efficient than only a few years ago. Better sound is heard at a lot less volume and power.  Also, since a home theater setup requires six speakers, a more powerful amp will require six speakers capable of handling such power. For most apartments and houses, a rating of 100-150 watts is more than enough. If you are George Lucas living at Skywalker ranch you should multiple this estimate by a factor of ten.

Does the unit permit you to use an universal remote? Having to sit next to three or four remotes is a hassle and a pain when you want to switch channels or change the volume. See the section on remotes in the accessories area.

Make sure the amplifier has the options you want and need. Know the difference between what you want and need. If you are going to watch a lot of older movies options like Prologic may not be as important. On the other hand, if you enjoy newer movies it is a must. Most home theater amplifiers are not up to THX specifications. THX is not a  format but equipment up to it's standards sounds great when played with Prologic and Dolby 5.1. A THX certified system is at the height of home theater. You will pay for this though. You will also need a room that is designed for home theater to get the most out of it.

Does the amplifier have connections for the six separate inputs from a Dolby 5.1 and/or DTS decoder? (Seven for Dolby ES and/or DTS EX) While you may not have such a decoder now you will probably want it in the future. This is especially true now that most movies are out in DVD or being re-mastered for DVD. If you have to choose between the two, go with Dolby 5.1 since most DVDs are remastered to this format and only recently has DTS become widely available. Best course to take is to look for both formats and be ready for either format. Usually, the cost of having both is not that much, about $20-$75. In some systems you will have either a fiber optic or digital coaxial connector to input the audio from a six channel decoder unit or a decoder built into your DVD player. While the fiber optic may seem more modern the digital Coaxial will give the same performance.

Since we have been considering the new ES and EX formats consider this in your decision. There are really not a lot of titles in these formats yet. You may want ot hold off until there is a wider selection. I have a list of all known titles with these formats. Click here to view it.

Is the sound matched for all external components. This means if you switch from the TV to the CD will the sound blast. The same volume level should be present no matter what source is selected. This is important to realize with DVD. The sound levels on many DVDs are set lower then the normal gain on tapes, cable and broadcast TV. This means if you have the sound set for comfortable DVD listening, it will blast the walls down if you switch to another source. If you are not careful this can damage your speakers and the feelings of neighbors. I have personally found this to be a problem with the CD mode of my receiver. The CD volume is so low that I have blown out speakers (and freaked out the family cats) when I switched back to TV mode.

Does the amplifier look like the control panel of a 747 airplane? More controls is often not the same as better. Many people get so into setting controls that they lose the enjoyment of the movie. Set it and forget it is usually best. Still, there a need for balance here. (pun intended) If you enjoy (as I do) a wide range of movies from different years you will need the flexibility of some easily accessible controls. For example, older movies recorded in mono often need a bit more bass added. Many newer amplifiers come with several pre-set settings to emulate various listening environments such as a concert hall, a theater, a small club etc. This is a very nice feature especially if you plan to also use the amplifier for playback of CD music.   

Here's a rule of thumb to go by. There are two main categories of controls on an amplifier or receiver. First, those that are located on the front panel of the unit. The second type are those that can be accessed through the remote control. This was not done by chance or accident. The manufacturer spent money on the design and they do not spend money without justification. Those controls on the front panel only are the ones to contour the unit's performance to the specifications of your room. Since your room does not change often, these controls are only needed during the initial setup and whenever a major change to your room is made that affects the acoustics. Changes like new furniture, new drapes or a new carpet. Set and forget these controls. The should include balance, sub woofer cut off, treble and bass response. The controls that are on your remote are those intended to be accessed frequently. They usually include mode, such as surround, stereo, simulated surround, hall, club, live etc. They may also include the ability to increase to diminish the volume of the surround, center and sub woofer speakers. The reason they are on your remote is they are to be used to enhance your listening pleasure for a variety of media. For example, if you are watching an old movie that is on tape and in mono you may want to use the 'simulated surround' feature or perhaps the theater' mode. If you are listening to a jazz CD you may want to switch to 'live' or 'club' to emulate the acoustics of a jazz club. If you are watching a concert on TV or listening to on on CD you may find 'live' or 'hall' gives a more life like performance. Play with these modes with different source to find what works for you. If you have to get up to change a setting you probably shouldn't. Don't hesitate to use the buttons on the remote, that is what they are there for.

Can you upgrade the amp if new technologies come about? Make sure you can add a decoder if you think that surround sound formats will change. A decoder interfaces with the amp to permit Dolby or DTS encoded sources to be played through the speakers. Since most home theater formats have six channels of output a six channel input on your amplifier is a must.

I prefer separate decoders to the amp or receiver. This way, if the specs for the decoder change in the future, it will be less expensive to upgrade. If you get a separate decoder make sure it can handle both current six channel standards, Dolby 5.1 (AC-3) and DTS. There is also another reason for a separate decoder that is starting to become popular. Many satellite and cable provides now offer full 5.1 audio. In order to enjoy this format you must connect the cable or satellite box to a decoder by means of a optical Toslink or digital coaxial cable. If you don't want to have to have your DVD player on constantly a separate decoder is a better way to go. As home theater begins to enjoy more audio formats it will be easier to upgrade a decoder rather than having to purchase several new pieces of equipment.

Some companies like Devon now offer receivers with the ability to handle more than six channels or speakers. These are for new formats like DTS 6.1 where a rear center speaker has been added. I have seen receivers that can handle up to eight audio channels. Since at this time there are very few 6.1 DVDs around and the standards have not been set for formats above this, you might want to wait before getting a receiver that can play only a handful of discs. I have complied a list of these extended audio discs so you can keep track of them. Click here for the list.


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