How To Improve Your TV Sound
When you’re talking about home theatre, what’s more important: a big screen or big sound? What if you could only choose one? Most of us would probably pick the big screen, but having that big sound is what makes the movie really come to life. So, what are we getting at?
Flat Screen Televisions
Televisions have never been great on sound, even though some manufacturers have made this claim over years gone by. The truth is the same today – TV Sound is awful if not worse with the arrival of the Flat Panel Television. There is simply no room or allowance made for great sounding speakers in a TV. Yet, statistics show us that the majority of households accept the status quo. We feel this is because these consumers haven’t really thought about the sound or think that there is nothing suitable and too complicated. Consider the following.
Designed For Sound
Humans and Animals all have the ability to hear and see and in stereo! Big sound has a far greater impact than a big picture. How so? Take an exciting motorcar race like the Bathurst 1000 or V8 Supercars and watch it on a huge 120” projection screen but with the sound played back through a basic, tiny computer desktop speaker. Now watch the race on a 55” flat-panel connected to a top-notch surround-sound system complete with a powered subwoofer. Which experience was better? Which one captivated your attention and got you more excited? If your answer was the big screen and the computer speaker, well you don’t need to read any further!
Better TV Sound Made Easy
There are many solutions to improving TV Sound and not all mean big boxes or even lots of them! Even a 2.1 system – a left, right speaker and subwoofer – could work well and some of these come with in-built amplifier. Connection is super easy with just a pair of interconnects from the TV to the in-built pre-amplifier in the subwoofer.
Yamaha have also done some amazing wizardry with a range of ‘powered’ products that are called ‘sound bars’ and deliver a type of surround sound from one box that sits under your TV. They also come with a subwoofer.
Furthermore, if your kids are into gaming, and they have a TV room for playing console games, most if not all-modern games feature multichannel soundtracks designed to suck you into the action.
Surround Sound At A Glance
However, for truly enveloping sound nothing beats a well-put together surround sound system. The idea of surround sound is not exactly new with the first products appearing in the early 1970’s under the guise of quadraphonic. The problem was not with consumer acceptance, but rather with unfulfilled promises from the music companies who didn’t make mainstream titles available. By the end of the decade, quadraphonic was dead, well almost! Movie cinema sound started to be improved with 4 channel Dolby Surround Sound tracks and multiple speakers. This eventually found its way through to VCR tapes (and Laser Discs) and with the help from Yamaha and the famous DSP-1 Surround Sound Amplifier with Dolby Pro-Logic, surround sound was on its way. Today, we have several different formats; powered subwoofers, stereo rear effects and a whole lot more. However, surround sound is essentially comprised of a few basic elements. Let’s take a quick look at them - and we’ll assume you’ve got your big screen TV or projection system in place.
The signal chain starts with what we call your source device — the content you wish to watch and listen to through the speakers. This can be Free-to-Air or cable TV like Foxtel or movie and music playback via disc. DVD has been around since 1997, but is fast being overtaken by Blu-ray - a Disc format that can combine full 1080p high-def pictures with multi-channel surround sound. So, you will need a Blu-ray player. The good news is that Blu-ray Disc Players are backwards compatible with DVD. However, you may not know that several Blu-ray Disc Players can also handle DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) discs. These high resolution, multichannel music formats never really caught on, but there’s still a lot of great music out there in one or both formats, so it pays to be able to play them both. Price range is typical for electronic products. There are plenty of cheap and cheerful Blu-ray Players available with not much in the way of anything as well as high end products costing well over a $1,000 that have both good build quality and sound quality. Audio Trends only sells products with a proven “good sound” policy and can help you with something suitable.
Home Theatre Receiver
For many people, the next step in the surround-sound chain is a Home Theatre Receiver often called an AVR, which is short for Audio Visual Receiver. The Receiver has all the inputs and outputs, plus the control elements including the necessary amplifiers. Rather than connect the Blu-ray Player to the TV, we now connect it directly to the Receiver. This is typically with either a High Speed HDMI cable or 6 or 8 RCA analogue interconnect audio cables. The more common HDMI method is used when you wish to send a digital signal to your Receiver and let it decode the sound track. But, there is another way.
A multi-channel analogue connection is typically employed when either your Blu-ray Player incorporates a higher quality DAC (Digital Analogue Convertor) than the one in your Receiver or you purchase a high quality after-market DAC. In either situation, your Receiver will be used purely for its amplification and switching capabilities.
Next question. Which formats can it decode? Even entry point Receivers should be able to process the suite of formats from Dolby Laboratories and DTS. If it can’t, simply buy something that can. You also need to consider whether it can provide ample power with low distortion for your needs? Not all 100 Watt Receivers are always 100 Watts and if you’re not sure about this snake-pit, speak with someone who can explain it well. Don’t be fooled by what specialists call “Brochure Power” which is simply another way of distorting the truth to make a product look better on paper than it really is.
Home Theatre Receivers have a lot of very nice and useful features including multi-zone and networking capabilities, but always remember to choose something that meets your needs and if sound quality is more important than features, then look at some of the high-end Receivers or a separate Pre-amplifier/Processor and separate multi-channel Power Amplifier.
Let the fun begin! The final destination of that Blu-ray soundtrack is loudspeakers and what a choice we have here. For most television programs and movie soundtracks, you’ll be dealing with at least a 5.1 sound mix. In a 5.1 soundtrack, the “5” refers to five full range channels around the room - left, centre, right, surround left and surround right. The “.1” is a low-frequency channel dedicated for use by your subwoofer…or subwoofers in a big system. Speaker options are almost endless with reportedly over 400 manufacturers worldwide! Even as little as 20 years ago, speakers were big and if you wanted good, full-bodied sound, you had no other choice than large floor standing tower speakers. Today you can also choose from small satellite speakers to on-walls to in-walls to in-ceilings. The one proviso is that any surround sound system must have a subwoofer! And yes, we all understand that aesthetics and room logistics will often dictate your choice of speaker type, but you must remember that the law of physics governs all sound performance and although you may prefer teeny, weenie speakers, if you have a very large room (say over 400 square feet) then there may be performance issues. The reverse is also true. Big speakers in a small room can deliver “boomy” bass that will annoy you and the neighbours a block away!
Matched Speakers: Here we don’t mean packaged speakers from the same manufacturer who made your Receiver. What we mean is to buy a speaker system that has the same signature or tonal quality and this is usually best achieved by choosing speakers from one manufacturer. At the budget end, these will probably be Sub/Sat or HTiB (Home Theatre in Box) systems, but at the middle to higher ends you will be able to mix’n’match to suit all your requirements.
Different materials are used when constructing woofers and tweeters; some enclosures are “boxy” while others are curved; crossovers are wired differently. The point is, speakers come in all shapes and sizes. You want a consistent quality of sound as music and voices pan from one speaker to the next in your listening room.
Proper Placement: Try to keep your front speakers evenly spaced and equidistant from the centre channel. Similarly, don’t put one surround speaker right next to your ear and the other 20 feet away. If doors or windows are a problem, then consider in-ceiling speakers. Also, keep your front three channels on roughly the sample plane (avoid a V pattern) and place them so that the Tweeters, when you are seated, are as close to your ear height as possible.
Size Matters: Cube speakers may be cute, but they don’t move a lot of air. They are better suited to small environments or when high levels of output aren’t critical. Cube speakers need a very good powered subwoofer even in a small room.
Subwoofer Crossover: Be sure to select the appropriate crossover frequency —the point at which your subwoofer takes over from the mains. THX recommends 80Hz, but small cube speakers may require a setting of 120Hz or even 150Hz.
Surround Sound Formats
So, how many speakers do you need? Five plus a subwoofer (5.1) is the minimum, but you can also use six, seven or even more. How so? Many Blu-ray Disc soundtracks go beyond 5.1, some delivering 6.1 or even 7.1 channels of sound. These soundtracks employ one or two “surround back” channels that are centrally located on either the rear wall behind the listener as in 6.1 or on both the rear and side walls in the case of 7.1 systems.
A few years ago, Dolby Laboratories introduced its Pro Logic IIz format, which adds a pair of height channels to the front sound stage, thus transforming a 7.1 soundtrack into a 9.1 experience. This is only available on a select number of Receivers. Not to be outdone, DTS is pushing the envelope with its Neo:X technology, an advanced algorithm capable of delivering up to 11.1 channels of sound. However, these advanced surround-sound implementations have yet to go mainstream. Most movies, games and other content is still in 5.1; even 7.1 has yet to become commonplace. Before you even consider wiring your room for 9.1 or 11.1, your money would be better spent investing in an additional subwoofer to even out your bass response and give every listening position a better chance at becoming the best seat in the house.
Tips for Improving Your Surround Sound System
Calibration: Most Receivers today have in-built room calibration. Most are very basic. Best results are reached by using a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) metre and a home theatre setup disc such as Disney’s World of Wonder (WOW). These discs allow you to more accurately adjust speaker level, size, location and distance from the main listener point.
Cables: Yes, you need them and they are not all created equal! Copper, the ‘core’ material is not a good audio conductor. Different manufacturers have developed different combinations or treatments to improve what your speakers get. Avoid long lengths of ‘thick’ wire (14AWG+), as inductance can be a problem. Good insulation is recommended. HDMI cables should be High Speed, but please don’t think because it says so on the box that it is. Good brands have a good website where all the specifications are listed in full – not just the basics. Allow about 10% to 15% of your total spend on Components and Speakers for all cables.
Go Lossless or Go Home: Many older Blu-ray titles (and even some of the newer ones) default to standard Dolby Digital. If you don’t go into the pop-up menu, you might never realise there’s a far superior, lossless Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack just waiting to be selected.