Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 9

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age and covers more topics that often confuse both new and old hi-fi and home theater fans alike: Ethernet (hard wired, high-bandwidth computer and hi-fi gear networking), separates, and the role of a broadband internet router in a modern home theater.

The internet router is especially important for those who enjoy streaming media (like Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu Plus) and have multiple mobile devices sucking down wi-fi.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Ethernet

From Chapter 3: Components

Ethernet is a standard for connecting computers and home theater components to your home network. Unlike wi-fi, which is a wireless communications standard, it is a wired scheme that operates over special cabling. Like its cousin wi-fi, Ethernet enables audio and video to be streamed from the internet or a part of your network to your home theater. In terms of audio and video components (specifically receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes), Ethernet is a valuable feature that provides a better connection than wi-fi, but may involve more expensive installation of cabling in your home. (For more info, see the Ethernet section of the Connection Types chapter.)

ethernet-cablePersonally, I’d seriously consider skipping components that lack Ethernet. Why? Simply because it’s the best way to connect the pieces of your home theater to your local network and the internet, especially for streaming high-definition video. The media formats of today—and tomorrow—all flow more smoothly when transported via Ethernet instead of interference-prone wi-fi.

From Chapter 5: Connection Types

As you learned in the Components chapter, Ethernet is a wired connection technology from the computer networking world that is used in other types of components, such as home theater and home automation equipment. It supports relatively high speeds, has been around for decades, and is very reliable. Many, but not all, receivers and all major streaming media boxes feature Ethernet ports. This connectivity standard operates over special cabling called CAT5 and CAT6 (the current and most robust standard) and can reach lengths of more than 300 feet (100 meters).

Sometimes labeled “LAN” on a device’s back panel, Ethernet isn’t only reliable, it’s the fastest connection available. In a typical home network, Ethernet is roughly two to 20 times faster than wi-fi (when measuring real-world data throughput)! Although most components don’t take advantage of this speed, future standards—like true 4K video—will benefit from it. Another superiority over wi-fi is the lack of sensitivity to radio interference (such as from cordless phones and microwaves). In addition, Ethernet is much less prone to hacking or unwanted eavesdropping than wi-fi. Ethernet is simply the best connection option for computers and home theater equipment.

In most homes, wi-fi is obviously used by all mobile devices (iPod Touches, smartphones, tablets, and laptops). But your receiver never moves, so it doesn’t need the mobile flexibility provided by wi-fi. It does, however, need a fast, solid internet connection—and especially benefits from one that’s much more immune to interference and several magnitudes faster than its wi-fi cousin (helpful when streaming high resolution audio or video without interruptions or buffering).

For these reasons, I decided to connect my receiver and other home theater components to my home network (and the internet) using Ethernet. Because my components aren’t consuming wi-fi bandwidth, they aren’t competing with the mobile devices in my home. If you’ve already gone to the installation expense or invested DIY time to run CAT6 cable from your home’s internet router to your home theater components, there’s no reason to not supply Ethernet to all of your devices.

Splitting Ethernet with a Switch

Sharing a single cable drop with multiple home theater components can be done easily and inexpensively using an Ethernet switch. Similar to a USB hub, this device simply splits and manages the incoming Ethernet signal from a single cable into multiple feeds (some switches provide five ports, while others offer eight or more). There are a few speed standards supported by Ethernet switches. It’s recommended that you get the fastest possible switch to help future-proof your system. This would be a gigabit switch, which is very affordable, with entry-level models costing only about $35. With even higher definition TV right around the corner, data consumption will only increase exponentially.

ethernet switchA friend of mine was recently shopping for a receiver. He had been plugging his cable box and Blu-ray player directly into his TV. He purchased a Chromecast dongle, but his TV features only two HDMI ports, both of which were occupied. Thus, he was forced to purchase a receiver to accommodate his three HDMI inputs (of course, he’s pumping much better sound to his speakers in the process). Instead of paying more for a receiver that featured wi-fi—he was on a tight budget—we simply ensured that the receiver had an Ethernet port. This allowed him to save $120 by purchasing a model lacking wi-fi—while at the same time delivering a considerably faster and more reliable internet connection to his receiver.

For non-mobile devices and when practical, always choose Ethernet over wi-fi.

Separates

From Chapter 3: Components

One thing this book doesn’t deal with in detail is what in the audiophile world is called separates. These are specialty components that handle specific tasks within your home theater, primarily multichannel amplification or surround processing. These are both tasks assumed by a standard AV receiver, although typically—by audiophile standards—at a lower quality level than can be delivered by separates.

It’s hard to argue with the benefit of different power supplies and avoiding any electrical crossover or interference between separate components. It is, in both theory and actual listening reality, an approach that’s superior to that of integrated receivers. But, as with all areas of life, common sense should prevail. There are poor examples of separates on the market, as well as integrated receivers that produce incredible sound and video with robust power (and better value).

As you might guess, separates can get alarmingly expensive. If you want to research separates on your own, check out Anthem, Bryston, Classé, Emotiva, Integra, Marantz, NAD, Parasound, and Rotel. With the exception of Emotiva and (sometimes) NAD, get ready for sticker shock. Even Yamaha joined the game in 2014 with a $6,000 pre-processor and power amplifier pair.

If I was buying separates today, I’d probably go with Rotel, NAD, or Emotiva. I like Rotel’s Class D digital amps and its reputation for clean, refined audio with a wide soundstage. I love NAD’s understated grey matte finish and its legacy for audiophile-quality sound at all volume levels. I also enjoy Emotiva’s engineering philosophy and how the company throws tons of watts at its separates (although other companies offer classier, more refined component styling). The company’s wattage-per-dollar ratio is off the charts. Unlike most separates manufacturers, Emotiva’s prices won’t motivate your spouse to begin Googling ways to kill you in your sleep.

Broadband Internet Router

From Chapter 3: Components

I know, I know, this is a book about home theater, not computers. But with so many streaming services delivered to your home theater via the internet, having a weak router can be more frustration than pleasure. Dropouts when listening to streaming music and freezes for buffering while watching internet video aren’t any fun (somewhat destroying the suspension of disbelief during engaging movies). While problems like this can’t be completely avoided due to internet traffic and server hiccups (issues completely outside your control), they can sometimes be dramatically decreased with a good dual-band router.

Think of a high-end router as serving the role of an internet traffic cop who not only likes to increase the speed limit, but also optimizes your network for the increasingly media-based data pulled down by your increasingly device-filled household.

Wi-Fi Everywhere

Not convinced of the importance of wi-fi in your home? Consider that Roku uses wi-fi even in its remote controls, while Nest sells a wi-fi-enabled smoke detector to complement its wi-fi-based smart thermostat. There are even various models of door locks and LED light bulbs on the market that require wi-fi to configure and operate. From your display panel and AV receiver to your laptop or your child’s iPod Touch, the quality and reliability of your wi-fi connection has never been so important, affecting every member of your family—and even your guests who bring their own mobile devices.

netgear nighthawk r700Better router models provide several advantages, including stronger amplifiers and dedicated antennas to enhance signal strength, range, and overall data speed. Consider that YouTube and Netflix together make up more than 55% of the overall volume of data consumed on the internet. In other words, most of the data streamed online is video—and sometimes HD video in Dolby Digital surround sound. This video consumes a lot of bandwidth, more than any other type of data on your network or the internet.

Also consider that this data isn’t consumed in short bursts, like traditional computer-based internet use involving a web browser or mobile apps for social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Watching a two-and-a-half hour movie on Netflix or Apple TV requires not only good bandwidth, but a data stream that’s consistently reliable. Now recognize that there might be two, or even three, simultaneous video streams from the internet entering your home at certain times of the day (such as after school or work, during the evening, or on weekends). This is when most readers begin to understand the sheer volume of media streaming that occurs in their home and the pivotal role played by their wi-fi router.

When you sign up for internet service, there’s a good chance that your ISP, or internet service provider, will provide you a combination modem/router that includes basic wi-fi capabilities. This is the device that is both bringing the internet into your home via coaxial, twisted pair (telephone), or fiber optic cabling and then, as a second step, wirelessly broadcasting it to your home via a wi-fi signal. Any internet-connected device in your home relies on your router for the upload and download of all data.

The Free One Sucks

For companies like AT&T, Cox, Comcast, and Time Warner to make money, they obviously must keep overhead as low as possible. This means that the modem/wi-fi router box they provide with their ISP accounts isn’t the best available. Not by a long shot. Regardless of the inherent quality of these freebies, they aren’t giving you the best experience possible. With so many mobile and home theater devices in your home demanding a robust and full-time wi-fi connection—and typically streaming bandwidth-hungry audio or video—the role of your router is more important than ever.

Buy Dual Band

First, be sure to purchase a wi-fi router that’s dual-band. This will include support for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz devices, essentially putting them on different networks and boosting the bandwidth provided to all devices by helping prevent bottlenecks and streamlining data flows.

A benefit of a dual-band router is that you’re guaranteed to have the latest wi-fi standard, 802.11ac (sometimes called gigabit wi-fi). This gives you the fastest wireless connectivity, helping provide the best possible performance, especially with new devices that enter your household that probably support this standard. Routers from ASUS, Cisco, D-link, Linksys, and Netgear are recommended because of their quality, affordability, and long track records with consumers and enterprises.

Buying the best router possible for your home in 2014 is a $130-$280 endeavor. Check out the $200 Netgear Nighthawk R7000 (my personal pick and a PC Magazine’s Editors’ Choice, pictured above), the $130 ASUS RT-N65U or $220 RT-AC68U, or the $230 Linksys EA6900 (another PC Magazine Editors’ Choice recipient). Also consider the top-shelf $280 Linksys WRT1900AC. Another nice contender is the $175 TRENDnet TEW-818DRU (street prices will typically be lower on most models). Not chump change, but by the end of the operation you’ll know you have the fastest, most reliable, and most manageable wi-fi on the block.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 2

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers. This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Speaker Resistance: 4 ohm vs. 8 ohm

When it comes to amplification wattage, the general rule is that more is better. But, as mentioned, the clarity and lack of distortion of the audio and video produced by any receiver is as important as the sheer power level. While bigger is typically better, the proper receiver selection involves knowing the speakers you’re getting. In terms of power and electrical current, there are two types of speakers: 4 ohm and 8 ohm. In a nutshell, 4 ohm speakers require less power than their 8 ohm siblings. Technically, 4 ohm speakers feature lower resistance, allowing more electrical current from your amplifier to flow through them.

When researching and shopping for AV receivers, you may find amplification power quoted as two different wattage numbers, one when paired with 4 ohm speakers (the higher figure) and another for 8 ohm models. If a manufacturer or reviewer quotes only one number, it’s traditionally the lower wattage, reflecting the case of driving more common 8 ohm speakers. Beware: Don’t read the higher 4 ohms wattage number and mistake it for the 8 ohm figure. This could convince you that you were purchasing much more power than you were actually getting, possibly allowing your speakers to lag and not reach their full potential.

To get an idea of the difference in power output from an amplifier when powering 4 ohm and 8 ohm speakers, consider that an average 125-watt amp (receiver) when pushing 8 ohm speakers will provide roughly 200 watts when connected to a lower impedance speaker of only 4 ohm. If your speaker selection includes 8 ohm models, you’ll want to investigate if your AV receiver candidates will sufficiently power your particular high-resistance choice. This is an area where personal testimonials—taken with a grain of salt and easily found on YouTube and web forums—are a great way to learn from the mistakes and successes of others.

Generally, especially if you have 8 ohm speakers, you want 100 or more watts per channel (but, again, this is highly dependent on your particular speakers and their specs). Although this book doesn’t delve into the nuances of volts, amps, and watts, it should be noted that multi-channel amplifiers that provide audio to at least five speakers in your home theater pump more watts per channel when driving only a stereo, or two-channel arrangement (the available power is simply spread over fewer channels). Thus, your research project becomes even more complex, because receivers show different performance levels when operating in five channels (movies) or two channels (music and much TV programming). Are you listening to a Led Zeppelin CD or watching The LEGO Movie on Blu-ray? And at what volume? Your receiver, when paired with your speakers, should provide enough clean power to be good at both.

Note that some digital amps can’t power 4 ohm speakers, going only as low as 6 ohm. Carefully compare the specs of the speakers and receiver you choose to power them to ensure that you won’t run into any roadblocks (or have to fall back on a reseller’s return policy).

Digital vs. Analog Amps

Just as display technology is rapidly advancing, with OLED and 4K on the horizon, so too are other areas of home theater technology, specifically receivers and amplifiers. AV receivers have traditionally included analog amplifiers, called Class A/B amps, a technology in use for the past few decades. When digital amps, called Class D, first appeared, their expense put them out of the reach of the average consumer. Pioneer Elite’s first receiver featuring a digital amp, in 2008 (only six years ago), was $7,000.

Like all technology, this highly efficient binary amplification has become much more affordable and begun appearing in receivers priced under $1,500 (sometimes with sub-$1,000 street prices). Digital amplification basically does more with less, minimizing power consumption while producing more accurate, robust amplification when necessary. The advantages of digital amps are especially apparent at louder volumes and when the unit is being taxed, delivering in the neighborhood of 80-90% efficiency. This means that 80-90% of the energy consumed by the digital amp is converted into more powerful sound produced by your speakers (compare this with Class A/B analog amps that, while often producing stellar sonic performance, average 30-60% efficiency). However, preference between Class A/B and Class D digital amps is subjective. Not everyone prefers digital amps.

If Tesla is the next step in the evolution of the automobile, then Class D is the new species in the evolution of affordable home theater amplification. While there will always be those who prefer old school analog (sometimes really old school, as in the case of expensive retro tube amps), digital power processing is the wave of the future. Many who complain about performance issues will be pleasantly surprised with the high-quality and affordable models that will pour onto the market during the next decade.

However, you need to remember: There’s a lot more to a receiver than its amplifier class. As you’ll hear echoed throughout this book, I’d rather have a receiver featuring a really good Class A/B amp than one with a mediocre Class D type. The quality of the audio produced by a receiver when paired with your particular speakers—not whether it features analog or digital amplification—is the real issue.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics

3d1Today’s blog post continues our look at home theater, following yesterday’s Home Theater Basics. Below you’ll find an excerpt from my new book, Home Theater for the Internet Age, regarding surround sound. Most people understand that surround sound involves a speaker arrangement in your living room or dedicated home theater that “surrounds” you (duh).

This is a pretty radical departure from the common arrangement to which most of us (unless you’re a millennial) are acclimated: Sound that emanates from in front of us—typically from the display device, the TV, itself. The old method of projecting sound from the display was rife with deficiencies. First, the speakers built into even the best, most expensive, TVs suck. Period. There’s no physical room in a relatively thin panel for real speakers.

Modern home theater has introduced a more complex audio arrangement in which dedicated, much higher quality, speakers are positioned to the sides or even behind viewers. Because the sound is being projected from locations other than the display panel and is generated by real speakers, surround sound is the cornerstone of true home theater. However, because there’s so many types of surround sound arrangements, the topic can quickly become confusing for non-enthusiasts or those new to home entertainment.

Today we’ll address surround sound configurations. These are the physical layouts of speakers and the logical dispersion of audio channels from TV shows and movies. What’s 5.1? What do the “5” and the “1” mean? Why does your buddy at the office lust for 9.1? Read on to eliminate your confusion.

Also check out Home Theater: More Surround Sound and Home Theater: Surround Sound Formats.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Surround Sound Configurations

As you’ve learned, there are several different physical configuration standards for surround sound, ranging from five to twelve speakers (and sometimes more). Arrangement shorthand is indicated by a decimal number, such as 5.1. This indicates five surround speakers and a single subwoofer. The number of subwoofers is always indicated to the right of the decimal (5.x). A 5.1 AV receiver is capable of outputting to a maximum of five speakers and a single subwoofer. A high-end 9.2 receiver, on the other hand, is capable of driving nine speakers and two subwoofers. If a friend says she has a 6.1 system, you know she has seven speakers total and that one of them is a sub. While uncommon, it’s possible that someone might have, for example, a 5.3 system, in which they have a basic surround complement and three subs (yes, some videophiles install multiple subwoofers).

You’ve already learned the basic role of a subwoofer, or “sub.” In surround sound, the sub carries the LFE, or Low Frequency Effects, channel. Most movies and some TV programming feature an LFE channel (identified as such on your AV receiver). Capable of emitting ultra-low frequencies below 80 Hz, subwoofers are as much about what you feel as what you hear. This low frequency speaker plays in the zone where sound goes from audible to tactile. If a movie indicates that it features “x.1 audio,” it means there’s a dedicated LFE channel (regardless of whether you have a subwoofer to bring this channel to wall-shaking life).

Typically, surround configurations range from 2.0 to 11.2. The most common config is 5.1 (although 2.1, while not providing any surround effect, is also very common). Try not to get surround envy. 9.1 and 11.1 systems are very rare and, arguably, complete overkill for the average consumer. Also, relatively few films and basically no TV shows are encoded in a standard above 7.1 (although this is rapidly changing). Thus, even if you had a fancy 9.1 system, a small percentage of the content you consumed would support it, making it a very expensive upgrade. (I have a 5.1 system and rarely lust for the two additional rear speakers of a 7.1 configuration. If I was going to upgrade, based on the size and layout of my living room, I’d probably never go beyond a 6.1 layout.)

It should be noted that all of these surround configurations are backward compatible, meaning that a 7.1 or 9.1 soundtrack will play just fine on a 5.1 system (or even a 2.0 system) or via headphones. That’s part of the magic of Dolby and DTS and modern home theater receivers.

2.1 & 5.1

Because this book defines home theater as having a minimum of five speakers, a 2.1 setup involving three speakers (two mains and a sub, with no rears) isn’t covered in detail. This type of configuration includes soundbars (see the Soundbars & Theater-in-a-Box section of the Speakers chapter for more info). While this setup doesn’t provide “surround” sound, it can—with even basic equipment—greatly enhance your time with music, TV, movies, and games. It will perform remarkably better than your TV speakers (those built into even high-end display panels are basically an afterthought, producing really crappy sound).

5.1 systems involve two mains (typically floor standing models, but sometimes bookshelf units), a center channel, two rear surrounds (called the left side surround and right side surround), and a subwoofer. Sometimes consumers opt to skip the subwoofer to save money (or because they underestimate the effect it will have during Blu-ray movies). Most videophiles consider 5.1 the entry-level setup for true home theater. If your AV receiver supports 7.1 speaker outputs, a 5.1 system gives you room to grow; simply purchase two additional speakers and you’re in business. While your front three speakers should always be from the same series to ensure timbre-matching, it’s less important for your rear and side surrounds to be from the same line (but still preferable for a variety of reasons).

6.1 & 7.1

Moving up the ladder, more complex surround configurations are 6.1 and 7.1. These involve one or two additional rear speakers, positioned directly behind the viewers, called the left back surround and right back surround—not to be confused with the left side surround and right side surround positions in a 5.1 or larger system. Should you go the extra mile and install one or two extra speakers between your existing surround positions? If you’re a big movie buff and your room is large enough to justify it, maybe. You won’t have trouble finding movies to fill this many speakers; most films today deliver a minimum of 7.1 surround audio channels (even some high-res music albums feature a 6.1 surround mix).

Remember that your AV receiver must support the number of speakers to which you want to expand. If you have a receiver capable of only 5.1, you’ll not only have to purchase one or two additional back surround speakers, but also a new receiver (as you’ve learned, this isn’t cheap, especially if the unit produces clean, robust amplification).

9.1 & 11.1

The average home theater owner probably shouldn’t pursue a 9.1 or larger surround sound configuration. However, it’s important to know one’s options. For very large rooms—or hyper-hobbyists who are pursuing the most realistically surrounding audio environment possible—one of the layouts involving more speakers than a 7.1 system might be appropriate. Of course, it will cost you. You’ll either have to increase your speaker budget or downgrade the quality of your candidates. Those additional speakers—especially if they match your other models—don’t come cheap.

A 9.1 system adds front height channels to the mix (the left height and right height positions), giving—as the name indicates—a taller and seemingly wider front soundstage than a 5.1 or 7.1 system can deliver. 9.1 is the first standard to address the expansion of the front soundstage (whereas 7.1 adds audio imaging to the rear area). Not only would you need to purchase additional speakers to satisfy the needs of a 9.1 system, but you’ll probably need to upgrade your AV receiver to handle the additional amps and terminals. And it hardly makes sense to upgrade without pursuing a few more watts or maybe going Class D. Cha ching.

An 11.1 system goes even further by adding left wide and right wide speakers, positioned at roughly 60 degrees from a forward-facing viewing position (to the left and right of the front height speakers, but closer to the central seating position). This setup results in seven front and four rear speakers. While relatively few movies have been released in 11.1, some of these leading edge films include Rise of the Guardians, Man of Steel, The Croods, Elysium, Turbo, Ender’s Game, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and How to Train Your Dragon 2.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.