Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 7

3d1I’ve recently been experimenting with writing in different parts of my house. My wife and daughter were serial binge watching something on Netflix that I found distracting, so I took my laptop, iPad, and coffee and headed to the “Club Room,” the name my wife gave to the spare bedroom we turned into a second home theater.

Despite the fact that this room’s system isn’t as nice as that in the living room, it sounds better. In fact, I can barely describe it—especially for two-channel music. But I’m getting that itchy feeling of deja vu. Probably because I already wrote about this in Home Theater for the Internet Age. Enjoy the A Word About Your Room section below.

In the next blog post, I’ll share the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section from the Speakers chapter.

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Curt Robbins


A Word About Your Room

We can talk about home theater components all we want, but how good yours sounds is highly dependent on your particular room. It’s size, the number and nature of the items filling it, and the surface characteristics of the ceiling, walls, and flooring—including the number of windows and amount of ambient light—all have a significant impact on your listening and viewing experience. For audio, it’s necessary to adjust your receiver and the output it provides to your speakers (something you learned about in the Room Correction section above). Don’t blow off doing a good room correction for your system. Equally important is speaker position and the direction in which they fire (point). To learn about speaker placement, see the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section of the Speakers chapter.

Use Case: Room Dynamics

In 2013, I upgraded one home theater in my living room and installed a second from scratch in a spare bedroom (that serves as a dedicated theater, complete with theater lighting and a dorm fridge in the closet). The main living room system is nicer and involves better rear speakers and components. In fact, the only thing that’s consistent across both systems is the Blu-ray player (Pioneer Elite BDP-62FP units), Apple TV, and front speakers (comparable B&W mains and center channels). All other components are superior in the living room theater. The rec room, however, offers the advantage of being an entirely physically enclosed environment, and doing so within the relatively small space of a spare bedroom. It contains only a wall-mounted display panel, three-person sofa, and adult-size beanbag chair, with all components in a closable closet.

I have a friend who’s a big movie buff. He recently made a social visit to my house, the first time he had been exposed to these home theaters. We watched two modern feature-length movies, one in the spare bedroom and one in the living room. Each was a big-budget film on Blu-ray involving nice lossless surround sound and modern CGI effects. We cranked the volume during each movie (really utilizing the subwoofer in the living room system).

After my friend had watched both movies, I queried him regarding his perception of the sound quality of the respective experiences. He said the sound in the spare bedroom was better. This was despite the fact that the room lacks a subwoofer, has lower grade rear speakers, and the receiver features a lower-quality amplifier with slightly less power.

The lesson here: One of the biggest determinants of the quality of the sound produced by your particular home theater is the room in which it resides. Don’t get too focused on the role of components and the nuances of their pros, cons, and stats when the room in which you drop them plays such a pivotal role. Your environment may be inherently good or bad for a home theater. This also illustrates why you might not want to invest thousands of dollars on an upgrade that will provide marginal improvements to your audio and video quality.

Maybe the solution is simply to move the theater to a different room.


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.

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Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 1

3d1There’s quite a few topics in home theater that are confusing for the average consumer. From volume levels on modern AV receivers to firmware updates to distortion, these topics make the purchase, installation, and enjoyable use of home theater gear both intimidating and sometimes perplexing. In the next few posts, let’s clarify some of these issues.

The following is an excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. The other blog posts in this series are listed below:

  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, 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 room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Volume in a Zero dB World

The volume, or intensity, of sound produced by a receiver or amp is expressed in decibels, or dB. The “bel” part of the term is in honor of Alexander Graham Bell, because decibels, as a unit of measure, were developed to objectively determine audio levels on the earliest telephone networks (and you thought it was all about jet engines and 1970s rock concerts by The Who….).

What is confusing about decibel readouts on today’s receivers—and has been in practice for only about the past decade or so—is the zero dB system employed. It’s inherently counter-intuitive. Basically, on the dB scale, zero (0) represents the receiver’s loudest output (if you turned up the volume to the maximum possible). You’d obviously have to decrease the volume to enjoy it at a reasonable level. These enjoyable volumes occur in the negative numbers. A reasonable zone might be -32, or maybe -25 (depending on the input source and your room). But it will always be expressed as a negative number. Because we’re talking about negative numbers, smaller numbers (ignoring the negative sign) equal higher volume levels (-10 will be much louder than -35). And this is where the confusion arises.

pioneer av receiverThere is a logic to this scheme, however. In the past, when higher numbers equaled greater volumes, the settings were entirely arbitrary, with wide variations among receiver manufacturers. One company might demark 1 through 10 (one being the softest, 10 being the loudest), while another would get more granular, adopting a 1 through 20 or even 1 through 100 scale. It was the wild west. The problem was that there was no objective way for a receiver to display to its owner the volume at which it was producing sound.

Zero dB originated in the commercial broadcasting and recording industries. On your home theater’s receiver, think of 0 dB as the tipping point for distortion and where you may begin encountering things like “clipping” (jarring cuts and dropouts in the sound) and other signs that the receiver is operating beyond its capacity to provide clean sound. Depending on the quality of your receiver, you may experience distortion at a volume below 0 dB. But a good unit won’t begin distorting until this point (a valuable litmus test when researching your purchase).

The specific dB level indicated by a receiver is still somewhat subjective. In addition to your receiver, your speakers and the room in which they reside significantly influence the actual volume at which you hear the audio reproduced. Take this number displayed on your receiver lightly, realizing that -25 dB with your old speakers or on your neighbor’s system won’t sound exactly the same on yours (but it should be in the ballpark).


Updating Firmware

A hardware component’s firmware is simply updatable software stored on a chip in the device that controls certain features and functions. Because players are basically audio and video-focused computers dependent upon complex decoding and processing software, manufacturers often release firmware updates that expand or enhance the functionality of their units—or fix existing bugs. It’s a good idea to keep the firmware of your home theater devices, specifically your Blu-ray player and AV receiver, up-to-date (check manufacturer websites on a regular basis).

The biggest reason to update your Blu-ray player firmware is to ensure that it can properly play the latest movie releases. Hollywood is continually revising copy-protection standards in an effort to thwart piracy. Sometimes new protection schemes can’t be recognized by a particular player (especially older models)—resulting in a movie that won’t play. Instead of having to purchase a new Blu-ray player (a ludicrous proposition at which consumers would obviously balk), you simply need to update your firmware to match the latest copy-protection encryption standards of new-release movies.

oppo bdp-103Depending on whether your Blu-ray player is connected to the internet, there are a variety of ways firmware updates can be applied. If your player features internet connectivity, simply follow the manufacturer instructions to obtain and install the update files. If your player lacks connectivity, you can download the files from the manufacturer website using a Windows or Mac computer and copy them to a USB flash drive. The USB drive is then inserted into the player to begin the installation of the update.


Disadvantages of Blu-ray

The biggest disadvantage of the Blu-ray format is that some discs can take a while to load (up to a minute or two), depending on the speed and quality of your player. This wait is so much greater than for DVDs that, on some titles, new owners sometimes believe they’ve run into a bad disc or that their player has locked up. More expensive and newer Blu-ray players feature faster processing chips, decreasing your wait time as the disc content loads into the memory of your player. If load speed is a concern, remember to demo, demo, demo. (For you geeky types, the Blu-ray video format transfers data at roughly 40 Mbps, which is why you can’t yet stream an uncompressed Blu-ray video over your internet connection.)

Models known for their speedy load times include OPPO’s $500 BDP-103, its $1,200 105 model, and the $400 Pioneer Elite BDP-62FD. Personally, my first choice would be the BDP-103 (pictured above). Those on a budget might prefer the BDP-62FD, which is very comparable to the entry-level OPPO (but not quite as powerful or refined).


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 Basics

3d1The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Home Theater Basics from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age. This book isn’t for audiophiles or videophiles. If you’re an average middle class person who doesn’t know much about this topic, you outnumber the “experts” and home theater nerds by about 10,000 to 1.

I’ve always enjoyed helping people understand and embrace modern technology. In the case of home theater, this tech can bring together families in front of a big display panel for a new movie release on a shiny little disc—or, increasingly, streamed from the internet. You can enjoy family photos, MP3 songs, or home videos stored on a computer that resides nearly anywhere on your wi-fi network. All using nothing more than a decent Blu-ray player (playing discs covers only one-third the functionality of modern Blu-ray players, as you can learn here).

If nothing else, please understand that you can enjoy full surround sound, high-definition video, and all the glory of modern home theater on any budget. The most common misperception of home theater is that it’s too expensive and you can’t afford it.

But you can. Trust me.

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Curt Robbins


As consumers, we’re in the middle of multiple transition periods within the home electronics and entertainment industries. These changes are in the form of rapid advances in both hardware and services. It’s no longer uncommon for one to have a 60-inch display panel hanging in their living room, to be one of the 50 million people who watch movies and TV shows on Netflix, or to be among the 76 million consumers who listen to music on Pandora each month. These don’t constitute early adopter status in today’s world of home entertainment.

Since Apple introduced its iconic iPod line of portable music players in 2001, the human race has been slowly transitioning from entertaining itself by purchasing physical media, like optical discs, to instead downloading songs from iTunes or streaming movies or TV from services like Hulu or Vudu. Today the average consumer has more home entertainment options than ever—along with a more detailed and potentially confusing array of technologies and media sources.

What Defines Home Theater?

Let’s define a few things. First, a home theater isn’t mobile. It’s not a laptop with a set of headphones (even if the laptop features a Blu-ray player). Home theater is four basic components:

  • Display panel
  • Audio/video receiver
  • Blu-ray player
  • Five+ specialized speakers

These are the elements necessary for full-on home theater and how it’s defined in this book. Anything short of these elements doesn’t cut it in terms of home “theater.” While it could be argued that a set top box for bringing audio and video content into your home theater is a necessity, some cord cutters are perfectly happy with physical discs from Redbox, the Neflix disc-by-mail service, or a local video store.

One of the most common configurations for consuming TV programming and movies is a display panel TV with two input devices: A Blu-ray player and a cable/satellite set-top box (using only the speakers on the TV). Maybe there’s a game console or DVR thrown in the mix. But this also isn’t home theater (where’s the audio/video receiver and rear surround speakers?).

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Connecting Components

In the past, the task of connecting home theater components was confusing. Different components connected with different standards and there were separate connections for audio and video. For the layperson, connecting components was a headache and typically resulted in either a frustratingly botched job, professional installation (planned or unplanned), or scouring web-based forums desperately seeking help from others. Today it’s different. Now it’s all a single standard that transports both audio and video, and does it in Blu-ray-quality high definition: HDMI. Say it with me: H-D-M-I. It’s all you need to know.

Surround Sound

In terms of audio, the difference between a “stereo system” and a “home theater” is surround sound, which has been relatively common for well over a decade. Without a collection of surround sound speakers, home theater can’t exist. Today, a significant portion of broadcast and cable TV programming—and nearly all movies produced in the past decade—are delivered with a six-channel or greater audio mix that requires a surround speaker configuration and compatible audio/video receiver to be fully appreciated.

Discrete Channels

Surround sound isn’t just about adding more speakers in your living room. It’s about discrete channels of audio information coming from specific locations within your listening environment. In other words, the producers of a TV show or movie can purposefully make, say, the voices of the characters come from the speaker directly below your TV, where they’ll be the most realistic.

Meanwhile, background noises—such as barking dogs, slamming doors, and guns firing—can be directed to the rear speakers. The ability of content producers to utilize between five and twelve speakers in your living room, in a predictable arrangement, is why affordable home theater systems now rival the experience of going to a movie theater (and why commercial theater chains have to install football field-size screens with vibrating chairs just to get our attention).

oppo bdp-103

Content Services

Content services that deliver streaming audio, video, and even games to your living room home theater have proliferated like crazy during the past few years. What’s interesting is that most people have labeled this the evolution of the internet, not home theater.

It’s all convoluted today, part computer and part stereo system. We’re in the middle of the convergence of computing/internet technologies and the hardware, software, and standards on which video and audio are affordably reproduced in the home. Home theater simply does not live up to its potential without the internet and broadband connectivity. Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Spotify, iTunes, and other internet-based services offer more content than you can ever consume. While your local liquor store might not sell you bourbon on Sunday, online streaming services are available on-demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


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.

The Case for Home Theater Ethernet

3d1Most middle class homes have multiple mobile devices floating around. From iPod Touches to smartphones, tablets, and laptops, the average family has quite a few gadgets relying on its wi-fi wireless connectivity to get to the internet and consume social media and streaming content like video and music.

Many consumers don’t realize that there’s an alternative to wi-fi called Ethernet. Ethernet is a hardwired technology, meaning there’s nothing wireless about it.

To use Ethernet, you must run a special cable from your internet router (where the broadband enters your home) to any Ethernet-connected equipment you wish to receive wired bandwidth. A networking technology that evolved within the computer world, Ethernet has been around for decades. In its current implementation, it’s extremely fast and reliable. It operates over special cabling called CAT5 or CAT6. Compared to wi-fi, Ethernet is considerably faster and more stable. Baby monitors, cordless phones, garage door openers, and microwave ovens all compete for the most common variety of wi-fi on the same 2.4 GHz frequency. Because it’s hardwired, Ethernet lacks the sensitivity to radio frequency interference that plagues wi-fi.

Wi-Fi For Mobile Only

Thus, with bandwidth and reliability being so much better with Ethernet, why is everyone using wi-fi for devices that don’t demand it? Wi-fi should be considered an optimal connectivity option for mobile devices only. Smartphones and tablets that need to move about, tether-free, are why wi-fi was created and has become so popular. We’re simply over utilizing this cool wireless tech due to its low cost and super-simple implementation (and who doesn’t like a lack of obnoxious cables?). Companies selling us stuff love to tout wireless. If wireless data is the path of least resistance, consumers are going to accept what is often the default communications method. Even my Nest thermostat uses wi-fi to upload data to the cloud and allow me to control it from any mobile device.

The vulnerabilities of wi-fi really wouldn’t be such a big deal if everyone wasn’t sucking down so much high-definition video (sometimes with a six-channel surround sound audio track). The irony is that we’re taking the most frail connection technology, wi-fi, and taxing it with the most robust and “heavy” data there is, high-definition video.

The good news about Ethernet is that you might not need to purchase new equipment to take advantage of it. Newer AV receivers and Blu-ray players, as well as streaming media boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, all feature an Ethernet port (often labeled “LAN,” for Local Area Network). Your internet router necessarily supports Ethernet. All major media streamers, with the exception of Chromecast (which is wi-fi only), support Ethernet. If your receiver and Blu-ray player do also, it’s a compelling reason to run Ethernet to all of these devices in your home theater.

ethernet switchIt should be noted that you (or your installer) will be running a single CAT6 cable from your internet router to your home theater equipment. However, if you’re like me, you have between two and four devices that need an internet feed, not one. How does a single CAT6 cable accommodate multiple devices on the receiving end? Simple, with a device called an Ethernet switch, also referred to as a gigabit switch (ensure that you purchase one that supports gigabit data speeds).

Ethernet Switches

An Ethernet switch simply takes a single input (from your router, possibly on the other side of your house) and splits it into multiple outputs (similar to a USB hub). Fortunately, these devices are affordable, with prices beginning at $35. You can provide bandwidth to as many devices as the switch has ports (models are available that provide between three and eight ports, on average).

Many people have non-mobile, stationary devices that are being fed wi-fi. Good examples include AV receivers, Blu-ray players, smart TVs, and desktop PCs. In my Kindle books Home Theater for the Internet Age and the shorter version, Understanding Home Theater, I make a case for choosing Ethernet over wi-fi whenever possible. If a device isn’t mobile, give it Ethernet. Period.

One big benefit to getting most or all of your non-mobile devices on Ethernet instead of wi-fi is freeing wi-fi bandwidth for the mobile devices that really need it. Most people are consuming streaming media, specifically high-definition video, on mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. They need all the bandwidth they can get. Taking a bandwidth-hungry Netflix video stream and moving it from wi-fi to Ethernet frees tons of wireless bandwidth for iPhones and Nexus tablets (which are probably also sucking down their own high-definition video).

If you’re tired of your video buffering on Hulu Plus or the image on your display panel freezing when you’re watching Vudu or Crackle, segmenting your home network bandwidth between wi-fi and Ethernet may be just the ticket to alleviating your headaches. Just like how the car traffic on a multi-lane freeway will flow most smoothly if the vehicles are roughly equally distributed among the lanes, home networks that segment bandwidth consumption to avoid competition as much as possible will result in far fewer technical glitches and less frustration. The last time you want to encounter problems is when you’re trying to enjoy your entertainment, not play junior network admin and troubleshoot your router at 10:30 pm after three beers.

the-case-for-home-theater-ethernet

While you’re at it, you might want to consider purchasing a high-end internet router, something that could dramatically improve both your wi-fi and your Ethernet (a good example, and my personal choice, is the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 for about $200, pictured here). Modern “dual band” routers include not one, but two networks, each operating at a completely different frequency (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz). This provides you with considerably more bandwidth and segments your devices into logical, device-appropriate networks (older devices that support only 2.4 GHz obviously reside there; newer gadgets that can do 5 GHz always should). Maybe I’ll write a future blog post about the benefits of upgrading to a top shelf router (some models can even automate your backups).

The Potential Downside

The only problem with adopting Ethernet connectivity for your home theater is that it might not sit right beside your internet router. Thus, you (or an installer) may need to make some cable runs and install some face plates to facilitate the jump from wi-fi to Ethernet (costing you some money).

Back in 2013, when I was installing a new home theater in a spare bedroom and upgrading an existing theater in the living room, I paid a few hundred dollars to a professional installer to bring CAT6 cabling from my upstairs data closet (tucked nicely in a laundry room) to my downstairs living room media cabinet. The installer wasn’t simply an electrician, but instead a small firm that specialized in security systems and high-end home theaters. They knew what they were doing. Which is good, because they ran into tons of headaches related to the layout and construction of my house, which required them to be tenacious and creative.

So yes, making the leap from wi-fi to Ethernet may cost you a few bucks. One nice aspect is that much home theater equipment comes Ethernet-ready (but not all; buyer beware). Newer models are more likely to feature support for Ethernet. If a manufacturer is going to charge extra for something, it will typically be wi-fi and Bluetooth. My Pioneer Elite receiver, for example, lacks wi-fi, but Pioneer will sell me a ridiculously overpriced wi-fi dongle for $130. I’d rather give that money to a pro installer and forever rid myself of the need to primitively provide bandwidth to my home theater using wi-fi.

As I discuss in my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, there is a middle-ground option when it comes to providing bandwidth to non-mobile devices in your home called a powerline adapter. While not as fast or reliable as Ethernet, powerline adapters are brother and sister pairs that plug into power outlets (one beside your router, the other beside the devices you wish to feed broadband) to deliver a relatively fast internet signal. Powerline adapters are cost effective (typically under $100) and very easy to install. They’re plug-and-play and almost never require attention. I use a powerline adapter to deliver broadband to my upstairs home theater and have experienced smooth streaming from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube.

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Curt Robbins


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.