Zealth Audio: Great American Speakers

3d1When I was doing research for one of my latest books, Home Theater for the Internet Age, I knew I couldn’t get lazy with the Speakers chapter. So I put a lot of time into the topic. In the process, I discovered some neat, small speaker companies.

Most of the experts I truly respect in the areas of hi-fi and home theater agree: You should put the bulk of your budget into speakers (for a wide variety of reasons that I won’t go into here).

One of the more unique and affable companies I encountered during my research was Zealth Audio. Based in San Diego, Zealth isn’t your father’s speaker. To learn more, enjoy the following excerpt from my book.

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Curt Robbins


Zealth Audio

If you’re one of those people who likes to talk about supporting the little guy, but ends up plunking down your hard-earned on speakers from a big international corporation, you might want to consider your options. Independent manufacturers, some of which are as small as one full-time craftsman working with one or two part-time assistants, are increasingly common. Fortunately, some of these little guys can also save you significant money while putting a hand-crafted speaker in your living room that’s actually attractive and sounds great.

One such option is Zealth Audio, a small operation in San Diego that hand-builds four models of multi-directional floor standing loudspeakers, all of which are designed to enhance surround sound—although they work well in stereo applications as well. Like Mirage, Pinnacle, and Axiom, Zealth stands out in the sometimes copycat world of direct-firing loudspeakers by offering a unique design that caters to the realities of modern surround sound.

What truly differentiates the speaker-design brainchild of company founder and sole full-time employee Kevin Nelson is the fact that it’s designed to work in a two-channel stereo sound system with as few as one—yes, that’s right, one—speaker. Zealth employs a patented Cross-Fire Imaging Technology, which comprises both front-firing and 45-degree up-firing Picture-002drivers. Zealth also sells a three-way speaker that adds a side-firing subwoofer.

Nelson claims that all of his configurations “enhance your existing surround sound-enabled investment and bring home theater sounds to breathtaking life,” referring to the experience as “multi-dimensional sound immersion.” Nelson is so confident in the immersive quality of his speakers, in fact, that he says you can replace a conventional five-speaker system with only two of his models. When I asked him if one could also avoid the expense of a subwoofer by going with his top-of-the-line side-firing Gold Series model, he said yes.

If you’re as curious about Zealth as me, check out the company’s entry-level ZAL-22 ($450 a pair), the midgrade ZAL-36T ($890 a pair), or the big daddy ZAL-DLX Gold Series, a 36-inch tall model featuring the aforementioned side-firing 10-inch subwoofer ($1,450 a pair). Nelson is also introducing a new faux leather finish ZAL36 Slimline model that will be priced at $980 a pair.

All Zealth speakers are made-to-order, hand-built from American materials, and available in more than a dozen beautiful wood finishes (a nice alternative to the trendy high-gloss piano finishes that are all the rave—and one advantage of Zealth’s small-scale fulfillment system). The company produces muscular models that, according to veteran audiophile reviewer Steve Guttenberg, sound as good as they look.

Check out Zealth. You’ll not only be supporting the little guy, but also getting a killer set of very affordable speakers. The ZAL-36T is what I plan to use in a new two-channel system dedicated to music.

[According to Molly Stillman at rAVe Publications, who interviewed Nelson for her blog in April 2014,Speaking with Kevin was truly a pleasure and an honor. He was extremely humble, very honest, funny, witty, and clearly very smart. I think the industry could use a few more Kevin Nelsons.” You can read Ms. Stillman’s blog post regarding Zealth Audio here.] 


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.

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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.

Understanding Home Theater Speakers: Part 2

3d1Speakers are arguably the most important part of any home theater setup. They’re certainly where one should invest the bulk of one’s money. You’ll keep good speakers a lot longer than any other home theater gear, especially AV receivers, disc players, and streaming media boxes.

Also check out the previous blog post, Understanding Home Theater Speakers: Part 1. The following is an excerpt from my Amazon Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

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Curt Robbins


Center Channel

The center channel, as you’ve already learned, is dedicated to TV and movie dialog (it’s nice to hear the sound coming from where a character’s mouth appears) and enhancing the overall immersive quality of music emanating from the speakers facing you. As mentioned, it’s highly advised that your center is from the same series as your front mains. More powerful center channels feature more drivers. Thus, a basic config might be a single midrange or full-range driver, while a more sophisticated example would feature a couple of woofers, one or more midrange drivers, a tweeter, and maybe even ports.

It should be noted that most high-resolution surround sound music formats, such as SACD, and DVD-Audio, all give music publishers the ability to record a center channel as part of a song or album. (See the Disc-Based Music chapter for more information regarding these high-resolution music formats.) Center channel speakers range in cost from under $100 to several thousand.

Subwoofer

As you’ve already learned, a subwoofer is simply a speaker dedicated to the lowest audio frequencies, which you can literally feel in addition to hear. If you really want to shake the house or wake the neighbors, a large, powerful sub can do it. Barry White should have owned a sub company.

A sub is unique in that, unlike your other speakers, it’s a powered unit (300 to 800 watts is common). Don’t dismiss the capabilities of a high-quality 10, 12, or even 15-inch subwoofer. For movies especially, it will become one of your favorite speakers (and something you’ll want to turn down when the kids are asleep).

Omnidirectional

The subwoofer is also unusual among other speakers in that it’s mostly omnidirectional, meaning where it resides in the room and where it’s pointed (the direction in which it fires) are much less important than with your other speakers. This is nice for tucking it discretely behind a sofa or under an end table. Some models, like the uniquely slim $1,400 Paradigm MilleniaSub and the $2,000 REL Habitat1, are specifically designed for narrow spaces, such as under a sofa.

Most subwoofers feature a digital amp. While models with Class A/B analog amps are available, they’re less common. Incorporating a digital amp allows a model to be smaller, consume less energy, and perform with greater efficiency. Just to confuse things, there are also hybrid varieties that employ both analog and digital circuitry at a variety of prices and quality levels. Like other speakers, some subs feature relief ports, a nice addition because ported subs can produce greater output. Subs that aren’t ported are called sealed (just like headphones). The PB series from SVS is a good example, featuring models with between one and three ports each, priced from $500 to $2,000.

Driver Configs & Second Helpings

Like regular floor standing and surround speakers, subwoofers can feature one or more drivers that fire in a variety of directions. The most common configuration is side firing (like my 10-inch, 500-watt, single-driver sealed B&W ASW700) or down firing (like the 10-inch, 150-watt REL T-5). Klipsch’s best sub, part of its Palladium Series, features two 12” drivers powered by 1000 watts that are side firing and 90 degrees separated (this sub is arguably overkill for most rooms). The majority of subs feature a single side-firing driver that’s between 10 and 15 inches in diameter and commonly powered by 500 watts.

As you’ve learned, some home theater hobbyists add a second sub to their home theater, creating a more balanced low frequency experience with even greater impact. However, in dual-sub environments, placement is critical; typically, you don’t simply stack them on top of each other. The debate between one big sub or a couple of smaller units will never cease in the audiophile world. In the end, it’s determined by your room and budget.


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.

Understanding Home Theater Speakers: Part 1

3d1I’m continually reminded of how those of us who consider ourselves home theater enthusiasts often forget that many of those around us don’t get into it like we do. Recently, I had a couple of non-enthusiasts remind me that they didn’t understand woofers and Blu-ray players. Which is great, because that’s the business I’m in: Teaching regular middle class people about confusing consumer tech.

Speakers are arguably the most important part of any home theater setup. They’re certainly where one should invest the bulk of one’s money. You’ll keep good speakers a lot longer than any other home theater gear, especially AV receivers, disc players, and streaming media boxes.

The following is an excerpt from my Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss the all-important center channel (which carries the bulk of the spoken dialog of the actors in a TV show or movie) and the booming low-frequency subwoofer—thus rounding out the basic speaker positions in a six speaker, 5.1 home theater surround sound configuration.

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Curt Robbins


Dynamic Loudspeakers & Drivers

The most common type of speaker, from a technical perspective, is the dynamic loudspeaker. The term “speaker” can mean a few things, but is generally a reference to a single unit, in the form of a box-like enclosure, that contains one or more drivers. Drivers feature a cone (visible from the front of the speaker) made from a variety of materials—cheap ones being paperboard and nice ones being Kevlar or metal (typically aluminum or titanium). Behind the cone resides a mechanism involving a coil (sometimes called a voice coil) and a magnet. This coil, magnet, and cone-based driver is responsible for the extreme weight of good speakers (generally speaking, higher-quality speakers are heavier because they feature larger, more powerful magnets in their drivers).

Woofers & Tweeters

Dynamic loudspeakers feature the familiar and onomatopoeic woofer and tweeter combination, where the woofer carries the low and maybe some mid-range frequencies and the tweeter projects the high-end sounds. The most basic loudspeakers feature a single driver, whereas more sophisticated models include multiple woofers and midrange drivers, a powerful tweeter, and maybe even one or two acoustic resonance ports. Technically, with the exception of resonance ports, these are all “drivers,” or coil/magnet/cone devices capable of emitting sound. Thus, a speaker with a woofer, midrange, and tweeter has three drivers.

Form Factors

Each type of speaker that composes a full surround system plays a particular role in creating an immersive audio environment and dealing with particular types of sounds that are projected from specific areas of your room. These different roles manifest themselves in distinctly unique form factors, from the tall floor standing models flanking your display panel to the lone center channel that carries mostly movie dialog.

Floor Standing

Floor standing speakers, also called “mains” or “towers,” are typically the largest in your home theater and play a prominent role in delivering the impact of action movies and music. They carry the lion’s share of the sound in a surround mix, and are sometimes the only source of sound if you’re playing a stereo music CD (and don’t apply a special DSP field to turn it into artificial, or matrixed, surround).

Floor standing speakers are the bridge between the old world of “stereo systems” and the new world of surround sound. You’ll inevitably want to use your home theater to listen to music. If you’re really into music and, for example, you’re going to spend 50-80% of your time listening to it, and only the minority watching TV or movies, it makes sense to invest most of your speaker budget on the best towers possible. This may involve even going a bit downmarket for your rear speakers (but it’s highly advised that your three front speakers are from the same series). As you’ve learned, some people skip the subwoofer entirely so they can afford the best possible floor standing models while pursuing their dream stereo system.

Bookshelf / Surround

What are sometimes called “bookshelf” speakers (in a two-channel stereo configuration) are often labeled “surrounds” in a home theater. They’re basically junior models of the large floor standing models. They’re not necessarily lower quality; they simply feature less power and fewer drivers than their floor standing big brothers.

There are two options for the rear speakers in your surround system: Standard front-firing bookshelf speakers or dedicated multi-directional models. Dedicated surrounds create a more immersive effect. The design you choose depends on your personal tastes and room dynamics. Both good and bad examples of each approach are readily available. It’s more important to get a quality speaker with a wide frequency response and low distortion than to labor over the differences between these two designs.

You already know that you should purchase your surround speakers from the same series as your mains. Speakers from different series, and especially different manufacturers, can feature tonal discrepancies (different timbre) that will degrade the quality of your audio. A mismatched set also won’t look as nice sitting in your living room. That said, it’s sometimes better to have good speakers from different series than lousy units from the same line. Utilizing speakers from different series or manufacturers isn’t a cardinal sin and won’t necessarily produce bad sound; it’s simply not optimal.

If your home theater resides in a relatively small room or you’re on a tight budget, one option is to use robust bookshelf speakers for your mains also. While this may decrease your music listening pleasure (particularly at higher volumes), it will still sound good for movies if you purchase nice models, especially those that hit relatively low frequencies. Down the road, when you have the cash for proper floor standing mains, you can demote those front bookshelf speakers to center surrounds in a 7.1 system. (Often, the home theater of your dreams is not a matter of having a pile of cash to blow at one time, but rather being patient, planning intelligently, and building your system over years.)


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 3

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts and Slideshare slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion.

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 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • 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

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Curt Robbins


Upscaling / Upconversion

As you’ve already learned, DVDs feature a video resolution of 480 horizontal lines. When compared to Blu-ray’s 1080 lines, DVDs seem pretty wimpy. But if you have a large (and expensive) DVD collection, you probably don’t want to simply trash or sell them. Re-purchasing your collection is frustrating and expensive. Damn you, double-edged pace of technology!

Most Blu-ray players (and many AV receivers) automatically apply something called upscaling, or upconversion (both terms are used interchangeably) to DVDs in an effort to make them 1) fit on a 1080 TV, so they’re not displayed as a little box in the center of the display panel, and 2) appear to be higher resolution than they actually are (by simulating 1080).

In a nutshell, this means the Blu-ray player analyzes the video content of a DVD and adds more lines, creating a pseudo-1080 image. While upconverted 480 video doesn’t look as good as the native 1080 display of Blu-ray content (with 1080 unique lines, featuring none of the pixel redundancy that comes with upscaling), it does look better than standard 480. In terms of the end result, upconversion for video is akin to matrixed surround sound for audio: It’s all about optimizing legacy media formats on modern-generation equipment. (To learn more about matrixed and discrete surround sound formats, see the Surround Sound chapter.)

The quality of upconversion is determined entirely by your equipment (the hardware and software running within it; see the Video Processing section below for more info). Better Blu-ray players do a superior job of upscaling than their less-expensive siblings. The $300-$600 players offered by companies like Denon, OPPO, Onkyo, Pioneer Elite, and Marantz will do a considerably nicer job of upconversion than an entry-level $80 Sony or Samsung unit (which aren’t the best suited for home theater environments).

A standard definition DVD will never look better than when upconverted on a home theater with a decent Blu-ray player. So what’s your takeaway? Don’t sell those old DVDs on Craigslist or relegate them to a dusty box in a closet! If you’re willing to tolerate the slight decrease in quality between upscaled DVDs and native Blu-ray content (which many people don’t even perceive), upconversion can help you avoid rebuying your DVD movie collection. Also consider that the majority of discs available from your local video rental store or library—even in 2014—are DVDs, not Blu-rays.

Real-World Upscaling

One study claims that 39% of viewers can’t tell the difference between standard-definition video (480 lines of resolution, as featured on DVDs and old camcorders) and high-definition content (1080 on Blu-ray discs or streamed via a service like Netflix). If this is even marginally true, an even greater percentage of consumers will be oblivious to the difference between an upscaled DVD featuring “fake” 1080 resolution and a Blu-ray disc producing the real thing. If you’re one of them, keep your eyes peeled for those grocery store bargain bins full of clearance DVDs. (Your local brick-and-mortar video store—if your community still has one—is another great source of discounted new and used DVDs.)

Video Processing

Your Blu-ray player’s video processing is handled by a dedicated computer chip (or set of chips) and special software stored on it. Many manufacturers utilize fairly generic, average processing chips—which don’t always produce the best results, especially when upscaling DVDs to 1080 resolution. More potent models feature special leading edge video processing technologies licensed from third-party companies, such as Marvell’s Qdeo and Silicon Image’s VRS ClearView.

Many popular Blu-ray models, including those from Cambridge Audio, OPPO, Onkyo, and Pioneer Elite, feature Qdeo processing. Note that there are several generations of Qdeo, so one from three years ago won’t be as good as what’s shipping on current models. OPPO’s top Darbee models feature VRS ClearView video processing and upscaling.

PCM vs. Bitstream

If you’re connecting your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI, there are two options for how data is sent from the player to the receiver. The first, PCM (Pulse-code Modulation,  sometimes called LPCM), is when your Blu-ray player performs all decoding of the compressed audio on the disc (a variant of either Dolby or DTS). In this scheme, the fully decoded audio is sent to your receiver, then passed along to your speakers. Many receivers allow you to select PCM output from the same menu from which you choose DLP sound fields (and will indicate the mode by displaying “PCM” on the front panel).

Bitstream, on the other hand, means your Blu-ray player does the opposite, performing no decoding of the compressed audio of the disc, instead sending along the raw, encoded bitstream to your receiver, where the decoding takes place. In this case, the receiver will display the exact encoding method employed by the disc (Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, for example). The only disadvantage of bitstream is that any “secondary audio,” such as commentaries and other supplemental features of Blu-ray, will be lost. If you ever use these features, you obviously should lean on PCM.

Typically, both methods work equally well and, in practical applications, it doesn’t really matter which you employ. However, if you had a much nicer (and newer) Blu-ray player than receiver, you might choose to have it do the heavy lifting to improve the quality of the audio pumped into your speakers. If both your Blu-ray player and receiver are of relatively equal capability and age, the difference between these two schemes will almost certainly be negligible.


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 Formats

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from Chapter 7: Surround Sound in Home Theater for the Internet Age. It will help you understand Dolby, DTS, and the multitude of surround sound encoding/decoding standards used for so many TV shows and movies and available in most modern AV receivers.

Also part of this mini-series is Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics and Home Theater: More Surround Sound.

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Curt Robbins


Surround Sound Formats

There’s a small handful of popular surround sound formats. The only reason you really need to understand them is so you can apply the most appropriate decoding standard to a particular TV episode or movie. Most modern receivers decode all surround formats that have been in popular use for the past twenty years.

Two Dominant Formats: Dolby & DTS

As you’ve learned, Dolby and DTS are the two dominant audio surround standards in use today. Both companies are based in the United States and work closely with both Hollywood studios and home theater equipment manufacturers to ensure that the encoding/decoding cycle works the way it should.

You’ve probably heard of Dolby. Many remember it from the old days when most cassette players featured Dolby A and Dolby B noise reduction. Today, both Dolby and DTS represent a competing collection of encoding technologies designed to enhance the audio of all forms of entertainment. Thankfully, these two vendors aren’t offered on an either/or basis; both are available on receivers of all price ranges. (SRS, which has marketed software and hardware designed to create a “3D” immersive sound field using only two speakers, was purchased by DTS in 2012.)

dolby logo

The following surround formats are in popular use today, from the oldest (and most primitive) to the newest (and most advanced).

Dolby Pro Logic II

The oldest standard currently built into receivers, Pro Logic II turns a stereo soundtrack into “fake” 5.1 surround. As you learned, this matrixed sound is created on-the-fly by your receiver based on sound information pulled from the two-channel stereo signal. Just like the plot of the popular movie The Matrix, the additional channels in the mix aren’t really there (at least not in the original content). Dolby Pro Logic II works well at taking standard stereo signals and making them sound like legitimate surround sound on your system.

The Dolby Pro Logic (DPL) standard has been revised slightly to Dolby Pro Logic IIx, a format that is nearly identical to DPL II, except in 7.1 channels. There’s also a DPL IIz, with the “z” denoting the addition of the front height channels in a 9.1 setup.

DTS Neo:6

Similar to Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS Neo:6 takes two-channel stereo content and creates a matrixed 6.1 sound environment. It’s nearly identical to Dolby Pro Logic IIx in function. If your receiver supports both standards, try comparing DTS Neo:6 with Dolby Pro Logic II the next time you have a stereo signal that you wish to hear in matrixed surround. Standardize on whatever sounds best to your ears, in your particular environment and with your equipment.

Dolby Digital & DTS Digital Surround

Both Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround are 5.1 channel discrete lossy formats. Dolby Digital is currently the most common standard for surround sound encoding (although most new release films on Blu-ray embrace newer lossless formats). Most receivers manufactured for the past several years, at all price ranges, include both Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround decoding capabilities. Many movies are encoded in Dolby Digital (including a big chunk of the Netflix catalog), some in DTS, and a few are released in both, allowing you to choose one from a disc’s setup menu.

Why are Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround better than Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6? Because your receiver doesn’t have to play a game of creating matrixed sound channels from the basic left and right channels of stereo. Instead, Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround simply decompress and decode the six channels provided in the content and route them to your speakers, plain and simple. You hear the surround in the exact way that the content producers intended. From a surround sound perspective, this is perfect. From a fidelity perspective, however, it still involves lossy compression (it just happens to be pretty good lossy compression).

Unfortunately, Hollywood and media outlets aren’t always on the ball in terms of providing the best surround sound format possible, and are sometimes inconsistent. For example, if you check out the popular TV series Dexter on Netflix, you’ll find that the first two seasons are encoded in Dolby Digital (providing six separate and discrete sound channels). Season 3, however, is delivered only in stereo—meaning you’ll have to employ Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6 if you want to experience “fake” surround. Season 4 of Dexter? Encoded in Dolby Digital again. Unfortunately, this lack of consistency and concern for the audio quality of content is all too common. Audio is typically a small percentage of the production budget for TV shows and films.

Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby Digital Plus, decodable on any hardware that features Dolby Digital, is a slightly enhanced version of Dolby Digital that’s designed for mobile devices and streaming boxes where bandwidth might be limited or fluctuate. It enhances audio somewhat by making vocals easier to discern in muddy soundtracks. Dolby Digital Plus is fairly new and beginning to appear in devices that stream media, like receivers and Amazon’s Fire TV streaming box. It’s also common on many Netflix movies and TV episodes.

Dolby Digital EX

Dolby Digital EX is a small bump up from Dolby Digital, adding an additional rear surround channel (for 6.1 and 7.1 systems). It’s still a lossy compression scheme, and, in all other respects, very similar to Dolby Digital. This format, co-developed with THX (and sometimes identified as THX Surround EX), involves discrete channels, meaning your equipment reproduces the sound in exactly the manner intended by the content producer.

DTS-ES

DTS-ES (for “Extended Sound”) is the DTS answer to Dolby Digital EX, providing an additional rear center channel to achieve a 6.1 surround sound audio stream. It’s available in two variants, matrixed and discrete. Conveniently for consumers, video encoded in either type is backward compatible and interpretable by nearly all devices (AV receivers or Blu-ray players) that include basic DTS decoding but lack DTS-ES. This encoding format is also sometimes used to produce disc-based high-resolution music (Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions, T. Rex’s The Slider, and Bjork’s Volta are examples).

DTS Neo:X

This unique format takes stereo, 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 content and creates a matrixed 11.1 surround sound mix. DTS Neo:X goes largely unused because there are so few 11.1 home systems in existence. Until you save enough money and are able to convince your spouse to install a slew of additional speakers to achieve your dream 12-channel setup, this format will be happily waiting for you. When you make the jump to home theater hyper-hobbyist, ensure that the receiver you’re considering includes this format and 12 speaker terminals.

Dolby TrueHD & DTS-HD Master Audio

Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio are both lossless 7.1 channel formats currently found only on Blu-ray discs (afforded by the higher storage capacity of the format). These compression schemes are presently the best available, producing the richest sound possible from movies.

What makes Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio unique is their lossless compression quality. They are the first mass-market movie audio encoding standards to feature lossless audio. The sound produced by films with these formats is truly impressive. The difference can be heard on home theaters of all price ranges and sophistication, but it really shines on better systems that are capable of reproducing high-fidelity audio with both wide dynamic range and an expansive soundstage.

Eventually, video streamed from the internet will also be encoded in TrueHD and DTS-HD (or similar lossless formats). Currently, however, most people’s internet bandwidth—even “broadband”—is simply too limited to pull this off. These high-end surround sound formats are supported only by Blu-ray players and AV receivers manufactured within the past few years.


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.

Home Theater: More Surround Sound

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. It further explores home theater surround sound (also check out Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics), diving into discrete vs. matrixed audio and lossy vs. lossless compression—topics that continue to confuse both casual fans and enthusiasts alike.

Also check out Surround Sound Basics and Surround Sound Formats.

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Curt Robbins


Standardized System

Surround sound isn’t merely a speaker arrangement for your living room, but rather a standardized system by which content producers can compose, or “encode,” their content so that consumers, with the proper equipment, can decode it to simulate a more realistic, immersive audio environment. The intent of surround sound is to create audio that radiates from all around the seating positions of the viewers, while giving content producers the ability to specify from which of those speakers a particular sound or audio stream is projected.

While basic surround sound involves three speakers in front and two in back, more sophisticated systems employ between eight and 12 speakers. The more speakers involved, the more immersive and “surrounding” the sound becomes (and, relatively speaking, the more expensive the speaker system and receiver).

Discrete vs. Matrixed Surround

This book strives to avoid the overly technical and speak in plain English. However, it’s helpful to understand the difference between discrete and matrixed surround sound formats. Discrete surround involves sound information that’s specific, or dedicated to, particular channels and speaker positions (and fully independent of other channels). Thus, if a movie features a 5.1 soundtrack, it means the producers recorded and mixed six separate sound channels, each intended for a particular speaker position in your living room.

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Matrixed surround, on the other hand, involves your receiver producing sound information for six or more speakers that’s derived from a two-channel (stereo) signal. While not as good as discrete formats, matrixed surround can take standard stereo and make it pretty amazing—depending on the quality of your system. Assume you’re watching an old episode of Law & Order on cable TV and it’s encoded in stereo. If your AV receiver features a matrixed surround sound format, such as Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6 (nearly all models for the past several years do), you can apply it to the stereo signal to direct sound to the other speakers in your home theater, not just the mains.

If a film or TV program features an audio mix that’s designed for surround sound, it will offer discrete channels. Dialog will be directed to the center channel, background noise like traffic, the din of a crowd, and sirens will come from the rear speakers, and the non-speech sounds and primary action will be directed to the main speakers. Because so much legacy content—be it music, TV episodes, or movies—features audio encoded in only stereo, you’ll find great benefit in applying matrixed surround filters to take advantage of those other speakers sitting in your living room. This is especially true for those who consume mostly TV content.

Lossy vs. Lossless Compression

When the audio portion of a video is created, it’s digitally compressed to make it smaller. Reducing the size of the data helps it stream smoothly from an internet video service (like Netflix) or fit on an optical disc (DVD or Blu-ray). However, there are different types of compression that impact the quality of the sound produced by any equipment, especially nicer systems.

Lossy Compression

Traditionally, data compression for audio has been lossy. This means that, during the compression of the audio, some information is lost—resulting in less data to play back. In a nutshell, less data equals lower sound fidelity. Different compression schemes produce distinct results in terms of sound quality. Overall, lossy compression is viewed as a bad thing. Music in MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) formats are good examples of lossy compression standards (and avoided by audiophiles). All music sold on standard compact discs (in CDDA format; see the Disc-Based Music chapter for more info) involves lossy compression (although of significantly higher fidelity than MP3 or AAC).

Lossless Compression

Lossless compression, on the other hand, is, well, lossless. It reproduces the original audio bit-for-bit, with no reduction in data or quality whatsoever (any decrease in fidelity reflects a deficiency in your equipment, not the audio itself). If you know an audio source is lossless, you don’t really need to learn anything else (except maybe the encoding standard employed to ensure that you can decode it on your particular Blu-ray player or AV receiver).

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The downside of lossless compression is that it results in significantly larger files than lossy schemes. This is why lossless audio is currently available only on high-capacity optical disc formats (like Blu-ray, which sports six times the storage of a DVD), but not in the form of internet streaming, where even the fastest broadband connections typically lack the bandwidth to support such high bit rates. Examples of lossless audio include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (both covered below). There are also internet-based download services that sell lossless music files in popular formats like FLAC and AIFF (higher quality than even regular music CDs, let alone MP3s).

Compression Levels / Bit Rate

Content compressed in a lossy format can be encoded at a variety of quality levels (measured in “bit rate” or bits per second, and sometimes called “compression levels”). For example, a 128 Kbps (kilobit per second) MP3 of Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield won’t sound as good as a 320 Kbps MP3 version. The 320 Kbps file contains nearly three times the data of the 128 Kbps version, enhancing the sound quality.

This is one reason that Blu-ray discs are so popular. While the video quality of Blu-ray (1080 lines of resolution) is certainly better than that of DVD, the audio improvement is even greater. Currently, there is no better sound that you can pump through your home theater than the lossless audio track of a Blu-ray movie or lossless music files like FLAC. (When it comes to audio only, there are also high-end music formats such as SACD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray Audio, which are covered in the Disc-Based Music chapter.)

Based on Standards

To clarify how this compression/decompression cycle works, it’s important to understand that content producers must encode their audio to a particular standard (like a United Nations interpreter choosing a language in which to speak). As you’ll learn below, for movies, this is typically a format from Dolby or DTS. Encoding makes files smaller for transport or distribution, regardless of whether it’s lossy or lossless. Your receiver or Blu-ray player incorporates a bunch of decoders. When you play a DVD or Blu-ray disc, the receiver applies the proper decoder, basically reassembling the audio data. In this respect, your AV receiver is just a specialized computer. (Some people will tell you that the audio on a Blu-ray movie is uncompressed, which isn’t necessarily true. Typically it’s compressed, but sometimes it isn’t. Even compressed, Blu-ray involves a lossless scheme.)

No Guarantees

It’s important to note that, simply because an audio source involves a lossless compression format, this doesn’t guarantee high-end fidelity. Technically, lossless compression simply means that the file reproduced by your playback equipment exactly matches the original, before it was compressed. If the original music file was of low quality to begin with (many movies and much music are poorly mastered or recorded in less-than-optimal live venues or studio environments), the best lossless format won’t make it sound good.


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.

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.

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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.

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?).

pioneer av receiver

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).

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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.