- Home Cinema System Buyers Guide
Home Cinema System Buyers Guide
If you want to create cinema-style surround sound from your TV, you’ll need a home-cinema system. This will bring film effects and crowd sounds to life making you feel part of the action when watching a film or sports match. To avoid disappointment, buy the best quality speakers and speaker cable you can afford to get an authentic multiplex experience.
What is surround sound?
When you watch a film at the cinema, the sound is projected at you from all angles giving you the impression that you are in the middle of it all. By placing speakers at strategic places in your living room, you can recreate this effect when you watch TV, DVDs and even your home videos if your camcorder records in surround sound.
How many speakers do I need?
The number of speakers in a kit is listed as 2.1, 5.1 or 7.1. This basically means, two, five or seven speakers and one subwoofer. Five speakers and a sub-woofer are the standard configuration while seven gives an enhanced effect. Kits with only two speakers are unlikely to give a realistic cinema-sound experience.
Kits or separate systems?
You can buy either a surround-sound kit containing all you need, or you can choose your own speakers, cable, amplifier and subwoofer separately. The first option is usually cheaper and simpler but you may get better sound quality if you choose components separately – especially speakers and cable, as these can be a bit disappointing in kits. Either way, make sure you buy enough cable for the speakers, unless you are getting wireless speakers. Also make sure you have enough optical inputs for connecting to other devices and a lead to connect it to your TV.
Is it best to buy a system with an integral DVD player?
If you are happy with the DVD player you have at home, it’s easy to connect it to the surround-sound system. But, if you want the sleek look of a matching system and can afford the extra expense, buy a system that comes with a DVD player as this will look neater. Some come with a Blu-ray player which will enable you to watch movies in high definition as well as listen to them with surround sound. But prices for Blu-ray players are higher than those of standard DVD players.
How do I set up a surround-sound system?
You place the speakers strategically around the room following the instructions you are provided with. One speaker is placed directly beneath or above your TV, which is where most of the dialogue will come from. Your left and right speakers should be equidistant from where you sit. Unless they are designed to go on the floor, they should be at least 1m above floor level. Use the auto set-up feature to position the speakers at the correct distance from where you sit to watch TV. This helps you achieve the ideal delay between the speakers to optimise the surround sound effects. The subwoofer can be positioned anywhere. Most people hide it behind a piece of furniture. To minimise mess in your living room, you’ll need to trail the cable carefully – routing it along skirting boards or under carpet. If this is not going to be possible to do neatly, you may want to consider buying wireless speakers.
Can you get wireless speakers in surround-sound kits?
Yes, increasingly, manufacturers are offering surround-sound amps with a wireless link and some kits have wireless speakers that use Bluetooth connectivity. They look much neater and are a good idea if you are concerned about messy cabling.
Do all TV broadcasters transmit programmes with surround sound? No, Freeview and analogue channels do not transmit any programmes with surround sound at the moment. Sky and Virgin do transmit some sports matches and films in surround sound. However, you need a home-cinema system to hear it.
If I record films that are broadcast in surround sound, will I be able to play them back with the same effects? Yes if you record onto a PVR such as Sky + or Virgin + but not if you record onto a DVD recorder.
Can I listen to music through my surround-sound speakers?
Yes, some systems have a CD drive but you can easily connect a CD player to the amplifier. Some home-cinema kits have their own docking stations for MP3 players that you can buy at an extra cost. Alternatively, you can buy a kit with a hard-drive and upload MP3 tracks to it with a USB memory stick, or you can connect an MP3 docking station to the amplifier. But, having said all that, surround-sound systems can over emphasise bass sounds and not all music will sound right played through a surround-sound system. For this reason, some systems give you the option of switching between ‘movie’ or ‘music’ mode. This adjusts the bass levels when you are listening to music.
Audio system: Most systems are compatible with several Dolby sound systems. Dolby Digital 5.1 is used on most DVDs and some digital broadcasts. It gives an enhanced sound over the older analogue version Dolby Prologic and Prologic II.
Auto set up or auto calibration: This helps you position your speakers at the correct distance from where you sit to watch TV so that you achieve the ideal delay between the speakers. It does this by transmitting the sound from each speaker to a microphone positioned where you would normally sit.
Bluetooth connectivity: This allows you to use the system without cables connecting the amp to the speakers.
Dialogue enhancer: This allows you to limit the volume of sudden sound effects but keeps the speech at an audible level.
Digital audio inputs: If you want to connect your home-cinema receiver to another device, such as a games console or a Sky+ box, you’ll need digital audio inputs. There are two types – optical and coaxial. Make sure your devices are compatible with each other (in other words they both need to be optical or they both need to be coaxial.)
Hard drive: Some models come with a hard drive or PVR. This can be used to record TV as well as to play and store music. Check how many hours’ worth of recordings it can store.
HDMi connection: This allows you to connect your surround-sound system to an HD ready or full HD TV, so that you can upscale the image from a DVD to give an enhanced clearer image. You’ll need an HDMI lead for this.
High definition: To watch programmes in high definition you’ll need an HD ready or full HD TV. See our guide to Blu-ray for more information.
Power output: This is a measure of how loud the system will play at. Many speakers claim 1000W which is way more than you’ll need.
Receiver: The amplifiers on surround-sound systems usually come with a built-in tuner and are sometimes referred to as ‘surround-sound receivers’.
Satellite speakers: These are the smaller speakers placed to the rear and side of the TV.
Subwoofer: This is the speaker that produces the low-frequency bass sounds. Active subwoofers, which have their own power supply and amplifier, produce a better sound.