The Big Question: Am I getting the best from my home cinema system?
The prospect of hooking up a home cinema amplifier can be a daunting one. They can be intimidating in the extreme, what with all those acronyms across the front panel and different inputs and outputs at the back. So it's no surprise that many of us are happy to:
a) listen to it as it came out of the box, or b) use the microphone that many amps are supplied with these days - and let the machine deal with the whole 'set-up' business itself.
We receive plenty of enquiries from readers who are contemplating throwing hundreds of pounds at equipment upgrades in an effort to improve performance. All that expenditure may not be necessary, though, if your home cinema system has more to give than you're currently getting. We invited three readers to our testing rooms to find out for themselves.
Kane (above left) is a sales manager from Southampton. His AV set-up consists of B&W, Samsung and Arcam kit.
Whathifi.com user name: 13elvis247
Alex (above middle) is a technical operator from East London. He likes to play his Apple TV system through a pair of ProAc speakers.
Whathifi.com user name: lixa
Bobby (above right), a Scot now living in Herts, still uses his Sony tape deck that he bought based on our recommendation!
Whathifi.com user name: Bobshek
We've put together a reference system of two Award-winning Denon AVR-2310 multichannel receivers, a Denon DVD-2500BT Blu-ray transport, and Monitor Audio PL300 loudspeaker package.
Having selected scenes from a couple of good-looking, fine-sounding Blu-ray discs (Public Enemies and Watchmen), we're first going to listen to them using an AVR-2310 that hasn't been calibrated since we first took it from its packaging.
ALEX The EQ sounded very thin. There's not much body to the sound at all.
BOBBY To be honest, it didn't sound as full as my Monitor Audio Radius package. The centre channel had some sibilance to it and the surround channels weren't very coherent. It just didn't sound like one package or one soundstage.
KANE The centre speaker was overbearing, there's not enough bass depth and the treble's quite harsh. The surround mix wasn't all that well integrated, there was no 'flow' – effects seemed chucked from point to point rather than moved around smoothly. I'd also say the subwoofers seemed barely present.
"Effects seem chucked around rather than moving smoothly" Kane
BOBBY It's all a bit gutless – I'd have thought that large subwoofers like these big Monitor Audio units would have a fair bit more power and 'oomph' about them.
It's time to change the system – or at least the amplification. Our second AVR-2310 has been calibrated using the supplied Audyssey room acoustics correction microphone and built-in software. It's a short and painless process, as long as you don't mind a few minutes' squawking from your speakers at the set-up stage. But does it make any difference?
BOBBY Everything seemed much more of a whole. Dialogue seemed really fixed and much stronger, and the rear channels didn't draw so much attention to themselves. None of the channels stuck out particularly, and they were integrated much better. The result was that the location and panning of effects was really improved.
"Dialogue seemed really fixed and much stronger with this system" Bobby
KANE This is much better than the first one. There's far greater density of sound, improved bass weight all across the front speakers – and the back two have improved, too.
ALEX There's a lot more detail revealed by this system, it's more distinct and as a whole it's much better balanced and better integrated. It didn't seem as loud to me, though, and I must say I preferred some of the bite and harshness of the first set-up.
The next step is for our three readers to set up the first, uncalibrated, receiver manually. Can they do better than the Denon's auto set-up procedure? Speaker sizes are set to 'large' (except the Monitor Audio PL100 rear standmounters -– we cautiously designate these as 'small'); distances from the seated position to each speaker are measured and input; and each channel's level is measured and trimmed using our sound pressure level meter (you can get a free SPL app on an iPhone, if you're that way inclined).
KANE, ALEX and BOBBY Bass! There's too much bass!
They're quite right. Despite the initial painstaking efforts, low frequencies are grossly overstated. So we agree that, just as you shouldn't be dictated to by an automated calibration system, you can't blindly rely on what an SPL meter tells you (especially where low frequencies are concerned, as the wavelengths are longer than higher up the frequency range and your seated position becomes even more critical). We significantly reduce the subwoofer levels and have another listen.
ALEX The bass definitely needs to come down some more.
BOBBY I prefer this to the Audyssey set-up. But we need to trim the subwoofers before we destroy something.
KANE I think a couple of clicks should do it.
Some further, mild adjustments to the subwoofer levels, a change from 'small' to 'large' for the rear speakers to address some concerns regarding the size of the soundstage and we're back into our two clips.
BOBBY I don't know. It sounded crisp – definitely crisper than with the automated set-up, despite being less well-balanced level-wise. If we could combine that with the smoother integration of our set-up, that would be perfect.
KANE It's sounding quite good now – all the way round. Integration is fine, although the bass might still be a bit much for this room.
ALEX I think setting the rear speakers to 'large' has worked quite nicely. A much better overall balance, the speakers were less obvious this time, it was quite smooth. I still don't know if it had enough bite, though.
"I think setting the rear speakers to 'large' has worked quite nicely" Alex
Further discussions, a few more adjustments of the bass, some cycling between 'small' and 'large' with the rear speakers, and we arrive at a sound everybody's enjoying. So we go back to the amplifier with automated set-up for a comparative listen.
KANE This lacks impact compared to our set-up. The detail around the circle of speakers is lessened.
ALEX It's agreeable enough: it's a good balance for anyone who doesn't fancy setting it up themselves – but the soundstage is lacking measured against our amp.
BOBBY It's surprising to me just how much less dynamic the automated set-up is.
Having surprised themselves with the differences they achieved when managing amp set-up manually, by way of an encore our readers can decide if chucking money at digital connections can improve picture and sound quality too.
We've been using our trusty Pioneer PDP-LX5090 throughout the test, and now we watch clips of 28 Weeks Later and Ratatouille on Blu-ray – first using unbranded HDMI cables that cost very little, and then using Chord Company's Active HDMIs. In both instances, picture is switched via the manually calibrated AVR-2310.
KANE There's a touch more detail in the pictures, perhaps, and a touch less picture noise in the black tones, but the differences weren't all that significant. The audio was improved quite a bit, though – bass was fuller in both soundtracks.
BOBBY Sound is the more dramatic difference. Less noise in the picture, possibly, though it's no night-and-day difference, but the sound is more dynamic and more detailed, definitely. I think it's louder via the pricier cables, too.
"It baffles me. I wouldn't have believed you could make that kind of difference just by changing digital connections" Alex
ALEX I noticed slightly less picture noise, especially in the dark scenes, but nothing dramatic enough to persuade me it's worth the extra money. Sound-wise, though, the dialogue was raw-sounding with the cheap cables – the pricier cables were smoother with more body.
KANE That's right. It's not like the differences in picture are negligible, but the improvements in sound are much more significant.
ALEX It baffles me. I wouldn't have believed you could make that kind of difference just by changing a digital connection like an HDMI cable.
If you'd like to get involved, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org