By Guy Wright
There are three main components to consider when building a home theater – a big screen TV, some content to watch (from a DVD player, VCR, cable, satellite, or broadcast source), and a surround sound system.
Not too long ago ‘Home Theater in a Box’ surround sound systems were notoriously poor quality, but in recent years these systems have improved dramatically. We scouted around and found an even dozen of the highest user rated home theater surround sound systems – rated by users who actually own them.
At the heart of any surround sound system is the receiver – sometimes it is a separate, stand-alone unit and sometimes the receiver is built into a DVD player. The receiver ‘decodes’ the specially encoded surround signals (Dolby, DTS, THX, etc.) into different channels, amplifies each of these channels, and sends them to the multiple surround speakers. Early surround systems had three speakers (left, right, and center) but today most surround systems have at least six speakers (left, right, center, two surround speakers, and a sub-woofer). Since many surround encoding schemes don’t actually have a discreet sub-woofer signal the receiver has to ‘synthesize’ the sub-woofer channel based on the other five signals which is why a six speaker surround sound system will have the designation 5.1 (the ‘dot one’ refers to the sub-woofer). These days there are 6.1 systems, 7.1 systems, and some with even more speakers (although you’d be hard pressed to find any content that is encoded for anything above 7.1).
Now you could go out and buy a surround sound receiver and cobble together an assortment of home stereo speakers from different manufacturers but the odds are you’d be disappointed with the results. That’s because it’s important for all the speakers in a surround sound setup to be ‘matched’ – in other words they should all have the same acoustic profiles. That is why manufactures started offering complete systems with receivers and sets of matched speakers.