Home theater doesn’t have to mean high price. There are many people who will tell you that you need to have huge monster sized full range speakers, a full Dolby Atmos 7.2.2 system, and separate high power amps in order to have anything respectable. Where we firmly believe that any well designed components can sound fantastic with proper care of placement, installation, and the right mix of features.
A good thing to remember when talking about ANY mass produced product, is the more the company makes, the cheaper it is to build. A great example is the automotive industry. If you wanted to hand build a car today, it would cost you upwards of $500k to do so, if not more. But you can go and buy a regular car for under $20,000. How? Mass production paves the way.
The second thing to think of is finish. That is, the visual quality of the finished product. High end products have high end design. The B&W 801 Diamond is incredible to look at; but do the 12 layers of hand polished lacquer add to the sound? Does using exotic burl maple veneer on a boutique sub woofer make it play deeper? Does milling your DAC out of a solid chuck of aluminum reduce distortion? No; but it adds visual appeal. When buying high end products a portion of your money goes towards sound technology, and a portion goes to ‘design’. This ratio changes rapidly with increasing price.
So what this really means to you, the consumer, is that as long as you’re OK with black vinyl wrap and square corners, you can have a great sounding system on a budget. We know from experience that this is possible. The following systems won’t be for everyone, but they strike a good balance between performance, price, and availability (not everyone has a high end AV store nearby).
For all three of these systems, we are going to recommend the same brain (receiver) the Denon AVR-S710W ($508.75 USD). The 700 series has been one of the best-selling receivers in the United States for a few years now, and with good reason. It has 7 channels of amplification and dual subwoofer outputs. Supports Dolby Atmos 5.2.1 or DTS:X. It has more HDMI inputs then most people need, and supports all of the latest standards through HDMI including 4k pass-through; so compatibility will not be an issue. It starts up quickly and easily and runs quite cool (although we never recommend putting electronics in a cabinet without active venting). Most importantly though, it includes Audyssey MultEQ room correction. What it doesn’t have is Component analog inputs or a Phono stage, but a step up to the next price level brings you those features.
Next we will look at speakers. This is the category that varies the most on price. We highly recommend starting with a 5.1 system, although the truly budget conscious can go with a two channel system now, and upgrade in the future. There is nothing wrong with that line of thought. 7.1 systems are great, but only when implemented correctly. That means proper positioning. You will get much better performance from a 5.1 system then a poorly implemented 7.1 system.
Recommendation 1) Pioneer Andrew Jones series. Andrew Jones is a particularly famous speaker designer that originally designed many high end speakers for other companies before joining with Pioneer a few years ago. With Pioneer he was able to use those mass production techniques we discussed earlier to bring a level of performance never before seen at these price points. There are plenty of reviews out there singing the praise of these speakers and we can confirm that they’re absolutely wonderful. The Pioneer Pioneer SP-FS52-LR ($129 USD Each) are some very capable tower speakers that can make up a great front end set up. Add on the SP-C22 Center Channel ($97 USD) and the SP-BS22 Bookshelf ($100 USD pair) Speakers and you have a very respectable 5.1 set up for only $455 USD. To save even more you can use the bookshelf speakers for the front channels instead of the towers bringing the price to just shy of $300 USD, shipped free from Amazon. There is a subwoofer that’s part of the Andrew jones line, the $140 SW-8MK2 8″ subwoofer. It’s a good sounding subwoofer, but the low power output might leave some people wanting more. However, with the dual subwoofer outputs of the receiver you can put 2 (or more) into the same room and really have something.
Recommendation 2) The second series of speakers is also designed by Andrew Jones. Andrew Left Pioneer and joined up with a company called Elac. There he applied the same techniques he applied at Pioneer to a slightly more expensive line of speakers. The real difference is slightly better looks, better phase coherence, and better crossover components. For critical listening the Elac Debut series is superior to the pioneer line, but for general home theater use, you’ll be hard pressed to hear a difference. The F5 Tower ($279.99 USD Each) is a true 3 way tower speaker. The C5 Center ($179.99 USD Each) is a dual 5.25″ center channel speaker. You can use either the 6″ driver B6 Bookshelf ($279.99 USD Pair) or the 5.25″ B5 Bookshelf ($229.99 USD Pair) for your rears. The 10″ 200watt S10 Subwoofer ($249.99 USD Each) rounds out the system offering giving you a 5.1 system. Using the F5 towers and B6 bookshelf as rears, you’re looking at a 5 channel price of $1020. Using B6 all around it drops to $737 w/C5 center; and the truly budget conscious can go with B6 Fronts, and B5 rears for $689.99 including center.
Recommendation 3) Paradigm Monitor series. The monitor series is a long-stay in the bang for your buck category, although in comparison to the last two they will seem a bit pricier. Designed and tested in Canada, Paradigm has an extensive research division and designs and manufactures their own loudspeaker drivers; something most manufacturers do not. The monitor series has slowly been increasing in price over the last few generations, but the quality, fit and finish, and audio technology has been steadily increasing alongside to make up for that price increase. For Home Theater listening, the Monitor 7 Towers ($530 each CAD), paired with the Atom Monitor Bookshelf ($230 Each CAD), and the Center 1 ($440 Each CAD) make for a great combination and come in at $1960 Canadian dollars. Although sounding expensive at first, you could always buy the fronts now, and work toward the center and rears later. Plus, with the fantastic US exchange rate right now, you will see significant savings when buying in US funds. What upgrade does the monitor line add above and beyond the previous two series? Another step up in fit and finish, with a selection of various finishes and colors. They have advanced technology with deeper low end extension and smoother overall frequency response and greater power handling. They also again have higher end crossover components and drivers built to tighter specifications then the Pioneer or Elac series.
1) Pioneer: Andrew Jones
Receiver: Denon AVR-S710W ($508.75 USD)
Front:Pioneer Pioneer SP-FS52-LR ($129 USD Each)
Center:SP-C22 Center Channel ($97 USD)
Rear:SP-BS22 Bookshelf ($100 USD pair)
Sub-woofer:$140 SW-8MK2 8″ subwoofer
Total Cost: $1103 USD, with subwoofer.
1) Elac Debut: Andrew Jones
Receiver: Denon AVR-S710W ($508.75 USD)
Front:F5 Tower ($279.99 USD Each)
Center:C5 Center ($179.99 USD Each)
Rear:B6 Bookshelf ($279.99 USD Pair)
Sub-woofer:S10 Subwoofer ($249.99 USD Each)
Total Cost: $1770, with subwoofer
1) Paradigm Monitor
Receiver: Denon AVR-S710W ($508.75 USD)
Front: Monitor 7, $530 each (CAD)
Center: Center 1, $440 CAD
Rear: Atom Monitor $230 CAD, each
Sub-woofer: Sub 10 $1160, CAD, each
Total Cost: $1908 USD (as of the time of this writing) without sub-woofer; $2736 USD with Sub 10.
Final Thoughts: The Pioneer Andrew Jones series is clearly the value leader; but some of the best value to be found is in the used speaker market. Speakers last a very long time and older speakers can be an excellent value. Many people are constantly upgrading and you can easily find Paradigm Monitor speakers for 50% off retail that are only a series or two old. Check out your local classified ads, local stores, and canuckaudiomart.com for more deals.