Delusions of grandeur

Transform your living room into an epic auditorium — without splashing out on five hundred seats and putting up with those strange people from the outside world. T2’s regular look at home theatre highlights the unsung heroes that might just breathe new life into the system you’ve already bought.

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  June 6, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|So you’re at home right now, flicking through T2 with your feet up, while a VHS sits proudly across the room? Then we may have a problem.

What are you waiting for? OK, when DVD arrived back in 1997 no one could predict its success. Cautious money watched the main film studios jump slowly on the bandwagon and looked on as some consumers ran foul of early compatibility issues. But those days are gone.

That’s not to say that buying a home system is a trouble-free experience but, over twelve million units later — not including those DVD-ROM players installed in PCs around the globe — the digital argument has never been stronger: get yourself a DVD player.

Besides, our regular look at home theatre has arrived. Each month, we’ll tackle the topics that you need to explore, from widescreen displays to portable projectors, from high-end audio to the challenge of separates. This month we aim to lay the foundations of home theatre and highlight the most forgotten of components, the cable. Yes, that’s right, the cable.

Lower that eyebrow and contemplate this: whether your passion is for the surround sound magic of Hollywood, or two-channel audio powerful enough to wake the neighbours only to leave them begging for more, a simple length of wire really will transform the system you've already paid for. Before you upgrade your speakers to the latest reference system, ask yourself if you’re already getting your money’s worth.

Connectivity is king. The video signal that arrives at your TV is wholly dependent upon its source. The most effective display unit in the world won’t be able to save the picture quality if you are feeding it with an inferior signal.

The lowest rung on the ladder is an R/F connector, which will terminally degrade the quality of your image. If you find yourself faced with this connection type then it’s probably because it’s all that your aging TV will accept. Your first step should be to buy a new TV set and give your DVD player a chance.

Modern units will at least offer you composite connections. Standard RCA jacks will do the job, consisting of a single video plug and a left and right audio input (typically red and white). But why go digital only to hamstring your viewing pleasure with substandard results? That is, after all, what you can expect from cheap and cheerful RCA jacks.

Far better to migrate to S-video: the small, circular 4-pin connector and really the minimum level of signal that will do justice to a DVD source. S-video circuitry splits brightness and colour into two separate inputs for a crisp and vibrant image.

||**||Connectivity is king|~||~||~|Better still; consider a component hook up for your system. Looking much like those RCA jacks, a component connection comprises three separate cables, all dedicated to video. The first signal sends only brightness information, while the other two split colour signals. Push the boat out this far and you’ll be able to appreciate all that DVD can offer.

The only catch is that many budget DVD players offer just basic connection options. You’ll have to buy digital audio cable and a component connection on top of the unit itself.

As with most consumer electronics, you get, roughly speaking, what you pay for. As the cost goes up, so does the quality of your DVD player’s internal components and the usefulness of its feature set.

Most additional comforts are worth the investment if you’ve got the budget to burn. A comprehensive remote control might fall to the bottom of your shopping list but remember that you won’t want to leave your couch to interact with the DVD unit. The remote should be comfortable to hold and offer control over any function that appeals to you.

A backlit remote is a firm T2 favourite; fumbling around in the dark should have nothing to do with your DVD player. Finally, weigh up the virtues of a progressive scan device. Progressive scan units effectively draw more lines on your screen than standard interlace players. The result is a much sharper picture.

On the flipside — and while we maintain that the golden rule of home theatre is ‘each to his own’ — we would point out a few pitfalls. Single tray players are a potentially sound choice. You can pay more for multi-disc units designed to replace both your single tray DVD and multiple CD changer but often these bargain devices sacrifice the playback quality of their single-tray counterparts.

In addition, some players allow you to fine-tune the black level of your picture. It’s a sensible adjustment but fairly irrelevant if your display is calibrated correctly in the first place.

Home theatre is all about balance: a successful mix of components to suit your needs and lifestyle. Before you snap up every feature under the sun, make sure your dollars stretch to a level of quality that includes everything from the speakers to the cables to the DVD player itself.

||**||Going gold on cables|~||~||~|There is an old English proverb: ‘Don’t ruin the sound system for a penny-worth of copper!’ Well it can’t be that old as a proverb, but it is certainly the tag line of companies like Chord that specialise in producing very expensive interconnect cables for your home cinema/audio hi fi set up.

In fact, you are told to budget some 10% of the cost of your system to the plugs and wire between system components (usually called interconnects) and those between amplifiers and your loudspeakers (loudspeaker cable).

So, do you want to ‘go large’ on wire? Should you? Will you hear the difference? Like all matters sound and video, it is all very subjective but there are some universal truths. We all know that a good speaker makes a difference. Just listen to a pair of bookshelves and turn the subwoofer on and off! The same is true of cables.

Use a plain bit of wire to connect up your Dolby decoder to the amps driving your surround system and you will hear two of the problems that your cables are there to solve: you will probably get interference; and you will lose signal power and integrity.

Interference raises its ugly head when you are piping audio signals from a signal source (a CD Player, DVD player/decoder) to a power amplifier. The amp takes low power signals of milli- or even microamps and turns them up sufficiently to drive your speakers and fill your room with all the thumps and sounds that ‘The Terminator’ can deliver from your DVD player.

Anything that gets into the cable along the way is also amplified and fed to your speakers. The most common problem is mains hum from the power leads and sockets you need to light up your system.

And that is what the braid around the central core conductor of the interconnect wire does. It shields the central conductor by intercepting the mains hum and dumping it to earth through both the amplifier and the decoder feeding the amplifier.

You lose loudness or signal power if the wire you are using has too much resistance. Wire is just like a hole in a bucket: the smaller the hole, the less water gets through. Make the wire bigger in cross-section and it is able to carry more signal. But make the wire longer, and you increase its resistance. Bad cabling can also change the tone of the signal.

You know how your voice sounds different over the phone? That is the effect of tone changes caused by the wire used in analogue telephone systems: it restricts voice tones to just 3kHz at the high end of its bandwidth. Any good DVD/decoder/amplifier operates up to frequencies of 20kHz and beyond, and so therefore must your cables.

||**||Do YOU have a problem?|~||~||~|So, what should you use to connect your amps to your loudspeakers? 13-amp mains wire will do. But to get the full tonal range out of your system you should consider wire made from solid silver and insulated by Teflon.

You can get conductors with two or four wires in the core. Four-wire core is for bi-amping or bi-wiring. If your budget does not run to solid silver, try cables made of stranded very pure oxygen-free copper, heavily coated with silver. Since electricity is conducted on the surface of the conductor, silver plated conductors are a good compromise.

Once you have decided on what wire to use, consider biwiring, biamping or triamping your speakers. Good quality speakers will have two or three sets of terminals for you to connect to.

Biwiring allows you to use two pairs of speaker cable for each speaker and drive, from the same amplifier output connections, the midrange/bass circuitry and treble circuitry independently. Biamping and triamping requires two or three amplifiers per speaker, each driving bass/midrange (combined for speakers with two sets of terminals) or treble speaker circuitry. This configuration gives the best results.

Interconnects have a different job to do. They have to convey low-power signals between source, preamp and power amps, without loss or distortion. At least that is the recipe. That means they need to offer very little impedance to the signal path and reject spurious noise.

So do you have a problem? I think spurious noise getting into the system is the most intrusive problem with cables, and if you have it, then spending money on cables is well justified.

Here is a simple test. Turn your surround-sound or hi fi amplifier on, but ensure that there is nothing playing, DVD or cable/satellite TV. Then turn the sound right up and listen. If you can hear anything, any spurious noise from your listening position, you definitely have a problem (although it may be with your equipment, not the cabling).

If you can hear spurious noise when you put your ear right up to the speaker beyond the usual hiss of the amplifier, you have a problem only if the knowledge that there is something there bothers you! You might take the attitude, ‘what I can't hear, can’t hurt’. But if the noise is there, even though you can’t hear it, it will be affecting the integrity of your film sound track or CD and the sound stage will suffer.

Buying surround sound systems is just like buying hi fi. It is all a matter of budget and compromises. There is one major psychological difference though between hi fi and DVD surround sound. With DVD you are watching a picture and, although the sound is important, I have found that a $220 surround-sound system with plastic speakers and plain wire connections gives a satisfying (but not necessarily good) experience because your attention is focused on the video image. However, a good sub-woofer is essential because you can feel bass!

Cables are an important part of any sound and vision system. If you are going to spend more than $220 on your surround sound system (and, despite my earlier comments, I recommend that you do!), spend some of your budget on the plugs and wires.

Don’t just use what comes in the box. However, remember that paying $1000 for a pair of cables will not improve your sound stage much if your speakers are not correctly positioned in your room!

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