By Alfred Siew
THEY were once premium products exclusive to big spenders at swanky hi-fi showrooms.
These days, home theatre offerings - audiophile sound systems in particular - which provide surround sound effects for movies and games are fast coming into the mainstream.
Such systems now cost as low as $699 - the price of a run-of-the-mill "home theatre in a box", which comes with everything pre-packaged and usually offers inferior sound.
An audiophile home theatre system usually includes an AV receiver, a DVD player, a set of speakers and audio cables, all hand-picked to work together for a personalised sound.
More importantly, a system made up of separate components often sounds better because each one works individually to do its job.
This is superior to a single system busying itself with everything and not doing each task particularly well.
What will your dollar get you today in home theatre systems?
Here are three offerings I tested last week at Audio House Liang Court.
1 The 'newbie' system, $699
Denon AVR-1709 AV receiver and Boston Acoustics MCS100 5.1 speakers
These entry-level satellite speakers may appear like regular plastic speakers but they pack a nice punch with movie effects.
The Chapter 7 gun battle in the Patriot DVD shows this.
Even when played loud, there is none of the distortion common in the inferior offerings.
The effects - like the loading of a rifle and rustling of leaves in a jungle - are distinct.
With Denon's bang-for-your-buck AV amplifier onboard, you have enough power for better speakers should you upgrade in future.
Sure, you might be disappointed if you are a more demanding listener.
Bass, for example, could be tighter.
Sound is also obviously not projected as well as from larger speakers.
Music, too, would sound warmer and more detailed if these speakers were made of wood instead of plastic.
Then again, for this price, this system is head and shoulders above a home-theatre-in-a-box costing the same.
2 'Middle-of-the-road' system, $999
Marantz SR-4003 AV receiver and Marantz LS-6000 speakers
For those who want bigger, more expansive sound that fills a room, this system is what you may be presented at showrooms.
Credited for creating "music-friendly" AV receivers, the budget SR-4003 receiver supports "2 HDMI in and 1 out", which means it accepts incoming signals from, say, an Xbox and DVD player and outputs the video to a TV.
The Marantz floor-standing speakers - they are tall enough to be placed on the floor - obviously project sound much better than tiny satellites on the previous budget system.
Bass, however, may work for some users and not for others.
A gunshot in the Patriot DVD could be more distinct and focused, if you are picky about such details.
An Olivia bossanova CD could have sounded better if you are into vocals more than bass.
Check this system out if you are keen to fill a large room without spending a fortune.
But do check out other similarly priced systems.
3 'Pretty rich geek' system, $2,999
Denon AVR-2309 AV receiver and Polk Audio 5.1 speakers: Tsi-300, Cs-10, OWM3, PSW-110
This pairing of Denon's mid-range AVR-2309 receiver with Polk Audio's floor-standers and surround speakers not only produces excellent movie effects, but also bright-sounding music.
With the Patriot DVD, you hear the fine details - from the reloading of rifles to feet shifting over undergrowth - despite all the booms of gunshots filling the air.
The bass is tight and the entire spectrum of sound is recreated so dynamically you get drawn into the action easily.
All the fury of the action comes through with urgency, especially the panicked cries of soldiers in battle as well as the brutal charge of an axe-wielding Mel Gibson.
What surprises me is how detailed music can sound.
Despite having an AV receiver aimed more at movies, this setup actually delivers bright vocals on the Olivia CD, as well as a relatively unfussed reproduction of string instruments.
One final praise: Polk Audio's modest-looking front floor-standers also project sound confidently, so no worries about filling up a living room in a typical apartment or even in a bungalow.
The bottom line: Typically, good sound comes at a price. But once in a while, bargains do appear.
That is what you want to look out for in a showroom.
Listen to a few systems, mixing and matching components until you find something that fits your taste and, more importantly, your wallet.
Brought to you by Audio House
This story was first published in The Straits Times Digital Life.
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