HDMI vs. optical: Which digital-audio connection to use?

When it comes time to connect your shiny new sound bar or AV receiver, your two main choices are HDMI or optical digital audio.

The simplest advice is to go with HDMI when you can. But if you can't it's not the end of the world.

Here are the pros and cons of each.… Read more

Is surround sound for music and home theater on its way out?

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, surround-sound music looked like the next big thing, but in the intervening decade and a half, precious little rock, jazz, or world music has been recorded in surround. True, in the early days of SACD and DVD-Audio formats there were hundreds of remixes of older stereo recordings, and some were recycled on Blu-ray, but the number of newly recorded 5.1 titles remains paltry. Looking back, the early 2000s should have been an ideal time to launch surround music; multichannel home theater was peaking, so there was a large number of households … Read more

DTS headphone surround-sound technology

DTS demonstrated its new Headphone:X surround processing system at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. The system is capable of reproducing up to 11 channels of surround sound over conventional stereo headphones. I didn't hear it, but a few friends at the show who heard the Headphone:X demo came away impressed with its ability to project a sound field well outside the confines of the headphones. DTS is promoting Headphone:X technology as HTiP -- Home Theater in Pocket, and claims that the system can emulate the DTS reference listening room or a … Read more

Onkyo to offer Dolby TrueHD 5.1 channel music downloads

At the end of May, Onkyo will start selling Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel music downloads, first in Japan, and by the fall of this year worldwide. That's either a brave or foolhardy move.

Multichannel music formats -- starting with quadraphonic LPs and tapes in the early 1970s, DTS encoded surround CDs in the 1990s, and DVD Audio and SACD in the early 2000s -- have all suffered from a lack of consumer demand. Very, very few surround releases were initially recorded in surround; most rock and jazz titles are remixed from older stereo recordings. The Blu-ray format has now … Read more

Who 'needs' a receiver with HDMI connectivity? Not you

I get this question all the time, "I just bought a new TV, do I need to buy a HDMI receiver?" The short answer is no.

You can hook up your Blu-ray or cable box's HDMI outputs directly to the TV, and run digital audio cables to your receiver, and live happily ever after. Granted, you won't be able to play Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio soundtracks, just standard Dolby Digital and DTS audio you have enjoyed all these years. Some players, like the Oppo BDP-93 or '95 internally decode TrueHD and DTS Master … Read more

How can 30-year-old receivers sound better than new ones?

It's a strange turn of events, but mainstream manufacturers long ago gave up on the idea of selling receivers on the basis of superior sound quality. I'm not claiming today's receivers sound "bad," but since almost no one ever listens to a receiver before they buy one, selling sound quality is next to impossible.

Back in the days when brick-and-mortar stores ruled the retail market, audio companies took pride in their engineering skills and designed entire receivers in-house. Right up through the 1980s most of what was "under the hood" was designed and … Read more

Surround sound from any stereo headphone for $40

I've seen these types of things before, but now Iogear has jumped into the fray with a new surround processor for stereo headphones. The product, the USB Theater Sound Xperience, is a USB audio adapter featuring DTS Surround Sensation Headphone technology. Connecting directly to a computer's USB 2.0 port, the USB Theater Sound Xperience simulates a surround-sound effect over stereo headphones or stereo speakers. It's a PC-only compatible device and will not work with Apple computers.

I have no idea what it sounds like, but I love the design; it looks like a vacuum tube! Fear … Read more

Does home theater need more than 5.1 channels?

Multichannel movie sound dates back to Disney's "Fantasia." When the film was first released in 1940, the number of speakers used was scaled to the size of the individual theater; 30 to 80 speakers were installed behind the screen and around the perimeter of the ceiling.

Home theater multichannel sound arrived many decades later, and quickly settled on a 5.1 channel system, which is just a scaled-down version of the current movie theater system. The home system uses three front speakers--left, center, right--and two surround speakers placed on the sides of the room. The subwoofer supplies … Read more

Should you buy a new receiver or new speakers?

I get a lot of questions from readers, and by far, this is the one that seems to be on everyone's mind: "I have an old receiver, and I was considering upgrading to a newer model with HDMI switching and Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio processing. Would I notice a dramatic difference in sound quality from what I have now?"

It's a hard question to answer for a lot of reasons, starting with the fact that one man's "dramatic" is another man's "subtle" difference. I think the best new … Read more

The 'cure' for receiver feature glut: Stereo receivers

Judging by the Comments responding to my recent "Do receivers have too many features?" blog post, a lot of folks think today's receivers are overstuffed with gizmos. Now sure, if you crave a full complement of the latest doodads--streaming Rhapsody-Napster-Pandora-Flickr, USB inputs, iPhone certification, Audyssey MultEQ XT Auto Calibration, Wi-Fi, Windows Vista, DLNA, HD Radio, Internet Radio, multiroom-multizone connectivity, Ethernet and RS-232C ports, or Bluetooth Wireless Audio Transmission Capability--rush out and buy a home theater receiver. Enjoy reading the 120-page operating manual and exploring layer after layer of setup options. Good times!

But if the goal is to simply enjoy music and a movie every now and then, do yourself a favor and consider a stereo receiver, or if you don't care about radio, an integrated amplifier (an integrated amp is essentially a receiver without a radio). Another plus for stereo home theater converts, they'll never have to deal with convoluted speaker setup menus, or risk an out-of-balance sound mix. Stereo is nearly impossible to get wrong.

A lot of people think stereo receivers are old hat and they "have to" buy a surround receiver. Wrong! And as I pointed out in the blog post the other day, home theater receiver features aren't "free"; manufacturers pay very significant licensing fees and royalties to the companies that developed those features. To bring a receiver in on budget, engineers and product planners make cost-saving decisions to cut back on other aspects of the design. The audio circuitry is probably the first to take a hit.

With stereo receivers the engineering budget is directed to the audio side and Denon, Marantz, NAD, Onkyo, Sony and Yamaha all make stereo receivers. Apparently, there's still a market for stereo components, and now that more and more folks are getting into LPs, most new stereo receivers have turntable inputs. … Read more