Question:

I am attempting to enter the world of "mid-end" audio. This is my first foray and I am completely overwhelmed with the many speaker, amplifier, surround sound, sub woofer, digital processor, etc. technologies / options.

Could you recommend a complete setup for me? My room is 16′ x 20′ with 16′ ceilings.

I really would like a system that could last for the next 15 – 20 years…(unless some uber cool technology develops and I need a new component…)

– Monica

SECRETS Senior Editor, Carlo LoRaso, asked some additional questions of Monica:

Monica is looking a full surround sound system and not just a really good stereo setup. The use will be 70% Movies and 30% Music.

Monica would like to keep the expenditure under $15k and Design/style is important, but not at the expense of function. Having said that, the horizontal space is kinda limited to the length of a 14′ wall – if a speaker sits in front of a cabinet or 9′ if it sits in front of a wall.

Answer:

Hi Monica,

I was originally thinking that this was going to be a quick reply with an easy recommendation for you but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to give you a few options since I can’t physically see your room. Now, you said that you had 16 foot ceilings which makes ceiling mounted speakers a little problematic for a “textbook” Dolby ATMOS or DTS:X speaker setup. But I think I have a solution for that.

Home Theater Receivers

Anthem MRX 1120 ($3499.00), Yamaha RX-A3070 ($2200.00) or Marantz SR 7011 ($2200.00).

Any of these receivers would fit the bill and have you covered tech-wise for a long time. While the Yamaha and Marantz have more bells and whistles, I would pick the Anthem first on sound quality and usability. Also, the Anthem has 11 built in amplifier channels where the others have 9. This means you can expand your surround sound set up to a full Dolby ATMOS 7.2.4 setup (7 surround speakers, 2 subwoofers and 4 height speakers) without having to add an extra amplifier box. But again, any of these three would serve you well.

Speaker Systems

There are a lot of good speaker systems out there. The ones that I am going to recommend are brands and models that I have had some measure of experience with. A basic 5.1 surround system will consist of 5 speakers (Left, Right, Center, Surround Left, Surround Right) and a subwoofer. And that can be a perfectly good place to start and finish if implemented well. You can add two more (optional) “Back” speakers for a 7.1 system if you have the space, and then up to four more height speakers mounted either in the ceiling or on the walls, above the others and angled down, to create a Dolby ATMOS and DTS:X compatible theater. Since I only know general details about your room, I’m going to recommend certain speaker model lines for you to investigate. You can decide how simple or complicated you want your install to be. In some instances, on-wall surround speakers may be preferable to just regular tower or bookshelf speakers purposed for surround duty. Again, this depends on your room layout and where you can and can’t run speaker wire.

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ELAC UNI-FI Slim Series: A pair of FS U5 Slim tower speakers for left and right. A CC U5 Slim center channel speaker and a pair of BS U5 bookshelf speakers for surrounds. As ELAC doesn’t make a matching wall mounted surround speaker, if you needed to go that route I would add a pair of Ultra Surround Speakers from SVS as a viable surround speaker alternative.

Paradigm Prestige Series: A pair of Prestige 85F tower speakers for left and right. A C25 center channel speaker and a pair of Prestige 15B bookshelf speakers or Prestige 25S on-wall speakers for surrounds.

Revel Concerta 2 Series: A pair of F36 tower speakers for left and right. A Prestige 45C center channel speaker and a pair of M16 bookshelf speakers or S16 on-wall speakers for surrounds.

GoldenEar Triton Cinema: A pair of Triton Two+ tower speakers for left and right. A SuperCenter XXL center channel speaker and a pair of SuperSat 60 speakers (these can be either stand or wall mounted) for surrounds.

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For any of the above speaker systems I would recommend using a subwoofer from HSU Research. Their VTF-3 MK 5 HP subwoofer would be a good choice for your size of room. The GoldenEar speaker package could very well get by without a separate subwoofer as the main tower speakers have built in subwoofers already and can be wired appropriately to your receiver.

For the overhead height speakers, I would recommend going with four SVS Prime Elevation speakers as they are specially designed to be mounted higher on the side walls and are angled to fire their sound down towards the listener.

Player or Source Component

For a source component, I would recommend the OPPO UDP-203 4K HD disk player ($549.00). It will play any disk format under the sun and when you are ready to move to 4K UHD Blu-rays, it will be ready for you.

Accessories: Speaker and interconnect cable

I would forgo whatever cable is included with the components you buy as that tends to be there only for the sake of convenience. That also doesn’t mean you should go out and spend a small fortune on connection wire either. For speaker cable, I would recommend nothing thinner than 12-gauge wire. You can also purchase banana plugs or spades to terminate the ends of the speaker wire. This helps for convenient connecting to the speaker and receiver binding posts, but some people prefer bare wire connection to the speaker jacks too. It’s purely optional. For the interconnect cables between your components, both for audio, video and frankly speaker, I would refer you to either Blue Jeans Cable, RAM Electronics or Monoprice. Each sells decent quality cable with Monoprice being the value leader of the bunch. I tend to like Blue Jeans Cable personally. I have both my main systems wired with their speaker, audio and video cable and have never had any issues. You can order your speaker cable in bulk or custom lengths which they will terminate for you. They also are very knowledgeable about the science of cables and will not sell you what you don’t need. Monoprice and RAM cater to all price levels while Blue Jeans just sells good reputable cable.

I hope I’ve been able to give you some helpful information to chew on. Please don’t hesitate to ask me any additional questions if there is anything you’d like more clarification on.

  • Cory Potts

    I would also recommend she buy these items from a local shop who is willing to install/calibrate it for her (especially the ARC), it would be a shame to spend that kind of coin and have all 7 speakers in a line at the front of them room (I’ve seen it).

  • Jay Haider

    I agree with Cory. One other suggestion for the design conscious: it may be worth it to allocate some of the budget to an installer to conceal the speaker wires in the wall. We couldn’t have installed a multichannel system in our living room without hiding the wires behind the crown molding.

  • Boomzilla

    And my recommendations to Monica might branch out a bit… At this budget, I’d consider separates over an AVR, even though I might have to skimp elsewhere. Emotiva makes an excellent processor (the XMC-1) and an even more excellent series of amplifiers. I believe the sound to not only be better, but it also makes the system “future proof” so that when the processor must be replaced, you can still use the existing power amps.

    To the speaker lineup, I’d also include the Tekton speakers. Not only is their sound exceptional for the price, but also they can be ordered in a wide variety of colors. In addition to that, the Tektons are (generally) more efficient than other speakers, meaning that less power will be required.

    For subwoofer(s), I’d recommend PowerSound Audio. For the money, they make a mean sub. For less money, the Emotiva BasX series subs (and particularly their S12) are unbeatable bargains.

    I agree that wiring is sufficient if one buys from Monoprice (lowest cost) or BlueJeans cable (highest quality regardless of cost).

    And finally, regardless of where the gear is bought, it’s probably a good idea to have a competent local installer do the installation (unless you know what you’re doing and are also a DIY type).

    Happy shopping, Monica!

    Cordially – Boomzilla

  • peter jasz

    Hi Monica: Let not “compactness” fool you into believing it’s excellent –as a result of its modernity.

    That’s a nice size room. Your lucky.

    start with a premium Surround-Sound Receiver (Marantz makes a wonderful, high-quality, excellent sounding A/V Receiver –the one/model at-near $1,500-$2,000. This model truly sounds soo much better than entry-level $500. models. It’s worth every penny.

    Also, consider a fine equipment stand if the room aesthetic allows.

    From there, let your loudspeaker selection be based on “music listening” evaluations. Do NOT select loudspeakers based on a “surround-sound” demo.
    If compactness (and excellent sound) would be desirable, consider KEF’s excellent “Eggs” with matching sub-woofer (get two sub-woofers –space permitting.). The “Eggs” are very compact (fit in your palm) speakers that require the matching speaker stand to ensure the front (L/R) speakers are elevated to ear height when in the seated listening/viewing position.
    The KEF Eggs with one/two subwoofers = approx. $2K. Same for the Marantz A/V . These would be full retail prices so expect discounts from there.

    What you do (or likely will decide) to use as a video or audio “source” can be selected once these two important components have been secured.

    I’d also strongly recommend the use/purchase of a Balanced/ Symmetrical AC Power Supply (Equi-tech), or similar Isolation Transformer ( Torus) to power some, or all of your electronic A/V equipment. Either of these are sized about the same as a regular, full-sized A/V Receiver. Depending on the size/capacity required, consider another $1K-$2K for this critical device.

    If you consider, or are willing to accept demo models (or slightly used), expect a 10-30% discount from retail prices.

    From here, simply select the “sources” to complete your system. And, forget not the importance of quality cabling.

    Even with the source” components, You should be well below the allotted budget while immensely enjoying this engaging, entertaining and rugged sound system.

    peter jasz

  • Monica

    Hi Bommzilla,

    Thank you for the great advice!

    If I were to go with separates – what components would I need? Processor / Amplifier / Power – anything else?

    Best,

    Monica

  • Monica

    Hi Carlo – and everyone,

    Thank you VERY much for the detailed information you have provided.

    Do you have a preference among the speakers you recommended? (Including the KEF Eggs Peter recommended below?)

    I will do some research on how to evaluate speakers – if you have any tips, I would appreciate you sharing them.

    Thank you,

    Monica

  • Boomzilla

    Hi Monica –

    I’ll be happy to jump in here, but remember that my advice is worth every penny you’re paying for it! LOL

    If your budget is $15K, then let’s skim off about $3K from the top for installation. That leaves us with $12K for components.

    Before selecting, I’d need to ask one further question of you. Will this be a “movies and music only” system or do you also plan to watch normal TV on it? For example, if the video is on to news, tv-shows, and sports for three hours a day, then I’d be recommending a flat-panel television. If the use is primarily music and sports, then I’d be recommending a screen and video projector.

    Another follow-up to the first question is “Can the room be darkened for viewing, or will there always be ambient light in the room?” If the room can be darkened, then the projector / screen option becomes more attractive. If not, then the weight moves toward the flat-panel.

    So either way, let’s toss in $3,500 to $5,000 for the video side of your system. That leaves $7,000 for the combined processor / amplifier(s) / speakers & sundries.

    Let’s get the “easy” part out of the way first – the speaker system. For consistency and tonal matching, it’s easiest to buy the speaker system from a single manufacturer. I’d buy by price with a $3,500 budget for the speakers. There are many excellent choices including:

    Axiom Audio (internet direct)
    Revel
    Klipsch
    Emotiva Audio (internet direct)
    Polk Audio
    Tekton Design (internet direct – and with your choice of colors)

    Don’t buy the “entry level” system, either. If your room is large, then plan on 5, 7, 9, or 11 speakers (some of which may mount in the ceiling) with one or two subwoofers. If your room isn’t too large, then five speakers and a single subwoofer may suffice.

    This leaves but $3,500 for the combined processor / amplifier(s) / etc. This budget does limit you. You’ll be choosing between entry-level separates or else a high-end AVR. If saving space is important, then the AVR option becomes more attractive. If you have room for a processor and multiple amplifiers, then separates get the nudge. At this price point, you’ll be looking at entry-level separates from Paradigm, Emotiva, or possibly Rotel. If you’re looking at AVRs, then there are a wide variety available from companies such as Denon, Onkyo, Rotel, Pioneer, and Yamaha. I like Yamahas…

    The remainder (maybe $1,500) of your money will be spent on the following:

    Speaker wires (don’t spend much here – I like BlueJeans cable from the internet.
    Power conditioner (I recommend a simple surge suppressor – most conditioners aren’t worth their cost).
    Room treatment – I like ATS acoustics.
    AV furniture – I like Sanus.

    I know this is more generic, but without further information, it’s the best I can do.

    Bon Marché!

    Boomzilla

  • Boomzilla

    Hi Jay Haider –

    I agree with you – hidden wiring is a thing of beauty!

  • Boomzilla

    Hi Cory Potts –

    I agree with you UNLESS the owner is a DIY type. I’ve seem some amazing HT rooms that the owners not only designed but also built themselves.

  • vneal

    Good suggestions