Update: ConsumerReports.org now shows the Onkyo HT-S5200 as the best sound system.
Last month I bought a Sony Bravia KDL-52V5100 52-Inch 1080p 120Hz LCD HDTV that has a great picture but was somewhat lacking in sound quality. It was OK, but I felt that such a fine HD picture should be mated with a proper HD sound system.
HD audio was an area that I knew virtually nothing about. Thank God for the Internet!
I started my research at ConsumerReports.org. They sang the praises of the Onkyo HT-S5100 7.1-channel receiver/speaker package a/k/a home theater in a box (HTIB). It was rated well above all other systems priced between $200 and $1,000. In this price range you're not going to get a state of the art sound system, but you should get a solid system that would please most consumers. The 5100 system was also highly rated by numerous other on line reviewers. So I decided this was the system for me.
In this system there are 7 speakers and a remarkable 290 watt subwoofer. The maximum 1200 watt receiver (your ears will bleed before you crank it up that far) is also an AM/FM radio tuner and has Sirius radio input. There are all of the input connections you could want including connections for Blu-Ray, VCR's, DVD players, game consoles, or whatever. It also includes iPod dock.
The 7.1 channel audio that this system boasts refers to the 7 channels of surround sound audio produced by 7 speakers, and the .1 refers to the subwoofer.
I was dismayed to find that the 5100 was last year's model and was virtually unavailable. I did find the Onkyo HT-S5200 system for sale all over the Internet. The 5200 looked similar and had similar specifications to the 5100. A call to Onkyo Technical Support disclosed that the 5200 was, as one would suspect, the successor to the 5100, but with some improvements described by the Tech support guy none of which I really understood. I was still a little worried about buying a different, much more lightly (but still positively) reviewed model, but the price was right so I took the plunge.
I bought my system through Amazon.com, which I have found provides an extra layer of protection for the consumer, even if Amazon is not the ultimate seller. The actual seller to me was TigerDirect.com, from whom I had never made a purchase. However TigerDirect has a reputation right up there near Newegg.com. In my 8 years of experience making a lot of buys online, Newegg has been the "Gold Standard" of online resellers. Newegg did carry the 5200, but I had apparently caught them in between sales, so TigerDirect got my business.
I have not been disappointed. I hooked up all of the 8 speakers (subwoofer for base, a center speaker, left and right speakers plus 4 smaller surround sound speakers) with the receiver in about 40 minutes. The wire hook-ups on each of the speakers are color coded to the appropriate colored wires, with different colors for each speaker, and the connections on the back of the receiver are all well labeled. The ends of all of the wires are pre stripped, making set-up almost a no-brainer. The wires were up to 28 feet long.
The speaker wires are on the thin side, maybe 20 gauge. Some reviewers suggest upgrading to at least 16 or 14 gauge wires. I don't plan on doing this with my current set up, since it sounds great. If you shop at a B&M store such as Best Buy, you will be likely be pressured to upgrade to grossly overpriced Monster cables. Before you do this do some online research and convince yourself that you will be doing nothing but adding to the store's profit.
Most important to most people is the cable or satellite HDTV input. I strongly recommend that when you order the 5200 (or any sound system) you also order an optical audio cable, costing about $3 including shipping. I first connected the audio from the cable box using the old style red and white coded RCA cables that came with the cable HD box. I was not getting sound from the right side speakers.
The guy I spoke to at Onkyo Technical support worked with me to determine that that speaker's output port might be bad. He further gave me the option of sending the receiver in for repair at their expense or returning just the receiver to TigerDirect for a swapout. He asked if I had an optical audio cable, which I had bought on the advice of on line reviewers, not really knowing why. The support guy said the optical cable provided superior sound quality and he was right. I disconnected the two RCA speaker cables, connected the optical cable between my cable box and the receiver and my speaker problem disappeared, and TA_DUM: the sound was crystal clear.
I have to admit the original speaker problem was my bad, one of my connections to the cable box was loose. I have been very pleased at how easy it has been to reach Onkyo technical support, which I believe is located in the US of A. They know their stuff!
The Last Step
The 5200 includes an auto calibration feature. The audio calibration microphone attaches to the front of the receiver, and you sit the microphone where you will most likely be watching (and listening). As soon as you plug in the microphone the process automatically starts. This is an excellent way to verify everything is working right and to balance the 7 speakers and the subwoofer, in the room the system is in and with the position of all of the components. This takes about 15 minutes, but when you are done you have a remarkably balanced system. If you are not satisfied with what you hear, you still have the option of manually adjustments.
There are 4 HDMI input ports on the receiver, and one output, to go to your TV. These ports are simply "pass-troughs". This means the receiver its self does no decoding of digital signals, but simply passes through the signal from say your cable box or Blu-Ray player. Some see this as a negative, but it also keeps your receiver from becoming obsolete when the next digital format comes along. I'll just let my outside device do any required decoding, thank you very much. The details of work-arounds for various input devices can be found on the Internet.
I did not run the 3 RCA video cables from the cable box into the receiver, but just left them attached to my TV, which works fine. I ordered a cheap HDMI cable through Amazon for $6 including shipping. I used this to hook up my Blu-ray player, a PS3, which also serves as a DVD player. Just as an experiment I ran HDMI cables to the receiver and TV, just to see if that made any difference. It did not, and I believe it possibly provided a slightly lower quality picture. I reverted to my original configuration; optical digital for sound and 3 RCA video cables as described above.
After I hooked everything up I watched Max Payne, the movie, on HBO. The surround sound (and 52" HDTV) made me almost feel that I was in the movie, with explosions to my side and behind me and bullets whizzing past my head! That subwoofer produced amazing bass that almost rattled the floor (and this house is on a concrete slab)!
The only problem was the side and rear speaker wires running across the floor. So I compromised (Gasp! say the audiophiles). I disconnected the back speakers and put the side speakers in front, all the way to the left and right, and recalibrated.
I no longer have the thrill of true surround sound, but it sounds darn good! And if I want, for $40 I can order 500 feet of 16 gauge clear speaker cable, run them around the base of the walls, and get back in the middle of the action.
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