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Virtually all of the recent and planned video delivery media, including DVD, DTV, DirecTV (potentially), and Laserdisc, support Dolby Digital audio. Dolby Digital (formerly called AC-3) compresses 5 discrete full bandwidth audio channels and 1 low frequency (e.g., subwoofer) channel down to a relatively low bit rate data channel (e.g., 384 Kbps).   In order to use Dolby Digital, consumers will need an Dolby Digital decoder, either built into a receiver or as a separate surround sound processor, along with six channels of amplification and suitable speakers.  Building upon Dolby Digital baseline THX was established by Lucasfilms primarily as a series of specifications, testing procedures and processes to ensure the quality and consistency of movie soundtrack recording and playback.  THX was first applied to commercial movie theater installations and equipment.  Shortly thereafter a consumer THX certification program was initiated.  Consumer THX certification initally focused only on speakers, receivers, amplifiers, digital surround sound decoders.  The THX certification program was later expanded to include audio cables software (i.e., initially Laserdiscs) and most recently DVD players.  In order for a product to receive a THX certification it must conform to the specifications established by Lucasfilms and successfully pass testing by Lucasfilms to verify the compliance of the product to the THX specification.  A full THX installation dictates use of THX certified speakers, amplifiers, surround sound decoding, cables and speaker placement.  While purchasing a product that has received a THX certification will provide a degree of assurance that it is a quality product, this not not mean a product with THX certification is inferior.  Lucasfilms also trains and THX certifies home theater dealers/ installers.   Recently a less demanding specification was allowed for products certified as 'THX Select'.  In receivers this allows for lower power output levels as would be appropriate for home theaters in smaller rooms.  Products to conform to the more demanding original standards are now receive a 'THX Ultra" certification.
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Prices for budget receivers with built-in Dolby Digital decoders and the required multi-channel amplification have now come down to the mainstream consumer level for home theaters with street prices as low as $300. Alternatively, some of the DVD players have the Dolby Digital decoder built into the player. In any case you will need a receiver, preamplifier or audio processor capable selecting inputs and controlling the volume of all 6 channels of sound. My advise it go ahead and get a new Dolby Digital enabled receiver, preamp or outboard processor and don't bother with finding a DVD player with a built-in decoder. Ideally the front left, center, front right, rear right and rear left speakers should be identical full range units of a conventional direct radiating design (rather than bi-polar as recommended for Dolby Pro-Logic/THX configurations). Also a dedicated subwoofer is recommended for the low frequency effects channel. In practice most will find it acceptable to forego having five large full range speakers and will use center and rear speakers with limited bass extension. The AC-3 decoder lets you shift the low frequency information over to the low frequency effects channel (i.e., subwoofer) for any channel where your speaker does not have extended low frequency response. See the notes on setting up a Dolby Digital AC-3 installation under the Do-It-Yourself Projects topic.

A competing 5.1 channel coding system is produced by DTS Technology. DTS has been very successful in marketing the commercial version of their system to movie theaters. The commercial theatrical version of DTS stores the 5.1 channels of audio on conventional CD ROMs that are synchronized to a control signal that is included on the movie film. The DTS installation for a typical theater cost perhaps half the price of a Dolby Digital installation. DTS 5.1 channel audio is now available on a few laserdiscs (LDs) and DVDs. The normal digital audio channels on the LDs are replaced with the DTS digital bit stream. DTS is included along with Dolby Digital on a few DVDs.  DTS compared to Dolby Digital, for both the theatrical version and the LD versions, has the advantage of using substantially higher data rate. For example, Dolby Digital typically uses a 384 Kbps rate while DTS uses 1.5 Mbps, or about a 4 times greater data rate. In this case DTS compresses the audio less and the result is superior sound. Dolby Digital is in fact quite good while DTS has the potential be just a little better. However, if DTS were to be used at the lower data rates used for Dolby Digital, its sonic performance would likely drop to that equivalent to Dolby Digital. DVD and DTV standards call for Dolby Digital operating at a data rate that can go up to a little higher than used on LDs. DVD does allow for alternative encoding schemes and there are some DVD now available that include both Dolby Digital and DTS audio. A few of the very latest generation of DVD players support DTS, as well as Dolby Digital audio. Consumer DTS decoders, or combined Dolby Digital and DTS decoders are now available from several manufacturers (check out the DTS Technology web site for more information).    Many manufactures of audio/video receivers are now offering decoding for both Dolby Digital and DTS in their products starting as low as $300.  However, the recently introduced audio-only DVDs, in the officially agreed to long-term format, have enough storage capacity to provide a truly lossless compression of 5.1 channels of audio thus providing the best sonic performance possible (i.e., even better than DTS encoded audio). The first DVD players supporting the audio-only DVD discs starting appearing in late 1999. 

The theatrical release of "Star Wars Episode 1 - Phantom Menace" introduced a new feature to Dolby Digital and THX.  This was the addition of center rear channel and this enhanced 6.1 channel version carries the Dolby Digital Surround EX or THX Surround EX label.  The rear center channel is not actually encoded as a discrete channel, but rather is derived using matrix decoding from the discrete right and left rear channels.   This is the exact same scheme used by Dolby Pro-Logic to derive the center front channel from the discrete right and and left front channels.  Several manufactures of Dolby Digital and THX processors and Dolby Digital enabled receivers plan to introduce support for the new 'EX' feature with 6.1 channels during 2000.   Expect to see this feature first appear on the mid-to-high end products first.  One of the first such receivers expected to reach dealer's shelves is the Yamaha RX-V1.  This $3199 receiver supports 6.1 channels for Dolby Digital Surround ES as well as the competing DTS-ES system.  Denon is offering their new AVR-4800, a $2000 full featured 125 watt per channel THX Ultra certified receiver that includes THX Surround EX.  For home theater owners that have already invested in a quality Dolby Digital 5.1 channel receiver or processor a upgrade path is provided an add-on Dolby Digital Surround EX adapter box.  Two of the first such adapters are the Model CS-3X available from Smart Devices for $299 and the Model ADA 6.1 processor from ADA for $499.  When upgrading your system from 5.1 to 6.1 channels you will need to add a center rear speaker and, except when using a new EX receiver, another amplifier channel.  Movies that supported the EX feature in theaters should also allow for the correct rear center channel decoding on the DVD version or when broadcast via DTV.  The first EX movies to appear on DVD were Austin Power:  The Spy Who Shagged Me and The Haunting.  Some standard Dolby Digital 5.1 channel titles will also benefit from the additional center rear channel output provided by the 'EX' provisions, but this will be hit and miss.

The electronics for audio systems supporting 5.1 (or 6.1 in the future) channel surround sound can be grouped into four general categories for consideration when building a home theater system.  

Budget Receivers:  The heart of a budget home theater audio system is a receiver that support Dolby Digital with at an amplifier output power of at  least 60 watts per channel.  Budget audio receivers generally retail for $300 to $600.  Many of these receivers will also include support for DTS.  Generally in this price range the brands that offer relative high amplifier output (e.g., 100 watts per channel) provide a less refined sound quality that the better quality brands.  To draw an analog in the price range you can have brains or brawn but not both.  The receivers with the more refined sound start appearing at about the $500 price level with power outputs of 60 to 75 watts per channel.  The Onkyo TX-DS575 is probably the hottest budget receiver for home theater systems.  This Onkyo unit has received very favorable reviews from several publications and has both the features and excellent sound quality the are unexpected in a $500 receiver

Mid-Range Receivers:  A mid-range receiver will generally retail for between $600 and $1500.  In this price you can find quality receivers with both refined sound and power output in the 85 to 110 watts per channel.  Also in this price range addition features and refinements are available such as use of quality speaker connectors (i.e., binding posts) for all five channels, both S-Video and composite video inputs for 4 or more video sources, and at the upper end of this price range component video inputs and outputs.  Some receivers in this price range are certified as THX Select.  As noted about the 'Select' version is less demand than the original THX certification.

High-End Receivers:  A high-end receiver will retail for $1500 to $3200.  This class of receiver will generally offer high power output (e.g., 120 to 150 watts per channel), with a comprehensive array of audio and video inputs and outputs.  Such receivers should be of a very high mechanical quality and offer a sound qualify that rivals that of more expensive component audio systems.  In this price range many of the receivers are certified against THX Ultra (the most demanding THX standards).  Among the high end receivers the top tier 1999 models from Denon and Marantz are certainly among the best.  New for 2000 are a few top-of-the-line models that include 6.1 channel Dolby Digital/THX surround.  Show below is the the Marantz top of the line Model SR-18 5.1 channel receiver. 

High-End Component Audio System:  A home theater component audio system will usually consist of a digital surround sound processor, a preamplifier with input source switching and five channels of power amplifier(s).  Sometimes the preamplifier and the surround sound processor will combined into a single preamp-processor unit.  Component power amplifiers are available in single channel (frequently referred to a 'monoblock'), 2 channel (i.e., conventional stereo configuration), 3 channel and 5 channel.  The latter two configurations are marketed specifically for use in home theaters.  When in comes to component audio systems the upper end of the price range is limited mainly by your bank balance.  Also such component systems frequently will not provide as many features as found in the high-end receivers (e.g., more limited numbers or types of audio/video inputs and  outputs, no FM tuner, etc.)  Generally unless you simply ungrading a existing component audio system, you will be better off going with a high-end receiver as the heart of you home theater audio system unless you was will to spend $5000+. 

Many mass market receiver manufactures use the power output claims as a major element of their chief marketing strategy.  Uninformed consumers tend to incorrectly believe that at a given price they have made the best choice by by selecting the receiver with the highest advertised power output.  Of course if everything else were equal then choosing the receiver with the higher output would be logical, but everything else is rarely if ever equal.   Before you start shopping for a receiver (or component audio system) you really need to decide what are your minimum requirements and what is you budget.  The following factors should be considered to avoid making a choice you will quickly regret:
  • Number and type of video and audio inputs you need.  List the various video (VCR. DVD, satellite receiver, etc) and audio devices (CD player, tape recorder) you are planning to use.  For each audio and video source device list the type of audio and video outputs it has that your receiver must in turn accept via an input.  For video you must consider composite video (e.g. conventional VHS VCR, etc.) , S-Video (e.g., S-VHS VCR, DVD player, Hi-8 camcorder, etc.), or component video (e.g., DTV set top receiver, DVD player, etc.).  In some case the source device will offer alternative outputs.  For example some DVD players offer to output the video signal via composite video, S-video and component video.  The receiver need only accept one of the these and you must determine which one is appropriate for your situation.  In this specific example if you have a TV monitor or projector that accepts component inputs (only high-end TV monitors and projectors have this feature) they this should be your first choice.  You next choice should be S-video (especially if you monitor or projector supports S-video input) and finally your last choice should be composite video (the lowest performance alternative).  Virtually all video and audio devices provide stereo audio outputs using standard phono (i.e., RCA) connectors. Also certain sources of digital audio provide a digital connection.  This is the case for the Dolby Digital or DTS audio that accompanies the video program from a DVD player or a DTV receiver.  Also some CD players provide an digital output  allow for the external decoding from digital-to-analog, rather than using the CD player's built in A-to-D converter.  Such digital output can be either an optical fiber connection, with the most common being called Toslink, or via a coax cable.  The bottom line is you need to catalog number and types of audio and video outputs you source devices use in order to be certain you new receiver will provide the appropriate number and type of inputs that you will need to fully connect your system together.  Looking several years into the future life the hookup of your audio and video devices will become much easier as they will all be linked together will a high speed digital network that will pass the audio and video information between the components in totally digital form.  A number of audio/video manufacturers have define a standard for such a high speed network this is called HAVi (i.e., Home Audio Video interoperability).  However the conversion to this unified digital solution will require perhaps a decade of transition from today's mostly analog interface world.
  • The minimum required power output will depend on:  The size (i.e., volume) of your home theater room; (2) the efficiency of your speakers; and (3) how loud you want, or are allowed to play you audio.  Dolby Labs (and the THX division of Lucasfilms) have established a "standard" volume level for home theaters as well as for commercial movie theaters. Thus if you want the audio volume (loudness) in your home theater to match the volume you experience in a movie theater then the Dolby/THX guidelines apply.  However, if you you or your neighbors insist on incurring less acoustic damage during the explosions and laser blasts of your favorite action flick, then you will probably be satisfied with a modest receiver, in terms of power output.  A typical consumer speaker when driven with a 1 watt signal will produce an acoustic volume of 87 to 90 dB when measured at a distance of one meter from the speaker,  Some speakers are less efficient than this while others are more efficient.  The term efficiency in this case is a measure of how 'efficient' electrical energy (i.e., measured in watts) in converted by the speaker into acoustic energy (measured in number of decibels (dB) at a distance of 1 meter).  If you were to connect a receiver with a power output of 50 watts per channel to speakers with an efficiency of 90 dB, the results, in terms of sound volume, would be the same as connecting a receiver with 100 watts per channel to a speaker with an efficiency of 87 dB.  Since the THX standards require both a specific speaker efficiency and a minimum amplifier power output, use of a THX certified receiver (or component amplifier) in combination with  THX certified speakers will yield predictable results, thus taking some of the work out of selecting a appropriate combination of  receiver/amplifier and speakers.
  • Mechanical/Electrical design quality should be consider.  Ideally the speaker connectors should be heavy duty binding posts that can accept heavy gauge speaker cables (12 gauge).  Such binding posts will accept various types of termination on the speaker cables including banana plugs, spade lugs, pin connectors, or even bare wires.  However budget receivers usually offer the cheaper and less capable spring clip connectors as least for the surround channels if not for all of the channels.  Mid-priced receivers will probably use quality speaker connectors at the upper end of this price range but may go with the cheaper spring clips for the surround channels at the low end this price range.  This is generally not a issue with the high-end equipment or component receivers/amplifiers.  Also as the price goes up you frequently get more sophisticated, better performing, circuits for the preamplifier, power amplifier and digital-to-analog converters.  Also more robust power supplies generally come with the higher price units.  Unfortunately these superior designs do not generally show in the most most specifications quoted in the advertisements for the piece of equipment.  However, they can results in such improvements as lower transient distortion (almost never quoted in the equipment's specification sheet), less phase distortion, and improved dynamic range.  Some of these characteristics may not be as critical for good reproduction of movie sound tracks as for the reproduction of well recorded music.  However, when all of the factors are considered the difference, in terms of sonic accuracy, between the performance of a well designed receiver/amplifier and mediocre design can be significant.  

The ability to recognize the a good sounding receiver from a mediocre is not something everyone is born with.  Rather it may require some education on how to be a critical listener.  If you don't trust your own ability to weed out the good sounding units from mediocre ones then I would suggest you turn to the opinions of the reviewers of some of the more respected publications, such as the home theater oriented publications Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, Home Theater Magazine, Widescreen Review, and the audiophile oriented publications such as Stereophile and Absolute Sound.  While sometimes the experts that review for these publications may not agree with each other on certain points, a favorable review by more than a single publication should be considered a very positive indication of a specific product's merits.

Given all of the variables, only some of which is briefly discussed above, it is obvious that within each of the above price ranges it is not possible to select one receiver or one set of audio components that can be declared as be the 'best'.  Rather it is possible to identify some manufactures that are well respected for producing products that are generally considered among  the best 'sounding' within their price range.  In particular the receivers from the following manufacturers deserve you consideration as they tend to generally be well above average in each price range:  Denon, Harman Kardon, Marantz, and Onkyo.

Yamaha receivers tend to be well above average sounding but frequently just below the very best sounding competition with a given price range.  However a few Yamaha models do compete for best sounding within their price range.  Some additional manufactures offer certain models that are well above average, but also produce several or even many models that fall in the sea of mediocrity.  This category of receiver manufacturers include:  Kenwood, Pioneer, and Sony.  These, and some other mainstream consumer electronic manufacturers frequently use an extra product nomenclature to distinguish their higher quality products from their mass market run-of-the mill products.  For example Pioneer has their 'Elite' product line, Sony has their 'ES' product line and the Kenwood THX certified models tend to be well above average products, but usually not the very best sounding receivers for the money.

While the above recommendations are not claimed to be comprehensive, they should provide you with a starting point to begin you investigation into finding a quality receiver tailored to your home theater requirements.  

For Additional Information:  The Audio Review Web site provides a good overview of what is important to look for receivers for home theaters and also recommends a number of specific makes and models.  Also the Onkyo web site has an informative page focused a receiver's amplifier rating

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