Blu-ray home theatre in-a-box (HTiB)-type systems can offer tremendous bang for the buck: quite literally, because they can play sound effects like explosions really loud. For about $1,300, you can get a Blu-ray/DVD player, multi-channel surround-sound amplifier, five satellite speakers and a subwoofer. So why would people spend thousands more on surround-sound systems that use separate components?
I think I can answer that question. The audio system currently sitting in my family room retails for $7,355; that's six grand more than most all-in-one Blu-ray systems.
The speakers are from Energy, formerly a Canadian brand, but now owned by the American company Klipsch. Coming from Energy's second-from-the-top Reference Connoisseur series, the 5.1-channel system includes two RC-50 floor-standing speakers ($1,000 each) for the front left and right channels, an RC-LCR ($675) for the centre channel, two RC-R speakers ($440 each) for the surround channels, and an S10.3 200-watt 10-inch subwoofer ($700) to create some rumble.
The speakers incorporate a host of refinements, such as Kevlar woofers with ribbed elliptical surrounds. This design lets the speaker play loud, without distress or distortion.
The electronics are from Pioneer's premium Elite series, and include the second-from-the-top SC-07 A/V receiver ($2,300) and BD-05 Blu-ray/DVD player ($800). The receiver has a huge array of inputs and outputs (including iPod and network connectivity), giving it flexibility that no all-in-one system can match. It uses a new ICEpower digital amplifier, rated at 7x140 watts.
The power and the glory: The premium component system will certainly play louder than an HTIB system I've previously reviewed; but truth to tell, the HTIB system will play loud enough for just about any domestic requirement. HTIB systems can deliver explosions loud enough to rattle the furniture.
On the Pioneer Elite/Energy package, sound effects don't just sound loud. Even at the same volume level, they sound bigger, more powerful. You're less aware that they're being produced by a set of loudspeakers; they almost emerge out of the air. To be sure, you wouldn't mistake explosions, thunderstorms and jet takeoffs for real-world events (you'd be breaking noise bylaws if you could), but it is definitely easy to imagine that they're real.
There are lots of reasons for this. That 200-watt Energy subwoofer can go quite deep, with full output down to 20Hz, where bass is felt as much as heard. This deep-bass performance adds dramatic impact to soundtracks of special-effects movies. In most all-in-one home-theatre packages, the speakers that call themselves "subwoofers" are actually "woofers," able to produce mid-bass frequencies (sometimes at exaggerated levels), but with very limited output of low-bass frequencies.
With ample low-distortion power from by the Pioneer receiver's ICEpower digital amplifier, the Energy speakers can produce bass, midrange and high frequencies loudly, without a sense of strain or distress. The sound is very dynamic: when called upon, the system can get loud very quickly, rather than sounding sluggish or compressed.
This Pioneer/Elite system isn't just powerful, it's refined. Voices sound completely natural, as do instruments. Largely, that's a testament of the flat frequency response of the Energy speakers: they don't exaggerate or diminish any area of the audible spectrum.
The Pioneer Elite receiver also plays a role. It has a feature called MCCAC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration) that measures your room using a supplied microphone. Other premium receiver manufacturers have similar systems that go by different names, and they all work similarly. You place the microphone in your listening location and then start the setup procedure. The system emits various test tones from the speakers, which the receiver analyzes. It then adjusts settings such as speaker type, distance and channel levels. But it can also tailor the sound to compensate for irregularities in room and speaker response, for example your room's tendency to exaggerate certain bass frequencies and diminish others (a phenomenon know as "standing waves"). Every listening room imposes its own sonic signature on the sound, and a feature like MCACC helps counteract that.
The proof is in the listening. After using MCACC to calibrate the Pioneer receiver in a new listening location (a family room in a condo townhouse), I was very impressed with what I heard. On both movies and music, the soundstage extended well beyond the plane of the loudspeakers, and even beyond the dimensions of my family room. That is part of what I mean about the sound being big.
On the Blu-ray version of The Dark Knight, the explosion at Gotham City General Hospital sounded relentlessly powerful. Dialog was natural and completely intelligible. The sound was better than a typical commercial cinema.
Music was wonderfully involving as well. Whether it was Mark Knopfler singing "Sultans of Swing" or Diana Krall singing "Temptation," voices sounded completely natural, without a touch of chestiness, cuppiness or artifical sibilance. Instrumental timbres were similarly accurate. On a jazz guitar record by Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida, the musicians inhabited well-defined spaces on a huge soundstage. On a recording by classical pianist Yevgeny Subdin, the massive power of the concert grand piano was superbly conveyed in a way that a compact home-theatre package could not possibly manage, and the instrumental colour was completely convincing.
The bottom line: Contrary to popular wisdom, sonic performance is an absolute. A premium system should sound more accurate than a lower-performing one, regardless of who's listening. This Pioneer Elite/Energy system delivers outstanding performance. It's possible to spend more and get even better sound; but for this long-term audiophile, this system is wonderfully satisfying on both movies and music.
Sonic value, on the other hand, is in the ear and budget of the beholder. One listener's sweet spot is another's point of diminishing returns. For listeners like me, for whom good sound is a priority, an admittedly expensive system like this Pioneer/Energy package doesn't just deliver performance, it delivers value.