Sounding superior: Shop smart for your next sound system

In his own home, former Stereo Types owner Greg Hiemenz relies on speakers by Bowers & Wilkins, a brand that's favored by musicians and sound engineers. Photo: Stephen Barling In his own home, former Stereo Types owner Greg Hiemenz relies on speakers by Bowers & Wilkins, a brand that’s favored by musicians and sound engineers. Photo: Stephen Barling

Now that it’s out of fashion to put your boombox on your shoulder and parade up and down the street, how are you supposed to force your superior music taste down the ear canals of passersby?

Sadly, just about the only way to spread your song-selecting genius these days is to lure folks into your home and treat them to the pleasures of your fully realized sound system. Don’t have a fully realized sound system or know how to put one together? Start with these tips from the pros.

Start smart
Greg Hiemenz, an avid audiophile and former owner of home sound system outlet Stereo Types, said to begin your search for sonic salvation with an open mind. “You don’t come in with a budget,” he said. “You know what you want it to do.” Jordan Greenstone, a senior manager for local stereo staple Crutchfield, suggested you can do a decent job with your system for around $1,000, but it’s easy to go well above that number depending on your wants and needs.

Focus on music
Most folks want two things out of their sound system: the ability to play music and the ability to watch movies in surround sound. And while Hiemenz said reasonable people can disagree on this, he believes audio should come first.

“If I put a speaker on and say, ‘Here comes a crashing tree in Avatar,’ you don’t know what a crashing tree sounds like really unless you’re a logger,” he said. “If I say, ‘Here’s a violin or electric guitar,’ you can hear the difference. Your ear is much more aware of musical tones than crashes or explosions, so why would you ever buy a speaker that way?”

Changing channels
Music is typically recorded in two channels; movie sound is recorded in five channels. That doesn’t mean your five speakers are wasted on music, it just means the true surround sound effect only happens when you’re watching a film. Greenstone pointed out that the latest in surround sound technology, Dolby Atmos, creates a sonic experience like no other, but older films aren’t recorded using the technology, limiting their potential.

Receivers, pre-amps and amps
The receiver is the central hub for most sound systems. It serves as a pre-amplifier, tuner and amplifier, allowing you to connect to an array of different devices, normalizing the inputs from those devices and cranking them up so they come out of your speakers sounding totally boss. If you want to step your system up a level, Hiemenz suggested investing in a separate pre-amp and amp.

Speakers
A good speaker system should include tweeters for the high stuff, woofers for the low stuff and midrange speakers for everything else, i.e. the majority of the sounds you hear. Hiemenz said that while there are a number of speaker designs that are effective, the number one goal should be to reproduce studio-quality music in your home. For his own abode, he relies on high-end speakers by Bowers & Wilkins, a brand that’s favored by musicians and sound engineers the world over.

Listen closely
It’s pretty simple, according to Hiemenz: Don’t buy speakers until you’ve listened to them. You wouldn’t buy a bed without lying in it first, he said, so why wouldn’t you listen to your speakers before installing them?

Get roomy
No matter how much you spend on your sound system, Greenstone said you should be aware that the acoustics of your room matter. “I have heard great systems in bad rooms, and there are standing waves, noise, reverb and dead spots,” he said. Room treatments can help, but only so much.

Baller on a budget

Want to keep it simple? You need two things: a high-definition television and external speakers. None of the slim televisions on the market these days have decent built-in sound, according to Greenstone. But you can buy an LED HDTV that will give you a good picture. Then, to complete the set-up, Greenstone suggested buying a soundbar and woofer set by an established speaker maker, as opposed to one produced by the same manufacturer as the television.—S.G.

To read more from the February issue of Abode, click here.