So you’ve bought a nice big 1080P HD TV and a Blu-ray player. You’ve hooked it all up to your 5.1 amplifier, which didn’t suck last year, and you put in an action flick. It looks amazing, but it sounds a little flat. You might even convince yourself that it sounds good, but it doesn’t. In fact, you’re audio might actually be worse than if you were watching that movie on a regular old DVD.
Even if you think 7.1 is an over-kill and are happy with 5.1, there is a catch-22 that might prevent you from getting 5.1 unless you upgrade to 7.1.
One area of my home theatre that’s always been lacking has been my sound. Â I’ll admit that as a professional film and television editor, I’ve been more of a videophile than an audiophile. But a few weeks ago I set out to upgrade to a total-solution 7.1 system including some new speakers for under a grand. I only went over by a couple hundred dollars. Getting it done around that budget wasn’t an easy task – and neither was some of the wiring. There were several bumps along the way. But the process revealed a lot that I didn’t know about the new audio formats, what it takes to actually hear them, the crap I’ve been settling for, the awesomeness of 7.1 audio, the unfortunate truth about Blu-ray and 7.1 and much more. Â Buckle-up because this whole thing can be a bitÂ convoluted.
To put things in context, let’s do a quick review of my home theatre set up. I have a front projector, not a regular TV. That means that my TV has no speakers. But it’s not unlike most setups where the picture goes to the TV and the audio goes to the amp.Â My previous amp was a Sony 5.1 system with HDMI switching, but it did not decode HDMI audio. ThereforeÂ I sent the Bluray picture to the projector via HDMI and sent audio to my amplifier via coax (or optical) cable. I assumed this was at least giving 5.1 audio. Â But with Blu-ray it wasn’t.
This fancy illustration sums up my home theater and speaker set up. Â The green speakers are what I originally had and the two orange ones are what I recently added to make 7.1. Â Although I replaced most of the green speakers with new ones too. My center speaker and sub will be upgraded later.
Next some background on home theatre audio. Â DVD has two major high-end audio formats: Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Both have 6 discreet channels of audio which are shown in the 6 green speakers above. Left, Right and Center in the front, a Subwoofer (the dot 1), and two surround speakers in the back (or sides). Â With properly placed speakers this allows filmmakers to place sounds in specific spots around your room, just similar to a movie theatre. Both of these formats also contain lossy compressed audio. “Lossy” meaning that the audio is compressed similarly to an mp3 file.
While I’m on the topic of DVD audio let meÂ mentionÂ Dolby Pro Logic. Â It takes a stereo or surround encoded audio signal and matrixes it out to the 6 speakers. Â For example, dialog is usually mono. So in a stereo signal, any frequency that is the same on both the left and right channels is assumed to be dialog and is placed in the center speaker. Â While the music or sound effects behind the dialog will still be sent out the left and right channels. Dolby Pro Logic takes a stereo signal and does it’s best to put sounds in the correct speakers.
In DVD days, To get digital 5.1 audio you use a digital audio connector from the DVD player to the amplifier, either coax or optical. Â When I got a Blu-ray player I just pulled out my DVD player and moved all the cables over. That’s all I could do, because my old amp didn’t decode HDMI audio.
That’s where they get ya…
First you have to realize that Blu-rayÂ and HD DVDÂ support new, better audio codecs, lossless audio, and more audio tracks. There are now many different flavors of Dolby, DTS, True-this and HD-that. In fact audio on a Bluray even supports 7.1 PCM, which is 8Â discreetÂ channels of lossless audio.
As I said in the intro, you’ve bought an HD TV and a Bluray disc player – so why is your sound worse than DVD? BecauseÂ if you don’t have everything set up just right you won’t hear those new audio formats. Instead you’ll hear a downmixedÂ version of the track. Â And it’s probably being downmixed to Dolby Surround. Â Remember Dolby Surround? Â It’s basically a digital version of VHS audio. Â It means stereo – with a single surround channel encoded in the two tracks. When that signal hits your Dolby Pro Logic decoder it matrixes it out to your 6 or 8 speakers, but it’s not going to sound anywhere near the 5.1 or 7.1 of the original source. It’s going to sound very flat. Â And this will happen even if you’re only trying to get 5.1.
So how do you make sure that you’re getting the best audio you can? Â The issue has two parts, and this is where they get ya. Part one is that both coax cables and optical connections have bandwidth limitations and will not support the higher quality audio formats. But most all Blu-ray discs use the new audio formats, even if only in 5.1. This means that in order to get even the 5.1 channels of Dolby True HD or DTS HD audio you have to use an HDMI connection for the audio. Â AND the second part is this that in turn means that you need an amplifier that will A) decode audio over HDMI, and B) support the new audio formats.
The catch-22 is that with most Blu-ray movies, unless your amp decodes HDMIÂ audio, your audio will be downmixed into a less than wonderful format that is lean enough to fit through the narrow pipe of coax (SPDIF) or optical. So in order to hear 5.1 you need an amplifier that decodes HDMI audio, and the only ones that do that are 7.1 systems. Â But there’s an even deeper catch – so read on.
What to look for in an amplifier
HDMI Audio Decoding VS 7.1 Support – When I set out to get a 7.1 amp I didn’t realize that I had to get a 7.1 amp in order to even hear 5.1. Â 7.1 is not the requirement, only decoding HDMI audio is. Â But I don’t know of any amps that decode HDMI audio that aren’t also 7.1. If you don’t have space for the extra speakers you can still use the amp in a 5.1 mode.
Lots of HDMI inputs – With Blu-ray, HD DVD, an HD TiVo, an Xbox 360, a Wii, and a Popcorn Hour, even with my new amp I’m out of HDMI inputs.
Audio Format Support – If you’re buying a new amp you want support for every audio format out there. Every Bluray disc on my shelf seems to have a different audio format. Dolby True HD, DTS HDâ„¢Â Master Audio, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS HD, PCM, and the older formats like Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS.
HDMI 1.3 Cables
HDMI 1.3 is an update to the standard that supports the higher end video formats, like Deep Color, and the newer fatter audio formats. Â I’ll say it – don’t spend $100 per HDMI cable. Â You’ll need several for your setup. Â Spend that money on a better amp or better speakers. Â Buy the cheapest HDMI cables you can find. Â I found some at Frys for $19. Â B&H has one for $10. Â Even these cheap cables are 1.3 compliant.
Blu-ray Player Settings
Once I got my new amp and had my audio going via HDMI it still took me a day to figure out why everything still sounded flat. TheÂ default setup in my Sony S350 Blu-ray player was to downmix all audio to Dolby Surround. The screenshotÂ below shows the correct setup, with Dolby Digital set to Dolby Digital (instead of downmixed), DTS set to DTS (instead of downmixed), and PCM set to support the max 96kHz/24bit.
After making this adjustment and popping in my DTS sampler Blu-ray disc the room came alive with awesomeness.
Is 7.1 Better Than 5.1?Â
Once I flipped that switch and heard what things were supposed to sound like (in 5.1), I realized that for almost a year I’ve been watching HD movies thinking that I was hearing 5.1, when really I was basically just hearing stereo run through a Dolby Pro Logic decoder. Â Audio is also louder when it’s properly coming out of 6 or 8 speakers. Â It is such a drastic improvement that it makes me want to watch a bunch of movies over again.
AND I have to say that as vast an improvement 5.1 is over whatever I was hearing before, 7.1 is that much better than 5.1. I’ve had 5.1 in the past. During my early DVD days I had a decent 5.1 setup. Â But 7.1 honestly surrounds you with sound. Â With 5.1 sounds clearly come from speakers. Â But with 7.1 sounds seem to exist everywhere in space around you. Â With 5.1 there is a sweet spot in the room where the sound is best. Â 7.1 is much more forgiving and all seats have good audio. Â So I feel like there is a huge difference between the two.
Now For The Bad News…
After getting everything set up I started looking through my Blu-ray collection for 7.1 movies to test out my new system. Surely The Dark Knight is in 7.1 – nope Dolby True-HD 5.1. Â Iron Man? – nope Dolby True HD 5.1. Â Same for Hancock and Cloverfield. Â Live Free or Die Hard is 5.1 DTS Master Audio. Â Out of around 35 discs in my collection, only 5 are in 7.1, and they’re not the ones you would expect. WAR with Jet Li and Jason Statham is 7.1 PCM, The Bank Job, another Jason Statham movie is DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, as is Sleeping Beauty. Other 7.1 movies include Good Luck ChuckÂ and Semi-Pro.
A full list of 7.1 movies can be found with a slick search at Blu-ray.com. There’s a few good titles in there like 3:10 to Yuma and Dark City. But most of them are weird comedies like Disaster Movie and Delta Farce.
I’m not sure why The Dark Knight is only 5.1 while Witless Protection with Larry the Cable Guy is in 7.1 Seems like a waste to me. I suppose the studios are concerned that the average consumer isn’t going to have 7.1, and I they’d be right. But now I suspect the average consumer might not even be hearing 5.1. One problem is that if they put a 7.1 audio track on the disc they have to include another audio track also in case the consumer doesn’t have the equipment to support it. That means more bandwidth being taken up with extra audio formats and less for picture quality and bonus features. Although I’d rather have the choice of 7.1 than some lame BD Live game.
Just be aware that if you do get sucked into upgrading to 7.1, you’re sure to be disappointed by the number of titles that support it. Â However, I’m still glad I upgraded. Whether it’s Will Ferrell shooting hoops in 7.1 or giant transforming robots in 5.1,Â at least now I’m hearing what I’m supposed to.
Tomorrow I’ll unbox and review my new amp, the harman/kardon AVR254, and talk about the speakers I ended up getting.