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Home Design Issue | Sound

You are what you hear

September 26, 2004

Home-theater speakers are classed according to how they radiate sound. Conventional speakers, or direct radiators, send the sound out front. Dipole speakers and their variants (bipoles, quadripoles and omnipoles) radiate sound from at least two directions.

For stereophiles, these dispersion characteristics are a matter of taste. In a home theater, they're more critical. Home THX, which is a version of the theatrical THX system first used in "Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi," calls for direct radiators in front and dipole types in the side walls that make you feel as if you're surrounded by sound.

Now, the numbers game. Most movies on DVD or videocassette contain the same Dolby Digital 5.1 encoded sound as the theater version. The No. 5 refers to the five wide-range speakers at front left, right and center and rear left and right in your home theater. The .1 refers to the low-frequency effects channel, played by a subwoofer.

With 5.1 surround sound replacing stereo as the home-entertainment standard, Harry Pearson, founding editor of The Absolute Sound magazine, says aethestics are playing an increasingly important role in speaker design, as speakers are leaving the basement rec room and moving to the family or living room.

"Real estate is the main issue, unless the speakers are behind a wing chair," says Jeff Percy, former director of corporate public relations for Audio Products International of Scarborough, Canada, North America's third-largest speaker maker. "If they can't be invisible, they have to be tiny. If they can't be tiny, they have to be attractive."

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Things You Should Know

1. Forget about in-wall speakers, because the wall's surface area and what's behind it will dictate the sound quality, which will be wildly unpredictable.

2. When you shop for audio equipment, take along one or two favorite CDs for reference. See how they sound on the gear. If you don't hear more than you're hearing on your existing system, keep looking.

3. Beware of ludicrously overpriced loudspeakers. After you spend a few thousand dollars, it's the law of diminishing returns.

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What It Will Cost

Sky's the limit

$25,935: Super Maggie system

Harry Pearson has assembled what may be the world's best home-theater surround-sound system, using full-range, flat-panel Magnepan speakers and Nola subwoofers. The left and right front channels are a pair of Magnepan MG 20.1 speakers; each is a 6 1/2 foot tall by 2 1/2 -foot-wide flat panel resembling the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey." A Magnepan CC3 sits at front center, and a pair of Magnepan MG 3.6 speakers brings up the rear. Five Nola Thunderbolt Powered Subwoofers handle the bass: two vertically stacked pairs at the front and one at center rear.

Middle of the road

$2,413: Axiom Epic 80 Home Theater System

In its ability to fill large rooms with very loud, distortion-free sound, the Axiom system compares favorably with the highly regarded and much more expensive British-made B&W 700 series. The powered, 200-watt subwoofer with aluminum driver delivers tummy-rumbling, subterranean bass.

Down to earth

$800: Mirage NANOSAT 5.1

Picture a flying saucer atop a woofer and you'll grasp the concept of Mirage's Omnipolar technology, which disperses sound evenly over 360 degrees. The system consists of five diminutive speakers and a 75-watt powered subwoofer.

Theater-in-a-box systems

$900: LG HTW316

These one-stop shopping systems with wireless surround-sound rear speakers are becoming popular because they do away with the speaker cables meandering across the floor. The LGHTW316 broadcasts at 2.4 gigahertz, a higher-than-usual frequency that avoids the interference that often plagues wireless speakers. Aesthetically, it will turn heads with the little transmitter that glows with a mesmerizing blue light.

$800: Niro 1.1 Pro II

Niro has a daunting premise: simulate 5.1 surround sound from a single speaker box atop your TV set. The surround-process amplifier and the subwoofer can be tucked away unobtrusively. With no need to wire the five or six speakers and agonize over the location for each, you'll be up and running in 15 minutes.

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Resource Guide

Acoustic Specialties SRS1524, $2,999, Acoustic Specialties, (866) 225-1203, www.acousticspecialties.net; Axiom Audio, (866) 244-8796, www.axiomaudio.com; Magnepan, (800) 474-1646, www.magnepan.com; Meridian America DSP7000C, $27,900 for pair, Meridian America Inc., (404) 344-7111, www.meridian-audio.com; Mirage NANOSAT, Mirage Loudspeakers, a division of Audio Products International Inc., www.miragespeakers.com; Niro, Torrance, (800) 533-5617, www.niro1.com; Scandyna Minipod Podspeaker, $300, www.podspeakers.com.

OTHER RESOURCES: Trade associations include Custom Electronic Design & Installation Assn., www.cedia.net; National Systems Contractors Assn., www.nsca.org. Reviews: www.audiorevolution.com. Motorized drapery/window treatments: Solar Shading Systems, (800) 432-7526, www.solarshadingsystems.com. Custom lift and mechanical elevator systems: J & R Engineering, (818) 842-3393.

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Produced by Barbara Thornburg; Styled by Tristam Steinberg

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