A home theater is a theater built in a home, designed to mimic commercial theater performance and feeling, more commonly known as a home cinema. Today, home cinema implies a real “cinema experience” at a private home. The most common fallacy about audio is good sound is good sound. Movies and music have very different requirements, so we need to first acknowledge our preference for movies or music, and steer the system’s performance strengths one way or the other with the right mix of speakers and electronics.
How different is movie sound from music? Today’s films boast nearly unlimited soft-to-loud dynamic range; dialog is mixed to the center channel; surround effects may be ambient or point-sourced; and deep-bass demands can be extreme. Just about every feature film released in the last 20 years has a multichannel soundtrack. On the other hand, most music recordings are dynamically compressed and deep-bass effects can be nonexistent. For home theater the subwoofer’s prime responsibility is supplying room-shaking low-frequency effects. For music the sub needs to deliver pitch-accurate, tightly controlled bass that’s perfectly integrated with your speakers.
Movie soundtracks’ wide dynamic range is also linked with high volume capability. That ups the power requirements for home theater over music-oriented systems. For home theater sound plays a supporting role–video quality and onscreen action grab the lion’s share of your attention. But a music-oriented system’s ability to entertain and engage us succeeds on sound quality alone is more critical and become more obvious.
Of course most systems are dual-purpose, Speakers and Home theatre. That’s reality, so consciously steering the sound balance toward your preferences would be a smart move. Before you can select either speakers or electronics to drive your system, take a good look at your room. If it’s big–say on the order of 700 square feet or larger–and you crave a visceral, feel-the-sound-in-your-bones experience with movies and music you should seriously consider buying full-size, full-range speakers, and audio separates with a powerful amplifier instead of a receiver.
If you’re serious about your movies, room size should be considered. On the other hand, if your room is small, say 12 by 18 feet, and you never need to feel it shake, a small satellite/subwoofer system and a decent $300 receiver should be adequate for home theater and music. Room size and volume capability go hand in hand and should be linked to your system’s performance/price ratio.
If you’re primarily using your home theater for movies, consider putting more money into a better center-channel speaker, one that’s timbre-matched to the other speakers, and the best possible subwoofer. If music is the mainstay, put the majority of your speaker budget into the front left and right speakers. And, if you only watch an occasional movie and mostly listen to music you might even consider just buying a pair of full-range tower speakers, and build a stereo home theater.