Matching speakers in a surround-sound system, hard-to-hear voices on DVD movies

Week of August 24, 2003  

Q:     I am building a home theater system and have a Denon surround sound receiver that will be its center.  In my closet I have a pair of excellent Synthesis floorstanding speakers.  I bought them about 15 years ago for around $900/pair.  Would it be better to add to these, or to get an entire new set?  I have read about problems mixing and matching brands of speakers because they won’t be “matched” in sound.  Is that a big deal?  If I should add to my Synthesis pair, what do you recommend for the sub, center and surround speakers?

-Dan Murray, Moon, PA

A:   “Matched” speakers refers to timbre (tam-ber) matching.   “Timbre” refers to the tonal color of the sound- in essence, it’s “voice”.   Ideally, when building a home theater system, all the speakers should have similar sound.   For those who do not own good speakers already, I would definitely recommend buying speakers from the same model line.

Obviously, the retailers and installers would love to make your current equipment obsolete and sell you a brand new set of five, six, or seven speakers.   I tend to take a more pragmatic approach- after all, this is home entertainment, not medicine or rocket science!   No one lives or dies because your surround sound speakers are not exactly matched.   I believe that if you have a good pair of speakers already, you should try to add to them rather than start over, unless you are a very serious enthusiast, have a large bank account, or both.   You have an outstanding, very well regarded pair of speakers that would cost much more than $900 to equal today.   I have heard many satisfying systems that did not have matched front and rear speakers, and with a little smart, decisive shopping, you can build one, too.

What we have to do first is find a pair of surround speakers.   The Monitor Audio Bronze B1 ($299) and the PSB Alpha B ($249) are two I believe would be a good fit.   Be sure the store will accept a return within two weeks in case you do not like the way they match in your home with the Synthesis speakers.

Since the center and front speakers are much closer to each other than the fronts and surrounds, any differences in matching could be noticeable.   After you connect the surround speakers, set your receiver’s center channel mode to “phantom”.   This will great a virtual center speaker by mixing the center channel sounds equally into the left and right speakers.   Not only does this save the expense of a center channel, it will often yield a more spacious, satisfying sound as well.     Many people who correspond with me use the phantom setting and absolutely love it.

Once you have four speakers running and you are satisfied with the sound of the system, the Hsu Research (www.hsuresearch.com) VTF-2 sub will add clean, earth-shaking bass for $499.  

Q:     I have a problem with my DVD player.  With most DVDs I play, the dialogue sound is so low that I have to turn the volume way up to hear it, then when the music comes on it is so loud I have to turn the volume way down to be able to tolerate it.  I have changed sound settings on the TV and the DVD player, but nothing seems to change the basic problem.  How do I correct this?

-Ted Compton, Wichita, KS

A:   Go into the DVD player’s audio setup menu and adjust the “dialogue enhancer” “midnight mode” or “dynamic range control”.   This will bring the voices back in proper proportion.

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