Getting great sound for less than $500

Week of December 14, 2003

Q: I just purchased a progressive CD/DVD player and have it hooked to a 20 year-old stereo receiver. When using the DVD, it is hard to hear voices over the background noise. Should we get a newer stereo receiver and new speakers? If so, can you recommend a model and price? I would like to spend in the neighborhood of $500.00 if possible.

-Jim Nicol, Eden Prairie, MN

A: Your question is actually several questions, which I will answer in order.

I receive several emails every week regarding voices that are hard to hear when playing DVDs. The common complaint is voices that are much softer than the rest of the soundtrack. In almost all cases this problem can be solved with a setting in the DVD player menu under the audio submenu.

Depending on the DVD player’s manufacturer, it can be called “dynamic range”, “midnight mode” or “dialogue enhancer”. If you change this setting, the voices will come in to better proportion with the rest of the soundtrack.

While you are in the DVD player audio setup menu, look for a simulated surround setting. This setting is called “V.S.S” or “SRS” by most manufacturers and will provide simulated surround effects with just two speakers, even if you are only using the ones built into your TV.   Try it, you’ll like it!

As for your receiver and speakers, changing the receive will not do much to improve sound quality unless there is something wrong with it, or you are adding to surround sound.

The most common problem in older receivers is dust that has worked its way into the control dials and switches. This usually manifests as a scratchy sound that you hear when you change the volume. You can usually fix this yourself with electrical contact cleaner. It comes in aerosol cans and is sold in hardware stores for around $5.00.

First, unplug the receiver, wait five minutes and pull the volume and control knobs off. They will usually come off with a straight pull towards you.   Then take off the top cover and look where the shafts for the control knobs terminate. It usually looks like a little box.   Spray the contact cleaner into these areas and vigorously turn the shafts back and forth for around thirty seconds, then repeat. Do this for all the controls, then replace the top cover, wait fifteen minutes then try your receiver again. The scratchy sounds should go away. If they don’t, you need either a professional cleaning or a new receiver. A professional cleaning is likely to cost around $75, so I would recommend just buying the new one. Onkyo makes a nice $200 receiver, the TX8211.

This leaves $300 of your $500 budget for speakers, and that makes for a very easy recommendation. My two thumbs-up, five-star recommendation for speakers selling for under $300 is the Axiom Audio M2i. I have been testing the M2i for over a month and I was shocked at how good they sound- better than many speakers I have heard selling for several times their $255 price. I usually regard the task of testing inexpensive speakers as “part of the job”, but with the M2is I found myself going through my music collection and listening to many different CDs to hear how good they could sound. I let my friend Lance try them and he preferred them to his $1,200 tower speakers- that is saying a lot! They sound just a touch on the bright side, but other than that small flaw they are extremely impressive. The Axiom Audio M2i speakers are available at www.axiomaudio.com.

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