Lessons Learned: Home Theater Edition

[Blaugust Day 29]

If I had to pinpoint the exact moment when my home theater plans started falling apart, it was when I decided not to get a home theater. I still don’t want one, for the record, but I’m currently in that sort of purgatory where doing something and not doing something are both equally bad. Since I cannot go back in time, I will have to settle for dispensing vicarious wisdom.

Originally, I bought a 32″ TV and a PS3 for my console needs. That was fine at the time, as I was living with a roommate and thus had the TV in my bedroom. Then, of course, I decided I needed to get some kind of soundbar because TV speakers are universally terrible. This setup worked for about a year and a half, until I ended up getting a new apartment by myself. At that point, a 32″ TV just starts looking comically small from 9 feet away. So… new TV.

Enter the dilemma.

Price-wise, the 42″ TVs I was looking at were the same price as projectors. I decided to go with the projector because A) why not?, and B) poor long-term planning. I’m not saying that I regret the purchase per se, but it definitely set me down a path that I had not fully anticipated.

So I had the projector and the soundbar. I was not all that happy with the soundbar though, because its volume settings were such that Volume 4 was a bit too quiet to hear, and Volume 5 was too loud. Now that I had a projector, surely it would be as good a time as any to pick up a set of 5.1 surround sound speakers, yeah? No, past self. The answer is no. Unfortunately, I was not quantumly entangled at that point and ended up buying this particular set of speakers for a sum that was probably around $100.

It was not until this point that I realized I had made a mistake like six moves ago.

See, home theaters are like building a computer – you can’t just randomly buy the shit you need (motherboard, CPU, etc) and expect the disparate parts to just come together somehow. For example, let’s take a look at the back of my projector and speakers for a second:

Uh oh.

Uh oh.

There are a lot of things wrong with this picture. A lot of embarrassing, quite-obvious-in-retrospect things. Things like “how the hell are these two things supposed to connect?” The answer is two audio-out cables from the projector. So I have HDMI quality picture and sound coming from the PS3 to the projector, which then downgrades the picture to 720p and reduces the sound to 2-channels, aka stereo. That… sucks. What’s worse is that I’m not even sure these speakers were better than the soundbar, because most times its either too quiet or shaking the walls, and while I have reduced the amount of neighbors I have with my recent move, I remain in an apartment.

A “solution” to this problem is precisely the thing that you’re supposed to buy with any 5.1 speaker setup: a receiver. Which, despite a rather exhaustive amount of research, is a device I have a hard time believing needs to exist as a discreet product. Near as I can tell, a receiver is a $200+ ugly box that takes the already-5.1 sound from your main device and “translates” it into 5.1 sound for your speakers. Why the device needs a receiver to exist, or why speakers can’t just play the sound, I have no idea.

So this is the dilemma I now face. It’s dumb to have 5.1 speakers playing stereo. Spending $200 on a receiver though, is also pretty dumb since I don’t necessarily care about true surround sound. And even if I do get a receiver, it’s also kinda dumb to spend that money to pump surround sound through my cheap speakers. That’s like wearing $200 dress shoes with sweatpants. But my current setup is not particularly good by itself; it works, it’s passable, and it also contributes to my lack of desire to play console games. I’m tempted to just buy a better quality soundbar and call it a day, but that leaves me with a set of useless speakers. There’s also the problem that I’m using a projector, which means the soundbar either needs quasi-receiver-like powers so I can run my PS3 signal through it, or I suppose it can run on the two stereo cables. Would the optical speaker jack in the back of the PS3 work too? I have no idea.

On the one hand, I have to be mindful of the Sunk Cost Fallacy here. If a soundbar would solve my problems, the speakers will just need to go back into a box in the closet. A receiver would also solve my problems though, and presumably be more modular/useful in the future home theater experiments. And, just throwing this out there, buying a regular (40+”) TV and soundbar would solve even more problems still. The projector is cool and all, but it’s one of those things I’m starting to realize that you can’t (or shouldn’t, at least) just half-ass.

Well, there you go. Learn from my mistakes.

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Posted on August 29, 2015, in Miscellany and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Home Audio is terrible; so overpriced and opaque. And not my big area of focus. A few things though, The optic connection should be just fine for sound transfer, so the big thing here is just buy a good soundbar with the sound range you are looking for. Don’t buy a tuner, simply because the standard rule is that you should spend no more on a tuner than half of what you spend on speakers, and with there not being any tuners below about $150… Lastly, I can’t imagine a tuner being worth much long-term unless you are spending a ton, but that’s just me. And my ears are kinds shot, so ignore that last bit.

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    • I’m not sure why I never thought about it before, but I’m now investigating just getting a set of wireless headphones that work with the PS3. Best of all possible worlds – no worries about the neighbors, will cover up the projector fan noise, etc – especially if it can work with my PC as well.

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  2. At the price range you are talking about, and in an apartment, headphones are by far your best bet. You would need to spend far, far more to achieve similar sound with a real home theater setup, and it doesn’t sound like you have a big need for others to be able to hear the TV (the biggest drawback of headphones).

    Don’t buy a junk pair of headphones though, especially with a mic, as you’ll end up being that guy in TS/Vent that sounds like he is talking through a can on a string and everyone will not-so-secretly hate when you talk. I’m a big fan of my current headset, the Sennheiser PC360. I have the wired version, but they come wireless as well, and I believe there is a console-friendly version.

    Plantronics Gamecom is a good, cheaper headset as well. Had that before upgrading to the Sennheiser.

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