10 May 2011

sound and vision

I consider myself technologically minded but configuring a home theatre set-up has had me scratching my head. The theory is easy, plug the dvd/cd/blu ray player into the receiver; connect the receiver to the TV; wire five speakers and a sub woofer into the receiver. By now you should be enjoying sumptuous surround sound and glorious technicolour...

Well, nearly!

I should mention there are a mind-boggling eighty three inputs/outputs on the back panel of my new receiver, and several methods of connecting various devices each using different cable types. You can even mix and match the connections.

I went with the latest connectors, HDMI (Hi-Def Multimedia Interface). Far fewer plugs and lengths of cabling to wrestle with and supposedly the best carrier of audio/video signals. However, research showed me that SACDs (Super Audio CDs), which carry vastly more audio data than their standard cousins, require six analogue audio connectors to carry discreet 5.1 surround sound signals. No problem, I ordered those and dutifully used them to connect my DVD/SACD player to the new

The TV was relatively simple to calibrate and soon displayed a good picture but try as I might I could not get sounds I was happy with through the receiver. Yes the five speakers and the sub woofer were making lots of noise but when listening to a 5.1 surround sound DVD Audio version of the 1973 classic Tubular Bells Viv Stanshall's quintessentially British accent was conpicuous by its absence when I know he should have been listing each instrument by name as it joins the crescendo near the end of "side one." Incredibly there were no f$%*ing Tubular Bells at the point when they should have been clanging loud enough to wake the dead!

Clearly something was wrong. I could get the right sound if I selected the multi-channel input but only a thin, weird sounding version with many of the instruments missing if I selected the HDMI input. What's more the multi-channel input supplied no video image whereas it should have been showing a delightful and slowly rotating tubular bell against a changing sky. After much thinking, ploughing through a maze of on screen menus and studying the one hundred and twenty-two page manual, the penny finally dropped. My Cambridge Audio DVD player is barely three years old but the pace of technological progress has been frantic. Perhaps it can't send surround sound signals through its HDMI output. (Note: I researched this later and found my DVD player uses HDMI version 1.1 and we are already up to version 1.4).

More jiggery pokery with the on screen menus and I was deep within the configuration files. I discovered I could select sound from the multi-channel input and video from the HDMI, a combination which finally solved the problem. Sound and vision are now everything I had hoped for!

I have several SACDs and Music DVDs which, as well as the usual stereo track, carry an additional layer mixed for surround sound. That layer has previously been inaccessible to me but listening now to re-masters of old classics like Dark Side of the Moon, Brothers in Arms and the aforementioned Tubular Bells is a revelation. It really is total immersion in the music. Sounds which were buried in the stereo mix come alive in the 5.1 mix making these old favourites sound fresh and new.

Now that I am beginning to understand the sound set up I have been able to turn my attention to wall-mounting the speakers, hiding the speaker wire in conduit, coiling excess wiring behind the appliances and securing the coils with zip ties. Soon I can think about installing the back to the shelf unit. I now know where all the wires will need to exit and whereabouts there I need to drill slots to carry connectors from one shelf to another. I don’t plan to use the bag of tiny nails which came with the shelf but will probably screw mirror supports in place so that the back can come off with the minimum of fuss.

Who knows, one day we may be able to sit back and enjoy films and music. What a wild and crazy idea!