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Some of us build home theatres in order to recreate the movie theatre experience at home. Some of us do it for bragging rights. Then there are enthusiasts who constantly upgrade their components in the attempt to reach ultimate home theatre nirvana. Whichever group you fit into, chances are that in your quest for components you will come across products from Paradigm Electronics and sister company Anthem Electronics. That’s because both brands have long been considered to be among the most reputable audio video brands – and not just in Canada, but around the world. Some of this success can be attributed to the fact that both brands have been around since the dawn of the home theatre and have continued to innovate and develop products that kept up with the times. Another part of this success stems from the fact that Paradigm manufacturers almost all the components required to build its speakers and audio video components – from crossovers right down to individual parts of a speaker driver such as cones and baskets. Of course, rave product reviews and a huge tally of awards collected over the years don’t hurt.

Speaker manufacturer Paradigm Electronics was founded in 1982 by Jerry VanderMarel and Scott Bagby in Toronto, Ontario and enjoyed a steady growth throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1998, the company acquired Sonic Frontiers Inc., a highly respected Ontario-based high-end audio component manufacturer of Anthem and Sonic Frontiers brands. Today Paradigm’s state of the art production facility, where most Paradigm and Anthem products are manufactured, is based in Mississauga, Ontario. This colossal facility is home to over 300 employees and occupies roughly 230,000 square feet. Paradigm also owns an Advanced Research Centre in Ottawa, Ontario which houses a team of 18 employees. Paradigm is Canada’s largest speaker manufacturer and ships its products to over 60 countries. Early in 2010, I was invited to a rare behind-the-scenes look at Paradigm’s Mississauga facility, guided by Mark Aling, Marketing Manager, and Rob Armstrong, National Sales Manager.

The Making of a Paradigm Loudspeaker

My tour began with a visit to the research and development department where naturally all new products are conceived. The team of engineers at the Mississauga facility is responsible for new speaker and crossover designs with the aid of a massive tool – also known as the anechoic chamber. The purpose of an anechoic chamber is to completely isolate all external noise and allow engineers to measure the sound of the speaker placed inside it. It is an indispensible tool in modern loudspeaker design. Paradigm’s anechoic chamber has a volume of 33,000 cubic feet with fiberglass wedges that are just over 8 feet long and glued to a concrete wall. A 6 inch air gap isolates the chamber from the rest of the facility. This anechoic chamber is basically a larger version of the one built years ago at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa. Its larger size allows Paradigm to measure much lower frequencies (all the way down to 1 Hz) and with better accuracy. Two doors on opposite walls allow access into the anechoic chamber.

Outside each door is a computer workstation where measurements can be performed. Inside the chamber is a rotating speaker platform, controlled by the computers outside the room. A B&K calibrated microphone sits in the middle of the chamber at exactly three meters from the speaker platform. To evaluate a speaker’s performance, it is placed on the speaker platform inside the chamber, the doors are closed and the tests are initiated from a computer workstation. As the speaker rotates on the platform, Paradigm looks at three main windows: 0 to 15 degrees (direct, on-axis sound), 15 to 30 degrees (side wall followed by back wall reflections) and 30 to 45 degrees (first reflections). To measure a speaker, a series of test tones are played, similar to those that AV receivers produce when running an auto room calibration. The measurements are then translated into a frequency response curve on a computer screen – with the goal of achieving as flat of a frequency response as possible. The measuring software used here was custom designed by engineers at the Paradigm Advanced Research Centre in Ottawa. Aside from measuring speakers, the software also allows the engineers to design and match certain topologies of crossovers with various speaker designs. In addition to all this, the software allows Paradigm to compare its new designs with previous models as well as speakers from competitors. There’s no question that the anechoic chamber and custom software are really powerful tools and play a vital role in Paradigm’s speaker design.

If a prototype speaker design passes the anechoic chamber tests, it is put through a series of listening tests inside a double-blind screen listening room. Paradigm actually has two of these test rooms: one with metal stud construction and a drop ceiling, meant to emulate a store environment, and one constructed from wood studs and drywall to emulate a home setting. A double-blind environment means that a screen (similar to a speaker grille) is dropped in front of the speakers to take away the visual cues and prior knowledge of what you’re listening to. Both rooms are equipped to test speakers ranging from a typical bookshelf to in-walls, on-walls and ceiling designs. A speaker switch box allows for quick selection between various speakers. An SPL meter is used to match the volume of all the speakers being compared, to put them on an equal level playing ground. Paradigm also uses these listening rooms to test competitor speakers against its own. How was it determined that this was a good method for testing speakers? The basis of this test comes from the NRC study that Floyd Tool and Peter Schuck (now head engineer at Paradigm) participated in originally some years ago. The goal of this study was to develop measurable characteristics of a loudspeaker that most listeners enjoyed. The three resulting characteristics were determined to be off-axis response, flat mid-range and low distortion. This became the recipe for 95 percent of the population for what they enjoyed in a speaker.

When we stepped out on to the production floor, the scale of this manufacturing facility was put into perspective for the first time. This is a truly gigantic operation.

The production process begins with the manufacturing of the individual parts that make up a speaker. A tour of the injection molding department proved to me that Paradigm really makes their speakers completely from the ground up. The machines here are used to injection mold plastic parts such as speaker cones, surrounds, baskets, baffles, port tubes and other plastic parts that you might find in a speaker. Here’s how it works: raw plastic pellets enter the machine’s hopper and are fed through a heat chamber where they are converted to a liquid form. A network of “veins” directs the liquid plastic into a tooled-metal mold, where the part takes its shape. The tooled-metal mold of course has to come from somewhere for each part – and I was amazed to learn that Paradigm makes even these in-house, in its machine shop. To make the molds, Paradigm uses a state of the art machine that doesn’t make physical contact with the raw metal block (like other milling machines), instead the machine eats the metal away at the molecular level to create the shape of the mold. It may take several hours to produce a mold but once complete, the mold can be used to produce hundreds of thousands of the same part.

Armstrong mentioned that Paradigm is the only speaker company in the world to apply an over-mold technique in the manufacturing of some of its drivers. This technique is used to fuse together the surround to the cone. This eliminates the need for using glue and results in some of the most durable and hence reliable drivers on the market.

The other key components of a speaker driver including the voice coils and magnet structures are also built in this facility. Most of this work is done by hand, with the exception of the winding of the voice coils which is performed very accurately by a machine. Once all of the individual components are manufactured they are moved to the assembly area where the driver is assembled by hand.

By this point of the tour, I had already observed a few manufacturing techniques at work that I hadn’t seen before. And just when I thought it couldn’t get more interesting, we walked up to a 3D printer which Paradigm uses for advance prototyping. Engineers from the R&D department design three dimensional drawings and print them here in full 3D plastic composite. What’s really incredible about this printer is that it can print objects that consist of multiple parts, already assembled together. Aling showed me a few objects printed here: a fully-working set of gears, a working adjustable wrench and a hollow sphere with multiple openings which contained other spheres inside it. Printing such complex 3D objects is possible since the printer uses two different materials – one which makes up the 3D object and one which can be sprayed away after the printing is finished. This advanced prototyping technique can play a crucial role when designing new products.

After seeing the individual speaker parts being manufactured, it came as no surprise that Paradigm makes its crossover completely from scratch. The crossovers start out as an empty circuit board into which various electronic components are inserted – some by an automated machine and some by hand. The boards then pass through a machine which applies flux the bottom of the board and solders all the components. Once completed, every newly built crossover is tested against a reference crossover to ensure proper operation, before it is mounted into a speaker cabinet.

Amplifier boards for some of Paradigm’s latest subwoofer use tiny surface-mount electronic components for the most part and hence are built by a fully automated process. Here’s how this works: a large reel containing all the electronic components in a predetermined order is fed into a machine which removes each component and inserts it into the circuit board. The machine performs tens of insertions per minute with perfect accuracy. The electronic components come in a reel (automatically assembled by a separate machine). You guessed – even these reels are made right at this facility.

The final piece of the puzzle – the making of the speaker cabinet – takes up perhaps the largest amount of the production floor space. Stacks of giant wood boards come with the vinyl already laminated on it from a wood supplier just down the street from the Paradigm facility. The boards are first cut into small pieces called “sleeves” by a fully automated table saw. The size of the sleeves is determined by which speaker model is being manufactured. These smaller boards are then sent to a router, where various cuts and grooves are made. To complete the job, a machine applies glue and folds the cabinets giving them the finished shape.

Of course, it’s not a speaker until all of the components are assembled together. During the last stop of the production process, the baffles, drivers, tweeters, crossovers and dampening materials are assembled into the speaker cabinet. The speakers go through a final quality inspection and are then packaged.

The Making of an Anthem Component

As mentioned previously, all new speaker designs are handled by engineers at the Mississauga office. The Advanced Research Centre in Ottawa on the other hand is responsible for amplifier designs, audio and video circuit boards and programming code for subwoofer DSP processors. The Ottawa team also wrote the software for anechoic chamber testing and develops on-going software updates. Aling joked that the engineers at this location are constantly engaged in improving amplifier designs which results in a challenge for the speaker designers since they have to come up with designs that keep up with the new amplifier designs. Call it a healthy camaraderie between the offices, which results in some pretty outrageous designs. Take the new SUB 2 subwoofer for example – it has a 9000 watt amplifier and no less than six active drivers. To put this into perspective, in order to get maximum output from this subwoofer, you’ll need to connect it to a 240 volt outlet! Overkill for most? Yes. But the lessons learned from such designs trickle down into much smaller and more affordable subwoofer models that a much larger audience can enjoy.

The assembly of circuit boards for Anthem components takes place at the Mississauga facility. Since the surface-mount electronic components are very small, the insertion and soldering of these components is completely automated. As for the subwoofer circuit boards, the electronic components come from a pre-assembled reel. Again only some of the larger components are inserted by hand. The face plates for the components are cut very precisely by the same machine which makes the metal molds for injection molding. Once the circuit boards are assembled into the chassis (also made in-house), the various inputs/outputs of the boards are connected to a test jig which checks every function of the boards. When everything passes this stage, the component is moved to a burn-in rack where it sits plugged in overnight. The next morning the component is tested for the second time and then taken to a “UPS simulator” which is basically a shaking table. The component is then tested one last time and if it passes here, it goes off to packaging.

Final Thoughts

It is truly refreshing to see a giant like Paradigm thriving in Canada during a time when most audio video products are manufactured overseas. All Anthem components and nearly 90 percent of Paradigm speakers are manufactured locally at this facility. The remaining 10 percent that are made overseas include entry-level in-wall speakers, Cinema speaker packages and cabinets for the Studio and Signature speakers.

Having everything under one roof allows Paradigm to maintain a very high level of quality control and come to market with new products much quicker than other manufacturers. Although Aling joking noted that “Paradigm’s engineering is so state-of-the-art that often times we can’t come to market with products as quickly as the marketing department would like.” I personally don’t mind. Knowing that some of the top speakers and home theatre components are produced in our neck of the woods makes me extremely proud.

Click here to discuss this article on the CANADA HiFi Forum

Manufacturer Info:

Paradigm Electronics Inc.
www.paradigm.ca
Anthem Electronics
www.anthemav.com
Tel: (905) 564 – 1994

So you read the Toronto HiFi magazine and from time to time you come across a term which you don’t have a clear understanding of. Perhaps you don’t understand it at all. Chances are, you’re not the only one. When it comes to HiFi and Home Theater equipment, we talk about very specific things that you won’t read about just anywhere. And they certainly won’t come up at the dinner table. This article, or more appropriately glossary, is the first in a series that will help you understand what all the different Home Theater terms mean. Below you’ll find much of the terminology that we frequently use when we talk about speakers. Once this issue disappears from the stores, you can continue using this glossary as a reference from the Toronto HiFi website. We’ve arranged the list in such a way that reads easily, with related terms collected together.

Understanding Speaker Specs

The frequencies within the range of human hearing are 20 Hz – 20 kHz.

Decibel (dB) – One-tenth of a Bel. Named in part after Alexander Graham Bell (hence the capital B), the decibel is used in both audio and video applications (although more often the latter) to compare power differences in voltage, current, watts, sound pressure levels (SPL), etc. The number of Bels is the common logarithm of the ratio of two powers. If two powers differ by 1 Bel, the greater one will be 10 times the other. A 100-watt amplifier is 1 Bel, or 10 dB, higher in output than a 10-watt unit. Decibels are ratios, not fixed quantities. The logarithmic nature of the decibel scale corresponds to the logarithmic nature of human hearing. One dB SPL is commonly accepted as the smallest difference that people can hear, depending on the bandwidth of the manipulated signal. When measuring audio signal-to-noise ratios, the difference between the quietest and loudest sounds is stated in dB.

Efficiency Rating – The loudspeaker parameter that shows the level of sound output when measured at a prescribed distance with a standard amount of energy fed into the speaker. Efficiency rating standard is 1 watt at 1 meter and is measured in decibels.

Frequency Response – Refers to what frequencies can be reproduced and how accurately they are reproduced.

20 Hz – 40 Hz – Low Bass
40 Hz – 80 Hz – Mid Bass
80 Hz -160 Hz – Upper Bass
160 Hz – 320 Hz – Lower Midrange
320 Hz – 640 Hz – Midrange
640 Hz – 1.28 kHz – Upper Midrange
1.28 kHz – 2.56 kHz – Lower Treble
2.56 kHz – 5.12 kHz – Mid Treble
5.12 kHz – 10.2 kHz – Upper Treble
10.2 kHz – 20.4 kHz – Top Octave

Impedance – Impedance ratings are included to offer an idea of how difficult a load the speakers are as far as the amp is concerned. Plugging a 4 ohm speaker into an amp rated at 8 ohms and above will damage the speaker and/or amp at louder levels, as it cannot handle the current demands of the lower impedance speaker. That being said, some ampsare perfectly capable of driving a 4 ohm speaker and will infact sound better when driving lower impedance speakers.

Input Impedance – The “load” actually seen by a source connected to an input. In audio, the input impedance should be considerably larger than the connected component’s output impedance to avoid signal losses and frequency-response irregularities. In video, the input and output impedance should nearly match.

Magnetic Shielding – Magnetically shielded speakers are important in Home Theater applications because of the damage the magnetic field of a speaker can do to a television set. This feature is critical for the centre channel and front left/right speakers.

Output Impedance – The impedance seen by an electrical load attached to the output terminals of an audio or video device. For practical purposes, the output impedance of any audio amplifying equipment should be low in comparison to what it is connected to. It should not only be low at low frequencies, where it will affect bass damping, but should also be low at higher frequencies to insure a flat frequency response. In video systems, output and input impedances should closely match.

Ohm – A measure of how much something resists (impedes) the flow of electricity.

Sensitivity/Efficiency Rating – The loudspeaker parameter that shows the level of sound output when measured at a prescribed distance with a standard amount of energy fed into the speaker. Efficiency rating standard is 1 watt at 1 meter and is measured in decibels. Efficiency rating dictates how loud a speaker will play for a given amount of power.

SPL – Sound-pressure level, measured in dB. More equals louder.

Watt – A unit of power or energy. One horsepower is equal to 745.7 watts. Amplifiers do not deliver watts (they deliver voltage), nor do speakers create them. When presented to a specific load (speaker impedance), current flows and the power dissipated is rated in watts. Wattage produced may be calculated by multiplying voltage times current or by squaring the voltage and dividing it by the impedance.

Speaker Components/Crossovers

Active Crossover – A powered electronic network that divides up the frequency constituents of an audio signal (bass, midrange, and treble) before it is amplified and sent to the various drivers in a speaker system. While active crossovers are often contained within subwoofer enclosures along with the bass driver(s), those that work with multi-way systems may also be outboard mounted.

Binding Post – The termination point of an amplifier or loudspeaker where the speaker cable is connected.

Crossover – A component that divides an audio signal into two or more parts by frequency, sending, for example, low frequencies to one output and high frequencies to another. Crossovers are sometimes built into amplifiers or equalizers.

Damping Material – Any material added to the interior of a speaker enclosure to absorb unwanted sound and reduce the out-of-phase reflection to the driver diaphragm.

Diaphragm – The part of a dynamic loudspeaker, attached to the voice coil, that produces sound. It usually has the shape of a cone or dome.

Ferro Fluid– This substance is a magnetically attracted liquid that works well at cooling tweeter and midrange driver voice coils. This is because it stays suspended in the magnetic gaps between the coil and the heavy magnet assembly, conducting heat to the latter. It also can affect speaker damping. In some tweeter designs, silicone grease will work better than Ferro fluid.

LFE (Low Frequency Effects) – LFE refers to bass. You really need a powered subwoofer to truly enjoy the LFEs on many Dolby Digital and DTS DVDS. The signal generally ranges between 20-150Hz.

Passive Crossover – A non-powered electrical network that divides the frequency constituents of an audio signal (bass, midrange, and treble) after it has been amplified and then routes them to the various drivers in a speaker system. In most situations, it is enclosed within the same box as the speaker drivers.

Tweeter – A speaker designed to reproduce the high or treble range of the sound spectrum. Usually made of a rigid material (although there are soft dome tweeters).

Woofer – The individual speaker unit (driver) designed to handle the midrange and low frequency bass range. Some speaker enclosures contain multiple woofer drivers to increase bass power. The cones can be made of paper, plastic, kevlar, carbon fibre and even aluminum.

Voice Coil – The wire coil surrounded by the magnet assembly in a moving-coil, dynamic loudspeaker. The coil is attached to a diaphragm (which may be a cone, dome, or some kind of hybrid air mover) of the driver and causes it to move when excited by a signal from an amplifier. Most voice coils are made from copper wire, although a few are made of aluminum wire.

Amplifiers/Enclosures

AMP – Ampere. A measurement of electrical current. This term is also sometimes used as an abbreviation for amplifier.

Amplifier – A component that increases the level of an audio signal from line level to speaker level.

Band-Pass Enclosure – Type of enclosure used for subwoofers where the driver is completely inside the enclosure and all of the output emerges through a port(s). This configuration is usually designed for high output volume with importance of accuracy/fidelity being less emphasized.

Bass Reflex – A speaker-box design that makes use of a port or drone cone. According to parameters outlined by Thiele and Small more than twenty years ago, allows the rear radiation of a woofer cone to reinforce the output of the front, extending and smoothing low-range response. At frequencies below the reinforcement range, there will be a sharp cutoff as the port signal goes back out of phase with the front.

Biamping – Using separate amplifiers to power the crossover-separated drivers in a speaker system. When a powered subwoofer is added to a system, the latter automatically becomes biamped, with the satellites separately amplified from the subwoofer. With the right speakers, biamping can boost the output capabilities of a sound system considerably.

Bi-Wiring – Of or referring to a method of connecting the amplifier or receiver to the speaker in which separate wiring is run to the woofer and the tweeter, or in a three-way system, to the midrange driver.

MOSFET – Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor-Field-Effect Transistor. A special, high-peak-current output transistor used in some power amplifiers.

Speaker Channels

A channel is a seperate signal path. A 5.1 channel system means that it has 5 speakers (2 front, 1 center, 2 surround) plus a subwoofer.

Center Channel – The channel in a surround sound setup that is directly in front of the viewer. The center channel speaker “anchors” sound that should be coming from the front of the screen. Most dialogue in DVD movies is played through the center channel.

Front Speakers – speakers used for reproduction of majority of the sound in a home theater. The only speakers used in a stereo setup.

Rear Speakers – Used in 6.1 or 7.1 systems, where two additonal speakers are placed behind the listening position.

Subwoofer – A speaker driver designed to reproduce very low frequencies, usually those under about 100 Hz. Often larger than 6.5 inches in diameter.

Surround Speakers – The usually small speakers that are placed toward the sides or toward the rear in a surround-sound system and handle the decoded, extracted, or synthesized ambience signals.

Speaker Types

Bipole Speaker – Bipole speakers generally (there are always exceptions) use identical complements of speaker drivers located in the classic front of the box position as well as on the rear panel. The drivers are wired “in phase”. This means that since the drivers are fed the same signal, they are all doing essentially the same thing. Looking at the behavior of the woofers for example, when they are fed the positive portion of the signal (which moves them forward), both woofers are moving forward at the same time. The same goes with the midranges and tweeters. Since the drivers are back to back with each other, their relative movements actually have them moving in opposite directions. Even though the phase is the same, one woofer is pushing to the front, while the other woofer is pushing toward the rear. Theoretically, a bipolar speaker approaches a 360° soundfield – it radiates sound all around the room. That’s a good thing if you need to position your surround speakers behind your listening position. Some people prefer the greater localization of bipolar speakers when used in digital discrete (Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS) systems (see Figure 1 at top of page).

Dipole Speakers (and how they are different from Bipole Speakers) – Dipoles radiate sound from the front and back. In contrast to bipoles, the sound is propagated out of phase. The result is that there is a “null” or a dead zone of sound in the area along the 90 degree axis of the speaker (see Figure 2 at top of page). When properly set up, a pair of dipole speakers used as surround speakers will provide a very open, enveloping rear effects soundstage without allowing you to pinpoint the location of the speakers themselves. But for all this to work properly, the speakers need to be positioned “in-line” with the listening position as shown on the illustration below. If you are sitting out of the null area, the effect is ruined.

Monopole Speaker – A monopole speaker is the “classic” speaker design familiar to most people. The monopole is a box speaker with its complement of speaker drivers (most often cones and domes) usually located grouped together on one side (the face) of the box. Sound propagation is achieved as all drivers operate by moving air in the same direction.

Three-Way Speaker – A loudspeaker system that uses separate drivers for the high frequencies, midrange, and bass. Certain designs may have more than three speaker drivers, but because some are paired together to handle the same frequencies, they will still be three-way designs.

Two-Way Speaker – A speaker system that uses separate drivers for the high and low frequencies; the midrange frequencies are split between them. Two-way systems usually suffer from midrange dispersion problems, because the woofer, which must be robust enough to do decent work down low, is usually not small enough in diameter.

Speaker Wire/Connectors

Guage (speaker wire guage) – The thickness of a wire’s conductive copper bundle. The lower the gauge, the thicker the wire, and the better its capacity to pass the amplified audio signal. Speaker wires available on the market range from 12 to 16 guage. Thicker wires generally deliver cleaner sound and are a must for longer wire runs.

Bare wire – generally used to connect less expensive speakers and receivers. The wire sheilding is stripped away and inserted into a spring clip. It can also be used with a binding post.

Pin plug – thin, metal rods pushed into a binding post or spring connector. They provide the least surface area of all connection types.

Spade lug – flat, U-shaped pieces that fit around the bolt-like metal post in a binding post. Provides the most surface contact (along with the Banana plug).

Banana plug – made up of “wire strips” that compress as the banana plug is inserted into the binding post and then expand again inside the post to hold the banana plug inside. Provides the most surface contact (along with the Spade lug).

Suave’s Picks Neil’s Picks
Star Trek DVD/Blu-ray, $24 and up Caig Laboratories DeoxIT Gold Contact Enhancer (G5MS-15, $9.95 US) and Contact Cleaner (D100S-2, $19.95 US)
This holiday season, the Enterprise will set course for millions of home theatres across the planet. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, released in movie theatres earlier this year, pleased not only long-time fans of the franchise but masses of other movie goers. It’s safe to say that this movie will become one of the top demos for showing off a home theatre’s capabilities. Look for four exclusive editions that come with: o-sleeve package, a steelbook case, packaging that assembles to become the U.S.S. Enterprise disc storage or 4 replica Starfleet division badges. www.paramount.com These are some of the best cleaning and contact enhancing products available today, used and endorsed by Boeing, Xerox and db Sound among many others. The Cleaner eliminates oxidization and atmospheric contaminants and the Enhancer improves conductivity and protects metal surfaces. Use on RCA connectors, RCA input/output jacks, speaker cable connectors and binding posts, etc. Highly recommended! www.caig.com
Furutech FP-204(R) Banana Plugs, $25.99 each Clearaudio Clever Clamp, $28
To an audio video enthusiast, getting accessories is like getting jewelry. These Rhodium-plated banana plugs use Furutech’s exclusive a-Alpha Process and are the best plugs I have found to date to put on speaker wires. Each plug holds the wire very securely with not one but two screws. Once the plug is inserted into a speaker terminal, a few twists of the knob secures the plug in place. We use them on all of the speaker cables in our lab! www.furutech.com The Clever Clamp provides a simple, yet effective tool to ensure vinyl LPs are clamped to the platter. As a result, it reduces potential slippage and deleterious effects of warpage such as wow and flutter. Simply place on top of the record and you’re ready to go. The Clever Clamp is also easy to remove thanks to its upturned edges. Make that special someone realize improved dynamics and bass response when listening to their valuable vinyl collection! www.clearaudio.de
Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray, $25 US IsoTek Full System Enhancer CD, $32.99 US
Far too many TVs produce a mediocre picture out of the box. To unlock their full potential, you will need a calibration disc such as this one from Spears & Munsil. Unlike other calibration discs which are confusing to use and come with little instruction, this disc should be simple enough for just about anyone to use and comes with detailed instructions. www.spearsandmunsil.com This CD provides a set of sonic algorithms to burn-in new equipment and cables and eliminate magnetic build up in your existing AV system. The disc has three tracks: the first track is designed for bookshelf speaker systems with limited bass response, the second track is designed for full range systems and the third track is a refresher. Reduces burn-in time dramatically and effectively eliminates magnetic build up throughout the system including the drivers in the speakers. www.isoteksystems.com
Sonic Fabric Necktie, $90 US Transformers Gift Set Blu-ray, $54.99
Wearing a Walkman around their neck isn’t likely to attract any ladies. But here’s something that just might do the trick! These ties are made from 50% recorded audio cassette tape and 50% coloured thread. And believe it or not, if you run a tape head over the tie, you can actually hear the sound of the tape. Available in three colours: dark brown, light gray and black. Search for “sonic fabric” at www.supermarkethq.com The Transformers movies represent pure unadulterated fun while showcasing the benefits of the Blu-ray format. Outstanding film transfers with uncompromised detail and colour combined with phenomenal Dolby TrueHD soundtracks provide a real test for any home theatre system. Both movies packaged together at a great price make for a wonderful stocking stuffer! www.paramount.com

When I was younger, my father always stressed to me the importance of plugging our electronics into power bars with surge protection instead of directly into the wall outlet. He said it would protect the electronics from voltage surges – anything from smaller spikes to lightning storms. I thought it was a little ridiculous. After all, how many precious pieces of electronics have you lost to a lightning storm? Then one day the unthinkable (to me) happened. One of my family’s television sets not plugged into a surge protector blew up during a lightning storm in my neighborhood. Well it didn’t actually blow up, it simply stopped working.

While this scenario is not common at all, electrical surges and spikes occur in our power lines regularly. These surges and spikes can be severe enough to damage home theater equipment (as well as other sensitive electronics) gradually or immediately. Modern power protection equipment ranges from the simple power bar with surge protection to a power center that combines surge protection, line conditioning, voltage regulation and even power backup.

As it turns out, power bars with surge protectors (also called surge suppressors) are actually a little more complicated than first meets the eye. Depending on what level of protection and features a power bar has it can cost anywhere from five dollars to several hundred dollars.

First let’s take a look at how your home theater can be affected by unclean power and what to look for when choosing power bars and power centers to protect your investment.

In a normal household and office wiring in North America, the standard voltage is 120 volts AC (Alternating Current). Power lines are inherently noisy and voltage surges and spikes are common. This increase in the electrical potential energy can be caused by lightning storms, power company load switching, short circuits, improper home wiring, blackouts as well as power-hungry household electrical devices such as refrigerators, air-conditioners and microwaves. These high-powered devices require a lot of energy to switch on and turn off components like compressors and motors. An increase of voltage which lasts for one or two nanoseconds is called a spike and one that lasts three nanoseconds or longer is called a surge. Both spikes and surges (also called transient voltages) can compromise the performance of a home theater and over time can lead to premature demise of equipment. In the worst case, these transient voltages can reach as high as 6000 volts and fry electronics instantly. Today’s electronics are much smaller and more delicate than components in older equipment and are therefore more sensitive to current increases. Modern electronic devices can literally fry from overheating if they receive more power than they are designed for. For this reason it is becoming increasingly important to protect your electronics. No power bar with surge protection can actually save the connected components from a direct lightning strike, but the chances of a direct strike are very rare. In a lightning storm you should never rely on a surge protector to save your equipment. The best protection is to unplug or turn off your power bar. A good quality power bar will not send any electricity to the devices connected to it when it’s turned off.

A standard power bar with surge protection passes the electrical current from the wall outlet to the devices plugged into the power strip. If the voltage from the outlet rises above 120 volts, the surge protector diverts the extra electricity into the outlet’s grounding wire. One critical characteristic of transient voltages is that they are very quick. A device that serves to filter out the voltage spike has to detect the spike in nanoseconds in order to be effective. Look for surge protectors with a response time of 1 nanosecond or less. In most surge protectors the component that actually diverts this extra electricity is called a metal oxide varistor (or MOV). A good power bar will usually have several MOVs. Each MOV forms a direct connection between the hot power line and the grounding line. Generally, an MOV consists of a piece of metal oxide material in the middle that is joined to the power and grounding lines by two semiconductors. These semiconductors have a variable resistance that depends on voltage. If the voltage is below a certain level, the electrons in the semiconductors flow in a way that creates a high resistance, not allowing electricity to pass from the power to the grounding line. When the voltage exceeds that level, the electrons behave differently creating a much lower resistance. This low resistance allows the MOV to conduct a lot of current to the grounding line. Unfortunately all MOVs eventually burn out. In fact, one good surge can burn out all the MOVs in your power bar. When the MOVs cease to function, the power bar simply becomes a power strip and you may not even know it. Inexpensive power bars don’t have any visible signs that the MOVs are not working. Good quality power bars have an indicator light that tells you whether the surge protection is working properly.

Power surges can also reach your home theater through the coaxial cable carrying cable television or satellite signals. A power bar in your home theater should guard your equipment against both surges in the power lines and surges in the coaxial cable. Most modern power bars offer both types of protection plus a protection for telephones lines that are also susceptible to power surges.

Power bars come in varying ranges of prices, performance and shapes. There are many different products out there from the simplest $5 power bar (or power strip more appropriately) to a several hundred dollar rack-mountable power center that looks like a home theater component. When choosing the right device to protect your home theater you’ll have to consider several specifications and features shared among protection devices.

Let’s take a look at the ratings you should look for when buying a power bar (or center) with surge protection that might also offer power line conditioning.

To make sure you’re buying a quality product, first check out its Underwriters Laboratories (UL) ratings. UL is an independent company that tests electric and electronic products for safety. Many surge protectors made prior to 1998 are potential fire hazards. The MOVs inside them can get very hot to the point of starting a fire during a large power surge. Look for a label on the product that reads “UL Listed”, not just “UL Approved” or “UL Tested”. Also make sure the product is labeled as a “transient voltage surge suppressor”. This means that it meets the criteria for UL 1449 and minimum performance standards for surge suppressors. Not all “UL Listed” power bars have surge protection.

Every surge suppressor has a clamping voltage. This is the peak voltage the suppressor will pass to the devices plugged into it, if a spike or surge occurs. Look for a suppressor with a clamping voltage of 330 volts. Also, make sure the device is equipped to absorb surges between any pair of the three wires (positive, negative and ground) in an electrical circuit. These are indicated by the symbols L-N, L-G, and N-G.

Surge protectors are marked with a Joule rating. A Joule measures how much energy the suppressor can absorb and dissipate before it fails. The higher this number – the better. Look for surge protectors with at least 600 joules or more. Many of today’s power protection devices designed for the home theater offer ratings between 1300 and 2000 joules.

Another rating to look for is the response time. This indicates the amount of time it takes for the MOVs inside the power protection device to absorb the transient voltage. As mentioned above, look for response times of 1 nanosecond or less.

Lower quality power bars with surge protection may cause as much as 20 to 30 dB of signal loss between their coaxial input and output. This can have a tremendous impact on the quality of your cable/satellite television signals. Look for power protection devices the have virtually no signal loss through their coaxial surge protection.

Intermediate power products offer power line conditioning in addition to surge protection. AC power line noise and noise generated by other electrical and electronic devices compromise the performance of home theater equipment. These disturbances can cause inferior picture quality flawed with video streaking, lower resolution and video bandwidth. From the audio perspective, power line pollution can cause dynamic distortion and loss of peak power. Power line conditioning removes this noise from the power line and maximizes the audio and video performance in the home theater.

More advanced power products also feature filters which deliver maximum current to high power components (such as amplifiers) and isolate audio equipment from video equipment. Each home theater component can add noise to the power line that can travel through your power bar or power protection device to other components plugged into it. Isolating audio and video equipment ensures that noise is not transferred between the components. Some devices even isolate analogue sources from digital sources plugged into them.

High-end power protection and conditioning products come equipped with voltage regulators or voltage stabilizers. Power coming from the wall outlet does not always measure exactly 120 volts. At peak power consumption times during the day, it probably measures closer to 115 volts whereas at night it might be closer to 125 volts. Devices with voltage regulators constantly measure the voltage on the power line. If the voltage dips below or goes over a specified range (for example between 88 volts and 130 volts) a voltage regulator will adjust the voltage to 120 volts.

Some power protection products (like APC’s S10 and S15) even have battery backup power included for times when the power goes out completely. This will allow your home theater system to run for an additional few minutes after the power outage and will shut down your entire system properly and automatically. Of course a battery backup can be purchased separately as an addition to any power protection product of your choice.

Finally, when looking for protection for your home theater, take a look at the manufacturer’s warranty as it may be a good indication of product’s quality. Usually the more the manufacturer is willing to cover the more confident they are in their product. Of course, you should never rely on getting the money for your damaged equipment – the warranty lists all kinds of conditions under which you may not qualify to get this money.

Looking at the price of a device will give you an insight into what level of protection you can get from it. As a general rule, don’t expect much protection, if any, from a power bar that costs less than $10 – most of these are simply power strips. In the $10 to $30 range you will find basic surge protection and few features. Power bars above $40 will offer better protection ratings and carry additional features. Devices that cost a few hundred dollars and more will offer line conditioning, voltage regulation and even power backup in addition to surge protection. Consider how much your home theater gear cost you and how little that $100 or $200 power protection device may be compared to the rest of the equipment. You might look at power protection equipment as in insurance policy that doesn’t carry monthly payments. If only there was something like this for cars.

DIY Audio is short for Do It Yourself audio and it means just that. Rather than buying audio equipment, you build it yourself. So you may be thinking that you don’t have the skills or the technical background to build your own audio equipment. You are probably wrong! Just about everyone that I have met with a keen interest in audio has at one point or another completed some level of DIY audio. Likely it was just a basic speaker cable like a 12 gauge zip cord with screw-on banana plugs or crimp-on spades. Or perhaps it was some sort of system tweak like a wooden or stone platform resting on tennis balls split in half to isolate your turntable (racquetballs or squash balls also work well). On the other end of the scale, DIY audio can also be quite complicated with advanced projects that involve building an entire component from scratch such as a high-end speaker, a large mutli-channel amplifier or a CD player. Regardless of your skills or technical knowledge there is some level of DIY efforts that you will be able to apply to your system.

There are a number of reasons why people will put effort into DIY audio. The most common reasons are the potential for cost savings, a sense of self-satisfaction and the opportunity to custom tailor your system to any level of detail that you desire. For me it’s a combination of all these reasons, plus DIY makes a great hobby. The costs savings potential can in some cases be significant. The savings typically result from avoiding the marketing and advertising costs often associated with hi-fi equipment. Also, as with almost everything we buy, repeat shipping costs can add up to represent a good portion of the overall cost (think – heavy amplifier from the manufacturing plant, to the parent company, to a regional distributor and finally to the retailer). Of course for some items, the DIY route is not always the lowest cost. It is not all about saving money and some improvements that can be had with your system are not ones that you simply go out and buy. Little system tweaks and adjustments can often be applied to your system or listening room through trial and error and they may not cost anything but produce a noticeable improvement. Not all DIY efforts need to be a complete project – simply upgrading crossover parts or swapping in your favorite capacitors can improve sound quality. A tube amp can be nice too. No matter how big or small, there is some portion of your audio system that could benefit from DIY efforts.

When I started tinkering with radios and electronics as a kid, good information was often difficult to come by and generally limited to the odd magazine or hard to find books. In just two decades the problem has gone from a lack of resources to a wealth of information, most of it free, that is now available. There are a number of great books that one can refer to like the Loudspeaker Design Cookbook by Vance Dickason and Building Valve Amplifiers by Morgan Jones. The internet is also a tremendous resource and includes a wide variety of information that ranges from simple project by hobbyists up to high-end amplifiers by legendary designer Nelson Pass (passdiy.com). Another good resource is the diyAudioProjects.com website which I help administer.

For first time builders, something very simple like interconnects, speaker cables or a record clamp are an ideal project. Check out the June/July 2009 issue which included a Furutech DIY power cable project. If you have some basic electronics and soldering skills, a battery powered headphone amplifier can make a very good project (search for “cmoy amp” on the internet). The popular CMoy tutorial is simple to follow and it will also give you some insight on how to get good use out of a protoboard. We don’t advise that you jump into higher voltage projects until you develop your skills and are familiar with the various aspects of electrical safety. Some of you will possess good woodworking skills and building a loudspeaker enclosure may be a very simple task for you. Even if you don’t know anything about loudspeaker design, there are plenty of well documented DIY loudspeaker projects available that you can follow. For those of us who are not skilled at woodworking, there are plenty of speaker and subwoofer kits that can be purchased. You can find complete kits that are simple and come with all the required parts including finished cabinets. For the more advanced builders, the sky is the limit. I personally am very fond of the sound of tubes especially when coupled with high sensitivity speakers. While you may be under the impression that vacuum tubes circuits are complicated, some single-ended designs are actually very simple, often requiring only a few parts and can be easily constructed with point-to-point connections. Of course you should familiarize yourself with high voltage safety before attempting any higher voltage projects. There are also plenty of tube amplifier kits which are available for purchase. For those who wish to try one out, the inexpensive K-12 tube amp kits by S-5 Electronics are fun, simple to build and can sound really good with the right loudspeakers. There are a good number of DIY projects, ranging from simple to advanced, on the diyAudioProjects.com website that you can follow. There is also a photo gallery of DIY projects that you can browse through if you are looking for inspiration and a discussion forum where you can ask questions. DIY is simpler than you think.

You likely already own most of the basic tools required for a DIY project such as a drill, pliers, wire strippers / cutters, knife, screw drivers, etc. In addition to the basic tools, a soldering iron and multimeter are generally sufficient for most projects. If you are not familiar with soldering or using a multimeter there are several well written guides and video tutorials online. There are a number of great Canadian suppliers that can provide you with many of the tools and parts that you’ll need to get started with DIY.

Parts ConneXion (partsconnexion.com), Canada’s largest DIY part supplier, is located in Burlington, Ontario and has been serving DIY hobbyists since 1988. They have a huge selection of products that includes resistors, capacitors, inductors, semiconductors, tubes, transformers, enclosures, knobs and much more. Their products are generally available in a range of quality from basic to high-end providing many options for just about every budget.

Audiyo Inc. (audiyo.com) is located in Richmond Hill, Ontario and has been supplying high-end audio products and parts since 2003. They have a good selection of high quality components that include cable wire and connectors, capacitors, inductors, resistors, vacuum tubes and more. They also have kits which are available for purchase and include power cables, a CD player and modules from Tent Labs and DACT which include power supplies, clocks and preamplifiers. Audiyo is the distributor for Furutech, Mundorf, Techflex, Tentlabs, DACT and 1877Phono products among others. Rumor has it that Audiyo is working on a number of high-end DIY kits including a CD player and an integrated amplifier.

Solen Electronique Inc. (solen.ca) is located in St-Hubert, Quebec and has been in the loudspeaker business since the early 1980s. In general, Solen is your one-stop Canadian source for loudspeaker projects. Solen manufacturers high performance crossover components and is a distributor for some of the highest quality speaker drivers available. In addition to their Solen line of crossover components they distribute drivers from Audax, Eton, Fostex, Fountek, Morel, Peerless, Scan-Speak, Vifa and many, many more.

Local sources for parts will vary widely depending on where you are located. Search your phone book to see if there is a retailer in your area. Active Electronic Supplies Depot (active123.com) is located in most major Canadian centers and you can check their website for a location near you. They carry most of the basic parts such as resistors, capacitors and semiconductors and the full line of Hammond products. They also have a wide selection of tools, testing equipment, soldering irons, protoboards and even some audio kits. The Source (formerly Radio Shack) has a limited number of parts available and some handy tools.

We hope that this introduction to DIY audio has provided you with some useful resources and that it has inspired you to give DIY audio a try. We have some very simple DIY projects planned for the upcoming issues. Work safely and remember, DIY audio can be a lot of fun!

Hi-fidelity audio is often associated with multiple, large speakers but high quality sound is also available in a more portable, personal package. Earphones and headphones can be a great alternative for personal listening when budget, physical space and or noise levels are a factor. There are a wide variety of personal listening devices to suit every lifestyle, budget and application.

Headphones and earphones can create immerse, accurate sound that rivals that of expensive loudspeakers because of several factors. First, they do not have to produce very high decibel output which allows them to be smaller, require less power and cost less to manufacture. Analogous to digital cameras, if all you need is a 4”x6” print, a 2 megapixel camera will produce usable results but if you need a 12”x18” print, you’ll need a 20 megapixel camera. Secondly, headphones and earphones are less affected by acoustics. Since most head/earphones are isolated from outside noise and transmit sound directly into your ears, they aren’t affected by room acoustics, reverb and other “outside” factors.

There are two main categories of personal audio: earphones and headphones. With earphones (often called earbuds), there are those that sit in the outer ear (pinna) and “canalphones” which are inserted into the canal of the ear. Headphones are divided into circumaural, which have pads that completely surround the outer ear, and supra-aural, which have pads that just sit on the outer ear. Circumaural headphones are either open-back (or open-air) or closed-back. Each of these different types of personal listening devices has its pros and cons, as well as a variety of different price points depending on quality, material and other factors.

Earbuds are the most ubiquitous and are typically bundled with everything from MP3 players to smartphones. Indeed, the “white earbuds” worn by many commuters have become the most familiar symbol of personal audio – though no audio enthusiast (or CANADA HiFi reader, hopefully) would ever use the stock earbuds that come with their iPod or MP3 player. Quality earbuds come in a variety of styles, start at $10 and are available to suit every need, budget and style. For example, sports earbuds have clips that hook around the ear, ensuring a snug fit while jogging while other earbuds sit behind the neck, come with built-in radios or have volume controls, microphones and remotes for use with cell phones and MP3 players. Earbuds, however, are typically the simplest (and cheapest) level of personal audio and are also limited in quality and frequency response. Earbuds are available from Skull Candy, Pioneer, Sony, and a number of other manufacturers.

The other type of earbuds are canalphones, or inner-ear earphones. These earphones are inserted into the canal of the ear and typically come with silicone, rubber or foam flanges/tips to ensure a comfortable, snug fit. The main advantage of canalphones is the noise isolation that comes with sealing off your ear canal from ambient noise. This noise isolation is useful for both sound quality and when listening in an environment that isn’t quiet such as public transit or when flying. Canalphones were originally made for stage/live artists to both protect their hearing from the high decibel stage as well as to allow them to hear the band/music and their fellow musicians. For an even more personalized fit, you can visit an audiologist or hearing centre and have custom moulds made for your ears. They usually start at $50 each and ensure the most exacting fit. The average ear grows 1/100th of an inch a year so you shouldn’t have to replace your custom moulds often. Canalphones are usually more expensive, but offer better sound and frequency response. Canalphones are available from Sennheiser, Shure, Pioneer, Klipsch, Etymotic, Ultimate Ears, and Westone, among others. Pricing starts at $20 for generic fit, Skull Candy canalphones to $400+ for triple-driver (independent bass, mid, treble drivers) Westone W3s.

In contrast to the more portable earbuds, headphones are the other side of the coin. Headphones require more power to drive (and hence aren’t as suited for portable audio players) but are typically cheaper than similarly capable canalphones in the same way that desktops are cheaper than similarly capable laptops (smaller electronics are more complex and expensive). Of the two styles of headphones, supra-aural headphones are cheaper and sit on top of the outer ear. They are less expensive but don’t offer good ambient noise isolation, adjustability, or fit. These have largely been displaced by earbuds, canalphones and circumaural headphones which completely cover the outer ear.

Circumaural headphones are further subdivided into closed-back and open-back/open-air. The former offer noise-isolation qualities similar to canalphones and are standard for DJs. The closed design ensures only the listener hears what is being produced but can affect the sound quality in lower quality headphones similar to the negative effect created by cheaper cabinet materials resonating/distorting the sound in loudspeakers. They can, however, deliver better bass than their open-back counterparts. Closed-back earphones are available from Sennheiser, Grado, Beyerdynamic, Ultrasone, Audio Technica, Denon, and others at a wide variety of price points from $30 to $300+.

Open-back earphones, sometimes called “vented” headphones, are not sealed and as such, lack the noise isolation qualities of closed-back headphones. The open design reduces the reflections/resonance of closed-back headphones and creates a more open, natural soundstage leading to more accurate sound reproduction. Obviously, this also allows sound to “leak” out the back of the headphones and ambient noise to leak into the headphones making them ill-suited for noisy or public environments. Many of the manufacturers that make closed-back headphones also have open-back offerings.

One headphone manufacturer, Ultrasone, has also introduced “Ultra Low Emission” magnetic shielding into their headphones. They claim the metal shielding protects the wearer from 98% of the electromagnetic emissions generated by the drivers. While the jury’s still out on the long-term effects of electromagnetic emissions on human physiology, with evidence on both sides, reviews of Ultrasone’s headphones show no discernable effect on sound quality due to the extra shielding making the feature a useful “better-safe-than-sorry” addition.

For quality headphones, it is highly recommended that they be driven by a dedicated headphone amplifier. The headphone jack on an AV receiver often cannot drive high-impedance headphones, reduces the dynamic range of the output signal, lacks the sensitivity for a low-powered signal or introduces noise. Fortunately, headphone amplifiers are (relatively) inexpensive when compared to other audio components and there are many DIY projects with full schematics for the electronically inclined.

It is important to note that headphone amplifiers should always be connected to the tape-out or preamplifer outputs of a source. The signal from these outputs is non-variable and not affected by volume, equalizer or DSP settings on the source, which ensures the cleanest, unaltered signal passes through to the headphone amplifier. Pass-through outputs also have the same effect.

Beyond “standard” headphones, there are now a plethora of options and features. Bluetooth, RF and infrared capabilities allow for wireless listening; DSP-equipped headphones can produce a virtual surround sound effect; and powered, active noise-cancellation headphones can help in noisy environments.

If you’re looking for the freedom to walk around your house at inappropriate hours with headphones on, wireless headphones may be the solution for you. They’ll let you listen to music anywhere inside and even outside your house, regardless of where your stereo is located. They are available in both circumaural and supraural designs. Wireless headphones transmit sound using the radio frequencies (RF) of 900 MHz, 2.4 or 2.8 GHz and are generally heavier than other pairs of headphones because they have built-in batteries. The headphones will typically function from 4 to 23 hours on a single charge (depending on the battery type) and the RF transmitter generally doubles as a recharging station. The range of wireless headphones is between 10 to 100 meters from the RF transmitter.

The latest technology to come to the world of headphones is the Dolby Headphone format. This technology is actually found in today’s receivers, not headphones. The Dolby Headphone algorithm takes any multi-channel audio source (up to 5-channels) and processes it to add all sorts of spatial cues and ambient effects through simulated direct and reflected sounds. It outputs a two-channel audio signal that is reproduced through any pair of conventional headphones and allows you to listen to music, watch movies and play video games while enjoying the sound effects of a 5.1-channel soundtrack. In order to experience the Dolby Headphone format, your receiver or DVD player must have the capability to decode it. A few DVDs also come with pre-encoded Dolby Headphone soundtracks in which case hardware decoding is unnecessary. Special editions of Pearl Harbor and T2: Extreme DVD are a couple of movies that have these soundtracks included. As with any other sound formats, you can usually tell if the hardware can decode this format by looking for the Dolby Headphone logo on its front panel. Home theater receivers from Harman/Kardon, Denon, Marantz and Kenwood are some of the latest home theater products to offer this technology.

But Dolby Headphone decoding isn’t limited to home theater equipment. It can also be found in personal computers, mp3 players and portable DVD players. Eventually it will probably make it into most electronic products.

Whatever your listening requirements and budget, there are personal listening devices available to fill the need. Make sure that the fit is comfortable, keep the volume level to a reasonable decibel to prevent hearing damage and enjoy your own private listening experience.

To many Canadians, remote control devices can be traced back to the days of the Rogers Cable hard-wired “clicker” box, back in the early 1970s. Luckily, thanks to invention, somewhere along the way we’ve lost the wires. As home theatre systems became more complex, the number of remote controls populating our coffee tables has increased. Essentially each component in our AV systems is accompanied by a remote control which can lead to more confusion than convenience. The solution? A universal remote. This article will explore and explain the features and benefits of a number of currently available universal remote control solutions from the simplest to the most sophisticated.

First, there are two common methods of emitting and receiving commands from remote control devices, infrared (IR) and radio frequency (RF). The IR remotes are the most common and require line of sight to the device being controlled. The RF remotes are not as common and can be used from another room without need for line of sight. One can purchase an outboard device to convert IR to RF and vice versa for devices that are configured accordingly or for equipment hidden in a cabinet.

A universal remote is designed to replace all the remotes on your coffee table and simplify the operation of your home theatre system. It can duplicate all commonly used functions of your existing remotes and is able to combine several button presses (from different remotes) into a “one click” solution through macro programming. The sophistication of one’s system will dictate the level of performance required from the new remote which can include advanced functionality such as control of a home network, lighting system, window treatments, projection screen deployment and other assorted home automation features.

You may not know it, but you likely already own a simple universal remote. That’s because virtually all digital cable boxes and satellite receivers are supplied with a very basic universal remote. These remotes can be relatively easily configured to control your cable or satellite box, TV and even a DVD or Blu-ray player.

However a growing common denominator for home theater set-ups is the AV receiver -whose function is to select, decode and playback all video and audio sources in the system. Pretty well all AV receivers are supplied with a programmable universal remote control that can be configured to control the basic functions of the various pieces of equipment that make up the system. This style of remote is considered to be the most basic of programmable universal remote controls, although higher end AV receivers are supplied with more sophisticated remotes. These remotes can be configured to work with your components in one of two ways. First, you can enter the code for each of your AV components – these codes, found in the AV receiver’s manual, are provided for the vast majority of components found on the market today. If you can’t find your component in the code list, you can point its remote at the universal remote and “clone” button functionality one button at a time. “Macro” buttons on these remote can be configured to turn on specific components and select various inputs to simplify home theatre operation but they tend to be tricky and time consuming to configure.

Most universal remotes that come supplied with a component leave much to be desired however and hence many home theatre enthusiasts choose to upgrade. Today, many types of programmable universal remotes are available from manufacturers such as One-for-All, Logitech Harmony, Universal Remote Control, Nevo, RTI, Acoustic Research, NXG and Philips. Remotes from these manufacturers offer much greater configuration flexibility, more convenient button layouts, more elegant user interfaces and backlit buttons. Mid-range models offer completely customizable colour LCD or OLED screens, rechargeable batteries, while top-of-the-line remotes even offer a touch screen interface. Some of these remotes are very simple to configure but other more complicated ones may require the help of custom installer. Let’s examine the various options found in programmable universal remotes for the least expensive to the most extravagant.

The first step up from the remote supplied with your AV receiver is a universal remote that has backlit buttons – a feature that most stock remotes lack. The backlit buttons will easily allow you to control all of your components in a darkened home theatre. These remotes start at as little at $20 and can usually control up to five different components. One example is a Universal Remote Control URC-R6 which retails for about $26.

The next set up is a remote that substitutes macro buttons for custom activities such as “Watch TV” or “Watch a DVD” that appear on a small, backlit monochrome screen. Pressing the button next to the activity displayed on the screen will power on all required components and switch to appropriate audio and video inputs. The Logitech Harmony 510 ($99) is a perfect example of such a remote. It should be noted that Logitech Harmony remotes have a really great reputation for ease of programming. To program these remotes you need to install Logitech provided software on a PC or MAC and connect the remote to your computer using a USB cable. The software will prompt you for the brands and model numbers of your components and then ask you a number of questions about how you control them. Based on your answers, the software will download codes specific to your components from its online database into your remote. When finished, the remote’s screen will display various home theatre activities such as “Watch TV”, “Watch a DVD” or “Listen to a CD”. With the click of a single button, the remote will power on all required components and switch to appropriate audio and video inputs.

The Kameleon 8 from All For One (approx. $99 US) lands somewhere between remotes with monochrome screens and full-colour screens. This remote uses a unique combination of electroluminescent backlighting and a segmented LCD display. The result is a screen that occupies the entire surface of the conventionally shaped remote – there are no hard buttons. Unlike the Harmony 510 above, the Kameleon 8 doesn’t allow you to program clearly labled activities but instead offers 4 macro keys (each can consist of up to 16 sequential button presses). The Kameleon controls up to 8 devices and its pale blue LCD screen automatically turns on with any movement and shuts down after 7 seconds of inactivity. Once the remote is programmed and an audio/video component is selected, the remote displays only buttons that are associated with the component. A set up menu is built into the remote, so there is no need for an internet connection or a PC.

Moving up the feature ladder is a universal remote that upgrades the small monochrome screen to a slightly larger colour LCD screen. A few examples are the Logitech Harmony 700 ($179), the Universal Remote Control Digital R50 ($149 US), the Nevo C2 ($229 US) and the Philips Pronto TSU9200 ($300 US approx). The Harmony 700 offers all the same features as the Harmony 510 but has a slightly larger colour screen and can be recharged with the supplied AC adapter, instead of using regular batteries. The URC Digital R50 also features a colour LCD screen and is programmed through a Setup Wizard displayed directly on its screen – no Internet or PC required.

Continuing up the feature ladder, we arrive at remotes that offer RF capability, which is essential if your home theatre components are hidden out of sight. Some manufacturers even offer RF extenders which will allow you to control components that are up to 100 feet away. Remotes in this price range are also usually supplied with a charging dock. An example of a remote in this category is the Logitech Harmony 900 ($449) and the Nevo C3 ($299 US plus $99 US for an RF base). The tablet-style Logitech Harmony 1100 ($449) adds a much larger colour touch screen that is customizable.

At this point, we are arriving at the top echelon of universal remote controls, where the prices jump quickly and you may require the assistance of a custom installer to properly program the remote for you. These high-end remotes are not only capable of controlling your home theatre components but also home automation systems such as lighting controls, powered window coverings and HVAC. Nevo offers two products in this category – the Q50 ($699 US) and the S70 ($1199 US). Both these remotes offer 2-way Z-Wave control for home automation devices as well as 2-way serial (RS-232) control for third party devices such as the iPod. Both models combine some hard buttons with a fully customizable colour touch screen – the Q50 has a 2.5 inch screen and the S70 has a 3.5 inch screen. Additionally, the S70 offers advance capabilities through WiFi which include the ability to view web content (from sites optimized for mobile devices), control digital music, and View and control IP based security cameras and monitors.

RTI takes the idea of a high-end remote yet a few steps further. The company’s T4 Universal Controller is a tablet-style remote which includes a 6.4 inch colour touch screen LCD panel. The touch screen displays the GUI provides wireless playback of video, JPEG images and web pages from a home network. There is a pair of tiny stereo speakers built into the remote with 32 MB of memory for unlimited sequential step Windows/USB-based programmability for macro setups. Fully IR and RF capable, this remote will control virtually anything you throw at it. Priced at $2499 US, the T4 remote can also be table or wall mounted.

The crème de le crème of remote controls come with all the functionality of the above mentioned remotes, but come with much larger colour LCD touch screens, just a few hard buttons, and can be customized to your heart’s content. Many of the remotes in this category can be held in your hands but come with docking stations that can be fixed to a table top or a wall. The Philips Pronto TSU9800 is the latest and greatest iteration from the Pronto line-up and offers control of multi-room audio systems. It features a 6.4 inch colour LCD touch screen which displays large intuitive icons and menus, which can be completely customized. The TSU9800 offers WiFi or hard-wired Ethernet connectivity to a home network via its docking base. There are a few hard buttons and a rotary wheel to scroll through the displayed options. RF and IR capable, the unit also comes with a built-in mini speaker and pre-programmed Lutron lighting control for various mood lighting options. The unit is programmable via ProntoEdit Professional software and has 64 MB of memory for up to 250 sequential steps for each macro. The TSU9800 is simple to use, has a clean aesthetic and is available for $2399 US.

Before committing to a purchase, do your research online to make sure that remote you’re about to purchase offers the functionality and features that you require. Buying a universal remote should be a fun process. I leave you with a list of website for the various manufacturers in the sidebar.

An AV receiver is the brain and arguably the most critical part of a modern home theatre. This single component takes care of amplification, audio/video switching, surround format processing and provides inputs for all audio and video sources. In addition to all of this, the latest AV receivers offer automatic speaker calibration, video processing, iPhone/iPod integration as well as home network and Bluetooth connectivity. Whether this is your first AV receiver or you already own one and are looking to upgrade, the following guide will assist you in making the right decision.

Sound Quality: Above all, an AV receiver should be chosen for its sound quality and there is only one way to judge this – you have to listen to it. It’s likely that you’ll be using the receiver for both watching movies and listening to music, so make sure to evaluate it using both movie soundtracks and music discs. We suggest listening to several receivers from different manufactures because the sound characteristics between manufacturers are distinct. What sounds great to you, may not be the preference for someone else. When auditioning a receiver, listen for accuracy (neutral tonal balance that is smooth across all the frequencies), imaging (the ability to create a 3-dimensional soundstage, with instruments and movie sound effects appropriately placed within it), attention to detail (the ability to reproduce subtle musical details) as well as dynamics (the ability to reproduce subtle dynamic contrasts). A great receiver should be able to make music listening emotional and place you right in the middle of the action when watching movies.

Many low and mid priced receivers fall short on the quality of their processor and preamp sections. If the receiver is connected in a showroom, turn the volume half way up and balance all channels using the test tones (just using your ears). Then switch the receiver to a surround sound mode with no source playing. Walk around the room and listen for any noises coming from each speaker. If you do hear noises, the receiver likely has a noisy preamp section. In a midway position between all speakers listen for excessive background noise as well. Usually rear channels are most obvious. If you hear any hissing from the speakers, chances are this will annoy you in the long run while listening to surround sources.

The next thing to do is to make sure that the amplifier can deliver clean power to the speakers. Play a CD that has heavy bass. Listen to the bass notes for strain or clarity, and impact or the lack of it. If the notes seem to strain or lack impact, this indicates a weak power supply. Next listen to the midrange and high frequency notes. The midrange should have a good balance throughout the 200 Hz – 4 KHz bandwidth and should be free from excessive boosting or attenuation in the frequency spectrum. The high frequency (above 4 KHz) should sound airy, natural and not overly bright. Receivers that sound bright may be tiring to the ears and must be carefully paired up with speakers that have a subtle nature in the high frequency spectrum.

Power: Most people know that a receiver with a higher power rating (watts per channel) can be turned up to be louder. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that increased amplifier power produces a much cleaner, more dynamic sound at any volume. When comparing power ratings between receivers, it is important to verify that they are measured uniformly. For example, typical mass market receivers rate each amp at 0.7% THD at 1KHz as opposed to a full bandwidth (20Hz to 20kHz) under acceptable THD audible limits (<0.1%). This is why a $300 mass market receiver appears to deliver as much or more power than a receiver twice the price. THD is the degradation of the output signal; usually expressed as a percentage. The smaller the THD rating of a receiver, the better quality sound it produces. Receivers with high THD ratings produce sound that sounds distorted (regardless of the volume level). The amount of power that you’ll need should be determined by the size of your room, speaker impedance and speaker sensitivity. The larger the room, the more powerful of a receiver you will need to fill it with clean sound. Speakers with an impedance of 4 ohms (which are considered difficult to drive) require a lot of current, which most entry-level receivers cannot deliver. To power speakers with 4 ohm impedances, you will have to turn to mid or higher-end receivers. Finally, the less sensitive your speakers are (measured in dB), the more power you will need to drive them at a given volume.

Surround Sound Decoding: If want to experience the highest quality audio available today on Blu-ray discs, you’ll want to make sure that the AV receiver can decode Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio. The Dolby Digital TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio are both uncompressed formats which deliver sound bit-for-bit the same as the studio master soundtrack. These uncompressed formats offer a significant improvement over the audio formats found on standard DVDs and go a long way to heightening the home theatre experience. Aside from these audio formats, all modern receivers should be able to decode the various incarnations of older Dolby Digital and DTS formats.

THX certification: THX is a home theatre component certification program created to ensure the high quality audio and video technology used in films is more accurately reproduced in a home theatre setup. THX certified components sound more natural, produce a more distinct dialogue, less distortion and reproduce the lowest bass notes with more precision and clarity. A THX logo on the front panel of the component indicates that the component is THX certified. Five different THX certifications exist, indicating performance categories based on room size. The “THX Certified” logo is found on components that are recommended for setups where the screen viewing distance is 6-8 feet. “THX-Select” and “THX-Select2″ are recommended for viewing distances of 10-12 feet, and “THX Ultra” and “THX Ultra2″ are intended for viewing distances of greater than 12 feet.

Dolby Pro Logic IIz and Audyssey DSX Decoding: Many 7.1-channel or better AV receivers  now offer to decode these new audio formats. Dolby Pro Logic IIz can expand a 5.1 system to 7.1 channels by deriving two additional front height channels. Audyssey DSX, which provides additional expanded front width and/or height channels, can expand a home theatre system to include up to 9.1 channels of sound. Neither of these formats however provides discrete audio information to any of these additional channels since movies don’t come encoded with these extra channels – these additional front/height channels are derived from the existing 5.1 or 7.1-channel soundtracks.

Number of Channels: Entry-level AV receivers offer 5(.1) channels of amplification but most models now offer 7(.1) or more. You’ll need a 7.1-channel or better AV receiver if you plan to use more than 5 speakers and a subwoofer in your home theatre, if you plan to run a multi-room system or if you’d like to take advantage of formats such as Dolby Pro Logic IIz and Audyssey DSX.

Remote Controls: A universal remote, supplied with most AV receivers, will let you take control of several components but the components have to be from the same manufacturer. A programmable (or learning) remote will let you control just about any component by any manufacturer. A higher-end remote with an LCD screen will tell you at a glance what component is on and what it’s doing. Remotes with backlighting (for the buttons) are incredibly useful in the darkened home theatre setting.

Inputs: Make sure that the receiver has enough HDMI (and legacy) inputs and outputs to connect all of your existing components to it and provide a few additional inputs for future upgrades. Having all your components connected to the AV receiver will allow for a quick, easy control of your entire home theatre. The latest AV receivers offer HDMI 1.4 or better connectivity, which will allow you to connect a Blu-ray 3D player (older HDMI versions will not). HDMI is the latest connection that carries both audio and video signals in a single cable and majorly simplifies how a home theatre is connected. All up-converting DVD and Blu-ray players have to be connected using an HDMI cable for the up-conversion to work. Today, several versions of the HDMI connection exist – so if you want to future-proof your investment, make sure that the AV receiver offers the latest version.

In order to enjoy high resolution audio from DVD-Audio and SACDs, the receiver must have multi-channel analogue inputs or HDMI version 1.2 or better inputs. Some Blu-ray players also require analogue inputs to send high resolution audio to the receiver. If you plan to connect a turntable in your setup, look for a receiver that has a Phono input. Otherwise, you will need to purchase a separate phono stage. Of course, outside of these connections the receiver should also offer a healthy number of composite, S-video and component inputs and outputs to ensure compatibility with older components. Finally, if you plan to listen to XM or Sirius satellite radio, make sure that the receiver is compatible with these services, to simplify their operation.

Outputs: Most AV receivers offer one HDMI output and one component video output, which are sufficient for most users. However it is not uncommon for those with dedicated home theatre rooms to have both a TV and a projector in the same room. Realizing this, many higher-end AV receivers now offer dual HDMI or component video outputs.

iPhone/iPod Connection and Control: If you own an iPhone or iPod that’s loaded with music, you’ll want to make sure that the AV receiver offers a direct connection that’s compatible with your model/version of the device. An iPhone/iPod connection is offered by a means of a dedicated cable or a docking station (sometimes included with the AV receiver, but most often sold separately). In most cases AV receivers with a dedicated iPhone/iPod connection will allow you to use the receiver’s remote to select songs, fast forward, rewind and control the volume. Some receivers will even display song information and album art on the TV screen.

Some manufacturers are beginning to offer a downloadable app from the Apple store for the iPhone and iPod touch which turns the device into a full function remote control. It is likely that all AV receiver manufacturers will follow suit very shortly.

Some AV receivers come with a sound enhancing feature for compressed digital music – which is great to have if you plan to connect your computer, an iPhone/iPod or an MP3 player to the receiver. These features use various algorithms that generally restore sound pressure and smooth jagged artifacts left from sound compression. 

Ethernet, WiFi and Bluetooth Connections: Mid to higher-end AV receivers now come equipped with an Ethernet connection which allows for streaming of Internet radio stations, digital media from a home network (music, video and pictures), and access to subscription online music services such as Rhapsody. Higher-end AV receiver models offer even a WiFi (wireless) connection to a home network (some have this functionality built-in, other require a separately sold adapter).

Bluetooth connectivity has also began appearing in some AV receivers (which usually requires a separately sold adapter). This feature allows wireless playback from Bluetooth devices such as the iPhone/iPod, Android phones, Blackberry phones, as well as Bluetooth enabled computers.

Automatic Speaker Calibration: This is a must-have feature that assists with the first-time setup of the AV receiver. Automatic calibration corrects sound distortion caused by room acoustics, which every room suffers from, and has the potential to substantially improve the sound in your room. This feature goes by various names depending on the manufacturer and can be found in most mid to high-end receivers. Automatic calibration uses a microphone (usually supplied) to analyze the acoustical output at one or more positions in the listening area. The receiver sends test signals to each speaker in turn, then uses the signal from the microphone to adjust channel level, distance and time delay settings for each speaker. The more positions the system takes measurements at, the better results it can generally produce. For example, a system that measures three positions, will improve the sound quality at three positions.

Higher-end receivers offer more advanced calibration systems that are capable of detecting and correcting a wider number of acoustical room issues, such as subwoofer (standing wave) challenges. A great resource to learn more about automatic calibration is the Audyssey website (www.audyssey.com) – a company that designs some of the most well known calibration systems.

Video Switching and Up-Conversion: All AV receivers perform video switching. For example, a typical receiver will send all connected composite, S-video and component sources to its HDMI output. This way, only a single HDMI cable has to be run between the receiver and the display. Some receivers can also up-convert lower quality material to 480p, 720p or 1080i/p.

Multi-Zone/Multi-Room: Many receivers offer more channels that most of us connect in a single room and allow you to connect a second (or third) set of speakers in another room or in your backyard, allowing you to listen to a second source simultaneously. Some models can even deliver video to a second zone. It is common for most mid-range and high-end models to come supplied with a smaller second zone remote, in addition to the main remote. If you won’t be connecting speakers in any additional zones, some receivers will allow you to use the additional channels to bi-amp your front speakers for improved front channel performance. Otherwise, the additional amplifier channels can be used for Dolby Pro Logic IIz or Audyssey DSX (if the receiver can decode these and you have these additional speakers set up).

If you would like to explore some of the above points in more detail or to learn how to set up and connect your AV receiver and speakers correctly, please check out the “Features” section on www.canadahifi.com/.

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