Money may not be able to buy you happiness, but it can buy you a ridiculously cool-sounding movie theater setup.
If you’re looking for the audio setup that will have you grinning when you watch your favorite action movie, stop. Go and buy any Sonos wireless speaker. Seriously. If you’re persistently pursuing perfection for your ear drums, it’s hard to improve on the design of Sonos.
When you ask someone what they think is the most important part of home theater, you’d probably always hear tv. I’m inclined to agree with that answer but a very close second is the sound. If you’ve got an incredible tv to look at but you’re listening to your movie from the tv speakers, it’d be like driving a Ferrari with a 4 cylinder engine, no fun. Indeed one of the most overlooked pieces of cinematic immersion is the sound you are presented with. Directors, producers, and actors are all making an effort to lead you into the movie they’re creating. Sound is a vital part of that. From a beautifully written symphonic score to a thunderous building collapse, both should be handled with precision and strength.
Some basics of sound anatomy are as follows: Treble=High, Middle=Middle, and Bass=Low. A third grader could probably tell you that but they’d also be in treble (read trouble) for being bassy (read bossy). I’m somewhere in the middle. Moving past my attempt at humor, sounds can be loud or soft, delicate or punchy, swift or slow. All of these adjectives describe the sound that should be available to your ears at all times when watching a movie. Something that would be completely lost if you were listening through your tv speakers. If you’re curious, the article below goes into detail about the specifics of frequency ranges.
In order to achieve the adjectives that are in the aforementioned paragraph, you need to be able to listen to a particular moment in a movie or part of a song and mentally pick out which sounds go where. In a car chase scene, you’re going to hear the bass coming from the growl of the V8 engine in the sports car, the middle will show through the dialog and throttle adjustments, the treble will be in the sweet drift around a corner with tires squealing and the glass shattering during a crash. If you can picture this scene in your head, you’re halfway to figuring out some of the nuances in cinema audio. It’s masterfully crafted to envelop you, and you should let it.
Wired vs. Wireless
In my first post, I touched on the difference between wired, semi-wireless, and fully wireless sound systems. For the purpose of this post, we’ll be looking at both the easiest and best way to select the sound you’re looking for. There are many incredible wired sound systems and in some ways, they are superior to wireless systems. However, they are not as easy to setup an you need to have speaker wire running to each speaker which looks cluttered and takes more time to tinker for perfection. Partially wireless audio is the way to go because you don’t need speaker cable running to every component in your configuration. The way semi-wireless works is to send the audio from the tv or source (Xbox, blu-ray player, Apple tv), to the sound bar. The sound bar itself typically emits between 2 and 3 channels of the audio and it will simultaneously send the other “parts” of the sound to the other components. It does this over bluetooth, radio frequency, or wifi. Quick differences between these three: bluetooth has lower bandwidth than wifi and it doesn’t require line of sight to the sound bar to work; radio frequency isn’t used as much because it fights with more interference from lights, microwaves, wifi signals and works best with line of sight to sound bar; wifi is the preferred choice because of it’s extraordinary bandwidth, it’s pervasiveness in nearly every home and its coverage far outperforms bluetooth.
Regardless of which way a system sends audio, you need to know what type of system you’re looking at actually is. A lot of companies say their system is “wireless” but that can be misleading because it usually means partially wireless audio from your sound bar to the other components, not completely wireless like Sonos products are. Nothing wrong with a semi-wireless system except you won’t have the ultimate convenience of placing your speakers wherever you want; you’ll be limited by the length of the speaker cable from the wireless subwoofer to the 2 satellite speakers.
The Sonos Difference
The pinnacle for ease of use, beautiful design, and complete wireless freedom (except for the power cables), enter Sonos. Wifi performance has improved vastly since it was first introduced. Since this improvement an increasing number of speaker companies have been producing speakers with wifi connectivity. Samsung, Vizio, Denon, and Sonos to name a few are working with wifi to send audio to their audio components. I’ll just use my Sonos 5.1 system as an example to explain how fully wireless speakers work. The Sonos Playbar receives the source audio from my tv, but it then uses the wifi network to forward the other audio channels to the other pieces of the 5.1 system. The Playbar processes 3 separate audio channels so you get dialog mixed with two surround channels coming from the sound bar. The remaining 2.1 channels of audio are sent to two rear wireless speakers for sound effects and to the subwoofer for the bass mix. The clever thing that Sonos does is that when you add a new component to your system, it automatically changes the output of each speaker to optimize its output for the whole group. It also gets software updates, can revamp its audio output if you change the speaker orientation, and you can control all of this from your computer, iOS or Android app. The best part about all of this Sonos tech is that it is high fidelity sound that has zero distortion. You can turn the volume all the way up and you will not hear the slightest hint that the speaker is overworking. This is incredible. Try turning the volume up all the way on your phone while playing an AC/DC YouTube video and you will hear the speaker start to distort the sound output, badly. Sonos speakers are expensive but they produce some fabulous sounding audio that is a marvel to listen to and makes you want to keep watching movies or listening to music all night.
If you’re ready to buy a sound system, check out my other post for buying suggestions.
Updated 1/4/2017: Edited content for coherence and adjusted technical information.