I just finished cobbling together a new set of home theater speakers, and I’m proud of how things turned out.
My old set consisted of some B-stock Wharfedale Diamond 7.1s in the front, some 20-year-old Radio Shack speakers in the rear, no center speaker and an old BIC 6×9 subwoofer that was underpowered and under-sized for the room in which it now sits. It all was driven by an aging, refurb Yamaha 5.1 receiver that I still like, but these speakers never did work well together and it was time for a change.
The thing that drove me over the edge was a recent visit to a friend’s house, where he dropped on a DVD of a live concert of various artists covering Leonard Cohen songs. He was using about $2,000 worth of Polk LSi9 speakers all around, which was perhaps a bit of overkill for his condo space but sounded jaw-droppingly beautiful, and I couldn’t stand listening to my setup after hearing that.
A couple of grand was way out of the range I was willing to pay (and I wasn’t about to ask my wife for permission to drop that kind of cash), but I also wanted to significantly improve the fidelity of my system. I went hunting for bargains among closeouts, B-stock, refurbs (rare with speakers) and sale items and here is what I came up with.
First, I was determined to use the same speaker brand all around with the possible exception of the subwoofer. Speaker brands generally have the same basic tonal characteristics, no matter what ‘line’ you buy in the individual brand, and it makes matching them in a home theater system much easier. I also wanted some really good speakers for music in the front, but I didn’t want to go for the big bucks all around (I think super-fidelity speakers in the rear go to waste). Finally, I wanted speakers that had a reasonable Wife Acceptance Factor.
I started by settling on Energy RC10s for the front pair. Now that they’re fully broken in, I am really wowed by these speakers. They have terrific soundstaging and bass for such small speakers, and they also are covered with real cherry veneer and look beautiful. They typically run about $600/pair, but I caught a sale at Audio Advisor and bought them for $300. You could spend a grand getting this kind of tonal and build quality in bookshelf speakers. Check out this review.
The rear speakers are Energy C50s. These are the smallest speakers from Energy’s ‘C’ line — a step down from the RCs, with less expensive components and no wood veneer — but they meshed extremely well with the RC10s. Although they were larger than the Radio Shack minimonitors they replaced, they still are not very large and my wife seems willing to put up with them. I bought them from Audio Advisor for $99/pair and I am surprisingly happy with them. They more typically run about $150/pair.
The center speaker is also from Energy C line — the C-C50. I was very worried that it wouldn’t be able to keep up with the RCs in the front, particularly because it uses a cheaper tweeter, but this was not a problem. In fact, I can’t say enough good things about Energy’s C line — if the RCs hadn’t been on sale, I would have been more than happy to have gone with a pair of C-200 speakers in the front, but the savings would have only been $40 and the RCs are definitely worth that. Anyway, I caught the C-C50 on a closeout from World Wide Stereo for $80 shipped. It usually runs close to $150 as well.
I ordered the final piece today and it may be the best buy of all. It’s an Atlantic Technology 10-inch subwoofer designed by Hsu Research. This is audiophile-level stuff; Hsu is justifiably famous in the subwoofer world and Atlantic Technology is best known for building THX-certified home theater systems. But Parts Express has been liquidating B-stock on these subs — ones with small imperfections in the laminate — and they just cut the price again to dump the remaining stock.
As a result, I got a Hsu-designed, extemely musical-sounding sub (no boomy farting-out bass for me) for $150. At full retail, this might have pushed $500.
So: I completely replaced my junky HT speaker system with a high-quality Energy and Atlantic Technology setup for $630. At typical retail, these would have run about $1,400. Even when they’re not on sale, Energy speakers are some of the best values in the audio world: You could spend $2,000 and not get a better-sounding speaker system.
If you really wanted to put together a low-cost, high-quality set of speakers (especially for smaller rooms), you could go with two pairs of Energy C50s, a C-C50 center and the Atlantic Technology sub. That would put you out $425 and you’d lose significant dynamics by using such small monitors, but you’d probably be happy and you’d have a system that would handle both home theater and all music except high-volume hard rock and metal.
Once I get the new sub in place (it’s on order), I’ll write a post detailing how everything sounds.
UPDATE (11/6): That sub is something special. It is extraordinarily tight and loud — in fact, it’s more sub than the room needs, and I need to keep the volume choked far down. It’s also larger than I anticipated, and that is a problem in the relatively small, relatively crowded room in which it’s currently located. I had planned to put it behind a chair — that’s where my old sub was located — but it won’t fit there. It’s therefore possible that I might have to sell it, even though it’s a great sub.
By the way, I cannot find the alleged imperfection in the finish of this sub. Really, I don’t know why you’d ever need more subwoofer than this unless you had an enormous room and were a freak for bass.
Except for the mild problem of keeping the volume in line, the sub mated extremely well with the Energy mains. The Energys go all the way down to 50hz before they start to roll off, so it’s easy to mate them with most subwoofers, and the ported design of this sub also helps ease the ‘directional effect’ you sometimes get, futher helping to blend the speakers together.