Upgrading the home theater

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.

Randy

8 Comments

  1. Randy…I was glad to have stumbled upon the review of your new setup. I was looking into some HT options but was disappointed by how some of the systems sounded for music. I would like a system that functions well for both. Intially, I considered the Energy Take Classic however it still seemed lacking in the music department. I’m considering the c-100 or rc-10 for fronts. From current prices available the rc’s are a $200+ upgrade(pair).Worth it? I might even duplicate your entire energy system. My only concern was the mixing of various lines. However, it seems to be working just fine for you. Any additional thoughts? Thanks

  2. If you’re not using a subwoofer, I’d be inclined to look hard at the Energy C200 speakers, which are still cheaper than the RC10s but have 6.5-inch woofers.

    Audio Advisor is selling the RC10s in rosenut (only) for $333. The RC series has better tweeters but they do sound very similar to the C series to me and they mated well with the C series — even the center channel. Don’t forget that the RC series comes in real wood veneer and looks terrific.

    If you’re using a subwoofer for lows, I’d definitely go for the RC series. They are very neutral-sounding and mesh well with my Yamaha HT receiver. They’re also surprisingly small (but sneaky-deep).

    A couple of other notes:

    –The CC50 is a relatively small center speaker and may not work well in larger rooms; it’s fine for my small den.

    –If you go the full route of my setup and get the same subwoofer: It is BIG. Sneaky big. Much bigger than I expected for a 10″ subwoofer. It also will lay down 105dB over 2,000 square feet, so it can be LOUD if you want. It literally can shake my whole house.

    –In this price range, I’d also look at Athena speakers.

  3. Randy…..thanks for the input..greatly appreciated! I decided to start off slowly with building my system. Since music is really more important to me, I opted to order th RC 10s to start. I live in an apartment building so I can’t really blast a system. I’ll see how they do and maybe add a sub next. Tried to get the rosenut pair from audio advisor but they don’t exist, probably an error on the site. I wound up with getting a cherry pair from Beach Audio for even less, $307 with $5 shipping. Thanks again!

  4. Randy…that’s for your insights. I decided to start off my system with a pair of rc10s. I live in an apartment and can’t really blast a system. Listening to music over the system is more of a priorty than HT so I thought the rc10 would be a good start and maybe add a sub later, if noise levels allow.I”ll decide after listening to the setup to see if I want a center channel. Audio advisor still had the rosenuts listed but upon calling it turns out that they weren’t available. Got them at beach audio in cherry for $307 plus $5 for delivery, not too bad.That combined with an Onkyo SR 606 from B&H for $339plus tax and I got something to build on. Thanks again for you help…..Tom in NYC

  5. Mine are in cherrry (the photo of the RC10s above also features the cherry veneer). They do have surprisingly good bass for such small speakers. Another BIG plus is for you is that they sound good at low volume. Not all speakers sound good until you punch ’em a bit.

    Of course, you might hate ’em. They’re very neutral speakers and that’s not for everyone…but if you don’t like ’em and decide to return them, try to quantify what it is you don’t like because it will help you pick your next pair. Also, these sound best away from walls, on a stand.

  6. Randy….thought I’d give you an update. I love the RC 10s. They really are a great speaker. Your point about sounding good at low volume is right on target. I added an rc mini center, C50s for surround and a Martin Logan Dynamo Sub. It’s truly a wonderful set up and light years ahead of any HT box setup. The sub was the last thing I added and it seems that sub addition really allows the RC 10s to open up, not that they sounded bad before the sub just that more richer and detailed with the sub. Thanks again for your input, it got me going on the 10s and gave me a little more confidence about using c50s($69/pair) as surrounds.

  7. I did a lot of research on avsforum.com and ended up getting the exact same speaker setup, with a different sub. Thought it was kind of funny that you have the exact same setup as I recently purchased. Pairing my stuff with a Marantz sr4002 and oppo dvd player.

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