Surround Sound without an AV Amp

Ivan Williams

Standard Member
I just upgraded my sound system to support surround sound without using an AV amp: I'm posting the details here (giving my impression of the pros and cons) in case it can help anyone out. I already had a stereo system which I was quite happy with: a Denon F10 stereo amplifier, with Tannoy 632 speakers (which I use mostly to listen to CDs), and I also had a Sony W3000 LCD TV. I've been using the DVD rental service (lovefilm) to get DVDs through the post, but since it's the same price to rent Bluray films, I thought I should get a bluray player, and since blurays support 7.1 sound, I wanted to upgrade to surround sound so I don't miss out on that aspect.

The proper way to do this seems to be to get an AV amplifier, but tried a different option: I bought a bluray player with 7.1 analogue outputs (Sony S550, there are alternatives from Panasonic and Samsung), plus a set of 5.1 active speakers designed for use with computers (Philips SPA7650/10, there are alternatives from Logitech and Creative). I connected the two analogue outputs (front left/right) from the BD player to a spare input on the stereo amplifier (cd), and the other six outputs (centre/woofer/surroundx2/rearx2) to the computer speakers. I also connected the separate 2-channel stereo analogue output of the bluray player, to another spare input on the stereo amplifier (aux), so I can use it to switch between 2.0 and 7.1 modes.

I'm actually very happy with the result, the imporved video quality of bluray is very noticable, and the 7.1 sound seems good and ads to the enjoyment of films. The positive things about this setup are:
- it's cheap: I paid £220 for the Sony S550, £80 for the Philips speakers, and almost £100 on cables including HDMI.
- it makes best use of my existing equipment
- the more expensive equipment is used where I really need it (for listening to CDs)
- it avoids the bulkiness of an AV amplifier

The Sony S550 has a lot of set-up options which are useful in this case. I set the "audio prioroty mode" to "analogue 7.1", which still sends 2.0 sound on the other output ports (stereo analogue, HDMI to TV). You can set each of the 8 speakers to either "large", "small" (which I assume diverts low frequency to sub-woofer), or "none" (which I assume diverts all sound to other speakers - e.g. if you don't want to use the centre). You can also seperately set the distance and volume of each speaker (to adjust for physical placement). Three things I really like about it are (1) it's very shallow, so you can place it nicely on a bookshelf, and (2) it makes use of the TV display to make setup very user-friendly, and (3) DVD's looked much nicer than on my DVD player, irrespective of whether I configured the upscaling to happen on the player or in the TV (I think that's because using an HDMI cable is better than SCART). Unfortunatey it takes forever to start up, but apparently they all do. I've read reviews saying that the CD playback is not good, but it seems ok to me.

The Philips SPA7650/10 were surprisingly ok: they look nice, seem have a reasonable sound (I don't really know how to test this properly), and the sub-woofer is not too big. They use stereo jacks for analogue inputs (need 3 x stereo jack to phono cables, £4 from www.tvcables.co.uk), and mono phono connections to loudspeaker (these were non long enough for me, so I had to buy a few mono phono extension cables of various lengths from Tandy - quite expensive). The remote is wired, but I mostly didn't need to use it.

Some problems expected or identified:
- cheap philips speakers: I didn't find them too bad, although the centre speaker is used for a lot of film dialogue, it seems clear and loud enough for me (it's only about 2m from the sofa anyway).
- separate volume adjustment for front speakers and other 6 speakers: I didn't find this too annoying.
- many DVDs and blu-rays have 5.1 sound, which really needs a different physical speaker arrangement from 7.1: no sound comes out of the rear speakers, so the surround speakers should be placed at the back. This could be fixed if the bluray player played the two surround channels into BOTH surround AND rear speakers, but it doesn't do this.
- I'd prefer to simplify the system by using the TV speaker instead of a centre speaker. The bluray player could theoretically encode the centre channel (twice) over HDMI as 2.0 stereo, but there is no option for this.
- not possible to switch between multiple 5.1 or 7.1 sources: this is not a problem for me as I will only ever have one: I have no intension of getting Sky HD or using a computer in the living room. All my other sources (CD, Freeview TV, tuner) are stereo only.
 

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