Starting and Home Theatre and need help

I am deviating from my world of 2 channel stereo to start a home theatre system. I have recently purchased a 50" Pioneer elite Plasma and Blu Ray player. I will be building the system around some small Totem speakers.

Where I need help is in the amplification. I am looking at picking up a used Arcam AVR300. Are there any disadvantages to going with older models like this? do the newer ones have different decoders which would make them sound better or be more compatible with audio from Blu Ray? i.e. for the same money, should I buy a new unit that has the newest features but maybe less power? What are the key new features I should look for?

I only plan on running 5 speakers and a sub. Am i better off to pick up an older power amp and buy a newer processor?

Any suggestions or comments would be greatly appreciated.
Be afraid... be very afraid.

Much of what you're asking here depends on how you want to go with the audio side of things, the room size, and your budget... and a bit on just how trick you want the HT to end up being.

Just think HDMI is your friend. it works quite well sounds great, and saves you lots of money.

A new HT receiver would be the cost effective solution. One with HDMI 1.3 integration. Many of these are 7.1, not 5.1 but you can work around that part.

An amp (s) can be added to the receiver if desired or needed later on. Amps BTW don't care what the audio signal is. THX, DD, DTS, Blue ray, etc. they just amplify what your processor sends them/it.

going with seperates means more cabling right off and that's more money. Only the processors made recently will decode or 'process' the true high def audio your BRP puts out if you utilize the HDMI. Otherwise, it's still more cables via the analog outs of the plaer and allow the plaer to do the decoding... I'll assume it can.

Room size and speaker cale runs will probably dictate if you need to get auxilliary amplification or not.

My room is about 14 x 21. I bought a receiver. Added an amp as an afterthought for the main speakers. That was a good thing IMO. I think I'll add one more 3 ch amp later on, but it's not really a need... just a desire.

A decent sub is a need for HT. The better here, the better off you'll be.

Have fun.

I only brought up the idea of separates because you can get some inexpensive Rotel's, Lexicon's etc... which presumably are still high quality amplification and that this would provide me with the backbone of the system while allowing me to upgrade the processor side as technololgies change.

It appears that the Arcam AVR300 which was replaced in the last year or so by the AVR350 is now missing some key features for Blu Ray technology?

In a 5.1 system, what features are a must have on the newest units? I only have 1 source, the Blu Ray and therefore plan on going directly to my Pioneer elite for video but what about the audio side?

I currently have a B&W ASW2500 10" sub from a system I had many years ago. I will try that to see how it sounds with my Totem arrows and then decide if an upgrade is required.
the sub will do I suspect. it really is a vital aspect of HT however, so your preffs there will determine if it is or not later on.

Well, here's the deal as I know it on the 5.1 to 7.1 schemes. It's partly marketing, and partly the sound field being generated via the newer video and audio formats..

Marketing says, hmmm sell more gear... mo’ speakers, more players, more DVDs, more cables.

Tech says, Hmm But it’s better! You’ll get a more cohesive sound field than 5.1 by adding 2 more speakers, and increasing fidelity via the newer audio formats that are being palced onto HD/BR DISCS. Like DD X, True, DTS HD, etc…. and we’ve fixed the need for a multitude of cabling! Not to mention but a few items.

Just like the initial Dolby Pro Logic format enhanced or enlarged the sound field by emulating virtual rear speakers, it was morphed into differing versions later on which seem to perform better, PL III, and now PL X. Same thing with these other 'newer' audio formats. They offer greater fidelity ie., better sound and better images and a more immersive experience.

using older 5.1 procs will require you to use added cabling at least... and have your player do all the decoding duties for these BR discs. On SD discs it will be no prob.

The key IMHO for HT is the AV processor. Certainly you can do work arounds on older procs by using the decoding powers of the players analog outs, provided it has analog outputs, and does the decoding as well. Therefore an older proc is a viable method, but will require the need for added cabling for recreation of the sound fields and formats your new Blue Ray player can provide you and which the older procs don’t support the decoding abilities.

Also many of the previous 5.1 AV procs won't pass the HD video signals above 480P or I, but do check on that part for yourself. It would seem to me that whatever was being output from your player via which ever cabling option in use would then be passed along.

Higher Video resolutions will need at least component video cables. HDMI seems an easier and cost effective solution.

One of the aspects of this recent move to HDMI was to do a few things… create a solution for cabling issues making HT a simpler item altogether, improve video resolution and protect copyrights.

If component cabling via your BR player doesn’t allow for HD VIDEO output, although it should, you'll have to run the video out right to the display instead... This too can present an issue IF the player doesn't provide for lip sync of the image to the audio. Sometimes this isn't much of an issue but it can be with lengthy cable runs, this is just another reason for getting a newer AV processor rather than older 5.1 types.

One important bit about HDMI is this... the upsampling of lesser video signals to high def ones.

I can appreciate your desire to ease into an HT system. The issue you have made for yourself here is the HD video gear you just got. That’s the easy part, getting the HD video info off the disc is only half the battle. It’s the audio part that runs into more money and more decisions. BTW…. Hollywood knew that part too.

HDMI in conjunction with some upsampling players and/ore processors or receivers, allows you the ability to upsample SD video to higher res formats, like 720P 1080i, and 1080P, off of SD (480p) DVDs. Using Component video cabling will NOT allow this to occur.

All of this makes for a compelling argument for a new AV receiver with HDMI 1.3 utility, IF current budgetary constraints are in place.

With one on hand you could then take your time on the upgrade path. …and add speakers and/or amps, then upgrade your sub, THEN maybe go off for a shiny new separate AV proc when you feel more comfortable as all else will then be in place. IMHO

Take my own HT deally for example. It is very modest, yet still a pretty pricey investment and centered around an AV reciever, ranter than separates in order to save money.

I built my own 120” screen, $200.

I bought a second hand DLP 720P projector that used to retail for $3500 a year ago, for $550.

Paid to have both physically installed. $275.

Bought 3 HDMI cables, $125 ($65 for a 26ft.).

Bought a .3 HDMI receiver with 7.1 at 130 wpc. $800.

Added a new 2ch SS amp. $1150.

bought new 1.5 Meter Audio Art Cables to connect the AV rec to the 2 ch amp, $125.

Bought 170ft. of new Canare 4s11 speaker wire to connect the center and rear speakers. $150. terminations for the cabling. $40.

Bought brand new Sound Anchor stands for the rear speakers, $250. Still need one for the center speaker.

Bought a used Velodyne DD 15 sub, $1850.00.

Bought a new Oppo SD DVD player, $400.

I then needed more shelving so I bought a Wally World wooden rack, $125.

I had to run all the cabling for the PJ & Spkrs on the ceiling, (center ch. and rears) via Wirehider conduit… $140.

Previous lighting had to be moved and or eliminated, so new lighting was needed, $1400 installed.

Lutron remote dimmer, $70.

HT needs Center and rear speakers? Well I chose to go with the same brand so as to match better the audio transitions in the sound fields/formats, so 3 more silverline units which mate to my existing Silverlines were bought. 2 SR 15 preowned, $750. one new center stage middle ch front $1000.

Then when the video got fired up the projector threw off so much light from that large screen the walls had to be painted and the ceiling too as they were creams and whites. $550.

The carpeting? Same thing, add $1000.

Area rugs too BTW… $550

Gotta have some acoustical treatments, doing it all DIY, so far just in materials about $350.

This is also with me using my existing mains and their cabling, total, $6.5K.

Needed to close off the room and make it a more dedicated area by adding doors to the openings, so add another $1800.

That’s my ‘easing into it’, budgetary and very modest HT 720P 5.1ch system that ran me only $21,600…. …so far.

I am going to add another 3 ch amp and likely another sub for the rears, and I still need more draperies to cover the big screen. Probably that’ll be another $500

Going to 7.1 I’ll need to add one more pair of speakers. $???

My worst move in all this?

Not thinking ahead. Extensively.

When I bought new furniture last Xmas I bought it to match the creams beiges, and whites of the old color scheme. It works still, but could be bettered, though no time soon as there’s $2500 in just 2 chairs a recliner and love, and they ain’t a year old yet. lol

The advantage of the older receivers is they can have have good analog sections that are a step up from what most HDMI 1.3 receivers currently have and are available at good prices. The disadvantage is that to take full advantage of the audio on BR, they require the use of the analog inputs, which usually means you cannot apply any post processing and require extra cabling. Not sure now much of the details of BR you know, so here is some background - sorry if you already know this. Blu-Ray has new HD audio formats (LPCM, Dolby TrueHD, DTS Master Audio) which are a step up from the tradtional Dolby Digital and DTS found on SD DVDs. The new HD Dolby and DTS formats need to be decoded either in the player or in the receiver. If decoded in the player, you need HDMI 1.1 to pass the resulting LPCM to receiver or you can send in via the analog outs. To have the receiver decode the HD audio, you need to pass the bitstream to it, which requires HMDI 1.3a. If you try to pass BR HD audio over optical/coax you will get the traditional DD or DTS, not the new better sound. If the BR player decodes the new codecs it can put it out over the analog outs and you can input those into an older receiver. Most receivers do not digitize the analog inputs, so no processing (like PLIIx for 7.1 output or bass management) cannot be applied. If you have the Pioneer BR player (51 or 05), it does not currently decode DTS HD MA, but Pioneer has said in will provide it sometime in early 2009. It does do Dolby TrueHD and LPCM. In addition, it has a fixed crossover of 120Hz, which may or may not fit with your speaker and sub. It also does not allow you to set speaker distances, although this may or not be a significant issue. The 51/05 have excellent DACs (Wolfson 8740) so using the analog outs to a receiver like the Arcam should give excellent results, also long as you are aware of the limitations. Current mass market HDMI receivers (Pioneer, Yamaha, Denon, Onkyo) all have 1.3a and decode the new codecs, but typically do not have the audio quality of higher end 2 channel integrated amps or separates. If your current pre-amp has a home theater bypass mode you could keep it for 2 channel and use a receiver from 5.1 HT. For HMDI, try either Monoprice or BlueJeans Cable. Both are good quality and much lower priced than what most stores carry. I like BlueJean myself. As always, the choices here involve tradeoffs in price, quality and convenience. And, if you have the Pioneer 51/05 check the website for firmware updates. A new one should be coming out before Thanksgiving.
Thank you very much for all of this information. This would have taken me forever to find, understand and digest on various audio sites.

Now I need to determine whether to stick with the higher quality amps such as arcam or cambridge audio or go with the pioneers and yamahas which offer the additional convenience of surround sound processing capabilities.

Thank you again for all of the information.
if you can preview that Arcam amp... do so. there's a dealer near me that is selling some Arcam inventory off now. Do pay attention to the way it's set up too, speakers, sub, cabling, conditioning, etc. these all play in as factors.