I began the process with a very clear goal in mind: I wanted a powerful, well reviewed 2.1 system with tweeters and a separate remote control for something like $400. However, I did not come across any solid options given that criteria, at any price. There was the ~$600 Kanto Yaro with its subwoofer but it lacked any pedigree and received little, if any, attention from the audio press or forum-goers. As it was marketed toward Apple TV owners, I found most reviews were just comparing the sound to TV speakers. Also the more I read, the more I became convinced that I wanted all the features / sound quality of a real receiver and the full 5.1 channels. Soon I assembled a magnificent setup, with each piece being a solid, highly acclaimed, class leader.
Ironically, once all was said and done, I came across just about exactly what I’d been looking for in the beginning: the Paradigm Millenia CT 2.1 system. I have no regrets though, as it would not rock enough for me at this point. After having heard – or ‘experienced’ – amazing sound, I cannot go back. However, if I had to suggest the most minimal pleasing option, I’d say get a pair of the self powered Paradigm Shift A2’s, nothing else, plug them in and be done with it (see the review below). They really do go low enough in the bass to sound quite acceptable without a sub.
Cambridge Audio S30 Bookshelf Passive, Ported Loudspeaker
(I got 3 pairs for a 5.1 setup, so I had one extra)
After trying the underwhelming Pioneer SP-FS52 Floorstanders and very good Hsu HB1-Mk2 bookshelves, I could not believe how alive these S30s sounded. They are very small yet deliver full, rich dynamic sound. They have a controversial 1st order crossover design, but I feel that this may be a big part of what makes them exceptional. For more info check out the stellar Amazon S30 review here, and for alot more info check out the “Almost got floored by Cambridge S30” thread on AVSForum.
Marantz SR5007 100 watt per channel 7.2 Home Theater AV Receiver
(the picture link goes to the current SR5008 model)
The receiver ties everything together [Xbox and HTPC a.k.a. ‘home theater computer‘ in my case] and incorporates an amplifier [and/or preamp] to send sound to your speakers. Also, a network enabled receiver will stream songs from various internet music services, like Pandora, and will also stream sound wirelessly from your computer or other device via Airplay. Prior to getting the SR5007, I bought and tried a weak sounding Denon AVR-1713 and an excellent sounding Denon AVR-2113CI. The Marantz SR5007 is essentially the 2113Ci with pre-outs [preamp outputs], to which you can attach outboard amplifiers or active [self powered] speakers if you want. As with the 2113CI, the sound is excellent, the menus are fast, the Audyssey Multi-EQ XT speaker setup/room correction system works great. If you are certain you do not want pre outs, the Denon AVR-2113Ci is the way to go.
Note that although the AVR-1713 looks good on paper, for whatever reason, the combination of the Pioneer SP-FS52 floorstanders and the AVR-1713 receiver yielded disappointingly flattened sound in my hands-on testing, i.e. dynamic peaks were being steamrolled (I suspect this was due to slew rate distortion). There are those that insist that all amplifiers sound the same, but when I swapped in the AVR-2113CI without moving any other object in the room and setting up Audyssey Multi-EQ XT in exactly the same way, the dynamics were much improved. There are those that will dismiss this assertion since there wasn’t a double blind test performed, but I am confident that if the same equipment were tested in a double-blind context, my conclusion would prove out. I listened to a set of high impact songs on each setup and the difference was clear to me. I cannot speak to the AVR-1713’s performance in conjunction with other speakers, but I would not recommend it given my experience. Fwiw I was not aware that ‘amplifier sound’ was such a contentious issue at the time I was working through this. Anyhow, the onscreen interface with the 2113CI/SR5007 is much faster and nicer looking as well.
Paradigm Shift A2 Bookshelf Active, Sealed Loudspeakers (a pair of these displaced two of the S30s in the front)
These are the most recent addition to my setup. Their purchase was essentially the culmination of all my research into audio matters thus far. I was looking for bookshelves that were sealed and bi-amplified, along with having an active crossover (w/ driver protection) and a tweeter waveguide.
Rod Elliot’s writeups were highly influential, especially: Active vs Passive Crossovers, Benefits of Bi-Amping (Not Quite Magic, But Close). An active crossover splits the high and low frequency signals at line level, before the amplifier, which means each driver is connected directly to an amplifier channel. Since the amplifier has enormous damping factor, this results in much increased driver control, i.e. drivers stop when they are supposed to stop, which reduces smearing. This arrangement also avoids wasting amplifier power as heat, thereby effectively increasing speaker sensitivity by about 3dB over the same speaker made with a passive crossover. Check out those writeups for more benefits.
This and this helped illuminate why a sealed cabinet, rather than ported one, was ideal for bass accuracy. It may sound like gibberish but, basically, ports and passive radiators introduce time smearing and phase distortion near or below a cabinet’s tuning frequency.
I wanted driver protection built in because with a passive speaker, it is almost impossible to know when you are damaging a driver until it is too late. With a DSP based active crossover, it is common to have some form of driver protection built in. The Shift A2 compresses the signal when it’s being asked to do too much, and if you keep pushing it, it makes HORRIBLE UNMISTAKEABLY BAD noises that tell you it’s time to turn it down. My Paradigm dealer, Bernie at The Audio Store, let me push his demo pair of Shift A2’s beyond their limits. They were distorting like crazy for over 30 seconds by the time I was able to turn them down while covering my ears, and as I subsequently took them home for an audition, I was able to confirm that no damage had been done.
Finally, I wanted a tweeter waveguide to focus the higher frequencies toward the listener and reduce room reflections primarily in order to focus imaging.
The Paradigm Shift A2’s sound great and although they do not sound night-and-day better than the Cambridge Audio S30’s, they do image noticeably better and I can can hear the tighter bass in heavy songs. I was concerned that they might be underpowered but THEY MOST CERTAINLY ARE NOT, especially when crossed with a subwoofer at 80Hz as is typical for bookshelves (no subwoofer was used in the Andrew Robinson review). In my setup, they can get more than loud enough (face meltingly loud) at 12 feet away. One note if you get them: Make sure to set their channel switch to the left or right channel as appropriate. You will lose a lot of gain (+6db) if you leave them set on Mono and you’re only feeding in one channel of audio.
Flaws? They do make some audible self noise if they are turned up all the way and you are close, but it’s more or less inaudible in my room 12ft back. This slight self noise appears to be common among active speakers, and it is a worthwhile tradeoff in my opinion. Also I would’ve liked a level meter or clipping light on the front but those are usually only found on ‘pro’ gear rather than ‘home’ gear. Here’s a review with lots of technical detail for more info.
SVS SB12-NSD 12-inch 400 watt Subwoofer
This subwoofer, with its grille on, is 14″ x 14″ x 16″ and it weighs about 35lbs. In the world of home theater audio, this is a small subwoofer. In the world of computer audio, this is freaking huge. I started with the 12″ x 12″ x 12″ Pioneer SW8-Mk2 that came from the same line as the SP-FS52 pair, and although it sounded ok in the living room, it did not deliver the visceral punch that I’ve come to expect from the comparatively tiny subwoofer under my computer desk. I then got the fairly monstrous Hsu VTF2 Mk4 which is 22″ x 15″ x 23″ weighing in at 80lbs. It certainly did the trick and then some. Action movies suddenly seemed FAR more dangerous and heavy music was quite palpable. Unfortunately the one I got had gotten some silicone sealant accidentally smeared on the cone surround, which didn’t seem to affect it, but it bugged me and so I returned it. It also had floor spikes which managed to bore through a carpet into the hardwood floor, which I did not like. After dealing with that fairly huge sub for awhile, I decided to try the SVS SB12-NSD because it was so well reviewed (see here, here and here) and it seemed like it would be powerful enough for my space while being small enough to allow some more positioning options (room size and positioning are huge factors for subwoofer performance). It’s also sealed, which reduces smearing, and has bulletproof DSP-based driver protection and a limiter light. Long story short, I made one of these Sub Dude platforms out of packing foam and MDF, put the SB12-NSD on top of it, tucked it behind the couch and voila! The bass is just as strong as with the much larger Hsu, but with less floor and couch vibration. Also I like the SB12-NSD’s click-position control dials and non-marring rubber feet. Here is my room layout for reference (the sub sits at the far left behind a couch that is the main listening position; the speakers are up against the left side of the stairwell; sometimes the double door is closed but otherwise all doors open into other rooms).
Vidsecu Side Clamping Speaker Wall Mounts
If you have bookshelf speakers without mounting screw holes in them, and you want to mount them on a wall without drilling into the speaker itself, then this is the kind of thing I’d suggest. It gently squeezes the bottom edges of a speaker with grippy foam pads to hold it securely in place, even when tilted. These offer about +/- 7 degrees of vertical tilt and full side to side rotation. They have a claimed weight limit of 33lbs. I initially just used these for the two surrounds, but due to concerns about dog roughhousing near the front speaker stands, I switched to these wall mounts in the front as well.
Monoprice 12AWG Speaker Wire
In the world of audio forums, speaker wire is possibly the only topic that is more violently debated than amplifiers. Roger Russell’s page goes into some detail about what gauge wire works for what distance and debunks some of the more absurd claims made by manufacturers. Basically, you just want real copper speaker wire, and this 100ft spool by Monoprice is exactly that. The wire itself is sturdy, the jacket adds a nice heft, and it has very little ‘memory’ of being rolled up or kinked. 100ft will probably get you through a 5.1 installation, but it’s always a good idea to measure your runs beforehand. If you’re going to put the wire in a closed wall space, then get the jacketed CL2 rated version. Fwiw I have some of this Audioquest 14AWG x 4 conductor wire and I can say the Monoprice is just as sturdy and nice to work with.
Avoid the much cheaper ‘CCA’ speaker wire which is made to look like copper although it is actually ‘copper clad aluminum’ i.e. aluminum with a superficial copper coating. This aluminum wire is not as conductive as actual copper wire, which may or may not matter in your situation, but what does matter is that CCA is very fragile compared to copper. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that strands fall off the ends if you breathe on them too hard and I bet you’d actually stress-crack some strands inside the jacket if you bent it all the way back and forth a few times.
Sanus EF28B speaker stands
These are a simple and effective design with rubber-tipped tripod feet so they’ll never rock. I no longer use them however due to concerns about dog rambunctiousness. If you speakers will be in a quiet area, such stands give you an easy way to reposition your speakers.
Belkin Conserve Power Strip
I have my receiver plugged into the trigger switch on this. When I turn the receiver on with the remote, it powers on the TV and the Paradigm Shift A2s. When I turn the receiver off, those devices go off with it. The Xbox and the PC are plugged into the two ‘always on’ ports.
TRC 90026-6-012 Shockshield GFCI Pig Tail with 9-Inch Cord
In my setup, this goes between the Belkin Conserve and the wall. The main idea is to use TRC’s patented ‘latch up’ mechanism to automatically disconnect itself in the event of a power outage. Any damage that’s going to result from a power outage is going to occur when the power comes back on, so this is a simple way to take your stuff out of that equation. Once the power stabilizes, tap the reset button and you’re back in business. The latch up mechanism was originally designed for jobsites where generator power might be unpredictable and people don’t want power tools unexpectedly restarting themselves willy nilly. Hence the attractive yellow coloring. Is there a version with toned down coloring available? Nope – none that have the latch up mechanism anyway.
TRC 26020L-4-001 Shockshield Inline GFCI with 14-Inch Cord
This Shockshield goes between my subwoofer’s power strip and the wall. It functions the same as the right-angled one above, but has a smaller footprint which allows room for other bulky plugs to suckle from the same outlet.