It seems like a lot of people go out of their way to get the best in display technology for their gaming setup but are perfectly content to just use the built in stereo speakers on their TV. I understand, the TV is what you’re are looking at, and sound is something that kind of works in the background, after a while you don’t even notice how terrible it is. After all, you can always invest in more options later, or just get some quality headphones.
But what about when you’re ready to upgrade? I got you covered. Okay, a bit of a disclaimer, I am not an audio expert by any means, and I could be wrong on some of the details, but to my credit I have been working with sound equipment since the late 90’s and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the fundamentals. This is more or less a guide for the layman, but if you want to add more to the discussion in the comments below that would be great too.
The Sound bar
A good sound bar will have high build qualty with plenty of inputs
Let’s start at the entry level. You all probably know what a sound bar is, but it’s basically a long speaker you put in front of your TV. You simply run a digital audio cable from the back of your TV to the sound bar and plug it in. Some have a few HDMI ports if you want to run your devices through it, as well as other optional things like a subwoofer, USB and Bluetooth.
It’s an appealing option for those who don’t want the expense, space and complicated wiring that the other options have. For those who are constrained for space and money or perhaps someone who lives in an apartment and can’t really crank up the volume too loud, this something you may consider.
The biggest problem I have with these is the quality. I feel like even spending $150+ you get something that’s only marginally better than what your TV can do. The sound bar I bought from Samsung was $150 marked down to $70 for the holidays actually sounded worse than the built-in speakers of my TV. The build quality was highly suspect too, which is odd for Samsung. Needless to say, I returned it quickly. The best advice I can give is to listen to the speaker, spend at least $250, and actually pick the speaker up. Rudimentary as it may sound, just the sheer weight and materials can give you a good indication to the quality. To get something that will really impress I’d say look to spend $500 or more.
The second bit of advice I have is to look at the options. Make sure all the features you want are in the bar because much like a laptop, it’s far easier to get what you want upfront than to try to add that functionality later. Again, this is entry level, while it may be fine for you now I would advise against it if you feel that you may want something more later.
Home Theater in a Box
The Home Theater in a Box (or HTIB for short) is something you see far less of today than 10 years ago, but they still exist. The setup tries to find a middle ground between a sound bar and a receiver offering both more functionality than the former while still being simpler and cheaper than the later. They’ll often be a blu ray player with speaker ports on the back as well as some ports on the back to hook up your consoles and it (much like a receiver) acts as the main hub. They’ll include the speakers themselves as well so it’s a complete unit.
I understand why people chose these, but I have to strongly recommend against them as they are essentially the worst of both worlds. First off, you are stuck with the included speakers. In order to make things easier they are often hard wired and terminate to a proprietary connector. If something goes bad you’ll be hard pressed to replace a dead or damaged speaker. Now granted, that’s not always the case, but I’ve seen it a lot. Worse yet, you still need to run speaker wires around the room and usually you aren’t even getting that great of a sound as these are targeted at a lower end. Also, you may be getting more inputs/outputs than your average sound bar, but it’s still going to be limited. Finally, they aren’t upgradable, so people who were using that built in Blu Ray player were out of luck when they want to make that jump to 4K.
My reciever, and yes, I still need more inputs
If you’re going to go, go big, right? Now I get why people don’t go this route, just looking at the back of a modern receiver can be intimidating, the bulky box and price tag can be even more so. It gets worse though, most of the time, that doesn’t include the cost of the speakers or subwoofer like the other two. The baseline for a decent amplifier is about $250, but you really shouldn’t go that cheap. I feel like a good starting point is closer to $400 all the way up to $1000 to get something really nice, and that’s nowhere near close to the ceiling on a proper home theater setup.
The beautiful thing about the receiver is how much flexibility and functionality they can offer. If you are willing to get over this hurdle you will find it hard to go back. My advice is to not skimp on the receiver itself. While all the other components can be switched out the receiver itself is the costliest. So, if you know you’ll want support for Dolby Atmos, make sure you get it. Same for inputs, make sure it has all the HDMI ports you will need, because I’ve run into both issues and while I’ve been able to work around it, it’s a source of frustration and a reason I’m looking to upgrade my 5-year-old receiver.
Part of the aforementioned flexibility is all your speakers. If you wanted, you could simply buy a receiver and a left and right speaker, set it to stereo and everything will downmix like it would for a TV. You don’t have to match brands (although I do highly recommend getting the same left and right speakers) If you never wanted to go beyond that you don’t have to, but methinks you wouldn’t buy a $500+ receiver to listen in stereo. Your next investment should be in a subwoofer as your speakers generally won’t give you the lows like a good sub can. Next is your center channel, which will give you all of your voices in movies, and finally back speakers to give you the full immersion. If you want to go beyond 5.1 make sure your receiver can handle it. My point is you are better off buying two high quality speakers just to start, than buying all of them at once and settling for something you’ll have to ultimately replace.
Your other components easily added too. Want to upgrade your Blu Ray player? No problem. Want to add an NES or Original Xbox? They still offer composite and composite and component video, and upscale to HD for you. Modern receivers even have apps like Pandora or Spotify built in, so you don’t have to turn on the TV, boot up your console or sync your phone to stream music.
As far as brands go, I’ve had good luck with Klipsh speakers as they have a “live” sounding quality. Polk and Pioneer have been good for me too. Kenwood and Sony sound equipment are kind of meh. My receiver is an Onkyo and it’s got some baffling design choices and certain features simply don’t work. My next receiver will be a Denon or Marantz.
Beyond all that, just use your ears. Much like a TV, all the technical specs in the world can only go so far. You really have to go in person and experience it for yourself
Sound is something that often gets overlooked in the gaming world. Part of the immersion is hearing as well as seeing, so a great sound system can definitely enhance your gaming experience. What have been your experiences in sound? Let me know in the comment below.