Entertainment &Hardware Steven Kippel on 12 Mar 2009

Challenge: Build a surround system for under $700

Challenge: Build a surround system for under $700

I was given a challenge to build a good surround sound system for under $700, let’s see if I can do this. The room is about an average family room with about 370 ft2 for approx. 3700 ft3. There is a 50″ LG plasma on the wall sourced with a PC, Sony DVD player and over-the-air TV. The requirements for the system include iPod compatibility, and wireless rear speakers.

My first order of business was picking a receiver. The Pioneer VSX-918V-K is well received and reviewed (hell, I own one), it’s under $250 (with free shipping from Newegg) and has iPod on screen. This is the perfect receiver for this situation. It will provide enough power to fill the room, enough connections, and has HDMI for future upgrades.

Next I calculated the cubic feet of the room to find how much air I’m going to need to move for the subwoofer. A 12″ sub is the right size here. But not any sub will do because they’re clearly not all created equal. A Velodyne Impact-12 can be had on Amazon for $299 with free shipping. This is a great deal because the 10″ version sells for the same price.

We’ve already swallowed up $550 of the budget, leaving $150 for speakers. I’m beginning to think this can’t be done. Where do I make concessions to hit the budget? I could just buy a cheap five-speaker package and upgrade those later, or I can cheapen up the sub to have a more balanced system now. Of course I do have to keep in mind a wireless speaker system is about $100 alone.

My first concession would be to live with wires to the rear speakers for a while. Buy the transmitter for Christmas on sale. This particular room has an L shaped sofa with one end of it nearly reaching the front wall, so the speaker wires can be run those few feet to the sofa and hidden until they get to the back of the seats where the rear speakers can sit on stands. Wireless speakers also require wire, just not all the way to the front of the room.

Everybody’s situation is different, so we need to take into consideration the primary use of the system. If it’s movies I would say stick with the better subwoofer and get smaller, cheaper satellites with a focus on the center channel speaker for dialog. If it’s music I would move money towards bigger front speakers and cut into the price of the subwoofer. In fact with big enough front speakers you might be pleased with the bass output enough that a subwoofer becomes a luxury item you add later on.

You can get inexpensive satellite speakers from Polk Audio for about $40 each. So if you take away the wireless requirement temporarily, and mostly want the impact of movies, go with the receiver and subwoofer above along with five Polk satellites. You might have to buy stands too which would add another $30 or so, making your total $778, a little over budget for now.

But that is for someone with an upgrade path in the future. Let’s stick to the requirements I was given and find a good, balanced system for under $700 with iPod and wireless rear speakers.

The Final Product

I stumbled across the DCM Cinema1 5.1 speaker system for $279, which is much less than the $399 sticker price. This is a good little speaker package. The shipping was $29 for that set. The Cinema1 comes with four 7″ tall satellite speakers, one sideways center-channel speaker, one 10″ 100W subwoofer, and four satellite wall mounts.

The DCM speakers require a little extra juice to get good volume levels, and the Pioneer VSX-918V-K has 95W per channel, which should be enough to power them effectively (though you might have to turn the volume up a bit). This receiver also has an iPod menu on screen when you plug your iPod into its front bezel’s USB port.

As for wireless connectivity, the Rocketfish RF-WHTIB wireless rear speaker kit sells for about $100 (less if you find it used), and connects to the receiver’s speaker outputs so you don’t have to worry about pre-amp outputs. I found it selling for $84 on Amazon used.

Last thing required are a pair of speaker stands. Amazon has Atlantic speaker stands for under $40 with free shipping.

This comes to a total of about $697 with shipping included, just under $700. Not bad for a day’s work, and a decent system to boot.

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