Okay, maybe the headline is a bit pretentious. After all, you need to eat, you need to breathe, you need to sleep, you need to figure out how to avoid paying taxes – you don't need home theater speakers.
But since this is a tech site, and I am a quality sound prosyletizer, I say you "need" (in the non-italic sense) more home theater speakers.
"People don't know what they're missing without surround sound," understates Craig Eggers of Dolby Labs, the folks who make Dolby Surround Sound. "Sound mixers spend a lifetime making compelling sound to create emotion, to create horror, to create drama – and you're not getting that with a two-speaker system."
As far as I'm concerned, listening to a modern movie or any prime time show through that tinny TV speaker is like trying to sleep on the most comfortable bed in the world – with no blanket or pillow.
But there's a more practical reason for folks of a (ahem) certain age to add speakers. A separate center channel speaker lets you boost the volume of just the dialog.
Perhaps now are you motivated to add a speaker or two.
So how many speakers do you need? Here's a guide.
Whaddya mean no speakers? You just said I needed more speakers!
I mean headphones. Regular old stereo headphones are okay for when you want to watch TV, but you neither want to disturb your neighbor nor your spouse when you want to watch a movie loud.
More practical, however, are surround sound headphones such as the wireless Pioneer SE-DIR800c ($399) – no waking up your better half, and no annoying cord.
Usage scenario: Late nights in your living room or bedroom.
No, not the speaker built into the TV, which is only slightly superior to the AM radio speaker built into your first car.
I'm speaking of a soundbar, a long, horizontal, well, bar, containing multiple speaker drivers that sits just below your flat screen TV.
Most soundbars connect via regular stereo red-white RCA phono jacks to your TV, then use Dolby magic to turn that stereo signal into virtual surround sound.
More advanced soundbars connect via HDMI, which means it gets all the surround sound data right from the broadcast, DVD or Blu-ray disc – no magic needed.
The best soundbars are the Digital Sound Projectors from Yamaha, which use a proprietary technology to reflect sounds off walls and create a startlingly realistic surround sound experience.
If the Yamahas are too pricy for you, don't fret. Any soundbar from any reputable speaker maker would represent a vast improvement over your TV's sucky speaker.
Best usage scenario: Bedroom or small living room or den with a less than 42-inch HDTV.
A three-speaker surround sound systems consists of left and right speakers on either side of your TV and a center speaker above or below.
But you'll also need an AV receiver, which will let you boost the center channel volume for dialog. You can get a good one for less than $300, such as the Onkyo TX-SR309.
All home theater AV receivers include surround sound decoding from both Dolby and dts; most DVDs and Blu-ray also offer a choice of decoding technologies. Which is better? Imagine me shrugging my shoulders with indifference. I can barely hear my wife calling me from the next room.
None of these three speakers has to be large or expensive – what counts is clarity, especially of dialog. My inexpensive (but not cheap) favorites: the Cambridge SoundWorks MC55 – $50 each, which means three speakers for a whopping $150.
Best usage scenario: A small living room in which you sit against a back wall.
No, I'm talking about the old quadraphonic sound. I'm talking a 3.1 Dolby Surround set-up – the three speakers mentioned above and the .1 – a subwoofer for bass, needed if you use tiny speakers.
Usage scenario: Bedroom or small room with a flat screen HDTV and no downstairs neighbors.
A 5.1 surround system is technically six speakers – five satellites (left, center, right, two rear) and a subwoofer. However, if you opt for larger left/right front speakers with built-in woofers, you can forego the separate subwoofer.
Your two rear speakers can be placed to the left and the right of your seating position or onopposite sides behind your seating position. Which you choose depends on how your living room is configured.
There's even a 6-channel configuration, with three rear speakers instead of two.
Try to get five/six matched (aurally and aesthetically). All speaker companies sell surround speakers in sets, or you can buy a Home Theater in a Box (HTiB), which include all the speakers, color-coded cables, and the amplifier and a Blu-ray player all bundled together – sort of a home theater for dummies.
Best usage scenario: Larger living room with at least a 50-inch HDTV, and the primary seating position in the middle of the room.
Take a 5.1 system and put two more speakers behind you (if you put the back set of speakers in your 5.1 set-up to the side); vice versa (put them to the side if your 5.1 rears are behind you), or, place them near the ceiling above the left and right front speakers.
These higher-placed speakers are supported by Dolby (Dolby Height or Dolby Pro Logic IIz) and Dolby's surround sound competitor, dts. Like any additional surround speakers, these height speakers create a fuller spatial sound experience – you'll hear action in the air above you, from jets and helicopters to rain falling gently on the roof. (dts provides nice explanations and diagrams of all these configurations here.)
A 7.1 system becomes a bit more compelling now that there are Blu-ray discs encoded in 7.1 instead of just 5.1 – Toy Story 3, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Super 8. Also, the Vudu streaming video service just made its first 7.1 title available –Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (the one with Keith Richards).
Best usage scenario: Large living room with at least a 55-inch HDTV.
Best usage scenario: Dedicated man cave movie theater with plushy movie theater chairs and a high-end rear projector from someone like Runco.
As to which speakers you should buy in each surround scenario – floor-standing, shelf-sized or cubes, expensive or inexpensive? I only have space to suggest some brands: NHT, Aperion and Bowers & Wilkins.
Anything more extensive will have to wait for another post.