I've just ignored Morel's Nova system for more than a month. Occasionally a man of letters gets busy. An editor called: Have you got time for another assignment? Sure. A few more called: Can you get this, this, and this done in two weeks? Take the money and run, I always say. My column was due. My other column was due. I was putting the finishing touches on two books at the same time—please buy them both, they're very good—attacking printouts with a red pen to get myself away from the computer.
There's more than one way to skin a cat—as mine will quickly discover if he claws my armchair again—and surround sound needs skinning. I've lost count of the number of potential home theater buffs who have asked for my advice and then balked at the idea of running cables for surround speakers. Mount a flat panel to the wall or a projector to the ceiling? No problem. Run speaker cables to the back of the room? The thought makes them flinch—I can see it in their eyes even before they start equivocating—and the dark forces of stereo claim another soul.
The most reliable guide to power ratings isn't the specs provided by the manufacturers but the measurements made by our technical editor. He follows the mandates of the Federal Trade Commission in measuring power output and distortion with all channels continuously driven (along with a less-demanding two-channel spec). When objective third-party measurements aren't available, here's a quick-and-dirty means of sorting high-power receivers from the junk: Just feel the weight. Aside from the nefarious inclusion of useless lead weights, more pounds indicate either the presence of a heavier power supply or a heavier, more-sturdy chassis—ideally, both. All things being equal, with conventional amplifiers, you don't need expensive test gear to figure out that a 50-pound model is likely to play louder and cleaner than a 15-pound lightweight, even if both are rated at 100 watts per channel.
This receiver's front panel is black but sets itself apart with a high-gloss finish and Pioneer's traditional (and rather attractive) amber display. It doesn't depend excessively on the jog dial. To the left, above the jog dial, are buttons labeled "music" and "movies," which make it easy to switch between Dolby Pro Logic II's music and movie modes (there's no IIx). To the right are buttons that choose the external line inputs for a universal player, select modes for the room EQ (including off), and bypass the tone controls for direct stereo playback. Touching any button on the remote activates red-orange backlighting.
If you're shopping for a deal, you might find one on this stylish two-tone receiver. Its list price is not the lowest in this group. Search the Internet, though, and you'll find good deals on the AVR 630 from authorized dealers. (To make sure you buy from an authorized dealer, with a valid warranty, check the "where to buy" page at www.harmankardon.com.) The street-price differential between the AVR 630 and the others in this roundup is many hundreds of dollars. For some, that may prove to be the deciding factor.
This feature-laden receiver conceals its gifts behind a basic black exterior. There's nothing unusual about the plain white fluorescent display, volume and jog dials, or flip-down panel that conceals most of the buttons. Denon's one original touch is a set of navigation controls behind the hinged panel that follow the same layout as those on the remote (up/down/left/right, with the enter button in the center).
A receiver that listens to the room sounds better.
Home theater has its sweet spots. In the surround sound arena, the slickest compromise between "in a box" basics and "cost no object" indulgences would have to be the $999 A/V receiver. History tells us that Yamaha has a long track record of hitting this target with one best-selling model after another. So the RX-V2400 comes with a distinguished pedigree—and THX Select certification—even without the ground-breaking addition of automatic equalization. There's nothing new in the concept of using equalization to correct flaws in room acoustics. Custom installers have been using carefully tweaked EQ for years. What's new is that the idea has trickled down from custom home theaters to bleeding-edge preamp/processors to the humble receiver.
Some of the most affordable front projectors are coming from the pro divisions of well-known companies. Want to pay around $2,000 for an LCD projector? Consider the Panasonic PT-L300U. It hails from the Presentation Systems Group of the Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Company, but don't let that deter you. This projector is fully home-theater-worthy. Judging from the happy-android family pictured on the cover of the instruction manual (as opposed to happy-android executives), that must be intentional.
Speaker System Small sats, a big sub, and visions of hops and sausages.
My sociological spiel about the French in my JMlab Digital Home Cinema System review (April 2003) inadvertently hit newsstands around the start of the war with Iraq, so I'll limit my wantonly idiotic cultural commentary on the Germans to food and drink references. Have you ever tried their smoked beer? I'm not joking. It's called Rauchbier, and it's delicious. I should note that, although my byline is German, my ethnic makeup is German, English, Scots, and Irish, and they all make good beer. My oft-misspelled name literally translates as "meat man" (no jokes, please), and my great-grandfather was the last in a long line of sausage-makers. After he emigrated from Germany, he continued to practice his craft in New Jersey. According to my father, his sausages were so rich that you had to wash them down with a quart of milk.