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The Speakers: Rocket by Onix

With first-class audio separates at my disposal, I needed a set of speakers that would do this new system justice. I found these speakers at an unlikely place—at the website of an Internet-only speaker manufacturer.

AV123 is a unique operation. The company designs high-end speakers, the kind you'd expect to pay four or five grand for, but sell them at a (relatively) bargain price over the web. The speakers are manufactured in China and sold exclusively via the AV123 website. The downside of this web-only model is that you can't hear the speakers before you buy. The upside is you get a four-grand speaker for half the expected price. (And AV123 offers a very lenient returns policy, in case you don't like the speakers you choose.)

The speakers themselves are, quite simply, beautiful. They look like pieces of furniture. The models I chose stand about four feet tall, are made of solid wood, and feature a gorgeous rosewood finish and piano lacquer tops and bottoms. The speakers were delivered via Yellow Freight and came strapped to a big wooden skid. Once I wrestled them into the living room (these are big speakers), I discovered that each speaker was double-boxed and then enclosed in a white cloth bag. Inside each box was a matching pair of white gloves, so you could handle the speakers without marring the finish. (Classy touch!) Each speaker also comes with removable floor spikes, to elevate the speaker an inch or so off the floor for optimal sound.

For my front left and right speakers, I chose the Rocket by Onix RS850s. As I said, the 850s stand about four feet tall, and feature four 5.25-inch woofers, one 4-inch midrange, and a tweeter—plus two rear ports. The removable black front grill looks great, although it's also tempting to show off the speakers without the grills. Price was a surprisingly affordable $1,800 for the pair.

For the center speaker, I went with the RSC200, which many AV123 customers affectionately call "Bigfoot." When you see the size of this speaker, you'll understand the nickname; it's huge, the largest center speaker I've ever seen. It measures a full 12 inches high, 25.5 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep. The speaker is this big because it contains two 6.5-inch woofers, one 4-inch midrange, and a tweeter—along with two rear ports—for true full-range reproduction. (Most center speakers are much smaller and don't really function as full-range speakers.) The result is a center speaker that more than holds its own with any floorstanding speaker and is a close-to-perfect match with the RS850s. The downside of this speaker, of course, is the size; it took me quite a lot of hunting to find a television stand that had a big enough opening for the bottom shelf to hold a speaker of this size. (I ultimately found one, in the form of the Bello AVS-2563; more on this stand in the third article.) Price for this puppy? Just $500.

My subwoofer is the UFW-10, which is probably the most traditional speaker in Rocket family. It's a standard powered subwoofer with a 500-watt amplifier and 10-inch driver; nothing fancy other than its rosewood and piano lacquer looks. It gets the job done and costs just $500.

For the surround and rear speakers, this is where I made my only compromise. The speakers from my previous system were Sonance in-ceiling speakers, three of them. Given the layout of my room and the difficulty of running new wiring for new speakers, I decided to stick with the old ceiling-mounted speakers—the left and right ones assigned as surrounds, and the middle one reconfigured as a single rear speaker. It's less than ideal, but because surround-channel information isn't quite as critical as the main channels, I'm willing to live with it.

Now to the sound of the system. The combination of the B&K amp/premp and the Rocket speakers is superb. It is far and away the best audio I've personally experienced; the sound is clean and almost completely uncolored. The speakers are capable of reproducing the most nuanced details, and the full-range response of the RS850s obviates the need for a separate subwoofer for music. (I have my system configured to use the left and right speakers only for music; the subwoofer is used for movie soundtracks only.) There's enough power there to play things really loud, but the most impressive results come from the softest passages. With this system I can hear details in music that I've never heard before. The finger-picked guitars on "Why Worry" from Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms come through as if you have your ear to the fret board; Dusty Springfield's close-mic'd vocals on "The Look of Love" (from the legendary Casino Royale soundtrack) are so intimate you can hear every breath she takes. It's a level of audio quality I had only previously dreamed of.

And what of movie soundtracks? Well, music is harder to reproduce than movies, so it's no surprise that DVDs sound especially terrific on this system. The combination of the full-range front speakers plus the separate subwoofer reproduces especially powerful bass—clean and precise, not the type of boomy bass that you're probably used to. The biggest eye opener (or is it ear opener?), however, is the center speaker. "Bigfoot" delivers full-range reproduction, which is something I've never heard before in a home theater system. Dialogue is clear and natural-sounding, and any center-channel music or effects comes through very clear—and surprisingly loud.

With this system I've finally achieved the audiophile quality I've longed for since I bought my first stereo system back in high school. While visitors start out being impressed by the big screen and high-definition picture, they end up raving about the quality of the sound. It only goes to prove the point I try to make to people—in a good home theater system, the sound is every bit as important as the picture.

In the final installment of this diary, we'll examine the source equipment that drives the TV and speakers—a Media Center PC, DVD player, and satellite box. We'll also look at some often-overlooked accessories, such as the universal remote control and equipment stands.

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