Taking a Zen approach to home cinema

'After stripping away some of the excesses of my AV setup I found I had more room to sit down...'

As noted previously, complexity is the Achilles' heel of home cinema. In an era of one-touch instant results, faffing about with the likes of THX Boundary Gain Compensation is not turning anyone on these days. We need switch-on-and-go simplicity; a clean, crisp movie-watching experience. In other words, home cinema needs to be more Zen.

Now, other than the wearing a kaftan bit, Zen is not a philosophy that comes easily to me. More has always been, well, more. On the other hand, my current 11.2 setup is far from straightforward. The complex processor, twin screens, multiple EQ systems and half a tonne of amplification takes a while just to switch on, let alone fine-tune. Eight stereo amps provide 16 channels of power, bi-amping five channels and driving the other six. The cabling from the processor to the amps, alone, looks like a map of the London Underground.

So how to Zenify this system? The first things to go are the large floorstanding speakers used for width channels. While the pursuit of 11.2 has been fun, even I have to admit that having width channels only a few inches outside the main left and right speakers doesn't add a great deal to the lateral spread of the soundstage. I am limited by room dimensions – and a new room isn't an option.

Then there are the two 18in Velodyne subs. In a room 18ft long and 11ft wide, even my subwoofer dealer said one was enough. Adding the second doubled my room acoustic problems. So out went the second woofer and the extra floor space alone made the room feel bigger. The same applies to (most) of the stereo amps. Matching one with a five-channel power amp is all that's needed to drive a 7.1 system, and moving them out into the hallway made the room feel like a five-a-side football pitch.

The big elephant in the room is my Denon AVC-A1HDA processor. Given my Oppo BD player has onboard processing and 7.1-channel output with channel delays, balance and remote volume, why not get rid of the Denon altogether? Less bits of kit in the chain means more signal purity, after all. 

It was also goodbye to nine miles of cabling, a secondary TV screen, a collection of ex-review calibration mics that didn't make it back with their AVRs (oops) and enough canine hair-ball tumbleweed to make myself another dog. Actually, I am banning the dogs from the room because all that taking over the sofa and snoring through the quiet scenes is really mucking up the Zen vibe.

The cat's pyjamas

I finished with a system of high-quality essentials. Sitting on the sofa in my Garfield pyjamas (I couldn't find a kaftan), I viewed a few choice demo clips. It was good – very good – with a clarity to the sound that had been getting somewhat lost in the wall of power and speakers. Film soundtracks were engaging and articulate, with great presence and naturalness. Moreover the system was blissfully simple to operate. Insert disc, raise volume, enjoy. 

It lasted five minutes before I reverted to type, of course. I was missing those height channels to pull the dialogue up to centre screen. And the bass, while still like a hammer, was more ball-pein than sledge. Where was the organ-churning grunt of my carpet of power amps? Where was the control to fine-tune the rear-channel phase and, actually, where was the spare speaker stand I had been using as a coffee table? It appears Zen was just a two-week fad...