So I'm in need of assistance in finishing off my surround sound system (as the title obviously dictates). I've never assembled one of these before and even after reading many explanations and getting advice from audiophile friends, I feel much still goes over my head. But I want to understand so I too can join others in superior audio!
Currently I have Polk RM95 5CH speakers (though I'm thinking about buying two more for 7ch) and a Polk PSW505 sub. My sound card is a Creative 7.1CH Sound Blaster X-Fi. With this all said, I still need a receiver, and I suppose this is where I'm struggling. I'm not sure what I should be looking for in a proper receiver; some advice, recommendations, explanations here would be helpful.
Furthermore, my friend, who is a complete audiophile, uses digital instead of analog. If I'm not mistaken, and I might be, my card is analog since it lacks digital in/out such as S/PDIF. Would it be more beneficial for me to upgrade to a card that supports digital, or would I be fine as is? If it would be beneficial, do you have recommendations on cards?
Stick with analog, it sounds better. Normally the only catch is that very few receivers support 7.1 analog inputs. But seeing as you don't have one yet, I'd recommend the Harman Kardon avr 1600. It's $350 new (or about $250 used), I have one myself.
Just make sure whatever receiver you get has an array of 8 rca inputs marked "7.1 direct input" with "fr, fl, sr, sl, sbl, sbr, sub, center". I recommend the avr 1600, because it's one of the few good ones you can get for under $800. It might only list 50 watts per channel, but HK doesn't play any games or tricks with their wattage rating, and it's plenty loud enough to make your ears bleed.
There seems to always be a catch or gotcha with going digital: Digital over spdif only supports up to 5.1 (and only sounds as good as a 128k/sec mp3). HDMI supports 7.1 and sounds pretty good, but you need to output from your video card, and the drivers usually have issues (much more so than creative labs drivers).
One last thing: once you have it all setup, odds are you won't hear anything from your sub woofer. Go into the create labs console, click on the bass tab, and turn on bass redirection.
Alternatively if you want to go the super cheap route, you could buy 3 or 4 lepai lp-2020A+ amps. They only cost $20 a piece so the whole deal would only set you back $80, but they only output about 8 watts per channel (8 ohms <1% THD). They are plenty powerful for normal listening, but they can't get very loud.
If you don't know a lot about t-amps, don't try another model, most are either way over priced, or will break after a few months.
Then you wire the front left and right to one amp, the rear left and right to another, etc... (the center channel is the odd man out on it's own amp).
The drawback to this setup is that you need to have the sub line coming directly out of your sound card (so you need to split the center/sub output). Which makes it hard to control the volume, so you'd pretty much be stuck using the windows volume control.