If you enjoy watching movies, series, documentaries, or any other TV at home, there are a handful of things you need to create a comfortable viewing experience. Aside from a good couch, a streaming service subscription, and quality television, a proper sound system is essential; without quality sound, money spent on the latest TV with ultra-realistic picture quality is almost wasted, as the visual aspect only makes up a portion of the theatrical experience.
While the built-in speakers found on today’s TV sets have become rather impressive, nothing can beat a dedicated sound system in elevating sound to a cinema-like quality, making your viewing experience far more immersive and interactive. For external sound systems, a soundbar is a great compact solution or a pair of left and right speakers will certainly make a noticeable improvement; however, for best results, we recommend a surround sound system.
We’ve checked out various surround sound systems and home theater speakers before, so this guide will walk you through the different types of surround sound setups, find the right system for you, and how to align your speakers for the best viewing experience and soundstage.
A Little Bit About Surround Sound
Surround sound came about in the 1930s when Disney’s then-new film Fantasia pushed the envelope with vibrant visuals that demanded immersive sound, too. Since it was a rather expensive exercise, only two theaters were fitted with the 54 speakers designed by Disney’s sound engineers, and the technology soon disappeared from the map until the mid-1970s.
In 1975, Dolby developed a more cost-effective method for providing immersive audio that only requires four speakers. This evolved further into a five-channel configuration, then finally to a 7-channel setup. From there, since the use of digital audio transmission became common practice, surround sound technology became more widely available for both theaters and home film enthusiasts.
Different Surround Sound Configurations
The beauty of surround sound at home is that your system can be acquired in stages and can always evolve. You can always start with a simple, smaller setup and work your way up from there.
When we begin with home theater sound, the first upgrade to the built-in speakers in your TV would be a 2-channel (left and right) speaker pair. Having an external pair of speakers will most certainly improve audio quality, depth, and definition. From here, you can add a subwoofer, which can be placed anywhere between the two left and right channel speakers or even behind your seat. This is known as a 2.1 system.
After the 2.1 system, we have the 3.1 configuration, which involves a center channel speaker. A center channel speaker is great for dialogue clarity and reinforces stereo separation. A quality 3.1 system is a great starting point for an impressive surround sound setup. A 3.1 surround sound system is a great way of increasing immersive without spending too much on additional speakers or sacrificing valuable floor/wall space for such speakers. With a 3.1 system, you’ll have the low-end response of a large system and the definition of one, but the missing rear speakers will definitely be noticed if you’re looking for true surround sound.
Following the 3.1 system is the first surround sound configuration with rear speakers, the 5.1 surround sound layout. A 5.1 surround sound system shares the same setup as a 3.1. However, the additional two channels are located in the left and right surrounds, parallel to the listener’s head.
This can be expanded to a 7.1 system, which is most popular in movie theaters, which includes additional channels at a 45-degree angle to the four corner speakers (left, right, left surround, right surround), forming a box-like surround sound system. The 7.1 surround sound system is the most immersive system one can set up relatively easily in their home theater. While it occupies significant space and requires more advanced cabling and amplification for a home theater setup, the 7.1 configuration is, in my opinion, as good as it gets for at-home applications.
Beyond the 7.1 surround sound system is the 9.1 system, which, as you can imagine, has two additional speakers; these are located at a 45-degree angle to the front left and right channel speakers.
After the 9.1 surround sound system is multi-channel systems such as Dolby ATMOS, which is essentially a 5.1 system with the inclusion of overhead speakers, allowing for a total three-dimensional immersive experience. Dolby ATMOS is found in some cinemas, but it’s very rare to see in home theaters. However, it is possible.
What Do I Need To Set Up A Surround Sound System At Home?
In addition to the various speakers required for whatever size system you’re looking at installing, you’ll need an AV receiver to separate and send signals to all the components. An AV receiver will take a single input from your source and divide it between the outputs it provides; for example, a 5.1 channel surround sound receiver will accept an input signal from your TV and split it into 5 separate channels, and a subwoofer channel.
AV receivers mostly accept multiple source signals at once, allowing you to connect your TV, DVD/CD player, gaming console, and other devices simultaneously and toggle between them easily.
Once you have your AV receiver, it’s relatively straightforward to connect your speakers. However, there are some things to look out for:
Is The Receiver Sending Power To The Speakers?
If your surround sound speakers are passive drivers (speakers that don’t accept a power source and require power sent through the audio connector), you’ll need an AV receiver than can power them. This is generally the best option, as it reduces the amount of cabling required (you wouldn’t want to run several power extensions all around your living room to power speakers, would you?)
Is The Receiver Suitable For My Channel Count?
Since some surround sound systems have fewer speakers than others, you’ll need to make sure the receiver has enough outputs to send signals to all your speakers. You can get away with working backward, i.e., running a 2.1 or 3.1 surround sound system on a 5.1 or 7.1 receiver, if you’re slowly working towards obtaining your full setup.
Does The Impedance Match That Of My Speakers?
Impedance is an incredibly important specification that needs to be checked before buying any receiver or speakers. While most speakers and receivers for home audio are compatible, it’s worth double-checking.
What About Cabling?
If cables aren’t included with your speakers or receiver, you’ll need to not only purchase this separately but decide which is best for your needs. For most home theater applications, a 16-gauge cable does the trick since the speakers aren’t usually very far from the receiver. If you’re running surround sound in a really large space, I’d recommend using a 12 to 14-gauge cable rather. As for brands, there isn’t really much I can say; as long as the cable is quality (preferably 100% copper), you will be fine.
It’s important to note that when wiring a surround sound system, cable management is important since there can be so many in some cases. I recommend rolling the cable and leaving it at the source rather than sitting around the speaker- this looks neater and also minimizes trip hazards. Cables can be run discreetly under carpets, furniture, or along the corner of your wall, then even painted to conceal it completely. How you run your cables is entirely up to you.
How Do I Find Proper Speaker Placement?
Once you know how to align a pair of speakers to your listening position, the rest is fairly straightforward, as the same practice is repeated as surround sound speakers are added to the system.
Starting with your main left and right speakers, you can find the perfect placement by first locating your ideal viewing position. When watching TV, you should be directly in front of the TV, with the middle of your body in the center of the screen. Your TV should not be at an angle or in the corner of the room, and neither should your couch. As for your distance from the TV, the following should be looked at as a guideline:
Once your viewing position has been found, obtaining the optimal listening position is easy. Since you know your exact distance between the TV and your viewing position, use this measurement to form an equilateral triangle between yourself and your two left and right speakers, resulting in a setup where the speakers are the same distance from each other as they are to you. When doing this, make sure the speakers are a few feet away from walls, and angling them at a 45-degree angle inwards (towards you) will help with directivity.
This is the most challenging part of speaker placement. However, once your measurements, distances, and angles are correct, the rest is easy. For left and right surrounds, simply apply the same technique beside your listening position, ensuring the back speakers are parallel to the front speakers. Adding additional channels is now easy, as they are either aligned in relation to your viewing position, or the other speakers can be used as references if placed correctly.