How to Set Up Surround Sound in Your Home Theater

How to Set Up Surround Sound in Your Home Theater

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  1. The process of how to set up surround sound in your home theater correctly is the key to unleashing the full sonic potential of the investment in your gear. Fortunately, modern home audio/video receivers make this process relatively straightforward. With proper speaker placement and correctly using the on-screen guides provided by your receiver or processor, you are well on your way to full-contact home theater.

    Speaker Placement:

    Prior to getting into the receiver or processor’s settings, you should always arrange the speakers correctly. It’s better to start with correct physical placement first, using the receiver’s electronic calibration to fine-tune.

    Center Channel:

    Center channel speakers are always placed immediately above or below the screen. This anchors dialogue to the television or projector, as well as any on-screen action. Acoustically transparent projector screens have microscopic perforations, allowing placement immediately behind the screen itself. If the center channel speaker must be higher or lower than the screen, angle the speaker so it is facing the primary seating area. This helps to keep the dialogue crisp and clear without having to jockey the volume up and down to hear what is said.

    Main Speakers:

    Left and right main speakers provide the bulk of the movie’s soundtrack, as well as serving as your mains when listening to stereo music. These speakers flank the screen, aiming directly at the primary seating position. Whenever possible, orient these speakers so their distance from each other and the primary seating position forms an equilateral triangle. It is often useful to position speakers that have ports on the rear approximately 18 inches from the front wall and corners, preventing excessively "boomy" or resonant bass.

    Surround Speakers:

    Surround speaker placement will vary based on the type and design. Conventional direct radiating speakers have all of their drivers on the front of the cabinets, like your main speakers up front. These are aimed at the primary seating position in the same manner as the fronts, typically about 30 degrees from your seating. The exception to this rule is when these speakers are used as the rear channels in a 7.1 arrangement. In this environment, the speakers are typically aimed straight ahead, placed within 2 to 4 feet from one another. Dipole and bipole speakers have drivers on both sides of their cabinets, with the front forming the "null." This is the section that faces the listening position. The primary difference between dipole and bipole speakers is that dipole units offer a less direct sound, mimicking the effect of multiple direct radiating speakers along your side wall. Bipole speakers offer similar performance, often with increased bass response.


    A common trick used by experienced home theater installers is the "sub crawl" method. This technique involves placing the subwoofer at the foot of your primary listening position. As content with deep bass plays through the subwoofer, you crawl around the room, listening for the deepest and punchiest response. This location is where you place the subwoofer. In open spaces with multiple doorways and openings, you may be forced to place the subwoofer along the front wall with your display and front main speakers. In this case, it is best to position the unit in one corner, which increases output. You may choose to move the subwoofer a few inches out of the corner to remove excessive boom, in the same manner as you did with your front speakers.

    Reciever/Processor Calibration:

    Now that your speakers are properly placed, it is time to set the individual speaker volume and distance of each speaker to your primary listening spot. For receivers that offer automated calibration routines, this involves setting the small supplied microphone atop a camera tripod at your primary listening position. Depending on the number of positions the receiver or processor can calibrate, you may have to move the tripod a few times to adjacent listening positions. Doing so helps the software inside the receiver or processor get a better understanding of your acoustic environment. For receivers and processors that do not offer this routine, you will use a device called a sound pressure level or "SPL" meter. This device is also screwed onto a tripod. Set the dial to the "70dB" setting, and slide the two switches on the front to "Slow" weighting and "C" response. These settings keep the needle on the meter from jumping around as it reads the test tones from your receiver or processor. Using the up and down arrows on your unit’s remote, you adjust the individual speaker outputs so they all cause the needle on the SPL meter to remain straight up at the "0" detente position. This includes the subwoofer, even though it may seem too quiet initially. Save and exit the menus once the calibrations are complete.

    Finally, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Once your speakers are correctly oriented and your hardware dialed in, you shouldn’t have to perform the setup again. If a speaker is moved or your seating arrangement changes, perform the setup process again to correctly set up the surround sound in your home theater.

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