Surround sound speaker packages will delivery a home cinema experience like no other
5.1, the most practical set-up
A 5.1 speaker layout is the most common array for home cinema systems. The typical set-up features a dedicated centre speaker, speakers for the front left and right, and another pair of speakers for the rear left and right. Using floorstanders for front duties and standmounts for rears is favoured, but always go for quality over quantity. Remember, TV and movie soundtracks are usually more about the dialogue and the subtle details than just big bangs and loud crashes.
Integration of the sound is the target. You’re trying to blend all your speakers, including the subwoofer, to create a single ‘room of sound’. To help maintain tonal balance, stick with speakers from the same range, even consider the same model except for the centre channel and subwoofer.
The subwoofer is a crucial part of a surround sound speaker system. Yes, practically subwoofers go to frequencies that most regular speakers can’t fathom, but bass quality, not just bass reach, matters. Look for a sub capable of fast, taught delivery – nobody wants to bog down their home cinema experience with splodgy, slow low frequencies. And spend time integrating your sub into the package – your AVR will most likely offer a calibration system, but don’t be afraid to make your own manual adjustments.
If you have the space and budget, consider using two subwoofers. Correctly set up, twin subs can deliver more accurate bass performance, especially at higher levels. And even though lower frequencies are essentially non-directional – meaning that they appear to come from everywhere in the room – a pair of subwoofers boosts that lovely ‘bass, it’s everywhere’ feeling. If space is tight, a couple of smaller subwoofers can be less intrusive, and even more effective, than a single bigger sub.
The performance differences between a balanced system and an unbalanced one are significant. Think of this as the equivalent of choosing the right bike size and getting it fitted professionally. To manually adjust your speakers, invest in a sound pressure level (SPL) meter and haste ye to your AVRs instruction manual. Several of today’s AVRs offer built-in room EQ and set-up and come with a bundled mic. You may wish to buy or borrow a mic stand to help place the mic in your listening position.
The centre speaker is the hardest-working member of your surround sound package. Surround sound mixes make extensive use of the centre channel, so you need a speaker that is up to the task, one capable enough to convey realistic dialogue and one that sonically integrates into your system. It is possible, however, to create a surround system without a centre speaker, but you need to adjust the settings of your AVR so that it can compensate. But for best results, try to make space for a good centre speaker as it makes a huge difference to enjoyment levels.
In a 5.1 system, you place two speakers towards the rear of the room, just behind or slightly to the side of your viewing spot. A 7.1 system comprises four rear speakers, aiming to knit further that ‘sound bubble’. With most surround mixes, the rear speakers don’t receive massive amounts of low frequencies; hence you can often use smaller, standmount speakers for back duties. If you have the space and cash, a system made of matching floorstanders or matching standmounts – but with a dedicated centre channel – is no bad thing as you get tonal balance throughout.
Height speakers work with immersive audio technologies, such as Dolby Atmos, to help create a more immersive, natural experience. In the real world, sound comes from all angles, hence the idea of placing speakers at height. The classic example of height speakers in operation is a movie that includes a helicopter passing overhead. Systems like Atmos help create the feeling of the ‘copter being in the room and travelling from one point to the other, adding to the perceived realness of the experience. Those with rooms unsuited to overhead speakers – so, lower ceilings or no option to mount speakers higher up – can investigate upward-firing speakers that ‘bounce’ the sound off the ceiling.