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How to set up a surround sound system

With cinemas closed for the majority of 2020, people looked to their home cinema set-ups to bring the magic of the silver screen to their living room. As we know, vision is only part of what makes cinema so special. You’ll also need an audio set-up that can do it justice, too.

You can go down the soundbar system route and that brings the added convenience of wireless connectivity. While a more traditional system takes up more space, you can’t beat it for outright performance.

Here’s a guide on setting up a surround system, and you can use these tips for a wireless or wired system.

Related: What is Dolby Atmos?

Get an AV receiver

If you’ve gone down the soundbar system route, the only decision to make is whether to plug your sources into the soundbar (if possible) or TV. For traditional surround sound systems, an AV receiver is needed to split video and audio signals and send them onto a TV (or projector) and speakers.

Think of an AV receiver as the rug that knits a room together, except it’s also the brains and the brawn of any surround sound system, directing the performance by sending audio to specific channels and steering effects around the soundstage. AV receivers have plenty of connections, enough to accommodate a diverse array of sources such as a Blu-ray player and game consoles, and they’ll pass through 4K HDR content, as well as Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks. It’ll also be the place to plug the speakers into.

So that you don’t get your wires literally crossed, it’s worth getting some masking tape and writing which cable the speaker is connected to at both ends (LF for left front, etc).

Related: What is DTS:X?

Speaker cables

You will need to allot some budget towards speaker cables (also known as interconnects). Look out for some brands recommending cables to go with their surround packages for the most optimal performance.

Speaker cables are available in different lengths (1m, 2m, 5m, etc) so be sure to know how long a cable you’ll need. Longer cables are more expensive, and if you can’t find the right length, there’s the option of seeking a custom option.

Subwoofer cables (or coaxial) are different from speaker cables, so don’t get them mixed up.

Centre speaker

For soundbar based systems, the main bar’s dedicated centre speaker takes care of dialogue. If you’ve gone for a traditional speaker set-up, a centre speaker is a must.

Rather than relying on left and right speakers for dialogue, a centre will provide specificity, lifting and placing dialogue where it should be on screen. Having a centre ensures there are no ‘holes’ in the front of the soundstage, making panning of sounds across the front speaker array more effective.

Place the centre at ear level (sitting down) so sounds travel to your ears, and consider a dedicated stand so it doesn’t get in the way of a TV or if you’re using a projector screen.

Left and right front speakers

In general, front speakers are angled towards the listener at 22 to 30 degrees. You can always tweak the positioning to suit your space.

For those interested in an immersive object-based audio set-up, some speakers feature built-in upfiring speakers, or you can add upfiring modules that sit on top of the existing speaker that perform the same function.

Subwoofers

If you’ve bought a soundbar-based system there will only be one subwoofer, and its usually placed close to the soundbar, although some set-ups opt to have it closer to the seating position (Sonos, Vizio). Usually it’ll be wireless, and if it is wired, they’ll be a cable supplied in the packaging.

In a traditional system you can go for as many as two subwoofers to beef up the system’s bass performance. Though bass is non-directional (unlike other frequencies), home cinema subs tend to be placed alongside the centre speaker.

Related: What is IMAX Enhanced?

Surround speakers

The number of surround speakers is determined by your set-up, and they act to fill in the sound to the sides and behind you.

A 5.1 (or 5.1.2 for immersive) will have two surround speakers. A system with 7 speakers will have four (two at the side and two at the rear). The two side speakers will line up with your seating position (or be slightly angled in), while the rear speakers should be placed between 135 and 150 degrees of your seating position. Much like the front speakers, for immersive sound you can add rear upward-firing speakers to fill in the space above you.

How many speakers?

You can go for an absurd number of speakers (DTS:X Pro supports up to 32 speakers). In general, 5.1 tends to dominate, while 7.1 is the option for larger rooms.

For reference, the first number explains how many speakers there are in the set-up, the second refers to the number of subwoofers and if you see a third number, that’s for speakers that fire towards the ceiling to create height effects, usually a maximum of four (5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2 or 7.1.4)

Some soundbar systems, such as the Samsung HW-Q950T, have 9.1.4 channels, but they won’t have bespoke front speakers out wide. They achieve a wider sound through side-firing speakers and bouncing sound off walls towards the listener.

Calibration

Once you got your speakers set-up and connected, calibration of speakers will usually be the last item on the list.

Not all soundbar-based systems feature calibration procedures, but some do, such as Sonos’ TruePlay functionality. AV receivers support room correction software such as Audyssey and Dirac, and once you’ve indicated what type of set-up you have, it will analyse the characteristics of your room (via a microphone), the position of your speakers and correct the sound for the environment.

To achieve a better sound it’s worth moving big objects out of the way that could absorb sound. You’ll want a clear path between the speaker and yourself.

There’s always room to tweak position or go down other routes (such as custom installations). Check out of ‘How to set up a projector guide’ to really bring the silver screen to your home.

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