When properly set up, surround sound speakers can provide captivating music, crisp dialogue, and riveting effects. Better still, they’ll give you a sense of immersion you just can’t get with two speakers. Many home theater experts agree that a good sound system is the most important part of your setup.

BUYING SPEAKERS

First, a quick primer on buying speakers: Most importantly, you will need to match the size of the speakers with the size of your room. If you’re outfitting a dorm, there’s no need to buy huge floor-standing front speakers and a passive subwoofer.

In choosing speakers, you may want to read reviews online or in magazines. These can be very useful, but you can’t get around the fact that the best way to choose speakers is to listen to them. Most stores where home theater speakers are sold have listening rooms set up, and you should make use of them. However, unless the listening room looks exactly like your own home theater room, the speakers will sound quite different once you get them home. For that reason, it is recommended that you choose a retailer with a good return policy in case your purchase doesn’t work out.

There are two ways of buying home theater speakers. The most popular option is to purchase a “home theater in a box” system which supplies all the speakers you need in the same package. The alternative is to buy all the speakers separately. This can be a good option if you have a larger budget and can make sure all the speakers are well-matched. It is particularly important that your front, center, and rear speakers all use similar tweeters (ask your dealer for “timbre-matched” speakers!)

PLACEMENT

Once you’ve purchased speakers, you will need to choose how to place them in your room. Your choices may be limited by aesthetics or wiring concerns, but you should keep in mind that speaker placement is critical to achieving great sound.

The basic home theater speaker system has “5.1 channels.” The “5” refers to the two front speakers (left and right), the center speaker, and the two rear speakers (left and right). The “1” refers to the subwoofer, which handles low frequency sounds. Some systems may not have a subwoofer, or may have even more speakers (for example, a “7.1 channel” system has two additional speakers).

Let’s deal with the front speakers first. The two front speakers will output most of the music and sound effects in your movies. They should be placed on either side of your display, and equidistant from it. Unless you have a very large room, you can place the speakers relatively close to the display. However, if you have a tube television, you should make sure that your speakers are magnetically shielded so they don’t cause distortion and damage to your TV.

If your fronts are bookshelf speakers or “satellites” (small speakers which can be mounted on the wall or on stands), you should try to mount them so that their height is close to the height of your ears when you’re sitting and listening. Also, try to give the speakers some “breathing room” on all sides. It’s especially important to keep your speakers away from the wall behind them if they have rear bass ports. Some speakers should be “toed-in” and pointed at the listener, but others work better pointed straight ahead (check your manual).

Your center speaker is very important, since it will handle most of the dialogue in your movies. Centers are usually placed above or below the display. They should be centered horizontally with your TV, and can be mounted on a wall, a shelf or placed on top of your display if it’s strong and stable enough to hold it.

As with the front speakers, you should try to mount the center speaker close to the height of your ears while sitting. This can present a challenge, since you usually want your TV at that same height! Movie theaters have perforated screens and put their center speakers right behind the screen, but chances are that you can’t do that. One great trick to work around this problem is to tilt your center speaker up or down to point it towards your ears.

The rear speakers should be placed behind your listening location, facing forward. Ideally they should be centered with the front speakers and spaced similarly. The speakers should be at the height of your ears or higher. If they’re mounted high on the wall, they can be tilted downwards toward the listener. If you have special “bipole” or “dipole” rear speakers, check the manual to help you place them properly.

If you have a subwoofer, you may need to experiment with placing it in different locations to achieve the best sound. In general, the closer the subwoofer is placed to your walls, the more powerful the bass output will be. This is known as “bass loading.” If you place them too close, however, the bass can sound “boomy” and uncontrolled.

WIRING

Speaker wire is a hot topic of debate among home theater experts. You can buy a length of wire for $5 or $5,000. What should you buy? The truth is most people will not notice a significant difference between speaker cables. However, there a few things you should look at:

  • Buy cables from a reputable brand.
  • Choose speaker cables with a thick gauge, especially for subwoofers.
  • Try to use the same type of cable for all of your runs.
  • It is not necessary to buy cables with banana plugs or other types of termination.

Especially with rear speakers, exposed lengths of cable can be unsightly. Luckily, there are many ways to hide them. Here are some of the best:

  • If you use flat speaker cable, you can run lengths under the carpet and even under floating floors. You can also run the flat cable up walls and then paint it.
  • The cable can be hidden under and behind baseboards. This is especially easy if your room is carpeted.
  • The cable can be hidden in walls. This is difficult for horizontal runs because you need to cut notches in all of the intervening studs. Even when doing vertical runs, you need to watch out for studs, horizontal fire blocks, pipes, and existing wiring. Make sure to follow all applicable fire and electrical codes. Don’t run speaker wire parallel to electrical wiring!

The speaker connections on your receiver will be marked with the names of each speaker. When attaching the cable to the speaker terminals, make sure that enough metal is exposed to make a good connection, and that the strands are twisted tightly before you screw them down. Speakers will not work correctly if there are any strands from one wire touching strands from another.

You also need to connect all of your speakers with the same polarity. How can you tell? You may have noticed that your speakers and amplifiers have red and black terminals. Just make sure that the red terminals on the speakers are connected to the red terminals on the receiver, and vice versa. Your equipment may have “+” or “-” marks instead of colors, and these serve the same purpose. You can usually tell the wires on a speaker cable apart by the writing or other identifiers printed on the insulation.

ADJUSTMENT

Now that all your speakers are connected, there are a few more things you need to do for optimum sound. First, you may need to tell the receiver what kind of speakers are connected. Check your receiver’s manual for information on the configuration of speakers. In addition, your DVD player needs to be connected with a digital connection (coaxial or optical) and may have a menu option to set for surround sound.

Your receiver may also want to know how far the speakers are from your listening location, and will probably allow you to set some speakers louder or softer than others. This last adjustment is best done with a sound level meter (SPL meter) at your listening location, but it can be done roughly with only your ears.

If you want to tweak your new system further, you might want to invest in a setup DVD such as AVIA Guide to Home Theater. However, it’s quite likely that your system will sound great and you will just want to sit back, relax and watch a few of your favorite flicks. You’ll be amazed how much more you get out of them now that you’ve got surround sound!

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