How to Build a Perfect Surround Sound System

The immersive experience of a great surround sound system is one of the motivations of investing in home entertainment. For many people, having a great entertainment system is synonymous with investing in their quality of life. Or don’t you like the way a thrilling film or awesome music transports you away from the inevitable stresses of the day?

Of course, the love for a great surround sound system is there. However, many homeowners struggle with building a system that truly meets their expectations of what a praiseworthy home entertainment system should be.

This write-up aims at shedding light on issues pertinent to building a surround sound system. Experienced sound experts in the Audio Mention team audited the content to ensure that it is relevant to a wider audience. Thus, if you are an experienced home audio installer or seasoned home theater fan, you’ll find a fair bit of technical explorations that are crucial to surround sound system performance. If you are new to the field, wait to be acquainted with in-depth information on how you can build a perfect system from the ground so that your home entertainment system gives you the best value.

What does a great Surround Sound System feel like?

They say that impressive music is discovered only by hearing. Imagine for a moment that you are in a commercial theater. How does the sound system in a theater manage to take you right to the middle of the film? During an action film, just how does the sound system make a plane sound as if actually flying above you? Every mummer in a conversation is brought to your ear so that not even a sigh passes you. The secret to this immersive experience lies in the selection and installation of surround sound. One sure thing is that the installers employ educated efforts to ensure audio is packaged in a way that different sounds coming from different speakers envelop the listening area from the right angles. With the right information, you can also bring the theater experience to your living space.

Let’s start this journey---toward building a perfect surround sound system for your space.

Understanding Speaker Configuration

The performance of a surround sound system depends heavily on the number of audio channels that make it. You might have come across speaker configurations such as 2.1, 5.1, 7.1, and so on. For the sake of simplicity, let’s state that the numbers represent the count of channels in a specific configuration. The first digit represents the number of higher-frequency channels while the second represents the number of low-frequency drivers in the system. Some configurations have three numbers, for instance, 7.2.2. Here the third number specifies that there are aerial speakers. Aerial speakers include in-wall and ceiling speakers. They enhance sound reproduction, making it sound more realistic.

In most home theater systems, the 5.1, 7.1, and the 9.1 configurations are more common than other setups.

5.1 Setup – The Home Theater Standard

5.1 surround sound gives you a cinematic experience using five standard speakers and a dedicated subwoofer. You can place these speakers in various ways depending on the shape and size of your room.

Surround speakers placement: Ideally, the surround speakers should sit to the right and left of the listening position, aimed directly toward you for the best sound effects. If your room’s dimensions cannot allow for this ideal setup, you can still get the best of what surround speakers have to offer by placing them a few feet behind the listening position. This time, you raise them to two feet above ear level and let them face forward for immersive, special sound effects.

The distance between you and surround speakers is very important. Remember surround channels marvel at creating an ambient sound in the room. Thus, placing them slightly away from your ears is the best way to enjoy the sound-enriching benefits these channels offer.

The surround speakers work together with other speakers in the system. Therefore, even though we are focused on building a surround sound system, we cannot ignore the place of other speakers in the home theater system. You don’t want to water down all the benefits of proper surround sound placement by not optimizing the performance of center-channel as well as front and rear speakers.

Center Channel Speaker Placement: The center channel drivers are responsible for projecting dialogue. They are the reason you will love your movie-watching and radio-listening moments more after building your home sound system. Center channel speakers love being close to the TV, either slightly above or slightly below the middle of the TV screen facing the listening position directly. Even if your space does not support this ideal placement, just make sure these sound babies aren’t too far from the screen. Otherwise, their sound may appear unnatural and significantly detached from the overall sound.

Placement of front right/left main Speakers: The most critical thing to remember about main speakers is that their tweeters should be close to ear height when the listener is seated. Place them 25-30 degrees from the center of the listening position. Make sure to leave a good distance between the speakers and corners to reduce reflections and improve sound imaging.

Subwoofer Placement: The subwoofer is the only driver that doesn’t follow the many rules of surround sound placement. Basically, you place your sub wherever you feel it produces the best bass. Take your time to try different positions, the aim being to get bass that is neither too hard nor too boomy for the rest of the sound.

7.1 Surround Sound

Speaker placement for a 7.1 setup is a lot similar to that of the 5.1 system. The only difference is the placement of rear speakers, both of which should sit 135 to 150 degrees off-axis and behind the listening position. Where space allows, it is recommended that the left and right surround speakers in a 7.1 system be placed further to the side of the primary listening position at 90 to 110 degrees. Everything else including the height of the speakers is similar to a 5.1 system.

9.1 Surround Sound

The 9.1 system and other higher configurations are for the serious, more experienced audio enthusiast. These configurations provide more enhanced immersion and sound stage spaciousness by adding two more channel categories: wide speaker channels and height speaker channels.

The wide speaker channels are designed to sit between the front main and side surround speakers, at head level when listener is seated, and about 60 degrees from the center of the listening position. These channels minimize gaps in imaging and panning between the front and side speakers thus adding a sense of envelopment.

For height speaker channels, the typical position is in the upper right/left corners of the front stage, about 40 to 45 degrees off-axis and mounted approximately 8 feet high. You may tilt the speaker downward to reduce ceiling reflections and improve the speakers’ mid/high frequency response.

Useful pro-tips on building a perfect Surround Sound System

  • Home theater experts recommend using multiple subwoofers for smoother bass response in bigger rooms.
  • You need an AV receiver if your system does not support HDMI ARC. An AV receiver receives both audio and visual signals from multiple sources, processes them, and amplifies the signals to drive the speakers and visual display. It is needed for surround sound since you are dealing with multiple channels. You will not need an AV receiver if your system supports HDMI ARC, which consolidates audio-visual cables.
  • Check decoder compatibility: AV receivers usually have more than one decoder. Most of the certified receivers on the market include inputs for additional channels. Check to ensure the inclusion of decoders-compatible inputs.
  • Other things you will need to build a great system include:
    - Cables for specific inputs and outputs
    - HDMI cable
    - Digital optical and coaxial inputs
    - Multi-channel analogue connections (a handful of RCA cables)
    - Speaker terminals (for easier and more effective speaker connections)
    - Subwoofer preamp outputs: the receiver cannot facilitate subwoofer powering, which is why you need a subwoofer cable.
  • Room optimization: You might need to rearrange your room to optimize the acoustic performance of your surround sound system. You need both hard and soft surfaces for optimal sound. The changes you should consider include reducing the number of reflective surfaces, covering surfaces with foam or padded furniture, adding rugs and thicker curtains, and even soundproofing.
  • Optional: tune your system using a computer
    Take advantage of advancement in home theater technology to get the best out of your surround sound. Investment in a DSP (Digital Signal Processor) box might go a long way in helping you set up the surround sound system in a way that the entire spectrum of audio is optimized for your listening environment.

Surround Sound Challenges and their Solutions

Installing a brand new speaker system is exciting. However, various DIY installation challenges can cut short your joy and excitement. If you find that your new entertainment system is not delivering as expected, don’t get frustrated. Instead, check and correct errors. We have researched several common issues typical to home theater setup, and went a step further to give you solutions for the challenges.

Challenge: Surround sound system not working

Is the surround sound not coming through clearly? Or does it come out flat or disjointed? The most probable causes of this issue are source components or the use of incorrect cables.

Solution: Calibrate speakers properly before making connections to avoid faulty connections. If your audio is disjointed, consider upgrading your AV receiver to one that can balance out sound in the listening environment.

Challenge: Muffled surround sound

Surround sound can become muffled due to one or several of these reasons: sound obstruction, faulty wiring, or having wrong settings on media devices such as the AV receiver.

Solution: Remove any large object between the speakers and the listening area. Also make sure that there is plenty of space behind each speaker. It’s a fact that wiring surround sound speakers is complicated. Getting wiring right is a significant step toward achieving a perfect surround sound system. It’s important to remember that speakers should be wired in sequence (also referred to as series or phase). The correct procedure is to connect the amplifier to the first speaker through the positive terminal. The signal gets to all the speakers and back to the amplifier via the minus terminal of the final speaker. Proper wiring ensures that the surround sound system gets the correct power and resistance to produce sound.

Finally, ensure that any media device in the system is on the right setting for your sound system. This check is especially important if you have a new AV receiver in the system.

It’s noteworthy that most solutions to surround sound issues lie in the receiver. Different AV receivers come with a wide range of settings. Take your time to understand these settings. Doing so will help you set up your system correctly and troubleshoot any problems that may arise thereafter.

Final word

Undoubtedly, it takes quite a bit of effort to configure a surround sound system properly. But it is all worth the effort. Once you are done, you will experience a new level of entertainment in terms of better audio delivery. Your movie-watching moments will be truly indulging, and your music will gain a more enjoyable, ambient delivery. Taking some time to build a great surround sound system is a worthy investment in your quality of life.

Michael Evanchuk
 

Michael Evanchuk is a San Francisco-based sound engineer with 20 years’ experience installing, troubleshooting, and repairing commercial, automotive, and household sound equipment. Evanchuk owns an auto stereo center, where he offers highly competitive car audio installation and repair services. He has written dozens of articles on different sound engineering topics, all of which have been published in leading journals, blogs, and websites. He enjoys swimming and boat riding during his leisure time.

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