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What Surround Sound Configuration Is Right For You?



By Eric Podolsky, 8/27/12


When building a home theater, there is no debate as to the importance of choosing an audio configuration that’s the best fit for your taste, as well as your space. Whether you’re looking to keep it minimal and compact, or want to go all out with big, floor-standing speakers, care needs to be given to their configuration if you want everything to sound its best. Here are some of the main considerations to take into play when choosing your home theater’s surround sound configuration.


Room Size


As most AVS members will tell you, room dimensions should be considered first and foremost when choosing an audio setup. The size and shape of your room play the ultimate deciding factor in everything, including the number, size, and placement of your speakers and subwoofers. For example, AVS member arnyk explains why it’s important to match your subwoofer size to your room size: “Every room has a frequency below which response starts to ramp up. The larger the room, the lower the frequency...Take a really small room like the passenger compartment of a small car. The ramp up starts at a relatively high frequency, maybe as high as 100 Hz or more. If your audio system starts rolling off at 100 Hz, the ramp up combines with the roll off, and its a draw... If the ramp up/roll off points don't match, then you get a hole or a peak. Both are bad, but the hole is probably more tolerable for most people.... In a larger room the ramp up starts at a lower frequency, say 20 Hz. If your audio system starts rolling off at 50 Hz, then there is a hole in the overall response between 50 and 20 Hz. Not good.”


Room size is also essential when choosing the number of speakers you’ll be using for your system. While 5.1 is the standard-go-to for most, this is entirely customizable based on personal preference. Whether you go with 2.0, 2.1, 5.1, 7.1, 10.2, or any other conceivable configuration, be sure to take your space into consideration. For example, if you have a big room and are considering 7.1, make sure you have enough room behind your seat, as 7.1 surround speakers need space. AVS member C0rk points out that while “in a 5.1 system, the surround speakers go on the sides... [7.1 is] really more of whether you have room behind your listening area, not so much room size.” No matter what shape and size your room is, be assured that there is a sound system that fits it perfectly -- it just needs to be discovered.


System Uses



One essential factor in choosing the speakers you install is what you’ll be using them for. Your ideal setup will vary depending on whether you’re using your system for TV/movies, gaming or music -- each activity demands something different from a system. 5.1 is the default for most who use their system for TV/movies, though more and more folks are going with 7.1 as of late. But before you splurge on a big 7.1 system, keep in mind that it may be overkill. AVS member Jay1 says that 7.1 “is only needed for theater seating type situations,” and WagBoss agrees: “7.1 is pointless unless you have a large home theatre. You can't run 7 speakers off an AVR very well without external amplification.” Video games typically demand similar requirements from systems as TV/movies do, although there is often more of an emphasis on the low-end -- there’s nothing like a good responsive subwoofer rumble when you’re deep into a first person shooter.


If you use your setup mainly for audio, a 5.1 system will probably get less use, as there’s only a relatively small percentage of music that is mixed for 5.1 surround. It is more than worth it though, if you have access to those high-fidelity recordings that are compatible with 5.1. Other audiophiles prefer two floor-standing speakers in front to maximize the fidelity of stereo recordings, and depending on their size and quality you may not even need a subwoofer -- many 2.0 floor-standers can provide a well-rounded sound with great low end. Member smasher50 suggests that if you’re using your speakers “strictly for music, I don't think you need a sub unless you listen to a lot of classical and pipe organ music, or if you are going to use it with TV/movies.” 2.0 floor-standers may not be the best value though, as member pureiso points out that “for the same price range you can generally get a much better bookshelf speaker.” But if you’re not worried about price, two floor-standing speakers may be your best option as a music-listener.


Picking Your Speakers


Once you’ve determined the number and size of your ideal speakers, it’s time to get specific and choose a brand and model. Unfortunately, this is one area where you are on your own -- with so many quality types on the market, we can’t in our right mind single out any specific speakers in a general guide such as this. For this task, AVS’ knowledgeable forum experts are happy to help with suggestions based on your specific room layout.


That being said, there are a few widely accepted rules for picking your speakers. WagBoss advises: “Generally, people say that the front three speakers should be the same brand and model line. All front speakers will have a matching center. Surrounds don't matter as much, unless you listen to SACDs or other multi-channel music. For subwoofers, it doesn't matter at all what brand.” Also be sure not to invest too heavily in areas that aren’t as essential, as steveklein suggests: “I think the fronts are significantly more important than the rears/surrounds. Several years ago, I spent about $500 a speaker on my fronts and about $150 a speaker on my surrounds and i've been very happy with the results...IMO, I think it is silly to spend the same amount of money on surrounds as your front soundstage.”


In regards to the floor-standing vs. bookshelf speaker argument, it’s all about personal preference, as each have their benefits. WagBoss mentions, “There's not much difference between floor standers and bookshelves if you have a subwoofer. Find ones you like, as it doesn't really matter if they are towers or bookshelf. Bookshelves are smaller, so they take up less space, but you have to mount them or get stands.” Again, it’s all about what works for you.


Speaker Placement



Now that you’ve made a well-informed purchase, it’s time to install. But take care -- speaker and subwoofer placement are essential to make the most of your system’s capabilities, as every room is different, and needs its own unique layout to optimize its sound. While ideal speaker and subwoofer placement will vary according to your room’s layout, Dolby has a helpful guide that gives a basic layout of where you should generally place your speakers, depending on configuration. Of course, there are many variables to consider (room shape and speaker size, to name a few) when deciding speaker placement, but most will agree on their ideal height, as AVS member jb82 explains: “The front tweeters should be at ear level... it's best to angle [the center speaker] up or down towards your ears if possible.” There is some more debate as to the height of the surround speakers, as many also suggest an ear level placement, though some say that 2-3 feet above ear level is optimal. If you’re using floor standers, there are other factors involved in placement, as member ack_bk points out: “Most floor standing speakers need a minimum of 12-24 inches from a boundary (side and back walls) to get proper imaging and sound.” If you’re working with a smaller room, smaller bookshelf speakers may be your best bet -- of course this will mean that you’ll need a dedicated subwoofer to make up for the low end that bookshelf speakers can’t deliver.


Ultimately, only you will be able to determine where to place your subwoofer to achieve the best acoustics for your surround sound system is experimentation with placement and orientation. Trial and error is a tried and true method, so experiment away, taking into consideration your room’s unique angles and contours. As member ccotenj attests, “as far as positioning goes... man, would life be a lot easier if there was a cut and dried answer to that question...” Which brings us to our next section...


Room Acoustics


This is an issue that everyone installing their own home theater has struggled with. In addition to speaker placement, there are other ways to optimize the rooms acoustic

s for the best sound possible. Customizing your system’s EQ to fit your space is one tedious-yet-rewarding way to make things sound great (this could take some time to perfect).


One essential addition that is guaranteed to help with this is the installation of bass traps in your room’s crevices, which catch sound waves so that they don’t overlap and cause muddiness. AVS member and bass trap expert Ethan Winer explains: “The cause [of nulls across the mid and upper bass range] is reflections off the walls, floor, and ceiling, combining with the direct sound from the speakers and with each other... You'll never get a perfectly flat response, so the more bass traps you have the closer you'll get. It's that simple.” dwightp agrees with Ethan’s argument for quantity: “Put in as many bass traps as you possibly can. Bass traps are generally most effective in corners -- wall-to-wall, wall-to-ceiling, wall-to-floor, etc.”


Construction of bass traps can be made from a variety of materials, as Ethan Winer lays out: “Traps can also be made from rigid insulation board, OC703 or the equivalent. You can cover the bass traps with acoustically transparent fabric, if you want.” Member FOH adds that “thick bass traps are best constructed out of cheap 'fluffy' style insulation. For attenuating reflection points for wall mounting, use 703 of 4" minimum, with a 4" gap.” Fill those corners right, and you should be basking in aural bliss in no time.


But there is one rule of thumb that applies above all else: always test speakers out first-hand before making a purchase. Better yet, make sure you have a good return policy, as the room in your home is guaranteed to sound different than a store’s showroom. Everybody’s ears are different, and you should ultimately rely on your own opinion at the end of the day, no matter how many recommendations are thrown your way. To each his own, and if you do your homework, you’ll be well on your way to an epic home theater experience. Happy hunting!

Comments (55)

I'm surprised that this article doesn't mention a 3.0-channel setup. Two front speakers--towers or bookshelves--for music, plus a center channel for better dialog clarity when you watch TV or movies. No bulky sub, no running wires to the surrounds. The receiver will mix the surround and LFE channels with the fronts so you're not really "missing" any of the audio information.
The topic though really was "Surround Sound".
im a novice at this stuff and one thing confused me here. in the picture of how to set up your surrounds it has them on the back corners angled at the primary listening position. people always recommend putting them at the sides of the primary listening position.

so which one is correct, or are both good depending on the room?
You really will get a number of answers in reagards to this. It all really comes does to what you like. Surronds usually do go on the sides lightly back. But then others will say they like them in the rears, and yet others like in the photo. A 7.1 system will have 3 across the front, two on the sides and two in the rears on the back wall.
i think it comes down to the room size...and layout..most of us may not have the means to have a room dedicated just for home theater of stereo ..we have to incorporate it into our living spaces ..i was so pumped up about 7.1 when it came out ..bought two more speakers and set them up ..in my small room ...and i must say that it was to much for the space.. the rear end sounded jumble up....so i took down the back surrounds and just left the rears ...and what a better sound i got ..clean and clear .... so room size and layout will play a very big roll in what configuration you get in the end 2.0 /5.1 /7.1 /7.2 / 9.2 ..ect...
I really like have you guys incorporate input from members of the community into this article. It's a little thing to show members that their voices are being heard. I hated the rest of the article though... Just kidding David!

I've already forwarded this to a few of my friends that are researching the basics. Good stuff.
Hey bradymartin, that graphic isn't the clearest, but it is correct, and so are you in what you are hearing. For a moment, ignore where they pictorially place the surround speakers in relationship to the circle with the "1" in it. Looking at that relationship it would seem that the surrounds are quite a bit back from the listening area labeled with that "1".

Now, if you ignore the circles with numbers and the lines drawn between those circles, you will see that the surrounds are shown slightly behind the actual listening are (circle "1" if you note is actually the front of the displayed couch, not near the back where your head would actually be). THEN, take into account that the diagram notes that the surround speakers can be anywhere from 90 degrees to 110 degrees from the listening aread. 90 degrees would be directly to the side of the listening area as you have heard elsewhere. Then you can move them back up to another 20 degrees (to get to 110 degrees) to still fit within the guidelines.

So in short, directly to the sides or slightly back are both acceptable and displayed in the diagram. This is for a 5.1 setup with one row of seating. Things get a little different when going with 7.1 and/or with multiple rows of seats.
My room setup is exactly like this, and I'm running 5.1 (the axiom QS8 surrounds are exactly even with my head but elevated to about 7ft.) Question 1) would I be better off running direct ratiating speakers (not bipoles) if they are directly beside me? 2) would putting a "matrix" 6th channel behind the couch help immersion any, or just be distracting because it so close? HSUs Ventriloquist use to make a small matrix satellite with two pairs of binding posts for just this purpose (cept they were kinda small and wimpy), maybe an in-wall matrix speaker?
By the way, Mr. Bott, whoever's idea it was to tweak the AVSForum site to add these lttle nuggets of "gee whiz" was pure genius...I've particularly enjoyed the ones about speaker frequency response, PS4, Which amp is best for these speakers, subwoofer recommendation thread, etc. Very thought provoking and putting it on the main pages gets a lot of attention...
IMHO...Putting the surronds on the side walls facing the couch would be better. A center rear would not do much good as it would be very directional that close. Again, IMHO.
David, would direct or di/bipole be preferable in this setup?
If you are just like the photo, direct. I say this more or less based on the distance to the seating. (I for one would not sit on the sides of the couch.) If the poles were used on the back wall, the sound could more or just mix and you would also get reflection off the side wall. If on the side wall, it would fill to the front and the rear but not to you. They were mostly used to fill a longer room. But now, if you can see speakers in your local cinema, you will see they use an array of direct speakers going down the side walls.

The idea here is to be able to hear the direction the sound is coming from for effect. My personal setup is 7.2 system with 9 speakers. Front LCR - Surronds L&R on each side just slightly behind the seating position in two rows (Thus 2 speakers per sie wall), and then rear L & R. So while it is 9.2, the processor is really 7.2. So the sides left and right have a split for before the amp. Each speaker has it's own amp channel.) Hope that came out right.

As always, this is in my humble opinion and based my views on my own experience and from those I have worked with. When it comes to sound, milage does very.
Geez, hope you've got enough amp...what are you running?
So David,
I'm thinking about replacing the dipoles with directs...would you then move the dipoes to the back wall or just sell 'em? (my room is exactly like the pic, 25 ft. wide, 15 ft from front to back. I've already got them, guess I could just hook 'em up and see what they sound like?
5 Lyngdorf 2 channels amps.

I would surely try them and see. My theater size, which I forgot to mention, is 25 feet long and 14 wide. So the front to back is much larger so I could do what I did.
After being around this arena for almost as long as David (although I tip my hat to his more extensive professional training), and for the fact that people tell me that I research the snot out of things, I was under the impression that direct radiating speakers for surrounds were more for multi-channel music, and that for an enveloping movie experience, dipole, bipole, or quadpole speakers were a better way to go. Even with mixes that discretely encode the 2 (or 3, or 4) surround channels, for movies these non-direct speakers are preferred.

I did a Google search even, and found where THX recommends dipole speakers over direct/monopole. Same at Audyssey, and noted with Dolby too. Again, this is for movie watching, not music.

Am I missing something here?

I would think that the dispersement of surround sound using pottscb's qs8s would be preferred especially if the seating it right next to them. I have read that they should be placed slightly above and slightly behind the main listening area if possible though, and not exactly in line with the ears, but that isn't the question..

Just asking...
Are there situations in which you could forgo the center channel?
The center channel can be argued as THE most important channel in the whole mix. That is where all of the dialog comes from and anchors everything to your display.

In a music only setup, your mileage may vary, but this is a thread about home theater, so I tried ot answer from that perspective.

Do (some) people get away without a center? Sure, but I can't think of anyone that hasn't said later on that they couldn't believe how much better it is once they had one.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Totally have no disrespect for dipoles and in fact I use them in my great room as it is a large area. They have in center driver and then two smaller drivers at the angles. They are the Triad Silver Surronds. I was more or less stating that if you look at actual theaters, they do not use them. Nor do I think sound mixers mix for them when they are making the tracks. But yes, as mentioned, I would not want to sit right on top of a direct speaker either.

The funny thing about the references you made in regards to what you found on-line...not that you are funny or wrong....but like Dolby, I do not think I have ever gone into a Dolby demo and seen dipoles being used. When you are just filling an area, you are doing just that...filling the area with sound vs having something fly past you with a direction.
Absolutely right David Just a different perspective. If you look at movie theaters, which I guess in reality we are trying to emulate (even if sound in my home theater is better than my local theater choices) uses an array of direct (monopole) speakers. Most people don't have room or power for an array of surround speakers, and thus we get the di/bi/quad poles... You just happen to be the first person I've heard that actually (publicly) mentions direct radiating speaker for a home theater's surround sound duty...

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