How to set up surround sound audio

Some quick and easy tips for setting up your new sound system

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So, you've just bought a home surround sound system. You’ve unpacked all the boxes and are now surrounded by plastic bags and packing styrofoam, holding a clot of wires and looking at the spectrum of speakers you now need to set up. Where do you even begin?

Worry not, burgeoning cinephile: we have some general rules and tips for getting your room in perfect order for your next movie night. Really, it's all about the angles.

Learn about your new speakers

The first step in this process is to familiarize yourself with the speakers you purchased and what each individual speaker does, which begins with familiarizing yourself with what exactly "5.1.2 surround sound” means.

Most speakers follow this naming convention, and while it might look a bit Dewey Decimal at first glance, it’s actually pretty simple. Let’s take a look at 5.1.2 for example:

(5): The total number of conventional speakers, like mids, woofers, and tweeters.

(.1): The second number refers to your subwoofers, and is typically either one or two.

(.2): This optional, third digit refers to the number of ceiling-mounted or upward-firing speakers. These are usually quite a bit smaller than the other speakers.

So if you purchased a 7.1 speaker setup, it means you’ll have seven conventional speakers, one subwoofer, and zero ceiling-mounted or upward-firing speakers.

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Improving your room acoustics

It's not time to break out the protractor and measuring tape just yet. One of the most important and oft-overlooked aspects of a great home theater setup has more to do with the acoustics of the room itself then with precise speaker positioning.

The first thing you should do is actually the last thing many people do in a real movie theater: give yourself a round of applause. We’re not celebrating just yet, though: we’re performing a simple acoustic test.

As you clap, listen carefully for an echo, or for a “ringing” quality to the sound of your clapping. If you hear either, that means your room isn’t absorbing enough sound, which could undercut the quality of your surround sound setup.

Here’s a few more tips for optimizing your room’s acoustics:

Mix up your room’s hard and soft surfaces — Hardwood floors and other hard, flat surfaces can really bounce sound around the room, while softer surfaces tend to absorb sound. Place some rugs around the room, close curtains over large windows, and line walls with furniture (fully-stocked shelves are great at scattering sound reflections).

Clear a path — Sound bounces off surfaces and scatters, so make sure there aren’t any lamps or other objects between you and your speakers. Sit on your couch and establish a line of sight with where you’d like to position your speakers around the room. You want to make sure there's an unobstructed path from the speaker to your ear.

You can invest in anechoic fixtures... — If you’re really reaching for perfect playback, you could invest in specialized room fixtures such as wall diffusers or bass absorbers (picture the spiky or uneven walls you might see lining a recording studio). These fixtures run the price gamut from affordable to not, and are a definite aesthetic choice, but you’ll be sure to impress the audiophiles in your life.

... Or just position your speakers closer to your couch — If you find you’re still having problems with echoing sound and don’t want to redecorate the whole room for your home theater, one trick is to move the speakers closer to your viewing area. This will put the source of the audio closer to you than the sound reflections, and will reduce their effect on your viewing experience.

Positioning your speakers

Where you set up your speakers depends largely on how many you have to set up. The fine folks at Dolby created a few diagrams for working out generally where things should go, based on commonly-accepted industry standards. We’ll go over two common speaker setups, the basic 5.1 speakers and the more complex 7.1.4 speakers.

Really, the rules of where to position speakers aren’t super complex: once you understand the basic principles of how to space everything out, those rules would still apply if you were setting up two speakers or twelve: fan them out symmetrically around your listening area, and keep them pointed at the center of your couch, at the height of your ears while you’re sitting.

For those of us who are more visual learners, though, let’s dive into the diagrams.

This first image is of a typical 5.1 speaker setup. You’ll want the center channel speaker located directly in front of the center of the couch, positioned close to ear height (while sitting). Two of the speakers should flank the center channel speaker at about a 30° angle, and two should be located just slightly behind your viewing area. Simple, right?

5.1 surround sound setup
Credit: Dolby

Let’s get a bit more complex then. If you have ceiling speakers, the diagrams can look a bit intimidating, but they’re more or less the same. Below is the ideal setup for a 7.1.4 surround sound system.

You’ll notice the front three speakers are more or less identical to the 5.1 speaker setup, only with slight tweaks to accommodate the additional floor and ceiling-mounted speakers (shown below within the dotted lines).

Generally you’ll want the ceiling-mounted speakers to flank the side speakers and point down towards the couch’s center. Again, everything should ideally point towards where your ears would be if you were sitting dead center on the couch.

7.1.4 surround sound setup
Credit: Dolby

This second image shows the optimal ceiling-mounting angles. Be mindful of whether or not these ceiling-mounted or upward-facing speakers can be rotated or tilted after they’re mounted, since that will affect our last step.

Remember: while you could break out the protractor and get your speakers set up to perfection, we’d recommend you use these images as a general guide rather than a precise schematic. And that’s because of the final, ongoing step in the setup process.

The final step: experiment!

After going through these detailed schematics about where to optimally position everything, it’s easy to fall down a well of perfectionism, getting every last speaker tilted towards the exact center of your couch, and keeping daily logs of your height to make sure everything is always pointed dead center at your ears.

While the urge to geek out over these details might be strong, the reality is no two rooms are the same, and what sounds great to us might need some tweaking for you. We’d recommend using this guide for your initial setup, but then to keep playing around with the position and angles of your speakers as you develop a sense of how everything sounds.

We’d recommend picking a particularly kinetic scene from one of your favorite movies, playing it with one setup, make some small changes, and see how that affects your viewing experience. Finding that perfect setup is going to depend on your particular room and your particular ears. The most important part of a home theater setup is customizing it to best fit your needs, so use the rules above as guidelines, try some different things, and keep what works best for you.

Of course, if this all seems too complicated, you could always settle for a nice, simple soundbar—we've tested the best soundbars, too.

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