How to Setup Your Surround Sound

We’ve all been there, having just bought an all-in-one DVD/Blu-ray with surround sound, complete with speakers, got it home all excited and can’t wait to get it going. Most of us will have just spent a few hundred or even a few thousand pounds on our new exciting purchase, but how do we get the most out of it?

The first thing is to take things slow, don’t rush into anything, make a cup of tea and get out the instructions. Yes guys I know, instructions are for losers, but trust me, if you new system has a handy button for setting up the surround sound you’ll want to know about it.

Once we’re au fait with our new systems features we can start to consider our setup. I’m sure we are all aware that a surround sound system has three front speakers, two rear speakers and a sub woofer, though some may have a pair of side speakers as well. Before we consider placing our speakers we must first consider the room in which they are going. Where do we want the “sweet spot” to be? Will the system be setup around the room or will the room be set be around the TV? For best results I recommend setting the room up around the system.

Now to business…

First lets consider the fronts, assuming that the television is all setup (I recommend 1400mm from floor to screen center by the way) we can place the center speaker. When placing speakers be aware that for best results the tweeters should be at about ear height when seated, generally this will be about 1400mm from the floor (see how that matches the TV?).
The center speaker is where the dialogue comes from and so should be unobstructed or speech will sound muffled. Place this either above or below the screen, this can be hard up against the edge of the screen or a little distance away, but remember if it is too far from the screen then it won’t sound like the actors are talking from the screen but from somewhere else.
Now lets look at the front left and front right speakers, these create the stereo effect. They play a small amount of dialogue, but predominantly are for sound effects. As with setting up any stereo system these should be about 30 – 40 degrees from the center speaker measured from the sweet spot, the further they are placed from the sweet spot the further apart they will need to be. You may wish to adjust the angle of these to get a clear sound at the sweet spot, generally pointing the tweeter towards the sweet spot will achieve this.

Now the rears, these create the surround effect and are only rarely heard. The thing to consider here is that you want the sound to wash behind you, in other words fill the space behind the sweet spot with a wide stereo effect. These can be placed at about 100 – 120 degrees measured from the sweet spot when facing the screen, pointing the tweeters at the back of the persons head.

The Sub woofer fills in the low frequencies that the surround speakers cannot produce. Sub frequencies are omnidirectional and so it is not hugely important where the sub is placed. Some will tell you to be wary of null points, though for most of us this isn’t a huge issue. The human ear can her frequencies as low as approximately 20Hz, as this has a wavelength of 17m it is unlikely that most of us are going to fit this in our living rooms. However this can still be heard as we feel the vibrations created at these low frequencies, this is called psycho-acoustics and we can use this to our advantage. If the sub is placed say under a seat or downward firing then less volume is required for us to hear these sub-frequencies as we will feel them more readily. This has the added advantage of not pissing off the neighbors.

Finally the sides, if you have these in your system i.e. 7.1 they go parallel with the ears of the person sitting in the sweet spot.

Think we’re done? Not quite!

Now we have to set up the levels (relative volume of each speaker) and if possible distances. Setting the distances is easy, measure from each speaker to the sweet spot and put in the values, this helps prevent sound cancellation. When setting levels you will want the center speaker to be slightly louder than the left and right so that dialogue will be clear, also the rears and sides will want to be a little quieter than the fronts so that they can be heard but are not distracting. The best way to get this all sounding great is to put on a film that you love with lots of surround sound action in and experiment. Personally I do not recommend boosting (amplifying) any speaker channel by more than 3dB, if a speaker is too quiet turn the others down to suit rather than turning the quiet one up. This will help to improve audio quality as sound will distort less as the volume is turned up.

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