How to Set Up Your Home Audio System for the Best Sound Quality
You’ve set your budget, shopped around, read online reviews, and finally found the home theater speaker system that’s going to take your movie watching to the next level. But buying your audio system was only half the battle. Even the most expensive system isn’t going to satisfy your audio needs if it’s not set up properly.
Luckily, there are some guidelines that most experts agree will get you the best sound quality. However, it’s important to remember that these aren’t hard and fast rules. Play around with the positioning of your speakers to find what works best in your specific room.
Most systems also come with a set-up guide from the manufacturer. Take those guidelines into consideration as well, especially if they differ from the instructions below. If you’ve purchased a non-traditional speaker system then the manufacturer’s guide will probably be more appropriate.
It’s also important to note that these guidelines are assuming that you have a perfectly square or rectangle shaped room and there are no furniture constraints. If—as is probably the case with most people—you don’t have the ideal space for a sound system, your set-up process will involve a bit more testing to get everything arranged to your liking.
First, the basics:First and foremost, you should be familiar with the various speakers that make up a home theater system.
Subwoofer: The subwoofer provides the low frequency sounds, like explosions in movies or the bass line in music.
Center Speaker: This is the speaker that (almost all of) the dialog comes from. It also connects the front left and right speakers to prevent gaps in the sound field.
Front Left and Right Speakers: This is where most of a movie’s soundtrack and sound effects comes from.
Surround Speakers: These provide the ambient background sound in a movie’s soundtrack. They’re what give you the immersive three dimensional sound field you’re craving.
Receiver: The device your A/V equipment connects to. It receives and decodes audio and video signals and determines where they should go.
Next, you should be familiar with the different types of audio systems. The most basic and pared-down sound system is audio in stereo. This is what you experience when you’re listening to music through headphones or watching TV with the speakers that are built into the TV. Audio in stereo is denoted as a 2.0 system, meaning 2 channels and no subwoofer.
One step up from this would be a 2.1 system, meaning 2 channels and 1 subwoofer. If you are on a tight budget, a 2.1 sound system with front left and right speakers can drastically improve your sound quality. The most common form of surround sound is a 5.1 channel system. This means there are 5 channels (a center speaker, front left and right speakers, and 2 surround speakers) and one subwoofer.
Anything higher than this (7.1, 9.1, etc.) means you’re adding surround speakers. In an average sized TV room, adding more surround speakers isn’t really necessary, but there are more and more movies coming out these days that have 7.1 sound and the difference is noticeable.
Setting up your system:
You have more freedom placing the subwoofer, because low frequencies are omnidirectional, meaning the sound is distributed in all directs. Higher frequencies are much more targeted so you need to be more careful when placing the other speakers.
Generally, the subwoofer is placed at the front of the room because it’s easier to run cables that way. Essentially you can place the subwoofer anywhere it’s convenient. The only stipulation is to avoid placing it in a corner, inside a cabinet, or in any semi-closed space. This will make the subwoofer’s sound overpoweringly loud. If you can’t avoid this, then dial down the subwoofer to compensate.
You may also want to consider adding a second subwoofer to fill in any gaps in the bass and create a more dynamic sound. The placement of a second subwoofer will mostly depend on your room’s layout. Try placing both in the front, next to the right and left speakers, or place one in the front and one in the back.
The placement of this one is pretty clear: it goes in the center of your speaker set-up. The center speaker should be placed directly above or below your TV and line up with the middle of the screen. The alignment of the center speaker is important because if it’s too high or too low, the dialog will sound like it’s coming from above or below you, not from the actor’s mouths.
Obviously the center speaker can’t be placed directly at ear level, or it would be smack in the middle of your screen. To make up for this, tilt the speaker up or down until the sound is directed to your ears. This may take a bit of trial and error to get just right.
If possible, avoid placing the speaker (or any speaker) inside your media center. This will change the tonality of the speaker and can warp the sound. If it can’t be avoided, place the speaker so the front is even with the front of the furniture. You can even go the extra mile and pad the area around the speaker with acoustic foam.
Front Left and Right Speakers
The front speakers should be placed, equidistantly, to the right and left of the center speaker. The tweeters (that is, the part of the speaker that produces high frequency sounds, usually found at the top potion of the speaker) should be at ear level. These speakers should be angled in 22-30 degrees towards your sitting area. You can probably just eyeball these measurements, unless you’re a die-hard audiophile, in which case it’s time to brush up on your trigonometry.
Again, experiment with angles and placements to figure out what works best with your room. The speakers should be wide enough apart that the fill the whole room, but not so far apart that it sounds like the dialog is happening off-screen.
Space-permitting, keep these speakers away from the wall. The closer they’re placed to a wall, the more the bass is reinforced. To some degree, this can be a good thing, but overall performance is better when the speakers are pulled away from walls. Again, experiment and determine what works best in your space.
Ideally, the surround speakers should be placed behind and slightly above where you’ll be sitting. You don’t want to place these directly behind you, or else it will sound like the ambient noise is coming from a spot directly over your shoulder instead of in the general background.
If you can’t place them behind you—if, for example, your couch is directly again a wall—then place the speakers to the side. It’s better to have them placed further back and higher as opposed to more forward and lower. Whatever you do, do not place the surround speakers in front of where you’ll be sitting. Experiment with angles and distances to find the best placement.
For a 7.1 channel system, place two of the surround speakers behind you (but, again, not directly behind you) and two to the side. If you don’t have the space to do this, you should stick to a 5.1 channel system.
The reason these speaker placements can be left at “good enough,” is because most receivers sold these days have an automatic calibration feature. How this work is: you place a small microphone that is attached to the receiver where your head would be if you were watching a movie.
Then, a series of sounds are sent over the speakers and the receiver dynamically calibrates the various speakers for the optimal listening experience. Most allow you to take measurements from various locations, but try to avoid fringe areas where no one is going to be sitting to avoid muddying the results.
And there you have it! Your home theater speaker system is ready to go, and you can finally fully appreciate the amazing soundtracks of your favorite movies.
About the Author:
Appliance & Furniture RentAll has been providing consumers with home furnishings, televisions, home electronics, and major home appliances since 1983. Our 20 rental-purchase stores serve customers in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, with corporate offices in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.