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Setting up a Surround Sound System - Part 2

Some hints and tips for setting up a surround sound system for the best listening experience By Guy Wright

In part one ( Setting up a Surround Sound System - Part 1 ) of this two-part series we covered the basics of surround sound and talked about the components youll need. In part two well give you some hints about shopping for a system, how to set it up once you get it home, and offer some tips on fine tuning your system for optimal listening.


Be sure the connectors on your wires match your receiver and speaker connections

Be sure the connectors on your wires match your receiver and speaker connections

Getting Ready to Shop
Before you rush out and plunk down your money on the first surround system you find youll want to do a little homework. First, take a look at the room where the surround system will be installed. Draw a diagram of the room, the doors, the TV and the furniture. Write down the measurements of the room including the ceiling height. A gigantic, cavernous room with cathedral ceilings is probably going to require a system with more ?oomph in order to fill it completely while a dorm room or small den wont require nearly as much power.


While you are making your diagram you should also start thinking about where you will be placing all your speaker wires. You can even run string around the room to give yourself an idea of how much speaker wire youll need (be sure to add a few extra feet on each run). In general youll probably want at least 16 gauge wire for distances less than 80 feet from receiver to speaker, 14 gauge for setups ranging from 80 feet up to 200 feet, and 12 gauge for anything longer than 200 feet (say if you wanted to run the sound to another part of the house). If youre planning on running the wire through the walls or ceilings then youll need UL/CL3-certified speaker wire. If the thought of running wires all over your living room isnt that appealing then there are wireless options available, just keep in mind that any wireless speakers still have to have their own power outlets near where you place them. One last note about speaker wires; there are many types of speaker (and other components) connectors bare wire clip connectors, RCA, pin, spade, banana, double-banana, etc. so be sure the connectors on your wires match whatever receiver and speakers you decide on.

Speaker placement in a typical 5.1 system

Speaker placement in a typical 5.1 system

In a typical 5.1 system the center speaker should be placed either directly below or directly above the TV screen. The front left and front right speakers should be placed either parallel with the front of the TV screen or slightly in front and roughly 22 to 30 degrees off center. If you sit approximately ten feet from your screen then the front speakers should be not closer together than five feet apart and no farther apart than ten feet from each other. They should also be at about ear level (when seated).

The two surround speakers should be placed directly to the sides of, or slightly behind the listener (90 to 110 degrees off center) and slightly above ear level (roughly ear level when standing). The subwoofer is non-directional so it can be placed just about anywhere in a room but placing it closer to a wall or in a corner should intensify the effect. In a 6.1 system the center-back speaker is placed directly behind the listener (180 degrees) and slightly higher than ear level. In a 7.1 system the left-back and right-back speakers should be placed behind the listener roughly 135 to 150 degrees off center and again, slightly higher than ear level. In a THX certified 7.1 setup the left-back and right-back dipole speakers are placed together directly behind the listener at 180 degrees.

6.1 system with center-back speaker

6.1 system with center-back speaker

You might want to mark where you plan to place each speaker on your diagram. This (and your budget) will help you decide what types of speakers to look for. Once youve got your diagram in hand grab a DVD youre familiar with (one with surround sound tracks of course) and perhaps one of your favorite CDs and trot down to the nearest high-end audio store. Show them your diagram and talk to them about your options. Then listen to a number of different systems at volume levels that are comfortable for you. A reputable store should let you use the DVD and CDs that you brought with you. Keep in mind that while a surround system may sound fine in an audio stores perfectly constructed listening rooms it will probably sound different when you get it home. Be sure to listen to systems that are both above and below your budget you may find that a less expensive system sounds great or you may decide to re-think your budget after hearing a higher-end setup. Remember that they are your ears and your money so pick a system that sounds the best to you when played at volumes you are comfortable with.

When you find a system that you like buy it. Oh sure, you could probably go online and get the same system for a few dollars less but if the folks at the store were helpful and seemed to know what they were talking about then its probably worth the extra $20 to buy it from them. Who knows, they may offer free delivery or professional installation services and its a lot easier to bring a faulty component back to the store rather than shipping it off to some Web site.


7.1 system with two back speakers

7.1 system with two back speakers

Fine-Tuning
There are no hard and fast rules for fine-tuning your surround sound system (although youll want to follow the manufacturers instructions as closely as possible). The size and shape of your room, the furniture, wall coverings, doors, windows, and even the materials used in the construction of your walls and ceilings all paint an acoustic picture that can affect your surround sound experience. Some things you may not be able to control such as the size and shape of the room or location of doors and windows but other things can be adjusted such as speaker position or simply pulling the drapes over the windows.

In general there are three ways that sound can react with an object it can reflect off a surface, be absorbed by it, or it can be scattered. If you have an empty room with bare floors and walls the sound will tend to bounce off the surfaces and cancel each other out particularly in the lower frequencies. This will cause things to sound ?thin and in extreme circumstances youll get echoes. At the other end of the spectrum if your room has thick wall-to-wall carpet and plush walls the higher frequency sounds will tend to be absorbed which can make things sound ?dead and dialog can be more difficult to understand.

7.1 THX setup with rear speakers together

7.1 THX setup with rear speakers together

The first, and easiest approach to fine tuning your system is simply to try moving your speakers a few inches one direction or the other or changing their orientation by a few degrees. If the bass sounds too thin try moving your subwoofer closer to a wall or corner. If the bass is too overwhelming move the subwoofer away from walls or corners. If dialog sounds a bit ?muddy try moving your center speaker from above the screen to below the screen or vice versa (assuming thats an option in your particular setup). If thats not possible try angling the speaker up or down slightly. Moving the front left and right speakers closer together or farther apart will dramatically affect how they sound as will changing their orientation by a few degrees. If the rear surround speakers are too noticeable or just dont sound right try angling them to point a little behind the listener or raise them higher off the floor.

The front left, right, and center speakers are the ones most likely to be affected by bare surfaces and simply moving the speakers may not be enough to solve every problem but there are other things you can try. You can put down area rugs, draw the curtains, move the listening position closer or farther away, put up wall hangings, move a bookcase to a different spot in the room, or in extreme cases you might consider installing acoustic tiles or using other types of sound dampening treatments.

Corner setup

Corner setup

One trick weve heard about when trying to compensate for various problems is to use a mirror to help identify where the sound waves might be bouncing (youll need a friend to help with this). While seated in your usual viewing spot place a mirror on the floor between you and the left front speaker (if you already have carpeting you can skip this step). By moving the mirror around youll be able to find a spot where you can see the speaker reflected in the mirror. Mark the spot on the floor with a piece of tape. Now find the spot where the center speaker is reflected in the mirror, mark it and then do the right speaker. The three pieces of tape are where the sound waves are bouncing off the floor so thats where you want to put your new throw rug. Now have your friend hold the mirror flat against one wall in your room and move it along the wall until you find the reflections of the three front speakers marking each spot with tape again. Thats where youll want to put up that macramé wall hanging or velvet Elvis painting. Repeat with the opposite wall and the wall behind you (and the ceiling if youre really a fanatic). This trick is also useful for trying to compensate for things like entryways or oddly shaped rooms. If you find that you cant see reflections of the speakers along one wall because of an open entryway (or because there is no wall there at all) then youre probably getting an unbalanced dose of acoustic reflections from somewhere along the opposite wall (a good spot to put that bookcase since they scatter sound).

Unfortunately not all room acoustic problems can be solved easily and you may have to make some compromises but understanding how the sound waves are bouncing around in your room should help point you in the right direction. If all else fails you can always try something drastic like moving the speakers off-center, tilting them up or down, raising or lowering them, etc. You will probably be able to fine-tune the setup so that one particular listening spot in the room is perfect while moving to another spot destroys the surround effect completely. Ive heard that some people will move their speakers to different positions depending on how many people will be in the room. When watching a movie alone they position the speakers for that one ?sweet spot but if more people are watching they position the speakers where they give the best compromise for everyone. Then again, you may get lucky and discover that moving or turning one speaker just a little bit is enough to bring that surround sound system to life.


Hopefully weve given you enough of the basics so that youll be able to shop for, buy, and install your own surround sound system. If buying all your components separately sounds a bit daunting you can always buy a ?home theater in a box system that usually will include a receiver and full set of speakers (some even have a built-in DVD player too). For smaller rooms these systems can be ideal, but keep in mind you get what you pay for. Another option is to hire a professional home theater installer to set you up from A to Z. The advantage to hiring a pro is that you should get a great sounding system the disadvantage is youll probably pay a premium for it.

In any case, installing a surround sound system can really enhance that home theater experience and put you right in the middle of the action.

 


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Guy Wright has been kicking around computers and video for more years than he cares to admit and written too many articles to count. He has been a director, editor, producer, video operator, and announcer for a score of radio and TV stations. His credits include hundreds of insipid local-origination programs and commercials, dozens of cheesy radio spots, and even a book or two. Mainly he writes and edits articles for Digital Media Online.
Related Keywords:Surround Sound, SVCD, DVD Audio, Dolby, DTS, SRS Circle Surround, Receiver, THX, speakers,

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