How to Customize Your Sound System for Your Living Room: The Surround Sound Basics

After you’ve picked the right video system for your home theater, spent the money on it, and even hooked it up to your new surround sound audio setup. So, why does it sound terrible when you turn it up? If this is the case, the chances that you need to balance the audio system to best suit the characteristics of the room are high. Below is some information on how you can do just that.

Map the layout
Achieving a truly immersive audio experience is one part movie magic and three parts acoustics. Most of the work in balancing this type of system lies in understanding how sound behaves in the space you’ve chosen. A square room with minimal obstructions between speaker and listener is most ideal, but most systems are flexible enough to accommodate a number of different setups. Just keep in mind that you want enough space for the speakers to create individual audio fields without the audio getting mushy or echo-ey.

Some high-end surround sound systems incorporate their own “pink noise” generator or optimizer CD, and can calculate the proper speaker distances using an included microphone.

Balance the front of it
As the driving force of your system, the front left and right speakers are the best starting point. In general, you want the speakers far enough apart so you can distinguish sounds coming from the left versus sound from the right. Using an asymmetrical room? It’s likely you’ll have to compensate for unevenly placed speakers. Some receivers handle this automatically by allowing you to input the left/right speaker distances, but some tinkering with the channel’s panning and volume levels should do the trick.

Work on the center
With the left and right channels squared away, its time to focus on the center. As the primary source of dialog and the center piece of your system, the placement of the center speaker is crucial. Common setups have this speaker situated either above or below the screen, but you can experiment to figure out what works for you. Just make sure to equalize the channel with the front speakers in mind. Otherwise, it isn’t going to sound too great when you turn it up.

Finish with the surrounds
Contrary to common belief, surround speakers aren’t meant to inundate you with audio like the front and center channels. Instead, they’re designed to enhance atmospheric and off-screen audio to create the illusion of being immersed in the film at key points. As such, placing the speakers to the left and right of your sitting area and facing them in is the best quick and dirty placement.

It’s not uncommon to hit a few bumps while testing the surround channels with live audio. Volume levels can be set easily enough by playing a film with a heavy score. But if you’re looking to equalize them for things like atmospheric sound effects it can be a little more tricky. Your best bet is to invest in a home theater test DVD, so you can run persistent audio through the speakers, but many systems come with test discs just for this purpose. It’s also increasingly common for systems today have built-in room correction software to help in case you’re less confident.

Place the subwoofer
Whereas the front and surround channels have roughly predefined locations, you can put the subwoofer just about anywhere. A corner placement is often best for carrying bass through a room, but it’s rarely that easy. Factors like furniture placement, carpeting and even the construction of the room’s walls can play big roles. A great tip to remember is that placing the sub-woofer near the seating locations makes the best impression, like near the sofa.

2 comments on How to Customize Your Sound System for Your Living Room: The Surround Sound Basics

  1. Great article! Anyone considering a sound system, realize that you don’t need to go broke in the process. There are many fairly reasonable systems out there, you’ve just got to do your homework.

    1. Very true, Freddie! Many consumers hear the term “surround sound” and associate it with spending a lot of money. However, you are right. Many consumers don’t want to spend the time searching around to find the best deals.

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