Surround sound is a technique used to deliver an immersive audio experience to the listener. For a long time, surround sound could only be experienced in a theater. Fortunately, thanks to new technology and modern advancements in design and manufacturing, many surround sound systems are now affordable enough for people to have in the comfort of their homes.
If you are interested in installing surround sound in your home and are considering purchasing a system or arranging the rooms yourself, you must first understand how it works.
How does surround sound work?
Surround sound systems immerse listeners in a sense of realism. When you experience surround sound, you feel like you’re part of the movie. For surround sound to work, you’ll need three things: media with audio mixed in for surround sound, a suitable audio visual (AV) receiver, and an assortment of properly placed speakers around your seating area.
To fully understand how a surround sound system works, let’s first talk about standard surround sound formats, then move on to the various elements needed for surround sound, before finishing with standard speaker placements.
Common Surround Sound Speaker Setup
You may have heard of various surround sound terms such as “5.1”, “7.1” or even “9.1.2”. You might confuse it with a build number, but it’s just a naming convention for how many speakers you have in a room at different heights.
A surround sound format would have three numbers separated by a dot like this XXX
|At ear level||subwoofer||Air|
|Number of speakers||X||X||X|
The first number indicates the number of speakers at ear level, the second the number of subwoofers and the third the number of speakers above ear level.
|At ear level||subwoofer||Air|
|Number of speakers||5||1||0|
A 5.1.0 setup would mean five ear-level speakers, one subwoofer, and zero ear-level speakers. If the setup doesn’t use an on-ear speaker (the third variable), you just identify the system as 5.1 surround sound (without the zero).
Now that you understand the naming conventions of the different surround sound setups. Let’s talk about the most common configurations and why they are popular.
5.1 surround sound
5.1 surround sound is the most popular speaker configuration for surround sound. Many homes use this surround sound setup because it uses the fewest speakers and can still provide a true surround sound experience.
This setup uses five speakers and a subwoofer. To achieve this setup, two satellite speakers are placed at the front left and front right of the viewer, two main speakers at the rear left and rear right, a center speaker in the middle directly in front of the listener and a subwoofer anywhere near the setup.
7.1 surround sound
7.1 surround sound is a balanced step of 5.1 surround sound. With just two additional speakers, this system produces an even more compelling surround sound experience. The configuration of this system is exactly the same as 5.1 but with two additional satellite speakers placed at the sides of the viewer.
9.2.2 surround sound
With 9.2.2 surround sound, the setup now uses nine ear-level speakers, two subwoofers, and two in-ceiling or in-ceiling speakers. This surround sound system is ideal for large areas where you cannot place speakers at ear level in the center of the room. Plus, the subwoofer and additional ceiling speakers provide a consistent surround sound experience throughout the room.
What speakers and hardware are used in surround sound systems?
Now that you know the most common surround sound setups, let’s talk about the parts you’ll need to build your surround sound system. Although you can use just about any full-range loudspeaker on the market, the best setups split different audio signals between specialized loudspeakers.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be a home theater setup (although that’s the most common). You can also create a system just to play music.
1. Center channel speaker
As the name suggests, a center channel speaker is a speaker placed in the front center of a surround sound system. A good center speaker covers the entire audio spectrum detectable by the human ear. To cover such a spectrum, these speakers often use three types of drivers: tweeter, midrange and woofer. If you can only afford a small setup, a center channel speaker with a single full-range speaker should do the trick.
2. Left and right main speakers
The main left and right speakers are placed next to the center channel speaker. The left and right main speakers can be a variety of speakers, such as a bookshelf speaker and a floor standing speaker. Like the center channel speaker, these speakers use two or three types of speaker drivers (tweeter, midrange, woofer) to cover a wide spectrum of the human audible sound spectrum.
3. Satellite speakers/surround speakers
Satellite or surround speakers are placed to the side and rear of the listening/viewing area. They cover mid to high audio frequencies using mid-range tweeters and speakers. These are often floor standing speakers, but they can also be wall mounted as long as they are placed to the side or rear of the listening/viewing area.
A subwoofer is a type of enclosure that covers low and very low sound frequencies. Because of the low sound frequencies they cover, people within the effective range of a subwoofer will experience that rumble effect you usually get in the cinema. Subwoofers are often the largest speakers in the system. The larger the subwoofer, the more air it can move and the more its effects are noticeable in the room.
5. Ceiling speakers/overhead speakers
Ceiling speakers are all speakers placed above head level. They cover the same audio frequencies as surround speakers just at overhead placement. These speakers are important for achieving object-based surround sound, like that used in Dolby Atmos. As well as providing object-based surround capabilities, they also balance the audio inside a large room as they can be placed close to the center of the room if floor-standing speakers are too intrusive.
6. AV Receiver
With the number of speakers you need for a surround sound system, you’ll need an AV receiver to tie it all together. The AV receiver is an electronic device that acts like the brain or your home entertainment system. It provides all the ports you will need to connect all your speakers, TV/projector and other devices like a DVD player. Modern AV receivers now support various surround sound formats, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS, more on that in a moment.
The key to a great surround sound experience is correct speaker placement. Ear-level speakers such as the center channel, main left and right speakers, ceiling, and satellite speakers should be placed in their correct zones, with the speakers directly facing the ear. listener/viewer. On the other hand, subwoofers can be placed anywhere in the room as low frequencies are difficult to distort and can easily be heard wherever their audio waves travel.
Popular surround sound formats
With the right speakers and the right surround sound setups, you’re almost ready to enjoy an incredible surround sound experience. The final ingredient of a true surround sound experience is finding the right type of media that supports your system.
Dolby Atmos is currently the most popular surround sound format used in home theaters. Additionally, you can find plenty of movies and media mixed for Dolby Atmos on various subscription entertainment services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus.
Dolby Atmos supports up to 24 floorstanding speakers and up to ten overhead speakers. That means it can support just about any object-based surround sound setup you may have inside a home. Additionally, having overhead speakers allows Dolby Atmos to deliver object-based surround sound that adds even more realism to the listening or viewing experience.
The problem with Dolby Atmos is that it requires you to have overhead speakers. That’s not too bad since you can just add a speaker to your current 5.1 or 7.1 setups, and you’ll be able to enjoy object-based surround sound.
Don’t have time to upgrade your current surround sound system? You can still use Dolby Digital! This format supports all popular legacy configurations such as 5.1 and 7.1.
DTS and DTS:X
Much like Dolby Atmos, DTS provides object-based surround sound. It can support up to 32 speaker locations and up to 11.2 surround sound setup. The problem with DTS is that there are currently no streaming services that support DTS. The only practical way to enjoy DTS is via Blu-ray and DVD. The advantage of DTS is that it supports legacy configurations such as 5.1 and 7.1.
You can now create your surround sound system
That’s pretty much all the basic stuff you’ll need to understand when building your surround sound system. Remember you’ll need the right speakers, a standard surround sound setup, an AV that supports your desired surround sound format, and media (movies, music, video, games) mixed in for the specific format.
If you find building a surround sound system daunting, there are pre-built systems from reputable brands like Logitech and JBL that you can try. These systems come with speakers, AV receivers, and even stands, brackets, and instructions to help you set up their system.