After decades of fine-tuning home cinema systems, we know a thing or two about how to achieve the best surround sound. Speaker static? Lag between sound and picture? No sound at all? With a jumble of wires and myriad settings, surround sound systems can get complicated fast. Luckily, there is a right way to set up your home theater sound system and fix audio woes for good.
Follow our tips on how to achieve that immersive theatre experience from the comfort of your own home.
It’s all about acoustics
If you do one thing, it’s this! Before it reaches your war, sound bounces off walls, the ceiling, the floor, and other hard surfaces. Therefore it stands to reason that adjusting the acoustics in your home cinema room will give a significant boost to sound quality. But how do you do that?
Surround sound speakers emit sound waves. When sound waves hit off hard surfaces they can create irritating hums and unpleasant noise instead of the rich, resonant sound you’d expect at the cinema. The more sound bounces back and forth, the more its quality diminishes. So, pay attention to the surfaces in your home theatre. Soft surfaces absorb and diffuse sound, which prevents sound waves from reverberating off of one another.
Acoustic treatment panels reduce sound bounce, reveal audio subtleties you might have previously missed, and contribute to a richer, natural sound. Fabric treatment panels also remove echoes for the best surround sound experience. Try watching your favourite film after installing sound-absorbing treatment panels to hear a world of difference!
Treatment panels hang on the walls of your home theatre and come in various shapes, sizes, and colours to suit the aesthetic of your room. You can even personalise treatment panels with custom artwork to further enhance the experience.
Optimising your home cinema acoustics is the single best thing you can do to improve sound quality. In our experience, how you set up treatment panels makes a big difference.
Here’s a few pointers for acoustic success:
- Don’t go wild with absorption panels. You only need to cover 5 – 10% of wall and ceiling surfaces (bigger rooms might need more). Too many panels mean too much sound is absorbed, which also impairs your viewing experience
- Work out where the reflection points are. Reducing reflection points will prevent sound waves from bouncing too much. A top tip is to place a mirror against the wall opposite the speaker. Move the mirror until you see the speaker’s reflection clearly to determine the primary reflection point and where you should place the thickest sound-absorbing panel.
- High ceilings wreak havoc with sound! For the best surround sound,install a sound treatment panel overhead to absorb pesky echoes.
- A soundbar system creates fewer reflection points. If you have multiple speakers you should consider more treatment panels to absorb the additional sound waves.
- Bass traps control low-frequency sound. Place two in the front and rear corners of your home cinema room to diffuse a rumbling bass.
The best surround sound system for quality sound
Up audio quality with better speaker placement. You wouldn’t believe the difference this makes! Of course, the size of your sound system and the shape of your room might dictate positioning, but the following rules of thumb will help you achieve the best surround sound system possible.
- Place the centre speaker as close to the TV as possible to create the illusion that dialogue is coming from the people onscreen
- Three speakers placed at mid-height to the onscreen image achieves a more consistent sound regardless of frequency. Ideally, concealing speakers behind a projector screen adds to the ambiance and effect
- Front speakers need to produce a sustainable 100dB (less for audio bursts) throughout your home cinema room for best audio performance
- Wireless speakers need to match the front speakers but sound levels can lower to 99 dB bursts
- In a 5.1 configuration, Rear speakers should be placed just behind or to the side of your listening position (a 110 – 120 degree angle is recommend by Dolby for their Dolby Atmos setup)
- For spine-tingling bass, the subwoofer should be capable of 115 dB bursts. Use two small subwoofers instead of one huge subwoofer to create an immersive audio experience
Angle speakers for high quality audio
It sounds simple, but make sure speakers are pointed at the seating area! There’s no point in splashing out on an expensive sound system and putting all the speakers in the wrong place. Placement is particularly important for the centre speaker because it projects the majority of the dialogue and important parts of the soundtrack. Play “pink noise” through all the speakers to get the angles right. Pink noise uses a consistent frequency to create even flat sounds skin to rustling leaves, wind, or steady rain. Test the consistency of the sound from each seat then aim and angle the speakers using shims and brackets for audio heaven.
Experiment as much as needed. The quest for the best surround sound system can be maddening and addictive. Shifting a speaker a few inches can ruin or enrich sound quality, so it’s worth spending time to get the angles right.
Dual subwoofers in surround sound systems
Sometimes two is better than one. As mentioned previously, two smaller subwoofers can produce a more realistic sound than one big subwoofer. In surround sound systems, as always, placement is key. Bass isn’t as one-directional as many believe, especially when walls and ceilings come into play. That’s why we advise on two instead of one and adjusting the levels according. This is where a professional surround sound system installer might come in handy, as even we’ll admit that this is a technical process!
Fine-tune surround sound systems for immersive audio
If you’ve invested in the best surround sound system then you deserve the true surround sound effect. Often, people will blame the quality of the speakers. In reality, it’s leaving speakers on the auto setup that spoils the surround sound experience. It might seem like a hassle, but manually configuring your sound system is the difference between immersive sound or a 1 star experience.
First things first: properly configure your sound system, troubleshoot any connection errors, and ensure that every part of your system works as it ought to.
Assuming you’ve taken care of the acoustics and speaker configuration in the steps above, it’s time to balance the volume level of each speaker in your surround sound system. This will ensure a balanced sound no matter how far you are from a speaker. Get a decibel meter for accuracy. You can find them cheap on Amazon or in your local hardware or electronics shop. You can also use it to record noisy neighbours who haven’t invested in proper soundproofing (or to check you aren’t violating sound laws!). Decibel meter apps are available on Android and iOS but generally aren’t as accurate.
Move through front and rear speakers and move the output level up or down as required. Using the decibel meter follow these simple steps:
- Set the dial to 70 dB
- Switch the weighting to “C”
- Set the response to “slow
- Hole the meter before you and direct the microphone at the ceiling, not the speaker
- Calibrate to your preferred level. In most cases 70, 75 and 80 dB are ideal
- Adjust each speaker’s test tone until the meter’s needle matches the decibel level
For subwoofers it’s best to set the levels by ear. This is because the decibel meter struggles to pick up the subwoofer’s low frequency. Here are some quick tips:
- Set your subwoofer’s volume dial to halfway
- Adjust the level output until the sub shakes the room. It’s easy to overdo this one, so be careful otherwise, you’ll throw off the overall audio a balance
- Test subwoofer levels with your favourite film scene or song to find the level of bass that’s right for you
Reduce background noise
Background noise kills atmosphere. Try this quick experiment: cover your ears to muffle background sound, wait 10 seconds. Now uncover your ears. What can you hear? A fan whirring? The distant drone of the fridge? The gurgle of the heating system? This background thrum can interfere with your sound system.
We grow so used to the daily hum of background appliances, but these sonic nuisances can ruin that special, cinematic atmosphere. Get rid of as much background noise as possible to experience your sound system at its best.
Best seat in the house for true surround sound
Where you sit plays as crucial a role as speaker placement in your sound system. The true surround sound experience comes from being able to ‘feel’ the sound. Reposition the seats to determine the best placement. You can confirm your observations with an analyser and microphone if you want to get technical.
Before you indulge in a leather headrest, consider that leather interferes with high-frequency sounds. This is because the sound will bounce back off the reflective leather. Opt for soft upholstery on headrests instead. Lowering the headrest and seat can also help to reduce interference.
Should I use “separates” in my sound system?
There’s much debate in the audio world on whether separates are superior to AV receivers in sound systems. This is ultimately a personal choice. Most modern integrated receivers are extremely high quality. They’re capable of producing stunning sound and are less hassle to install due to requiring fewer connection points. However, separates allow for greater customisation of your sound system. It all depends on how technical you’re willing to go!
Sound system wiring
Wiring your speaker system might prove a headscratcher, but can cable type truly affect sound quality?
Audiophiles shell out shed-loads on expensive wiring and cabling in a bid to boost cinematic sound. However, the key thing to bear in mind is that excessively long cable wire can impact sound quality. The greater the length of the wire the greater the resistance, which means a small drop in volume.
Copper-clad aluminum (CCA) wire is something else to be wary of. You’ll only notice a real difference at higher levels because copper is a better conductor than aluminum. If you want to blast your speakers at higher levels look for 100% copper.
While this guide gets fairly technical, we hope it’s given you the confidence to go ahead and create the best surround sound system! At John Ross Smart Living, we’re home cinema experts! Read our blog for more home theatre setup tips or give us a call – our accredited team will happily take the hassle out of sound systems configuration for you.
Wired speaker system vs wireless surround sound systems
Are wired surround speakers better than wireless surround sound systems?
A wired speaker system offers better quality overall. While a wireless surround sound system looks sleek and modern, wired wins in the performance stakes. Besides, no system is truly ‘wireless’ as all devices require a power source.
Wired surround speakers are fairly straightforward to set up at home as long as you ensure your speakers are compatible with one another. Basic wired surround speakers include an AV receiver that decodes the audio signal from the player to the surround system.
Wireless surround sound systems pick up a signal wirelessly from the transmitter. You can buy a wireless subwoofer, wireless rear speakers – you name it! Just bear in mind that wireless systems need reliable wi-fi connection. If you like the idea of wireless connectivity throughout your home, wi-fi home theatre systems might be for you.
Now, all that remains is to eject the friend who munches their popcorn obnoxiously loud!