How to Place Your Speakers to Maximize Your Home Theater Experience


If you are setting up a complex home theater bundle or your computer speakers, it is crucial to have the understanding of art and science of speakers as well as placement in order to enjoy your new sound system.

From speaker designers, audio engineers to foley grips (people who add sound effects into movies, everyone contributes an enormous amount of energy to recreate realistic and enjoyable sound in your home giving you a great listening experience and home theater.

To take full advantage of all the energy invested in creating awesome sound tracks and movie scores, you will have to invest some energy of your own. You should first start getting knowledge about most familiar audio setup around, simple stereo sound to know about best placement for your speaker. When you are listening to the radio or your iPod with a pair of headphones or watching television on a set without attached speaker system or theater, you are experiencing audio in stereo.

Understanding Surround, Stereo and Audio channels:

Simply stereo channel is two channels of audio, one for right speaker and one for the left. It is most minimal setup for providing the illusion of sound directionality and perspective for listener.

In surround sound notation, the simple two channel setup is cited as a 2.0 system or 2 channels with no subwoofer. The addition of a subwoofer changes the notation to 2.1. .1 represents subwoofer and accompanies Low Frequency Effects channel to powers it.

More complex audio systems are build on the 2.1 system and also add additional channels creating a 360 degree envelope of sound around the listener. Simple two channel systems are usually driven by hardware on main device such as television set or portable music player and unlike two channel systems, the multi-channel surround systems require a separate component which is known as receiver to amplify and distribute audio signals from the source like cable box or Blu-ray player to speakers.

Current consumer audio receivers supports somewhat between 5.1 (five speakers with one subwoofer) to 11.2 (eleven speakers with one subwoofer) channels of audio. Currently, vast majority of speakers support 5.1 and 7.1 channel surround sound. Very few Blu-ray movies ship with audio support for something higher than 7.1, so for consumers there is little reason to expose themselves to the expense of equipping their homes with large speaker systems. If you are wondering the fate of 6.1 sound, it was never widely adopted and there are very few home theaters that are configured for it and even fewer 6.1 acquired media sources to use with it.

Configuration of Optimum Stereo 2.1 Sound:

Now you have got familiar with the terminology, let’s get started with the setup process of your speakers, 2.1 channel system.

Placing the Subwoofers:

Let’s first know the suitable placement of the subwoofer as it is the simplest speaker to place. The subwoofer generates low frequency sound which is Omni-directional and for so you can place the subwoofer anywhere you want according to your convenience within the room where it is easy to link to the receiver.

In placing the subwoofer, the only caution to observe is to avoid placing it inside any sort of recessed architectural detail or cabinetry or directly into a corner. Placing the subwoofer in semi-enclosed spaces or very close to walls changes the speaker from an Omni-directional to a directional one, which then often results in the subwoofer sounding boomy and overpoweringly loud as compared to its companion speakers.

Placing the 2 channels:

In a 2.1 channel setup, all audio effects are generated by the left and right channels except the low frequency effects that are produced by the subwoofer. If you place the channels in front of your sitting area one on each side, all the sound effects, dialogue and music will be broadcast into the room, from front towards you.

The two primarily channel speakers right and left should be positioned roughly 3-4 feet off the center of the viewing screen and roughly at ear height with the listener. It is also to be kept in mind that ear’s height varies with the height of the listener when seated which is around 3.5-4 feet for most situations. You don’t have to adjust the speakers precisely for the height of the listener but should be within 6-8 inches. Any lower or higher will give you the unsettling sense that the voices of actors you see on the screen are coming from a higher or lower location.

In addition to positioning the speakers at listening height of the viewer and off to the sides of the screen, you should angle the speakers inwards towards the listener, in short you can say toe-in instead of facing them toe-out or straight ahead. For your toe-in speakers, the ideal angle is between 22-30 degrees. You should place your speakers accordingly to form this cone-of-sound directed towards the center of the listening area.

It should be taken into consideration that your focus is to aim for optimum home theater sound and not getting your sound system certified for an IMAX Theater. Since the internet is filled with audiophiles as well as home theater discussion boards teemed with people obsessed with angle increments, adjustments in speaker height and other minor details of speakers setup but you should keep in mind that if it comes within general specs the audio engineers believe a home theater will have and if it sounds good to your ear then it is good enough. Simply moving your speakers to a proper position and arc off the viewer will increase the quality of your experience.

Configuration of Optimum 5.1 Channel Surround Sound:

5.1 channel surround sound is generally regarded as minimum speaker setup that is required to create immersive surround sound. The setup is build on the arrangement of 2.1 setup adding in a center channel and a right and left surround sound channel.

To configure a 5.1 setup, start by placing the subwoofer and right and left front channels. When you are done with placing and angling the right and left front channel then add in center and surround channels.

Placing the center channel:

In the 2.1 setup right and left front speakers deliver all music, dialogue and sound effects. The surround sound in the 5.1 setup is spread around to additional speakers. The most important role of center channel is dialogue delivery. Since the actors generally are in frame and roughly around the center of the screen, for delivering their dialogue the new center channel is perfect so that the speaking sounds appear to be coming directly from actor on screen.

The center channel should be toe-out (no tilt to either right or left) and placed right in the center to main viewing seat. The center channel should be located close to ear height as your setup allows and can be placed above or below the screen. You can also angle the speaker up or down a bit to direct sound more towards the listener’s head if you can’t reside them as close to the top and bottom of the screen as you would like.

Placing right and left surround sound channels:

As the addition of center channel offloads some work from the original right and left channels of the 2.1 setup, adding right and left surround sound channels also spreads out the load. Surround sound channels are responsible for ambient and environmental sound. For example if you are watching a concert, the whistles and cheers of the audience will be delivered over these channels which create the auditory illusion as if you are sitting in the first row of the concert.

To place right and left surround sound channels for maximum impact, you would like them positioned roughly at 90-110 degrees relative to your listening position, or besides each of your ears or 10-20 degrees slightly behind them or you want to place them slightly above the head of the viewer.

If somewhat due to shape of your room or placement of furniture within it you have to comprise on the placement of speakers, it is better to reside the surround sound channels further higher and back rather than lower and forward.

Configuration of Optimum 7.1 Channel Surround Sound:

If a 5.1 channel system is absolute minimum for surround sound, then for consumer home theater setups, 7.1 channels is definitely return on investment sweet spot. Currently there are more 5.1 channel Blu-ray discs and DVD released than discrete 7.1 channels discs, now more and more releases are emerging with 7.1 sound and a number if receivers intelligently split the surround channels on 5.1 mastered media source between two surround sound channels in 7.1 setup for even more immersive experience.

To setup 7.1 system, first place subwoofer, front left and right and center channels and two surround sound channels. In addition to woofer and those five channels, you are now left with left and right back speakers.

Placing left and right back speakers:

Bu adding two more surround sound channels, the 7.1 setup gives more auditory realism to your home theater experience. These channels should be roughly placed 135-150 degrees behind the viewer and above head level. And if you have to compromise over the placement of back speakers, it is recommended to move them further back, closer together or/and higher. It will affect the sound quality as well as envelope of sound that you strive to create less than if your moved them further apart/forward or lower.

 Further twists and turns enhancing your home theater experience are:

Automatic Calibration- Most of us place our home theaters on our living room or other multipurpose rooms, you can simply say less than acoustically idea settings. Though it is possible to sit and fine tune each individual speaker’s output by using only a well-trained ear along with a good chunk of time, it is good to try following easy things that are generally more accurate way.

Check the documentation that comes with your receiver to know if your receiver supports microphone-enhanced optimization. Each company calls their system somewhat different, the general premise of systems is that a tiny microphone is hooked up to the receiver that is placed where listener’s head would be during routine use then a series of signals and tones are sent over speakers to test things like muddy sound, echo and other artifacts. The receiver then produces a more balanced listening experience by dynamically adjusting speakers for these problems.

Adjust the center channel- Although we like to use manufacturer’s automatic calibration, if you usually turn the volume up really loud during movies to hear the dialogue and get blasted when the action scene come, you should now adjust your center channel.

At receiver, increase the output to the center channel until you get clear and bright dialogue even at lower general volume setting so when the rockets and hand grenades go off, you will not have to duck and cover.

Upgrade your speaker wire- this doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy some coated with unicorn blood $50 a foot wire but what this means is that if you are using super cheap thin wire that comes with your equipment you will be well served to upgrade to a thick wire.

Demo Clips/Discs- although about every receiver has a built-in tone test, but that doesn’t exactly a fun demonstration of surround sound capabilities. You can surely calibrate your speakers with it but you have not gone to all that setting up a home theater system to just listen to beeps and boos. You should check out your favorite movie with suitable number of explosions and other surround sound show stoppers and fire away.

You can either pursue the picture perfect speaker setup but it is definitely an endless chase or you can effortlessly tug your current setup without much hassle. Armed with knowledge of proper speaker layout, you will be able to easily adjust or upgrade your listening experience.

So what would you prefer? Do tell us through your comments.

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