Pixels & Bits: Surround Speaker Placement

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posted 6/26/2012 by Sean Cahill
other articles by Sean Cahill
Platforms: AV
Welcome to Pixels & Bits, where the staff at GamingNexus will take a weekly look at the impact of audio and video products (as well as related gear) that enhances the gaming experience.  In this serialized article, we will discuss audio and video products, accessories and opinions on how these work within the confines of the gaming experience.  In this week’s article, we take a look at one of the most overlooked issues with a home theater system:  Proper placement to ensure maximum quality.

When consumers finally decide on their next big purchase for their home theater system, there is an entire list of details that need to be covered.  Once the HDTV and surround system has been picked, that list includes picking out speaker wire, mounting options, receivers, cables, and many other issues that have to be addressed.  It can be a bit overwhelming for any consumer to cover, both mentally and financially.  However, overlooked in the entire process is something that can seem to be so simple upon first glance, but without proper thought put into it, surround speaker placement can easily be one of the hardest details to cover.

First off, most everyone knows that the speakers in a HDTV are just not going to cut it.  The speakers in most plasmas, LCDs, and LEDs, are only going to be about five to ten watts each with about double their normal power being the peak output.  Needless to say, turning up the volume on your television can result in speaker damage rather easily and quickly.  Because of these new televisions eliminating more space by the year, it has become vital that consumers move towards external speaker systems.  The good news with this, however, is that there are options for just about everyone out there that will not put a major dent in their wallets.

Soundbars
Soundbars are the first option for consumers to go to, and they truly are plug and play, in most instances.  Soundbars are usually a self-powered option that require no receiver and just a simple digital cable, whether they support optical or coaxial connection via an HDTV.  Soundbars come in all different options, whether they are just the bar itself, a simulated surround bar, or even a soundbar with a subwoofer that comes with it.  Truthfully, these soundbars will do what is known as LCR (Left, Center, Right) sound and have the option to add in a subwoofer.  Higher end soundbars may need a receiver to go along with, and those are generally referred to as component soundbars.  Placement for these are quite simple, however.  Whether the television is mounted or on a stand, the bar should go underneath the television and directed at the primary seating area.  If there is a subwoofer, it can be placed wherever a person wishes in the room, but there are two things to keep in mind:  Placement behind the primary seating area is ideal and avoidance of placement in the corner of a room to avoid a heavy "boom" effect.

2.1 Systems
2.1 systems are the first step towards building a surround system.  Generally speaking, a good 2.1 system will have a receiver, two large bookshelf or floor-standing tower speakers, and a subwoofer.  For those who are just getting into the surround system world, the first number in the "Point" system denotes the number of speakers that are invovled in the system while the second number denotes the number of LFEs, or Low Frequence Effects, otherwise known as subwoofers.  The 2.1 system, as previously stated, is the start of a surround.  All of the mid and high level sounds are focused into the left and right speakers, while the LFE is focused into the subwoofer.  Just about every receiver that has been made in the last ten years will support this mode.


Proper placement is, again, fairly simple, though a step up from soundbar setup.  The receiver will feed the speakers with standard speaker wire while a subwoofer cable is used from the receiver to the subwoofer.  The placement of speakers needs to be equal in distance on either side of the television.  Placement is suggested to be just outside the primary width of the seating area and should be angled directly at the center of the seating area, roughly 22 to 30 degrees inward.  This will be dictated by how far the speakers sit from each other.



5.1 Systems
Building upon the 2.1 system will take us into the first true surround setup that is offered with the 5.1 surround system.  Instead of having just the left and right speakers taking up most of the sound, added into the setup is a center channel speaker and the rear speakers that add to the surround effect.  The center channel will have placement directly underneath the television and face the "sweet spot," which is the center point of the primary seating area.  The center channel is going to represent roughly 50-60 percent of all sound in the five speakers, so it is the most important speaker in the surround system.  That is not to say that someone should skimp on the other speakers, but the center is going to take the most punishment throughout its lifespan.

The surround speaker placement can be the trickiest of all the speakers to find a proper layout for.  There is a misconception that these speakers can sit flush on a rear wall and will be fine.  While this will give some decent sound support for the surround, it is going to actually do more harm than good.  Surround sounds are designed to give the feel that actions are going past the viewers and not behind them.  Improper placement can throw this off easily and take away from the experience.  The true proper placement is to have the speakers sitting just behind the primary seating area, angled towards the sweet spot roughly at 90-110 degrees.


7.1 Systems
7.1 systems take an already complicated process and make it downright frustrating if a consumer doesn't know what to do.  The thought on this is that two more speakers are just being thrown into the sides of the room and it's ready to go.  That is definitely one of the worst things someone can do and will create a very complicated sound system that will be all over the place when it comes to the feel of the sound.

The rear speakers move from their original position and move back a bit further and more behind the primary seating area, angled towards the sweet spot at about a 135-150 degree angle, taking on more of a rear sound feel instead of the surround feel that the speakers had in the 5.1 system.  The two new speakers, ultimately known as the surround speakers, are now on the sides, facing directly into the sweet spot at roughly a 90-110 degree angle.

Subwoofers
Throughout all of these systems, it is important to note that subwoofers don't really change terribly much in placement options.  On top of that, it must be noted that systems have been coming with not only the .1 option, but with .2 options as well, simply meaning that two subwoofers can be added into the setup.  Placement only needs to follow the two rules that were stated in the soundbar section:  Make sure that they are not in corners to avoid a messy "boom" effect, and it is suggested that they are placed behind the primary seating area.  The second rule is more of a guideline than anything, but the different it makes is quite important.  With wireless subwoofers now becoming more available and easy to setup, this has become much easier to do.



Final thoughts
All in all, setting up the system requires more than just taking an educated guess and putting them in any position that just "looks good" to the naked eye.  It is very important to take measurements of the room that the system is planning on going into.  Be sure to measure the seating distance from the television to the sweet spot as well as the width and length of the room.  All of these measurements will help out in the long run in deciding the best place to put a brand new system.  To read further into setup details and to get measurements for longer distances, I recommend that readers go to Dolby's website for finer details.


About the author
Sean Cahill has been on staff at Gaming Nexus since 2007.  He specializes in console gaming, primarily Xbox 360, as well as PC hardware, A/V, and car audio accessories with ten years of experience.  If you have a question or comment for Sean, please refer to the comments section below.

Images included in this article came from Dolby.com
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