Intro to home theater speakers
How to build a well-matched surround sound system
Julie Govan is the Brand Manager at Crutchfield, and has been writing about consumer electronics since 1999. Her areas of expertise include home theater, surround sound, digital cameras, and HDTV. In her spare time, she also writes book reviews and fiction. She earned a B.A. in English from Davidson College, and went on to receive a master's degree in English literature from the University of Virginia.
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To enjoy the surround sound experience of a movie theater in your home, you’ll need a home theater receiver and at least six speakers (including a powered subwoofer).
In this article, we’ll give you some rules of thumb on how to assemble a well-matched surround speaker system. Tip #1: It’s OK to break the rules. If the ideal solution for sound quality doesn’t suit your décor, no problem. Some situations call for creative compromises.
Pre-matched surround sound speaker systems include 5 or more speakers, and some also include a subwoofer.
Want to keep it simple?
Consider a pre-matched surround speaker system. Even if you ultimately decide to buy your speakers a la carte, reading the descriptions of matched systems is a good place to start.
Want to do it your way?
If you’d rather mix and match, you’ll need to shop for the following:
- A center channel speaker that sits below or above your TV.
- Front left and right speakers that flank your TV. Most people choose either bookshelf or floor-standing speakers for their main front speakers.
- Two or more surround speakers that go behind and/or beside your seating area. Most people use bookshelf speakers or specialized bipolar speakers for their surrounds.
- One or two powered subwoofers.
- If you have a receiver that can power front height or width channels, you might want to add one more pair of speakers to your shopping list.
- If your receiver offers Dolby Atmos® surround sound processing, you’ll want to include one or two pairs of in-ceiling or specialized Dolby Atmos enabled speakers for overhead surround effects to complete your system.
For a cleaner-looking installation, consider in-wall speakers or in-ceiling speakers that integrate with your TV set. Check out our article about in-wall and in-ceiling speaker installation to learn more about what’s involved.
Need help deciding? Give us a call. One of our expert advisors can help you sort it all out.
Small, unobtrusive speakers can practically disappear into your room. Here, they're mounted on the walls to the left and right of the TV. Since they're white, they blend right in.
Matching the system to your room, your TV, and your viewing habits
Where will your speaker system go? In a family room on the main floor? Or in a basement bunker that’s far removed from bedrooms and other quiet spaces?
For multi-purpose spaces, where the TV and surround sound system won’t always be the main event, think small. Small speakers can blend more easily into your décor and stay out of the way, leaving you more space for other activities. For example, if you plan on using your family room for movie night once or twice a week, and otherwise mostly use it for socializing, helping with homework, and other non-TV activities, you’d probably be quite happy with a smaller speaker system.
On the other hand, if you’d like to use your TV and surround sound system more extensively, you should consider larger speakers, especially if it’ll be in a medium-to-large sized room. For example, if you want to add a theater-like quality to your nightly prime-time TV viewing, you’ll probably enjoy some high-quality speakers that can really fill your room with sound.
Consider the layout and shape of your room, because where you position each speaker might affect the size or type of speakers you choose. Once you have a good idea of where the speakers should be placed for good surround sound, think about how they will look and whether they might get in the way of foot traffic.
You can learn where speakers should go by watching our video on speaker placement, or find more detailed guidelines in our speaker placement article. For some creative solutions, check out our article on room-friendly ways to add surround speakers.
You can take some liberties with the speaker placement guidelines, but only up to a point. For example, you really shouldn’t try to hide speakers behind furniture or other such obstacles to proper sound dispersion. Nor should you place your front left and right speakers too far away from your TV screen, because the soundscape will seem unnaturally wide. Instead of pulling you into the story, the sound will draw attention to itself and disconnect you from the on-screen action.
When home theater speakers are properly placed, they work together to create engaging, 360-degree effects. A: center channel speaker. B: subwoofer. C: front right and left. D: surround speakers.
Pair a large TV with larger speakers for high-impact, room-filling sound that complements your TV's picture.
Big TV? Get big speakers, too
A large TV (say 55 inches or more) pairs best with a speaker system that can create a big soundscape. In general, we suggest leaning toward large floor-standing or bookshelf speakers up front. Some higher-end smaller speakers that can handle more power may also be a good match. On the other hand, if you have a 40-inch TV, a modest subwoofer/satellite system is all you really need.
Is it OK to mix brands?
Purists may cry foul, but there are some situations in which it makes sense to mix brands. Say you already own some stereo speakers. You’d like to use them in your home theater system, but you can’t find center or surround speakers to match. Or perhaps the only center channel speaker that will fit your cabinet isn’t from the brand you prefer for your front left and right speakers. Go ahead and mix.
If no such mitigating factors apply, you’re better off with “voice-matched” speakers, all of the same brand (and the same “family” or “series” within the brand). You’ll get a consistent tonal quality and seamless transitions as the sound travels from speaker to speaker.
Know your speakers
Each speaker has a distinctive role to play in your surround sound system. Understanding what each speaker does will help you shop smarter.
Center channel speaker
When you watch a movie, the center channel delivers more than 50% of the soundtrack, including almost all of the dialogue. Since its purpose is to keep sound anchored to the on-screen action, a good center channel speaker is crucial for a well-balanced home theater system. Don’t skimp on the center speaker.
The center channel lives just above or below your television, which keeps dialogue anchored to your TV screen.
The center speaker typically sits just below your TV, so make sure your center channel is an appropriate size for the intended placement. If you have a wall-mounted flat-panel TV, and you won't have a stand on which to place your center channel speaker, consider a wall-mountable or in-wall center channel speaker.
When choosing a center channel speaker, consider the other speakers in your system and the size of your television set. Compact subwoofer/satellite systems usually use smaller center channel speakers, and these interact just fine with the smaller mains and surrounds. Tower speakers require a larger center channel model to maintain a balanced and seamless surround effect.
Front left and right speakers
In home theater, the front left and right speakers provide a wide soundstage that blends with the video to create a more realistic and exciting movie experience. In addition to reproducing the musical score, front speakers handle the bulk of the special effects, which move back and forth between the two speakers in sync with the images on the screen.
Front speakers also broaden the soundstage by reproducing the sound of things that are happening off-camera, such as a car or missile that’s approaching, but hasn’t yet come into view.
The front speakers are important for music listening, too. They do all the work when it comes to stereo music reproduction.
Floor-standing speakers, bookshelf speakers, and satellite speakers all work fine as front left and right speakers. Floor-standing speakers have the most impact and provide great low-frequency response. Bookshelf speakers don't reproduce as much bass and may need a subwoofer, but they're smaller and easier to move.
Compact wall-mountable satellite speakers must be teamed with a subwoofer, but they're ideal if you want big sound from a small package. Bookshelf and satellite speakers can be placed on shelves or tables, and they can often be mounted on stands or walls.
Consider mounting surround speakers to your wall or ceiling. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers may also be a good option.
Surround speakers produce atmospheric, ambient sounds — such as rain drops, the rustling of leaves, or footsteps crunching on gravel. They also work with your other speakers to deliver spectacular directional effects, like a locomotive rushing by, or a bullet zinging past. They help put you smack dab in the center of the action.
Although a 5.1-channel surround system, with only one pair of surround speakers, is the most common setup, most newer home theater receivers can power more than a single pair of surround speakers. If you’ve got a larger home theater room, you may buy one or two additional speakers to use as "back surrounds" in a 6.1- or 7.1-channel system.
And, if your receiver can decode Dolby Atmos surround sound, you’ll need an extra pair or two of speakers to create a three-dimensional layer of sound above your listening position.You can use either in-ceiling speakers, or Dolby Atmos enabled speakers designed to fire sound upward, where it reflects off the ceiling to deliver special effects overhead.
To learn more about surround sound, including the latest formats, check out our article on surround sound.
Correct surround speaker placement results in a very realistic three-dimensional soundfield; incorrect surround speaker placement or poor calibration can leave people asking, "Are our surrounds even on?" Look for surround speakers that you can easily angle towards your listening area. Pivoting mounting brackets and speaker stands can really help.
Bipolar speakers use multiple drivers to disperse sound throughout the room. Pictured: Definitive Technology SR-9040.
Ideally, your surround speakers should have the same performance capability as your front left and right speakers, but that's not always realistic when you consider room size and space. Most people use either bookshelf or satellite speakers for their surrounds. Both bookshelf and satellite speakers may require stand placement or wall mounting.
For a wider soundfield and greater speaker placement flexibility, consider bipole/dipole speakers. These models take advantage of reflected sound to create more realistic surround effects. Some higher-end surround speakers offer a dipole/bipole switch (sometimes referred to as a "Solid/Diffuse" switch). These speakers feature two high-frequency drivers that either fire in phase (bipole) or out of phase (dipole).
If you're assembling a home theater, plan on including at least one powered subwoofer. Many TV show, movie, and video game soundtracks provide a dedicated channel of deep bass (sometimes known as low frequency effects, or LFE). This bass is what makes the entire soundtrack feel larger, fuller, and more lifelike — it gives special effects like thunder or explosions their window-rattling punch.
The subwoofer provides deep, dramatic bass -- a necessity for high-impact home theater sound
A subwoofer is also a wonderful way to enrich music listening — it can round out all types of music, from classical to jazz to rock to R&B. Since most speakers can't deliver that level of bass on their own, a subwoofer is needed to ensure that your home theater system delivers crucial low-frequency impact.
Low-frequency sound waves are omni-directional, so you have a great deal of flexibility when it comes to subwoofer placement. If you have a spot in your room picked out, consider the dimensions of the sub's cabinet to make sure it will fit. And remember that placing your sub near a wall or in a corner can increase bass impact noticeably. Though for tighter, more precise bass, you'll want to move it a few inches away from the wall or corner.
To achieve consistent bass coverage throughout your listening area, experiment with different subwoofer locations, and choose the location that sounds best to you. Adding a second subwoofer is another great way to ensure smooth, even coverage.
As a general rule, the larger the driver, the deeper the bass — so go for a sub with a 10" or 12" woofer cone if you need to fill a large room. However, there are a number of compact and even ultra-compact subwoofers out there that offer multiple drivers and ported enclosures to produce surprisingly big bass. Compact subs are also a great option if you don't have a lot of room for a sub, or if you want it to be as unobtrusive as possible.
If you have a large room (or if you just crave serious bass impact) then you should look for a sub with more watts in the built-in amplifier. Other convenient features include remotes that allow you to control the sub from your seat, and pre-set modes that change depending on what you're watching or listening to. You can find out more in our article on choosing a subwoofer.