Speaker placement for home theater
5.1, 7.1 and other surround sound setups
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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The guidelines below can help you get great surround sound, even in rooms with less-than-ideal layouts.
Try not to get too hung up on finding the exact right spot for each speaker. Keep in mind that most newer receivers come with automatic speaker calibration, which makes it easy to compensate for imperfect speaker placement. Watch our short video to see how this works.
Center channel speaker
Place your center speaker directly above or below your TV and line it up with the midpoint of your TV screen. If your center speaker is placed much lower or higher than the tweeters in your left and right speakers, tilt it up or down to point the sound toward your listening position.
Front left and right speakers
Ideally, your front speakers will form a slight arc with your center channel speaker and point toward the center of your main seating area. To form the perfect arc, use a measuring tape to make sure your front and center channel speakers are exactly the same distance from your listening position. If your interior decorator insists that the front speakers sit flush against the wall, don’t worry. You can compensate for the lack of a perfect arc when you calibrate the system.
Position your front speakers at equidistant points to the left and right of your primary listening spot. The front speakers’ tweeters should be at ear level when you’re seated.
Your surround speakers are meant to envelop you in a cloud of atmospheric sound and special effects, so you feel like you're actually in the middle of the action unfolding on your TV.
In a 5.1-channel system, surround speakers are best placed to the left and right of your listening position — either in line with it, or just behind it. If side placement isn't practical in your room, place your surround speakers behind your listening position, facing front. Either way, place the speakers high enough so that the drivers don’t fire directly at your ears, around ear level while standing.
Wall mounting is often a great option for surround speakers. You'll need to mount the speakers to a stud, or use wall anchors.
5.1-channel setup with the surround speakers wall-mounted to the sides of, or slightly behind, the listening position.
7.1-channel setup with the surrounds wall-mounted to the sides of the listening position, and two back surrounds wall-mounted behind the listening position.
In a 7.1-channel system you can place surround speakers beside and behind your seating area. With some receivers, you can use the two additional channels up front instead, for "height" or “width” channels that give you a bigger front soundstage. If your receiver has even more channels available, you can expand to a 9.1- or an 11.1-channel surround system.
Get room-friendly tips for running cable to your surrounds in our article on connecting home theater speakers.
Dolby Atmos® speakers
Dolby Atmos was designed to create a layer of sound above the listener. This overhead sound extends the height of your system's soundstage while also allowing for some very cool effects, such as the sound of helicopter blades slicing through the air directly above your head, or the rustle of leaves high up in the jungle canopy. A Dolby Atmos home theater starts with a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound speaker setup. Then, you add two or more speakers to project sound from above the listening position. There are two ways to achieve this.
This approach is a great option when you’re designing a new home theater or want the best possible listening experience. Use four in-ceiling speakers, if you can, for maximum effect. Dolby recommends locating one pair in front of your listening position and a second pair behind it. They also suggest using in-ceiling speakers with a wide dispersion pattern, or speakers with aimable drivers that can be angled slightly toward your listening position.
If your system can only accommodate one pair of in-ceiling speakers, mount them slightly in front of where you’ll be listening.
Don’t worry if your speaker placement isn’t perfect, your Atmos-enabled receiver’s auto calibration system will help dial in the sound to get it right.
Dolby Atmos enabled speakers
Dolby Atmos enabled speakers provide an easy way to add Dolby Atmos to a home theater. These specially designed models use upward-firing drivers that reflect sound off of your ceiling to provide overhead sound effects. You can also combine Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers with ceiling-mounted speakers. This can be useful if, for instance, you have two speakers already installed in your ceiling but want to add two more speakers that can produce overhead sound.
Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, they can rest on stands, take the form of modules that sit on top of your front and rear speakers, or are integrated into a single cabinet with front-firing speakers. In any case, they are made to go in the same locations as your front and rear home theater speakers (ideally the back surround speakers, if you have them), or within three feet of those speakers.
Just like their in-ceiling counterparts, it is recommended to use two pair if possible. If the only option is one pair, they should be placed or integrated with your main left and right speakers in the front of the room nearest your TV screen.
Dolby designed the technology for rooms with ceiling heights of 8 to 9 feet, but testing indicates that you can still enjoy Dolby Atmos sound in rooms with ceilings as high as 14 feet. Atmos-enabled speakers are also recommended instead of in-ceiling speakers for rooms with ceilings lower than 8 feet.
For more specifics on where to place in-ceiling or Dolby Atmos enabled speakers, check out Dolby's speaker setup guide.
Dipole and bipole speakers
Some manufacturers offer dipole/bipole surround speakers, which are equipped with a switch for selecting between different modes of operation. These surround speakers are great for movies, because they produce a diffuse sound that doesn’t call too much attention to itself. [Shop dipole/bipole speakers.]
Dipole mode creates a diffuse, ambient soundfield when the speakers are placed on the side walls.
Bipole mode fills your room with surround sound when the speakers are placed on the rear wall.
Since low bass frequencies are omnidirectional, you can usually place your subwoofer just about anywhere in your home theater room with good results.
Most people place their subwoofer in the front of the room, so that it’s easier to connect to their home theater receiver. Placing your subwoofer near a wall will generally result in more bass, and placement near a corner — where three room boundaries come together — will get you even more. Keep in mind that even though the bass increases as you place the sub near a wall or corner, the quality of bass may be slightly "boomier" and less controlled. Aim for a spot where you get a compromise between quality and quantity of bass.
If you’re not quite getting the bass you’d hoped for, see if your subwoofer has a 2-position switch called a phase control. Choose the setting that produces the most bass while all your speakers are playing. After you've got your sub where you want it, check out our article on tuning your subwoofer for more tips on how to get great bass.
One cool technique for placing your subwoofer is to put your sub in your listening spot, play some music, move around the room, and listen. You'll probably notice that the bass sounds a little bit different as you move around from location to location within the room — where it sounds the best may be where you want to put your subwoofer.
Tips for odd-shaped rooms
Of course, not everyone's going to have a room that easily accommodates a surround sound system. Ideal speaker locations may be taken up by doors, windows, or furniture. And some floor plans are notoriously tricky.
L-shaped rooms are tough because much of the sound is pulled into the empty space outside your listening area. It's not doing anyone any good there, so this placement is designed to direct the sound away from that vacant space as much as possible.
- Start by putting your TV where the two axes of the "L" meet, instead of at one end of the "L."
- Arrange the front and center speakers around your TV as described in "The basics." Try angling the left and right speakers slightly toward your listening position.
- Place your surround speakers to the sides of where you're seated, or in the corners if there's not a good spot on both sides.
- Place your subwoofer along the wall about halfway between your TV and your seating. For better sound, make sure it's not touching the wall, but sitting four to six inches away from it.
The challenge with L-shaped rooms is to keep sound from being pulled into empty space outside your listening area. Careful placement of your couch can really help.
TV in a corner
Sometimes, the combination of windows, doors, built-in bookshelves, and fireplace leaves you without any place for your TV except a corner. It might seem hard to get good home theater sound with this setup, but all is not lost.
- Set up your front soundstage in the usual way.
- Mount one surround on the rear wall and one on the side wall.
- Place the subwoofer in the corner a few inches from the wall.
Sometimes, it's hard to put your TV anywhere but in a corner. Fortunately, you can still get your speakers oriented so as to make the sound match up with the picture on screen in a way that sounds natural.
Open floor plans
As with a room where your TV is placed in a corner, the biggest challenge you'll face with an open floor plan is where to put your surround speakers.
- Set up your front soundstage in the usual way.
- Consider using ceiling mount speakers for your surrounds. Look at models with angled baffles or pivoting drivers. These will let you aim the sound in the direction that yields the best surround effects.
- Again, the sub can be placed in the corner, but experiment to see what sounds best in your room.
More and more houses are designed with an open floor plan. This layout can give you great sound even when there aren't clear distinctions between the kitchen, dining, and living areas.
Tips for In-wall and In-ceiling Speakers
In-wall and in-ceiling speakers can be a great way to save space, but you won't be able to follow all the same placement guidelines. Check out the illustrations below to get an idea of where to install these speakers. For more details, check out our articles on in-wall and in-ceiling speaker placement and installing in-wall and in-ceiling speakers.
In-wall or in-ceiling speakers can give you the excitement of surround sound, without the bulk of conventional speakers.
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