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How to Connect a Surround Receiver

Your new gear is home and out of the box — NOW WHAT?


Mark Fleischmann

The receiver is the heart of your audio/video system. Therefore hooking it up is a little like performing open-heart surgery. The bad news is that this can be a nerve-wracking process, and if something goes wrong, you may be left wondering whether it's the receiver that's at fault or you. Now here's the good news: it's probably you.

This Onkyo receiver offers a plethora of connection options.

Pick a slow weekend: Rule one is keep your cool. This is going to take awhile. You cannot simply hook up a few cables and start flying. Don't even think of making your family wait for an evening's entertainment while you sweat and cuss. Budget a long weekend to give yourself the necessary time, energy, and patience. You are going to make mistakes — and correct them.

Thumb through the manual: Granted, it's probably boring, badly written, and confusing. But quickly skim through it and get the lay of the land. That way, when problems arise, you'll have a rough idea of where to look for solutions. Give some attention to the hookup diagrams. Record the product's serial number on the back page. Keep a file of manuals for everything you buy — later, you'll be glad you did.

Placement is important: Paying attention to cable positioning now will save hassle later. Pick a spot where the cables connecting other components can reach the receiver. Most interconnect cables are one-meter though you can buy longer ones.

Room to breathe: A receiver contains hot amplifiers and needs space so that heat can escape. Otherwise the receiver fries itself. The top of your rack is the best place for it. If you select a lower spot, give the receiver's top ventilation holes at least four inches of breathing room. Seven or eight inches would not be excessive with a high-current receiver. Allow at least an inch at the sides. A closed rack or equipment closet may require an exhaust fan.
Lay speaker cable: Premium cable can produce audible benefits — that's something to keep in mind for a future upgrade — but for now, start with something affordable and concentrate on getting your cable runs right. Budget receivers with wire-clip speaker terminals work best with 16-gauge (or thinner) cable. Receivers with sturdier binding posts can accept thicker 14- or 12-gauge. Use a wire stripping tool — it looks like a pair of pliers with notches — to carefully remove insulation from the tips without losing any strands of copper. Twist the strands together and insert them in the speaker terminals. Always connect red to red and black to black.

A wire stripping tool makes cable connection cleaner and simpler.

Connect video cables: Use the highest-quality connection available to connect each video component to the receiver, and the receiver to the video display. The red/green/blue component video jacks are best, followed by the multi-pin S-video jacks, and finally the yellow composite video jacks. (Video components with DVI or FireWire connections should be connected directly to the display.) Most receivers do not translate one form of video to another, so if you connect, say, your cable box to the receiver with S-video, you'll also have to connect the receiver to the TV with S-video. Now that the video connections between your receiver and display are live, you can explore the receiver's onscreen menus.

Connect digital audio cables: Digital connections — either the optical or coaxial type — are always superior to analog connections. Use them when possible. Later on you may have to assign them in the receiver's setup menu but don't worry about that till later.

Connector types: 1. Speaker cable with pin connectors; 2. Component video;
3. S-video; 4. Composite video; 5. Optical digital audio; 6. Stereo analog audio.

Connect analog audio cables: Where digital connections are not available, use the stereo analog audio jacks. An SACD or DVD-Audio player will require six analog cables for playback of these high-resolution multichannel formats. Also, be warned that a turntable requires a special phono input. If your receiver doesn't have one, you can always add a separate phono preamp.

Connect the subwoofer: With an active (self-powered) sub, the best connection is an analog interconnect from the receiver's sub output to one of the sub's stereo line inputs. (The sub output may be labeled LFE, or low frequency effects.) Even if the sub has left and right inputs, one cable will do, since the signal is mono. Use the speaker-level connections only for a passive (as opposed to active) sub, the kind without any internal amplification — then the connections go from receiver to sub to front left/right speakers. Set the sub volume to zero for now.

A few more connections: For FM reception, you can either use the wire antenna supplied with the receiver, or use a splitter to divide your TV antenna feed between the TV's tuner and the receiver's radio tuner (all FM stations lie in the VHF-TV spectrum between channels 6 and 7). Your receiver may also come with an AM antenna, though AM is not a high-fidelity medium, and may not sound good through your system. Your turntable may require a ground connection.

High-quality power protection is a wise choice.

Now the power cords: For safety considerations, this should come last. Connect the power cords of the receiver, subwoofer, and source components. By the way, have you considered investing in a high-quality power-line conditioner with surge suppression and noise filtering? For safety and performance reasons, avoid using cheap power strips.

Test every source: Try your components one by one (FM, DVD, VCR/DVR, satellite/cable, etc.) to make sure each one produces a picture and sound. Don't panic if one doesn't work. There may be a good reason for that. Check all connections, then proceed to the next step.

Tell the setup menu where you made connections: You may have to tell the receiver's setup menu how some components are connected — for instance, that you used the digital optical connection for the DVD player. The menu may let you reassign certain jacks, as needed, without touching a single cable.

Tell the setup menu your speaker sizes: Designate your speakers as "large" if they produce a full-range signal with deep bass response, or "small" for smaller satellite speakers, and set the subwoofer (if present) to "on" to activate the sub output. If the receiver strains to power your speakers, with audible compression or insufficient volume, try designating all speakers as "small" — that will create an easier load for the main amp and leave the burden of producing bass to the sub amp. Key in the distance from speakers to listening position. Surround delays may require a separate setting.

Your receiver's menus let you fine-tune your surround sound setup.

Back to the manual: The two preceding steps are the ones most likely to require a dive into the manual — especially if the method of navigating the menus is not immediately obvious to you.

Set subwoofer crossover: Set the sub crossover to the setting recommended in the speaker manual. Receiver menus usually offer this option; if not, use the dial on the sub's back panel. Applying only one sub crossover to the signal path will produce purer and stronger bass. If you use the receiver's sub crossover, look for a crossover bypass switch on the sub; if it doesn't have a bypass, just turn up its crossover all the way. Likewise, if you use the sub's crossover, bypass or ratchet up the one in the receiver.

Most subs' rear panels offer adjustable crossovers and a few connection choices.

Set subwoofer volume: Now's the time to turn up the sub's volume control. Start about halfway up and adjust to taste. A familiar song with a strong bassline is a good guide. Walk around the room and note how the bass response changes due to your room's acoustics. Move the sub around to hear how different positions affect bass response at the listening position. Corner placement is not recommended — it causes a bloated sound from excessive room interaction.

Calibrate surround levels: Sit in the prime listening position, activate the receiver's test tone, and use it to adjust the speaker levels. The tone should sound equally loud with each speaker. To ensure perfect levels, you can actually measure the tone with an inexpensive sound pressure level meter.

Using tech support: Some retailers, like Crutchfield, offer tech support. The manufacturer's tech support department is the resource of last resort. Before you call the manufacturer, write the serial number on the back page of the manual — you may be asked for it. And above all, remember the first rule we started out with: keep your cool!

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