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Lead image

Intro to home theater speakers

How to build an awesome surround sound system

In a nutshell: A surround sound system consists of a few essential parts. This article shows you how to put them together to create a well-matched home theater. Here's what you need:

I am a self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd. Give me a space movie or anything with dinosaurs and I become totally captivated — especially when I can take in a flick on my home theater system. Watching a movie in surround sound puts me right in the thick of the space battle or Tyrannosaurus rex chase. It's so much fun!

My goal is to help you enjoy the same sense of fun and adventure with your surround sound system. This guide walks you through the key things to consider while planning your new home theater system.

How do you match speakers to your room?

The first thing to consider as you’re designing your surround system is the room itself.

How big of a space do you have? A large, open living room with vaulted ceilings needs different gear than a small- or medium-sized room with 8’ ceilings.

Illustration of large room with tower speakers

Choose speakers that match the size of your room. Floor-standing speakers are ideal for large, open spaces.

Illustration of small room with bookshelf speakers

Stand-mounted, on-wall, or in-wall speakers are well-suited for smaller rooms.

Another consideration is what else you’ll be using the room for.

Is this the family room where the kids play? Then you might want speakers mounted to the wall that are out of the way.

On the other hand, if this is a dedicated theater room, floor-standing speakers (or speakers on stands) aren’t likely to pose a hazard to pets or kids.

Where will your speakers sound their best?

Consider the layout and shape of your room. Where will the speakers look and sound the best?

My article on speaker placement has detailed recommendations for mapping out your system.

Compact speakers offer unobtrusive placement options

Is this system going in the family or living room?

If the TV and sound system won’t always be the center of attention, think small. Compact speakers easily blend into your décor and leave plenty of room for other activities.

Focal Dôme Flax Pack 5.1 mounted with a TV

Wall-mounting your speakers keeps them out of the way of foot traffic.

Bookshelfin-wall, and in-ceiling speakers are great options for immersive sound without taking up a ton of floor space.

Get theater-like sound with floor-standing speakers

If space isn’t a big concern, you’re free to go with larger speakers. Anchoring your surround sound system with floor-standing speakers helps reproduce the movie theater experience. Their large acoustic chambers deliver powerful surround effects for movies and video games.

Tower speakers are also ideal for listening to music in stereo.

Home theater with tower speakers

Floor-standing speakers provide a large, lifelike soundstage in the front of your room.

What role does each speaker play in a home theater system?

A home theater is comprised of several different types of speakers. Understanding the role of each one will help you choose the best options for your room.

Here are the main ingredients of a surround sound speaker system.

  • center channel that sits below or above your TV.

  • A pair of front left and right speakers. Bookshelf or floor-standing speakers are the most popular choices for these locations.

  • Two or more surround speakers. These go behind and/or beside your seating area. Bookshelf speakers are also commonly used as the surround channels.

  • One or two powered subwoofers.

The center channel produces dialogue and more

The center channel is often considered the most important speaker in your system. It delivers more than 50% of a movie’s soundtrack, including almost all of the dialogue. It also provides important center stage sound effects.

Klipsch Reference Center Channel Speaker

Your home theater's center channel is responsible for a large portion of a movie's soundtrack. Choose one that matches both your room and the other speakers in your system.

Your center channel should match well with your other speakers. Compact speakers warrant a smaller center channel, while floor-standing speakers need a large center speaker to match their robust output.

Consider where your center channel is going. If you have an entertainment cabinet, make sure it will fit within the allotted shelf space.

For a deeper dive into center speakers, read our center channel speaker buying guide.

The front left and right speakers create a wide soundstage

Your front left and right speakers reproduce the movie’s musical score. They also handle the bulk of the special effects. To draw you into the story, sound moves between the front speakers in sync with the action unfolding on the screen.

Floor-standing speakersbookshelf speakers, and on-wall speakers all work well as front left and right speakers.

Surround speakers provide lifelike special effects

Surround speakers go beside and/or behind your seats. They immerse you in the movie by producing ambient sounds like rain drops, or rustling leaves.

The surround channels also work with your other speakers to deliver spectacular directional effects. Think of a locomotive rushing by, or a bullet zinging past you.

A 5.1-channel system uses one pair of surround speakers positioned beside or behind you. A 7.1-channel system uses both side and rear surrounds.

If you have a large room or have multiple seating locations, a 7.1-channel system is worth considering.

illustration of 5.1 system

In a 5.1 system, your surround speakers are best placed to the left and right of your listening positions.

illustration of 7.1 system

In a 7.1 system, surround speakers are positioned both beside and behind your seating area, aimed towards you.

Your surrounds can go on speaker stands, or you can mount them to your wall.

What speakers should you use for your surround channels?

Many traditional bookshelf or on-wall speakers can be used as surround channels.

You might also consider specialized bipole/dipole surround speakers, which have multiple drivers that fire in different directions. This creates a diffuse sound field that enhances the wraparound effect.

To learn more about the bipole, dipole, and monopole options for rear channel speakers, read our surround speaker buying guide.

Dolby Atmos and DTS:X overhead effects speakers

Building a Dolby Atmos® or DTS:X™ system? Then you’ll need a pair or two of speakers for sound above your listening position. You can use either in-ceiling speakers, or upward-firing speakers for your overhead effects channels.

Atmos speakers reflect sound off the ceiling

A Dolby Atmos system starts with a conventional 5.1 or 7.1-channel surround sound system. Then you add two or four upward-firing or in-ceiling speakers for overhead effects that rain down from above.

What size subwoofer should you get?

Movie soundtracks provide a dedicated channel of deep bass that plays through a powered subwoofer. The sub is what gives planes flying overhead and bombs exploding their window-rattling punch.

ELAC Debut S10EQ next to a sofa

Most people put their sub in the front of the room, so that it’s easier to connect it to their home theater receiver. If running a cable to where your sub sounds the best is impractical, use a wireless subwoofer kit.

Choose a subwoofer that matches well with your room and your speakers. As a rule, the larger the driver, the deeper the bass.

Have a large room? Go for a sub with a 12" or larger woofer.

Smaller room? A compact sub can sound great. For more detailed recommendations, check out my article on choosing home theater subwoofers.

Voice match if you can, but it’s not required

Each speaker brand or series has its own tonal qualities or “voice.” I recommend using the same brand of speakers for each location so that you get evenly balanced sound and output levels around your room.

If you can’t match all of your speakers together, try to at least use the same brand of speakers for front left, right, and center locations. This gives you a unified front soundstage that ensures consistent performance.

Want stealthy surround sound?

If you want a low-footprint system, consider in-wallin-ceiling, or on-wall speakers. Read my article about in-wall and in-ceiling speaker installation to learn more about what’s involved.

Everything you need to get started

To get the best sound you’ll need to pair your new speaker system with a good home theater receiver. This guide will help you choose the right one.

Are you wondering how to fit a home theater system into a small room? Read our small home theater ideas article.

You'll connect your system together with speaker wire and a subwoofer cable. We also recommend good power protection for your receiver, TV, A/V components, and powered sub.

We can help you choose

Have questions about choosing the right equipment for your surround system? Our expert Advisors know the gear inside and out.

Give us a call for help! Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

  • RC from fremont

    Posted on 9/16/2021

    Hello Kramer, thanks for a good start on the introduction to home theater. I have a dedicated standalone room to be made into a home theater. The size is 15'x 16'x 9'. Is that a small or medium room? Any pros-cons to having the center speaker at the "listening height" vs. from the ceiling? Best wishes..

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 9/16/2021

    What a delightful project you have in the works, RC. Your room sounds like it's squarely in "medium" territory to me, and I bet you're going to love watching movies in there. A couple of suggestions come to mind.

    First, I recommend going with two subwoofers if you can. Adding a second sub helps smooth out bass distribution, and should make a noticeable improvement in the quality of the listening experience (it did for me when I added a second sub behind my main seat).

    As for the center channel, ideally the tweeter would be at ear level when seated to ensure that dialogue sounds natural. The risk we run with center channels that are too high is that spoken word can sound like it's coming from above the characters on the screen.

    That said, if you need to mount the center channel higher you can still get excellent sound. There are specialty speakers available that are well-suited that sort of placement. At very least I recommend choosing a speaker that has an aimable tweeter so you can direct those high frequencies toward you.

    I hope that helps! Feel free to give us a shout if you'd like any help picking out gear. You'll be watching movies in there before you know it!
  • Courtney from NYC

    Posted on 3/3/2021

    I like the equipment stand. It's elegant and appears sturdy. Can you provide information on make, price etc.? Thanks.

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 3/15/2021

    Hi Courtney, thanks for reaching out. The stand in the photo at the top is the BDI Cavo 8167. We no longer carry it, but do offer a number of other stands from BDI that are worth checking out.
  • Bharath from PEMBROKE PINES

    Posted on 2/17/2021

    Hi, Nice article, what do you consider as a small , medium and large room? a 11 *14*8 room is considered as small or medium? I am thinking of a book self vs tower speakers for this room. What do you recommend? It is mostly for movies and it is a dedicated home theatre room.

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 2/23/2021

    Hi Bharath, thanks for reaching out. I'd consider an 11'x 14'x 8' space to be a relatively smallish room, assuming it's not open to an adjacent area like a dining room or kitchen.

    In your shoes I'd go with floor-standing speakers for at least the front left and right channels. On-wall, in-wall, or stand-mount speakers are all great options for the surround channels.
  • Karina Young from Tamworth, Australia

    Posted on 2/5/2021

    I need some nerdy help please! I recently bought speakers without an amp, and a projector - dolceacoustic.com - SPEAKERS - DA-2600W (2 back, 2 front, 1 centre) with no AMP or subwoofer included. Projector - VPL-HW55ES Projector. No idea where to go next with extra equipment I need to get set up with sound!

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 2/5/2021

    Hi Karina, thanks for reaching out. I recommending giving us a call to discuss options. One of our Advisors can help you map out everything you'll need to complete your system.
  • CJ Handwerk from Orrville

    Posted on 11/28/2020

    Kramer, great article outlining the key components of a classic 5.1 system. I have recently moved to an LG soundbar and picked up some LG surround sound wireless speakers. I am sure your laughing right now but I tried to move to the newer more popular systems. As I am sure you already know I am not impressed and the old Vega RE38's and my B&W 220 watt sub are coming back from storage. I was looking for some advise on updating my receiver to something with the power to drive the big boys upfront but also some clear highs and great surround. I will also be looking to add a large center and a pair of surround speakers that I will hardwire. I have been less than impressed with the "wired-wireless" surround systems. I hope to hear from you!

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 11/30/2020

    Hi Orrville, thanks for your kind words. In your shoes I'd check out one of Marantz's new home theater receivers. I love the warm, natural sound they produce. In particular, the Marantz SR7015 is a good match with your Cerwin Vegas.
  • Patricia Hassan from STRATFORD

    Posted on 9/27/2020

    Hi Kramer, My friend has raved about your speakers. I have a Samsung 44 inch wide TV. I want to get a surround system for it. Something no more than 500.00. What do you recommend. Thanks. Look forward to hearing from you.

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 9/29/2020

    Hi Patricia, thanks for reaching out. I'm going to put you in touch with one of our advisors. They'll be able to get a little more information about your room and listening goals to help you choose the right gear for your system.
  • Manish from San Jose

    Posted on 8/7/2020

    HI, I have Pioneer Andrew jones 5.0 setup paired with SVS PB1000. I crossover all the speakers at 80Hz. I wonder why do we need big floor standing speakers if we are not using there low end? We can simple get small satellite speakers ( svs prime satellite) and still get good quality home theatre sound. What am I missing?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 8/7/2020

    Hi Manish, thanks for your questions. Knowing Andrew's speaker designs, I bet your system sounds great.

    I have a 5.1-channel home theater setup, with floor-standing speakers and a large SVS sub. When space isn't an issue, I prefer tower speakers over satellite speakers for a few reasons. Floor-standing speakers move significantly more air than equivalent bookshelf or satellite speakers can, giving you a wider soundstage and (generally speaking) improved imaging. They can also handle more power and are usually more efficient.

    It's also worth mentioning that 80Hz might be too high of a crossover setting for many tower speakers. I run mine full-range, in part because I don't always use my external sub, and also because they would indeed sound "incomplete" if I wasn't properly putting their woofers to work.

    Getting your system dialed-in can take some tinkering to see what sounds best for your room. If your shoes, I'd experiment with a lower crossover point for your speakers and see how things sound. As long as you're not hearing distortion, you're in good shape.
  • Cosmos from Abu Dhabi

    Posted on 7/22/2020

    Amazing explanation, am impressed to read that. Well done keep it up. l love to read more from you.

  • Thomas H.

    Posted on 6/25/2020

    Hey Kramer, great article. As i plan out my future build, I am considering purchasing gear in stages. I want to upgrade my current TV setup with a good set if bookshelf speakers with the plan to shift those to surrounds when the HT build is done. Specifically with the surrounds, knowing bookshelves are often used, should all surrounds be the same size? should I match the Surround LR and Back LR (7.2.4 setup). An example, can I use Polk S20 for back/side and the S10/S15 for the others? Should the backs be larger than the sides?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 6/26/2020

    Hi Thomas, thank you for your kind words. I don't think there's any downside to having smaller side speakers than your rear surrounds, or vice versa. As long as the speakers are an appropriate fit for the room (i.e. can play at the volume you want without distorting), then I'd go with whichever model best fits each location.

    One thing to keep in mind is that your receiver's auto-calibration system will set the distance, timing, and output levels for each channel. So even if you have three different-sized speakers — say floor-standers up front, smaller satellites on the sides, and largish bookshelf speakers in the back — you'll still get even, well-balanced sound from the system as a whole.

    Thanks again for reaching out, and please let me know if you have any other questions!
  • Bill Piotti from mansfield

    Posted on 4/21/2020

    Hi Kramer, I bought the Denon 3500. Connected to a 5:2 with the other set going to another room. I have the 2 MB Quart 2000 towers going through a Adcom GFA 7500. I would like to bi wire the MB Quarts. Do I send the wires back into the same outputs going to the speakers from the amp or do I use two empty channels coming out of the Adcom?

    Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 4/24/2020

    Hi Bill, it sounds like you might be talking about bi-amping instead of bi-wiring (bi-amping uses two sets of output channels per speaker, while bi-wiring uses one set but with a special set of cables). I recommend giving one of our advisors a call to walk through the specifics of your setup — you can reach them at 1-888-955-6000.