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Intro to home theater speakers

How to build an awesome surround sound system

My love for all things audio started back in the '90s when I built my first subwoofer enclosure. After joining Crutchfield in 2007, I spent seven years as a product advisor, designing A/V systems for homes, cars, and the occasional party bus. These days I specialize in home speakers and distributed audio systems, focusing on translating technical jargon into easy-to-understand language. My goal is to make shopping for speakers and amplifiers simple. After all, this stuff is supposed to be fun! Outside of work, I'm a hobbyist photographer and enjoy visiting our national parks.

More from Kramer Crane

Home theater system with Klipsch speakers

I'm a sci-fi junkie. Give me a space movie or anything with dinosaurs and I'm hooked — 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 an experience I really look forward to.

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 factors to consider while you’re planning your home theater. If you have questions as you're reading, give us a shout for free expert advice.

Matching 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.

Big speakers for big rooms, small speakers for smaller rooms

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

Map out where your speakers will go

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 easy placement options

Focal Dôme Flax Pack 5.1 mounted with a TV

Have kids or pets? Wall-mount your speakers for enjoyable sound that's out of the way of foot traffic.

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. 

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 tower 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.

Polk Signature Tower Speakers

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

Understanding the role of each speaker

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.

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. Sound moves between the front speakers in sync with the action unfolding on the screen to draw you in. 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.

5.1 and 7.1 speaker placement diagrams

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

Bipole and dipole speakers

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.

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 rains down from above.

Powered subwoofer

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 will sound great.

Most pre-matched surround sound systems include a powered subwoofer. The few that don’t give you the freedom to choose a separate sub that best fits your décor or your taste for bass. 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.” We 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.

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.

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. And, they can help you pick out the right gear in real time

Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

Last updated 10/26/2017
  • Stan from South Plainfield

    Posted on 2/15/2016

    Wish you would list if the speakers are WISA certifiedl Thank you

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 2/18/2016

    Good point, Stan. The only two brands that I'm aware of at the moment that have WiSA (Wireless Speaker & Audio) certified speakers are Klipsch (their new Reference Premiere wireless models) and B&O, who's home speakers we don't presently carry. I just came from a Klipsch demo here in our training room, and those new wireless Reference Premieres sounded pretty sweet!

  • Nick from West Haven, CT

    Posted on 5/12/2016

    So What Do I Do About My Planned Bose Setup : 2 Sets Of Bose® Virtually Invisible® 191 speakers For Front And Rear L And R And Yamaha RX-V479 5.1. I Still Need A Center And Sub But The Center I Was Recommended To Buy (Polk Audio 255C-RT). Was Also Un-Recommended, Both By You Guys :[ I Don't Want Unmatched Voice But I Don't Want To Buy An Extra Speaker( Bose® Virtually Invisible® 191) Set Just For The One. I Guess I'm Just At A Loss Because Bose Doesn't Make A Center For That Family? Or Do They? Or Do I Just Go With It And See How Wonky It Is?

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/16/2016

    Nick, You're correct. Bose does not sell a single in-wall/in-ceiling center channel speaker for that setup. (That's a little surprising given the wide selection they have.) Which leads me to either suggest going with a different brand of speaker for the center (such as that Polk), which despite being "technically" incorrect would still work well in my opinion. If mixing brands causes you concern, then perhaps going with a different brand altogether might be the best course of action. Polk, along with plenty of others, makes matching in-wall designs that play together very nicely. You may want to give our advisors a call for some suggestions.

  • san

    Posted on 9/4/2016

    I'm ready to buy a home theater system and need advice on choosing the right speakers. I'm looking to have 7.1 surround sound but really worried if the speaker connectors (male ends) would not fit into receiver's connector! i.e., if I bought Yamaha receiver and speakers are from other companies then how likely that they would fit into receiver. Also, the room where this setup would go has 16 feet ceiling. TV is 65" and receiver will be Dolby Atmos capable. Thanks. San

  • Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/6/2016

    San, you won't need to worry about any connection problems between your receiver and your speakers. Each of them will use either spring clips or binding posts to connect the wire. Whichever speaker wire you choose for your system will easily connect to either option.

    I'm going to put you in touch with one of our Advisors, who will help you choose the right gear for your new system!

  • Jason

    Posted on 1/12/2017

    Do speakers need to match receiver wattage rating or should they be higher?

  • Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 1/13/2017

    Jason, aiming for a close power match is a good plan. And it's okay to have a receiver that's rated at more power per channel than a speaker is rated. Generally speaking, the more power you have, the better.

  • Brian from Lake city

    Posted on 4/11/2017

    I would like to do atmos or dts x but I really can't afford upward firing speakers and I rent home and can't install ceiling speakers can I mount small surround on ceiling and point them down will that provide atmos or dts?

  • Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/12/2017

    Hi Brian, you can certainly ceiling-mount small satellite speakers for overhead sound effects. We have a good assortment of compact speakers and mounts that will work for that.

    Does your home theater receiver have Dolby Atmos or DTS:X processing? If not, that should be the first piece of gear picked for your new system. Feel free to give us a shout if you need some help getting going!

  • John from Beaumont

    Posted on 8/11/2017

    I am using all active speakers and am considering purchasing a DAC that can output sound to four speakers at the same time (no receiver). I am not using a center channel. Because of placement limitations, I am wondering about using four stand mount active speakers in the front and one 12-inch subwoofer that I own now (no center channel). So, there would be two fronts from one brand five feet apart and two fronts from another brand seven feet apart. The two fronts five feet apart have a big, bold sound with nice midrange and bass and the two fronts seven feet apart are more detailed in the treble. I would tow in the fronts that are seven feet apart. Would this 4.1 system make sense, or would I be better off with just two speakers and the sub? I am fairly happy with my current 2.1 set up, but I am open to changing things up. This 4.1 set up would only be for music. My room is about 4,800 cubic feet. I live alone, and so there is no need to accommodate additional listeners.

  • Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/11/2017

    Great questions John. I'm putting you in touch with one of our advisors, who will reach out with room-specific advice for your setup.

  • David Howe from BAYPORT,NY

    Posted on 8/19/2017

    I have 4 Def Tech BP9060s with the A90 Atmos add on's. I was told by a in his words SUPER AUDIOPHILE that I should DITCH the A90s and mount speakers on my walls to get the best ATMOS EXPERIENCE?

  • Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/21/2017

    Hi David, the Atmos speakers you have fire upwards towards the ceiling, which reflects sound effects down from above you. Wall-mounted speakers are not really able to do that. You could go in-ceiling for your Atmos channels, but that is not likely to be worth the trouble at this point. I would enjoy your system with confidence; you have excellent speakers.

  • Tiger P

    Posted on 12/2/2017

    I've got an offbeat question - what are the small circular wall-mounted speakers pictured right below the "Compact speakers offer easy placement options" heading? I've looked EVERYWHERE and cannot for the life of me find anything that looks remotely like them.

  • Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/3/2017

    Tiger — those are the Focal Dôme Flax satellite speakers, shown with the grilles removed.

  • Tom S. from Oconomowoc

    Posted on 12/26/2017

    We are working on finishing our basement and are planning to install a home theater system. I'm looking for wall-mounted speakers for the front channels that potentially swivel as we determine our seating placement. In the back, however, the walls don't line up properly to install speakers for the back channels. Do you commonly see or recommend a configuration of front wall mounted and rear ceiling mounted speakers for a 5:1 system? I will also have a center channel installed right below the TV. Thanks in advance.

  • Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/27/2017

    Hi Tom, ceiling-mounted speakers for your surround channels is a fine way to go. You can either choose an in-ceiling speaker that installs into the ceiling itself, or a satellite speaker that attaches to a mount. Both are great choices for unobtrusive rear sound effects. Your home theater receiver's room calibration will optimize them for output level, distance from your listening position, etc.

    I'm going to put you in touch with one of our advisors to discuss options. Thanks!

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