Intro to home theater speakers
How to build an awesome surround sound system
I started my Crutchfield career in 2007. I spent eight exciting years as a product advisor, fielding thousands of customer questions about A/V equipment while designing 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 enjoy playing and teaching music. I'm always on the lookout for interesting left-handed guitars.
More from Kramer Crane
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
A center channel that sits below or above your TV.
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.
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 speakers, bookshelf 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We can help you choose
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