Surround Sound Speakers
Today I’m going to give you a simple breakdown of surround sound audio systems.
It’s based on YEARS of experience in the industry, and I’ve tried to boil the information down for easy-reading.
I’ll answer the following:
- Should I get 5.1 or 7.1? (Or ATMOS?)
- What’s right for MY room?
- Where do the speakers go?
- What is the best system for surround sound?
- Are room acoustics important?
- What do I need for surround sound?
- What is the best system for surround sound?
- How do I set up surround sound?
What Do I Need For Surround Sound?
To get your own immersive surround setup going, you’re going to need the following:
- Front Speakers
- Surround Speakers
- Subwoofer (Optional but very nice)
- AV receiver
- Media source with surround sound encoding
- Cables to hook it up
You’ll also want a TV, projector, or some kind of screen to show the video that goes with the audio.
The standard front speakers are LEFT, RIGHT, and CENTRE. Three up front.
These really do account for most of the action. Dialogue is normally dead centre in front of you. Action and panning effects are also in the front.
If you go with a pair of our Jensen ELITE-303 in-wall speakers, you won’t need a centre — they have a clever design that creates a dead-centre audio image using additional speaker terminals per speaker.
The rest of the speakers add the immersive effect by hitting your ears from different angles. This gives you the perception that objects are all around you.
The most basic (and common) setup choice here is called 5.1. It’s simply two additional speakers. They will go at ear level BEHIND your seating position. One is SURROUND LEFT, and one is SURROUND RIGHT.
Since these speakers are behind your listening position… you usually have to run speaker cables from the front of the room to each speaker at the back. This is because the AV receiver (explained in a moment) needs to be connected to them for power.
Of course, there are now surround sound speakers that operate wirelessly, so you don’t need to run cables to the back of the room. There’s also an even better type of speaker that’s practically invisible that you can use for the back speakers, and the fronts.
What is Dolby ATMOS?
Besides two surround speakers for 5.1, and four for 7.1, you can now add ATMOS “height” speakers to a surround system.
If you’re feeling confused now, don’t worry. It’s simple.
Instead of going behind you or to the side of you, at ear level, ATMOS speakers go directly above your seating position.
Imagine sounds like helicopters, jets, rain drops on a tin roof, and falling objects. They are all now played using the Dolby ATMOS (or DTS:X) tracks in new, compatible films.
ATMOS height speakers can show up as an additional number to your surround setup… so 5.1 becomes 5.1.2, and 7.1 becomes 7.1.2.
Strong recommendation: When choosing a surround sound setup, a 5.1.2 is better than a 7.1 system!
The pesky “point one” in 5.1 is the subwoofer. For home theatre, a subwoofer creates subsonic bass that you FEEL more than hear.
It’s worth it.
Keep in mind that subwoofers are POWERED… meaning they have amplifiers built into them… and so they seem expensive at first glance compared to normal speakers. Since they move a lot more air they need more energy to get the job done.
Unless they happen to be POWERED speakers, your surround sound speakers will need power. (For proper surround sound, powered speakers is rare and difficult to pull off.)
The power comes from multiple amps in an AV receiver.
The AV receiver also acts like a device hub, allowing tons of devices to connect. It can send video to a TV or projector. It gives you Bluetooth and WiFi audio. And a host of other things.
Read What AV Receiver Should I Buy For Home Theatre? to learn more.
Media source with surround sound encoding
The last ingredient that you must have for surround sound is MEDIA.
Blu-Ray discs. Apple TV. Netflix on your smart TV. Etc. etc.
As long as the media you’re watching has separate surround sound tracks encoded on it, you should be able to play proper immersive surround sound to your system.
And if you decide to play 2-track music… you’ll still get an amazing room filling sound from all the speakers in your system!
What Is The Best System For Surround Sound?
If you’re wondering… What surround system should I get? This section will help you out.
There are loads of options on the market, but they only come in a few types. Let’s go through the main four:
Soundbar + satellites
The soundbar has become the latest rage. It’s all fueled by the slimline look and built-in electronics.
They have Bluetooth. They are small. They don’t need another box.
For many soundbars you can add satellite speakers of the same brand, and a sub, to get 5.1 surround. Although having a soundbar up the front struggles to compare with actual separate speakers.
You can learn more about soundbars here.
Plus, there’s actually a much better solution that gives you even less clutter and way better sound.
Tiny Box Speakers
There are lots of brands selling this type right here. These can be very, very small. It makes them fairly tidy, especially if you mount them to the walls.
Upside is that these give you clear separation for each different speaker location, which soundbars can only simulate.
Downside is, the drivers are TINY. So they can’t create clear mid-bass or lower frequencies. Especially at volume.
Traditional Box Speakers
Box speakers have been in play for many decades. When it comes to acoustic design and performance, they have endless potential. You can find some very amazing sounding ones, albeit very expensive as well.
Die-hard enthusiasts may collet full size speakers for each of the 5 (or 7) speakers in a surround sound system. Depending on the quality of the box speakers, this can be a pretty amazing experience.
It’s also pretty cumbersome and has its share of downsides too.
They can get knocked over, which sucks when you spent a ton of cash on them. They need dusting to maintain and labour to move. And to top it off, box speakers can sound bad too.
The “box isn’t enough to make a speaker sound good. The speaker drivers (cones) and crossover components play a huge role too.
That’s why this next speaker type is a serious competitor:
In-wall and In-ceiling Speakers
These are speakers that get installed directly into the walls and / or ceilings of your home. The speakers and cables are completely out of the way — which creates minimal maintenance issues and gives you total control over the look and feel of your room.
They also use your walls / ceilings as cabinets. So models with high quality drivers and components can create equally rich and clear sound to box speakers.
The downside? They have to be installed. Cables need to be run, and cutouts need to be made. This process is easier than you might think, but it’s still a process.
Once the project is complete, a performance surround sound system tucked away in the walls of your home — controlled by touching your mobile phone — is a real luxury experience!
The best surround sound system for your room?
Can you install speakers into your ceiling? If so, use ceiling speakers for ATMOS.
Do you have a huge budget and an obsession with sound quality? Go big and get high end ($5k plus) box speakers for your system.
Are you trying to squeeze by and spend as little as possible? Hold out. Use a Bluetooth speaker or something cheap until you can afford a decent system.
Is your room huge? 7.1 is better than 5.1 for huge rooms.
Want the ultimate balanced system? One with awesome sound, immersive audio image, and a minimalist look? Go with Jensen in-wall and in-ceiling speakers.
How Do I Set Up Surround Sound?
To set things up you need to:
- Choose where you’re sitting and where your screen will be.
- Place each speaker in the correct place.
- Run cables from each speaker to your receiver.
Your FRONT LEFT and FRONT RIGHT speakers will be on both sides of the screen. If you’re sitting in your central seating location, you want them to be the other two points of an equilateral triangle.
Your surround speakers for 5.1 will go behind you and off to both sides.
For 7.1, two surround speakers are directly behind. The other two are directly to the sides.
For a more in depth guide to placing speakers for any type of surround sound system you can think of, read Dolby Placement Guides.
Where do I put my ATMOS speakers?
For 5.1.2 (with ATMOS) you want the ATMOS speakers to be directly above your head. If they are directional (which is ideal for ceiling speakers) you’ll place them a little bit forward of your position. See below.
These speakers are awesome. When you hear rain on a tin roof, you’re going to feel like it’s actually raining on your roof.
Now you may have seen those “reflective” style ATMOS speakers that point at the ceiling and bounce sound back down to the top of your head.
This works only if you have the perfect ceiling height, AND it’s a reflective material. And even then it’s only 60% as good as actually having the sounds coming from those spots as you do with in-ceiling speakers.
So I strongly recommend sticking with in-ceiling speakers for ATMOS.
Are room acoustics important?
Room acoustics is all about sounds reflecting off of surfaces in your room — or in other words, bouncing around — which distort the sound waves that hit your ears.
The short answer here is YES. They are important.
But you might already have good enough acoustics in your room. Or you might have a total echoey nightmare. So like anything, it depends.
The best goal to have is not to try to get the acoustics “perfect” but to eliminate bad acoustics (i.e. bad reflections).
Hint: You do NOT need acoustics panels. In fact, you probably already have what you need.
To find out exactly how to fix bad room acoustics in a simple and natural way, read Room Acoustics: Does Your Room Sound Terrible? And if you’re wondering how to manually calibrate your surround sound, that article will help you there too.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, please reach out and let us know. You can use the live chat feature in the bottom right corner, or visit the contact page.