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AUDIO A LA CARTE: PICKING THE BEST SURROUND SOUND SYSTEM
It’s no secret that crisp, clear surround sound plays a vital role in any home theater. Although the television screen might be the star attraction, it’s the sound that truly creates an immersive experience.
Done right, good audio performance can place you in the front row seats of a concert, on the sidelines of a sporting event or in the center of an action scene. Put simply: Sound makes us feel the experience.
Picking the best home theater speakers can be tricky, as there are a lot of things to consider. For instance, the size of the room, whether you have carpeting or hard wood floors, or live in an apartment and share a wall with your neighbor.
Read on for tips on getting your home theater system sounding stellar.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
For many, a pre-matched surround sound system is a considerable upgrade from relying solely on the TV’s built-in speakers.
A 5.1 system, which includes a center channel speaker typically placed below or above the television, two speakers placed to the left and right of the television, two speakers behind or to the side of the seating area, and a subwoofer, has been the standard for a while now.
However, as more Blu-ray releases and gaming consoles support 7.1 audio – which adds two additional channels for an even fuller sound – the eight-channel set-up is becoming increasingly popular.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
For true audiophiles, however, these so-called ‘theater-in-a-box’ sets might not suffice. Depending on your home’s acoustics and your own personal preferences, the best surround sound system can be a carefully considered and customized set-up.
Often, this can involve an “a la carte” approach to selecting individual components based on those preferences, such as the receiver, subwoofer and speaker array that doesn’t always match the same brand.
For those seeking a more simplified set-up, one of the first options to consider is a soundbar. These tend to provide far better audio quality than your TV’s built-in speakers, but are also more compact than a full system because it houses everything you need — signal processing, speakers, amplification — in one simple unit, and take up a smaller footprint.
For those with limited space or a preference for minimalism, the soundbar might be the perfect solution. A soundbar also can work within a more complex system, but it’s important to know how many channels you will need it to handle.
Generally speaking, the more channels you expect it to work with, the more expensive it will be.
SEND AND RECEIVE
Another important consideration for getting the best surround sound system is the A/V receiver. If you’ve got a complicated system, the receiver is your control center.
When selecting a receiver, consider how you most like to unwind. Are you a gamer? Do you subscribe to XM or Sirius satellite radio or listen to a lot of podcasts? Most are designed to integrate some — though not all — of these technologies, so choose wisely.
You’ll also want to take into consideration the type of speakers you’ll be using in your home theater system, and whether you plan to upgrade over time – for instance, starting with a 5.1 set-up, but eventually wanting to move to a 7.1 system – as these will be important considerations for the kind of receiver you select so that you won’t find yourself in the market for another one in a couple of years
FRONT AND CENTER
The center speaker helps reproduce dialogue for listeners sitting to the left or right of the television.
This might not be as important to you if your seating space is designed for only one or two people sitting directly in front of the television. However, for larger families, a center speaker is a must for creating the best overall surround sound experience.
Because the ability to clearly hear dialogue can make or break your movie-viewing experience, this is definitely something you need to try before you buy. Choose a film you’re familiar with and listen to it through the center speaker. Does the dialogue sound boxy or hollow? Are the actors’ Ss too hissy?
The goal is to get crisp, clear and above all, natural sound.
TO THE LEFT, TO THE LEFT (AND THE RIGHT, AND THE RIGHT)
Next up, it’s time to select your side speakers. Sonically speaking, these need to be as close a match as possible to the center speaker. If they’re not a good match, the sound may be uneven.
Therefore, if you choose an in-wall speaker for your center speaker, choose in-wall speakers for your left and right speakers. If you go for a Level THREE bookshelf speaker for your center speaker, go for a Level THREE bookshelf speaker for your side speakers.
BACK IT UP
In your efforts to create a truly immersive audio experience, you may also want to add rear speakers so that you can practically feel that approaching helicopter over your right shoulder!
Therefore, it’s important to go for as close a match as possible to the rest of the set. However, you do have a little more wiggle room here if space constraints dictate a deviation.
So, if you have Level THREE front speakers, you could get away with Level TWO surround speakers.
ALL ABOUT THAT BASS
Forget what you think you know about subwoofers. Yes, they’re a staple in obnoxious car audio systems, but they can also bring a beautiful balance that will really have your home theater system sounding its absolute best.
There are two types of subwoofers: front-firing and down-firing. The former pushes the bass directly to you, so it works well placed directly beneath the television set. However, if feng shui dictates that the subwoofer be placed in a corner or side wall, the down-firing subwoofer will deliver bass more evenly throughout the room.
For the best audio response, it is also recommended that you place the subwoofer near a wall.
TAKE IT ALL HOME
On the subject of feng shui, you’ll want a way to ensure that your surround sound system is heard and not seen.
Attractive media cabinets or television stands that not only house these components, but tame cord tangle and feature smart design considerations such as adjustable shelving and panels are a must.
How are your audio components set up in your home: do you prefer a more complicated and multi-speaker home theater set-up, or the simplicity and minimalism of a soundbar? Tell us in the comments section!