The Home Theater Sound System - Installing Surround Sound Systems
Are you interested in surround sound systems?
Well you should be. There's one thing that many people forget about when building their home entertainment systems. The sound.
A good home theater sound system is fundamental to enjoying a movie - every bit as important as the picture (some may argue more important) - but all too often the sound system gets forgotten about.
People worry about getting the latest 65 inch flat screen TV with all the bells and whistles.
They talk endlessly about the contrast ratio - "is that black a bit blacker than that black?".
Drone on about the excellent colour spectrum - "it can show 125 different shades of purple".
It's like buying a brand new Porsche without any wheels!
I would say the sound is so important, that if you've got a limited budget to play with, I would spend slightly less on a screen if it means you can afford to buy a half-decent surround sound system too.
It doesn't have to be anything too fancy.
You don't need to fill your room with amplifiers, speaker cables, or surround sound speakers that fill every available space in the room. But these days a modest AV receiver with some small satellite speakers can give you an excellent sound.
Of course, if you want to get something a bit bigger - then you can really annoy the neighbours!
An Easy Life
Maybe some people ignore the sound because they think it's too complicated.
They think surround sound installation is something for a real technical enthusiast. I mean, we can all wheel in a flat screen TV, plug it in and switch it on.
There you go. Done.
Ok, I'll admit a surround sound set up is a little more involved than connecting a TV - but you'll be amazed by the added enjoyment you'll get when watching a movie....and it's not that complicated.
Go on - you can do it! You won't regret it. If only you had a simple guide to help you.....
First Things First
So lets look at the basics of setting up a decent home theater sound system.
Firstly, you'll need an amplifier and some speakers.
You may be able to use the existing hi-fi system you already have in your room (which is probably only for stereo sound) - or if you want to have a surround sound set up, you will need to buy an AV receiver (aka a surround sound receiver).
Another option is to get an all-in-one home theater system (also known as home theater in-a-box - or HTiB) which includes an processor/amplifier and speakers together (and sometimes a DVD/ Blu-ray player too).
Go to the article on the home theater system for more information on the home theater in a box option, in this article we will just discuss the basics of hooking up stereo or surround sound systems.
So how do we quickly improve the sound in our room?
Easy, you just send the audio output from your program source (DVD player, cable box, PS3, Xbox etc.) to the AV receiver/amplifier - and then this sends the sound to the speakers in your room.
Installing Surround Sound For A Home Theater Sound System
See, that wasn't so hard was it?
In the diagram above, we have a basic example of how you could set up a simple 5.1 surround sound installation using an AV receiver (you could also do the same thing with a stereo amplifier and stereo speakers).
The diagram shows the sound being sent from the audio output of the DVD player to the audio input of the AV receiver (this could be a digital or analog connection) - and the picture being sent via an HDMI cable between the DVD player and the TV.
The AV receiver is the device which will process the audio signal, and then sends the sound to the surround sound speakers connected to it.
If we send an analog 2-channel stereo signal from the DVD player to the AV receiver (the red and white RCA connectors), then the receiver can either output the stereo sound to the two front speakers, or use its internal digital processing (such as Dolby Pro Logic II) to create a virtual 5.1 effect from the stereo signal.
If we send the audio signal from the DVD player to the AV receiver via a digital connection (such as HDMI, coaxial or optical connections), then the AV receiver will be able to process and playback the proper 5.1 soundtrack from the DVD (if there is one - there usually is these days).
If there is no 5.1 mix on the DVD (or you play a CD instead), then the receiver will just get the digital stereo soundtrack instead, similar to when we connect via analog stereo connections.
In reality, if we are using an AV receiver which can handle sound and video signals, then we will probably send the video and audio to the AV receiver down the same HDMI cable - rather than have an extra HDMI cable going directly to the TV for the picture. However, the example in the diagram above is a perfectly good way of doing it.
The important point in all this, is we need to be able to split the audio signal from the picture.
To understand if this is possible with your equipment, think about the source of your TV pictures (DVD player, satellite TV box, cable box, analog/digital aerial feed etc).
If you don't have a separate sound system, this source device sends the pictures and the sound to your TV - either by sending them both down one HDMI cable, or by making one connection for the picture and one connection for the audio.
If you are going to have a separate surround sound system, you need to be able to split the picture and the sound signals.
Don't panic! This may sound harder than it actually is, and is usually quite easy these days.
For instance, from the example diagram above, the DVD player sends the pictures to the TV via an HDMI cable (or by a component/composite cable - depending on the connections available on your equipment).
The DVD also has a separate output for the sound - either analog or digital outputs (or both). Therefore, instead of sending the sound to your TV with the picture, you can use the audio output of the DVD player to send the sound to a separate amplifier.
This setup will work with many modern sources. A cable box or satellite receiver unit will usually have separate audio outputs just like a DVD player. So, send the picture to the TV via HDMI/component/composite cables - but connect the audio output to a separate amplifier.
If you are using an AV receiver, you may send both the picture and the sound to the AV receiver (probably down one HDMI cable) - and you would then make a connection from the AV receiver to the TV for the picture. Check out our guide to surround sound receivers to see why this can be a good way of connecting your system.
So this is where you need to start. Think about your source of picture and sound (you may have more than one) - and work out if it is easy enough to separate the sound from the picture.
If it is, then you can easily setup your system for a much better sound experience.
You may only want to send the output of your DVD player to external speakers - many people are happy to watch normal TV through the TV speakers and switch on the external sound system for watching movies.
Sending only DVD audio to external speakers is easy enough as all DVD players will have some form of audio output.
It can sometimes be harder if you want to send all TV programmes that you watch to external speakers - but that will depend on how you receive those TV signals into your room.
All modern cable and satellite TV boxes should have audio outputs - so it is normally easy enough to send this audio through your external speakers.
But if you watch your TV using an internal analog/digital tuner in the TV itself, you will need the TV to provide the audio outputs - which is less common (see Note! sidebar on this page).
Surround Sound Systems Summary
So as you can see, it's not that difficult to improve the sound in your room to match the quality of your high-definition picture.
Please don't forget about the sound in your room, as you really will enjoy watching everything far more with a good home theater sound system - especially if it is a surround sound installation.
Hopefully you have seen that a surround sound set up isn't that difficult to achieve, and it will be far better than just using the speakers that come with your television.
Elsewhere on the site we look in more detail at the hardware you need for a good surround sound system. You will find an introduction to the AV receiver, we discuss the various HTiB home theater systems that are available, and cover all you need to know about choosing the right surround sound speakers.
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