12 Surround Sound Tips You Should Know

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Have you ever wished you could feel right in the middle of a movie? Surround sound makes it happen. Yes, it can be tricky to set up, but you’ll be hooked once you hear sound from every direction.

This guide answers many common questions about surround sound to help your journey towards your own movie theater at home. Ready to take the plunge into immersive audio? Let’s do this!

1. How Do You Play Music Through All Your Surround Sound Speakers?

Most music is recorded in stereo, so you will usually hear the music on your sound system’s stereo left and right speakers.

However, if you have a multi-channel amplifier like an AV receiver, you might want to play music across all the speakers in your room.

This can be especially useful when entertaining friends and you want background music playing around the room.

To make this happen, you must select a different listening mode on your amplifier.

Most AV receivers will have a specific sound mode to spread the music around all your surround speakers.

By default, stereo music will usually play using the stereo listening mode, meaning you only hear the music over the front left and right speakers.

The name of the sound mode for playing music around all your speakers will vary between brands – however, they all do the same thing.

Here are the terms used by some popular brands:

  • Denon/Marantz: Multi Ch Stereo
  • Yamaha: All-Channel Stereo
  • Sony: Multi Channel Stereo
  • Pioneer: Ext.Stereo (Extended Stereo)
  • Onkyo: All Ch Stereo

You will usually change the sound mode – sometimes called a listening mode, sound field or processing mode – by selecting it from your remote control.

Refer to the manual for your brand and model of amplifier for more information on this.

2. Is a Center Channel Speaker Necessary?

No, you don’t need a center speaker for home theater surround sound.

When you set up your AV receiver, you tell it which speakers are connected.

This can be stereo speakers only – or you can have stereo speakers at the front and surround sound speakers at the back of your room (plus a subwoofer if you wish).

If the receiver knows there isn’t a center speaker, it will downmix a 5.1 movie soundtrack to play on the available speakers – however, the success of this process can be hit and miss.

Having said that, you should always consider using a center speaker if you can.

The center speaker is a fundamental part of the surround sound experience and will allow you to hear the dialogue more clearly.

3. Is Surround Sound Good for Music?

Some popular music albums have been mixed in multi-channel surround sound.

These can sound great on a surround sound audio system and offer a unique and new perspective over traditional stereo versions.

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway - Surround Sound DVD
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis) – Surround Sound DVD-Audio

However, you may find the experience difficult to adjust to if you are used to hearing a particular piece of music in stereo.

You can also play stereo music on a multi-channel speaker system.

Many AV receivers will have a sound mode that will spread the two-channel audio around all your speakers, which can be good for parties and social gatherings where you want some music playing in the background.

Alternatively, you can create a virtual surround sound mix using the Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X listening modes with a stereo music track.

However, these processing formats are meant for upmixing movie and TV audio to use all the speakers in your system.

They aren’t designed for upmixing stereo music, so the results won’t be as effective as an actual surround sound version.

4. Which Speaker is Left and Right?

When setting up your sound system, you must place your front left and right speakers an equal distance apart in front of your listening position.

The front stereo speaker pair should ideally be the same type, but does it matter which goes on the left and the right?

In most cases, no.

Most speakers, especially those designed for home theater, will perform the same regardless of their position. So it won’t matter which goes left or right.

However, some speakers are designed to be the left and right, which is more likely if you use stereo hi-fi speakers in your system.

Sometimes, the speaker’s design dictates that one should be placed on the left and the other on the right, which will usually be due to the placement of the woofer and tweeter on the front.

Stereo speakers with matching woofer and tweeter layouts
Stereo speakers with matching woofer and tweeter layouts

Check the manual for your speakers if you want to be sure, and if it is essential to place the speakers in a certain way, the manufacturer will tell you so.

You will often be able to tell because the layout of the woofer and tweeter will be different when you put the speakers side-by-side, although you may need to remove the protective speaker grille to see this.

If the speakers look the same from the front, it is unlikely that it matters which side they should go.

5. Can You Have Surround Sound Without a Subwoofer?

You don’t have to use a subwoofer in a surround sound system.

Most audio systems for movies and TV use a subwoofer to get excellent low-end performance for all the exciting rumbles and thuds in the special effects.

Therefore a dedicated speaker for the low bass frequencies is ideal for making your whole speaker system perform at its best.

But, if you don’t want a subwoofer, you can tell the AV receiver that there isn’t one connected when you set it up, and it will then adjust the audio output accordingly.

Selecting the number of subwoofers on an AV receiver
Selecting the number of subwoofers on an AV receiver

A good compromise in this situation is to use a floor-standing speaker for the front left and right speakers.

Floor-standing speakers will have the best low-end performance of all the types of speakers used in home theater – apart from the subwoofer.

Therefore floor-standing speakers can give you an excellent experience with movie soundtracks and can often make up for the lack of a subwoofer in your room.

Floor-standing speakers will give an excellent balanced sound for stereo music, too.

6. Can You Replace the Surround Sound Speakers?

You can easily replace the surround speakers if you have an AV receiver.

With a receiver, the speakers are independent of the amplifier, and there is a wide range of speakers that you can buy.

You should, however, try to match the speakers and amplifier in terms of impedance and power ratings.

AV receivers also come with standard speaker connection types that are universal for most amplifiers.

Speaker wire terminals on the rear of a speaker
Speaker wire terminals on the rear of a speaker

However, if you have an all-in-one home theater system that comes bundled with an amplifier and speakers, you might have a problem.

The surround speakers in this type of system are often specially designed to match the amplifier and often come with proprietary connections.

The speaker specifications may also be unusual and incompatible with most standalone speakers.

The same can be said of soundbar systems with wired or wireless surround speakers.

Often these speakers are specific to the brand and aren’t easily replaceable.

If you feel that you may like to upgrade your speakers in the future, buying an AV receiver would be best, and then you will have many more options in the future.

7. Can You Use Floor-Standing Speakers for Surround Sound?

You can use floor-standing speakers for most of your surround sound speaker system if you wish.

You wouldn’t want to use a floor-standing speaker for the center speaker, but apart from that, you can use floor-standing speakers for the front left, front right, and any of the surround speakers.

The downside is you will need a room with plenty of space to install the speakers in their correct positions.

Floorstanding speakers in a room

However, there is an argument that full-range floor-standing speakers may be over-the-top for the surrounds as the surround speakers don’t usually require such a wide frequency range.

Of course, the subwoofer should be a dedicated low-frequency speaker, and you couldn’t really use a floor-stander for Dolby Atmos overhead effects as these need to be positioned high in your room.

Although some floor-standing speakers have integrated Dolby Atmos-enabled modules at the top, so you can buy these and get the best of both worlds.

8. Do You Need a Center Channel Speaker for Music?

You don’t need a center speaker for music because most music is recorded in stereo, requiring only a stereo pair of speakers to play the sound.

The main reason for installing a center speaker in your sound system is to listen to movie and TV surround sound audio.

9. Can You Use the TV Speakers as a Center Channel?

Generally, you can’t use TV speakers as a center channel for surround sound.

If you want to hear multi-channel surround sound audio, you should buy an AV receiver or soundbar system with surround sound speakers.

An AV receiver has several output channels for connecting to passive speakers – including one for the center channel.

But you can’t wire your TV speakers to the center output channel of your AV amplifier. It’s just not what they are designed for.

One exception is with the range of Sony OLED TVs.

Sony has developed a unique type of TV speaker audio called Acoustic Surface, where the whole screen acts as a speaker.

To achieve this, Sony builds actuators behind the rear panel, which are used to create sound.

Further still, there are two speaker terminals on the TV’s rear backplate to connect the speaker wire from your AV receiver – just like with any passive speaker.

Once connected, the TV will receive the center channel audio from the AV amplifier and play it out through the TV screen.

It might be the perfect solution for some, as positioning the center speaker can be difficult if you don’t have much space.

10. Does 7.1 Surround Sound Make a Difference?

7.1 surround sound can make a difference and create an even greater sense of immersion in your room.

If you have an optimized 5.1 system, it’s not a night and day difference, but you will definitely feel even more part of the action in some scenes.

The downside is that there aren’t many actual 7.1 soundtracks, which will make the most difference to the surround effect.

Also, to get the most out of 7.1, you will need plenty of space behind your listening area. The rear surround speakers must be positioned behind you in the room to get the full effect.

Many people try to fit the extra speakers without having the necessary space – in which case, they won’t get the best result.

In this case, it would be better to configure an excellent 5.1 system than set up a flawed 7.1 surround system.

11. Can a Soundbar Be Used as a Center Speaker?

In most cases, a soundbar can’t be used as a center speaker.

Most soundbars are active speakers with stereo or surround sound drivers, meaning they have an integrated amplifier to power the speakers.

All you need to do is connect the line-out audio from a TV to hear the sound.

On the other hand, a center speaker is a passive speaker designed to play a single output channel from a multi-channel soundtrack.

This means it has no built-in amplification, and you will need to drive the speaker from the center output channel of a multi-channel amplifier.

However, there are a small number of passive soundbars that you can buy.

A passive soundbar usually has a 2-channel stereo – or a 3-channel left, center, and right speaker configuration – and speaker terminals on the rear to connect to your AV receiver.

The advantage of passive soundbars is that they take up less space in your room compared to a traditional bookshelf or floor-standing speaker.

12. Can You Use Any Speakers for Surround Sound?

You can use pretty much any speaker for surround sound and Dolby Atmos, and your AV receiver will compensate for the timing and frequency response of whatever speaker you use.

In smaller rooms, many people use compact satellite speakers for the rear and back surround speakers because they are more discrete and easier to position.

They also don’t need to reproduce a full frequency range like the front speakers, as they are primarily used for surround and atmospheric effects.

However, there’s no reason not to use a larger full-range bookshelf or floorstanding speaker if you have the money and space to install them, and they may give a slightly better immersive effect as they will complement the front speakers well.

The front speakers will benefit more from having a full frequency response, so bookshelf and floorstanding speakers are more advisable.

However, if you also have a subwoofer for the low frequencies, you can still use smaller satellite speakers at the front of the room if that makes it easier (and cheaper).

In this case, you would set a higher crossover frequency in your AV receiver setup process, passing more low-end sound to the subwoofer.

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About The Author

Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has been a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment. You can find out more here.

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