So, you want to know how to set up surround sound and create a fantastic home theater system?
That’s great. 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, and some may argue more important. But, all too often the sound system gets forgotten about.
Follow this guide and you can experience a movie in all its glory - and not just half the experience.
For the people completely new to this, I am going to take it slowly. I’ll start by explaining how to set up a home theater stereo sound system. Then, I will move on to the slightly more advanced topic of wiring your system for surround sound.
So, let’s look at a basic home theater setup. A simple way of improving the sound in your room.
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. If you want to have a surround sound set up, you will need to buy an AV receiver. I will come to that later.
Another option is to get an all-in-one home theater system which includes an amplifier and speakers together. And sometimes a DVD/ Blu-ray player too.
Go to the article on the home theater systems for more information on this 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, PS4, Xbox etc.) to your amplifier. This then sends the sound to the speakers in your room.
Remember, this amplifier might be a simple stereo amplifier that you already own.
See, that wasn't so hard, was it?
In the diagram above, we have a basic example of how you could easily improve the sound of your movies. Don’t listen to the sound through the TV speakers. Connect the audio out of your player into your amplifier.
The diagram shows the sound is sent from the audio output of the DVD player to the audio input of a stereo receiver. This could be a digital or analog connection. The picture is sent via an HDMI cable between the DVD player and the TV.
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. This may be a DVD player, Blu-ray player, satellite TV box or cable box.
In most setups, 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 another for the audio.
However, if you are going to use a separate speaker system, then you need to be able to split the picture and the sound signals.
Don't panic! This may sound harder than it 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.
The DVD player also has a separate output for the sound. This may be an analog or digital output (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.
The picture above shows an example of outputs on the back of a DVD player. There is a digital audio out in the shape of coaxial and optical connections. You can use either. The one you choose will usually depend on the connections you have on your amplifier.
In the picture, you can also see outputs for analog stereo or surround sound audio. You would connect these to the matching inputs on your amplifier.
The one you use will often be decided by the connections you have on your 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/Blu-ray player. So, send the picture to the TV via HDMI/component/composite cables - but connect the audio output to a separate amplifier.
Now, while this is fine when using a stereo receiver, I thought we were going to talk about surround sound?
We are. That’s the next step. We are going to replace the stereo amplifier with an AV receiver.
Firstly, an AV receiver is a multi-channel amplifier.
A stereo receiver has just two channels. Powering two stereo speakers. An AV receiver will have a minimum of six speaker connections.
The standard surround sound layout is 5.1. This means three speakers at the front, two at the rear, and one more channel for the subwoofer (the bass).
The receiver will also have several different audio inputs to take all the audio from your input devices.
You may have devices that output audio by stereo analog connections. Or maybe by digital optical connections. Or by HDMI connections. Whichever way the audio is sent, you should have enough inputs on the back of your AV receiver to connect them all.
If you send a 5.1 surround soundtrack from the player, the AV receiver will process the 5.1 surround sound mix and send the sound to your speaker system.
If you send stereo audio from the player, then you have a choice. You can tell the AV receiver to only play it back in stereo; over the front left and right speakers.
Or, you can select a listening mode which will create a 5.1 surround mix from the stereo signal. So, you will hear audio from all the surround speakers in your system.
You can choose which you prefer.
You will remember in the earlier example, we connected the sound from our DVD player into the stereo amplifier. For the picture, we had to connect it directly to the TV.
The beauty of a modern AV receiver is that it can handle the audio and the video signals.
It used to be the case that an AV receiver was just an amplifier for the sound. However, these days you will find that an AV receiver will also accept the video signals from your input devices too.
What's the point in that? I thought we could send the video signal straight to the display?
Well, you could. But think about it.
If we can send ALL the signals into the AV receiver - video and audio - then the AV receiver can handle the switching of all signals when we change inputs.
We easily switch between DVD player, Blu-ray player, cable TV box, Wii games console, PS4 console etc.
Also, we can then have just one video cable connected to the display for all sources. The following diagram shows how we can hook up surround sound to our TV with HDMI cables.
In the example above, we have connected the DVD player and the cable TV box to the receiver with an HDMI cable. This sends the picture and the sound down the same cable. This is the best connection to use if your devices have this connection type available.
Then, when I select 'DVD' on the AV receiver - the receiver selects the correct inputs for the DVD (audio and video). It sends the DVD audio to the speakers and the DVD picture to the display.
When I select 'Cable' on the AV receiver - the receiver selects the correct inputs for the cable TV box (audio and video). It sends the cable TV audio to the speakers and the cable TV picture to the display.
I haven't got to worry about selecting different inputs on the amplifier and the display. It is also much neater as there are fewer cables required to connect it all together.
Isn't that much easier?
Can you still hook this up if you don’t have HDMI? Yes, you can.
If you don't have HDMI on all your devices, then the beauty of an AV receiver is that it will have many different connection types at the back. This should enable you to connect any device to your home theater system.
This is why the rear of an AV receiver can look so complicated. You won't use many of these extra connections, they are just all there to give you the flexibility for connecting a wide range of devices.
You are not expected to use all of them!
If you want to reinforce this information, and prefer watching videos to learn, take a look at this handy guide produced by Sony (other brands available!):
There are many things to look out for when checking out AV receivers - but one of the main things is their surround sound capabilities.
When you are looking at possible AV amplifiers to buy - it should specify if it is a 5.1 or 7.1 amp. This refers to how many speaker connections there are on the back of the unit and if it will process 5.1 or 7.1 soundtracks.
In fact, these days, you will also see receivers which support 9.1 and 11.1 surround sound (plus some others too). But let’s keep it simple for the moment.
Most DVD/Blu-ray movies will come with a 5.1 soundtrack - and all AV receivers will be able to connect to a 5.1 surround sound system.
A 7.1 system is slightly more complex to setup, but only requires two more speakers to get the full effect. If you get a receiver that is capable of 7.1 surround sound, you can still use it for 5.1 sound too.
7.1 soundtracks on a disc aren't as common. However, the 7.1 surround sound receiver will be able to process the 5.1 mix and send audio to the extra speakers at the back via digital processing. Therefore, it can add to the sense of space in the room.
You may also come across a receiver that says it supports 7.2 surround sound. The '.2' means the receiver has an extra subwoofer output for connecting two subwoofers.
You might think a 7.2 soundtrack would have two separate bass tracks to create a left and right bass effect. But it doesn’t work like that. It sends the same LFE track to both subwoofers.
So, what is the point of a 7.2 channel AV receiver?
Well, the extra subwoofer can be useful to reinforce the bass sound in your room - especially in larger rooms. It is quite common for the long bass waveforms to cancel each other out in various parts of the room.
This means the bass level can vary depending on where you are sitting.
You can compensate for this by adding another subwoofer in another part of the room and this can help to even out the bass sound.
You could also create this dual subwoofer effect by splitting a single subwoofer output with a 'Y' connector.
I have more detailed articles on these subjects if you are interested. You can find out more about the different surround sound speaker layouts. There is also another more detailed article on 5.1 surround sound speaker placement.
Finally, we have the main AV receiver buying guide, which gives tips and reviews of the best surround sound receivers in 2020.
Hopefully this article has given you a better idea of how to set up surround sound in your home theater system.
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 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 simply using the speakers that come with your television.
For some, the only source of TV signal may be from an antenna on your roof. This signal is then decoded by the internal tuner of the TV and you hear the audio on your TV speakers.
Or, you might have a Smart TV with built-in apps like Netflix and Amazon Video.
In this case, you might be wondering how you can connect the TV sound to your home theater?
The only way you can connect your TV to a surround sound system is if your TV has either:
Many modern TVs do have an audio output. It is usually an
optical digital audio output. You will need to connect an optical audio cable from
your TV into an optical input on your AV receiver or amplifier.
HDMI ARC is a new type of HDMI connection. It enables the TV to send audio from the TV to the connected AV receiver. Using the same cable that is sending the picture from the receiver to the TV.
If you don’t have either of these, then you have a problem.
There is one workaround if your TV has a headphone socket. You could connect a cable from the headphone socket into a stereo analog input on your amplifier and you would get something to work with.
It won't give you great sound, but it might be better than nothing.
Even if there is an audio output or HDMI ARC, you may be limited to stereo sound and you may not be able to get 'true' 5.1 surround sound.
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as 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.