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How to Set Up Surround Sound

How to Set Up Surround Sound: Easy Home Theater Install Tips - a surround sound speaker system in a room

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You may have the big TV, but don't forget about the sound! Discover how to set up surround sound in your room and get the best home theater experience.

So, you want to know how to set up surround sound and create a great home theater system?

That’s excellent. 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.

Follow this guide, and you can experience a movie in all its glory – and not just half the experience.

First, you will find a quick step-by-step checklist for installing surround sound.

Then, I will take it slowly and explain how to set up a stereo home theater sound system for people completely new to this.

After that, I will move on to the slightly more advanced topic of getting surround sound in your room.

How to Get Surround Sound in Your Room

If you are in a hurry, here is a simple checklist for connecting a surround sound system:

  1. Buy a sound system that supports surround sound. The most versatile option is an AV receiver, but you can also get an all-in-one home theater system or a soundbar system with surround sound speakers.
  2. Install the sound system and place the surround speakers around the room. Some speakers systems have wireless speakers, but most will connect using speaker wire.
  3. Connect your content source to the sound system. Use HDMI, optical or coaxial connections to connect the audio outputs from your TV or content source to the sound system.
  4. Play content with surround sound audio on your device and make sure you select the correct input on your audio system.

If you want more detailed instructions, follow the rest of this guide to installing surround sound.

Installing a Stereo Home Theater System

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 or soundbar system with surround speakers.

Another option is to get an all-in-one home theater system that includes an amplifier and speakers together – and sometimes a DVD/ Blu-ray player too.

Go to the article on home theater systems for more information on this option.

So how do we quickly improve the sound in our room?

Easy, just send the audio output from your program source – DVD player, cable box, PS4, Xbox etc. – to your amplifier.

The amplifier then sends the sound to the speakers in your room.

Remember, this amplifier might be a simple stereo amplifier that you already own.

Connecting a Blu-ray player to a stereo amplifier and TV
Home theater connections for a stereo receiver/amplifier

See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

In the diagram above, we have a basic example of how you could quickly 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.

Connecting Your Player to the Amplifier

The critical point in all this is that we need to split the audio signal from the picture.

To understand if this is possible with your equipment, consider 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 by either sending them both down one HDMI cable or making one connection for the picture and another for the audio.

However, if you are going to use a separate speaker system, you need to split the picture and the sound signals.

Don’t panic! This may sound harder than it is and is usually relatively easy these days.

For instance, in 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, which may be an analog or digital output.

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.

Surround sound connections on the rear of a DVD player

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, and the one you choose will usually depend on the connections that you have on your amplifier.

In the picture, you can also see outputs for analog stereo or surround sound audio, and you would connect these to the matching inputs on your amplifier.

Again, the one you use will usually depend on which connections your amplifier has.

This setup will work with many modern sources. A cable box or satellite receiver unit usually has separate audio outputs, just like a DVD or Blu-ray player.

So, send the picture to the TV via HDMI, component or 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, and we replace the stereo amplifier with an AV receiver.

How to Install Surround Sound with an AV Receiver

Firstly, an AV receiver is a multi-channel amplifier.

A stereo receiver has just two channels – powering two stereo speakers – while an AV receiver will have a minimum of five speaker connections.

The standard surround sound layout is 5.1. This means three speakers at the front, two at the rear, and one more output 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, digital optical connections or HDMI connections.

Whichever way the audio is sent, you should have enough inputs on the back of your AV receiver to connect them all.

Rear connections of an AV receiver
Rear connections of an AV receiver

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 that 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.

AV Receivers – Audio and Video

In the earlier example, you will remember that we connected the sound from our DVD player to the stereo amplifier.

For the picture, we had to connect it directly to the TV.

Well, the beauty of a modern AV receiver is that it can handle both audio and 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 accept the video signals from your input devices too.

What’s the point of 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 can easily switch between a DVD player, Blu-ray player, cable TV box, Wii game console, Playstation 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.

Connecting a 5.1 home theater system with an AV receiver
Connecting a 5.1 home theater system with an AV receiver

In the example above, we have connected the Blu-ray player and the cable TV box to the receiver with an HDMI cable.

HDMI sends the picture and sound down the same cable, which is the best connection to use if your devices have this connection type available.

So, when I select ‘Blu-ray’ on the AV receiver – or HDMI input 1 – the receiver gets the audio and video from the Blu-ray player.

It sends the Blu-ray audio to the speakers and the picture to the display.

Likewise, when I select ‘Cable’ on the AV receiver – or HDMI input 2 – the receiver gets the audio and video from the cable TV box.

Then, it sends the cable TV audio to the speakers and the picture to the display.

I haven’t got to worry about selecting different inputs on the amplifier and the display. Plus, it’s much neater as fewer cables are 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 need every connection, and they are just there to give you the flexibility to connect a wide range of devices.

You are not expected to use them all!

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!):

YouTube video

Connecting Your TV to a Surround Sound System

Up to this point, I have talked about connecting external devices, such as cable boxes and Blu-ray players, to a surround sound system.

However, a common problem is that many people want to connect their TV to surround sound speakers.

The main reason is that many people now use apps on their smart TVs to play content – so the audio from these apps plays on the TV itself.

So, how do you get the audio from your TV into a sound system?

The answer is similar to the methods we’ve already covered. You just need to use an audio output on the TV and send the sound into your speaker system.

Firstly, you will need to check your TV and see which type of audio output it supports. It’s rare to find a TV these days that doesn’t have an audio out, and the main connection types are:

  1. HDMI ARC or eARC
  2. Optical digital audio
  3. Coaxial digital audio
  4. Stereo analog audio

HDMI ARC and eARC are the newest connection types, and if supported, one of the HDMI connections on your TV will be labeled as such.

Dual HDMI output connections on a device
HDMI output with ARC

To use ARC, your sound system will also need to support HDMI ARC. The main advantage of this type of connection is it supports more audio formats and often makes wiring simpler.

Here is a simple wiring diagram for connecting your TV to a soundbar using HDMI ARC:

Connecting TV to a Soundbar with HDMI ARC
Connecting TV to a Soundbar with HDMI ARC

If you don’t have HDMI ARC available, it’s best to use whichever digital audio output you have – either optical or coaxial. An optical audio output is the most common.

In this case, you should connect an optical or coaxial cable from your TV’s output to your speaker system.

If your speaker system doesn’t have the same connection types, you can buy an adapter that can convert from optical to coaxial or vice-versa.

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If you have an old TV with stereo analog audio only, you won’t be able to play actual surround sound. Although, it’s also unlikely that this type of TV will have smart apps.

However, you can still connect the stereo audio to your speaker system to improve the sound in your room.

5.1, 7.1 or 7.2 Surround Sound?

When checking out surround sound systems, there are many things to look out for, but the main thing is the number of speakers they support.

When looking at possible AV amplifiers to buy – it should specify if it is a 5.1 or 7.1 amp.

This tells you how many speaker connections are on the back of the unit and whether it will process 5.1 or 7.1 soundtracks.

In fact, these days, you will also see receivers that 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 can connect to a 5.1 surround sound system.

A 7.1 system is slightly more complex to set up but only requires two more speakers to get the full effect.

And, if you get a receiver capable of 7.1 surround sound, you can still use it for 5.1 sound.

7.1 soundtracks on a disc aren’t as common. However, a 7.1 surround sound receiver will process a 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.

7.2 Surround Sound System
7.2 surround sound system

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 helpful to reinforce the bass sound in your room – especially in larger rooms. It is pretty common for 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 placing a second subwoofer in a different part of the room, which 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.

If you are interested, I have more detailed articles on these subjects.

You can learn more about the difference between 5.1, 7.1 and 7.2 speaker systems.

There is also another more detailed article on 5.1 surround sound speaker placement.

Finally, there is the main AV receiver buying guide, which gives tips and reviews of the best surround sound receivers in 2022.

Conclusion

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 setup isn’t that difficult to achieve.

And it will be far better than simply using the speakers that come with your television.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you want some quick and easy answers, here are some common questions about setting up surround sound.

What Do I Need for a Surround Sound System?

The main thing you need for surround sound is an audio system that supports multichannel audio. Most sound systems are stereo, with two speakers. However, for surround sound, your speaker system will need at least five speakers.

The main ways of getting multichannel sound are buying an AV receiver, an all-in-one home theater system, or a soundbar system that supports surround sound.

You then need to connect the audio output of your TV, DVD player or cable box into the sound system.

How Do I Hook Up Surround Sound to My TV?

If you want to connect your TV to a surround sound system, your TV needs to have an audio output. On modern TVs, this will usually be an optical digital audio output or an HDMI ARC connection.

Once you have identified your TV’s audio output, you need to connect this to an audio system that supports surround sound. This might be an AV receiver, an all-in-one home theater system or a soundbar system.

For a step-by-step guide, go to how to connect speakers to your TV in 5 easy steps.

How to Hook Up Surround Sound Speakers Without a Receiver?

If you want surround sound but don’t want to buy an AV receiver, you should buy a soundbar system that supports surround sound – or a home theater system that comes complete with an amplifier and all the surround speakers.

Can You Get Surround Sound Through HDMI?

Yes, HDMI supports the multichannel audio formats used in surround sound – such as Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby Atmos. The easiest way to get the surround sound audio from your TV using HDMI is to use a TV and sound system that supports HDMI ARC.

How to Connect Surround Sound to TV Without HDMI?

If your TV doesn’t have HDMI, you will need to look for a different type of audio output. Many TVs have optical or coaxial digital audio outputs, while older televisions may only have a stereo analog output.

Whichever type your TV has, you can connect this audio output to a surround sound speaker system.

Alternatively, if you are using a cable TV box or DVD player, you can connect the audio outputs into your surround sound system instead.

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How to Set Up Surround Sound
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About Home Cinema Guide

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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