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Surround Sound Speaker Placement for 5.1 & 7.1 Home Theater Systems

Finding the best surround sound speaker placement for your room can make or break your 5.1 or 7.1 home theater system.

Don't go to all the effort of choosing the right speakers for your room, spending your hard-earned money on quality equipment, and then just put them any old place when you get to installing them. If you spend some time thinking about placing the speakers properly, then you will make the best of your surround sound setup.

The most important speakers are probably the center and front left and front right speakers. These are the ones that do most of the work when reproducing a movie soundtrack.

However, to get the best out of your system, it is important to get the best possible positions for all of your surround sound speakers. And, the surround, rear and subwoofer speakers also play an important role.

Let’s go through each speaker type and find out what are the important issues for home theater speaker placement.

Center Channel Speaker Placement

The center channel speaker plays a crucial part in a 5.1 surround sound system. It is the main speaker for the dialogue in a movie, so it is crucial we place this correctly.

You should position the center speaker just above or below the middle of the TV screen. Usually underneath, but this will depend on the height of your TV screen and if there is a suitable place to put it. Just try not to place it too far away from the screen or the sound may appear to be removed from the picture. This will sound unnatural and spoil the impact of the soundtrack.

Surround sound speaker placement - the center speaker Center Channel Speaker Placement

Ideally, your main seating position will also be central to the middle of the TV. So, the center channel speaker should be pointing directly at you.

The position above or below the screen isn't so important as the position relative to your ears. Ideally, the tweeters of the speaker should be level with your ears when you are sat in your viewing position. This is because higher frequencies are more directional.

The tweeters are the small speakers in your speaker. These are usually positioned above the larger woofer speakers in a bookshelf or floorstanding speaker. However, in a center channel speaker, they are usually fitted in line with the woofers. You may be able to remove the speaker grille if you can't see where the actual speakers are. Be careful though!

If you can't get the speaker into a position that is level with your ears, then try to angle the speaker up or down slightly. Just try to ensure it is pointing at your head when you are sitting down.

If possible, the tweeters of the center speaker should be the same height as the tweeters of the front left and right pair. Although this can be difficult to achieve exactly. This will allow a more consistent sound when the audio is panned across the front three speakers.

You will find that as long as they are fairly level, say within 1-2 feet, then you won't notice too much of a problem when the sound moves across the speakers. If in doubt, play a movie and watch a scene with plenty of effects moving across the front speakers and listen to how it sounds.

Using your own ears and judgment is probably the most important aspect of speaker placement.

Height placement of center speaker in a room Center Speaker Height

Also, try not to place the speaker behind the front edge of the TV. Especially if it is on top. This means that the sound will hit the TV first and this will affect the sound that reaches you.

Wall brackets, floor stands, or shelves can be used to place the speaker - just try to make sure it is stable and on a solid, flat surface. In many cases, this can be the most difficult speaker to find a good position for. If so, you might want to consider a piece of furniture designed to hold a TV and the center speaker.

A speaker designed specifically for the center will usually be a wide, horizontal shape. This should allow it to fit along the edge of a TV screen and to spread the sound evenly.

However, you can use any type of speaker as your center - such as a normal bookshelf speaker. But, bear in mind the shape of this type of speaker may be more difficult to install in an ideal position. Also, you may not get the wide soundstage that you can get with a dedicated center channel speaker.

Front Left and Right Speaker Placement

The front left and right speakers are the equivalent of the stereo pair you might use with your hi-fi system.

They handle much of the music and sound effects in a movie soundtrack but sometimes will also reproduce the dialogue.

Therefore, it is important to try and balance the sound field across the front of the screen. So that the front left, center and front right speakers complement each other.

The front speakers should be an equal distance left and right of the TV - and both should be an equal distance from your seating position. You should imagine a triangle with the speakers and yourself on each corner.

Front left and right speaker placement in a room Front Left and Front Right Speaker Placement

If you imagine an arc across the front of the room from your seating position, you can try and get the center speaker at the top of the arc. Then, the front left and right speakers will be slightly further forward. This ensures they will be a similar distance away from the listening position. If this proves difficult, don’t worry too much. Your AV receiver can compensate for the difference in distance between speakers. Get as close as you can in your room, but don't start knocking walls down to get it exactly right!

The suggested range for the angle of the front left and right speakers from your seated position is 22 to 30 degrees (see below). So, use this as a guideline when positioning the front speakers. This angle may not be possible depending on the size and shape of your room, so don't get too distracted by the numbers.

Front Left and Right Speaker Placement Angle Front Left and Right Speaker Placement Angle - Top View

Ideally, these front speakers will have their tweeters at ear height when you are sat in your viewing position. This should be about the same height as your center speaker.

Many people like to have the front speakers angled slightly so they are pointing at the central seating position. This is called 'toeing-in' the speaker.

However, this can come down to personal taste and can also vary between speakers. The best idea is to play with the angle of the speakers and decide which you prefer. You will get a wider soundstage if you don't toe-in the speakers - and a narrower, more-focused sound if you do.

As with the center speaker, if you can't get the front speakers at ear height, then it can be beneficial to angle them up or down towards the seating position. Although, whether you can do this can depend on the type of stands or brackets you are using. Many speakers are designed to be placed on the level, so it's up to you if you think angling them improves the sound.

Surround Speaker Positioning

The surround speakers are there to create the sense of space in your room. Ideally, the surround speakers in a 5.1 surround sound configuration should be placed just behind, or to the side of, your seating position.

Dolby recommends an angle of 110° to 120° from your listening position, as in the image below. However, if that’s not possible, the next best location is nearer the 90-degree angle either side. THX recommends between 90° to 110°, so I wouldn’t feel the need to get too precise. You can put your protractor away!

Angle of Surround Speaker Placement in a 5.1 Speaker System Angle of Surround Speaker Placement in a 5.1 Speaker System

For example, if you have your couch up against a wall then you can put the surround speakers either side at 90°.

In many rooms, you may struggle to get the exact position, but always try to get as close as your space will allow. Depending on your room, you may have to make compromises due to the position of walls, doors, windows and furniture. But, there are usually ways to get as close as you can with a bit of thought.

The surrounds should be slightly higher than the front speakers in the room. In the region of about 1 to 2 feet above head height when sitting down.

This is because the surround channels are there to create an ambient sound in your room. So, you should benefit if they are slightly further away from your ears. The idea isn't to get the direct up-front sound that we want from our front speakers.

Placement of the Surrounds in 5.1 Speaker System Placement of the Surrounds in 5.1 Speaker System

These speakers will often be directed at the central seating position, much like the front speakers. Although this can depend on the design of the speaker. They can also be angled down to point at the seating position if the stands or brackets allow. But, the need for this can depend on the type of surround speakers you have.

You can try angling standard direct-firing (monopole) speakers straight at your listening position. Although, some people may find the sound a bit too direct when you do this. Therefore, placing direct-firing speakers quite high above your seating position is worth considering. This will increase the sound dispersion before it reaches your ears. Experiment and let your ears decide which sounds the best.

Angle of Surround Speakers in a 7.1 Speaker System Angle of Surround Speakers in a 7.1 Speaker System

The speaker placement for 7.1 surround sound is similar. However, the left and right surrounds should be slightly more to the side of the listening position - between 90° and 110°.  The two extra rear speakers should be behind the listening position at around 135° to 150°.

Apart from that, the height and angle of the speakers should be the same as with a 5.1 speaker system.

Bipole and Dipole Speaker Placement

If you have bipole or dipole surround speakers, then you don’t need to worry about angling them. The design of these speakers will provide the ambient sound you need. They will usually mount flat against a wall. Bipole speakers are also known as bipolar speakers.

To get the best from bipole speakers in a 5.1 setup, the ideal place will be directly behind the listening position. Pointing towards the front speakers. Place them about 1 or 2 feet above the listener – in line with, or slightly wider than, the front speakers. If that’s not possible, then the next best option is directly at either side – 90° to the listening position. Again, 1 or 2 feet higher than the listener.

For dipole speakers, the correct positions are 90° either side of the listening position. This means the speakers in the unit will be facing to the front and back i.e. not at the listening position. These should be 1 or 2 feet higher than the listener, as in the previous examples.

One advantage of bipole speakers is they are more flexible in their positioning.

This video covers some of the issues I have discussed, and highlights some of the compromises that are sometimes required:

Placement of the Subwoofer

The subwoofer is the maverick of surround sound speakers! It's the cool guy who goes where he wants and doesn't follow the same rules as everybody else. The main reason for this is the subwoofer has a very specific job - to reproduce the really low bass in a soundtrack.

Low bass frequencies are not as directional as higher frequencies due to their long wavelength. This means that it is harder to tell where the sound is coming from in the room.

Therefore, subwoofer placement in a room is much less critical than with other speakers - which can be a blessing given the size of the darn thing! Wherever you have a spare bit of space in your room then you can pretty much stick it anywhere. Although, there are a few general guidelines worth considering if you can.

Subwoofer Speaker Placement in a room Subwoofer Speaker Placement

In general, avoiding the corners of a room can be important for the subwoofer. This is because it is the bass frequencies which can become 'boomy' by being in the corner.

Having said that, you can sometimes use a position near the corners of a room to your advantage and really boost bass sound from your subwoofer. Your neighbors might not be so pleased though! The potential disadvantage is the bass becomes too overpowering in the room.

Have a play around with the position and see what you think. It is something that you will have to try for each individual room as no two rooms will sound the same.

One thing to listen out for is areas of the room where the bass is especially quiet - or loud. Because of the long wavelength of bass sound waves, it is easy to create standing waves in a room. This can cause the volume of the bass to vary throughout a room as the sound waves add together - or cancel out.

The shape of your room can also affect the creation of standing waves. A square-shaped room can be a particular problem as the walls will be the same distance apart from each other. Try to avoid placing the subwoofer an equal distance between two opposite walls. This can result in the reflecting waveforms canceling each other out. Therefore, don't have the speaker exactly in the middle of the room. Try to place the subwoofer nearer one end or the other.

The main thing to check is that a drop in the bass isn't happening around the listening area, which is not what we want. If you find this is happening, then you can move the subwoofer a bit. A few inches may do it. This can drastically improve the bass levels in the important listening area.

Another solution, especially if you have a large room with a few quiet areas, is to have a 5.2 or 7.2 setup with an extra subwoofer.

Subwoofer Placement in a 7.2 Speaker System Subwoofer Placement in a 7.2 Speaker System

A second subwoofer can be very useful in leveling out the bass throughout a room - especially in the important areas where people are sitting.

For the best results, you would have to move the subwoofer positions around your room and listen for a change in the bass levels. You are looking for a consistent level of bass at all listening positions in the room. There isn't going to be a perfect position for the second sub which will suit all rooms.

One trick is to have one person sat in the listening position and another to move the subwoofers around. You may be surprised at how much difference a few inches one way or another can make.

As you might guess, the downside of a 7.2 setup is that it can be harder to set up a room with two subwoofers. The low-frequency bass sound waves from two different places could start to cancel each other out. So, you could end up making the bass sound in the room worse!

Once you get into this kind of territory, then you might want to hire an expert with sound meters to test the room and position the subs properly. However, try giving it a go yourself first, use your ears and listen to the effect of moving the subs around.

Home Theater Room

General Speaker Placement Guidelines

We have looked at the placement of specific home theater speakers. If you want to understand more about the different speaker types, you might want to take a look at the article 'The Best Home Theater Speakers in 2017: Top 12 Reviews & Buying Guide'.

In terms of general guidelines, you might want to bear the following in mind for your surround sound speaker placement. Remember, it's not the end of the world if you don't follow them to the letter. But, the nearer you can get then the more chance you have of getting a great sound in your room.

1. Every Room Is Different

The first thing to remember is that your room is probably not going to be the perfect shape for a home theater sound system.

Most of us will be using a communal living area for our home theater equipment, and so it is very difficult to get the perfect setup.

However, that doesn't mean that we can't try to get the best sound possible from our amplifier and speakers. While you may not be able to get every point exactly right, you will still be making the best use of the space you have available.

Most people will have to make some compromises in their location of their speakers. That's fine, just aim to do the best job you can. It will make a big difference to the sound in your room.

Once you have the speakers in the best location you can, you can adjust the settings of your AV receiver with volume, phase and tonal balancing. This can help to compensate for the actual position of each speaker in the room. Most modern AV receivers will have some form of automatic room correction which you can run using the supplied microphone. This can be pretty effective, and you can still manually tweak the settings to your taste if you prefer.

2. Not Too Close to Walls, Floors and Ceilings

I've already mentioned this for the subwoofer, but it holds true for all of your speakers. Try to avoid placing the speakers too close to walls, floors and ceilings. This can be difficult in smaller rooms, but you will alter the sound of the speakers if they are too close to these surfaces.

The bass will increase if too close to walls or floors and this will artificially change the sound of your speakers. Also, the sound waves can reflect off these hard surfaces and delay the sound waves reaching your listening position. This will create poor clarity and stereo imaging.

However, just to confuse you, some smaller speakers may actually benefit from placement on or near walls. Some are designed to use this increase in the low-end to help their sound. This is because they are too small to get a good bottom end on their own. Check out the information that comes with the speaker if you are not sure.

As a general guideline, the bigger the speaker then the more bass it creates on its own. It will be more important to keep these away from walls.

Home Theater Room

3. Avoid Corners

Try to avoid placing the speakers in corners. This is like point 2 - except the issues are even more of a problem to the sound in your room because it is where the floor, wall and ceiling meet.

The corner of a room can do strange things to the sound waves bouncing around your room, especially the bass end. The bass will often appear 'boomy' or 'muddy' if your speakers are too close to the corner.

Having said that, I’m now going to completely contradict myself!

In some rooms, you can try placing the subwoofer near to the corner to boost the bass in the room. If you aren’t getting the type of bass you want, putting the subwoofer there might give the bottom end a tone that you like. Just be aware, that this can also result in excessive bass which is hard to control.

Speaker placement can be full of seemingly conflicting advice. But, the truth is each room is different and something that works well in one room may not work in another. Experiment and listen!

4. Avoid Obstructions

Always try to make sure there is nothing getting in the way of the sound reaching your ears. You won't get the best sound from your speakers if furniture, curtains, even your TV itself, are obstructing the sound from getting to you.

Obstructions will cause the sound waves to bounce around the room before reaching you. What you want is for the sound to go directly from the speaker to your ears.

5. Try a Listening Test

Play a constant sound - like a piece of music you know well - and sit in your normal listening position. Listen carefully to the sound.

Then, move the speakers by a few inches, or change the angle they are pointing, and hear how this affects the sound. This is easier if there are two of you - one to listen and one to move the speakers. It may surprise you how moving the speakers by a small amount can alter the sound.

This can be especially useful when finding the right position for the subwoofer. You have more freedom where to place the sub, so you can experiment more.

Conclusion

Follow these guidelines and you will be well on your way to the best speaker placement for your surround sound system.

The main thing to remember is that they are just that - guidelines. Don't feel that you must follow each point exactly. Get as close as you can, depending on the size and shape of your room and type of speakers.

The center and front speakers are crucial to a surround sound system. These should receive most of your attention. Get this right and you will be well on the way.

However, it is easy to forget about the surround, rear and subwoofer speakers. If you want to get the best out of your speaker system, then the correct surround speaker placement is crucial. When they are all in the best positions, then they will work together to give you a great surround sound experience.

Don't waste the potential of your home theater sound system by not giving it a chance to sound its best.


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