The Beginner's Guide to Surround Sound

The Beginner's Guide to Surround Sound

You’re sitting in the theater. There’s a high-speed car chase playing on the screen in front of you, and you can hear tires screeching to your right and police sirens blaring from behind. But how? This is thanks to surround sound — with speakers placed strategically all around the theater. Each speaker projects audio in different directions, angles, and heights to deliver a more realistic and immersive sound experience. In this guide, we’re breaking down how you can create this same cinematic experience at home and feel like you’re in the middle of all the action.

What is surround sound?

In short, surround sound helps you feel like you’re in the middle of whatever is happening on screen. Like its name suggests, this technique is used to create an immersive audio experience that feels like it’s completely surrounding you. When you visit the theater, a number of speakers — in some cases, up to 64 — are strategically positioned around the room to project sound in every direction. While this experience is most familiar at the cinema, you can also achieve immersive surround sound at home with the right speakers and the correct placement.

Common surround sound setups

You can configure your surround sound system in a variety of ways based on the size of your room, the sound experience you want to achieve, and your budget. The two most common surround sound setups are 5.1 and 7.1.

First things first: What do these numbers mean? Essentially, these figures indicate how many points of audio — or “channels” — are within a surround sound system. The first digit in each configuration denotes the number of channels in a system, while the second refers to the presence of a subwoofer. So, for example, in a typical 5.1 system, three front speakers (or a soundbar, which delivers the left, right, and center channels), two rear speakers, and one subwoofer make up this setup.

Generally speaking, the amount of channels in a given setup is a strong indication of how immersive the surround sound experience will be. Let’s take a closer look at each.

5.1 Surround Sound

A 5.1 system is considered a standard layout — with most movies mixed for this surround sound experience. In this setup, the dialogue will sound crisper, effects and other ambient audio will appear to be coming from behind and in front of you, and you’ll feel like you’re enveloped in the action happening on screen. This is thanks to five channels — or points of audio — and one subwoofer. Imagine the setup having three channels in front of you and two behind for all-around audio, plus a single subwoofer to deliver those low-frequency sounds like big explosions or deep voices.

For most home theater setups, this system is a solid choice. The three front channels and two rear channels will easily fill your room with sound.

7.1 Surround Sound

Because surround sound is all about, well, surrounding you in sound, more channels will create a more immersive viewing experience. The two additional channels in a 7.1 setup will fill some of the gaps in your sound experience. However, it’s worth noting that some speakers can provide multiple points of audio without the need for additional speakers. For example, a soundbar covers your three front channels (left, right, and center) despite being a single speaker. Some rear speakers can also cover multiple points of audio, eliminating the need for individual speakers and a whole lot of wiring.

Does surround actually sound better?

Yes, surround sound does make a difference for those times you’re watching a movie and want to be immersed in sound. Let’s take a look at why that is.

Surround sound vs. stereo sound

With a stereo system, all of your sound comes from two channels: the left and the right. This is great if you’re listening to music in the car or on a pair of headphones. But when you’re watching a movie, you want to feel engulfed in the action, and surround sound does that for you. Surround sound is less directional and more dynamic than stereo sound, sending audio in front of you, above, and behind instead of just to the left and the right. This creates overall more realistic sound — mimicking the way you experience action in real life.

Surround sound vs. a soundbar

Adding a soundbar to your TV will give you clearer dialogue, enhanced clarity, and deeper bass. But all the sound is only coming from the soundbar in front of you. Adding rear speakers for surround sound will give you that all-encompassing effect, thanks to audio coming from many different angles around the room and sound actually coming from behind you.

Theater-quality surround sound

Picture yourself in the theater again watching that car chase. At this point in the scene, a police helicopter is now hovering above the vehicles. It feels as if the propellers are whirring overhead. But how do you replicate this same feeling at home? This is where height channels and spatial audio technology come into the equation.

Understanding height channels

In a more advanced home theater system, like a 7.1.4 setup with Dolby Atmos, you'll notice the addition of a third digit, which represents the number of overhead speakers. These speakers are typically placed in each corner of the room and help add the feeling of height to your viewing experience.

Surround sound vs. Dolby Atmos

At its simplest, Dolby Atmos is a spatial audio technology that allows sound objects to be placed on a three-dimensional canvas and moved around in space. This adds a third overhead dimension to 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound setups. As a result, sound travels more naturally around the room as it would in real life, creating a more realistic sound experience for you as a listener.

How to create a surround sound system

Start with a soundbar

The benefits of a soundbar are plenty. For starters, it performs the work of a right, left, and center speaker — saving you space and potentially money. It creates that immersive surround sound experience without the need for three individual speakers (with their accompanying wiring) in front of your TV. And, soundbars won’t cramp your style. The understated design blends in with existing decor, and its thin construction means it will fit nicely under a TV or can be easily mounted on a wall.

Of course, not all soundbars produce the same experience. If you're planning to tuck your speaker into a media stand, you'll want to choose a soundbar with forward-facing acoustics so that furniture won’t block the soundwaves. But if you want to create that truly immersive theater-experience, go with a Dolby-Atmos supported soundbar. These speakers are designed with upward-firing drivers to project sound all around the room.

Add rear speakers

A soundbar on its own can dramatically improve the clarity and quality of your audio, whether you’re streaming a movie or listening to music. But if you want sound that comes from all directions, consider adding a couple rear speakers. Rear speakers magnify all those ambient sounds that really bring you into the movie — rustling wind, a leaking faucet, or coffee-shop chatter. If you’re a fan of scary movies, you know the importance of those details for creating suspense.

To get the best sound from your rear speakers, you’ll need to position them on either side of your seating or behind you. Make sure that the side and upward-firing drivers are clear of anything that could block them. (Depending on the speaker, you can also mount them higher and position them toward wherever you’ll be sitting.) You can easily connect WiFi-enabled speakers to your soundbar without hardwiring.

Pair a subwoofer

Subwoofers are great additions to your surround sound setup because they really help you feel the audio. Plus, a subwoofer enhances the sound of your other speakers by shouldering some of the work. That is, subwoofers produce some of the lower sound frequencies, so your other speakers can focus on delivering midrange sounds. Pretty neat, huh? When choosing a subwoofer, be aware that they range from small to large with varying levels of power. What size works best for you will depend on the rest of your setup, the size of your room, and your budget.

Bring Surround Sound Into Your Home With Sonos

Now that you understand how to build out your surround system, it’s time for the fun part — actually building out your home theater. Sonos has everything you need to create cinematic sound at home. And the best part is you can start slow. Maybe you start with a soundbar for crisper dialogue in movies. Over time, you can add a subwoofer to feel the sound. A couple rear speakers will turn up the ambient noise and envelop you in your listening experience. If you feel overwhelmed by the options and need a little inspiration for your setup, we have that too. Our surround sound sets can get you started.

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