Guide to Home Theater Speaker Placement
Understanding Speaker Placement in Multichannel Audio
Correct home theater speaker placement is the key to a seamless, 'enveloping' surround sound field, so important for an immersive home theater experience.
As further detailed in this home theater speakers guide, there are very specific speaker placement requirements associated with multichannel surround sound speaker setups to achieve a truly realistic listening experience. Equally important for the 'pure' music listener, the ideal speaker placement vary between music listening and movie watching!
Effort invested in achieving correct speaker placement will surely pay off in a big improvement in the overall sound performance of your home theater room. Follow through this speaker guide to discover more!
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Home Theater Speaker Placement: A few basics
Home theater is not just watching movies — it is the experience of being immersed into the movie action. This would not be possible without the enveloping atmosphere created by surround sound.
Home theater surround sound requires at least five speakers, three fronts and two surrounds; an optional sixth speaker is the sub woofer or Low Frequency Effects, hence the term 5.1 setup. More advanced audio playback systems feature six or seven full-range audio channels apart from the LFE channel for greater realism.
Surround sound requires that the various sounds produced by the different speakers, originate from specific positions within your home theater room. Knowing these requirements will help re-create the sound producers intended it to be. But...
Keep in mind...
While there are specific placement requirements associated with the different home theater speakers to enjoy the best sound, yet there are too many variables to come up with a single magical spot for your home theater speaker placement. Different audio speakers have different characteristics, while room acoustics differ from room to room. Thus, while knowing the basics of home theater speaker placement is important, feel free to experiment; what matters in the end is that it all sounds good to your ears!
In this article, we show you how to best place your speakers for optimum home theater sound. We also explain the different home theater speaker placements associated with movie watching and multichannel music listening. In the process, we touch upon the role of the different speakers in a multichannel audio speaker setup. However, more details in this respect follow in our article Speakers for Multichannel Audio where we discuss in detail the different types of speakers, their role, and the speaker requirements — more specifically the speaker characteristics — associated with the different audio channels.
Home theater speaker placement is an integral part of your home theater room design. We therefore advise to check the rest of a series of home theater design guides appearing on our site.
Also, this home theater speaker placement discussion should be taken in parallel with the information provided by the respective speaker manufactures for their respective models.
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A First Step in Home Theater Speaker Placement:
The Center Channel Speaker
The first step in home theater speaker placement is to identify the position for the center speaker. This speaker is used to anchor the dialogue and other on-screen sounds to the screen; hence, its placement is dependent on the position of your TV or projection screen. There is not much choice here; rather what you will be doing is adjust the position of the left and right front speakers such that the sound originating from these speakers blend with that from the center speaker.
Correct home theater speaker placement for the center channel speaker requires the latter to be placed either centered on top or just below the TV screen. Center channel speakers should be magnetically shielded if they are used in conjunction with a CRT TV to avoid magnetic interaction with the TV display. Magnetic shielding is not required with plasma and LCD/LED TVs.
In the case of a front projection setup, the center speaker may be placed just behind the projection screen, 6- to 12-inches away from the screen as long as the screen is made from acoustically transparent fabric. As detailed in our Projector Screen Fabrics guide, acoustically transparent screens have micro perforations to allow sound from the center channel speaker to pass through without any restrictions. This is the position adopted in movie theaters. Such placement yields better spatial sound definition.
The following center channel speaker placement guidelines apply:
The center speaker tweeter should be at ear level when seated — implying that the best placement with a direct view or rear projection TV is on top of the TV.
When mounted directly on top or just beneath the TV screen, ensure that the speaker's front edge is precisely aligned with the front edge of the TV to avoid undesirable sound reflections from the TV cabinet.
Aim the center channel speaker directly at your primary listening area.
The center channel speaker should be precisely the same distance from your listening position as the front left and front right main speakers.
Main Front Left and Front Right Speakers:
The front left and right speakers carry the bulk of the music and sound effects. Their job is to provide a detailed focused sonic image. Correct placement of these speakers is particularly important to help create the widest, most realistic soundstage for your room.
The following home theater speaker placement guidelines apply:
The main front left and right speakers should be placed at an equal distance on either side of the TV; for best performance, they should be at least 6ft apart.
Adjust the front left and right speakers such that they are at exactly the same distance away from your main seating position as the center channel speaker.
If you are placing your speakers mostly for solo viewing, the three front speakers should fall on an arc whose center is your main viewing position.
If you are planning your home theater speaker placement for group viewing, all three front speakers should be positioned in a straight line parallel with the front row of seats. Note that this is different from speaker toe-in; as we will explain further on, toe-in refers to the 'direction angle' of the speakers with respect to the listening position. Here we are only dealing with the positioning of the front left, right, and center speakers in terms of distance.
Avoid having the front center channel speaker closer to the main viewing position than the left and right speakers; this will unbalance the inter-mix between the different sound channels.
For correct home theater speaker placement, the front left and right speakers should enclose an angle of 45- to 60-degrees with the center-most viewing position. Expressed differently, the main viewing position should represent the vertex of an angle whose sides, one joining the front left speaker and the other the front right speaker, enclose an angle of 45- to 60-degrees.
The 45o angle is preferred when planning your home theater speaker placement for movie watching to better recreate the circumstances under which film soundtracks are produced.
The 60o angle is preferred for music listening; this wider angle mimic the conditions set by the mixer at music recording studios.
As far as possible, all three front speakers — left, right and center — should be set with their tweeters at approximately the same height, at or near ear level when seated; differences here should not exceed 12 inches (30 cm).
Directly related with the positioning of the main front speakers is speaker toe-in or the 'set angle' towards the listening position. Independent of the speakers' position referred to above, each of the main front left and right speakers should ideally be set at an angle such that it directs more sound towards the prime listening position. Generally, some toe-in yields better results but...
There is no 'general' home theater speaker placement rule here as this depends on a number of factors. In particular, the required toe-in, if any, depends on the sound dispersion pattern of the speakers. In other words, not all speakers require toe-in; some speakers are designed to sound their best when facing straight forward, while others are best angled slightly towards the listening position.
Consult with the manufacturer literature accompanying your speakers for any recommendations on home theater speaker placement issues. If the speaker manuals do not provide any guidance, simply listen to the speakers both when facing straight forward, and also when angled-in; choice the position that sounds best to your ears!
Remember: The key to the right amount of toe-in in any home theater speaker placement is experimentation: listen, move the speakers, and listen again; repeat the process as necessary.
Also, keep in mind that speaker toe-in becomes less of an issue as the main front speakers are further away from the center listening position. In addition, in the case of group listening, it is best to leave the front speakers facing straight towards the front row of seats rather than directed towards the center listening position; this creates the widest most realistic sound stage possible.
Preferred Surround Speakers Placement:
Unlike the three fronts, the surround speakers are used to create a cloud of non-localized sound that envelops the viewer. It is the integration of this diffused rear sound field with the rest of the sound coming from the fronts that makes you feel immersed in the movie action. Though preferred surround speaker positioning is very much dependent on personal tastes, there are a few home theater speaker placement guidelines worth taking note of.
The following home theater speaker placement guidelines for the surround speakers apply:
Surround speakers should be placed alongside and slightly to the rear of your main seating position. This helps mimic the sound field as originally recorded in dubbing theaters when mixing movie soundtracks.
Sidewall placement is preferred; this helps create a seamless, enveloping soundstage over the whole listening area. If sidewall placement is not possible, try to use appropriate speaker stands.
Position the speakers two to three feet above the ear level when seated; this helps create the most diffused enveloping sound field in the listening area.
In 6.1 and 7.1 home theater speaker setups, distribute the surround speakers such that these are preferably wall mounted on the side and the back wall as further detailed in the speaker placement diagram on the right. This kind of home theater speaker placement would further enhance the enveloping effect.
Placing surround speakers too far forward of the main seating position will lead to insufficient sound fill at the back. Similarly, placing these speakers too far back will lead to voids in the listening area, disrupting the enveloping effect.
With side surrounds, avoid having these speakers firing directly in your ears. This leads to localized rather than diffused surround sound, which can be extremely annoying especially if the sound from the surrounds overpower that from the main fronts, throwing off balance the sounds between the different channels.
Surround Sound for Multichannel Music:
There are differences in speaker placement between movie watching and multichannel music listening; these differences arise as the mixing conditions between film dubbing theaters and music recording studios differ. While movie watching requires that the surrounds recreate diffused non-localized sound, multichannel music listening requires five main identical speakers placed at ear level with the tweeters pointing towards the listener.
Correct speaker placement for music listening requires that each rear speaker is placed at exactly an angle of 110 degrees with the center speaker when measured from the center listening position. This means the center-most listening position should represent the vertex of an angle whose sides, one joining the center speaker and the other the surround speaker, enclose an angle of 110 degrees; (refer to our 5.1 speaker placement diagram for details).
Together with the 60-degree angle for the main fronts detailed above, these settings represent the optimum speaker placement for multichannel music listening.
What if you cannot play around with speaker placement?
Well, the chances are you will still enjoy your multi-channel music listening with your home theater speaker placement optimally set for movie playback. But a possible solution is to mount the surround speakers on adjustable-height speaker stands to adjust between movie watching and music listening when needed.
Alternatively, a functional compromise is to use wall-type swivel speaker brackets mounted at a reduced height; simply split the difference in speaker height required for a more diffused soundstage in movie playback as against the more directional radiation preferred for multi-channel music listening.
Does this sound complicated to you? Well, THX have come to the rescue!
THX Advanced Speaker Array Technology
THX Advanced Speaker Array (THX ASA) main concept is that of having a convenient one speaker-setup suitable for both movie watching and music listening. This leads to a more practical approach than re-adjust your home theater speaker placement each time you switch between movie watching and music listening.
THX ASA recreates a 5.1 studio surround sound field by digitally reconfiguring the sound delivered to the surround channels in a 7.1 speaker setup for the type of media you are listening to, whether that being movies, music, or games.
This is achieved by implementing a different speaker setup for the two Back Surrounds than that normally adopted in a standard 7.1 speaker setup. In THX ASA, these are placed together along the main wall, centrally in direct line with the center speaker and the main seating position. For best results, THX ASA requires that the Back Surround speakers should be of the direct-firing type, i.e. conventional standard-type speakers.
By applying different sound processing algorithms, sound from the back surrounds in a THX ASA setup mixes with the rear surrounds to create more ambience during movie watching, an increased sense of spaciousness and localization in music listening, and a 360-degree ambience during gaming.
The least demanding in home theater speaker placement is the subwoofer as low frequency sounds are non-directional. In a correctly set home theater sound system, you should not be able to detect from where the bass is originating. If you can pick your subwoofer position, it means your subwoofer level is too high.
There are no fixed home theater speaker placement rules here other than subwoofers should be placed directly on the floor; this is an absolute requirement with down-firing subwoofers.
Subwoofer placement tips:
The amount of bass delivered by a subwoofer depends on the placement of the subwoofer in the room. Placing a subwoofer close to a wall or near a corner will enhance the bass response; this may help improve the response with bass-shy systems.
At the same time, a subwoofer placed close to a wall or corner may produce less controlled bass response. The ideal position is one of a compromise between the quantity of bass output and quality of the bass sound.
In large home theater rooms, the best approach is to use two powered subwoofers, one placed in the front and one in the back.
'Height' and 'Wide' Speakers in Dolby Pro Logic IIz and Audyssey DSX
Both Dolby Pro Logic IIz and Audyssey DSX introduce the concept of 'Height' speakers, (LH and RH speakers) to produce the vertical placement of sounds such as rain, by creating a more vertical spacious soundfield. To what extent this will enhance the overall sound field depends on the source material.
Height speakers should be placed above the main fronts at an elevation of 45o with respect to the main seat and at a ±45o angle relative to the center speaker. This means 'Height' speakers reside outside the main fronts; as further detailed above, the latter should form an angle of 22o to 30o relative to the center speaker.
Audyssey DSX supports two additional front 'Wide' or LW and RW speakers in addition to the LH and RH speakers. These are placed on the same level as the main fronts but at an angle of ±60° relative to the front center speaker. Research shows that the presence of the two Wide fronts leads to a more enveloping sound than the addition of the two Back Surround speakers used in a standard 7.1-channel speaker setup.
Audyssey DSX supports various speaker placement configurations — from 7.1 to 11.1; the latter is the normal 7.1 plus the two Wide and the two Height speakers. In a 7.1 Audyssey DSX speaker setup, the left and right Back surrounds are replaced by either the two Height or the two Wide speakers. This allows for more flexibility in the overall home theater speaker placement.
The following home theater speaker placement diagram shows the various positions associated with Height and Wide speakers.
(Image credit: audyssey.com)
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