Surround Sound - Better Home Theater Sound
Updated: March 26, 2013

Tips for Better Home Theater Sound

Home theater improvement tips
for a more enjoyable listening experience

You have spent time researching AV receivers, home theater speakers, and the like, to put together what for you is the best home theater system for your budget.

But to enjoy the best sound out of your home theater setup, you need to take the time to properly setup your system - from a properly balanced sound between the different channels, to correctly placed speakers across the room.

As we will show you in this article, it would not take an extraordinary effort to improve your listening experience. Rather, in most circumstances, a few inexpensive improvements to an existing home theater sound system will result in a dramatic improvement in the audio quality of your surround sound.

Klipsch RB-41II Home Theater Speaker System complete with Free Subwoofer

Klipsch RB-41II Home Theater Sound System
with FREE Powered Subwoofer

A solid built home theater speaker system using the newly engineered Reference II Series speakers to  deliver clean accurate sound and deep bass.

Home Theater Sound
Easy-to-follow tips for a better sound

Whether you are in the process of purchasing a new set of home theater speakers, upgrading your AV receiver, or wish to make the most out of your present home theater audio set-up, knowing what to do and how to setup your sound system to enjoy a better sound is a basic step towards a realistic and more enjoyable home listening experience.

In particular, achieving the correct sound balance between the different channels in a multi-channel surround sound speaker setup is essential. This would normally call for an inexpensive sound pressure meter as further detailed in this article, and possibly a home theater calibration disc to assist you in the process.

Directly related with a properly set up home theater sound system is the issue of correct time-delay settings for your surround channels. We cover the subject of delay settings in surround sound systems in our article here. Time delay adjustments in the latest generation of A/V receivers have become much easier to handle than ever thanks to the presence of automated setup wizards or assisted setup menus that guide the user through a simple step-by-step process. Some of the latest receivers even take into account the room response to automatically adjust the receiver equalization for the best home theater sound.

However, you need to ensure to go through the setup process in the proper manner to get the best results. In addition, it is always desirable to have a proper understanding of how to go about manually setting the different channels to ensure the best results.

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But there is more you can do to enjoy a better home theater sound

1. Use Correct Speaker Wiring

Start by checking that the correct speaker is connected to the correct output on your AV receiver or home theater amplifier. Equally important, ensure that all speaker connections from your home theater sound gear follow through the correct polarity. Mixing up speaker polarity will cause the respective speaker to fire in an out-of-phase with the rest - which may eventually break up the sound field.

Note: You will also be able to double-check for correct speaker connectivity when adjusting the relative balance between the different audio channels using the surround processor built-in test-tone as further detailed under point 2 below.

2. Tweak your Speaker System

If you have never gone through the product manufacturer documentation, or has never navigated through the different menus and speaker sub-menus, then the likelihood is that you have not yet spend time tweaking your AV receiver - speaker system for the best home theater sound performance.

It is important to ensure that your surround sound processor or AV receiver is set to match your home theater speakers. Input the size of your front speakers as small or large. This will determine how the home theater sound processor will route bass to the different speakers (refer to point 4 below for additional information on bass management.) Speakers ranging from 6-inch up to 8-inch qualify as large speakers or woofers while anything larger than and including 8-inch diameter speakers qualify as subwoofers.

If you do not have a center channel, set the surround processor to phantom mode for the center channel.

Ensure that the delay settings for the surround channel speakers are properly set. Correct delay settings are important as otherwise sound from the different speakers will not reach the listener at the same time - leading to a disjoined sound field. How to set the delay settings may differ from one surround processor to another but in most cases, this involves inputting the measured distance between the listener and the speakers. Some older systems required the user to input the delay settings direct in milliseconds; more on this in our guide here, but it is enough to keep in mind here that 1 foot corresponds to approximately one millisecond. Some more advanced systems come with a kit for an automatic setting.

One final important basic setting in a home theater sound system is correct balance between the different audio channels. All channels should be set to the same volume level with respect to each other. All surround sound receivers come with a test-tone; this is sent to each channel in a consecutive manner and helps you set the relative volume of each channel to achieve the same loudness from the listening position.

3. Get an inexpensive sound pressure meter and a calibration audio disc
SPL-8810 Sound Pressure MeterSPL-8810
by American Recorder

While there is nothing wrong in adjusting the relative channel volumes by ear, there is no doubt that for best results in a home theater sound setup, you need to invest in an inexpensive sound meter.

Suitable options include the Galaxy Audio CM130 SPL Meter and the SPL-8810 by American Recorder Technologies featured here. Both would both enable you to do a perfect job, however the SPL-8810 is a somewhat better in that it also comes with data hold and max hold features.

If you are a little bit more ambitious, include also a calibration disc. For reviews of video calibration discs, please click here; for more information on the use of setup discs, please check our Set-Up DVD Guide.

4. Correct Base Management

Proper bass management is important for an enjoyable listening experience. Many have the tendency to simply go for a too loud a subwoofer setting that would literally suppress the sound coming from the rest of the other speakers in the room.

A correct subwoofer setting is one where the bass is felt rather than heard. If your bass sounds 'boomy' and possibly uneven, the likelihood is the volume setting is too high, so lower the volume. A subwoofer placement too close to a wall or corner would also amplify the bass response of a subwoofer; shifting the subwoofer away from the wall or corner will produce a smoother bass.

THX recommend that during initial system setup, all speakers in a home theater sound system should be set to 'small' so that the bass will be routed exclusively to the subwoofer. This helps you set your subwoofer where it sounds best in your room.

Directly related with bass management in a home theater sound system is a correct cross-over setting; this will determine the frequency at which the surround sound processor will route bass from the fronts and surrounds to the subwoofer. With small satellite speakers, the cross-over setting should be set to above its mid-point while with bigger bookshelf and tower speakers capable of producing more solid bass on their own, a much lower setting would work best.

In the case of floor standing speakers with built-in subwoofers, the front left and right speakers should be set to large and the subwoofer setting should be set to off. In this case, the LFE (low frequency effects) channel and bass from all 'Small' channels will be directed to the Front Left and Right outputs (both at the speaker level and line level).

Instead, if you are using both large speakers for the fronts and a separate powered subwoofer, the LFE channel will be directed to the sub out jack along with any bass information from channels you selected as 'Small.'

Home Theater Sound - Advanced Tips

Speaker Stands: Placing your speakers on appropriately positioned wall mounts or floor stands will make a drastic difference to the quality of your home theater sound in the room.

Correct Speaker Placement: Even more important is the correct placement of speakers with respect to the listener. The main requirement is to position the fronts - left, center, and right - at equal distances from the listener and with their tweeters at ear level when seated, while the surround speakers should ideally be placed alongside and slightly to the rear of your main seating position.

For a detailed discussion on correct home theater speaker placement, please refer to our speaker placement guide here.

Correct Room Acoustics:  Bare rooms will provide too much reverberation, leading to a home theater sound that is too harsh. Introducing curtains and carpets in the room will do a lot towards a great home theater sound. More information on room acoustics is available in the following Home Theater Room Design guide.

Speaker Cables and Interconnects: Most speaker wires and audio/video interconnects that come with audio gear are too thin to be of any use except for very short runs. Upgrading to thicker home theater speaker cables and better quality audio interconnects can do a great difference in the resulting sound quality. In particular, the use of thicker home theater speaker cables will help reduce the load on your amplifier while delivering more of the amplifier output to your speakers.

It will also help your home theater sound system deliver the fine musical detail audiophile-quality sound systems are capable of, as well as those blasting effects in multi-channel surround sound. For more information on the subject, please refer to our Speaker Cables guide.

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