Updated: March 5, 2016

Home Theater Speaker Systems Basics

A Complete Guide to Speaker Systems in Surround Sound

Surround sound relies on dedicated home theater speakers that physically surround the audience. The number of audio speakers in a home theater speaker system depends on both the number of playback channels supported by the home theater receiver or AV receiver, and also the sound format in question.

This means that the number of audio speakers does not necessarily have to match the number of audio signals supported by the surround sound format.

Does this sound confusing? Well, this short introductory guide explains the basics associated with different speaker set-ups in multichannel audio. In the remaining articles, we discuss speaker types - including subwoofers and in-wall/in-ceiling speakers, speaker placement, and speaker specs. We then conclude with a few important speaker buying tips.

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Speaker Systems and surround sound: Surrounding yourself with sound

Irrespective of the audio format, surround sound always use multiple speakers that surround the audience to generate an expansive soundfield.

While a stereo speaker system consists of two front speakers only, surround sound uses additional speakers placed at specific positions in the room to create an enveloping sound.

These include a center channel speaker placed just above or below the screen in case of a direct-view display and behind the screen in the case of a projection setup; this is used mainly to 'pin' the dialogue to the screen.

Equally important is the role of a number of surround speakers placed towards the rear of the room to create the enveloping effect. 

Sound from all these speakers should arrive at the main listening position in a timely and co-ordinate manner. Failure in this respect leads to an unrealistic and disjointed soundfield.

Surround Sound Systems:
Number of audio speakers and playback channels

Earlier on, we indicated that the number of surround speakers in a multichannel speaker system  depends on both the number of playback channels supported by the audio equipment and also the sound format in use.

This may sound confusing to many and leads to an added complexity with surround sound, namely that the number of speakers in use does not necessarily have to match the number of audio signals supported by the surround format. This explains why a four-channel sound format like Dolby Surround is played over a five-channel playback speaker system. In this case, each of the surround speakers is actually playing the same identical sound. Similarly, despite that Dolby Digital EX is a six-channel surround sound format, it can be played over a 7.1 playback speaker setup with the two back surround speakers playing the same identical sound signal.

And inasmuch as it is possible to play a multichannel audio format over a larger number of speaker channels, it is equally possible to play multichannel audio over a reduced number of speakers. Thus, it is possible to setup a multichannel speaker system without the center channel speaker; all you have to do is to run the surround processor or AV receiver in phantom center-channel mode. This sends the signal intended for the center speaker equally over the front left and front right speakers.

Admittedly, such a set-up would not lead to the best listening results; the center channel speaker is one of the most important channels in a surround speaker system. But with a properly setup speaker system in a small room and with the viewer seated at the best spot, it is still possible to enjoy a good sound stage even without the center channel speaker.

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At this point, it is important to understand that when we refer to the maximum number of speakers in an audio setup, e.g. 2.0, 5.1, etc., we are referring to the number of front and rear speakers that the respective playback speaker system use.

The .1 in any surround sound playback system refers to the low frequency effects (LFE) channel, also referred to as the subwoofer channel.

Strictly speaking, a dedicated subwoofer is optional; if you are making use of full range floor-standing tower speakers with multiple 8-inch or 10-inch subwoofers for the front left and right speakers, then you might either pass all low frequencies to the front tower speakers, or to both your LFE channel and the front speakers. This depends on the bass management features supported by your home theater receiver or AV amplifier.

Different Speaker Setups for multichannel audio formats

These diagrams depict the different speaker layouts for 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 surround sound playback setups.

5.1 Audio SetupThe 5.1 speaker setup is the most common and is the one most suitable for the small to medium size room.

The reason is that it would be hard to benefit from the added one or two extra speaker channels supported by 6.1 and 7.1 playback setups in the small room environment.


6.1 Audio Setup6.1 and 7.1 (and 7.2) systems add additional surround speakers at the back of the room as depicted by the following speaker placement diagrams. In a medium to large home theater environments, these extra speakers around the room help deliver a more realistic surround soundfield.

But... To enjoy the full benefit of a 6.1 or 7.1 or even 7.2 surround sound playback speaker system, your prime listening position should not be located near a wall as instead is possible with a 5.1 speaker setup.

7.1 Audio SetupFor additional information on home theater speakers - from speaker choice, speaker specs, and speaker buying tips, to the different speaker placements associated with pure music listening and movie watching, please refer to the additional guides appearing under this section.

A detailed index of home theater speaker guides appearing under this section is available hereunder.

Additional Guides to Home Theater Speakers
appearing under this section:

Understanding Speaker Specs:

The best way to choose your speakers is by listening to their sound, but speaker specs tell a lot about a speaker's ability to deliver a great sound.

This article explains the most important specs and terms you would come across when researching audio speakers.

Speakers for Multi-Channel Audio:

Discussing the exact speaker requirements associated with the different audio channels — main fronts, center-channel speaker, surround speakers, and the subwoofer — while explaining the different types of speakers associated with each speaker channel.

In the process, we also discuss Home Theater Subwoofers and Ceiling and In-wall Speaker systems as applicable to a home theater set-up, and the Sound Bar single speaker solution as an easy affordable option to enjoying better TV sound.

Speaker Systems Buying Tips:

Presenting tips on how to shop for the best speakers. 'Best' does not necessarily imply exceptionally expensive. More important than the price tag is the speakers' ability to deliver good quality sound — one that you like — while maintaining a unified soundfield within your home theater room.

Speaker Placement in Multichannel Audio:

Correct home theater speaker placement is critical for a seamless ‘enveloping’ sound so important in the overall home theater experience; equally important, pure music listening necessitates a different speaker placement to that of movie watching. We discuss this and more in this audio speakers guide.

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 Article Content

Issues discussed in this article:

Blue bullet  Surrounding yourself with Sound: Introduction to speaker systems in home theater applications

Blue bullet  Surround Sound Systems: Differences in the number of audio speakers and playback channels

Blue bullet  Different Speaker System setups in multichannel surround sound

Blue bullet  Index of articles appearing under this section

Blue bullet  Readers Comments: Submitting your comments is easy!

Blue bullet  Speaker Solutions: Recommended buying options for home theater speakers

Home Theater Sound

Articles covered under this section

Speaker Systems

Home Theater Speaker Basics

Understanding Speaker Specifications

Selecting Speakers for Multi-channel Audio

Choosing Ceiling and In-Wall Speakers

Subwoofer Guide

Sound Bar Buying Guide

Home Theater Speakers Buying Tips

Speaker Placement in Multi-channel Audio

Detailed Index of speaker guides appearing on our site is available here.

Surround Sound Formats

Dolby Sound Formats
Covering also HD Audio and Virtual Surround Technology

DTS Sound formats
Including DTS HD Audio

HD Audio covering DVD-Audio and SACD - incl. DualDisc and Hybrid-SACD

AV Receiver & Amplifiers

Home Theater Receivers: A Buyer's Guide

5.1 vs. 7.1 Home Theater Receivers

Understanding Amplifier Specs

Determining Amplifier Power

Delay Setting in Surround Sound

Best AV Receivers Review

SUBMIT a Home Theater Receiver Review

Additional Articles

Tips for Better Sound

Dolby vs. DTS: Which is better?

THX Home Cinema Explained

Featured Home Theater Speaker Systems

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