January 18, 2021

A Beginners Guide To Surround Sound Setups

Surround sound setups are a tricky thing to tackle, especially when you decide to add more than just a single speaker or sound bar. Here’s a simple guide to creating your perfect home theater experience, along with the how to on adding perfect amount of sound for every room in your home.

A full 7.2.1 surround setup.

When you’ve got a home theater setup in your mind, the biggest thing that comes to your thoughts is how close to a full on movie theater one can get without having to get in the car and pay admission. The bass, vibration — those are all the most important parts of bringing you into the experience, not to mention the size of the monitor or projector. But sound is important, and the usual runaround from a salesperson makes it always sound like you can only have one or the other. So how to go about getting the best experience for the best price and aesthetic?

Thankfully, there are plenty of available options to create the full home theater experience you’re looking for. The tricky part might be figuring out which solution goes best for your needs. In a world with hundreds of speaker types and just as many brands, it can get a little overwhelming when attempting to come up with the best fit for your own home setup.

What Exactly Is A Surround Sound Setup?

So, you may have seen some interesting sets of numbers when looking at various speaker solutions. They mean a lot more than some marketing technobabble. In fact, those numbers are industry standards created for various speaker combinations. Dolby classifies these standards as 5.1.2 or 7.1.2, and lastly 9.2.1. Believe it or not, these aren’t just random numbers to sell products, they actually mean something. The first number is the number of speakers in your total traditional setup. Usually there’s your main speakers in front, and surround speakers behind you, which comes up to the 5 total for 5.1.2. The 1 that follows in the sequence is the number of sub woofers attached to your setup. The final 2 is for the total in ceiling speakers in the setup. Some setups don’t use in ceiling speakers, which is why sometimes you only see Dolby 5.1 or 7.1. A setup consisting of 7.1.2 is the same idea, there’s another row of surround sound speakers, and everything else is basically the same. As for the 9.2.1, that setup follows the same pattern as well. These setups are to ensure full surround sound quality, of course different setups may require different alternatives. Some people require a variation taking up minimal space with a picture frame TV for example, adding only two in ceiling speakers as they prefer to not see their setup when its not being used. In this case, the only downside is the direction of sound will be coming from above, which I mentioned before can be a strange experience for your audio.

Front facing sound from a Sonos Playbar.

Creating Your Perfect Home Theater Experience

When it comes to immersive sound, there are two main factors: the surrounding sound which either comes from your ceiling speakers (which are not nearly as visible and take up practically no space); and a bookshelf style speaker set and sound bar combination. Some speakers can be much larger than a bookshelf style solution, and are generally called floor standing speakers. These are most common in larger home theater setups. Mixing these options is the most common solution for a variety of reasons.

Think About It: When watching a movie, would you rather have the audio come down from above, or send it directly at your face? Some people prefer the former as a large set of speakers tends to take up quite a bit of extra space next to your TV set. Some people, however, would like their full surround sound experience sent directly towards them, and don’t mind the extra size that front facing speakers would entail. Surround sound can easily be created from either option, so its entirely up to you which you’d prefer.

A sub can take up quite a bit of space, so its best to decide where you really need that much power in your home.

Another important factor in creating home theater experience is the additional equipment required for the full effect. A sub woofer is a requirement for the full on sound quality and vibration necessary to replicate any desired theater experience, and they unfortunately tend to take up the most space — not to mention they usually weigh a small ton. Because of this, a home theater room needs to be designed very well in order to fit these monsters inside. Other items such as amplifiers, Blu-ray and DVD players all need to fit tucked into a credenza or some other furniture, as they alone take up a bit of space. Thankfully many home theaters or game rooms usually already have these in order to store movies and gaming systems. They are still a very intricate part of your full surround sound theater experience and should always be considered.

Sonos has created a product known as the Sonos ARC (replacing the also popular but now discontinued Playbar which uses a wireless connection to your home theater system along with the other speakers and a Sub. The ARC is unique in that it gives full Dolby Surround Sound capabilities from a single sound bar. This solution takes up almost no space, but still puts the audio directly in front of you, although the trade-off includes a little less intense volume as a result. Other brands offer similar solutions that are much more aesthetically pleasing than a massive bookshelf speaker.

A bookshelf speaker, literally!

The home theater setup you’ve envisioned will also greatly affect your speaker placement. Products fortunately do also exist for minimalists, such as Picture Frame TV models, along with recessed and bookshelf speakers. These can be entirely hidden in plain sight when not in use, creating a very pleasant home aesthetic while still giving an adequate experience. If you want a simple picture frame TV, then larger speaker setups aren’t going to mesh very well with your TV when it’s in the art mode, where it’s purpose is to blend with the rest of the room. Ceiling speakers usually end up being the preferred route to tie into a setup such as that one. Some speakers can easily mesh with an entertainment center and can be as small as a double stack of DVD movies.

Given that there are endless solutions for speaker placement, and multiple platforms to give yourself surround sound that you desire — a case could be made that the solution for your setup comes merely down to how you’d like your aesthetic to be set up. Minimalist solutions will probably require some ceiling speakers and maybe a few hidden bookshelf speakers, while other setups are going to end up going the full “man-cave” setup with some very large, and very powerful options. Given that either setup is still going to provide that 7.1.2 or 5.1 sound you’re looking for, it might as well look the way you’d prefer. Speakers and sound flow are very simple, so it doesn’t take too much thought to come up with a solution that works for your home.

Believe it or not, this is a full 5.2.1 surround sound setup (two standing speakers are behind the photographer). The compact and minimalist nature of this setup required a unique solution, and it worked out beautifully.

How About Everywhere Else In My Home?

While a home theater is the center of everything sound and video, you’ll need to give the rest of your home some love. Especially when using a whole-home smart control system such as Savant or Control4, it’s very important to use these diverse systems to their full potential. Modern homes have speakers not only in a home theater, but in just about every other room as well. While most rooms have a few simple in-ceiling speakers that can harmoniously blend with the rest of the home — some rooms require a bit more attention. While your home theater may be the only room implementing a full 7.2.1 or 9.2 surround sound, you’ll likely want to give your family room or game room a similar setup, although not quite as advanced. It’s very possible to create a 5.1 or even a simplified 7.2.1 setup in some of the larger other rooms in your home.

Here is an example of a 5.1 setup in a living space, which works harmoniously with the rest of the decor and aesthetic. In-ceiling speakers work with the center wall-mounted Playbar, along with two more rear speakers not visible in the photo.

While the home theater usually involves a lot of very obvious and very large speakers, the other rooms involving surround sound setups might want to be a bit more discrete about where their sound is coming from. As previously mentioned, a lot of the necessary home theater equipment takes up quite a bit of space, especially amplifiers and sub woofers. Thankfully, its possible to condense these setups to fit your specific living area and tuck them away while still using their best qualities in whatever area you’re implementing them. The biggest question to consider when planning out your various rooms is how intense and immersive you’ll need the sound experience to be while engaging in these spaces.

What About Other Surround Sound Variations?

While most homes can fit their traditional home theater into a specific room, especially the larger homes of Atherton and Hillsborough, many others may run into some interesting constraints in space. San Francisco especially has quite the lack of available space in many of its residences, especially condo buildings. Getting creative with your surround sound is something to be encouraged, because it’s not necessary to sacrifice quality due to any constraints. A simple projector setup and some rear standing speakers, along with a front facing sound bar can still give just as wonderful a home theater experience as a home theater would provide, and with a retracting screen can transform instantly into a simple living space when movie time is over.

Simple 5.1 projector setup in a tucked in San Francisco condo.

There are plenty of solutions available for putting your speakers where they make the most sense. The Bay Area has no shortage of large homes, especially in cities such as Atherton or Hillsborough in the Peninsula region. These houses have room for almost any possible setup imaginable. A little education and demonstration on all types and kinds of speakers can go a long way in determining what is right for your home, and many of us are spending a lot of time at home lately. Make sure that you give yourself the best home theater experience, you deserve it.