Surround sound speaker systems: What are they and what do you need?

Surround sound systems breathe life into movies, TV shows and games but they can be confusing to understand and set up. We run you through the basics.

Today’s slim TVs deliver depressingly flat, lifeless stereo sound with virtually no bass, which is no good if you want to experience the thrills of a blockbuster movie in your living room.

Most films are made with surround sound in mind, so without it you’re only getting half the picture (or sound, rather). A surround sound system throws you into the heart of the action and brings you closer to the experience of being at the cinema.

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But it’s not just movies that benefit – surround sound systems also breathe life into sports broadcasts, TV shows and games. Here we explain what they do and how you set them up.

How many speakers are in a surround sound system?

At its most basic, a surround sound system is made up of five speakers and a subwoofer to provide the thumping bass. This gives us the term ‘5.1’ – the ‘5’ is the number of main speakers and the ‘.1’ is the subwoofer.

Add two more speakers and you’ve got a 7.1 system.

What other equipment do I need?

As well as a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system, you need a Blu-ray or DVD player to spin your discs and an AV receiver, which decodes the audio signal and sends different sounds to the right speakers.

If you don’t want the hassle of buying these separately, all-in-one home cinema systems provide a Blu-ray player, receiver and speakers in a single box for a reasonable price.

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How do I arrange the speakers?

A 5.1 system typically features two front speakers, a centre speaker and two rear speakers arranged in a circle around the listening position, plus the subwoofer.

The two front channels – front left and front right – handle the main bulk of the soundtrack. These are placed at the front of the room on either side of the TV, and should be an equal distance from the listening position.

The centre speaker primarily handles speech. This should be placed between the two front channels, somewhere underneath the TV – either on a shelf, on the wall or on your TV stand. You should also tilt it upwards towards your ears.

The idea is to make it sound like speech is emerging from the screen. The centre speaker usually lies horizontally, which means it doesn’t get in the way of the screen and makes it easier to install.

A 5.1 system also features a pair of rear speakers (rear left and rear right) - these should be placed to the side of or slightly behind the listening position. If you imagine the TV is 12 o’clock, they should be placed in the 8 and 4 o’clock positions. Ideally, they should be the same distance from the listening position as the front speakers.

In a 7.1 system, the extra two speakers are called ‘surround back’ channels. These are placed behind the listening position and offer a more immersive listening experience across the back of the room.

Finally the subwoofer handles bass, giving movie soundtracks depth and punch. It can be placed anywhere, but most people put it somewhere near the front and centre speakers. If you place it near a wall or in a corner you get more bass but it might sound overpowering. Experiment with different positions and see which works for you.

What size speakers do I need?

There are several types of home cinema speaker – choosing the right one depends on your space and budget.

If space is tight you should check out a compact speaker system. These diminutive ‘satellites’ can be dotted around the room on shelves or furniture with minimum disruption. Bought as a complete 5.1 package, you get all the speakers you need in one hit (including a subwoofer) and they’re usually identical so you don’t have to worry about which one goes where.

The next size up is a ‘bookshelf’ speaker, which has a larger cabinet and needs to be mounted on a stand (or shelf, of course). The benefit is that you get a more powerful sound because of the greater cabinet volume.

The largest type of speaker is a floorstander. These large, imposing speakers take up more floor space but deliver the best sound quality. Many people mix and match speaker sizes to suit their room layout, for example using floorstanders for the front channels and bookshelf speakers for the rear channels. A lot depends on your room set-up and how much floorspace you have to play with.

Are they expensive?

Not necessarily. You can find speakers to suit any budget, but obviously the more you spend the better sound quality you’re likely to get. For example you can buy all-in-one systems for £200 but don’t expect them to sound amazing.  A good compact system should set you back between £300 and £500 but floorstanding speakers will bump up the price considerably.

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