Surround sound - top tips for setting up a home cinema speaker system

Ten tips for the best surround sound

  • Getting the best out of your DVD or Blu-ray home cinema system
  • How to set up subwoofers and surround sound systems
  • Where to put 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound speakers for the best sound

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This article, Ten tips for the best surround sound, was last updated on 30 May 2008 and is now out of date and held in our online archive for reference. Explore our latest Technology articles.

Surround sound speakers

Surround speakers are great for games and movies

Listening to music, and watching Blu-ray or DVD movies or TV programmes with surround sound can vastly improve your enjoyment.

But how do you set up a surround sound system and how can you get it to sound how you want it to? Follow these tips to get the most out of your surround sound system.

Or if you're considering buying a home cinema system - check out our reviews to find a system that's easy to set up:

1. Use an audio-visual amplifier

In most cases, to enjoy ‘true’ surround sound, you'll need a special amplifier (sometimes called an A/V receiver) and a set of speakers positioned around your room. 5.1 surround sound usually involves five speakers (left, right, centre, left surround, right surround) and a subwoofer for the bass frequencies. 7.1 surround adds another pair of speakers (left back and right back) to the equation. It’s possible to buy all-in-one amp/speaker packages and these are usually slightly easier to set up than separates. See our Which? Best Buy home cinema system reviews.

2. Speaker placement

The positioning of your speakers is one of the most important aspects of getting surround sound right and this can depend on the shape and arrangement of your room. The ideal setup can be achieved if you have a square-ish room with a Best Buy TV positioned in the middle of one of the walls. 

Watch our video of How to set-up a home cinema system.

Here, your surround sound speakers can be arranged as shown, with front left and right speakers either side of the TV, the centre speaker directly in the middle and the surround left and right speakers either side of the sofa (ideally at ear height). Note that the subwoofer carries non-directional bass frequencies, so you can position it anywhere that’s convenient. With a 7.1 setup, simply add the left and right back speakers behind the sofa.

Home cinema set up

Speaker setup for square rooms

Planning speaker positions

Many people arrange their rooms with the TV in the corner. If this is the case, then you need to rethink your speaker positions slightly. The principle remains the same; position the left and right speakers either side of the screen, the centre speaker in the middle and the surround left and right speakers either side of the main seating area. Don't worry if the front speakers are closer together than the back pair. Just try to make sure that all your speakers are pointed at the spot from where you're most likely to be sitting and watching.

3. Get the wiring right

The wiring is another crucial element of getting your surround sound right. For starters, the channel outputs on your amplifier need to be matched up with the correct speakers; front left output needs to be wired to front left speaker and so on. Some surround sound systems feature colour coded cables or plugs to make this easy. 

If this is not the case, then you may also need to match up the positive and negative connection for each speaker yourself. 

You'll notice that the speaker cable is actually made up of two cables and that there are should be two connections for each speaker. These are often denoted by colour on the amp's output and the speaker input; black is negative and red is positive. Look at the cable itself – the positive wire is often denoted by a black or coloured line. Connect this to the positive (red) terminals on the speaker and the amp first and then hook up the plain wire to the negative (black) terminals.

Digital connections

To get the best from your surround sound setup, you should hook up your video source (either a DVD or Blu-ray player) to your amp via a digital connection – either optical or coaxial depending on what outputs are present on the video source and what inputs are available on the amp. A digital connection will send the best quality surround sound signal from your video source to your amp.

Choosing cables

It's not necessary to buy ultra-expensive ‘premium’ or gold-plated optical or coaxial cables to connect your A/V equipment. That said, reasonable quality speaker cable is necessary but this needn't be expensive and can usually be purchased by the metre from most specialist hi-fi stores. An all-in-one home cinema system will come with all the cables you need to connect the speakers, subwoofer and amp.

4. Volume and Time Delay

Another important thing to get right is the speaker volume levels. You'll also need to set a delay time for each speaker otherwise sound from those speakers nearest to you will arrive first and ruin the effect. Some surround-sound systems come with an automated setup procedure that can set the levels and delay times for each channel itself. If not, refer to your amplifier's instruction booklet to see how to set these manually - it's usually fairly easy to do.

5. Pseudo surround sound

Some TVs come with ‘pseudo surround’ sound settings, such as SRS TruSurround XT. You can usually find these (if they are present) by pressing the 'Menu' button on your TV’s remote and navigating to the audio settings page. In some instances, these options can help give your TV’s sound a more cinematic feel. But it’s important to point out that these are just sound effects for standard stereo speakers rather than ‘true’ surround sound and the effects are often disappointing.

6. Free setup tools

With that vast muddle of cables it’s easy to make a mistake, but you can check that your surround sound system is set up correctly by using a free tool that comes with more than 300 'THX Certified' Blu-ray and DVD movie discs. 

THX Certified movies, such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and CG movies including Toy Story and the Incredibles feature a THX Optimiser. Look for it in the 'Special Features' menu of your Blu-ray disc or DVD. Running it will send a test signal to each speaker, while the picture on the screen will show you which speaker the sound should be coming out of. There's a full list of discs that include the THX Optimiser on the THX website.

If you need help connecting your TV, digital set-top boxes, DVD and Blu-ray players, check out the Which? Connection Wizard that shows you with simple diagrams how to connect all your audio-visual equipment together for the best picture and sound.

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